Perhaps it’s obvious, and it’s certainly a shame that it took me so long to realize this, but reading a fantastic planning book prior to and during a trip to a fantastic city really does so much to enhance your experience. For me the book and city were Jeff Speck’s Walkable City and Madrid, respectively. The fact that Speck’s book focuses mostly on development in The States (there I go referring to my own country as “the states,” how wannabe European can I get?) only helped me recognize both the obvious and not-so-obvious differences between how we organize our cities, and how they in turn affect how we live. However, what I really got out of this trip from a perspective is a reinforcement of the fact that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to planning problems. Furthermore, planning is a long-term process, and planners and designers mustn’t expect to see the tangible effects of their decisions until long after their implementation.
First of all, and this isn’t too much of a mystery, European cities just pay far more attention to the public realm than those in America. This is of course a bit of a generalization but when speaking of first-class cities in the US as compared to those in Europe, there’s a pretty noticeable difference. The streets, sidewalks, plazas, facades and pieces of public art were all manicured with extreme detail in Madrid. Of my travels within my own country, the only city I’ve seen that comes close in this respect would be perhaps San Francisco, whose streets and sidewalks are generally designed to not only accommodate lots of pedestrian traffic but also entertain them and enhance their experience. A few years ago I may react to this distinction between our cities and Europe’s with anger, but it really makes perfect sense. Why would American metropolitan areas spend more of their resources beautifying the public realm when the vast majority of its inhabitants and employees spend the vast majority of their time in a car, zipping from point A to point B? It makes sense that Madrid, which has already built a great pedestrian and street culture (not without the aid of a fantastic Metro system), would dedicate more of its resources to benefit the majority of its residents. Although there certainly exists the argument that investing in the public realm will draw more residents out of their cars and onto the streets, it’s completely understandable that planners and city governments may be hesitant to invest in something unproven in the US.
On the second day of my visit, I decided to join my friend as he went to class at the Universided Carlos III de Madrid in a suburb by the name of Getafe, which he described as a quaint little town. With my American attitude I came to expect a little suburb with maybe one main street, but I was met with an absolutely beautiful mid-size city with a variety of shops, restaurants, sculptures, and just an overall fantastic place for one to spend his or her time. Despite the fact that the suburb is home to a great University, the area is actually more of a retirement community catering to a large number of older Spaniards and Madrilenos. My initial reaction to Getafe would be to call it a more organic version of a New Urbanist town, and although it clearly caters to more of an elderly group than Duany seems to want to draw to his developments, I would still look at Getafe as a great model of what New Urbanists would want to accomplish with cities like Seaside or Celebration: wide, clean, beautifully designed sidewalks, generously sized bike lanes, a plethora of shops and restaurants catering to all kinds of economic and social classes, plenty of public art, and lots of street furniture and trees. However, Getafe accomplished this without two important aspects of New Urbanist towns: a clear and distinct downtown, and architectural unity.
Getafe did in fact have a downtown, but in contrast to a place like Celebration, the downtown consisted of a number of main streets as opposed to a single intersection on the lakefront, which made me think that perhaps referring to a downtown core as a path as opposed to a point could be more beneficial. In terms of architecture, New Urbanist towns are frequently criticized by giving off too much of creepy, Pleasantville vibe, or as my cousin referred to Celebration, a “bit too much like Stepford Wives.” Getafe, however, was certainly more organic and less rigid and repetitive in terms of the facades that one would see walking down the streets. This certainly made me think much more about what we are trying to accomplish with our suburban areas and mid-size cities, and what organic development can accomplish in terms of affecting the public realm.
The next part that perplexed me was the difference between our retirement communities and this one. When one reaches retirement and begins to age in America, where do they go? An all-inclusive retirement home in Florida or Arizona, where the resident has very little need to ever leave. In Getafe, however, these residents woke up, got dressed, and went outside to experience the beauty of the area in which they live. They’re far enough out of the core so as not to be overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle, but are still given enough stimulation to stay happy and active. Again, my initial reaction was that we should have our elders live in place like THIS, but after coming to my senses, I realized this couldn’t work in America, or at least not yet. The elderly residents of Getafe were likely born and raised in Madrid, or if not in Madrid somewhere in Spain, or if not somewhere in Spain somewhere in Europe, where the private automobile is far less of a necessity. Thus, their adjustment to living in an urban area like Getafe isn’t difficult. Walking three or four blocks to eat breakfast isn’t a big deal. However, in America where the car still reigns, our older residents have had their bodies ravaged by the health detriments of an auto-centric culture. A number of them have diabetes from lack of physical activity, asthma issues from the amount of pollution in our air, or other issues. For those who have been lucky enough to get to where they are without ailments of these sorts, they still have the mindset of using their legs as only a last resort when it comes to transportation. It takes years and years, perhaps whole generations, for a population to change their mindsets of how they should live their lives and accomplish their daily duties. For American planners, this means that we must have patience and understand that the policies that we implement must be flexible to accommodate for significant demographic changes.
Finally, I’d like to note that on my fifth day in Madrid, I heard a car horn, and it actually caught my attention. Think about that for a moment: I had been in Madrid for five full days, and I had yet to hear a honk. How long would it take for me to hear one in Los Angeles? Atlanta? Even our most walkable cities like San Francisco or New York still have a pretty tough struggle between drivers and pedestrians/bicyclists. Furthermore, I rarely saw anyone jaywalking in Madrid, even across very thin one-ways with no cars coming soon. Pedestrians and drivers are somehow able to respect the rights of each other, even in such a dense city with such a variety of people and personalities. For American planners, the driver is a villain, plain and simple. But as Speck discusses in Walkable City, the American city will always, or at least for the foreseeable future, have plenty of drivers, and angering drivers by swiftly and abruptly taking away the rights that they’re used to will do nothing but enhance the issues in our cities. Planners tend to think in terms of winners and losers, and for many aspects of the city there needs to be a winner and a loser. But for the big picture, it’s important to try to nurture a happy medium in which each class of people is given rights that are respected by everyone else. I don’t know how this is accomplished, but not unlike the factors that contributed to the beauty and success of Getafe, I assume it took a number of years and important decisions for Madrid to get where it is now.
Obviously this is far from a comprehensive planning and design review of Madrid, but rather these are just some of my immediate thoughts upon returning to the US. For years I had thought that city planning was easy. By now we know what works and what doesn’t, so lets take what works and put it where we’ve had problems. I’ve finally come to recognize how vastly different urban landscapes are and the close, close relationship between culture and the built environment. I can’t wait to continue to travel and see what other cities have done to find success in their own situations, and examine which of their decisions could be replicated to find success in other cities.