An architectural, social and political enigma, the ideal city has never really existed. Many both visionary and rationalist architects have tried to design this ideal city that would ensure harmonious social and political life.
From the museum city to housing estates, the lonely walker discovers surprise after surprise. Is encountering other people the ultimate aim of this visit and the main function of this dream city?
Florence: a rich past and restrictive present
Built on a Roman city design, Florence developed its majesty and beautiful over the centuries. The Renaissance masters have left their mark, such as the great architect Brunelleschi, who applied the notions of perspective in order to rationalise urban spaces at the beginning of the Quattrocento. Through the centuries the political powers have called on artists and architects to help assert their importance. On becoming capital of the Italian kingdom in the 19th century, the city equipped itself with modern infrastructures such as a public transport system.
Today, Florence’s superimposed structure continues to provide harmonious proportions and unity. The city overflows with museums, works of art and magnificent buildings. Part of the city centre has been pedestrianised – the noise stops and the relationship with space changes. It is a rare privilege for walkers.
However, living in an historic city that was not structured to meet the demands of the modern world is often constraining. In the 1980s, taking a train from Florence (or any other Italian city) was an adventure and you never knew what time you would arrive. If we judge a city by the quality of its public transport and the services it offers, Florence is, even today, far from perfect. What’s more, the historic centre has been invaded by international brands that can be found in any large city. Uniformity is slowly eating away at the unique elements, such as the shops, that constitute the soul of the city.
Balancing landscape and population density: the key to urban happiness?
The quality of life in a city is largely determined by the quality of the public transport, but also its cleanliness, facilities and information available to citizens. We dream of limiting cars with easy-to-use alternative forms of transport including bicycles, tram, high quality bus services and the metro. We would like a less noisy and less polluted city.
Limiting urban density by introducing landscapes and green spaces creates a vital balance. Stockholm and Berlin have both managed to conserve this harmony between urban density and nature. Berlin has many parks, lakes, rivers where inhabitants can relax. Built on several islands in the Baltic Sea, Stockholm also offers the same opportunity for rest and relaxation. The quality of these natural spaces has been maintained.
Paris lies at the other end of the scale. The French capital has been unable to control development inside and outside the city. Urban development has furtively taken over the surrounding countryside in an uncontrolled way. This creates huge suburban areas where habitants live in housing estates where both the city and the countryside are absent. Having a car has become essential. It is above all this kind of anarchic development that needs to be avoided.
Why not the hyperactive yet highly managed city of Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong urban density is managed perfectly. Yes, there are immense skyscrapers, but the surrounding natural landscapes have also been preserved. Activity is concentrated in specific areas, which have excellent services and public transport. This makes the city extremely fluid. Each of the numerous areas has clearly defined limits and its own personality. Outside the city nature runs free. The idea of making a city denser rather than spreading it out is very important for sustainable development. Contrary to what we might think, a hyperactive city may be a more pleasant place to live if it provides the appropriate infrastructure and facilities.
A well-organised city encourages its inhabitants to like it and make it their own. This greatly improves communal life. Hong Kong has successfully managed to conserve its identity while constantly evolving. The stakes are high for European cities that are weighed down by their own history. How can you promote heritage without becoming a museum? How can you modernise infrastructure so that society can function effectively? The challenge has been set for urban planners.