The Mediterranean urban development

A lesson of sustainability for the world,

Salat, S. & Nowacki, N.

International Journal of Sustainable Development 2011

Vol. 14, N°1/2, pp. 3-15


This paper aims at showing that contemporary city planners should look into Mediterranean cities. The authors go through different cities such as Toledo, Torino, Firenze, and Santorini, and demonstrate that these cities were conceived in symbiosis with their environment, long before the industrial revolution. They notably show that the form of these cities has been able to adapt to the passing of time and the appropriation by different civilisations, thus showing an incredible resiliency. The study of Mediterranean cities provides lessons of sustainability for three reasons at least. First, they have lasted more than 2,000 years adapting but keeping marks of each period of their history. Second, they were bearers of meaning for their inhabitants as individuals but also as communities, which is a fundamental concept if we want to answer the social preoccupation of sustainable cities. The target of the paper is thus to analyse how such cities have managed to integrate themselves into their bioclimatic settings while fulfilling their main political purpose (polis) and providing a high level of urban life.

1 Introduction

Travelling through the Mediterranean Region is finding a Roman past in Lebanon, prehistory in Sardinia, Greek villages in Sicily, an Arab presence in Spain and Turkish Islam in Yugoslavia (Braudel, 1997). In his books on Mediterranean space and history, Fernand Braudel implicitly details the social, political and economic characteristics that reveal Mediterranean cities as examples of what is meant by sustainable towns. In fact, being sustainable is being able of fitting different cultures, the evolution of technology, of thoughts, of lifestyles and changing political organisations. It also means taking into account the topography of the site and adapting the composition of cities, the ways of paths and roads, the places of each type of buildings, to the ground, the climatic conditions, and the social and political organisations of people along with their ways of thinking. With Rossi (1981), we consider the city as a total urban fact, a work of art. Attention has been paid to the complex urban structure and composition, in continuity with the famous work of Sitte (1996) about The Art of Building Cities. Urban diversity and differences in evolution all around the Mediterranean Sea show, each time, local and specialised solutions, answering the particular problems of one site and of different civilisations, in continuity with the past of the town. Spiro Kostof showed well how the structures of towns would evolve and we underline in this paper the great advantages it brought on contrary to the modernist view of the tabula rasa. The urban form of the city, with its political, social, and bioclimatic implications, has thus been the centre of our work. It aims at showing which town-planning and architectural characteristics made Mediterranean cities sustainable in the sense that they last more than 2,000 years, while providing their inhabitants with comfort and social meaning, and respecting their environment. Among the characteristics that make Mediterranean cities a model for our cities are: mixed uses, variety, complexity, hierarchy in composition, memory and historical depth, adaptable geometry, and signification of forms for the political and private lives of the inhabitants.

2 Cultural, political and social lessons provided by the Mediterranean urban form

2.1 A sustainable urban world is a world of memory and historical depth

The built environment has a functional target but which cannot be freed of a meaning. Mediterranean cities are bearers of individual as well as collective significations which give them their social richness, explaining the fascination they exerted on so many generations. Rites of foundation, but also social expressions and uses, collective manifestations, contribute to the fact that the city is a civic space because it bears the imaginary of a community, thus creating social cohesion. From the Fertile Crescent, from Çatal Hüyük or Jericho, the ‘urban revolution’ took place in the Mediterranean region. The conical roofs of the ‘trulli’ to be found in Pouilles continue to bear witness to a local form and technology that goes back to the Neolithic period. The grid arrangement of a large number of existing Mediterranean towns reveals the underlying layout of Greek and then Roman town planning that continues to exist although the ancient towns themselves have disappeared over the centuries. Ancient civilisation and views of cities have not been erased but incorporated and adapted, what The Mediterranean urban development  we fail to do today in a lot of cases. We see in Figure 1 that from the same principles of organisation, the typical Roman settlement organised by a grid, different configurations have been possible depending on the beliefs and lifestyles of each dominant civilisation having occupied each city. In its reconfiguration by an Islamic population (left image), streets are replaced by a web of alleys that organise residential neighbourhoods common to a single tribal or ethnic group. A modification of the same town plan in medieval Italy would see city blocks fused together to form fortified feudal enclaves crowned by defensive towers (right image). A sustainable city is a city which keeps the marks of its past, which gives the population the sense of continuity and benefits from solutions to specificities of the site often forgotten long after, but still appropriated.

