Assisi fountain then and now

These photographs of Assisi’s urban landscape and architecture were taken about 80 years apart. It’s great to see how little has changed (probably ‘thanks to St Francis’ for attracting tourists) but the changes seem to be for the worse: cars, masts for  TVs and phones, ugly street signs, heritage lighting, extra downpipes, less picturesque clothing, some odd castellations (top right).  Readers are invited to contribute ‘then and now’ pairs of illustrations so that we can keep an eye on how gardens, parks, urban landscapes and rural landscapes are changing.  Let’s hope we can find some examples of things getting better.

(2012 photo of Assisi courtesy of  preston rhea)

11 thoughts on “Assisi fountain then and now

  1. Christine

    How very interesting! One would assume that the facades and rooflines of the buildings in such locations would be relatively static…yet here is changing rooflines (and not only the castellations)…the last two buildings previously had a uniform roof line and now they do not!
    …and changing windows (fenestration) which gets larger and smaller and has arches added or taken away!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, the windows are a reminder that cities are made by individuals as well as by municipalities – and that they should talk to each other more than they generally do. I think ‘mutual distrust’ is the normal situation with both parties thinking ‘why should we care about what they think – after all, the decision affect only MY property’.

  2. Christine

    You are so right. Each individual building contributes to the streetscape and therefore to the urban realm. I am wondering what a good dialogue between individuals and municipalities would achieve, as usually individuals submit proposals and municipalities either approve or reject them according to their own critieria without a conversation.

    I am not sure that there is a jurisdiction that demonstrates a different model which perhaps reviews designs with applicatants in a collaborative way?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I suspect ‘Town and Country Planning’ systems could manage collaborative projects very much better than they do. It has failed to do so in the UK for several reasons: (1) local municipal government is undemocratic, partly because so much of its money comes from central government (2) the ‘elected representatives’ who run the system are in post because they are party hacks with no knowledge of the issues (3) the professional staff, with approved qualifications in Town and Country Planning, are members of a profession which lost 95% of its idealism.
      I would like to see (1) genuine local democracy, as in Switzerland (2) the election of ‘City Mothers and City Fathers’ – to replace party hacks – under the guidance (as in Germany) of a qualified Director with wisdom and expertise in urban design (3) a much better balance of the various professions (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) instead of domination by ‘Town Planners’.
      If this sounds too big an ‘ask’, even for the first working day of a new year, then I would put one immediate demand to the present system: it should re-focussed on the objectives of creating Public Goods and protecting Common Goods.

  3. Christine

    Perhaps I am not so cynical about the party system as my experience with Parliamentary Committees demonstrated that parliamentarians can work collaboratively and in a bi-partisan way for the greater good – but much of this work is never seen by the public. This is probably so also of elected municipal Councillors too.

    So yes, the ability to see beyond party imperatives to the public good is very important in all public offices involved with city planning. A wise guiding director would also be a great boon as would a balanced representation of the various professions.

    And yes to the objective of creating public goods and protecting common goods. This should if possible be enshrined in policy.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Parliamentary committees work surprisingly well in the UK – much better than the main chamber of the House of Commons. Though I do not have very much experience at the local level, it seems not to work nearly as well. The prime consideration always seems to be money (1) profit for developers who lean on municipal authorities (2) tax income for the municipal authorities (3) ‘planning gain’ (a kind of tax on development) for the municipal authorities. The best solution, in my view, would be to introduce Swiss-style local democracy with members of the public able to vote on major planning decisions. We have what is called ‘public consultation’ but it is not an impressive procedure: it is window dressing.

  5. Christine

    Having had a considerable amount to do with developers it would be best to elect municipal authorities who are not easily leaned on.

    The main complaint you hear from developers is that the rules of engagement are not clear and often shift. It is true that their projects often become controversial and get caught within the political cycle. This would tend to make developers more conservative in their approach to the urban realm and less willing to take on the risk of creative projects which might best benefit cities.

    There is no argument that developers are entitled to profits and munipical authorities to taxes as equally as others are entitled to salaries and wages. It is rather whether these monetary considerations skew outcomes in ways that would otherwise not occur.

    I am not sure whether voting on major planning decisions is the way to go, but perhaps there could be a model project which is planned this way and the outcome of the process evaluated. Why is this my opinion? We would have the Effiel Tower in Paris, nor would there be a Black Mountain Tower in Canberra. Both of these icons now have popular approval although they were initially opposed by the public.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The Eiffel Tower (and Louvre Pyramid) are wonderful examples for designers and developers and scary examples for everyone else! I agree of course about developers being entitled to profits and municipalities to taxes. But there ‘has’ to be a way of getting more good projects built. Another fact which preys on my thoughts is the success of autocrats in making good cities. I hate autocracy but I love good cities.

