Camillo Sitte thoughtfully explained the interior qualities of his favorite public spaces. Though generally open to the sky, they were surrounded by varied building types and furnished with stairways, arches, and sculptures. They were intimate and often irregular, with engaging views on all sides. He lamented the abandonment of plazas as daily life moved increasingly indoors.
Today life moves increasingly online, but the places we inhabit -- whether physical or virtual -- are no less important. Even looking out the window affects our state of mind. This is hard to measure, but it's fairly clear when we feel comfortable, depressed, inspired, fearful, or healthy in response to our surroundings.
Sitte envisioned outdoor space that didn't feel desolate. When we think of The Great Outdoors, we usually mean forests, mountains, rivers -- not cities. But in many ways forests have more in common with cities than with prairies or deserts. They are full of proximate activity, and contain many unique places. I wonder how cities might eventually be considered part of The Great Outdoors.
It would be a stretch to think of online places in Sitte's terms, unless we include video games. Many games offer convincing and imaginative environments. They might help us understand the way people interact with physical spaces before building them. Although it doesn't seem possible to get a feel for a place before it is built, studying people's use of virtual settings can inform key decisions. This sounds expensive, but could save money in the long run.
Whether physical, virtual, or somewhere in between, environments affect the quality of our lives. Considering the factors that contribute to positive experiences, as Sitte did, is of great value. His observations have inspired generations of architects, planners, and concerned citizens to create and preserve beloved places.
(Photo of the Piazza dei Signori Vicenza from Flickr user Albert dj; Drawing scanned from p. 378 of Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning, by George R. Collins and Christiane C. Collins)