In recent weeks, I have had the experience of being in some very large chunks of the “built environment.” The airports in Houston and Mexico City are just huge, if not spread out as far as the terminals at Denver. Even looking out the bay windows in an attorney’s downtown 16th-floor conference room at the snow-capped Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque was stunning. It wasn’t just the view, it was the character of the monumental architecture that provided it. These structures are meant to impress.
What makes a city work? Well, people of course. But so much more. It is about how they live and work and interact, and how they maintain the qualities of the more mundane elements of the built environment they inhabit. Cities, towns, and villages are all complex adaptive systems with all sorts of nodes and links between them, which function in so many ways to keep them alive. The average lifespan of corporations is ten years. Cities live so very much longer for too many reasons to list here. In short, they are alive.
Some Cities, like New York, succeed in spite of themselves. It helps to be the financial center of the universe if you want to be known for super highrise office buildings. But where is New York’s charm, its human qualities? In its neighborhoods, of course. Don’t look for charm in Trump Tower’ all you will find are pretensions of wealth. Extreme disparities in wealth and poverty can exist within an otherwise great city.
Haarlem is a small city near the much larger Amsterdam, in progressive Holland where public spaces are revered, used, and preserved. Haarlem has all the benefits and less of the crowding of its larger neighbor 15 minutes away by rail, bus, or car.
City as Celebration
Edinburgh is my favorite city in Scotland, but I was only there during its world-famous month-long summer Edinburgh Festival, which made crowding fun. The Festival is accompanied by “The Fringe,” the world’s largest arts festival, scattered among the streets throughout the city. It seemed every language could be heard on the cobblestone walk-street near Edinburgh Castle. And the Edinburgh Book Festival, held that same month, is exciting for any reader. Well, again, it’s a world-famous lovely city. Its charm is well aged.
But what is it about Lyon? Despite all the iconic sights and sounds of Paris, I much prefer Lyon as a city to simply be in and enjoy. Of course, it has lots of museums, a major university, medieval walk streets and neighborhood cafés, etc. Much of Lyon remains at human scale.
In the beautiful green rolling hills of springtime central France, I enjoyed watching the two rivers running through Lyon. Rivers offer special opportunities for urban living. As with the canals in Haarlem and Amsterdam, which are lined with houseboats and barges, they are venues for walking along park-like banks with lots of trees and the occasional monument.
Lyon has integrated the medieval and the modern in its architecture. A tram runs up to the cathedral on an adjacent hilltop where you can look over the entire city, noting the changes in texture from center to periphery. On a clear day, you can see the Alps.
Unlike in the U.S., the French don’t constantly destroy the old to affirm the new. In central Lyon, the ancient buildings, mostly hand built of stone, are “modernized” in their facilities while retaining the beauty and charm of their ancient origins. And it is all at a human scale. The city is walkable, which allows discovery of that small otherwise unknown shop, café or bistro, or that statue on the square where elders converse and children play.
Valuing the Valuable
Instead of donating them to the Metropolitan Museum as promised, Donald Trump simply threw away the art deco sculpture and ironwork from a historic building he tore down to replace with one of his megalomaniacal towers. The French helped us gain our national independence from our British colonial masters (who also appreciate the old). We still have much to learn from the Europeans about, well, just living.
Our cities – and our politics as well – could use some of their sensibility now. Santa Fe has retained some of the aesthetic of its Pueblo Indian and Spanish Territorial styles in its historic district and classic plaza, giving it much of the character lost to so many American cities. We have so much to do to make American cities livable (not pseudo-“great again”), and so little cultural will.