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Discovering Italy's Human Scale Places

By Stu Sirota

I recently went to Italy on my honeymoon and stayed in two cities renowned for their extraordinary urbanism: Florence and Venice. While these cities are quite different from each other, they share a characteristic common to all great urban places: They are both "human scale." A basic characteristic of human-scale places is that things like homes, offices, stores, schools, hotels, parks, churches, museums, etc., are built in close proximity to each other and are all intermingled. This is in stark contrast to most places in the United States, where we've largely separated things from each other to a degree where they have become accessible only by car. In human-scale places, however, blocks are small with interconnected streets, and buildings are built to the sidewalk edge and around public plazas -- or "piazzas" as they are called in Italian. This creates the feeling of an "outdoor room," a term coined by James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere."

In Florence, we found these outdoor rooms everywhere. Streets and piazzas buzzed with activity and life during all hours of the day in a continuous symphony of delightful sights, sounds and smells. Despite the vibrancy of this dense urban environment, the streets around our hotel in the heart of the old city would become very quiet each evening, much to our surprise. It became apparent to me that, because they live so close together, people here have a heightened sense of civility and neighborliness. I began to feel very envious of the Florentines and wondered if they knew how fortunate they were to be living in such a marvelous place.

It was nearly impossible not to notice what made the buildings and streetscapes in Florence so entirely human-scale. Most buildings were not more than six stories tall and had facades that were of simple, yet elegant proportion and symmetry. Instead of trying to compete with or outdo each other, buildings complimented each other and served as the "containers" for the outdoor rooms. The logical exceptions to this, were the magnificent churches and palaces which, because of their status, were designed to stand out as much as possible so anyone could instantly recognize important buildings and orient themselves easily.

Human-scale architectural features were all around us in Florence: the abundance of windows and doorways that opened directly onto the street; unobtrusive signage on the faces of the buildings; decorative street lamps; the use of natural materials like stone, stucco and terra cotta; and so on. While the buildings and streets have existed there for many centuries, Florence has become a thoroughly modern city while retaining its human-scale charm. The interiors of stores and restaurants we visited had every modern convenience and amenity. We used "banco-mats" (the Italian term for ATM machines) built into the exterior stone walls of buildings that had to have been at least 500 years old. We saw fiber-optic cable being installed under the streets and even saw old sidewalks being replaced with prefabricated materials that had the look and texture of stone.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Florence's human-scale environment was that most of its public realm is devoted to people, not automobiles. I was amazed and delighted by the scarcity of parking lots, wide arterial roadways and off-ramps that typically consume vast amounts of space. While the Italians do love their cars, they have not allowed them to dominate and destroy the character of their human-scale places as we have done so thoroughly in the United States.

In Florence, most of the narrow streets were shared equally by pedestrians, motor scooters, bicyclists, buses and cars. Scooters seemed to be the most popular form of personal motorized transportation, and almost all the cars there are compacts, rather than the bloated SUVs, minivans and pick-up trucks that have become ubiquitous in our country.

After several days, we decided to take some day trips into the surrounding Tuscany region. We first went by train to visit Pisa to see its famous leaning tower, and the following day we went to the walled hill town of Siena by motor coach. Siena's intimate scale, quiet, narrow streets, medieval architecture, and captivating main square (the Campo) coupled with its setting in the breathtaking Tuscany landscape and made it one of the most remarkable towns I've ever seen.

What made our side trips outside Florence even more pleasurable was the availability of convenient, attractive, comfortable transit service that took us nearly door to door with little effort or expense. Unlike here in the United States, public transit in Italy, as well as the rest of Europe, is the preferred means of travel. While we Americans think of driving as a symbol of freedom, I found getting around without needing to deal with traffic to be the truly liberating experience! My envy continued to grow.

After almost a week, we checked out of our hotel and strolled over to the Stazzione (train station) to begin the second leg of our trip to Venice. Our first-class tickets on the Eurostar were a bargain at just 45,000 Lire ($22 dollars!) each for the 160-mile trip. We sat in a semi-private compartment with two other couples. The seats faced each other -- typical on European trains -- making it conducive to carry on pleasant conversations with our traveling companions. We were afforded great views of the Italian countryside and the many towns and villages we passed through during the trip. I noticed that the stations we passed through were always in the heart of town, and that activity in these towns emanated outward from the stations, something seldom seen in the United States.

As we left the station in Venice, we stepped out into a small piazza to transfer to a Vaporetto, or waterbus, that would take us to within a short walk of our hotel. Venice is entirely car-free, and for my wife and I, ardent proponents of the new urbanism, this was our "piece de resistance." The narrow cobblestone streets belong entirely to pedestrians and push carts, while boats of all shapes and sizes, which ply Venice's extensive system of canals, are used for public transit and for delivery of goods and public services.

We found our hotel, then we used a map to easily navigate through the maze of streets until we suddenly came upon the enormous Piazza San Marco, Venice's preeminent "outdoor room." People go there to gaze at the magnificent architecture, hear musicians play, watch artists paint, enjoy the outdoor cafes, or simply do some people watching. The complete absence of automobile traffic and noise gives Venice a singular quality of tranquility and peacefulness that can't be experienced elsewhere. On the streets, people are able to speak to each other without raising their voices because they do not have to compete with the din of traffic.

On the long flight back across the Atlantic, I dreamt of coming home to the same kind of human-scale places I had experienced while in Italy. When I awoke, I realized that my dream had been just that, but also that there is no valid reason why human-scale places couldn't make a tremendous comeback in the United States. Perhaps if more Americans visited places like those I've described and demanded that places here be patterned at human scale, it might happen sooner than anyone imagined.