Durable Growth

Venice 2007: Doing suburbs right

Lido street scene

Lido street scene

For a holiday respite, I devoted some of my posts through December and into January to recounting a trip I took to Venice in 2007. Using photos and notes from the trip, I highlighted the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in perhaps the most famous car-free city in the world.

I’ve now reached the end of January without exhausting the stories and insights that I’d hoped to share.  But Venice is too fascinating for me to depart with tales untold.  So I’ll continue with a few more Venetian posts.  Perhaps not every Friday, but another handful of Fridays over the next couple of months.

Today, I’ll write of the Venetian suburbs, the communities scattered around the Venetian Lagoon.  Several are remarkably distinctive and quite different from Venice itself.

The Venetian lagoon is a notable model of suburbia, unlike many regions of the Bay Area where the communities seem to run together, with a city limit signs being the only indication that one has moved from one town to the next.  Perhaps the locals can spot the subtle differences, but I find Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Cupertino, and Santa Clara to be virtually indistinguishable.  In the part of the Bay Area where I spent my college years, I can make the same comment about Albany, El Cerrito, Berkeley and the flats of Oakland.

In the North Bay, where I now live, we’re a little luckier.  The happenstance of history and the timely intervention of Urban Growth Boundaries preserved some of the distinctive character of the individual communities.  In Sonoma County, Sebastopol, Sonoma, Healdsburg, and Petaluma have different feels.  Even Rohnert Park and Cotati, which sit uncomfortably close together, retain different characters.

But nothing in the North Bay can compare to the range of personalities of the communities scattered around the Venetian lagoon.  Let me take you on a quick tour of three towns.

Lido plaza

Lido plaza

Early during my time in Venice, I found myself at loose ends late in an afternoon, unsure of how to spend the final hours of the day before my evening meal.  I hopped a random vaporetto to see where it would take me.  The surprise destination was Lido, a community on the sandbar that separates the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea.

Most of what I’d been told about Lido was negative.  Specific complaints were that it was bland and it had cars.  (And one cousin noted it as the setting for “Death in Venice”, a book for which he seemed to hold little affection.)

But I liked Lido.  It reminded me of Southern California beach towns I visited in the early 1960s.  Except that it seemed tidier than those towns.  The streets were clean, the cars well-behaved, and the businesses quietly prosperous.  It was a town to which I returned several times during my trip.

Residential courtyard in Murano

Residential courtyard in Murano

I’ve previously mentioned Murano, the community that I mistakenly thought was Venice proper during my initial arrival in the lagoon.  I returned to Murano several times during my travels, now well-aware that it was a different place and prepared to appreciate it for its own charms.

And it does have charms.  A scaled-down, muted version of Venice, its character is defined by the glass industry.  Although Venice was an early leader in the production of glass, a doge made the reasonable decision that an industry that relied on continually burning furnaces didn’t belong on an island of close-packed homes and little fire-fighting access.  So the glassmakers were exiled to Murano where they made the island their own.

Produce barge on a Murano canal

Produce barge on a Murano canal

Today, Murano is a cleaner, but less dramatic, version of Venice.  Like on Venice, the primary transportation routes are still canals with no cars on the island, but the aging palazzos are absent and the pedestrian ways are wider and easier to navigate.  And there are enough glass shops and glassmaking operations that one can shop for days without stepping across the same threshold.

But my favorite Venetian community is Burano.  (Yes, there are communities named both Murano and Burano around the Venetian lagoon.  It’s a frequent source of confusion to non-Italians.)

Burano street scene

Burano street scene

Tucked in the northeast corner of the lagoon, 40 minutes from Venice by vaporetto and only a small length of a tidal arm from Torcello, one of the first settlements on the lagoon, Burano looks almost Scandinavian.  Brightly colored homes line the small, clean canals.  Once again, the palazzos of Venice are absent, but the air of a comfortable middle-class is intoxicating.

Businesses and home along Burano canal

Businesses and home along Burano canal

Lace is to Burano what glass is to Murano.  Small lace shops line the street leading away from the vaporetto stop.  Shop-owners, primarily women, are happy to open drawers and drawers of lace, looking for the right style and size for any need.  And through partially open doors, one can see elderly women busily making new pieces.

More than Lido or Murano, I could envision spending a week in Burano, taking walks around the perimeter of the small island, learning the local restaurants, and contemplating the comfortable pace of life.

Lido, Murano, and Burano don’t prove that Venetians are particularly adept at good community planning.  A look at the mind-numbing single-use land pattern of Mestre, the city where the viaduct to Venice touches land, quickly disproves that hypothesis.  No, Lido, Murano, and Burano are geographic and historical flukes.

But the character and charm of the three towns show the value of retaining distinctive communities.  The geography of the Venetian lagoon is unique.  There are no true parallels in the Bay Area.  But perhaps we can still learn a few things from the Venetian lagoon.  It’d be better than allowing Anywhere, U.S.A land planning and architecture to define our civic experiences.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

2 comments to Venice 2007: Doing suburbs right

  • Easy

    Thanks for all the stories about Venice!

    Can you do a post on how Venice functions as a car-free city? e.g.,
    – What are the alternatives that they use for things like deliveries, ambulances, etc?
    – Any interesting benefits & drawbacks of it being car-free?

    • Easy, I haven’t forgotten about your request. I’ll have to sort through my notes and photos, but do intend to write something about how a city functions without car. (I recall one morning when I became fascinated by an on-going excavation at a historic church. The work was all done by hand, with the workers loading the excavated material into fiber-reinforced bags, rolling the bags to the canalside in a wheelbarrow, and then loading the bags onto a work barge. I watched so long that the workers began looking at me suspiciously, probably fearing that I was with the Italian equivalent of OSHA. I moved along.)