The Bikeable/Walkable City: the Example of the Netherlands
My recent trip to the Netherlands was an interesting example of how to build cities that integrate car, pedestrian and bicycle traffic almost seamlessly. Is this replicable?
In my online interactions, one of the issues that seems to really set off North American conservatives and right wingers is the notion of “walkable communities.” This idea that somehow people on the right need to commit to soulless suburbs and two-hour commutes is strange to me. Everyone seems to hate suburbs. But the moment you suggest that it might be more conducive to human flourishing to walk more, the hostile reactions generally fall into one of two categories: “You are not going to take my truck you commie bastard!” And: “Nobody wants to step over junkies and homeless people. I’ll drive thanks.”
I think to myself often that there is no real reason why cities and towns, and, yes, even suburbs can’t be human friendly and walkable. So why aren’t they, and is there anything we can do about it? As I remind my readers often, I am neither scholar nor specialist. I don’t do footnoted monographs. I have assimilated and forgotten more books than most have read. That said, I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately and two things strike me. There is quite a bit of political overlap when it comes to the physical spaces in which we live. We all want humane places in which to live. Nobody likes suburbs. You never hear anyone singing the praises of suburbia. All of us think they are soul destroying spaces.
The idea of physical spaces that enhance our humanity and encourage the flourishing of our communities should be a conservative issue. It should be a society wide issue regardless of political affiliation. Yet, so-called conservative leaders seem unwilling to lift a finger to assert any political will and impose upon builders and developers the kinds of standards that would prevent strip malls, huge parking lots with big box retailers, houses that are all garage at the front, massive inhuman high rises, life sucking multi-hour commutes, churches that look like big box retailers, indoor malls and so much more. Instead, we get bromides about property rights and freedom. We all know that ascendant societies show their emerging cultural and social power through the beauty of their architecture. Meanwhile, we live in a built environment that can only be described as soulless. What does this say about us as a society?
So, what are the problems? Let’s stick to the low hanging fruit with this piece. I want to stay away from the classical vs. modernist debate. My quick answer to that question would be “neither.” The first problem I would identify is that of “efficiency.” It is a simple idea, really. Business tends to work towards economies of scale. This impulse tends to want to group as much of the business, manufacturing, cultural life and even residential spaces into ever closer proximity to create ever increasing efficiency. The only problem is that absolute efficiency is an impossible state. As Christopher Alexander painstakingly details in his “Notes on the Synthesis of Form,” all community design involves trade offs and compromises. Better design comes not from pushing one element to the extreme, such as “efficiency,” but rather from finding a balance, like the delicate pH balance necessary to sustain organic life.
While this efficiency might be good for the financial industry or for maximizing the value of residential land, these densities create problems. Too many people living together in high rises creates a whole host of social problems. Congregating all of the white-collar work together in one place results in long commutes for those who would rather not live in high rise apartments or pay exorbitant urban prices for accommodation. The price of this “efficiency” is passed on to the persons who must commute in from the suburbs, exacting a cost in terms of vehicles, fuel, highways, time and cities emptied of people when work is not happening and so forth. Similar costs are incurred by grouping industrial and manufacturing operations together as well.
This is in part driven by the technical imperative. Rational, intentionally designed cities and towns, because their designs rely on technique, have a bias towards “efficiency.” Ellul identifies this quality as integral to the whole nature of the technical. Efficiency will grow to serve the interests of those in control of the design and build process as well as those who stand to make money from the plans: developers and businesses. In response, moving away from an economies of scale model would mean creating intentional inefficiencies in the system for the benefit of the people who live in work in these spaces.
Why the Suburbs?
Wouldn’t suburbs, one might argue, represent just the sort of inefficiencies I have been talking about? They are certainly inefficient, but for many of the wrong reasons. In some sense, they are the most efficient way to give everyone their own little plot of land. At the same time, they are designed around easy automobile travel and parking. What is the rationale for suburbs? To me, it seems there are two main underlying cultural drivers for suburban sprawl. The first is the older impulse, going back to some of the attraction of the colonies in the first place. It was a way to escape suffocating hierarchies, to claim a piece of land of one’s own and act as one’s own lord. Every man in essence becomes his own country lord. Why would someone want to own a smaller detached house than a larger townhouse? It’s the land that surrounds all four sides of the dwelling. You put up a fence, a wall, and you are lord of your own estate.
Second is the culture of the automobile. The car makes this quest for our own space possible. It allows us to drive insane distances every day to go to work, to shop, to worship and to recreate. A lot of advertising and lobbying went into building the roads and highways necessary to make automobile traffic, at least in theory, cheap, easy, fast and, yes, efficient. But we know that building around the car places great pressures on other aspect of life, such as walking or even the way that houses are designed: all garage and no front windows on tiny postage stamp size lots. Demands are made on arterial roads to make them wider and faster and less friendly to pedestrian or bicycle traffic.
The biggest hurdle to the design and creation of livable cities is having the political will to impose a cultural norm upon society. It involves having a moral imperative in which one’s culture must be imposed upon the physical spaces that surround the community. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if you are surrounded by ugly, soul sucking cities, towns and suburbs that this is a moral indictment of your culture. But: freedom! This is simply a cop out for a society that lacks the moral conviction to live out and impose its culture on the world of physical space. It simply lacks the strength and vitality to shape and conquer the world, including the environment in which people live. Or maybe, our lived spaces here in North America is exactly who we are: soulless, a people without culture?
Perhaps the deeper truth of our built spaces is that in many ways we have substituted commercial and economic pursuits over cultural and moral pursuits. Everything is done to serve primarily economic ends. We build cheaply. We strive for efficiency over beauty or balance. We want to maximize economic value over social value. The first alternative would be to push back against these commercial values so as to emphasize social, aesthetic, moral and spiritual values. Cities can be beautiful and encourage human flourishing if we are willing to insist upon it. The question we ask here: is there enough living culture in North America to impose a coherent cultural aesthetic upon society, to say in and through the buildings built and the way streets are designed that this is who we are!
Or perhaps North Americans are soulless suburbanites who deserve the built environments with which they are surrounded? Is this the content of North American culture?
Density, Hubs, and Constraints
Let’s assume that we want to make a change and begin to shape our lived space in different ways. What can we do? It might seem counter-intuitive but bringing back the human into our lived spaces will mean greater density, but not high density. Again, it is about balance. It might mean the use of more row housing, build close to the street with designs that encourage interaction with the street space.
It will also mean using dispersed hubs. Even in larger cities, there will be a nexus of shopping, office, places of worship, schools, parks, restaurants and, yes, even industry within walking distance of your house. Or, at the very least, say 90 plus percent of all your day-to-day needs can be met within a 5-minute drive from your residence. Each hub services about 5-10,000 people. In a city of 300,000, say, it might mean you have 30 hubs of various sizes.
The biggest challenge that I see in the North American context to this is not so much in the design, but rather the imposition of constraints that are not physically there. We spread out because we can. Again, we bias a libertine approach to property ownership and property “rights” ahead of the overall spiritual wellbeing of the people. The automobile is the means by which we threw off the more human limits of physical space. We spread as fast and as far as we could in the name of freedom, using the automobile as the tool of our emancipation. This gave us the impression that we could build without limits. Once freed from the idea of limits we spread out and we shot upwards and we also crammed ourselves together thoughtlessly. When we honor the idea of constraints, of limits, we are forced to ask questions centred around the compromises that these limits impose upon us.
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