2.2 The sustainable Mediterranean town is a geometric and composed town

Modern town planning was born in the Mediterranean in 500 BC Greece with Hippodamos of Milet, inventor of chequerboard plans. This layout triumphed over each era of cultural standardisation, where the systematic reproduction of an established model – considered as being superior – took a sort of revenge over spontaneous development: Hellenistic Greece, Rome, the Renaissance and the Baroque. We can see in Figure 2 that Olynthus was originally composed of an organic city but then developed following a grid. Nevertheless, the grid is a tool to inscribe an order, an orientation in the exterior world, in addition of being a mean to conquer new spaces. Rites, myths, beliefs and social organisation are to be found behind the grid as a tool of urban development. A spirit of geometry structures the urban and rural Mediterranean landscapes formed first by the Greek and then the Roman orders; it gave Pax Romana a singularly military appearance. The new towns created by Rome were located in the plains, where they could copy the model of the legionary camps. The ‘cardo’ and the ‘decumanus’ intersect one another at right angles, dividing urban spaces into interchangeable districts and blocks: only the public monuments – Forum, Capitol, etc. – have specifically assigned locations. The typical house block measured 35 by 90 m. Each dwelling was set around a central courtyard and was determined in size and orientation by the overall development of the town. This in turn was based on the ideas of Hippodamos. Thus Olynthus, like most Mediterranean cities of the time, followed a strict geometrical grid, which divided the town into quarters. Smaller roads linked each sectors, enabling the texture to be porous to different moves.

This geometry is flexible and able to adapt to social cultures and interactions. The flexibility and resilience of the urban textures inherited from Greece and Rome reveals the extraordinary sustainability of Mediterranean towns.

Nevertheless, order does not necessarily need a grid. Muslim cities, with the maze of their streets network, are mirrors of another order, which was able to insert into other organisations and to give birth to different developments according to different populations and social organisations. Organic medieval Mediterranean cities share the complexity of the maze inherited from archaic Athens. The result of the aggregative growth was the residential maze we read of in the sociological and defensive justifications. According to Lavedan, Aristotle tells us that the narrow and tortuous streets of Athens were an enigma deceiving to strangers and a labyrinth dangerous to enemies [Lavedan, (1926), pp.115–115]. In Arabic classical cities the residential areas while looking informal are in fact logically clustered. At first they might seem to exist in some form of cellular accretion, with the house being the unit of growth, located as close to the outermost existing house as building techniques would permit. Interstitial space would be private, or at least excessively parochial, and spatially minimal. Narrow paths between buildings would suffice, and their direction could be determined by the needs of the immediately adjacent residents. In reality this apparently informal structure had before 1085 in Toledo a complex order reflecting the social segmentation of Arabic societies. In Toledo (Figure 3), after 1085, the Christians have progressively created a new order on the underlying basis of the formerly Islamic city. The maze qualities of the city have much more intensified, while in Arabic cities the spatial lecture of the city as remained quite simpler to understand. In this sense, the complexity of Toledo is much higher than the complexity of the classical medina. Why? Because the classical medina street pattern constitution is based on a three-fold hierarchy of lines of access to the houses (thoroughfares, secondary streets, cul-de-sacs) reflecting the social segmentation of Arabic societies. The Christianisation of Toledo has erased this three-fold constitution and simplified it. As a result the compositional level itself appears much more complex.

2.3 The physical space of the town and the political space of its authorities and citizens

The physical presence of the commune in the political space of the Italian town is so strong and the impression it gives so deep-rooted, that it forms a sort of archetype. The town’s silhouette forms the spatial horizon, giving it a dreamlike and dramatic value. The town is both the centre of power and its ultimate goal or emblem. It is within its contours that the power base erects symbols or forms to express its prestige and to conquer the urban space. Over the long term, the two become intertwined, with the town generating power and, reciprocally, the power generating the town.

