Leonardo da Vinci survived a series of bubonic plagues that struck Milan between 1484 and 1485. These outbreaks, which killed some 50,000 people—a full third of the city’s population, inspired the Renaissance polymath to design concepts for a future city that he illuminated through a series of drawings and notations completed between 1487 and 1490 (that today can be found in Paris Manuscript B).
At the heart of these concepts is da Vinci’s perspective on shifting the cityscapes of medieval cities like Milan—which were narrow, hard to navigate, dirty, crowded, and entirely conducive to the spread of disease—toward a more modern layout emphasizing aesthetics, cleanliness, and efficiency. To achieve this, da Vinci envisioned two signature features of a future city: a network of canals that would support both commerce and sanitation, and the vertical division of the city itself into as many as three different tiers, each for a different purpose. This vision was radical, and essentially would’ve required either the founding of brand-new cities perfectly located at sites featuring large rivers, or for existing cities to be entirely rebuilt. So, it’s not surprising his ideas went unrealized. However, re-examined today, da Vinci’s thinking is prescient when applied to the challenges facing modern cities. That’s because today’s cities are at a similar pivot point between old and new, between the shape of cities we have now and the shape of cities we’ll need by 2030 when they triple in size and 5 billion people call them home. Da Vinci’s ideas have new currency.