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
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
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.