A drive through the Po Valley sprawl

For my purpose I found the best source of information was the built environment. A great deal of my research has consisted of going out and looking around (Robert Bruegmann, Sprawl: a compact history, 2005)

ss10pv_0345th Parallel cuts through the town of Voghera, on the southern edge of the Po River basin, Italy. Actually, nothing exceptional, seen that 45th Parallel cuts through so many other places all over the World. But here in particular someone has put a rainbow-shaped sign over the six lanes of the A21 motorway Torino-Piacenza, suggesting something like: hey, you’re driving exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. Right beside the raibow sign, beyond a guard-rail and a slim landscaped strip, runs on the same level as the motorway the section of Highway 10 Padana Inferiore [Lower Po Valley Highway], serving here as a bypass for the Voghera urban area, and linking the east-west and south-north transport corridors. If you happen to drive on those lanes, particularly heading eastwards, you can’t miss a very peculiar sight: almost exactly aligned with the flamboyant rainbow (almost exactly encroaching 45th Parallel) the Voghera Council has built at a distance of only some dozens meters the town’s “Garbage Multi-management Centre”, that is to say some shelters, and many heaps of plastic bottles, empty cans, and so on. All around the shelters and heaps, on a range of hundreds meters, one can see just open space fields, lined with the occasional trees, planted with corn, lawns, ploughed grounds. And now, a simple question: isn’t there any other place, slightly apart from this iconic (and rainbow-marked) 45th Parallel area, to place the praiseworthy garbage-managing structure?

Really simple question indeed, and for sure any responsible official could dismiss it with a short and technically sound statement. But this casual garbage dumping, actually encroaching 45th Parallel, could be considered a symbol, a short summary of what has happened and is happening right now all along the Padana Inferiore corridor, an ancient transport structure called here two thousand years ago Postumia by the Romans, running just like some kind of parkway from on end of the megalopolis to the other. The Po Valley Megalopolis, that is.

Park-way running through what most scholars and geographers classify as a proper European megalopolitan region: “structured around flows of goods, people, money and information, developing inside and interacting with … other strong areas”1. The particular place we are “driving through”, is what geographer Eugenio Turri called the Green Heart of the Megalopolis, that is to say the broad green belt and network made mostly of agricultural, natural and open spaces, the “urban park” of the megalopolis2. And starting from an occasional sight of this garbage dumping casually encroaching 45th Parallel, on the Padana Inferiore highway, km 145, we can try to see how well this park is kept as a whole, that is to say check any other kind of “garbage” clustered on either side of the transport corridor in recent years by human activities. Mostly a direct, sight check (together with a browsing of the related regional plans) about the shape taken by the “ribbon development stretching on almost 400 kilometres, but now forming something that one could call an “urban corridor”. Fronts, setbacks, built spaces, open spaces, landscapes, and broadly al the environmental settlements, al this can be considered as a whole, particularly examining its relations, as a non-continuous (actually, not yet continuous) asphalt ribbon, and the “green heart” where it’s growing and winding.

The road

When the roads seem free, the choice is scarcely so (Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation, 1997)

