Waking up in Venice is unlike waking up in any other place. The day begins quietly. Only a stray shout here and there may break the calm, or the sound of a shutter being raised, or the wing-beat of the pigeons. How often, I thought to myself, had I lain thus in a hotel room, in Vienna or Frankfurt or Brussels, with my hands clasped under my head, listening not to the stillness, as in Venice, but to the roar of the traffic, with a mounting sense of panic.
—W.G. Sebald, Vertigo
It’s obvious when you think about it, yet the thought never occurred to me until the morning after my 50th birthday, when I awoke for the first time in Venice… There are no cars. How could there be, when there are no roads? Even bicycles are banned. If you want to get around in Venice, you walk or you catch a boat.
With the exception of my three years at Durham University, which can hardly be said to count, I have never lived in a city. I’ve visited them, obviously, and some I really liked, but, on the whole, cities: you’re welcome to them. Not my scene at all. Too busy. Too noisy. Too many people. Some people love cities; they can’t imagine living anywhere else. Good luck to them! There are even those who claim, with some justification, that cities are the future, being by far the most sustainable way of supporting large populations of people. Cities undeniably bring economies of scale. But living in one of them is my idea of hell.
As Sebald points out, Venice is hardly your typical city. Granted, I was staying in the centre of town, along with all the other tourists, so didn’t get to see how real Venetians live, but the total absence of cars and vans, and the ridiculously narrow and tortuous medieval alleyways made it feel at times more like a movie set or theme park than a vibrant city. But there were plenty of ordinary people there, in amongst us tourists, going about their daily business. People in business suits on mobile phones; people pushing hand-trolleys (the Venetian equivalent of delivery trucks); street-hawkers selling selfie sticks and fake Gucci handbags. And the odd thing was, it seemed to work. The alleys were packed with shops and restaurants, and the shops and restaurants were packed with goods and food and customers. Despite the total absence of powered wheeled transport, stuff got around. It ended up where it needed to be. It wasn’t cheap, but it was at least available. It is entirely possible, it turns out, for a city to function without cars and vans and lorries. Who would have thought it? But is it practical?
In the valley below where I live, there’s a renovated cotton mill that has now been re-purposed as a visitor centre. It’s 100% self-sufficient in terms of its energy, water and sewage needs, and has won numerous sustainability awards. Right on! But I can’t help thinking it’s cheating. The mill has its own dedicated mill-pond providing water for its hydro-turbines, and is set in the middle of a large forest packed full of free firewood. All very green, but hardly scalable. We can’t all have our own mill-ponds and forests.
The same goes for Venice: yes, it sort of works, but it’s a very special case. Constructing cities on 117 small islands in the middle of their own private lagoons doesn’t feel like the future to me—unexpectedly peaceful though it undoubtedly is.