“No theatre ever created a more sublime tableau than the spectacle to be enjoyed in Venice.”
Camillo Sitte, The Art of Building Cities
Following the excellent lectures from Tim Townshend on “What is Urban Design?” and later William Ault on “Delivering Urban Design”, I came to question what the realm of the Urban Designer actually is.
It seems appropriate to begin with Camillo Sitte as the ‘father’ of Urban Design. His book “The Art of Building Cities” was among the first to highlight and interrogate the public realm from a design perspective. He describes the beautification of cities – framing campanile’s at the end of narrow winding streets and organising public squares to highlight the key buildings that align its facades – as well as the social and civic function of cities – it was important that in these squares pedestrian routes were not disrupted.Flooding in St. Mark’s Square
A key city Sitte explores is Venice, which he describes as a “sublime tableau to be enjoyed”. Indeed, it is impressive how the city is reflected in the canals, and it is amazing to witness city and citizen have adapted to such a unique location.
However, on Wednesday 13th November, this was flipped on its head in quite dramatic circumstances as the city experienced the worst flooding for 50 years.
Venice is a low-lying city whose days above water are numbered if we do not stop the sea levels from rising. Coupled with climate change, the groundwater aquifers underneath Venice were plumbed during the 50s and 60s with a series of artesian wells that caused significant land subsidence. Consequently, less serious flooding is now causing more significant damage than it was before the wells were dug.
On the day of the floods, walking through and around the city without wellington boots or waders was simply impossible.
However, Venice is not the only city where flooding is a risk. Rotterdam, Netherlands, welcomes the flood waters into the city.
Benthemplein and Bellamyplein squares are examples of this. During dry periods, the squares contain sunken centres – a basketball court occupies this centre in the case of the former, whilst the latter provides space for biodiversity. The squares are accessed by a series of paths directing the user towards the centre. During storm surges or days of significant rainfall, these paths turn into rivers as they direct water into these centres, turning the squares into ponds.
This move to turn a city’s most serious problem into one of its greatest assets has forever changed how the city of Rotterdam views its floods. Rather than reject the inevitable flood waters, the city welcomes them in to live alongside them.
A perhaps unexpected effect of harnessing these flood waters is the beauty we can find in their aftermath. The water is deliberately held in the squares to allow for a slower return to the water table, which allows the public to appreciate the reflections in the water. This brings a whole new dimension to these land-based areas, infusing them with elements of blue infrastructure. There is also a new framing of the city, as seen in the water, that provides a similar effect to the framing of the city that Sitte speaks about.
In this way, we might imagine that Urban Design is the tool though which we centralise climate change in the conversation about city design. In order to stay relevant, thve urban designer has a duty to adapt and design cities in response to the changing nature of the environment.
Benthemplein Square: Mid-summer (above) and post-heavy rainfall (below)
This blog will finish with some food for thought based on the idea that we can consider other environmental issues that are coming to effect cities as well as flooding.
As we speak, forest fires rage throughout Australia. As cities expand, and the climate crisis deepens, is it within the realms of possibility to design around these disastrous yet stunning force majeure? Can we imagine a future where typhoons in the Orient or heatwaves in the Wild Wild West include or even benefit the public realm? Or perhaps constructing in these areas would be the ideal way to quell the danger before it starts…
Rather than trying to confront these forces of nature, perhaps the genius of urban design will be to find ways to work with them in the public realm.
 Tim Townshend, “What is Urban Design?” lecture, 10.10.2019
 @NatGeoUK, ‘Venice Experiencing Worst Floods in 50 Years’.
 Teatini et al., ‘Anthropogenic Venice Uplift by Seawater Pumping into a Heterogeneous Aquifer System’.
 The Canal water that floods the city is also particularly toxic and polluted. On my recent trip to Venice, the floods could be seen carrying dead rats through the streets, while sewage is consistently pumped into these canals.
 ‘DE URBANISTEN’.
 Nooijer, ‘Green Water Square: Bellamyplein Rotterdam, The Netherlands | Urban Green-Blue Grids’.
 Author’s Photo of St. Peter’s Basilica Reflected in St. Marks’ Square Flooding
 Author’s Photo of reflections in St. Mark’s Square
 ‘DE URBANISTEN’, 2013, Benthemplein Square in Mid-Summer, accessed 16.12.2019, < http://www.urbanisten.nl/wp/?portfolio=waterplein-benthemplein>
 ‘DE URBANISTEN’, 2013, Benthemplein Square after heavy rainfall, accessed 16.12.2019, < http://www.urbanisten.nl/wp/?portfolio=waterplein-benthemplein>