Welcome to the Let’s Explore series. In this feature, we explore a notable place and I’ll share my own experiences of that area. We’ll see how urban design and other elements influences a place’s quality.

  • Corfu old town, Greece above

Entering Corfu’s old quarter is like entering a dream. Tiny alleys, pedestrian boulevards, arcades, inviting squares, Georgian houses and Greek churches, outdoor restaurants and cafes lining the streets. And of course: Everything is pedestrianized.

Corfu’s old quarter is what a place designed for people looks like. There’s an exhilarating sense of freedom and an irresistible urge to explore. It’s the perfect setting to experience world class urban design and there are plenty of lessons to export to where the rest of us live.

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The island of Corfu is a short boat ride from Greece’s west coast.

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Corfu, the town, is sheltered on the island’s east coast.

Our route

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For this Let’s Explore we’ll walk across the old quarter of Corfu, starting approximately at the red dot and end roughly at the blue dot. You’ll find it easy to spot the old quarter: It’s the chaotic mess of small streets at the top of the above map. However, as we’ll discover, let’s not assume this “mess” is a negative feature.

This will be a special Let’s Explore since our walk across the old quarter has been captured on video (thank you to Jonathan and Sarah for the gift of the camera I used in the below video). As you play the video, follow the commentary by reading the text on the right, matching the time on the video with the time in the text. You may want to slow the video down to 0.5 speed (click on the cog icon in the video player) to make it easier to keep up.

Remember, these observations about Corfu’s urban design are just a starting point for your own thoughts. What else do you notice?

Commentary

Note: See here to view the same route but facing left to view the edges of the buildings.

00:00 – We start a 5 minute walk from the old quarter where the streets are modern in design: Long, straight, and focused on vehicular movement. Not terribly inspiring. Starting here allows us to contrast this kind of street with the type we’ll encourage in the old quarter.

00:07 – To save time, we’ll zip through these streets to get to the old quarter. Even at this speed you’ll get a feel for this kind of street, which is the norm for most of us.

00:17 – We reach the old quarter. The buildings form an opening, wide at the start and becoming narrower, which draws the pedestrian in.

00:25 – We see our first arcade along the building on the left. However, it’s a poor example of an arcade: its ceiling is high, the columns are square in plan, and there are no arches. In short, this arcade feels harsh compared with the softness of arcades we’ll see shortly.

Also, there are few destinations inside the arcade, thus drawing relatively little foot traffic.

00:38 – The shop on the right is stocking its wares outside the shop’s walls; thus there’s no barrier between the goods and potential customers. This arrangement makes the walking experience more engaging.

00:45 – We have a choice of two paths, which are much narrower than where we are currently. There is a sense of a pleasantly gradual introduction to the narrower streets.

It looks like the middle building could have been added later, narrowing what used to be a wider street. If so, this is a great example of how wider streets can be narrowed, making the newer narrow streets more pleasant and creating more space for housing or retail.

00:55 – The main walkway is about 8-10 feet wide. At this width, the street feels intimate and it takes a small number of people to create a sense of vibrancy.

01:05 – Here’s our first square, modestly sized. Notice the pleasant contrast of openness compared to the previous narrow street. Both openness and intimacy need their opposite close by so that the qualities of either are made explicit and enjoyable by virtue of contrast with the other.

The small monument just off the center provides a focus to the square and somewhere to lean or sit. But it’s not in the exact middle, which would disrupt the flow of the main pathway.

01:15 – There’s a rare cyclist who, by virtue of the constrained dimensions, is compelled to ride slowly. No need for signs; the environment is the sign.

01:20 – Because the street layout is irregular, we have 5 options for proceeding from the square, generally more options than what we get from a regular grid layout. This abundance of choice is interesting and pleasant for the pedestrian.

What need do children have in Corfu for a playground when the entire environment feels safe and adventurous?

01:30 – We take another narrow street.

01:40 – The shop windows on the right come down to the ground, providing maximum visibility for the goods within and appeal.

01:45 – The hat stands are positioned a few feet away from the buildings. Without vehicular traffic where only slow moving people are present there is much greater flexibility for where goods for sale can be placed.

01:50 – Notice how “permeable” the building edges are: Doors, large glass windows, glass-less windows, goods on sale outside buildings. There are plenty of ways to look through and enter the buildings, providing many options for people to look and act, and making the environment more engaging.

02:05 – There are several parked scooters. But even while moving, they can’t overwhelm the streets because of limited street width. The scooters can operate but they are “guests” here.

02:20 – The blank wall on the right is a rare example in Corfu of a non-permeable building edge; few doors, no windows. Notice how less interesting and perhaps even a little sad this area is.

