On the Ground Again: Enchanted in Lyon

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 Mexico City airport1downtown 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.

Livable Cities

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.

011_Haarlem,_Netherlands_-_Kleine_HoutstraatHaarlem 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.

Lyon walk streetIn 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.

On the Ground Again: Flourishing Below Sea Level…for Now

Much of Holland is below sea level. Will the dikes hold? The Dutch have held back the North Sea for hundreds of years. They are the world’s experts on dike and canal building and pumping seawater. But they may be facing a whole new situation in the years to come.

Traveling through the Netherlands one recent spring, I could not find a hill over a couple of hundred feet high, and that was rare. Holland is very flat, much of the land is below sea level. If the dykes were to fail, the country would return to the marshes and estuaries so much of it had been before it was “reclaimed.” In the 13th century, windmills had begun to drain areas below sea level for farming.

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Areas of Holland Below Sea Level are in Blue to the right of ‘s-Gravenhage

We were staying in a house we rented via Airbnb in Haarlem at the corner of Martin Luther King Lan and Schweitzer Lan. I would sit at a desk by the window looking down on that corner from the second floor. With my laptop and coffee, I wrote and watched the early morning traffic. It was Spring. Almost as many people were riding bicycles to work or school as were driving the typical small fuel-efficient European cars.

Because the tulips were in bloom, it had been impossible to find a rental in Amsterdam. Haarlem actually turned out to be just as convenient, an easy train ride to central Amsterdam for the museums, canal-side cafés and old-world sights. Both cities were fascinating. Despite several European trips I never get over the massive number of ancient buildings in Europe, all made of hand-shaped stone. Sadly, it also reminds me of the historic buildings demolished by Trumpist wrecking balls in New York City.

We caught a local bus to the famous Keukenhof, touted rightly as the “most beautiful spring garden in the world.” The Keukenhof is an exquisite 32-hectare garden with every variety of tulip, countless other flowers, trees imaginable. Massive tulip fields and bicycle paths availed themselves nearby. We walked through a tiny fraction of the Keukenhof before renting bicycles to ride along the canals and among the tulip fields nearby. It was delightful.

One day we rented a car so we could drive to Petten, NL, to see the ancestral town from which my wife’s family had immigrated to “The New World” on the Mayflower. Petten is right on the coast of the North Sea, behind a huge dike built of sand and planted with grasses. It appeared to have been recently renovated since the grass clumps on the dike were all new and planted in neat rows.

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Dike or Sand Sea-wall and Beach at Petten, North Holland, facing the North Sea.

On arriving in Petten, we noticed that the whole town seemed rather new. Construction was still ongoing on a large staircase over the dike to the beach. Of course, we climbed it and went down to the broad beach. I was surprised to see the construction of what appeared to be a large restraint on the beach, built on piers about 15 feet high, with lots of big windows facing the sea. Everything in Petten from the beach to the town seemed new compared to other towns in Holland that had existed for centuries.

We asked some folks in one of the stores in town why everything was so new. As it turned out, Petten had been lost to storm surges twice in history, then destroyed by the Germans in World War II. I wondered how long it would be until the current global sea rise would destroy Patten. Despite its accomplishments in holding back the North Sea in past centuries, Holland will have never experienced the degree of sea rise predicted for this century as a result of global warming and glacier and polar ice cap melt.

Clearly, the Dutch are a resourceful people with a long history of resilience. They seem both very well organized and among the happiest people on the planet. Things are ‘expensive,’ at least from an American traveler’s perspective. But the Dutch are able to afford their rather advanced lives. I did not see a homeless person on the entire trip. Modern windmills and bicycles are everywhere. The Dutch seem to be adapting to climate change as well as anyone. But as the world fails to adequately reduce carbon emissions to mitigate extreme temperature rise, they too are in for some high tides and tough times.