Amalfi – A Transportation Snapshot
It is a running joke amongst people that I know that when I get back from a holiday and am showing someone my photographs, eventually there will be a picture of a parking lot. Or a parking space, an interesting road, a sidewalk detail, or… you get the idea. My trip to Italy earlier this year was no exception, so I thought I would share with you, urban design enthusiasts, something I noted when I visited Amalfi.
This trip was the first time I had been to the Amalfi coast, which was stunning, but provides an interesting problem about urban modernization. It is entirely obvious that the settlements along the harsh coast had everything to do with the water originally. The main road that now lets brave tourists on buses access this string of towns was opened in 1853, but Amalfi has a much older history, with the first mention in historic records in the 6th century. It’s hard to imagine how people could scrape out a thriving community in such a beautiful but harsh environment, yet obviously they did.
Like most of the settlements along the coast, the town is somewhat vertical. Amalfi has a main road leading up through the center, but then steep staircases branch off from either side to provide access to the surrounding buildings and settlements. The main road in Amalfi in the low season looks like this around the mid-point:
It’s narrow and it’s historic; it is in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In particular I want to draw attention to the pedestrians in the above photograph, as there are many shops facing straight onto the roadway. I wouldn’t want to be disabled in Amalfi, but it is for the most part a ‘walking place’. This was January, not at all the tourist season, and I can only imagine what this place is like when the weather is warm. So picturesque and perfect, you can imagine what it must have been like hundreds of years ago to walk along these same streets, no?
Except of course that the passage of time includes advancements in technology and in particular transportation. If the main road connecting all the coastal towns was opened in 1853 it was only going to be a matter of time that people would want better means of personal transportation as close to their homes and places of work as possible, and today this means cars. So what do you do with cars in Amalfi?
Well in certain areas of the town it’s clear where the cars go. Down by the waterfront where it is relatively flat and the main coastal road connects to the town is also where there is a good sized parking lot for both cars and buses. There is also a wider and flatter area at the top of the town where the following picture was taken from where the streets are clearly wide enough to accommodate vehicles, albeit with their parking brakes firmly engaged:
So this is all well and good, Amalfi can apparently adapt to contain cars. But as should be clear from my first photograph of the main street, it is not wide enough for two lanes of traffic to go up and down the cliff side. So Amalfi has been retrofit with an ever so clever traffic light system to allow one-way traffic to take their turns in each direction along the main road:
Of course this is a sensible solution to a very particular problem, but so what?
I would like to make the argument that even when we think that we are prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists in modern design, we are probably not. There are far more stringent and restrictive options available to put people first. The Amalfi retrofit of their historic town to adapt to personal transportation needs should perhaps not be viewed as a one-off necessity. What if we had more streets and places like this? What would it mean to how we think about place making and street design?
Of course people, and in particular, people with cars, would not like it. I’ll be the first to admit that the general population would think a new design in this manner would be an incredibly awful idea. “Why would anyone do that,” people would wonder, “when there was a blank canvas to begin with?!?”
And hence one of the problems that urban designer have and that some other posts here have touched upon. There are many competing needs in place making and design. Sometimes it is not in the long-term best interest of a local population to have everything that they want, or think they want. But alternately, a proposal with no significant buy-in from local residents is almost certainly doomed to failure.
I can think of many instances where this sort of traffic intervention would be useful in making certain areas less attractive to cars and more attractive to pedestrians. I can also see how reducing road widths in some areas could also be beneficial. I think part of the reason that I take these photographs when I travel, and note these idiosyncrasies of places that I go to, is that there is a lot that can be learned about how things can alternately be done as well as understanding that things that might be taken for granted in one place are not a requirement in another. I think it’s important to remind myself that people are tremendously adaptable in terms of the places they live, and how they live in them. Maybe massive tumultuous change in design is a bit over the top, but what small tweaks or lessons can be learned from seeing how other people have simply done it differently? What I am not suggesting is that this idea be implemented everywhere, but perhaps it might be a good idea somewhere. And I see it as my job as a designer to try to have as much knowledge as possible of what the options and alternatives might be.
So stay tuned for my next holiday snapshots.