Turin’s relationship with, and some might say reliance on, the automobile company Fiat is fascinating. On our Bing trip to Turin this past weekend, we visited the Fiat factory and had the Director of Communications give us a presentation about the role of the company in Turin’s history and future. Fiat was founded in 1899, becoming the largest automobile company in Italy by 1910, a title it would never lose. The company employed huge numbers of Italians and brought about the expansion of the city to provide housing for the workers.
An interesting component of Fiat’s power, however, was its ability to affect the physical planning of the city in a way that today would be unacceptable to most urban planners. The city is large—the third largest in Italy, many easily forget—and planned very rationally, with a grid pattern and wide streets. Fiat’s opposition to the development of a sophisticated public transportation system, however, made it impossible for Turin to install a metro system or tram system until decades too late. Fiat wanted its workers to buy cars, naturally, and its economic dominance of the city translated to political dominance. A metro was finally begun for the 2008 Olympic Games, but due to limited funds, is largely still under construction.
Due to sustainability being the new buzzword, though, Fiat has switched its attention to environmentally friendly vehicles, including futuristic prototypes that if nothing else, inspire thought about the future of automobiles. While low emission cars are still on the whole more polluting than low emission buses, it’s a start that should be recognized, especially in a country where the environmental movement seems to be limited in its effect. Fiat models are inherently more environmentally friendly than most American cars simply because of the infeasibility of driving huge, gas-guzzling cars in Europe. The Fiat 500, for example, is a hugely popular car because of its classic Fiat look and beautiful design, not because of any associations with masculinity or power.
Transportation is clearly a huge topic in Turin, but on the other side of the spectrum is the city’s central position in the Slow Food Movement (which Taylor also discusses). Begun by Carlo Petrini in 1986, the movement encourages traditional and regional cuisine, offering an alternative to the influx of the fast food culture. A symbol of this movement is the flagship Eataly grocery store, which specializes in gourmet artisanal food. I’ve been able to visit the one in New York City as well, and while seriously tempting, both are oases of high quality food outside the price range of even wealthy residents. Eataly’s success has led to the opening of restaurants worldwide, with one planned even for Japan, and is putting Turin back on the map.
Turin, as one of our guides remarked, is the most important city you’ve never heard of. With its huge importance in transportation and food, two topics currently of huge interest to urban planners, its innovations serve as an example to many other cities in Italy that haven’t fared so well through the economic downturn.