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The Beauty of Venice, or How to Be An Ecocity Without Trying

Written by Sven Eberlein

On my way to the Ecocity World Summit in Istanbul back in 2009 I decided to detour through Italy. My parents were living in Vicenza at the time, providing the perfect excuse for a day trip to nearby Venice. While I’m aware that Venice is a unique city with a fair share of its own problems — from garbage and sewage issues due to the volume of tourists each year to flooding caused by a combination of natural cycles, a sinking foundation and rising sea levels due to climate change — being there felt like I had already arrived in the ultimate ecocity before ever getting to the conference.

With every step I took through the streets and alleys of this pedestrian paradise I was struck by how much of its urban design serves as an example that ecocities aren’t some kind of Utopia but have in fact been in existence for centuries.

The following photo essay documents the journey to this city of the past, present, and hopefully, the future.

Venice (Italian: Venezia, IPA: [veˈnεttsia], Venetian: Venesia) is a city in northern Italy, the capital of the region Veneto. The population estimate of 272,000 inhabitants includes the population of the whole Comune of Venezia; around 60,000 in the historic city of Venice (Centro storico). Venice has been known as the “La Dominante”, “Serenissima”, “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Water”, “City of Bridges”, “City of Canals” and “The City of Light”. Luigi Barzini, writing in The New York Times, described it as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man“. (Wikipedia)

The first thing one encounters upon approaching Venice is the irrevocable reality of having to give up one’s car. It’s like checking your coat at the door…

Venice is Europe’s largest urban car free area, unique in Europe in remaining a sizable functioning city in the 21st century entirely without motorcars or trucks. (Wikipedia)

Once you walk across modern Ponte della Costituzione into historic Venice, your entire field of perception changes…

Whether you look down the alleys…

into the canals…

through the tunnels…

or up in the air…

This town is made for the SENSES!

It is quite amazing what happens to your entire sensory system when not only you but everyone else experiences life away from the car.

I hear the sounds of footsteps and conversation…

and I smell the scents of fresh produce and bread…

I see and touch endless colors and shapes…

One thing I noticed was how many people had their laundry hanging out to dry. Obviously, this is not exclusive to Venice but when you ask yourself how Americans can get such a high per capita carbon footprint compared to Europeans, it’s those little things that add up. Why waste money and energy on wasteful machines when the great dryer in the sky is right there?

(btw, if you’re one of those Americans who isn’t grossed out by these photos, check out Project Laundry List.)

Buildings are high occupancy and high density in true ecocity fashion…

because you know, density is not a curse word when you include beauty, imagination and mother nature in your design…

Parking is for lovers…

Public transit is for movers…

and even waste disposal has its appeal…

The locals are full of grace while the tourists aren’t…

Venetians are a modern people…

who can dream big…

yet remain true to their roots where it makes sense…

I know there’s only one Venice (sorry CA & FL), and some of the particular features of this city are neither possible nor desirable to recreate in other places. However, even without the canals this is a great model that could serve city planners everywhere as they envision the 21st century city in which residents tread with a low carbon footprint.

Here are just a few key features of Venice that should be part of any modern urban plan:

  • Urban villages that are closed off to cars except a few key transportation routes.
  • Multi-occupancy buildings and architecture that are aesthetically pleasing, with rooftop gardens and other integrated natural elements that inspire a sense of belonging and community.
  • Access by proximity: all essential services are within walking (or biking) distance.
  • Open spaces interspersed with high density residential and commercial corridors.

While the canals in Venice serve not only as transit routes but as natural green spaces that enhance the quality of living in densely populated cities, there are other ways to create these green zones. In fact, most urban areas have natural waterways and green zones but they’ve been paved over. Projects like Cheonggyecheon River restoration in downtown Seoul, South Korea, or the Cordornices Creek Daylighting Project in Berkeley-Albany show how even the most paved over cities can become more “Venetian” if only we unveil and honor the natural ecosystem they were built on. And since continued urban sprawl is not an option for the future of mankind, we may as well rediscover the joy and beauty of city life.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o

Originally posted at A World of Words
All photos by Sven Eberlein

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein is a writer, musician and activist living in San Francisco with roots in Germany. In addition to his work with Ecocity Builders, Sven is a contributing writer at Yes! Magazine and Shareable. His focus is on sustainable cities, zero waste, ecological design, clean energy, green and sharing economy, post growth, and conscious evolution.

4 Comments

  • Hi Sven,

    Thanks for the article/photos. I enjoyed them. I spent a full week in Venice a few years back and it was amazing to be in a place with no cars, and a place of incredible architectural richness.

    One thing I feel compelled to point out that you didn’t mention is that part of the reason that Venice is a walker’s paradise is that there are not only no cars: there are no bicycles. The only bikes I saw were children in small neighborhood campos closely monitored by their mothers.

    I’m not anti-bike, I’m pro-pedestrian. Walking in Venice was a highlight of my trip to Italy because I felt completely at ease when I was walking. No car was about to run me over, and no bicyclist was riding on the sidewalk or running a red light when peds are in the crosswalk.

    • I agree. Although I love to bike and consider it my primary mode of transportation (especially when schlepping bulky items), my favorite way to get anywhere is walking. Things get more dangerous whenever someone is moving faster than the average pedestrian pace–the faster you go, the more dangerous, especially when in mixed-speed areas. Bad drivers are bad drivers, whether they’re driving a bike, a car, a scooter, or on roller blades 🙂

    • Hi Mitch, thanks for your feedback. I do agree that life is best with pedestrians only, but I think that a certain type of bicycling actually can work well mixed in with pedestrians. In fact, I did another post about the Bicyclists of Italy, in which I really enjoyed the very laid-back way of pedaling in that country, which is very much the opposite of the hyper-aggressive and rushed cycling I witness in most American cities. Check it out:
      http://svenworld.com/rediscovering-simplicity-the-cyclists-of-italy/

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