Thoughts on Walls

Some thoughts originally posted in 2014 that you may have missed.

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One of the major differences I have found between the North American and European communities I have visited is the matter of walls. In North America we really don’t have any.

That’s due, I assume, to the newness of urban life on this continent. By the time the settlers began building cities walls had in many ways outgrown their usefulness. Quebec City has walls, but it was founded in 1608 (and Quebec’s walls are the only remaining fortified walls in Canada or the United States. Montreal (1642) used to have walls but quickly outgrew them and the remnants are a tourist attraction. Unlike in Europe, our spaces are big and our walls are few.

In my travels I have discovered that there is an appeal to the old city walls. Many, perhaps most, older European communities had walls at one point to protect the inhabitants from their adversaries. The cities have outgrown them, but the walls remain, in full or in part, as important pieces of their heritage.

There’s a lot of history in those remaining walls, and some of them are in good enough condition that tourists can stroll along them. In York, for example, sections of the gates were taken down due to 19th century traffic jams, or so I was told, but most of the walls are still there and you can get a very nice view of Yorkminster Cathedral on your walk, which can take you almost completely around the historic core of the town.

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Yorkminster Cathedral as seen from the walls of York.

I have also walked the walls of Ypres on both occasions that I have visited the town. It’s a pleasant stroll along the old fortifications that include a First World War cemetery by one of the city gates. York`s walk is fairly narrow, while Ypres’ is pretty much parkland on the city side.

On my first visit to what was then West Germany, in 1986, I remember visiting the town of Soest, but I don’t remember walking along that town’s walls at that time. This year though we stopped in Soest and spent a very pleasant hour walking in the shade at the top of the broad ramparts. On a hot summer’s day it was cool in the shade of the trees, which I am certain were not part of the wall when it was used for fortification.

On a previous visit to Europe we went to Rothenburg, one of Vivian’s favourite towns and supposedly one of only two cities in Europe with its medieval walls still completely intact. Like the walls of York this is solely a defensive installation, much narrower than the broad stroll offered in Soest or Ypres. In Rothenburg and York they still lock the stairways leading to the top of the walls at night, though I assume someone walks all around each town to make sure no tourist has become stranded.

Does the fact that we no longer build walls around our cities mean that we feel more secure? Or is it that we are acknowledging that walls are no longer effective at protecting us from people who want to harm us? Whichever it is, I think that perhaps our urban planners are missing out on a great opportunity in not designing walls for walking around the perimeters of our more modern living areas. I’m sure there would be cost issues, and Canadian cities generally have lots of green space and perhaps don’t need the additional parkland, but I still think it would be kind of nice. And what do we build now to protect ourselves from the dangerous unknown?

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