ss10to_20The Padana Inferiore Corridor3 is one among other infrastructured ribbons stretching west-east along the Po Valley megalopolis. It’s seldom considered as a whole (just like usually happens on the foothill running Padana Superiore, A4 motorway Torino-Venezia, and corresponding railway line; or in the opposite southern side of the Po River basin, the Via Emilia corridor). And if you take a look at the regional planning schemes, Padana Inferiore is mostly examined and considered, as one can read browsing the various strategies, functionally splintered in many short parts, mostly connecting two or more locally important centres. The road starts just outside the historic centre of Turin, in the neighbourhood called Sassi, on the foot-hill eastern bank of the river. After a quite short climb and a tunnel bypassing the very low density, rural and affluent residential area on this side of the city, this same road runs across the big plains, through old small-medium size important urban centres and settlements: Asti and part of the Monferrato region, Alessandria, Tortona (where the track becomes one with the ancient Roman, Genua-Adriatic sea, Postumia road), the foot-hill of the so called “Oltrepo Pavese”, from the above mentioned town of Voghera, through Broni and Stradella, to Piacenza, crossing the other Roman road, Via Emilia (in many urban settings in this area, the Padana Inferiore changes its name in: “Via Emilia Pavese”). After the eastern Piacenza area, running along the levees of the Po, the road crosses the river in Cremona, and then the rich agricultural region to Piadena, and the Oglio River on the western border of the Mantua Province. Right after another bridge, on the Mincio River in the historic city centre of Manta, Padana Inferiore enters the low-lying plain south of Verona, (in the town of Nogara the road crosses State Highway 12, Abetone-Brennero) cutting through the almost continuous developed area of Sanguinetto, Cerea, to the bigger Legnago, the bridge on Adige River, and the border of Padua Province. Here the road runs right along ancient medieval walls in the fortified town of Montagnana, to the Euganei Hills in Este and Monselice, ending in a quite small roundabout on the southern bypass, 375 kilometres from the start in Turin.

During all this journey, actually something like a dawn-to-dusk drive at cruise speed, Padana Inferiore shows many various landscapes, settings, different balances between developed areas and open spaces, between old and recent “strips”. But there’s a peculiar, general trend one can’t help but notice: the constantly growing ribbon development, mostly a light industrial and retail development, paving and characterizing long stretches of the corridor, sometimes just interrupting itself on a municipal/provincial border, then starting again on the other side. Actually, where the landscape is more traditional, rural, the urban setting historical (and the new buildings well planned), this trend could have much more less impact than in the developed immediate outskirts of the main towns and/or junctions. On one hand these long (and relatively thick) outbursts tend to stretch themselves, on the other smaller developed “dots” on secondary crossings sprout and begin to grow everywhere: sometimes where an old settlement (mostly rural buildings, or a simple gas pump plus a landscaped strip) stands, usually unplanned and on both sides of the road, literally “sandwiching” and swallowing it, virtually blocking its regional transport function. Sometimes the strip could be well planned in itself, but badly so in terms of setbacks, parking lots, and in general regarding key development/highway relations.

This does not mean the drive through the “green heart” of the Po Valley Megalopolis is the same as a journey through a paved, continuous, concrete retail-manufacturing “snake”. The whole area still is the big breathing central park for the urban region, main trunk of an articulated system of water bodies, open spaces, natural and agricultural areas. However, clues of the “paved snake” trend are visible, although watered down through the almost 400 km long drive. And mostly read by the planning agencies as a local problem, though that’s an “inter-regional” one. So it’s quite interesting “going out and looking around” on both sides of this transport corridor, trying to find out some evolutionary trends. That’s what I’ve done. The following paragraphs will tell the story of this simple dawn-to-dusk drive.

The drive

You don’t know what you’ve got. ‘Til it’s gone. They paved paradise. And put up a parking lot. With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot (Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1974)

Turin, Monferrato area, and Alessandria plain (120 km)

ss10at_11Padana Inferiore road starts from the eastern river banks just below the sanctuary-topped Superga hill in Turin, right where Casale Street divides itself in two branches. The first roughly following the river and the side of the hill heads, just beyond the city borders changes its name to Monferrato road; the other branch, the right one, starts immediately climbing, while the compact city seem suddenly disappearing. A strong impression, but also a wrong impression, coming to an abrupt end right after the tunnel bypassing the low density residential district called Pino. The road is now heading to the plains, running again strictly packed on both sides with the dense metropolitan development we actually had never left. The Regional Plan calls these places “decentralization of compatible functions, encouraging the “de-urbanization” trend, already developing itself shifting notable amounts of population from big and medium-size urban centres to external fringes with a better high-quality development”4. The regional plan, as highlighted by the use of the term “compatible”, is well aware of problems like land cover and urban sprawl, mentioning “employment corridors” as proper places where to concentrate investments and development hopes. The local plans will be responsible for more detailed policies following these general lines.

