Parco Civico/Ciani + Lakeshore Promenade: Lugano

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“This is not a crazy pointless luxury; it is a shrewd investment by a city whose moral and economic standing is due in great part to the assets of its natural beauty.”

Professor Angelo Pizzorno

To expand upon themes explored in my last post on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall and Public Garden, including how spaces that are beautifully designed and well-maintained enhance the pedestrian experience, I wanted to provide an overview of the parks and public realm in Lugano, Switzerland.  For the past three years I have visited Lugano annually allowing me the opportunity to closely observe and enjoy the city and environs.  Both are remarkably beautiful.  Last October I met with the city’s “Public green manager”  to discuss the management and maintenance of Lugano’s parks and public spaces.

As the names Parco Civico and Parco Ciani are used interchangeably in most of the documentation I have read while researching this piece I have used them together.   The name plate on the entrance gate to the park reads Parco Civico/Villa Ciani.

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Located at the mid-point of Lugano’s lakefront the Belvedere Sculpture Garden, seen above and below, is enhanced by colorful flower beds, shrubs, trees and a collection of  modern art.

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While writing this piece an editorial titled, The bad and the beautiful; Have we lost the knack of creating attractive cities? The pursuit of beauty has become slightly taboo by architecture critic Edwin Heathcote appeared in The Financial Times (www.ft.com).  The piece opens with a quote from poet  Joseph Brodsky  stating “the purpose of evolution is beauty” to which Heathcote posits, “if the zenith of civilization is the city, then surely it follows that beauty is also the ideal of urbanity.”

Professor Pizzorno, quoted above, argued in 1912 for the acquisition of Lugano’s most beloved park, Parco Civico/Ciani by linking the moral and economic standing of the community to its natural beauty, an element that should be preserved no matter what the cost. Observing that beauty is not a luxury but a shrewd investment, Professor Pizzorno was clearly ahead of his time as park and public realm advocates today routinely tout the economic benefits of those resources.

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Heeding Professor Pizzorno’s advice the citizens of Lugano invested well and today Parco Civico/Ciani is a beautiful, green oasis in the heart of the city that anchors the lakeside promenade and is the crown jewel of the city’s park system.

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“Lugano’s climate supports a diversity of species including exotics as seen in Parco Civico/Ciani”

The map below from “The blue guides Northern Italy from the Alps to Florence”, 1953 edition attributed to E.A. Chambers shows the layout of Lugano’s waterfront. Parco Civico/Ciani is on the far right separated from recreational facilities including outdoor tennis courts, an indoor swimming facility and a public beach (Lido) by the river.

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The map also details the historic city center, (Municipio) and sculpture garden (Belvedere).  The lakeside promenade begins in a small terrace the “Rivetta William Tell” located  off the main gate of Parco Civico/Ciani and ends in the neighborhood of Paradiso providing a coherent and graceful edge to the waterfront. Both active and passive recreational opportunities are sited along the promenade whose character reflects contiguous neighborhoods and road alignments.   Seasonal ferries to adjacent towns and swimming clubs are important destinations sited on the promenade.

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“Ferry terminals connect Lugano to surrounding towns many of which are also accessible by hiking trails

Parco Civico/Ciani, Lugano’s signature park, overlooks the shores of the lake a short distance from the downtown. Described as the “green lungs”of the city, the park’s 63,000 square meters provide a mix of quiet paths, ornamental plantings, lawns, sculpture and a play area for children. Exquisitely planted, the park connects to a network of trails and open spaces and its waterfront promenade affords majestic views framed by the surrounding mountains.

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The park is on the site of the former estate of the Ciani brothers, wealthy Milanese industrialists who are credited with early horticultural and  infrastructure improvements that include building retaining walls along the lake and river in 1845.  A plan from Guidi’s census map of Lugano dated 1849 depicts a formal garden on the estate centered on an ellipse that connects to stables which were removed in 1967.

The highly ornate plan is included in a brief history of the park that I found on the website Viva Gandria.  http://www.viva-gandria.com/article-la-discussione-attorno-al-parco-ciani-64748416.html.

