Urban Lessons from Naples, Potenza and Matera

This summer’s visit to southern Italy for a project meeting was a great opportunity to include a few extra days for absorbing local urban experiences. Italy is one of the most-studied scenes in the world among urbanists. Not to mention architecture lovers.

Like so many after their travels to Italy, I also felt compelled to share my experiences and continue my article series on ideas worth stealing (or not) from other cities around the globe. (See the previous ones on Tokyo & Hong Kong here and Istanbul here).

The cities I now had the chance to visit are a curious trio. Naples is perhaps best known for pizza and the Camorra mafia. Potenza for, well, not really anything. Or possibly for some as a place to bypass on the way to Matera and its UNESCO-protected cave city.

Here are the top 5 takeaways I gathered flaneuring in them.

1. The Via Caracciolo Liberation

Urban waterfronts can tell a lot about the aspirations of a city. In the past, waterfronts were often devoted to industrial and other unpleasant uses. Now cities are working towards making these places more people-friendly.

Naples has also joined the movement with a goal of reconquering their picture-postcard waterfront, along Via Caracciolo, from the congested, many-laned arterial road it had turned into during the 20th century.

Naples Lungomare 1
The old pavement markings show it wasn’t always calm and quiet at the waterfront.

The action began in 2012. Naples saw their hosting of the America’s Cup World Series as an opportunity to advance their Lungomare Liberato (liberate the waterfront) initiative. Car access was blocked from a 3km-long section of Via Caracciolo to make room for activities related to the event.

This temporary intervention has over the years become more or less permanent, resulting in a real waterfront promenade for strolling along the sea, hosting various events and enjoying other recreational activities. The restaurants at the Castel dell’Ovo end of the Lungomare have also managed to increase their outdoor seating areas considerably after the cars have vanished.

Naples Lungomare 2
The stretch of the liberated Lungomare that’s sided by buildings is full of restaurants.

The liberation project is in many ways a landmark initiative for immediate quality of life improvement in a congested city. But how things are today offers an extra lesson: adding people-space successfully doesn’t end with blocking access from cars.

It’s now five years on from the original liberation. But the place still looks as if the traffic disappeared yesterday. I was there just on one day, admittedly, but it looks like the Neapolitans’ honeymoon with the newly opened space is over. There’s not much going on at the Lungomare.

Naples Lungomare 3
Beyond the restaurants, there’s not much happening at the liberated space. Nor did it look like much had happened recently. Interestingly only a couple of the few pedestrians I saw walked in the middle of the road. The same happened with Helsinki’s unsuccessful Vaasankatu pedestrianization experiment, troubled by a lack of everything.

This is a reminder about the importance of coupling public space transformations with investments or policies to support the emergence of new activities at the site. Peace and quiet on an empty road is not enough to keep people returning in the long run. I’m not sure if there are active plans for a phase two with the Lungomare liberation project, but it desperately needs new interventions from someone.

2. Escalator Transit Lines FTW. Or Not.

The city of Potenza has an interesting design: It consists of a rather small historic “uptown” on top of a steep hill and a more modern “low town” that spreads around it. The uptown is the center of public life whereas the lower parts are more like suburbs.

Potenza stairway
In Potenza, it’s not difficult to add everyday exercise into your routines.

Potenza’s history is thus one of many stairways. Cars have made climbing up and down less of a necessity, but there’s only so many of them you can squeeze into the narrow uptown streets. Buses don’t really fit at all.

So Potenza has come up with an unconventional idea for providing public transportation: installing giant escalators. After the opening of Santa Lucia, a 600-meters long, U-shaped stretch of moving stairs, the city has bragged about operating the world’s second-longest escalator system (1.3km in total). Altogether there are four such escalator “transit lines”, all equipped with ticket sales booths and grandiose entrances like if you were at a subway station.

