Around four years ago our family had the privilege of visiting a few cities in Italy including Venice, Florence, and Rome. We thoroughly enjoyed the entire trip but Venice stuck out to us as particularly special. Of course we loved the romance of the canals and gondoliers along with the compelling architecture but I think it’s more than that. Over the years since, I’ve struggled to put the magic of walking around that city into words. I have decided that more than anything else, it’s the fact that the city has never seen an invasion of the automobile. Yes there is some motorized traffic on the canals but it’s actually quite rare apart from the grand canal and it somehow doesn’t feel as threatening or dangerous as walking a sidewalk next to car/bus/truck traffic. The entire city is designed from the human perspective. Even the bridges are almost all stairs with nary a ramp in sight. This, sadly, has accessibility ramifications yet it also speaks to the fact that wheeled transportation of any sort has never really been a design priority for an entire city! If you get away from the main route from the train station to the Rialto to St Mark’s then you see this bizarre reality where the tiny ally outside the front door of your apartment building feels a bit like a shared hallway and the many piazzas feel a bit like a shared living room or salon. It’s so utterly different than what we’re used to in the US. It just felt so good to walk around that city!
And yet, it feels like our designs are prioritizing automobile traffic over human interaction more and more. This has consequences. I just came across this video summary of a decades old book that desperately wish had made a bigger impact. One of the speakers in the video says of the research in the book, “the fact that they were able to measure and quantify the reduction in number of friends and number of acquaintances that’s caused by traffic is enormously important and helps to illuminate the invisible harm that’s done by traffic everyday.”
Here’s the video:
While things mostly move in the wrong direction in the States (or much too slowly in a less bad direction), there are places in the world where human relationships and family well being are being added into the value equation and fueling growth at the expense of car-oriented convenience: