Three days ago on the streets outside the apartment I am renting in Florence there were no longer any cars whizzing by. Indeed, barriers manned by the Carabinieri were set in place that prohibited cars, taxis, trucks, buses, scooters, and motorcycles from entering the area. It was strangely weird and so very quiet and it remains so. Something seems missing, as if everyone has fled the city.
At first I thought it was temporary to block off the traffic during Festiva, Florence’s celebration of its patron saint. Eventually it became clear that was part of Florence’s rapidly expanding plan to increase the number of pedestrian friendly or car-free zones.
People were milling about, amiably chatting with one another on what otherwise would have been an area packed with noisy vehicles moving slowly, bumper to bumper between the many cars parked along each side of the street as those of us who were walking sought a safe place on the narrow sidewalks that are common throughout this city.
In a recent issue of the New Yorker Nicholas Leman writes about several new books that discuss the shifting trends in living in cities or suburbs. Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, interested me most. According to Glaeser the key factor that makes a city successful is proximity, the way it brings people into contact, “enabling them to interact in rich, unexpected, productive ways.”
“In a big city, people can choose peers who share their interests, just as Monet and Cezanne found each other in nineteenth century Paris, or Belushi and Aykroyd found each other in twentieth-century Chicago.”
Florence is also one of the cities that epitomize Glaeser’s view of proximity. Its effects are precisely what I see happening on the streets outside my apartment now. When I’m here I often think of the extraordinarily creative period of the Renaissance in Florence. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Gaileo, Brunneleschi, Machiavelli, the Medicis--all working together, sometimes across the street from one another or down the block at bit.
Elsewhere I have written about Hillel Schocken and Malcolm Gladwell’s views of the experience of living in large metropolitan areas. Gladwell cites the work of Jane Jacobs:
“The miracle of Hudson Street, according to Jacobs, was created by the particular configuration of the streets and buildings of the neighborhood. Jacobs argued that when a neighborhood is oriented toward the street, when sidewalks are used for socializing and play and commerce, the users of that street are transformed by the resulting stimulation: they form relationships and casual contacts they would never have otherwise. Sparely populated suburbs may look appealing, she said, but without an active sidewalk life, without the frequent serendipitous interactions of many different people, "there is no public acquaintanceship, no foundation of public trust, no cross-connections with the necessary people."
When I first read that many years ago I was naturally struck by the lively public socializing that I have always observed in the neighborhoods here Florence. I doubt that the rarity of such encounters in America is because Italians are more outgoing than we are.
Rather I think it has more to do with almost haphazard way their cities have evolved over the centuries and the resulting relationship of the buildings to the street. The frequent socializing of the Italians occurs because their cities naturally invite fortuitous meetings between individuals as they stroll along the sidewalks or visit the piazza in their neighborhood.
“Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day's work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, arts, doctors, technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity;…all these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.” Richard Goodwin
And Schocken, in his book, Intimate Anonymity, defines a city as: "a fixed place where people can form relations with others at various levels of intimacy, while remaining entirely anonymous." He concludes by noting: "The future of urbanism lies in the understanding that the city is a human event, not a sculpture." I am sure this is one of the secrets in the design of all good cities and the neighborhoods within them. It is surely one of the secrets of Florence.
Note: For a continuing discussion and superb photos of car-free cities throughout the world, including the most famous one in Italy, see the journal Car-Free Cities.