hill towns as icons of placemaking


Human settlement is often driven by topography, viewpoints and strategic advantage.

Independent towns and urban neighborhoods alike share an historic affinity for hills. Terrain-intensive cities like San Francisco and Seattle are no exception, and city planning considerations converge around “urban villages” such as Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Capitol Hill and Queen Anne Hill.

Places in their own right, these hilltop centers can serve as the partially self-contained models for the compact and dense urban neighborhoods which are increasingly the vanguard of new century urbanism.

But what about the the hill town of old? Is it an an artifact of the bygone invaders and armies beyond the walls? Touring the dramatic perche´s (“perched”, or hill towns) in the South of France, it is hard to simply dismiss them as an anachronism–especially in light of today’s stated urban ideals.

After all, several common hill town characteristics are consistent with new urbanist principles.

These features include: a blending with with natural topography; a pedestrian identity, with limited vehicular access; an emphasis on aesthetic principles (views to and from); communal groupings of institutions around public open space; careful blending of public pathways and private dwellings; efficient living spaces and allowance for density; as well as innovative bases for water collection and storage and management of sewage and stormwater discharge.

Of course, we can only carry such inspiration so far. Do we see light rail stops at the towns’ base?  Energy efficiency and LEED certified construction?  These elements are clearly outside the context of the historic examples pictured here.

Nonetheless, we need to take regular walks among human precedent, where under duress, people showed innovation and dynamic placemaking in order to survive.


This article also appeared in Planetizen on September 27 and was adapted for Crosscut, where it appeared on October 14.

47 thoughts on “hill towns as icons of placemaking

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  4. Hi there. Came across this post via @gosner on twitter. Gorgeous photos. I love the laundry in the foreground of the one shot. Really drives home that it is an organic, authentic place. Have you heard of Charles Brewer’s Las Catalinas in Costa Rica? It’s a New Urbanist hilltown inspired by towns like those you refer to here. Should be interesting to see how such a ‘new’ hilltown turns out. Thanks for the good read!

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  9. chris gleck

    The jurisdiction I work in prohibits or restricts development on steep slopes. What are the environmental effects of such development?

  10. That is a good question. In some circumstances, it would not be possible to recreate historic conditions given current critical area concerns. It would be interesting to discuss matters more in in context.

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  28. Awesome – and ever so true. Density of humans is where one really feels cosy and relaxed. These villages work as “cultural islands” where new thinking can easily emerge – let’s have a walk together.

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  31. Interesting article. I’m unclear of the extrapolation here though. You state that hill towns are as they are because of the underlying natural physical structure. Then you state that they can serve as models for city planning. Surely then, they are only models for other hill towns? What of human settlements within other contexts? Does not your position argue against New Urbanist type developments in mid-western plain states for instance?

    The relationship between underlying geologic, hydrologic, and topographic conditions is an interesting one and one that should be explored in greater detail. And it may be that such an exploration can result in a number of different models for urban development.

    Take a look at this blog for some historic examples: http://geopathology.posterous.com/

  32. Your point about extrapolation is interesting, but really you can take my words at face value. When faced with multiple challenges of defense and constrained geography, humans showed the capability to incorporate the fundamental elements of neighborhood to which we are now attempting to return. Thanks for your comment and links.

  33. Thanks for the reply, Chuck. Perhaps I misunderstood your point.

    “When faced with multiple challenges of defense and constrained geography, humans showed the capability to incorporate the fundamental elements of neighborhood”

    Does that mean that the idea is that hill towns are as they are _in spite_ of their context?

  34. Doug

    Fair enough. I guess I would argue that, given the statement below, these walks should not ignore human precedent that is not “consistent with new urbanist principles”.

    “Nonetheless, we need to take regular walks among human precedent, where under duress, people showed innovation and dynamic placemaking in order to survive.”

    By the way, another great example of a “hill town’ (actually five) is Cinque Terre in Italy. A really beautiful and special place.

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