The Padana Inferiore cuts through a quite small (and also not very significant) area subject to the Provincial Plan of Turin. However a look to this document can offer a useful comparative tool, as a general “introduction” to the corridor, as an environmental, development and transport system. On Chapter Sistema Insediativo [Urbanisation Pattern], the plan describes the industrial decline and the recent recovery of the central area, and the contemporary decentralisation to other places around it, towards a “branched” or “exploded” development, where “functional proximity” is the substitute of physical closeness5.

The Transport chapter emphasizes the aim to enhance the quality of urban centres spreading different functions over a broader area, reducing the congestion of the main City and “impacts of the transport structures, and of the traffic overwhelming other urban functions”. The plan sketches some “decentralisation corridors”, stretching the need through the local planning schemes to shape adequate developments, avoiding “wrong locations”6.

The plan’s Norme Tecniche di Attuazione [Standards] state among local planning responsibilities:

– encourage physical (or functional) proximity to the existing developments;

– verify all the environmental, landscape, heritage impacts;

– protect the free regional traffic flow, avoiding the location of “strip development”7.

The standards for big retail developments, too, emphasize either the environmental, water, heritage and landscape impacts, or (and, in my opinion, it’s one single problem) the inter-regional traffic flow through the corridor. In other words, the highway system is never to transform into an annex to any kind of ribbon development, maintaining its main “megalopolitan” (regional, at least) role. So it’s important “regulating the crossroads between any local road and the main highways through roundabouts or adequate entry-exit lanes”8. Other problem, as we are going to see later, is the connected “parasitism” to the main transport corridor of the developed fronts9.

In general, Turin provincial plan seems to take serious care of the ribbon development problem, although Padana Inferiore corridor hardly is one of the most important here (the foothill Piedmont segment of European Corridor 5 is “the” political question), but nevertheless cuts through key areas from the landscape, agricultural and environmental point of view.

So, it’s a very short drive, the one from the River Po banks, through the tunnel below Pino hill, to the small towns of Chieri and Riva. But even in this short drive one can find with ease some clues of the leit-motiv accompanying the whole trip, from Turin to the Euganei hills: the constant, visible presence of ribbon development. I takes slightly different shapes, from the old rural or traditional building with some new wings, functions, paved parking lot on the front, through many degrees and mixed versions, to the more complex and planned “strip”, often developed according to long term local (that is, municipal) strategies. An highly visibile presence, when the “corridor” is less a planner’s jargon word, and more a physical cramped environment, and the road suddenly transforms itself in a roofless “tunnel” between industrial and/or retail fronts, neon signs, various setbacks, lanes, landscaped strips. Another, much less visible and “primitive” version of ribbon development, is the one sprouting everywhere along the road, but mainly in the most remote rural areas, maybe with, say, just a single industrial building on one side, another on the opposite side, both with a very limited setback, no entry-exit lanes, no proper parking lot, at a distance of some hundred meters from a small village. In the middle, very often, brightly coloured billboards advertise Land For Sale (developable land, of course).

07c_monella2A first “virtual” example of this latter setting can be found at the edge of the developed area in Riva di Chieri, the last municipal jurisdiction in the Turin provincial administration, fronting its bypass, on Padana Inferiore km 21. Coming from the big city and heading eastward, this tentative “strips” on both sides of the bypass is barely visible: two-three hundred meters with a “Garden Centre” building, with a small unpaved parking area on the setback space, ending on the asphalt rim; two separate retail outlets (Furniture and Bathroom accessories), each with a separate car entrance and small parking lot. All this garden-furniture-bathroom stuff faces the right (west) side of the road. On the left (east) side, the discontinuous opposite chunk of this potential highway-sandwich begins right in front of the “Garden Centre”, where its greenhouse and nurseries stand, marking the corner of a country secondary road departing from Padana Inferiore. Some ten-twenty meters south of the corner with this local road, a quite large paved area with a gas pump, a car-washing plant and a small service building marks the end of the “example”. Nothing exceptional, one could say: just some familiar suburban local strip, and so? But consider, for instance, the Garden Centre/Greenhouse/Nursery complex, selling tools and machinery on the right side, offering plants and fertilizer on the left. Imagine a typical week-end, with customers and employees walking across the “megalopolitan” corridor, to or from their parked car … In other words, all the money (and greenfield space) spent on the bypass has been in part wasted, and the highway virtually downgraded to a local, semi-pedestrian environment, just like the original congested main town street “bypassed”. Why, all these independent (haphazard) setbacks-parking lots, with or without an access lane, a landscaped rim? Just like in Voghera, another simple question, and for sure another responsible could dismiss it with a short and technically sound statement. The provincial plan stated “regulating the crossroads between any local road and the main highways through roundabouts or adequate entry-exit lanes”: where’s all this “regulation”?