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The Ciani estate,1849

I leave it to future landscape historians (who are more facile in Italian than I) to trace the evolution of the park’s design from a private garden to a public park. It is likely that the Cianis employed a foreign landscape designer for the original layout as according to Christopher Girot, chair of landscape architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ” since no garden design school with an artistic background existed in Switzerland previous to 1887, foreign-educated ‘landscape gardeners’ began moving to the country. With them advanced the villa gardens in landscape style to the status symbol of an entire social class.”

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“The gate along the lakefront in the park is one of the most popular sites for photographs in Lugano”

The 1912 the park and villa were purchased by the City of Lugano for approximately a million and a half francs.

In 1985 a study was undertaken to document significant architectural and horticultural features in the park. At the time 670 trees were assessed to determine their age and state of health leading to a restoration and seasonal planting plan. The seasonal ornamental plantings remain a valued characteristic of the park  that provide annual interest and anticipation.

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The park has two distinct areas that are discernible in the map below, printed before the park was acquired by the city in 1912 . The first, adjacent to Villa Ciani, is accessible from the main entrance and includes gardenesque features, lawns and a collection of trees with an international pedigree.

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The second part of the park, from the dock area to the River Cassarate, has a more naturalistic feeling.  According to records tree species that are indigenous to the area and typical to the forests of Ticino were planted here including oaks (Quercus spp.), Lime (Tilia spp), plane (Platanus hybrida) and maple (Acer spp.).  The play area is located in this area as well.

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A formal entrance gate separates the park from the promenade.

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By 1912 the waterfront promenade, connecting the park to the downtown and other recreational, cultural and transportation amenities had been developed.  Completed in three phases beginning in 1865, the promenade provided a formal edge to Lugano’s waterfront and reflected changing attitudes towards its use as the city evolved from a fishing village to the popular tourist destination that it is today.

The image below, from “Lugano, The City of Murals” in the book  Le Tour de Monde published in 1860, depicts the waterfront at its earliest stages of development.  It is accompanied by the following romanticized text, “The tired tourist walks along the waterfront in the immediate area shaded by chestnut trees and parks whose flora is true botanical gardens.”

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Although taken in a different location on the water the view below, of the promenade today, shows how the original vision has been maintained.

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As the promenade was being constructed (a feat of engineering that involved multiple phases and sophisticated techniques) walking, as a social activity, was surging in popularity.  According to a brief history of walking that I read the first walking club, the Black Forest Wanderverein, formed in Germany in 1864 the year before the first section of the promenade was built.

Concurrent with this trend a distinct type of walker was born, the “flaneur”.   Variously described as a stroller, lounger, saunterer, urban explorer or connoisseur of the street, the flaneur originated in Paris during this period as the city   transformed from a medieval to modern form with grand tree-lined boulevards, squares and public buildings.  The gentleman walker pervaded European culture providing a new way of experiencing the urban environment.

The promenade also provides a venue for the  sacred passeggiata—the afternoon stroll to see and be seen that is an integral component of every Italian day (Lugano is in Ticino, the Italian region of Switzerland). According to a Frommer’s guide the promenade “asserts the city’s true personality as a graceful, sophisticated resort. It’s not Swiss, not Italian…just Lugano.”   A social bonding experience, the passeggiata is also good exercise.  The promenade is a popular destination for leisurely strolls as the pictures below, taken in two different sections attest.

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What makes Lugano’s waterfront so successful?   The promenade is simple and elegant and the design elements are  uniform while the activities are diverse.  Features, including railings, lighting and  benches are repeated throughout. There are easily identifiable zones of activity that support rather than compete with each other, providing a balanced mix of uses.

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A double row of 486 trees planted along the promenade create an environment that mediates between the lake and historic center.  The trees provide a transition between the stillness of the water and the activity of urban life.  Two species of trees, linden (Tilia platyphyllos and Tilia euchlora x) and horse chestnut (Aeschylus hippocastanum) are planted along the promenade.

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The trees are pollarded, a pruning technique practiced  in Europe since medieval times.  Traditionally trees were pollarded for fodder to feed livestock, to generate wood for fuel or to generate materials for fencing and baskets.   Although labor intensive to maintain, pollarded trees tend to live longer as consistent pruning keeps them in a juvenile state.  In addition the compacted form of pollarded trees minimizes storm damage and interference with utility lines.