As a result, the Mediterranean town is essentially a public space in which the voids play a role equally – if not more – important as the solids and their layout is subject to the attention of both princes and architects. In fact, apparent ‘empty’ spaces between buildings are the spaces where the life of the group takes place, they are a brick of the city. Buildings evolve and can be replaced throughout time but the piazza and streets are here to stay, maybe to become larger, but staying, as the backbone of the town. Figure 4 shows the importance of streets and inbuilt spaces in Rome.

Underlining the network of streets and places enables us to understand the multiple possibilities of moves, of encounters and of exchanges offered by Mediterranean cities. Compared to it, the oversimplified network of modern cities appears very poor. Toledo’s network of streets (Figure 5) maximises complexity and connections. Our work outlined the following specific characteristics of Toledo street patterns:

• numerous cul-de-sacs

• many T-junctions

• few X-junctions

• narrow and curved streets

• an opaque network that cannot be apprehended totally easily.

The total number of links (segment between two intersections) is 346 in Toledo. There are 37 dead ends, 212 intersections of roads, and 149 building blocks. These characteristics are shared with classical Islamic street patterns. The Arabic typical street pattern is hierarchical. The main thoroughfares and secondary streets are reserved for trading activities, public buildings and amenities; they constitute the main arteries of the medina. The narrower side streets and cul-de-sacs, whose essential role is to provide access to the houses, are perpendicular to the thoroughfares and secondary streets, their private aspect creates a strong contrast with the principal streets. The groups of houses hemmed in the side streets constitute blocks to which access is provided by cul-de-sacs leading to the houses. The layout of these blocks is informal, and their size can vary greatly in length and depth – in fact they are conglomerates characterised by irregularity and the absence of geometrical form.

Toledo street patterns are characterised by a very thin grain of the urban grid. The enlargement of urban grid patterns is one of the main transformations of cities. It is 40 metres in Toledo and almost all European medieval cities, whereas the mean distance between intersections is 120 metres in Paris, Melbourne and Hong Kong. It is a first morphological difference in the urban form, from the medieval type, with a very thin grid, and the European mid 19th century grid. Then another huge morphological change appeared in the second half of the 20th century in Europe with the new modernist urban forms and the urban sprawl. The distance between intersections in Le Corbusier city of three million inhabitants, which is the prototype of this urbanism and in Brasilia it is 400 metres. This multiplication by ten of the city basic grain size, creates a city made for the car and not for the pedestrian. It produces a city that does not reach the density required to protect itself from the sun like in Toledo through the clumping of housing units with each other. The number of building blocks is also important since it characterises the number of path circles. It is crashing down in the modern town, creating a monotonous repetitive city from a pedestrian point of view.

To keep comparing cities, we will take the example of the centre of Torino based on a Roman layout as for the Roman city shown in Figure 6; for the Modernist, we will take Le Corbusier archetype of city of three million inhabitants. The modernist claim that the towers are vertical streets needs to be challenged. Streets offer shops, open spaces and places for meeting, strolling and relaxing. In very tall towers, elevators are needed to take people from one place to another. Circulation in such a context necessarily involves a destination – a beginning and an end – which leaves little room for the changing paces, movements and spur of the moment shifts in direction which characterise human circulation. Streets are places of meeting and exchange. In actual fact, these towers do not replace the streets but rather groups of urban blocks comprising many streets. The analysis can and must be conducted comparing towers to the urban fabrics that they replace. For this purpose, it is interesting to compare one Le Corbusier tower placed on a square of 400 metres between axes and the centre of Turin corresponding to the layout of the Roman city covering the same area. In Figure 7(a), a district of Torino presents a development model made up of square blocks with spacious interior courtyards (some built up) and a hierarchy of different streets and plazas, all of which creates a fabric informed by a scheme but also endowed with complexity and diversity. In contrast, Figure 7(b), the Radiant City, on the same scale, consists in a clean slate and a single sculptural object that has no connection to its environment. In Torino, nearly all the ground floors are occupied by shops and the linear length of the façades facing the street is significant: nearly 30 km in a square of 800 metres as against 0 in the Le Corbusier district. The linear length of façades facing the courtyards is also quite significant: 16 kilometres as against 0 in the Radiant City. The street in Torino is a place of intensive exchange, commerce and human activity. In a natural way, this type of street life creates social bonds that contribute to a better quality of life, unlike modernist forms that dehumanise streets, eliminating the human factor and giving pride of place to cars. Courtyards are semi-private, open spaces that are reassuring by their human scale and that lend themselves to interactions between residents – exactly the opposite of the oversized and disquieting empty spaces in the Radiant City from which courtyards have been eliminated. The number of blocks by square km is 233 in Toledo, 106 in Torino and only six in Le Corbusier modernist scheme. That means that the diversity of routes is 39 times higher in Toledo than in a modernist scheme, and about twice higher in Toledo than in a more regular Roman pattern.

