Urban Design Lessons From Milan and Bologna: Architecture Matters as Much as Planning

Milan

credit: Lloyd Alter

One of the things I was looking for when I came to Italy was a look at complete streets; what happens when the road is shared by streetcars, light rail, cars and pedestrians.

Milan

credit: Lloyd Alter

I started in Milan, and expected so much. It is true that there are fabulous trams and light rail lines and subways, all those things that make for a complete transportation system, but the car overwhelms.

Milan

credit: Lloyd Alter

Sidewalks and consideration for pedestrians is purely notional; they barely exist and often just run into buildings, or narrow down to nothing. And yes, that guy walking down the street has a cat on his shoulder.

Milan

credit: Lloyd Alter

They are uneven, made of asphalt and dip for curb cuts, I don't know how anyone over sixty survives them.

Milan

credit: Lloyd Alter

They, like many public squares and boulevards, are essentially parking lots, it is a city overrrun by cars. Public space that should be open and green is given over to storing automobiles because there is nowhere else to put them.

Milan

credit: Note car driving on sidewalk

Small, cute, fuel efficient, cars, but everywhere, mostly where they shouldn't be. It seems odd, that a city that does everything to prevent this, from great and cheap transit to congestion charges in the core, would have such a problem. But Milan is the industrial heart of Italy, and a lot of Milanese don't work in the core, but in the factories and suburban offices that surround it. The car is the only way to get to work. I saw one young man getting into the car with his dog; In Milan, the green spaces are paved and he was driving to the park where there was an off-leash area. In Italy, doing what I thought was such a North American thing. More than once, after dinner when I announced that I was walking back to the hotel, the Milanese hosts were shocked, it was too far. I am not surprised by their reaction; it is not a pedestrian friendly city.

Bologna

credit: Even the panhandlers are different here. Lloyd Alter

But then there is Bologna. This is a city that knows what to do with cars; it's architecture and urban patterns just tells them to fuck off. Just about every building has a pedestrian arcade facing the street, which protects the pedestrian from rain and sun but has an additional marvelous benefit :

Bologna

credit: Lloyd Alter

It is dedicated pedestrian space and the cars cannot intrude, they cannot scare you, you have a couple of feet of brick buffer between you and them.

Bologna

credit: crowded arcade/ Lloyd Alter

No doubt it worked with horses 150 years ago and it works with those horrible scooters now.

Bologna

credit: Lloyd Alter

The arcades are glorious for window shopping and just being an allround flaneur;

Bologna

credit: Restaurant in arcade/ Lloyd Alter

in areas where they are not needed as much for circulation they become wonderful covered restaurants and cafes.

Bologna

credit: Lloyd Alter

The former real estate developer in me even thinks that they make economic sense; you get to build on top of the sidewalk. Free density in exchange for urban amenity!

Bologna

credit: Lloyd Alter

There are lots of streets in Bologna that do not have arcades, but they are so narrow that they are essentially purely pedestrian routes. Cars come into a few of them, but very slowly, they are clearly out of their element. People rule here.

Bologna

credit: Lloyd Alter

Some are dedicated to specific purposes; the shopping street has stores that have been in the same place for 150 years.

Milan

credit: Lloyd Alter

The lesson from Milan is that it is not enough to have great transit; you need to work hard to make the pedestrian welcome and you have to work harder to get rid of all those cars.

Bologna

credit: Lloyd Alter

The lesson from Bologna is that architecture can make a difference. That buildings can make a city comfortable for pedestrians, even as the noisy scooters and cars are racing by. The lesson from both cities is that small cars work for almost everyone; there were all kinds of tiny little ones, from Alfa Romeos to Lancias to Japanese and Korean cars, all decked out for comfort and style, and not just small and cheap. But those who say that the Europeans have urbanity down pat (as I used to) haven't been to Milan, where the noise, pollution and parking make being a pedestrian or cyclist an uncomfortable experience.