Urban historian William Carroll Westfall has asserted in his web-based study “Learning from Pompeii” that those who would restore the torn tissues of American cities can learn a great deal by studying the formal histories of successful urban centers of the past. In Richmond this begins with a renewed understanding of the different standards observed by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Virginians observed when they laid out their principal provincial towns and proceeded to enlarge and rebuild them over time. Most importantly, the designers of our cities placed greater emphasis on the public realm than we do today. According to Westfall, like the Romans who rebuilt the much earlier Samnite town at Pompeii after an earthquake, our task in repairing our devastated cities should honor the “urban ensemble rather than the individual building. . . . mutilated by neglect or, in the case of the last half century or more of building activity, marred by a disregard for the common good.”
In contrast to modern American practice, traditional cities placed “greater value on public places than on private ones while we do the reverse.” Traditional cities were
compact and cut off from the countryside rather than loose and sprawling as our cities are. . . . built with a range of architectural and urban elements clearly belonging to the same general range of components while our cities are much more diverse--cheek and jowl is a miscellany of buildings in different architectural styles, a jumble of industrial and transportation equipment and their related yards and dumps, fields of abandoned buildings, wastelands, and miscellaneous pieces of equipment in varying states of deterioration, all diffused across open rural landscapes or depopulated urban areas. And while the expanding sprawl of our cities forces us to drive more and more to get most of what we want, most of what a person in Pompeii [and Richmond] needed to live a full and abundant civil life was accessible with the most democratic means of transport, going on foot.
In his attempt to understand a traditional city with a layered history, Westfall asks two questions: “First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did? And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?” If we can ask these questions of Richmond, we may discover some guidelines that may help us to recover the good life here and now. The myriad actions that result in the complexity of even such a small city as Richmond make it seem almost as difficult to untangle as Pompeii, but the effort can give us some clues about how to think through our own decisions and make needed responses to the great tradition unfolding all around us.