James Lileks just spent a few weeks in Venice and he says it’s (still) an astonishing place:
Urbanists often use European cities as a model for everything that’s right and true and good about cities. American cities are spread out, so people have to drive along, instead of standing on a public transport next to a man who is muttering about chemtrails and has the personal funk of a Dumpster outside a urinalysis lab. European cities are compact, with everyone living on top of one another in picturesque piles with the square footage of the average American auto trunk. European cities are Walkable, which is the chief virtue nowadays. Well, ancient Rome was Walkable. A collection of Neolithic huts was Walkable. Apparently American cities are strewn with tacks and rattlesnakes and feature large open pits with spikes on the bottom. No one can walk there.
There’s one city no one seems to hold up as a model, and that’s Venice. I was just there for a while, and it’s an astonishing place — for reasons we can surely adapt here.
One. No cars. It is simple to ban cars from all streets with Venice-style zoning, which ensures that most streets are three feet wide. You couldn’t get Orson Welles down these passageways without greasing both sides and shooting him out of a cannon. There are streets in this town where two people who meet going the opposite way cannot pass, but local customs dictate that the person who is taller gets down on hands and knees and the other person climbs over him. No car can enter the streets of Venice unless you lower it into a plaza with a helicopter.
Two. It is quite walkable, and your journeys will give you that marvelous sense of discovery and surprise the urbanists seek. By which I mean, you will be lost. The maps are no help; you’re on a small street named Contradore Della Caravaggissimo Magiori di Luchese, and the map shows C. del Car.Ma.Lu, if you’re lucky. And it’s in the type that makes the bottom line of an eye chart look like a tabloid headline the day war is declared.
Three. It is better than walkable: it is swimmable, and thus provides an excellent form of exercise. Remarkably, the concept of swimming from your house to work never seems to have been popular, for the same reason most people don’t bike to work: You arrive at the office wet and smelly.