Potenza escalator 1
Like at any big transit line, the Santa Lucia escalator has a park & ride facility at the bottom of its U shape. The small huts at the bottom of the connecting promenade apparently belong to a Christmas market. This photo is from June.

You can’t blame the city’s leadership for being unimaginative. The solution does at first seem exciting. But its performance is another matter.

Riding the escalator system is not for those into speedy travel. And more importantly, using the escalators is obviously not like being seated in a bus. You need to stand, which makes having anything with you an extra burden. What’s more, you never take an unbroken ride up or down, but must walk between many shorter escalators. For example, the Santa Lucia is broken up into 26 separate ramps and there’s a 120-meter platform to cross at the bottom.

Potenza Escalator 2
Using any of the city’s escalator lines requires some walking between different ramps. Although none as intensely as with Santa Lucia. In the photo you can see one of the main problems with the system: the next ramp down is closed.

On top of this, maintenance has been neglected and you may need to use muscle power to tackle some sections. Even though you paid for a ticket to avoid that. As you might already guess, it doesn’t seem as many people use the escalators as has been envisioned. I saw only a handful of people using the escalators any time I was on them. Which is very little considering the capacity of just Santa Lucia is 9,000 riders per hour.

Potenza’s escalators show that coming up with whimsical public transportation alternatives is rarely a great idea.

3. Complexity and Modernism Don’t Match

Because I was visiting Potenza anyways for my project, I had to include an excursion to nearby Matera in my trip. Matera’s main sight is its amazing ancient cave city, the Sassi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The dwellings in the Sassi – partially carved into steep rocky hills, partially built like regular stone houses – are stacked along narrow alleys and on top of each other. The result is unreal.

Spectacular Sassi 1
The Sassi di Matera is an experience to remember.

Besides its unique surroundings to explore, the city’s history also offers a classroom example of the damaging effect modernist planning ideas can have on organically grown communities. In a way, the Sassi has been a victim of a slum-clearance process in the mid parts of the 20th century.

Long story short, the so-called slum clearing happened following the city’s gradual expansion much beyond the district with cave dwellings. Over time, many residents with the means began to move to the more recent parts of town that offered running water and other amenities. But the poorest of the poor stayed to inhabit the Sassi and its archaic living conditions. During the rise of high modernism right after WWII, these poor peasants were taken as a national eyesore. The lifestyle of the cave city, untouched by the advancements of society at large, was the antithesis of the modernist project.

Matera Cave Dwelling
A reconstruction of a cave kitchen. The cave dwellings didn’t have electricity, running water, ventilation or natural light. And many shared their cave with domestic animals. Families were large. Much of the daily life in the Sassi happened in public because staying indoors wasn’t very enjoyable until recently.

A team of architects and other experts were called in to save the day. Their solution was to depopulate the Sassi and relocate the community to a carefully and holistically designed out-of-town neighborhood that would offer similar urban surroundings the people of the Sassi were familiar with. (Later development came as regular modernist housing towers).

It didn’t work out. The people of the Sassi couldn’t continue their original livelihoods and the design of the new area(s) didn’t support the social interaction they were used to. The community eventually dissolved and people went on their ways to start over a new life. Some emigrated to America.

Matera New Town
The grand plan for improving the lives of the impoverished Sassi community was to build a disconnected new town(s) for them. Ludovico Quaroni led a team of architects and other planners to design the village of La Martella as the first vehicle to do so. It was completed in 1954. Image credit: Doyoucity.

The authorities and architects destroyed the social fabric of the cave city with their depopulation schemes and top-down visions very efficiently. But unlike with other slum-clearing schemes, the fine-grained and small-scaled physical fabric of the cave city was luckily left untouched.

Today the cave district is experiencing a new golden age. Creatives and later the tourist industry have slowly repopulated the area and transformed it into a highly valued place. Now it’s driving the economy of Matera. It’s kind of ironic.

The Sassi may be structure-wise one of a kind, but its story in many ways isn’t. Jane Jacobs in New York and her peer across the world fought against similar plans to tidy up the most complex neighborhoods in our cities.