2.4 The polis structured by a network of streets and piazze

Whatever its layout, be it geometric or spontaneous, the town is organised to allow exchanges between people and, even more important than the exchange of goods, exchanges of signs and symbols. The composition of political and religious buildings is consciously set and highlighted by using levels of heights, appearance or disappearance of buildings behind others or behind elements of topography. The real centre of social life in Mediterranean cities is in the piazza lying beyond the bustling and chaotic traffic of the narrow streets. Always better protected against the encroachment of individuals, the piazza represents the perfect public space and has been a constant in Mediterranean town planning ever since the Greek ‘agora’ and the Roman ‘forum’, as demonstrated by the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, the décor of the Signoria in Firenze. The square is a place to meet and discuss, for citizens to assemble, and for large demonstrations, solemn decisions and executions. The piazza provides a global spatial perception, but this perception is also modulated: perspectives vary and are laid out in a way that reveals a historical texture. These two characteristics give the piazza its density and temporal depth. Consecrated by the city, the piazza concentrates and crystallises all the values of urban life. Initially just a meeting place, the piazza was rapidly surrounded by gates and arcades, providing shelter from the sun and rain. In turn, the main religious and civil monuments were built around the piazza, which became both an antechamber and proscenium as in the Temple of Rome and Augustus, or as in the Baptistery piazza in Firenze (Figure 8). The piazza expresses the town’s material and political success. As soon as the town grew, so did the number of specialised piazze. A complex hierarchy formed and reproduced social life: a piazza for each district and each ethnic and religious community. There were piazze for each function, market, religion, assembly and festival. There were also piazze laid out as a street – a ‘corso’ – lined with the houses of the rich and luxury shops, providing settings for processions and marches. Each had its own particular attributes, be they aristocratic or popular. Figure 9 shows the different sizes and the dispositions of multiple squares organised in a hierarchical way in Toledo.

The original layout of Muslim towns led to a different type of spatial organisation that saw the separation of the various functions of the square. The town centre had no other place for people to meet together than the mosque and its courtyard, surrounded by ‘medresses’, ‘hans’ and baths. This was the setting where the decisions of the authorities were announced and prayers said in the name of God. Commercial life took place in the ‘souks’ and ‘bazaars’. Other, larger squares were built at the city gateways, there where the caravans arrived.

2.5 Urban sequences: unfolding a serial vision of streets and piazze

If piazze are the important public spaces, the way to reach them is critical as well. According to Gordon Cullen, buildings collectively can give visual pleasure which none can give separately. Buildings grouped together form an urban fabric, which has visual properties. In Toledo, we may walk through narrow and high streets, and as a corner is turned a small triangular plaza appears and an unsuspected building is revealed. Churches and former mosques are embedded into the complex continuity of the urban fabric. Walking through the maze of streets is an almost constant astonishment. We are surprised not by the individual building but by the composition of the group. The buildings create a sense of concave enclosure and the space created between them is not the modernist universal flowing space but a special place having a life of its own over and above the buildings that create it.

2.5.1 Concerning OPTICS

Let us suppose that we are walking through Toledo. Following a curved, high and narrow street, in the shadow, we arrive at the sunny opening of a triangular plaza, before reaching a monument. The views of the street, the plaza, remain with us when we see the monument. We appreciate by contrast and comparison its size and aspect. Although we have walked at a uniform speed, the urban scenery has been revealed to us through a series of overlapping revelations. This is what Gordon Cullen calls ‘serial vision’. Through serial vision, the human mind reacts to differences, to contrasts. Toledo becomes visible in a deeper sense. “It comes alive through the drama of juxtapositions” [Cullen, (1961), p.9]. The vision is split into two elements: the existing view and the emerging view. This is why in a lively fractal town like Toledo where many sequences do exist, we can wander day after day through the same streets without ever having the same experience because the views change slightly with our mood. The creation of serial visions is a brand of the art of relationship. Though them human imagination can begin to mould the city into a coherent emotional drama.

