Community Character 201: A Lesson from Italy

roman-bakery_ropepost_300x400.jpgWhen I go traveling to another country, I always take a book that helps me get in the right mindset. Oftentimes I choose fiction that takes place in that particular country. But this time as I packed for Italy, I made room in my suitcase for a fabulous collection of Paul Bowles collected writings entitled Travels.

While none of this book takes place in Italy, focusing more on Tangiers, where he lived for most of his life, and Morocco, in which he traveled extensively, it’s a book about exploring foreign lands. Bowles regales the reader with hilarious tales of near disasters, describes wonderful characters he meets along the way, and reflects on what it means to be traveling in a country other than one’s own.

In a re-published piece entitled “Windows on the Past” written in 1957 about his travels in Europe, Bowles argues that Americans travel to Europe to regain their connections to the past. We get lost, he claims, in the vast American melting pot, in a society always transforming and remaking itself, focused more on techniques and gadgets than something deeper and more meaningful. So we go to Europe seeking something else, something he labels “culture”.

“Culture is essentially a matter of using the past to give meaning to the present,” he says. “A man’s culture is the sum of his memories.”

evening-in-the-square_ropepost_500x334.jpgBowles acknowledges physical landmarks can be important to a cultural experience—the vast cathedrals, castles, museums and public squares so common in Europe. But he argues it’s one’s interactions with the people that truly define the culture of a place.

I agree. In my travels around Italy, the Italian people provide an important cultural feel and authenticity. Their love of life and food, their language that soars or plummets with emotion, the animated groups of men or women in the squares clustered so closely that their waving hands almost slap each other, and their long midday meals and leisurely afternoons all lend to the feel of the place.

casperia-from-the-road_ropepost_300x386.jpgBut for me, the physical beauty of Italy is just as important. The still intact historic centers, the warm colors of the facades, the artistic flourishes on the doorways and windows, the dimensions of the public squares, the omnipresent pedestrian streets all contribute to the experience. The distinct edges of many of the towns, ringed by productive olive orchards, vineyards and pastures also indicate the care with which this place is developed and lived in.

What can America do to ensure its communities create the same special feel? None of our cities or towns have the centuries-long history that underscores the character of so many European places. Yet each place does have a history of its own that is often still evident in its streetscapes or landscapes. And this history helps define the place.

Unfortunately, the character of many of our cities has been obliterated by strip development or development devoid of any unique qualities. Why? In part, because we are car-centric and because we value what’s fast and cheap over what’s thought through and enduring. Many Italian cities were designed for pedestrians and horses, not for cars. Craftsmen took pride in their work, adding the flourishes and details that now leave me gawking.

poggio-cantina-palazzo_ropepost_300x398.jpgAmerican cities and towns would do well to pay attention to this model. We should be building our communities for people, with day-to-day experience in mind. We should be cultivating an ethic of quality and beauty in our built environment and resist the slap-it-up, cookie-cutter syndrome so evident across the country. New should incorporate old, independence from cars should be encouraged, and the edges between urban and rural should be maintained, even enhanced, to respect the divide between human and natural, urban and agricultural that is part of our history.

The Foundation’s $10M Heart & Soul initiative is built on the same argument Bowles makes in his essay: that the culture of a place is driven by its people and supported by its surroundings.

Launched in 2008 and working now with a second round of communities in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain regions, we are developing a process that promotes fresh citizen engagement from as many residents as possible, because how a community grows should reflect the aspirations of people who live there. As communities plan for the future, they should consider the physical and spiritual impact of their decisions.

In other words, if cities and towns allow their heart and soul to be reflected in their planning, they will become vibrant places in which people want to live, and where others will want to visit.

Once the mindset of community leaders, residents and developers is oriented in this direction, a brighter, stronger economic future will quickly evolve; desirable places support healthy economies. Check out Ed McMahon’s excellent piece, “The Distinctive City”, for more on this subject. And let us know what contributes to the character of your place.

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