Spectacular Sassi 2
Today Matera is preparing to be the 2019 European Capital of Culture. The Sassi is slowly being repopulated and already acts as a tourist hub and source of creativity.

The understanding they helped to spread is that we are much better off with dense cities that mix uses, have small blocks, and a diverse mix of buildings – both in terms of age and form. Despite the criticism, the order-embracing, top-down, modernist planning approach has become deeply rooted into our institutions.

Despite its harsh history, the Sassi is living proof of how fine-grained urban forms can last societal changes and adapt to new times. Their biggest threat comes from “improvements” that are not made together with the local community when (re-)developing them.

4. Bless the Mess

The world’s pizza capital Naples gets often commented as a gritty, chaotic and rough city that may feel unwelcoming to visitors. But I’m with those who invented the saying “Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is its soul.”

Naples feeling
A brief snapshot of that Naples feeling.

It’s true that Naples has an atmosphere rarely experienced in Europe. The streets are bustling with people from all walks of life and traffic is loud and unpredictable. Many buildings are run-down, some of them close to literally falling apart. There’s litter on the streets and graffiti on the walls. Grass and trees grow on roofs. Street furniture is haphazard and neglected.

Old town Naples
The pretty and the crumbled often stand side by side in Naples at various scales. The cracks in the city offer endless opportunities for reinvention and micro-planning for incremental change from the bottom up.

The city may not be shiny and neat, but there’s so much more to it. It obtains traces of qualities often sought in today’s development strategies: communality, social inclusion, a wealth of creative activity and a locally rooted economy.

The streets in Naples are lined with local services. There’s a mix of everything old and new: bars, Michelin-praised pizzerias, car repair shops, meat shops, designer shops, and whatnot.

Naples 0
Naples is much about everything very local. Especially in the downtown areas.

Street markets selling everything imaginable flood narrow alleys. Some of the street vending is very informal and run by migrants with nothing but a piece of cloth on the street or a DIY street food cart. People selling cigarettes (singles or packs) out of boxes stand here and there between market stalls. Some shopping streets blur the boundaries between street market and main street with shops expanding their shelves deep into to the street.

It seems there often is no real boundary between the private and the public on the streets of Naples.

You won’t find just apartments along residential streets, but you’ll often feel like you’re trespassing in someone’s front or backyard. Many apartments open directly to the street and people dry their laundry on the streets. Suddenly a bucket may be lowered from the upper floors to pull up something to one of the upper-floor homes. Occasionally there are small street cafes where adults socialize while watching kids play soccer in the middle of the street.

Indeed, with all its “messiness”, Naples has managed to maintain many aspects of the self-organized, organic, urbanism that we’ve so often lost. The city is like a giant placemaking effort: incrementally built, maintained and continuously re-envisioned from the bottom up through the transactions and activities of a variety of local actors.

Naples 2
Almost a century ago, philosopher Walter Benjamin defined Naples as a “porous city”, referring to the great qualities of the city’s messy urbanism that are still present today. There’s always room for change: the physical and organizational structures are constantly at the intersection between the formal/informal, building/action, order/disorder, static/unfixed – leaving things open for renegotiation and improvisation based on the daily transactions between local actors.

Thanks to any number of reasons, administrative control in Naples has long been relatively minimal. Especially compared to Finland where the management of every tiny detail from the top-down is mainstream policy.

Everyday life in Naples underlines how people-driven cities have great potential to evolve into original, and physically, socially, and economically diverse places that possess built-in resilience and, with their open nature, offer a platform for upwards-directed social mobility.

Naples 3
The “porous” nature of Naples leaves pathways for marginalized groups to participate in society, the cornerstone of upwards-directed social mobility. Could this same thought translate to the scale of cities or neighborhoods which are, under the powers of globalization, increasingly suffering from processes of gentrification/inequality?

