Smoking in parks and motorcycles on sidewalks: Lessons from Italy

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

Pedestrians, cars and bike are all accommodated in Milan.

By Knute Berger

Seattle is banning all smoking in city parks. You already can’t drink in city parks, either.

These are essentially civility laws designed to curb the behavior of certain populations. The smoking ban is aimed at downtown parks where street people congregate. The booze ban is to keep a lid on excess drinking by teens, drunks and partiers who are likely to spoil things for everyone else with rowdy behavior.

At one level, such rules seem necessary to managing our urban parks. But the real problem is our behavior. This struck me on my recent trip to Milan, Italy, as my wife and I spent time in the city’s central Parco Sempione, the former hunting grounds of the Duke of Milan and now a lovely urban park with a castle, sports arena, aquarium, museums, bars. It’s everything a major urban park should be. Smoking and drinking are allowed.

Crosscut archive image.
Milan's Parco Sempione, where crowds gather peacefully without Seattle-style rules. Credit: a href=

On a warm, sunny May weekend day, the park was abuzz with people. You could lie down on the green grass and hear the hum of Italian social interaction. People sat on park benches talking animatedly, bicyclists and walkers traveled on broad pathways at leisure. Outdoor cafes and bars dotted the park where you could sit outside and sip a beer and have a smoke.

The interesting thing was how lovely and civil it all was. No drunks, not even a whiff of cigarette smoke. The Milanese are free to smoke, but from my observation relatively few do. In two weeks, second-hand smoke was only an issue once in an outdoor cafe, but a passing one. I didn’t see people carrying alcohol in the park, but the cafes dotting the grounds allowed for its consumption in a relaxed, ordered atmosphere. This caffeinated culture is pretty calm.

I was also struck with the transportation situation in Milan, an industrial city of 1.3 million people. Drivers were aggressive, but they stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, and jaywalking isn’t rampant. There are lots of pedestrian streets too. There is a lot of street parking, often creatively packed into boulevard medians. Motorcycles and scooters can park on wide sidewalks.

Bike paths and lanes were everywhere — both grade-separated and painted on the street. They were respected. Cyclists weren’t in a rush and consisted of people of all ages in street clothes — no racing gear, no helmets, no attitude, no weaving in and out of traffic. They have bike share, which seems well used. It’s a flat city, and that helps. Streetcars, trains and subways carry a major load and are fast and frequent.

In many ways, they are living the kind of transportation ideal that Seattle seeks.

But the notable difference was behavior: An agreed-upon traffic culture, options for everyone, accessibility and no moralistic attitude. No “war” on cars or bikes. No resentment of pedestrians. People making statements seem to do so through graffiti, a Milanese art form. But the streets seemed unexpectedly calm, save on May Day. Day-to-day life seemed to lack that edge of Seattle righteousness that infects so much of what we do.

I also flash back to trips to Japan. State of the art street vending machines are common in big cities there. You can stand on a street corner and buy fruit or a cold drink in the sweltering heat of Osaka or Tokyo. I remember them wistfully because when I was standing there in a humid sweat, I realized that in Seattle, we could not have such nice things. Just look at the way our parking meters and news boxes are routinely trashed. These machines would be vandalized and wrecked on most American streets, including ours. It’s sad, small indicator of our shortcomings.

We’re a city that used to be known as polite, law-abiding (wait for the walk light to turn green!), and we are earnest to do right. But our culture is holding us back. We embrace excess, our independence, our “rights,” even our right to be hostile and aggrieved. We’re marginalizing the marginalized further, we’re setting up competitive camps, we’ve almost given up on shaping a more cooperative, consensus, egalitarian culture.

We’re falling back on nanny laws when a culture of voluntary moderation could do better. We’ve got gaping holes in the social and mental health safety nets that are exacerbating the problem.

We need to look into the civility mirror and find a path to freedom from our petty pathologies.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.