Saturday, June 4, 2011

the highways and cars/were sacrificed for agriculture

Back on the train, this time on the frecciabianca from Genoa back to Rome, and a chance to jot down some thoughts from my brief trip to Genoa. First thought: get back to Genoa. Genoa is an amazing city, and well worth the time of any thoughtful traveler. The city’s extraordinary beauty springs, in part, from its extraordinary topography, and the relationships between its urbanism and  architecture offer excellent examples of urban design from the Renaissance, the late nineteenth century, the Novecento and Rationalist movements of the early twentieth century, and the Brutalism of the late twentieth century. Genoa is a key node in the history of globalization based on maritime trade and transcultural exchange.

And the food is great.

I should explain the enigmatic blog post title. It’s a line from the Talking Heads’ song “(Nothing but) Flowers,” from their 1988 album, Naked. The train was rolling along the Tuscan coast south of Pisa, we’d just passed another solar farm, and “(Nothing but) Flowers” came up on my MP3 player (which, for copyright reasons, I probably can’t name, but it was made by a company whose name rhymes with “scrapple”). It seemed appropriate for a discussion of the challenge of retrofitting historic city centers to support more sustainable transportation and waste removal processes. The narrow streets and mountainous topography of Genoa’s historic center make both difficult, yet the city has accommodated them better than many Italian cities.

Genovese trash removal is pretty amazing. Throughout the historic center they’ve installed rooms (called ECOPUNTO) for the recycling and trash bins that won’t otherwise fit in the district’s narrow streets. The ECOPUNTI open to the street, and are disinfected to keep the odors minimized. The city uses very small collection trucks to empty the containers. There are still recycling bins out in the open elsewhere in the historic center, but the ECOPUNTO rooms are a good solution to the paradox of cleaning the city by filling it with giant, smelly, plastic boxes.

It’s worth pointing out the great design of Genovese bus stops, too. Besides the elegant glass and steel shelters, bus stops in Genoa have two excellent features: easy-to-understand route maps and digital displays indicating wait times for each bus line. Route maps are standard elements of bus stops in other cities, but the ones in Genoa are a lot easier to read. The digital displays are not unique to Genoa, either. It’s just worth noting how good design makes the experience of travel that much more rewarding, and how a potentially intrusive piece of transportation infrastructure can instead add to the city’s layers of beauty.  Incidentally, Genoa’s steep geography means that its public transit system includes several elevators and two funiculars. The image above shows the top of the Belvedere Montaldo elevator, and part of the view out over the city and port. Again, it’s an example of thinking through the question of transportation in a way that enriches the experience of the city and creates civic space.

The frecciabianca is passing the lake at Orbetello where Italo Balbo used to land squadrons of Savoia-Marchetti flying boats, and where Pier Luigi Nervi built some of the most elegant concrete hangars the world has ever seen. They’re gone now, and the quiet countryside makes it hard to believe this used to be one of Italy’s most important aircraft facilities. It resonates a bit with that Talking Heads song:

once there were parking lots
now it’s a peaceful oasis

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