It’s obvious that, in every city, there is a place where “it started”. Typically over time that remains as the heart of the city, becoming its centre or central business district (CBD). New York was founded on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, London was a Roman settlement, with its oldest parts still contained with what’s now known as “the City”.
Generally, there’s a geographic reason for a city to locate in a certain place. Whether it be the site of harbours that shelter boats, rivers that provide for navigation, hills that allow for good surveillance of what’s around you, or a lake that provides excellent fresh water, it’s generally no accident that a city ended up locating where it is. In more recent times we have seen cities located in more arbitrary places – like Brasilia and Canberra, which seem to have no real specific point of being where they are, but were created from scratch as the capital city of their country in the 20th century.
I’m generally someone who prefers a more ‘organic’ approach to city building than you see in Brasilia or Canberra. There’s something about how planned an unnatural a place like Brasilia is that I find somewhat scary (image from here):
So when I thought about the natural starting point for my city, geography had to play a role. But did I imagine this place as originally being a mercantile port? Or a walled-in political centre? Or a trading post along a river that grew and grew and grew? Would it have emerged alongside a harbour, a river, at the top of a hill? When would it have been founded? In the last two hundred years? Back in the “early modern period”?
I found myself strongly influenced by the medieval cores of the many cities I visited in Europe in 2008. The unplanned structure, the pedestrian focus, the high intensity, the beautiful buildings, all seemed to combine to create the kind of environment the middle of a city should have.
There are remnants of the wall that used to surround the “ancient” parts of the city known as Ancien and Chatelet (clearly a bit of French influence there). There’s a castle and a basilica, which would probably be pretty spectacular buildings and major tourist attractions for the city. Streets shaded in grey are pedestrian only, suggesting an urban core inside the walls that’s set aside for pedestrians only (probably due to street width). Perhaps in the early morning delivery vehicles are able to carefully make their way along such streets.
The approximate dimensions of this area are around 2 km east to west and 1.5 km north to south, creating a total area of around 3 square kilometres. By way of comparison, the two lines in the aerial photograph of Paris represent similar lengths: 1.5 km vertically and 2.0 km horizontally:
A few questions obviously remain about what this area would be like. How much of its original built form was retained? Is it really realistic for such a large part of a city to be car-free? Would this part of the city be able to function as a “proper” area, or would it pretty much become like a theme park for tourists: dominated by gift shops, restaurants and visitor accommodation (like old parts of Quebec City, or pretty much the whole of Venice, are)? Plus, of course, I haven’t quite answered the original question of this post: why is it where it is? Perhaps there’s a hill here, and the city was built on that hill for fortification purposes, but is still relatively close to the sea for access to the outside world?
More fundamentally, it raises the interesting question of what happens to extremely old and intact parts of our cities. Do we adopt the Paris approach and create new business districts elsewhere – like has been done with La Defense? Or do we adopt a London approach and integrate the modern into the very old parts of our cities – in a generally very careful manner. Would we want central Paris to be punctuated by modern high-rise buildings? Would central London be better without the high-rise modern buildings?
While this city has probably taken the “Paris approach” more than the “London approach” (albeit to a lesser extent as the modern downtown is fairly nearby), I’m not necessarily saying that’s the absolute best approach. I’m not actually sure whether there is a right and wrong answer here.