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Prompt # 2

At this time last year I had the amazing privilege to live in Florence, Italy and go to school right near the Duomo in the center of town. My parents at the time were living in a tiny climbing town in northern Italy named Arco so I got to experience both the 'big town' and 'little village' design scheme 'a la italia'. People talk a lot about how different the layout of European cities is, and how everyone walks everywhere and knows everyone, but to experience this first hand gave me a new understanding of the immense impact a city's layout has on the surrounding culture. I was amazed and inspired by the feeling of community, the physical activity, and the general regional pride created by (what I will from here on call) the 'piazza mentality'.
Florence and Arco (and most other Eurpean cities) are modern towns with ancient histories. The central areas in particular are almost entirely made up of buildings and pathways that are hundreds of years old. Though much has changed since the invention of the car and the general globalization of the economy, the ancient layout of Florence has remained the same. There is a main city center where you will find the largest church and its surrounding piazza or square connecting to the piazzas around the houses of the ruling lords/government buildings, and the modern day trainstation. Moving out from this city center the city is laid out in rough neighborhoods, each containing its own piazza that generally supplies its needs. The piazzas are essentially little self-sufficient mini centers, with shops generally spread out around a central square that has some sort of monument or marker and often places to sit or congregate.
The beauty of the piazza is threefold- not only does it create an automatic community identity for the neighborhood around it, the piazza nourishes local economy, and increases the health of the people living nearby (they have to walk!). You know your butcher, you talk to the breadmaker everyday, your produce is fresh and your community is tight. Italians have fierce regional pride that makes their politics tricky but certainly seems to help the energy of their towns.

an italian piazza
Herein lies my social design issue. More and more cities are expanding from clumsy city centers to large strands of tacky suburban sprawl, with no attention to community, local culture/identity, or even aesthetic. In an effort to create quick housing for quick money, and quick shopping malls are thrown up to supply the needs of the quick housing development, and suddenly even coffee shops- a rare congregation point- have drive through windows so you don't even have to get out of your car to get your daily cuppa joe (much less know who serves it to you!). Now I can tell you first hand that the italians have it far from perfect and-rather tragically- the italian building style and layout scheme is quickly changing and adapting to the needs of the global comsumerist economy, but the piazzas remain, and the piazza mentality lives on as a lesson to us all.
Just think- what if all housing developments were built to be beautiful sustainable little communities, with centers that houses local shops run by local artisans and butchers etc. With the large amount of suburbs dedicated to housing commuter populations its hard to imagine who could own these shops, moreover, how these shops could stay in business with huge Targets and Wallmarts nearby, but even the slightest inclination on developer's parts toward a more community-focused building style would be a huge improvement. We need to take the idea of the 'community center' to a new level and make it something that truly brings together all the people in the area, creates a sense of place, and engenders relationships between different classes and races. I don't think it would be easy, but i do think it would be worth it...
If you know your grocer, are you going to steal from him? If your pharmacist is known by all her customers by name, is she likely to slight or overcharge them? If we all had to walk to the gorcery store everyday to buy just that day's food, would we have such an obese nation?
There are many reasons why mainland America has developed as it has, and many practical arguments against the time, money, and effort that would be required to design with such a community-consciousness, but do we really want to resign ourselves to the alternative? Do we want to surrender to a future of identical row-houses and strip-malls? Where everyone lives in their car, has no idea who their neighbor is, and is 50lbs overweight? Personally, the thought makes me queasy.
our local shops?
a neighborhood?
ew.
It seems to me that a few well-designed piazzas could do our country good...