Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pedestrian friendly Venice

The islands that comprise the center of Venice have no motorized wheeled vehicles. The streets are sometimes narrow – less than three feet wide. The bridges over the canals are built with steps; only a handful of bridges also have ramps, all of which are recent additions. The streets, even the back ones and dead ends, are well lit. I’ve seen more solitary women walking about Venice late at night than I have seen anywhere else. Apparently, Venice is a safe city for pedestrians, something critical for tourism but also a significant positive for the quality of life of Venetians.

Deliveries, trash removal, and rapid transit all require boats and, in for deliveries and trash removal, two-wheeled push carts. The city’s density and web of canals makes this lifestyle possible without feeling that one has returned to a pre-motorized era. Venetians generally walk at a faster pace than do the tourists, perhaps because they are accustomed to sights, know where they are going, and walking is their primary mode of transport.

What I do miss are green areas. Venice has a few parks, most of which are poorly kept, perhaps because of Italy’s or Venice’s financial problems. A minority of large homes have small courtyards, most of which are also poorly tended. I’ve seen more greenery on rooftop terraces than I have in courtyards. Perhaps the occasional flooding that happens in much of Venice discourages gardeners. At first I attributed the lack of green areas to the lack of land and population density, but then I thought of London and Manhattan, which both have lots of green areas in spite of a high population density and are both pedestrian friendly, although Manhattan is less safe than London or Venice.

Research in the U.S. suggests that people born in the last third of the twentieth century are more likely to seek a pedestrian friendly lifestyle than were their elders. A pedestrian friendly lifestyle not only includes purposeful exercise (Venetians appear less overweight than most Americans), but also encourages one to know one’s neighbors (neighborhoods resound with shouted greetings), contributes less to global warming, and encourages people to live in smaller dwellings and therefore accumulate less stuff. In sum, a pedestrian friendly lifestyle encourages healthier communities than does a lifestyle built around automobiles, which tend to be more hurried, stressful, ecologically damaging and isolating.

I’m not a Luddite. Gasoline powered engines have enabled some great advances, not only in transport, but also in other labor saving, quality of life improvements.

However, burning carbon based fuels does contribute to global warming, making life more precarious and probably less healthy for many species, including humans. Furthermore, the supply of carbon based fuels is limited. The more people who consume carbon based fuels at the rate Americans consume those fuels, the more quickly humans will deplete the supply and exacerbate ecological problems.

People becoming more intentional about judicious reliance on carbon fuels and opting for advantageous alternatives – such as pedestrian friendly urban lifestyles – can expand earth’s capacity to support human life and permit significant improvements in the quality of life for billions. Promoting ecological responsibility may have more success by promoting positive alternatives to the status quo rather than simply seeking to limit pollution and economic growth.

Thomas Malthus was an Anglican priest and an early economist who believed that population growth would not only preclude humans from establishing an earthly utopia but also eventually exceed the earth’s ability to sustain life. Time has proven his specific forecasts wrong. Humans have repeatedly found ways to increase food production and to achieve other quality of life improvements. Yet the earth obviously has some maximum capacity for sustaining life, including human life. The earth also has a limited capacity for self-renewal (this is one of the theses of James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Planet Earth).

An ethic that promotes life abundant will promote lifestyles compatible with an abundant life for as many creatures (including people) with maximal quality of life. In the broadest, most profound sense, such lifestyles are also the ones most compatible with the genetic drive for reproduction and a broad reciprocal altruism. This gives one’s progeny a better chance of reproducing than does a more narrowly focused ethic than emphasizes self over others – in other words, Ayn Rand was wrong and Jesus, Confucius, the Buddha, and other great religious leaders were right!

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