Walled In or Walled Out – A Community Planning Lesson from Venice

Many write about and speak to the glorious open views across the Venetian Lagoon, the extraordinary scenes down every canal and rio, the sunny expanses of campos surrounded by cafes and glorious architecture —The City of Light, The City of the Lagoon, The City of Canals, The City of Art, and more. 

Venice is as much a City of Walls, walls that make the other views and attributions more focused, more outstanding. 

Walls of Beauty (Miracoli)  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Walls of Beauty (Miracoli) (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Narrow rii and canals lined by multi-story buildings, tiny courtyards surrounded by mid-rise housing and massive churches, palaces crowded against one another, calle so narrowly hemmed in by buildings that an open umbrella is an impossibility — these all speak to another aspect of what defines Venice…

Venice, The City of Walls

I want to address a key urban form element of the City, not only building walls, but the vast reaches of massive, impenetrable brick walls.  Often with few doors or gates at ground level, sometimes with no windows above, these walls create “no go” zones of privacy and invisibility for whatever lies behind them – or protect the people and activity within from prying eyes and nefarious intent.  Whatever purpose the walls may have, they erase, subtract out large swaths of the City. 

Your presence is restricted, or prohibited!  You must go around!

Controlled Environments


Walls of Remembrance (San Michele)  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Walls of Remembrance (San Michele) (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Monasteries and Monache (Convents)were well represented in Venice since its formative days.  These religious communities, that also included Priories, Orders, and some specialized centers, are found throughout the Lagoon. 

Individual Venetian churches often included in their facilities a “rectory” for priests and a “convent” for nuns assigned to that particular parish. 


Some parish churches are part of an adjacent large monastery or monache in a physical and societal symbiotic relationship.

Walls of Contemplation (San Polo)  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Walls of Contemplation (San Polo) (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

As visitors and residents move about Venice, the Monastery or Monache is often invisible except for its church (often open for public services) and a generic wall.  At one time, there may have been as many as sixty larger-scale Monasteries and Monaches within the six sestiere (including the Giudecca) alone! 

An understanding of reason for being, physical reality and community impacts of these typically self-contained communities can inform our comprehension of the cultural, societal and physical impacts they had, so different in most cultures today, and their continued influence on Venice.  Still, entry is usually restricted, and you must go around. 

Community life must flow around them.

More Than Buildings

Contrary to the impression given within some otherwise outstanding guides, monasteries and monache are not comprised of only cloisters plus a chapel or church.  Many were virtually self-sufficient, with vegetable gardens, fruit tree groves, vineyards, and contemplative gardens beyond the cloisters – and behind the walls. 

Many were critical community services centers in an age where government did not provide now-deemed essential public services, with the beneficial and secular “not-for-profits” operating hospitals and schools (including recreational grounds) for delivering mercy and education to the residents of the City, running artisanal training and self-supporting workshops or cottage industries, maintenance facilities, even boathouses for supporting fishing and transportation – all behind the walls.

Many Monasteries and Monaches have an immense footprint on the map in addition to the physical bulk of their structures, and – you guessed it – the majority of their grounds surrounded by high walls where the boundary is not otherwise defined by neighboring buildings.  The walls exist along canals and rii as well as calle.  Still, entry is restricted, and you must go around. 

Community life must flow around them.

Physical and Psychological Walls 

Generic wall indicates that the wall could just as well conceal a private garden, an institutional courtyard, or any other effective boundary of the “public realm”.  Walls focus passerby and neighbor interest away from what is contained behind them.  Walls create “nothing to see here, move along” screens around large voids in the fabric of the city

On the other hand, walls announce protection, safety and succor within for those who know how to gain access, whether voluntary or coerced.  Of course, one might consider the massive, walled Arsenale as the largest, although secular, “set aside” place in the City!   Still, entry is restricted, and you must go around. 

Community life must flow around them.

A Perplexing Paradigm for Contemporary Planners

Walls of Intolerance (Ghetto)  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Walls of Intolerance (Ghetto) (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Contemporary city planners advocating a forced return to dense urban living, often condemning the inhumanity of suburban homes with backyard privacy fences, would be at the least perplexed by this major aspect of Venetian life.  Yet, the walls between celebrated brownstones, townhouses and condominium towers – and their walls along public streets – have much the same effect.


