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  • Cycling and Florence: To Whom Do Cities Belong? September 19, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback


    Beach has associations with several cities in central Italy. However, his favourite city, unfortunately at the very outer limits of his migration route, is Florence: once a term, oh happy day, he goes to the ‘Flowering Place’ to give a lesson for a course. There is a lot to like about Florence, but its local administration is not one of them and this year they’ve really outdone themselves. The following is offered in part as a grouse, in part as a political science question: to what extent can politicians use a city as a private toy against the interests of tax-paying citizens? It is a ticklish question and one that, in many western countries, is increasingly relevant… For those who live in countries where citizens still have a voice, just enjoy seeing how far these charlies can push things. For the rest of us despair.

    First the necessary background. Every year the Union Cycliste Internationale holds a series of road races. These have been going since 1921 and every year a city is, naturally enough, chosen to host them. If this was a question of a group of men and women in velogear racing around the cathedral for an afternoon then that would be just fine. It might even be worth going to see. However, the UCI has thirteen different competitions, ranging from the Elite Women’s Road Race to the Junior Men’s Time Trial. It is not, then, just a question of one race that lasts half an hour, but over a dozen that last several hours.

    florence cycling

    Now, of course, this should be an opportunity for a city, and it should also be remembered that cycling is a major sport in Italy. However, to accommodate the UCI Florence has shut down most of the centre of the city from Saturday 21 September to Sunday 29 September. Define shut down? Well, they have marked out routes and the plebs (that is you and me and anyone else who doesn’t wear velogear) cannot cross the routes (marked by arrows on the map above) in certain hours. Most days this runs from 9.00 to 12.30, when there is a kind of happy hour and the city briefly returns to normality, and then from 1.30 to 5.00 pm. This means that if you have an appointment at 4.30 pm on the other side of the line, you have to get there at 1.30 pm.

    But how many people are actually affected? Well, Florence is a city of half a million built around a historic centre, where perhaps a quarter of the population live and along which half of the population have to daily cross, so this is actually a serious inconvenience as many races run along the length of the city and through the centre. Local government have slapped their knee at this, but many schools are closing for a day or several days and some businesses have decided to shut up shop too. Don’t believe Beach? Well, consider the European Union Institute, an international research centre just outside Florence known for its seriousness. The EUI is closing for two days. Normal Italians looking for a holiday? Italians in the private sector are, in Beach’s experience, some of the most hardworking westerners. They look for excuses to work more not less.

    There may be a series of justifications for shutting down a city for a week. If this was truly an international event: e.g. the World Cup; if this was a minor city that needed to be put on the map, e.g. nearby Arezzo; if someone was showering billions down from the heavens… But Florence already has an international reputation and this will not add a jot to it; the city is full to bursting with tourists and we are still in tourist season, this will inconvenience those who have come to live the Renaissance; nor is much money promised, and that money will go to Florence’s local government, which has consistently shown itself unable to spend money properly. Beach spent last Saturday lunch with a family who live in the shadow of Palazzo Vecchio. They are scrambling to find baby-sitters for the days their kids can’t go to school and they are seeking work-arounds for the days they can’t get to the hospital or to the railway station. None of the money will drip through to them…

    In the end the question is perhaps to whom does the city belong? The answer must be the people who live there and though Florentines are reportedly angry, the general feeling seems to be grin and bear it: Italians politicians are like the weather, in the mind of their long-suffering voters, you can’t do anything about them. But this has far far wider applications. Beach has lived in several cities when sets of international politicians have turned up to have their meetings: memories of a crowded historic Portuguese town at G7 time. That example is instructive. The G7 are perhaps 100 individuals and their security details. By far the cheapest solution would be to land these people in Lisbon and put them in a building at the airport there, serve them lobster and then get them off the tax-payers tab as quickly as possible. But countries seem to think that it matters more to give international visitors a pretty backdrop to their discussions than making citizens’ lives easy. And the cyclists? Beach hasn’t the slightest idea how the decision to have these races in Florence could have been justified. But if it really was a matter of life and death then the races could at least have been held on the edge of the city, instead of charging through the centre. But of course the folk in velogear need to see the duomo and the Florentines don’t really need to get to work, the doctor, the kid’s school… Other examples of cities being surrendered for a week: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com