Great Urban Design: Piazza Navona, Rome

Great Urban Design: Piazza Navona, Rome

What brings hundreds of people to Piazza Navona in Rome every day? Is it the history that dates back to the Roman empire? Is it great urban design that celebrates human existence by offering places to shop, worship and play? Perhaps the answer lies in all of the above and more.

Getting There

Most people think of visiting the Colosseum or the Vatican when they are in Rome.  They are definitely worth visiting, however, one of the best places to visit is Piazza Navona.  I visited this marvel of Urban Design while backpacking through Italy, Egypt and Greece as a college student.  My walking tour of Rome began with Piazza del Popolo, followed by the Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, Via Condotti, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and finally Piazza Navona.

The Making of Great Urban Design

Piazza Navona was built during the Roman period as a wooden sports stadium. Throughout its history, it remained an important public space by adapting to changing needs of people over time. It transformed itself from the Roman sports stadium to a place for festivals and horse races in the middle ages to a Baroque Piazza characterized by magnificent palaces, the Church of Sant’Agnese and the Fontana dei Fiumi. 

The Space, time, architecture, and urban design

Nolli’s map of Rome is known for articulating urban spaces made up of pedestrian streets, squares and piazzas surrounded by private spaces. Piazza Navona serves as a relief valve on this map, in the middle of densely packed private spaces.  The Piazza still has the outline of the Roman stadium, and its urban experience is enhanced by great restaurants, street artists, painters and musicians who add sound, color and light.

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 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 something that is historical, urban and memorable.    

Image credit: Photo by No machine-readable author provided. Pippo-b assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 

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