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Along Lugano’s waterfront the trees create a pleasing, rhythmic scale and beautiful sculptural forms in the winter months.  The interplay of shape and shadow is enhanced by the lake’s reflective light.

The Medieval Garden Enclosed a blog published by the Cloisters Museum and Garden has a useful piece, Woodswoman, Pollard that Tree, should you wish to use this technique:  http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2011/02/25/woodswoman-pollard-that-tree/

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As the pictures below indicate the city has an ongoing effort to replace trees that have been impacted by disease.  The framework needed to pollard the new trees is visible.

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Lugano highly values its natural environment and cultural heritage as an important foundation for future growth.   While I have highlighted Lugano’s iconic downtown spaces – the waterfront promenade and parks, the city is keenly focused on the rich mosaic of gardens, meadows, woodlands, trees and trails that connect its neighborhoods and neighboring communities. In 2012  Lugano nel verde parchi, giardi e boschi (Green Lugano parks, gardens and trees) was published providing an overview of existing spaces as well as planning principles for future consideration.

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When I met with the city’s Public green manager Roberto Bolgè ,who oversees planning and project construction (maintenance is undertaken by a separate agency), I learned that at the moment Lugano does not have friend’s groups or public-private partnerships for individual parks and open spaces.  There is a strong cultural belief that parks and greenspaces are important and they funded accordingly.  Dedicated crews of gardeners tend to each park and they are highly regarded as “artists whose palette consists of plants and flowers cultivated with skill and love,” according to Bolgè.

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Lugano recently completed a survey of Parco Civico/Ciani users which confirmed that people value the park for its restorative qualities and as a place to escape from the city.

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There is not a mandate for active programming (such as yoga, walking groups, dancing, etc.).  There is, however, an outdoor library  and a newly redesigned play area.  The picture of the Park & Read poster below was taken last October (although I am not clear why the title is in English).

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There are opportunities for play and an area outside the park’s gate near the “Rivetta William Tell” is often equipped with games including this oversized chess set.

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“Parco Civico/Ciani’s playground is a popular spot”

Among other projects Lugano has developed a plan to reduce and/or eliminate traffic along the lake (during weekends in the summer the road is closed to cars) and strengthen connections to pedestrian areas in the historic downtown while enhancing access to the lake and park. The proposal includes the development of a new square created by unifying Piazza Manzoni and Piazza Rezzonica with the Town Hall, the city’s most symbolic, important building at its center.   A covered structure would accommodate annual festivals and performances.

The plan maintains the Piazza della Reforma as an internal, “living room” for the city where people meet at the center of the historic street core.   The new square, by the lake, is described as a “play area” tied to events and tourist attractions, open to the lake and landscape.  For more information on the Lakefront Project and other planning initiatives visit: http://www.lugano.ch/en/lugano-urbana/grandi-progetti/progetto-lungolago.html.

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As in my last post this has become somewhat a longer piece than I had intended.  While there is a great deal of other information I might share (such as an overview of the sculpture within the park and along the promenade) I wanted to conclude with a sculpture of “Giorgo” Washington placed in a cupola topped temple-like structure in the Paradiso section of the promenade.  While Washington never visited Lugano, he was immortalized by a Swiss entrepreneur who, according to a guidebook, donated the bust to honor the United States as a land of opportunity.  I must admit to being surprised on the day I stumbled upon “Giorgo” on the promenade leading me to wonder if anyone has ever undertaken a survey of Washington’s likenesses throughout the world.

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Should you be interested in learning about Switzerland’s landscape legacy (and live in the metro Boston area) the McCormick Gallery at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) is currently hosting The Swiss Touch in Landscape Architecture, an exhibition highlighting projects designed by significant historic landscape architects from the beginning of the twentieth century to those practicing contemporary landscape architecture today.

A symposium and gallery talk by Swiss Landscape Architects, open to the public, will occur on January 30th at 6 p.m.  and for more information visit: http://www.swissnexboston.org/a-symposium-with-gallery-talk-by-swiss-landscape-architects.

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Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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