02:45 – Cafe/restaurant seating encourages lingering, increasing the total people time spent outdoors and maintaining vibrancy. Cities with lots of outdoor seating tend to feel inviting.

02:50 – There are numerous items “in the way”, such as this small table – just sitting there! But when everything in this environment operates so slowly, a much richer variety of options and behaviors are possible.

03:00 – On a wider street (but still not too wide) there’s more of a boulevard feel where people can see and be seen. The street’s width changes its function. This is a pleasant contrast to the narrow alleys we were just in.

03:22 – We face left to examine the arcade. This is a better type of arcade than the one at the start of our walk, featuring more rounded arches and pillars and smaller and more numerous shops, thus drawing more people into the arcade and buildings.

Arcades are quasi-public areas which create a stronger connection between private buildings and public streets. They also create protection from the elements, important on hot days like today.

03:27 – A man sits on the raised walkway, another woman leans against a pillar. This area provides abundant “secondary seating” – seating which isn’t a chair/bench but which can be used for sitting when necessary.

03:35 – A man ambles lazily across the street. This slow kind of behavior is less common in towns with conventional vehicle-oriented streets which encourage pedestrians to keep moving.

03:50 – Merchandise spills out onto the street, creating a “pathway of interest” leading into store interiors. Corfu’s design is an excellent environment for retail. Merchants elsewhere, take note.

04:10 – The building on the right juts out,  narrowing the street. This narrower section requires fewer people to liven up what is probably a usually less popular part of town.

The addition of the jutting building is another possible example of gradual change over time, rather than monolithic and inflexible master plans, to steadily improve the area.

04:20 – Overhanging plants on the right enhance the narrow street intimacy but creating an overhead canopy and a feeling of roughness.

Notice how rarely we’ve seen trees and plants so far. When an environment is designed poorly (particularly when streets are too wide), trees and plants are often used as a band aid. When urban design is good, and features appropriate street width, the area can be beautiful even without trees and plants.

04:30 – A woman points at a shop. When building edges are permeable and the street is pedestrianized, the browsing area of shop extends further into the street, blurring the distinction between inside and outside, enhancing the walking experience for pedestrians, and improving business.

04:35 – The street edge on the left has been somewhat deadened by raising the shop entrances and display areas and severing them from the street. Small efforts have been made to improve this edge by adding tables and chairs.

04:55 – Again, a deadened building edge on the right – one door, no low windows, little facade articulation. There’s thus fewer reasons to hang around here.

05:05 – Another small square, providing a break from the long and straight street. Such squares break up a walking journey into smaller parts, keeping the experience fresh. The area is modestly sized so that we can easily see what’s going on in any part of the square.

Summary

Here are some of the key urban design elements that we saw contribute to the quality of Corfu’s environment:

corfu-old-town Pedestrian-oriented: Only pedestrian-centric areas, where vehicles are a comparatively rare guest, provide the highest-quality environment for human society to flourish.
corfu old town 4 Many narrow streets: These create an intimate and inviting feeling, make it easier to enhance vibrancy by requiring fewer people to fill the space, and provide a retreat from the hustle-bustle of wider streets.
Corfu old town Wider streets: These create a boulevard-esque strolling environment, accommodating more people, offering a “see and be seen” environment which generally makes people feel happy and safe, and allowing access for delivery vehicles. Such streets must be limited in number, relative to narrow streets; and not too wide (no wider than a street:building radio of 2:1).
IMG_1342 Small squares: Squares allow a pause and a rest, whereas streets tend to encourage movement. This creates variety and breaks up a journey into smaller segments. Such squares should be modestly size, preferably no wider than 65 feet.
IMG_1348 Arcades: Arcades narrow the central area of the street while still maintaining overall street capacity, strengthen the link between building and street, and provide protection from the elements.
IMG_1352 Permeable building edges: Doors, open and glass windows, goods placed outdoors and/or “spilling out” from shops; these make it easier to look through or enter the building, increasing the number of options and creating visual interest.
IMG_1343 Regular alternation between narrow and wide streets and squares: This constant variety keeps the journey interesting.
corfu_d An irregular layout of buildings and streets: Although harder to navigate this irregularity also increases uniqueness and character. It also increases the number of pathway options available to the pedestrian, enhancing the sense of freedom.
IMG_1354 An emphasis on streets enclosed by buildings: This keeps the public realm well-defined and intimate. Modern cities tend to plan streets first with buildings contained on square lots, which sacrifices intimacy and spatial uniqueness.

Thanks for exploring Corfu with us!

From left to right: Me, Amy, and our Corfu hosts Rezarta and Alex.

From left to right: Me, Amy, and our Corfu hosts Rezarta and Alex.