Great Urban Design: Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona in Rome exemplifies great urban design.  Its history goes back to the Roman empire when the emperor ordered the construction of a wooden structure for enjoyment of sports.  Over the years it has been a place to shop, worship, play and celebrate the urban life.

Getting There

Most people think of visiting the Colosseum or the Vatican when in Rome.  They are of course worth visiting, however, one of the best places to visit is its Piazza Navona.  I visited this marvel of Urban Design while backpacking through Italy, Egypt and Greece as a college student.  It is easy to do a walking tour of Rome as you navigate through its rich history and tourist attractions.  My tour began with Piazza del Popolo, followed by the Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, Via Condotti, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and finally to Piazza Navona, where I enjoyed a wonderful meal with drinks surrounded by tourists and native folks.

The Making of Great Urban Design

Piazza Navona’s history goes back to the Roman Empire when a stadium was built there for the enjoyment of sports.  It was used for festivals and horse races in the middle ages and was rebuilt in the Baroque style with magnificent palaces, the Church of Sant’Agnese and its center piece, the Fontana dei Fiumi.  The fountain represents the four largest rivers on four continents: the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de la Plata accompanied by plants and animals of their respective regions.

The Space, time, architecture, and urban design

Nolli’s map of Rome shows Piazza Navona as a distinct urban space surrounded by closely packed structures.  It is almost like a relief valve in the middle of dense urban space.  The Piazza still has the outline of the Roman stadium, and you could visualize the space over many centuries as it eventually evolved into the present-day Piazza.  This is where you will encounter great restaurants, street artists, painters and musicians who add a lively atmosphere to the scene. 

The Legacy of Lasting Urban Design

Many cities have tried to emulate the magic and experience of Piazza Navona.  The Times Square in New York City or the Piccadilly Circus in London come to mind.  Many scholars such as Kevin Lunch in “The Image of the City” or Christopher Alexander in “A Pattern language” have focused on the physical aspects of urban design such as dimension, shape, and heights of surrounding structures.  Other scholars have tried to study the movement of people over time and their perception of the environment to explain the rich urban experience.  But the magic of great urban design is much more than that.  It is in the experience of being a part of its rich history and culture.    

Image credit: By No machine-readable author provided. Pippo-b assumed (based on copyright claims). Public Domain,

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