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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Urban Living and the Environment

At first glance, many Americans would view the lifestyle of the average Spaniard as rather austere: living spaces are small compared to those of Americans who own single-family homes; energy use is stingy in the extreme; most Spanish people live in dense, urban environments; people use public transportation, bicycles, or walk to effect most of their daily obligations; automobiles are small, sometimes almost comically so; and Spain hasn't reached anywhere near America's obsession for material possessions. After quickly adapting to the Spanish lifestyle I have to say that life here is not any harder or less convenient than in America.

Granted, I already lived in a manner quite close to that of Spanish city dwellers back when I was a resident of Seattle. I lived in a dense urban city, in a small apartment, drove a small car, etc. I have become quite accustomed to life here and living any other way now would seem odd. I can't imagine ever using a clothes dryer again, at least not when there is anything like a strong sun shining. If at all possible I prefer to ride a bike to get around, my next choice is walking, followed by mass transit. Cars aren't even on my list.

With sharp increases in the cost of fuel, Americans are going to have to accept drastic changes in the lifestyle people have taken for granted since the end of WWII when the automobile lead people out of the cities and into the suburbs. After only a few months of record prices for gasoline, housing prices in the suburbs are falling and city apartments are gaining in value as more and more people are choosing to live closer to work and other amenities. People are beginning to realize that a ten mile drive—one way—just to rent a video is an absurdity that fewer and fewer Americans can afford.

The problem is that there are many areas in America that don't offer any sort of dense urban center toward which people can migrate. Cities like Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Atlanta—to name just a few—have been built around the model of sprawl and suburbia. Most people in these areas live in single family homes and even the apartment complexes there are spread out over many acres. This makes it almost impossible to develop a mass transit system which requires a population density of something like seven housing units per acre.

The first thing that people complain about whenever I mention the advantages to urban living is how inappropriate city life is for raising children. This is a pretty ridiculous argument and assumes that no one in the city has children. Valencia is about as family-friendly a city as you are ever going to experience. This argument against cities also assumes that the mere idea of having a family is somehow at odds with living a remotely sustainable lifestyle. No one is telling you where to raise your family, you can live in a houseboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean for all I care. I just think that gasoline prices in America are finally starting to reflect the true value of oil and many Americans who bought into the suburban lifestyle are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The once unthinkable idea of living in the city is becoming more and more attractive to Americans with families.

What I find odd about Valencia, and the same is probably true of other large Spanish cities, is that as the city grows outward, they are starting to adopt some of the characteristics of American suburbia: Shopping malls with huge parking areas, big box stores, and homes with yards. Not only are these newer residential areas less environmentally friendly than the urban centers, but they are boring and lacking in anything remotely resembling character. I have noticed that the new apartment blocks on the edge of the city are being separated by wider and wider boulevards that can accommodate many lanes of traffic in each direction. The problem is that building more lanes of traffic never reduces traffic but actually spurs even more congestion in something traffic planners call “induced traffic.” I find these newer areas of Valencia to be completely awful on a number of different levels and I can't believe anyone would voluntarily live in these there when they have so many more agreeable choices.

The funny thing about Spain is that even in the smaller towns people live much like people do here in the big cities. Most people in small towns live in apartment buildings which have businesses on the mezzanine floor. About as close as people get to single family homes are city townhouses which are mostly two story affairs, although some have three or more stories with a business on the first floor.

Instead of trying to accommodate the insatiable needs of the automobile, planners should be making roads narrower with broader sidewalks and bike paths. This has been the model in Amsterdam for over a decade. Fewer roads force people to abandon cars in what becomes the opposite of induced traffic which is “induced transit.”

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