After this commercial “micro-strip”, and an agricultural greenbelt marking the end of the Turin provincial jurisdiction, Villanova is the first town of the Asti area. At the edge of the built-up fringe, the junction of the motorway A 21 Torino-Piacenza-Brescia, henceforth virtually part of the Padana Inferiore corridor, and also source of serious problems either as a “traffic-feeder” or development magnet.
On the provincial planning side, the local scheme for the Asti area seems far less concerned than its Turin counterpart, about the road/settlement relations.

The plan’s Norme Tecniche, where examining guidelines for industrial/commercial developments in the local schemes, state for instance “access to the single areas and to the whole neighbourhoods will be adequately managed, depending from traffic flows and kind of manoeuvring, to avoid any direct communication between single areas and roads”10. A good intention, of course, but what about the relation with existing residential and commercial developments, their mutual distance? (“physical or functional proximity”, quoting the regional scheme). One could suspect, of course, problems like these can be better managed on the local level. Seen the peculiar qualities of the landscape, particularly in the vicinity of the Padana Inferiore corridor (with the exception of the main urban centre, Asti), maybe some important “indirect guidelines” about the road/development relation could be found in the agricultural and heritage chapters of the same planning scheme.

Yet, when comparing the two provincial planning schemes for the Turin and Asti areas, one can’t miss the difference: the first mostly with a clear, unmistakable anti-sprawl perspective, and the latter apparently uninterested in what seems to be considered, here, just a local problem, a minor challenge for local schemes and road plans. Through this mostly rural and hilly area, with its traditional landscape, settlements and small towns, the light industrial and commercial strip could have a peculiar impact. The first sits just across the jurisdiction boundary, literally sprouting from the motorway A21 ramps, on the western fringe of the town of Villanova. The agricultural greenbelt marking the border of the Turin provincial area comes abruptly to an end, where a compact cluster of industrial and office buildings
begins. Quite obvious, an industrial cluster here, where the motorway cuts across the Padana Inferiore, in a relatively flat area, near the Turin metropolitan region. Much less “obvious”, the scattered apparently unplanned (badly planned?) extension of this same cluster on the side of the road. Slightly different functions, buildings, settings, and a complete array of entrances, landscaping, parking lots and/or gravelled stretches along the fronts. The good news is, this scattered extension sits only along one side of the road  … (to be continued? See the complete text in the original Italian version)

1 Silvera, 2000: 91
2 Turri, 2000, cap. 9, Il cuore verde della megalopoli: 223-241
3 Former State Highway 10, now in charge of the various Regional Agencies. Informations concerning main improvement works, traffic and other matters in the Piedmont area on the website Unioncamere/Infrastrutture, and in the Lombardy area ; other information on the main Regional Agencies sites.
4 Regione Piemonte, 1997, p. 34
5 Provincia di Torino, 2003a, p. 127
6 idem, p. 172
7 Provincia di Torino, 2003b, art. 10: Insediamenti produttivi e commerciali, 10.41 Norme Generali, p. 41
8 idem, 10.52, Direttive, p. 43
9 idem, Art. 11, Indicazioni relative alla viabilità, 11.6 Direttive, p.49
10 Provincia di Asti, 2002, Titolo III: Norme relative all’Uso del Territorio, Art. 35, Attività produttive, 5. Indirizzi e criteri di compatibilità, p. 69



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