High-density urban environment

Net density                  250-300 dwellings per hectare
Height                          4-6 storeys

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Arrival at Venezia Santa Lucia

Our train has passed through unremarkable countryside and rolled over the vast and calm lagoon where the light is brilliant. Santa Lucia station sits on the banks of the Canal Grande; colour, noise, sunshine, a throng of bobbing boats, opaque limestone coloured water, the temple opposite, people peeling off right and left.  And the exotic rich facades of the buildings lining the canal like a Canaletto with speedboats. “Railway termini … are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! We return.” 

Piazza San Marco
Swarms of tourists do a great job animating this grand and beautiful space. San Marco’s exotic asymmetrical domes puncture the heavens. The curtains in the arcade move in the breeze.


Campo San Salvador
Sitting on the cool marble steps of the church in Campo San Salvador. Three streams of people merge in this delta. The sounds of strings comes from the Scula Gradea’ Cordeiro. Students gather and separate.


Rio Terra dei Assassine
Above the restaurant, washing is being put out. Geraniums are bright in window boxes. Pretty fabric awnings flutter and shade the high windows. At empty tables, flowers are ready in vases and umbrellas sit in stands. Swallows fly overhead, a crushed can lies on the footpath. The murmur of diners, an air conditioning condenser rumbles next to my ear- discharging through a dusty screen at eye level. A radio is audible. T-shirted diners take their places. A pleasant cool breeze passes.


Corte Specheria I
This calm court is a well cut into the stone of Venice. People sit outside the bar, sheltered by the building above.

Corte Specheria II
Quiet in the courtyard. A few people pass through on their way to the city.  The brightly lit court contrasts with the narrow streets.


Calle Seconda de Obei
Just off a busy square; this quiet, narrow alley is a fissure in the stone of Venice. Its walls are a typical Venetian montage of materials; exposed soft brick, crumbling cement render, stone plinths, electrical wiring and plumbing installed at the most convenient and obtrusive location. Also, vegetation spilling out through a high steel screen and immaculate name and intercom plates carved from stone. Light creeps along the stone paving.

We have moved through Venice from the vast lagoon to grand public spaces, under and through buildings to the small intimate streets where people live. Public and private domains are clearly defined.

Why Venice was chosen to study
Venice is a dream city to which tourists and photographers flock. Yet is has a density that is far higher than most developers would dare propose.

The most beautiful city
“Venice itself looms like a mirage, a dream city in the ether, (made of) coloured phantoms of buildings. When every self- respecting town was surrounded by… impregnable fortifications … the first impression of this metropolis must have been of an earthly paradise where fear was unknown…graceful arcades swarming with carefree people (and) large, lively market places opened out towards the sea.” 2

It remains a magical city of faded brilliance, the most beautiful and most romantic city in the world. Made of costly stones and floating, mirrored, above an azure lagoon; Venice, “La Serenissima”, appears in many stories. Ruskin and Italo Calvino exalted it. Thomas Mann, Evelyn Waugh and Henry James used it as a romantic and raffish backdrop for dissolute characters. And Muratori painstakingly mapped minor shifts in its canals and bridges.

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Venice was founded in the 6th Century AD, built entirely on timber piles in a lagoon at the hard of the Adriatic. It became a major centre of trade and marine power

By the 18th century trade was in decline and tourism was growing. Its natural and built environment has been under threat for centuries.  It is inexorably subsiding into its own reflection in the lagoon.  Population has shrunk to 60,000 at present from 120,000 in 1980. Tourists are rampant; the living museum has become “Veniceland” and it is the subject of dire predictions.


Urban Design
Throughout the centuries Venice has been subject to foreign interventions and landlubber’s misconceptions; attempts to keep slippers dry and permanently moor or even drydock Venice. The Austro-Hungarian Empire insisted upon a bridge to connect it to the profane mainland. Napoleon filled in canals to create streets (those ones with the prefix “Rio Terra” i.e. “Rivers of Earth”)” 3. Venice couldn’t resist these interventions but managed to stymie the proposals of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier. Few urban designers would promote Venice as a model.4

Nonetheless, this miraculous mirage also possesses the attributes required of a city by traditional and “new” urbanists. It is less than four kilometres long and two kilometres wide; about 725 hectares in area, approximately twice the size of New York’s Central Park. It is possible to walk the length of Venice in 40 minutes. It has defined limits and suburban sprawl is impossible. It has a uniform height. The style and materials of new and restorative construction are strictly controlled. Venice is divided into 38 parishes each with its own church and square. Venetians belong to their neighbourhoods and speak dialect, yet are in touch with the outside world.

This is a pedestrian city, with separate vehicular traffic. It is free of highway furniture; signage, bollards, traffic lights, New Jersey kerbs, lane markings, parking meters, kerbs and gutters, speed cameras and towering glary street lights. Venice does not even have bike paths; bicycles are banned. The only wheeled vehicles permitted are trolleys. Thus public space is made up of pedestrian components, squares, bridges, and ramps, stepped ramps and raised footpaths. All is made legible with dark stone and white marble edges.

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Comments and Conclusions
There is nothing on earth like Venice; a substantial high-density city without cars, their noise and pollution. The land is for people and the water is for boats. The absence of cars allows a quiet and calm presence of human culture and interaction. Venice has city limits defined by nature and suburban sprawl is impossible. Building has been well managed and beautiful buildings grace each parish. It may be a living museum but Venice is also the very image of a livable city.

Density Comparison Table Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 5.20.47 PM

Acknowledgements and thanks
Michael Zanardo; project mentor and source of knowledge.
Justin Brickle; video editor of Zeitgeist Films –

1            E.M. Forster, Howards End, Ch. 2
2            Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture, MIT press, 1959, p.83

There is a wonderful plan of Venice here from “Continuity of Architecture”

This is a time-lapse of watery splendour on Vimeo, quite unlike my streets and squares
Jorg Niggli, Venice in a Day, 2012 (Vimeo)


Kieran McInerney, May 2013.