Old Patterns Solve New Problems

By Anne Tate

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Observations on Urban Form: A Series on Architecture, Planning, and Urban Design

We are pleased to present a new Terrain.org series exploring architecture, planning, and urban design by Anne Tate, professor of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Anne’s research focuses on the challenges of large-scale urban design, and in this series she will explore place with a critical eye though prose and photography.

The University of Cambridge is now more than 800 years old. The village that hosts it is older still. In the 21st century it remains a walking city—designed and built before cars or even carriages were common. The scale of public space reflects the scale of the human body—with occasional exceptions for the size of a horse, cow or now, MINI Cooper. By the time the car was a major factor, the critical sections of the old city were fixed and guarded by the reverence of one of the world’s most illustrious universities, an institution that had the confidence and power to preserve its physical character.

Street in Cambridge. Photo by Anne Tate.
Photo by Anne Tate.

The narrow cobbled streets lined with stone and brick buildings present a unified public realm of hard surfaces, interrupted by the occasional dazzling view through a building archway into startlingly broad and brilliant green gardens. From above, the streets of this and many English villages appear to be three-dimensional snakes comprised of two parallel lines of building defining the route between. The continuous experience of being in the built roadway belies the expanse of green gardens and fields beyond.

Cambridge archway with view into green
Photo by Anne Tate.

But what struck me on this visit was less the extraordinary walking and biking environments than the green belt of gardens, fields, fens, and waterways that surround and infiltrate the old city. Cambridge seems to be built originally on a dry island in the midst of the fens.

Cambridge waterway
Photo by Anne Tate

In the era of the Anthropocene, the need to create spongy spaces throughout cities has become increasingly urgent. This city balances a dense built character with extensive connected green expanses, some carefully cultivated, others wilder and more swampy, and provides a model not only for pedestrian design but also for flood control in an era of erratic and intense climate-driven weather events.



Anne Tate is a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular focus on large-scale sustainable urban design challenges. She has been a policy advisor to governments at the state, region, and city scales. At RISD, she teaches studios and an interdisciplinary course “Beyond Green Urbanism” with sociologist Damian White.

Aerial photo of Cambridge courtesy Anne Tate.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.