Upon arrival in Venice for the first time, I was immediately enchanted, both as a visitor and as a student of urban planning. I use “enchanted” to express how I simultaneously felt an instant and strong sense of wonderment, but also an eerie and unsettling reaction to its beauty. Was this a perfect city or a perfectly contrived city? Where do the Venetians live? And for whom is this city maintained?
Venice is compact and walkable. In fact, the lack of car congestion means not only pedestrian safety, but that clean salty air lingers instead of smog. The curvilinear streets and canals create intrigue at every intersection where you are greeted by a small plaza or another visually delightful public space. The buildings do not loom over pedestrians, but are an inviting human scale. The city size makes it manageable to navigate as a visitor, but is never boring. It is the epitome of what modern day planners strive for as it is the original New Urbanism.
If globalization compels cities to converge into generic agglomerations of business services with cultural attractions on the side, then Venice has achieved the opposite. Venice’s geography has preserved its uniqueness through centuries of less domineering forms of globalization as a cultural hub with little contemporary powerful businesses.
Perhaps the re-construction of something like Venice is a stretch. American cities do not have the advantage of being built in the 13th century where density and walkability were essential to a city’s success. We lack comparable richness of history and ample public space (although we strive to fix the latter). But, creating a globally-recognized civic identity has risen in priority for urban planners as cities have to compete for outside funding. According to the London Times, as of 2007 Venice received 50,000 tourists daily, keeping tourism afloat was the largest part of their economy. My uneasiness stemmed from the rather obvious up-keep that is geared towards tourists.
Cities around America, perhaps cities you haven’t even heard of, are creating tours for their “sites”, convention centers for business travelers in hopes to pull in more money. As a way to carve out an identity from blandness-to make money from their “uniqueness.” In Venice people are enthralled by the configuration of public space — public promenades along the water, narrow alley roads, tiny plazas, huge squares, bridges, grand stairways. You go there to “be” there, but not to do anything in particular.
Venice has perfected the provision of public goods and space. Is there somewhere for me to sit? Is it shaded from the elements? Once I sit, do I have a beautiful view? It provides a million variations with the perfect dimensions for people to sit and relax. You feel cozy even though you are outside in a city. Venice showed me that maybe cities don’t have to invest millions of public dollars to draw in outside money. Maybe all it takes is re-working space to accommodate people’s universal desire to relax, feel safe in a city and be inspired by its beauty.