  6. Lawrence

    I think that it is unhelpful to reduce the question of “getting more good projects built” to regulating the often conflicting interests of the individual players, be they developers, designers, municipalities, national governments or the general population. I believe that the special interests of the various groups involved have not changed radically over the aeons (nor the broad overlaps in those interests): it is the balance of power between them that has always determined the weft and the warp of what the loom finally turns out. This balance of power has a moral constituent that cannot be legislated, one that has been the catalyst of development, or the lack of it, throughout time. One could call this constituent “spirituality” (and by “spirituality” I include “political spirituality”, in short, something one believes in), and spirituality is a contemporary commodity in very short supply. Can good cities, good design thinking, good projects, flourish in the absence of spirituality?

    Merely tinkering with the system by means of planning regulations, taxation systems and control of the money supply – the three major tools of development control – will achieve adjustments which will appease one or other or several of the groups, but will not neccessarily give us more good projects (but perhaps a few that are better than they otherwise might have been). Tinkering in this way will not even give us – as we currently see in so many western cities, as wealth conglomerates in the established urban centres – such a basic item of social economic health as simple, affordable habitation, not only for the low-waged, but also for the middle classes, both existing and emergent. Tinkering doesn´t really help: there is no substitute for a load-bearing, moral imperative, a shared belief in what will make the future better for everyone, no substitute for “spirituality”.

    Good cities, and the extension of existing ones, are products of the Zeitgeist. We are currently getting the cities and the projects we deserve, as those generations before us got theirs, for better or for worse. It is the way that people have chosen to live their own, personal lives, and how they have interpreted – or ignored – the wealth of information that has lain before them that has ultimately reflected in a tendency to realise “good” projects or not, and in this nothing has changed.

    Real changes to the Zeitgeist have – it seems to me – occurred not as gradual processes, but as ones that have followed earthquake-like models, as when fault lines suddenly readjust below the crust.

    Autocrats certainly have a superb record, perhaps the best, when it comes to urban planning, although those they disposessed would of course not agree. I think that the democrats of post-war Germany also did a superb job from the extremely unpromising starting point of heaps of rubble and political bankruptcy. Interesting also are those communities who are uninterested in discussing various systems of planning at all, preferring to concentrate their interests on satisfying their demands from the land and water of their geographical base.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Lawrence, your post merits a book-length response but here are some comments (1) I agree about the balance of power and the long term nature of the underlying ‘stakeholder’ interests (2) ‘Zeitgeist’ conveys to me both pessimism and fatalism (3) I find it easist to interpret the word ‘spiritual’ as an antonym of ‘material’, in relation to human motivation (4) autocrats, in their search for eternal glory, may well have more spiritual objectives than the general population.
      An interesting comparison is to be made between the urban planning approaches of Holland, Belgium and France. My impression is that Belgium does less well than its neighbours (eg in regulating strip development, undergrounding cables and caring for the public realm) and I do not think this can be explained by the Zeitgeist. It is more to do with the balance of power which is a consequence of the political situation. Belgium has lower taxes and less public expenditure, which attracts Dutch and French plutocrats to move acoss the border.
      But where could we look for an example of a deeply spiritual society which, concequently, has an enlightened approach to urban design? Not India – it has a more spiritual society than China but a far less successful 20th century record in urban design.
      Re pessimism and fatalism, I regard the 20th century as a low point in the long history of urban design. We can do better and should do better. But how?

  7. Christine

    To answer the question about communities which prefer not to have a planning system at all – this is probably viable below a critical population number. Tom might best be able to comment on this: I am assuming that key events and key issues underpin its introduction, for example the plague and the great fire of London.

    For Haussmann at Napoleon’s behest it was to prevent popular revolution. However, the planning reforms went beyond the broad avenues, new streets, new buildings and parks. He also introduced water and sewerage infrastructure and built new bridges.

    If planning and design were primarily about taste there is some argument that it could be decided by popular vote as the population would reflect its taste in the choices it makes. Given that I am not sure how the arguments about high and low and popular taste would play out.
    However, taste is only one aspect of the equation of good cities.

    It is true that the zeitgeist has much to do with good design and planning in as much as it bequeaths each generation with a task ‘for the times’. It is a question of how well this task is fulfilled in each generation and what legacy each generation leaves.


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