Lisbon, Cadiz, Casablanca – some of our recent destinations. In each of these cities there is at least one district, or urban quarter, that is dense, rich, bustling with activity, alive, completely walkable, and as ever, fragile. Each faces pressure from gentrification, adjacent development, cars. (Only the Old Medina is so dense that cars are excluded, because they just don’t fit).
We were interested to examine how each is unique, particular to its locale, and could be said to be a strong example of a kind of vernacular urbanism as each has evolved over time. Even today each seems to accomodate changing use within it’s urban fabric with grace, and without losing either physical and urban, or social and cultural identity.
Here are the three quarters.
Bairro Alto in Lisbon, from 4,000 feet.
The Old City, Cadiz, from 4,000 feet.
The Old Medina, Casablanca, from 4,000 feet.
There is a fineness of grain and texture, and an intimacy in scale, to each quarter that is easy to perceive from the air. Also easy to perceive is the density of each – these urban quarters are both compact, and packed. Clearly each of these places was created by and for people on foot – most streets in each are narrow enough to reach across in the span of your arms.
On the ground, the quarters are each marked by an enormous mix of uses in very close proximity. Here is a view of each from the ground.
Bairro Alto, Lisbon.
Plaza de Mina, Old Cadiz.
The Old Medina, Casablanca.
Consistent with our observations in other posts examining the notion of vernacular urbanism, each of these quarters qualifies: each is instinctive, incremental, complex, and very local in character, form and material.
We found it interesting to contrast and compare the density, character, and intensity of those places with our own neighborhood, said to be one of the most walkable in the U.S. Take a look at this:
Our neighborhood exists at a density of about 30 dwelling units per acre. By way of comparison, Old Cadiz is at least 4 or 5 times more dense.
If you set out for a walk in our neighborhood (as we do every day), and you were off to the local supermarket or hardware store say, you would walk about a mile to get there. Over half a mile to the local public market, or nearly that to get to the train station. If you walked for about a mile in Cadiz, or Bairro Alto, or the Old Medina, you’d be gone – you’d be well out of each of those quarters.
Said in a slightly different way, vernacular urbanism is about density of population, but also about density of use. And if the next city is to offer us a durable, sustainable home, it too will have to be intensely walkable, very dense with inhabitants, and similarly loaded with a dense mixture of uses.
In order to get to a density proximate to sustainability, perhaps we on Capitol Hill should ban the car (I know, nice piece of timing) and start building in the roadways and alleys. Out into the streets! Poor Monsieur L’Enfant…