A walking street that spans the ages

Better! Cities & Towns

Editor's note: April 4 is National Walking Day—an occasion to celebrate the rewards of walking and to think about how well or poorly our communities integrate walking into daily life. No one is better qualified to discuss this topic than Allan B. Jacobs, who has led city planning in San Francisco, taught at the University of California-Berkeley, and consulted worldwide. Jacobs’ 1993 book, Great Streets, and his 2003 volume, The Boulevard Book, both from MIT Press, are among the best explorations of street design currently in print.

In the essay below, adapted from “Still Great Medieval Streets,” in Great Streets, Jacobs looks at a street in Rome that has remained a conduit for pedestrian movement and social and economic life for hundreds of years. The essay and Jacobs' sketches are posted with permission of MIT Press.

Allan B . Jacobs

Via dei Giubbonari in Rome has existed since ancient times. Early in its history, the street was known as a center for the making and sale of vests: doublets. In recent years, most of the stores have sold clothes—though no doublets—and there have been other things to buy as well.

At each end of the street, funnel-shaped widenings draw you in, helping you to choose this rather than another street. Via dei Giubbonari is not a long street, less than 1,000 feet, but you would not know that when you start, because it bends and becomes ever narrower toward the center, making it impossible to see one end from the other.

The shape of the street itself does not tell you where it is going, but you are drawn in all the same. The sky plane, a clear, curving arrow, reflecting the street plan and at the same time angling downward with the receding perspective, takes you on your way, beyond what is visible on the ground.

Via dei Giubbonari represents the very best of a type: the old, long-continuing medieval street that usually winds at least a little, is relatively narrow, and has about it a certain sense of mystery, the result largely of its tightness, its relatively tall buildings, and the pedestrian’s inability to see from one end to another. There are hundreds of streets like this, mostly in Europe, though they once were plentiful in Boston and other cities in the eastern United States as well.

Once on Via dei Giubbonari, you want to see where it leads, even if you already know, and you want to experience what is more immediately around you as well. There are many buildings, even more doorways, and almost continuous store windows at the street level. Buildings here have solid masonry bearing walls, not thin skin surfaces hanging between structural columns. Wall thickness and building solidity are made clearly evident by their visible contrast with the glass panes in them.

Buildings and stores are deep, and the windows show this. How deep are they? What is in there? There is a bit of inviting mystery; something to be explored. Above, there are more windows—shuttered or open, depending on the time of day and where the sun is.

The buildings are, for the most part, unremarkable, but they make their presence felt: sturdy, solid structures of three to five tall stories that define the pathway. Heights may vary, but there are few abrupt changes, and because the buildings are higher than the street is wide, especially toward the center, where they can be 60 feet, nearly four times the street’s 16-foot width, there is a strong sense of verticality—a sense reinforced by the vertical lines that occur where one building stops and another starts. A typical building front on Via dei Giubbonari is 62 feet wide and there is a doorway every 15 feet.

Though architecturally undistinguished, building facades on Via dei Giubbonari are richly detailed: shutters, sills, cornices, frames, signs, lights, downspouts, shutter fasteners, and more. Light passes over these details and surfaces, producing a constant change of brightness and of shadows.

Near the street’s center is a small piazza lined with more small shops and entrances to upper-floor apartments, and there is a very small church, appropriate to the size of the space. From this point, where the street approaches its most narrow dimension, both of its ends can be seen—Campo dei Fiori at one  end and Piazza Cairoli at the other.

The narrowness of the street and the nature of the buildings along it protect people from wind. Via dei Giubbonari remains comfortable on hot summer days. It would be more pleasant in winter if it could have more winter sun.

The street is for everyone and is accustomed to crowds, though certainly not all the time. It brings people together, all kinds of people. Besides having a strong beginning and end, it acts as a spine, a central structural element for the area around it.

On Via dei Giubbonari, days have a pace and rhythm. In early morning, the first sounds and activities are generated by the market at the Campo dei Fiori. The opening noises come from the market stalls set up every morning, from some carts going to it, and from the first shoppers. Window shutters are opened, and some few doors and window grates, mostly metal, are opened at the bars or at the alimentari. There are not many people. Some walk toward the bus routes on Via Arenula, some to the market, some to morning coffee. This is the time of day when a car might try its luck on the street,  though no driver seriously trying to get from one place to another would think of using it regularly. It has no curbs to separate pedestrians from cars. It is all one cobblestone surface.

By midmorning the Via dei Giubbonari is crowded. All the stores have opened, over 60 of them. The funnel-like mouth at Via Arenula is jammed with parked cars, and people weave through them on their way into or out of the street. Though it is crowded, people can walk at almost any pace, except really fast.

An occasional motorbike intrudes. Some people read the newspapers posted outside the political headquarters midway along the street. Passing acquaintances see either other, stop, talk for a few moments. Young people are numerous, and there are tourists. Older women head toward or return from the market, which is at its peak. Women outnumber men. Sounds bounce off of the buildings, mostly from people talking. Upper-floor shutters are likely to be open, and a woman may appear, momentarily, to look down.

After one o’clock in the afternoon, people leave and the stores close. Again there are the sounds of shutters and door grates, this time rolling down. The street almost empties. Past one-thirty, someone heads quickly for the market to catch a still open stall (the butchers seem always the last to close.) An occasional couple walks through, during and after the lunch period. The bars remain open, but after two, they aren’t very busy. The market is done for the day. The stalls are taken down and packed on carts, and some of them are moved along the street, pushed by their keepers to storage for the night. A cleaning crew attacks the Campo.

Later in the afternoon, there is a second opening of stores and a second crowd, a much larger crowd now. People often rub shoulders at the narrowest section of the street. Here it is only 16 feet wide, a more confined space. They walk slowly, couldn’t walk fast if they wanted to. The sounds are of many people talking. This is the late-afternoon-early evening stroll.

If you stand in one place long enough, you may see the same people pass two or three times—shopping, to be sure, but also meeting friends, talking, strolling. A car, in grave error, inches its way toward Via Arenula. At the other end, at the Campo dei Fiori, people meet and talk in small groups. Some children kick a football. Families are out.

After seven-thirty there is another closing, and much later, after the restaurants and gelateria and the small cinema on the square and the bars on the street close, Via dei Giubbonari is still.

Late at night there may be no one out. Shutters are closed. It is dark. There are shades only of dark gray and black. Only the physical form is left; receding vertical planes curving toward a closing, a hint of light from the piazza to let you know where you are. Occasionally there is the sound of heels on cobble—a couple or a single person. Once or twice the abrasive sound of a motorbike may blast thorough. It is still a pleasant place to be, though not as nice as in the light, when details keep you moving.

On such a street, maybe this same street, four centuries ago Benvenuto Cellini, hurrying home or in escape, might have taken a wide berth at corners for safety. There is no need to do that now. The center is still the best place to walk.

Allan B. Jacobs is a former San Francisco planning director, a professor emeritus in the University of California-Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, and a professor in the Graduate School there. For more on his book Great Streets, click here. Information on The Boulevard Book is available here. A review of his most recent book, The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations (Routledge), will appear in the April-May print issue of Better! Cities & Towns.

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