Monday, September 17, 2012

WALKING THE WALK


We Americans are a puzzling bunch.  We travel to Italy, France or Spain and come back smitten with the charmingly walkable streets, close-knit houses, and humanly-scaled public spaces we find there.  Yet we seldom stop to wonder why our own built environment is so utterly lacking in those traits.  

It’s no mystery:  In spite of rising population and dwindling resources, America remains saddled with long outdated planning ideals that are the furthest thing from the European examples we admire so much.

America is a vast nation, and perhaps in consequence, our planners and engineers have historically been trained to think big.  This tendency has produced some magnificent civil engineering projects such as railways, dams and bridges.  Yet it hasn’t  been nearly so successful at the scale of human habitation.  

Thanks to the megalomania of our traffic engineers, for example, American cities are among the least pedestrian-friendly in the world. Each year, larger and larger swaths of urban and suburban land are paved over with ubiquitous six-lane thoroughfares bristling with redundant arrays of traffic signals.  Aside from creating barren, monotonous and alienating cityscapes, such roads are also daunting barriers to people on foot, no matter how many kinds of whizbang pedestrian signals we install.  Rather than drawing our cities together, our roads tear them apart, providing one more incentive for Americans to drive instead of walking.    

Ironically, in the dwindling number of places where human-scaled roads still remain, city engineers are even now scrambling to widen them, always with the specious objective of easing congestion.  Yet as both traffic studies and common sense can easily confirm, this so-called improvement is pure bunk.  The only thing America’s incessant street widening programs really do--aside from keeping paving contractors in clover--is to invite even more automobile traffic.    

Europeans are notably less obsessed with road widening.  Unlike us, they recognize that the difficulty of negotiating their picturesque streets in a car is a blessing in disguise: It makes people prefer to take public transit, or to simply live within walking distance of their jobs. In short, Europeans design their cars to suit their cities, whereas we design our cities to suit our cars. 

As for our homes, the much-adored human scale of European villages is all but unheard of in suburban America.  This is no accident, either--our neighborhoods can’t help but be coarsely scaled, since our moribund zoning regulations typcially still insist that houses be surrounded by useless strips of setback land. 

The custom of spacing buildings far apart may have made sense a hundred years ago, when America was an agricultural nation and land was cheap and plentiful.  Yet that day is long past.  With today’s usual practice of shoehorning huge tract homes into postage-stamp building lots, the resulting sunless, ten-foot-wide gap left between houses has only one function: to let developers fetch higher prices by continuing to sell their units as “single-family detached”.

In older European towns, by contrast, even houses in wide-open rural areas are often clustered together in villages, their walls adjoining.  The cumulative savings in otherwise useless setback land can then be devoted to public space that actually has some purpose.  

The need to prize every little scrap of land has been central to Europe’s way of building for centuries. But it’s a lesson we Americans have yet to learn.  When it comes to our professed admiration for Europe’s charms, we talk the talk, but we sure don’t walk the walk.

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