2.5.2 Concerning PLACE

This second point is concerned with our reactions to the position of our body in the environment. Toledo offers rich and meaningful sequences of exposures and enclosures. We move through places entering them, being in them and leaving them. As stated by Gordon Cullen, this supposes the manipulation of urban space in order to create a sense of ‘here’ and ‘there’ and a skilful manipulation of the relationship between the two.

2.5.3 Concerning CONTENT

In this last category, we turn to an examination of the fabric of towns: colour, texture, scale, style, character, personality and uniqueness. Toledo has seen the succession of centuries and of several civilisations. Its complex fabric shows evidence of these different periods and of the extraordinary resilience of the city. Those three gateways to understanding cities are also key strategies for city design. We discovered motion, position and content. Motion is not a simple, measurable progression. It is in fact two things: the existing and the revealed view. Cities like Toledo make us rediscover that human beings are constantly aware of their position, that they need to feel a sense of place and that the sense of identity is coupled with an awareness of elsewhere. Figure 11 with perspectives of Firenze are great examples of dramatisation of monuments in the city, creating feeling of amazement inside the walker. Difference in size, in style, in nature, and disposition of the elements in relation to the axis of the sight or of the movement are part of the mechanism of serial vision.

2.6 The sustainable town, built from complex transitions between private and public life, between house and town

Having studied the public space on its own, we need to mention the relationship it has with its opposite, the private space. This opposition helps creating the structure of the town and the meaning of its components. This type of ordering resulted in the Mediterranean town coming up against the external walls of the basic unit: the house. This is the source of a number of fundamental oppositions, being those that separate the public from the private as well as all those that fix the role of each individual – man, woman or child – in their relations to others and the surrounding world. The Mediterranean house is occasionally very simple and nothing more than a three by three metre room with a door as its only opening. This layout can be seen in the ancient Greek cities, in the Maghreb, Sicily and the ‘bassi’ in Naples. It was and remains the housing for the poor. But as soon as people were able, they expanded their houses, making them larger, creating enclosed areas such as the Arab ‘zaiba’, or in the case of wealthy homes, built around an interior courtyard such as the ‘atrium’ and ‘cortile’ protected from the outside. These measures occupied surface areas rather than height. The development of the Roman ‘insulae’ saw the construction of separate spaces above ground floor level. This was because the house always answered the same need: not just to group together the family and material assets, including animals, under the same roof, but also to clearly separate the space from its surroundings and defend the fundamental and essential asset represented by family honour. This led to propitiatory rites presiding over the construction process and the sacred value of the threshold, being the frontier between interior and exterior, a barrier against the dark forces. In the development of Mediterranean towns at the Renaissance Period, houses were replaced by palazzo or buildings, but they kept their traditional form characterised by the inner court. The inner court became a semi public space, typical of another type of relationships between the inhabitants, and of new uses. In Torino, inner courts were often used to build new little dependency to the apartments, and to set small industries.

 3 Conclusions

A study of the layout of a sample of Mediterranean cities enabled us to highlight the quality of their urban composition from a social point of view. In fact, be they organic or following a grid pattern, these cities benefited from streets patterns, squares, inner courts, that were at the same time means of cooling the city and of creating public places and social life. Furthermore, these cities did not present one composition corresponding to one era but show that they were composed, and evolved with the passing of time, keeping the best solutions of comfort and changing what should be to adapt to new lifestyles. First, this way of evolving without disowning its own past is a difficult art we should try to practise on the model of these towns. Second, inbuilt spaces have a fundamental role, be it climatic or social and more attention should be paid to these components of the town. Finally, social life needs urban forms to favour it, and we should not forget the political and civic meanings of our constructions. Understanding the past and the need of our present society could help us adapt our towns to offer a better life in them.


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Lavedan, P. (1926) Histoire de l’urbanisme: Antiquité-moyen Age, Vol. 1, pp.114–115, Henri Laurens, Paris.