On Resilient Settlement

Tools and strategies for transition

Modern life in a medieval city: Slow food and slow urbanism

I am lucky to be living just now in Trento, Italy (in the southern end of the Alps, not far from the Austrian border) for a two-month visiting appointment at the University of Trento.  The city is, like many Italian cities, an ancient medieval and Renaissance core surrounded by increasingly modern rings.  (It began as a Roman castrum or fort city, called Tridentum for the three tooth-like mountain peaks overlooking the town.) 

The locals clearly adore the center and throng there for entertainment, shopping and public events – it’s a kind of urban living room – but few actually live in the center.  The price of real estate there is about 3,500 Euros per square meter (about $450 US per foot) and most non-retail uses are office. Only a privileged few live there – university bigwigs and such. So the center has a bit of the quality of a shopping center – incredibly busy at times, incredibly quiet at times.  Nonetheless, it’s truly a center on the way to everywhere.   (Cars have limited access, but still have to orbit it, like a center of gravity.)  

I walk through the center on my way to my office every day.  I live at the edge of the center, in faculty residences, and work in a campus building on another edge – not quite straight through, and I could cut through on a shorter path past the center, but I make a point to go through and enjoy its walking pleasures every morning and evening.  A lot of other locals seem to do that too. And the surrounding, newer “improvements” are increasingly ugly, as everyone agrees.  There is little defense of the modern stuff, which is hard to do when the comparison is against such evident ancient beauty.

I find that Italians I meet are very conflicted about traditional architecture.  They seem less persuaded that there is anything chronologically inappropriate about it — after all, the Renaissance was 1,500 years after Rome, and we are now only 500 years after the Renaissance.   It seems more the case that to them we are simply incapable of doing anything that good again, and perhaps we had better not try, for fear of making a pale imitation.  Perhaps in most cases they have a point, given the state of knowledge of most designers and builders. But this is a circumstantial authenticity – unlike that of many architects, who seem to think (without any rigorous logical support) that anything that even looks like something pre-1920 is ipso facto inauthentic. 

Northern Italy has a very prosperous modern economy, and technology is all the rage.  So bolt-on green stuff is popular here as in other places.  (It’s manufactured in the ugly modern industrial districts that lie on the outskirts of many cities.) But there is also a strong culture of local production and pride in local tourism – which is also big bucks. Slow food is a big trend too – local culinary products endlessly savored and discussed over long meals.  These meal-events are full of intricate discussion of the slight distinctiveness of one region’s flavor over another, or the history of one product or one manufacturer, and this is just as much a part of the dining experience as the food itself. 

Italians I meet are also travel connoisseurs of their own urban heritage, as much as any foreigner.  Unlike, say, many Brits I meet, there is no trace of the blasé in their regard for the tourist delights of their own back yard.  They seem to delight in comparing this beautiful village to that one, arguing over where the best hidden gems are located, and which features are piu bellissimo.    

I wonder if Italians will make the next logical connection.  Just as they are discovering local food and local culture, with its ancient roots to be re-cultivated, perhaps they will discover local urbanism, with its own ancient roots to be re-cultivated?  Just as they are beginning to reject mindless globalization and marketing wow-sensationalism as a form of consumerism that is not sustainable, perhaps they will reject globalized architecture and wow-sensationalism as equally unsustainable?

Perhaps they will come to see that the idea of bolt-on techno-fixes to a failing “looky looky” kind of architecture are no better than the idea of a bolt-on techno-fix to a fundamentally unsustainable consumer-based, throwaway economy.  But perhaps too they will need to be convinced (and won’t we all) that the future can become more technologically sophisticated by actually learning from the deep sophistication of natural systems, and of human nature.  This is a different sense of modernity, and I dare say, a more sustainable one.   

That is not to say that there won’t be smart technology too.  Italians are already ahead on that: right here in average little Trento they have car-sharing systems and bike rental systems and photovoltaics (there is a photovoltaic manufacturer here too).  But mostly they have smart passive technology: everybody walks, rides bikes, takes the train or bus.  And they drive sparingly. (And why not, when fuel is about $10 a gallon?)  My friend Renato does not drive, doesn’t have a car or even a driver’s license.  He rides his bike everywhere.  I’m told that’s unusual, but not at all rare.

And they savor what they have, and what they get from the land and the place.

The road ahead is not clear to any of us, except perhaps the crop of professional futurists who have so often underestimated the dynamic nature of history, and gotten it wrong in the past.  But at the same historical moment that we are contemplating the depth of changes that must be made to adapt successfully to the grim challenges ahead, I find it fascinating that in places like Italy, we are re-discovering the deep pleasures of the local and the ancient and the sustained.  This seems to me – and apparently, to a lot of others – a sensible if tenuous way forward into an especially dangerous future. 

Photos:  Trento main square; Trento market day; my daily commute; my flat; Castello Buonconsiglio, a local architectural gem



2 comments on “Modern life in a medieval city: Slow food and slow urbanism

  1. yodan
    January 4, 2011

    Hi Michael,Thanks for sharing. Check your transfer from Euros per sq.m. to $US per ft.sq. There are about 10 sq.ft in a sq.m. and the rate of change now is 1.33 $ per Euro.

  2. Michael Mehaffy
    January 5, 2011

    Thanks Yodan – actually I ddropped a zero! But I was also informed that 5,000 is the extreme and the prices are not quite that high on average – more like 3,500 Euros or about $450 per foot. I have made the change… Still pricier than the periphery! Cheers, m

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