David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Europe’s largest pedestrian-only urban space is also one of its most fragile. But Venice may hold lessons for other cities struggling to adapt to a changing world.
Like the War Against the Machines that spans the Terminator franchise, the War on Cars that urbanists are supposedly waging is unavoidable, and essentially unresolvable. Battles are won and lost, the hardware changes, but drivers and their pedestrianist foes are fated to forever be at each other’s throats, vying for control of the city streets. Perhaps because it’s a conflict that, like so many others, has become bitterly politicized, it’s hard not to despair of the final outcome.
I recently spent time in Venice, Italy, which was like entering some alternative timeline where this war never happened. Venice’s Centro Storico is Europe’s largest car-free space, a medieval city that somehow managed to make it into the 21st century nearly untouched by internal combustion. And, lemme tell you, it’s weird.
This is not exactly news, of course, but it was news to me. I was hilariously unprepared for this trip, one of those bucket-list events involving my family, my brother’s family, and my 87-year-old wheelchair-using mom. Despite months of planning, somehow it still snuck up on me, right up until the moment we showed up at the airport.
The guidebooks I skimmed on the flight failed to convey the alien quality of Venice, a place that aggressively defies time, geography, and the elements in a way that often left me weak with confusion and amazement. Once the seat of a vast maritime empire, modern historic Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws 20 million tourists a year, but it’s also—just barely—a “real” city, not a theme park, with a dwindling core of permanent residents (perhaps 50,000 today, less than half its 1970s population). Like many European cities, it’s dense and medieval and old and strange, made stranger by self-imposed aquatic isolation: The central city is really an agglomeration of built-up islands sitting in the middle of a salt-water lagoon. There’s a bridge to the mainland carrying rail lines, buses, and motorists who pay $22 a day to deposit their cars in an island-sized parking garage. After that, no more motors.
Well, the boats have motors. But the land part of Venice functions largely without powered vehicles. Or, really, without wheels. The city’s 438 bridges, 183 canals, impossibly narrow streets, and countless steps make motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, wheelchairs, hoverboards, rollerblades, and just about anything else that rolls useless, if not illegal. So intense is the Venetian animus toward rolling things that the city mulled banning rolling suitcases, because the clatter of hard wheels on paving stones makes such a din in tourist-laden areas.
It’s hard to convey just how awesomely inconvenient this layout is, until you have to figure out how to push a wheelchair around it. Disability access is all but nonexistent; taking Mom out to dinner in a restaurant one neighborhood over required threading a labyrinth of narrow alleys in order to avoid a bridge that was only accessible by stairs. This delightful 18-minute video from the municipal government does a great job of explaining how Venice got this way, as well as delving into the nerdy inner workings of how a floating city stitched together from 124 islands manages to run utilities and deal with stuff like sewage.
Other curiosities: Municipal garbage collection is done by hand—which means you have to do it all the time—6 days a week. The trash truck is a dude pushing a little cart, which eventually goes to garbage barge. (Luckily, if you have to lug your groceries home by hand every day, you’re probably not generating the same amount of refuse.) Other barges deliver the goods that a city of 20 million tourists needs to consume, from cases of prosecco for Venetian Spritz cocktails to Chinese-made plastic gondolas.
All the stuff, good and bad, that one takes for granted in American cities—from car infrastructure like parking lots and beltways to shiny downtown office towers and parks—is just not there. As UNESCO says, “the whole urban system has maintained the same layout, settlement patterns and organization of open spaces from medieval times and the Renaissance.”
It takes a while for the reality of that idea to settle in. Other old cities in Europe and beyond share some of these characteristics, and many have large (and growing) car-free zones. Venice, however, operates on a scale that makes its carlessness and pre-modern vibe feel immersive: There are no highways in the distance to break the spell, no blocks of ‘70s office towers or apartment buildings nibbling on the edge of the quaint historic core. After a few days wandering around this space, it’s easy to forget such stuff still exists.
And the silence! The ever-present roar of traffic—the Great American Background Noise—is nonexistent, and the city is so hushed that even streets thronged with pedestrians are basically peaceful. Turn a corner after dark, when most tourists have left, and the alleys of Venice could be haunted by the same wintry forces that stalked Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the 1973 horror flick Don’t Look Now. When our troupe took a wrong turn after a Christmas dinner at an off-the-beaten-track osteria, we might as well have been lost in the forest primeval.
This de-mechanization of public space has all manner of impacts upon how people live, some less obvious than others. Venice lacks the sort of throbby nightlife scene of other great European cities, in part because, well, it’s just too damn quiet—the whump whump whump of a dance club here would be heard for miles around. On the other hand, Venetians seem to enjoy a more relaxed attitude toward day-drinking. All afternoon, the piazzas and alleys seem to be filled with neighbors enjoying cocktails passed though the windows of tiny corner bars called bàcari. Nobody has to drive home. The intimacy of the street life can be overpowering; turning a corner and happening upon a knot of gabbing Venetians feels like barging into their living room.
The expectation of having to walk everywhere also re-calibrates one’s sense of space and time. The historic city is a tiny thing, only 3 miles long—you could walk from stem to stern in 45 minutes, probably, if you knew where you were going. But it’s so densely built and anarchically organized that one could spend a happy lifetime learning all its blind alleys and dead ends.
In other words, it’s a city where the scale of existence is still aligned with human bodies instead of machines (even human-powered ones). This vibe may not seem radical, except it makes one realize how rarely American cities achieve it, even in places made as respites from the urban tumult. Venice boasts little in the way of official green space, for example, save for a patch of garden on the eastern edge of the city that came courtesy of Napoleon, who ended 1,100 years of independence for the Venetian Republic when he invaded in 1797. He then went all Robert Moses on the place, demolishing older neighborhoods and filling in a canal to make a park and a wide Parisian-style boulevard.
This newer part of the city offers a novel strolling break from the steady diet of narrow passages, but the city’s brush with Napoleonic urban renewal didn’t really change things much; unlike the canals of California’s Venice, most of which became regular streets once private cars became popular in the 1920s, the original Venice didn’t really have to fend off the efforts of highway builders and other civic visionaries of the 20th century. It just works, the way it always did.
For now, at least. The Venice that endures now is a stupendously fragile place, menaced by rising sea levels and natural subsidence. The city struggles to control motondoso—damaging wave motion churned up by motorboats, which erodes the foundations of buildings and swamps the delicate wetlands. Its big defense against the future superfloods of our warmed world is the MOSE project, a crazy-expensive and untested system of sea walls that is still under construction (and probably won’t work anyway). Last year, UNESCO threatened to put Venice on its World Heritage in Danger list unless the city’s leaders showed signs of getting a handle on things. The impact of climate change is just one of the all-too-real regular-city problems often overlooked amid the tourist-related threats. Venice is also dogged by an affordable housing crisis, a recent mayoral corruption scandal, and all manner of workaday economic woes. In some ways, it’s not such an unusual place at all.
And maybe this strange medieval tourist trap offers a useful vantage to ponder the challenges of more modern cities; in its ingenuity in the face of ridiculous circumstances, it’s an urban community that has demonstrated an enviable capacity for resilience. If the Venetians manage to keep this impossible place afloat, perhaps the rest of us are on firmer ground than we think.