Tourists flock to Pisa to see the quirky and charming tower that has gone askew. Even more askew, it seems to me, is the groundcover throughout the city. In the piazza adjacent to the Tower as well as elsewhere throughout Pisa, the historic tile and stone walkways have been covered in asphalt, turning much of the city into a dark grey cheerless space. One of the reasons Italy is so darn charming is the pervasiveness of cobblestone streets and public spaces and the abundance of diverse stone and tile surfaces.
What makes asphalt so uninspiring? It's tempting to posit that featureless planes of asphalt send the message 'move, keep moving', instead of the 'linger, check this out, smell the roses' etc... And what makes repetitious units of stone inspiring? Maybe we appreciate the human effort behind building blocks and construction in general; maybe because they connect us to beautiful natural materials and to history. Regardless, pattern is easy on the eyes and asphalt is not. I guess the Pisans figure that the Tower alone will bring the tourists no matter what, and they might as well save on maintenance. But more likely they just didn't think carefully about it, most of us don't.
Why do we take for granted what we walk on in our cities? Something as bold as the sidewalks in Rio might get our attention. It seems that unless we are dodging slush and puddles in winter or dog doo in Paris we don't look down very much. Maybe it is our anatomy - the way our eyes are stuck in our faces peering ahead, not down. But more likely our senses have been numbed by the vastness and ubiquity of asphalt in our daily lives. We have been steamrolled by fifty years of city transportation departments making life friendlier for cars and more hostile to humans. We experience asphalt on a daily basis as much as any other material, but how often is its use questioned?
Asphalt has some smart modern applications for trucks and cars and highways, but slap a few inches of it in pedestrian areas and you can create lifeless spaces where no one wants to walk or hang out - you create parking lots. And most parking lots are eyesores by day and a little scary at night. Studies show that in US cities pedestrians will often cross streets to avoid walking by parking lots. Additionally, asphalt absorbs and retains summer heat, contributes to global warming, and even sticks to our flip flops. Bad asphalt is like a thick layer of cheap makeup, and with its application, Pisa has erased 2000 years of history and texture. Galileo, who was born and worked there, would not have been inspired.
But this Pisa piazza screw up is atypical for Italy. Italy does pedestrian public spaces the way they do food - better than most other places in the world. In the historic small towns throughout Italy most city centers have preserved their tiles and stone surfaces. Even highly industrial cities like Milan have not replaced the cobbles with asphalt. Though they jostle drivers and challenge the high-heeled, they do not seem to impede the locals (the traffic is another matter). The young and old alike seem to take the bumps in stride.
It's easy to rag on asphalt as a sin of modernism just as it is easy to like grass and all things more natural. But the town of Pisa has even turned grass into a design blunder. The 'lawns' around the historic buildings seem as artificial as golf courses in Arizona. You are not allowed to walk on them, and they are hard to maintain. They would seem authentic at a Loire Chateau, but look goofy in an Italian town. Intelligent, appropriate, well-designed groundcover is not so simple in our modern world.
What is simple (and fun) is just spending more time looking down at stuff. You get treated to things like quirky patterns, and if these are not entertaining enough, feet and shoes are pretty cool. Maybe if we begin by appreciating the diversity and character of these details we will ask more from the stuff that coats our streets and walkways.
When (and if) Washington puts people to work rebuilding our transportation infrastructure in this recovery, let's hope we don't get steamrolled as did Pisa.
North American Hand Made Bike Show
Italy may do food better than any other country, but the US is the world leader in hand made bikes. I learned this last year when I covered the show in Portland. This year's show is coming up in a month. If you've been looking for an excuse to go to Indianapolis, this is it. And you'll see amazing bikes that could handle any type of groundcover.
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