Medium-sized Alpine Towns

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The medium-sized Alpine town is a urban type, with its specific functional and spatial peculiarities. It does not rely on tourism and the presence of snow; it has a population between 20,000 and 50,000 inhabitants; it occupies the bottom of a glacial valley and sits at an altitude between 200 and 800 meters above sea level. There are many examples: in Italy Aosta (population 35.000, altitude 600 masl), in Switzerland Bellinzona (p. 18.000, a. 250), in Austria Lienz (p. 12.000, a. 700), in France Gap (p. 41.000, a. 735), in Slovenia Kranj (p. 37.000, a. 400), in Germany Garmisch-Partenkirchen (p. 26.000, a. 708).

What do medium-sized Alpine towns have in common? Firstly, they all sit on or near a river (or sometimes a lake), implying the presence of a bridge; engineering works – bridges, embankments, tunnels, and dams – play important roles. Secondly, the constant presence of military praesidia and barracks; these are often empty and their eventual conversion shall have to confront the fact that most medium-sized Alpine towns have a declining population. Thirdly, the presence of a municipal market square, with a fountain and porticoes.

Compared to the metropolitan areas forming a galaxy around the Alps, medium-sized Alpine towns present a contrast. Typically, the functions of medium-sized Alpine towns range from health to culture, from education to recreation, from transport to craft, from water to energy management, from year-round tourism to periodical conventions.

Most towns also offer mementos of pre-tourism days, when the Alps were exploited as a mining and quarrying area: granite, basalt, gneiss, sand, lime, iron, and even gold. Some old industrial areas survive, some have been submerged by the advance of nature, and some have become tourist attractions. One could say that medium-sized Alpine towns convey the melancholy of the in-between; they compete, on opposite fronts, against a handful of multi-purpose Alpine towns (Bolzano, Innsbruck, Grenoble, Luzern, Villach) and against a myriad of picturesque villages dependent on tourism.