Therefore, the city offers an intriguing perspective to review the contemporary ambitions in a growing number of cities to empower the grassroots to participate in the development of their neighborhoods.

Places like Naples can give important lessons on where we need more policy to boost local ownership and where we are better off with less. Tolerating more of the unplanned and uncontrolled may be an important future pathway to achieving resilient cities.

5. The Recipe for Great Piazzas

Italian cities are well-known for their vibrant and beautiful piazzas. It’s indeed a fascinating show to see people of all ages come out to socialize at the local square as if they owned the place. And people will happily hang out close to midnight on a weekday.

In Naples, I took Piazza Bellini as my relaxation spot after long days of exploring. It turned out be a wonderful source of inspiration for creating public spaces in other cities. Not because it has jaw-dropping architecture or can host mighty parades. But because it doesn’t and can’t.

Piazza Bellini 1
One side of Piazza Bellini is for those into proper seating and cocktails.

Piazza Bellini is no larger than roughly a third of a soccer field. No landmark buildings sit by it. The only things to “see” are a small monument in the center and a dug-out stretch of ancient city walls. But it’s amazingly lively.

One side of the square has restaurants and cafes with abundant and atmospheric outdoor seating. It seems to attract a fashionable crowd. The opposite side of the piazza is home to less fancy, kiosk-like, shops that serve fast food and drinks. They also have some tables and chairs available, but takeout seems to be a bigger business. People wander with their drinks and snacks to the middle of the piazza to enjoy them under leafy trees either sitting on the monument’s steps or leaning on small fences.

Piazza Bellini 2
The middle parts of the piazza are for a very mixed crowd and people use whatever they can to lounge around on.

While the Italians’ long-standing culture of embracing public life is certainly a factor, the liveliness is heavily backed up by a set of design principles that can be applied anywhere.

  • It’s a good idea to have different types of zones that attract different types of groups.
  • The square should have activities on its edges.
  • People will linger when there are different types of spaces and street furniture that make it easy to do so.
  • Size matters: a small square is always better than a big one. Also, the different zones and spaces within it work best when they are close to one another, even overlapping.
Piazza Bellini from above
Piazza Bellini is not very large but packed with life. The open space in the upper right corner is what Finnish “piazzas” often end up being like. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

There’s a lot of magic to Italian cities and urban life that you can only experience by going there. One of my dreams is to visit Rome, the mother of all cities, sometime soon to get exposed to its many layers of urbanisms. (Yes, I still haven’t. Fancy a small excursion, anyone?)

At the same time, I must emphasize something I’ve mentioned before but can’t really stress enough. These experiences from Italy may at first seem distant for Finnish cities. But they are not. Many urban problems and solutions are universal.

Cities around the globe are more similar than they are different and we should keep sharing ideas to improve urban life everywhere.




5 responses to “Urban Lessons from Naples, Potenza and Matera”

  1. Costanza Pera / architect Avatar
    Costanza Pera / architect

    Your point of view is very interesting! Please if you need help for organising your trip to Rome ask for suggestions and help.

  2. Timo H. Avatar

    Thanks Costanza! I will keep this in mind.

  3. Helen Kay Avatar
    Helen Kay

    You will be blown away by Rome!! I lived there for a while in thew 90s. The city centre is everything you’d expect but its also interesting to walk around the edges of the touristy parts and the immediate city centre (best on a Sunday afternoon in winter to avoid the crowds) and get a sense of how the streets are laid out so that you get vistas along all the main roads, and surprising and delightful little fountains and piazzas. Enjoy 😉

    1. Timo H. Avatar

      Thanksgivings Helen! I hope to make it to Rome sooner than later. Winter may indeed be a good time to go.

  4. Aurora Martinez Avatar
    Aurora Martinez

    Hi Timo
    I totally agree, the cleanliness and tininess is not a recipe for urban resilience, as urban planner we should yield much more in favor or liveliness and inclusiveness. Thanks for a such inspirational article

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