Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

Streets rank amongst the most persistent structures of cities. They can be regarded as their arteries containing and sustaining urban life. Their patterns play an essential role in defining a city’s ‘footprint’, making history visible in the urban fabric. The session discusses the streets’ resilience as remnant of older structures, provider of infrastructure or stage for urban life.

Thanks to their communicating function, streets are one of the most important urban elements. Even more than the built fabric, the course, axes, and grids defined by them above ground on the one hand remain persistent out of habit or, more materialistic, because of the infrastructures installed underground. One can think of high streets that derived from ancient trade roads or markets, rural pathways that had been perpetuated in the course of 19th century city extensions, or – as the probably most prominent example – the old Indian footpath that was to become Manhattan’s Broadway. On the other hand, street patterns define the ‘footprint’ or image of a city. Again, New York comes to mind with its typical grid, as well as the grand axes cut into the old fabric of Paris under Napoléon III or the enclosing gesture of the Ringstraße in Vienna.

In many ways, streets can be read as arteries of the city. They provide it with light, air, and energy, and they allow its users to move from one quarter to the other, to travel, to commemorate historic events in public spaces or to gather spontaneously for celebration, protest or revolt. It is this mixture of habit, historic value and material conditions that explains why streets in most cases persist even when the built structures that flank them are destroyed by catastrophe or military event – after the rubble is cleared, the street pattern with its underground installations provides something like a plumb-line for the city’s reconstruction. Only few examples (e. g. Lisbon, Glarus) can be found in the history of cities in which these formative elements were neglected.

The proposed session aims at discussing the aspect of the streets’ resilience, be it as remnants of older structures, as providers of material supply and energy or as stages for urban life. Against the background of current problems closely linked to the question of sustainability, namely suburbanization on the one hand, and urban densification on the other, the organizers want to stimulate a discussion about the meaning of city streets for urban development in the past 150 years.

  • Spokesperson: Rainer Schützeichel, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich
  • Co-organizer(s): Harald Stühlinger, Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz
  • Keywords: City streets | Persistence/resilience | Infrastructure
  • Time period: Modern period
  • Topic(s): Architecture and urbanism | Social
  • Study area: Europe