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.

The climate of Political Nihilism

In September 2018, the Trump administration produced a realistic environmental impact report that reflected current scientific estimates of emerging climate chaos. That alone was a bit shocking given Trumpist rhetoric claiming that climate change is a “Chinese hoax.” But the political misuse of that information was shockingly brazen, if not exactly surprising.

After all, presidential prevarication is the “new normal” in American politics. The ill logic in this particular case is tremendously twisted. The administration wants to roll back fuel efficiency standards in the transportation industry. The latest scientific estimates of anthropogenic heating of the planet if present emissions continue, predict as much as 4 degrees additional average heating of the Earth within the next few decades if the global economy continues on its current path.

That alone is shocking enough. The near-term consequences of that predicted heating will be devastating in several ways. Greater destruction from more frequent and intense super storms, sea rise that will threaten the world’s major coastal cities, the death of most of the world’s coral reefs, longer more intense droughts and more powerful floods, etc., etc. However, in Trumplandia the “logic” goes like this: The emissions from trucks and cars add up to such a small part of the total that we really need not bother restricting carbon emissions from them.

International Hypocrisy

Of course, the rapidly accelerating carbon emissions from human activity energized by the burning of fossil fuel since around 1950 has been so great that scientists have labeled it “the Great Acceleration.” Scientists expect total global emissions to continue rising next year since most nations are doing so little to curtail even more carbon spewing into the atmosphere. Despite the international agreements signed by almost every nation at the 2015 Paris Climate talks, no nation has taken serious steps to control their emissions since then. The scope of the necessary response is daunting at best. Every nation seems to be waiting for someone else to take the first step. Yet, the problem is now, with no time to delay to avoid global catastrophe.

So, as with several other treaty obligations, such as the international agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. You might argue that the withdrawal doesn’t really matter since the agreement has no teeth. The agreed reductions are not mandatory, just vague intentions.

No nation’s leaders want to jeopardize economic growth or bear the costs of complying with the agreements. However, the costs of failure to do so will be so great to the human condition that such concerns appear to be somewhere on the far side of foolish. Besides, the process of converting to clean (solar and wind) sources of energy production will create more jobs than so-called leaders can imagine. So will programs to insulate existing buildings, which contribute a lot of the energy waste worldwide. So, why do the world’s leaders balk at doing the right thing?

Nihilist Power Elites Overpower the Public Interest

The problem, of course, is that such major economic transformations threaten existing financial interests of the world’s power elites. The most powerful financial interests in the world are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. The further enrichment of the richest of the rich is also good for business at various Trump Towers around the world. The petulant president is enriching himself by enriching the ultra-rich elites of the world.

For the nihilist, nothing is forbidden. The only value is to exercise more and more power to satisfy the endless narcissistic demands of the sociopath. Of course, when such practices become a central feature of government, the threat of rising fascism grows with every moral transgression. Every act of demagoguery attempting to incite mass fear and anger in support of the self-imagined authoritarian ruler is another step on the road to fascist dictatorship. Do not believe those who say, “It can’t happen here.”