A Placemaking Journal

Poggibonsi and other Tuscan Lessons

With all the angst over Italy this week, I’m in the mood to count some blessings. To elaborate on some assets. To look at the local marketplace. And to debunk a couple of frequent idealist notions about European urbanism often heard from North Americans.

Last month, I was traveling in the Tuscan countryside, which is the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen. Staying in a vineyard outside of Poggibonsi, waking up to the resident rooster, and walking medieval streets was cleansing for the mind and spirit. Even the parking lots are frequently overseen by amazing art, like this copy of Michelangelo’s David on the hill overlooking Florence.

I spent way more time in a car than I usually do, thanks to day trips, and had more of a chance to look at the newer neighbourhoods. As much as we North American urbanists find inspiration and instruction in European streets and buildings, the new stuff rarely gets it right. For the same reasons that plague us here: it’s the law.

For instance, this street in Poggibonsi is the main drag, and readily achieves compact mixed use, but fails on walkability. The use and density are right, but the form is still off, catering to the auto-centric tendencies of the last several decades. Trading off character for speed. And parking.

Talking with the locals, it’s because of land use codes and bylaws that call for parking in the first layer, between the building and the sidewalk. The law squeezes down the sidewalk widths to increase the travel lane widths. And call for cobra-head lighting and other highway-like mechanisms.

Much of the reasons are the same as here – people operate in specialist silos, and rarely communicate with a holistic, generalist perspective. However, what was completely shocking to me is that just two blocks away is a deeply satisfying walkable, immersive environment for which we all strive.

Just as Europe tried to become a homogenous single economy, and is feeling the pain of their varying debt profiles and economic conditions, when we return to the local, unique, character-based realities, good things happen. Many of those good things are evident in the Poggibonsi market and in the vineyards and orchards on the rolling hills.

Every Tuesday in Poggibonsi, about 8 blocks are shut down for the market, which are very versatile shops out of trucks that offer everything from clothing to culinary delights. It’s tactical urbanism at its finest. Or out on the farms, where visitors can offer their services with the harvest in return for food and wine. Within these deeply local markets, global monetary shocks are less obvious. And somehow, here you can find the comfort of the timeless. The comfort of the underlying strength of place and of traditions that remain the strong undercurrent of local life.

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