Venice has both dense urban residential structures with no private outdoor space and walled-off gardens behind dense urban structures (even palazzi!) in the same neighborhoods, a not-so-felicitous inconsistency for modern planning concepts that negatively contrast dense city cores versus suburban “sprawl”. 

We are informed by many of the “densification” experts that there must be a versus – “both/and” simply cannot be allowed!  Many appear unable to accept the truths and tensions of paradox and dichotomy.  Complexity cannot be countenanced, it must be corrected, they demand!  Does that controlling ambition represent a lack of comprehension and vision, or a self-centered vision of communities forcibly mutated into their image? 

Ah, the challenges to absolutism when exposed to propositional concepts!


Physical Impacts on Community Form and Function

The impacts of “walls” upon the Venetian community then and now are not an insignificant, or non-quantifiable statement to be considered when viewing the contemporary manifestations of cities and suburbs today. 

Public interaction with walled-off environments in occurred via the connected church (that in many cases since Napoleonic suppression now also serves as a “parish church”), or clearly demarcated entries for administration, employees and residents, services offered to the community, or “delivery” entrances.  For larger entities, the location of those entrances relative to Fondamente, Campo or Calle had great impacts upon surrounding land uses and activities.  The churches of most Monasteries and Monache front on their own Campo, even with a Parish church nearby (with its own campo).

Then You Saw It, Now You Don’t

Walls of Conflict (Arsenale)  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Walls of Conflict (Arsenale) (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Secularization and conversion of monasteries and monache to other than religious and religious order supported services has been wide-spread in Venice, along with many demolitions. 

A few examples of adaptive reuse may open to consideration how those changes have affected the urban form and public activity within the City:    


Santa Chiara – The ancient cloister remains, now serving as a major part of the Commune Police Headquarters, adjacent to Piazzale Roma.

San Giorgio Maggiore – The Cini Foundation and its activities occupy most of the cloisters, and the Teatro Verde  hosts concerts and events in the “gardens”.

Santa Maria della Vergines – The monache was suppressed, its assets then acquired by the Republic, which then demolished it for expansion of the Arsenale.

Ss. Giovanni e Paolo –  The “not-for-profit” Scuolo and the Dominican Monastery were suppressed during the Napoleonic era, with the then-existing hospital and other facilities converted into the main City hospital.

Other locations have “secular” components within continuing or former religious orders’ facilities, using portions for conference centers, tourist housing, galleries, cultural not-for-profit groups, and the like.  The walls remain, access is still restricted, you must go around.

Community life must flow around them.

Is Your Community’s Life “Walled In or Walled Out”?

An emphasis on the voids created in the City, the restrictions imposed by the walls is a pejorative attack on the owners and beneficiaries of these places.  The emphasis is encouragement to keep the walls in mind as you travel around Venice.  Study a detailed map to see how immense an area – and how many areas – are effectively subtracted from the physical fabric and life of the City by the mass of what they enclose.  They simply do not exist in the public life of the City, but the City lives around and without them.  In many cases, expansion of favored institutions blocked growth and caused dislocations in adjacent pre-existing, “free enterprise” community – as with il Carmine and l’Arsenale.  In others, “underdeveloped” lands were assigned to a private developer “from out-of-town”, imposing a massive new presence into the middle of the place – as with the Frari and Zanipaolo.

Consider your own city, town or suburb in the same regard.  The walls may now be transparent – chain-link fenced playgrounds and schools; well-landscaped foregrounds screening major institutions; tilt-up concrete “office and industrial parks”; seas of parking lots surrounding “modern town centers” – shopping malls, cultural centers and colleges. 

In denser urban areas, multi-level parking structures abound, effectively walling out the communities from the commerce, services, arts, health services, education and government that the “facilities” beyond were intended to provide to them.  New, grand access boulevards, effective as walls or new canals with few bridges, cut off the flow of life.

You may conclude that Venice works very well with its peculiar tension of “walled in” and “walled out” but remember that centuries were required to work it all out!  Do your community’s “walls” restrict access, subtract substance, force community life to “go around” and thereby destroy pre-existing healthy patterns and relationships? 

Perhaps you and your neighbors – and even your leaders need to recognize and take corrective action (Action IS the New Competence!) when you discover that the changes such development demands do not enhance community and lives, when…

Community life must flow around them.


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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