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Monday, November 17, 2008

A Walk Around The Block

A Walk Around The Block

To examine the lives of people in Spain, you need to take a look at the street where they live. The word for a city block here is a homonym of the word for apple—for reasons that don't seem to be entirely clear to anyone (other Spanish speaking countries use the less colorful word “cuadra” which means “square”). So a block is an apple? My anemic powers of description were practically swooning (wheezing?) with the possibilities. Unfortunately, a bit of investigation into these words proved fatal to my poetic aspirations. The two meanings for the word apple (manzana) in Spanish probably derived from different roots, with “apple” coming directly from Latin for apple (mattiana), and “city block” a derivation of the French word for house (maison). This rather prosaic explanation immediately extinguished any hope I had for a more flowery introduction to city life in Spain. I had to toss out all of the metaphors relating to fruit to describe urban architecture and start all over from scratch.

If a city block is an island surrounded by streets, my own little Spanish island has just about everything you need to survive. I realize that the block I live on is an exception—even for Spain—but I could probably live on my block for years without crossing the street. Since there happens to be a 15th century church next door, in theory I could be baptized, have my first communion, get married, and have my funeral service without having to look both ways for oncoming traffic. I suppose that would greatly reduce the risk of having an automobile accident. Let's take a walk around my block to give you a little insight into the urban density that is common in every Spanish city.

I was going individually list every business on my block, but that would be a little long-winded. As it turns out, there are a total of 36 separate outlets including three banks, three cafés, a hair salon, two pharmacies, three florists, a couple of little clothing stores, three bakeries, a pet supply store, a shoe repair shop, a photo developing place, a lottery booth, and a butcher. All these places and we haven't even stepped inside the Ruzafa Market where there are several dozen food vendors as well as another café. That's what I call a full-service island. The Ruzafa Market is the nucleus of the neighborhood in which I live. It is open Monday to Saturday from something like 7 a.m. (I don't know for sure, I'm never up and outside that early) until about 2:30 in the afternoon. It is a huge indoor market with dozens and dozens of individual vendors selling everything you can imagine eating. There is a separate seafood section as well. The market is an absolute marvel and it is twenty paces from the door of my building. As I said, my block is an exception but it happens to be where I live.

People in this sort of dense urban environment are able to effect most, if not all, of their daily outings on foot. As far as running most errands, the distances are too short to even bother with a bicycle. Most city blocks here are quite large and many are triangular in shape. Most buildings form kind of a wall around the outer edge of the block and there is an open area in the middle between the buildings. This open area in the middle—sometimes a couple of acres—is often used for businesses that require a lot of floor space such as car dealerships or supermarkets.

Back in the late 1990s Seattle changed its downtown zoning laws to mimic the European model of having the first floor of apartment buildings reserved for businesses. Like many Americans cities, many people worked in the Seattle downtown and left at the end of the day for the suburbs. I moved to the lower Queen Anne, or the Uptown neighborhood of Seattle in 1998. I saw firsthand how the downtown area went from being practically deserted to the thriving and lively place that it is today. Housing soared in the downtown while most suburban areas had negative growth. Evidently, many people like the idea of living where they work and play.

Most of Valencia is zoned for buildings of nine stories: the bottom floor for businesses and the other eight for apartments. There are almost no single family homes in this city of 800,000 inhabitants, there's just no room for houses. There is also almost no sprawl to Valencia. The whole city is bordered either by agricultural land, the Mediterranean, or smaller towns that are architecturally similar to Valencia. If you feel cooped up with city life, the country is only fifteen minutes away by bicycle. It would take me thirty minutes by car to get to the country from the center of Seattle, and Seattle suffers less from sprawl than most large U.S. cities.

What I find odd about Valencia, and the same is probably true of other large Spanish cities, is that as the city grows outward, in some areas they are adopting some of the characteristics of American suburbia. Shopping malls with huge parking areas, big box stores, and homes with yards are sprouting up—at least in a section to the west of Valencia. Some of 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 there when they have so many more agreeable choices available to them. The wide streets that are sprouting up in these new semi-suburban parts of town mean that traffic flows faster—good for cars, bad for pedestrians. The lack of corner bars in these new neighborhoods seems like it would make them a total disaster for the average Spaniard who requires at least two on every block.

These newer neighborhoods are spread out too much to run daily errands on foot which drastically changes the nature of life for most Spaniards. I am confident that this new trend in urban planning isn't going to catch on. In Valencia, the new suburbia represents probably less than .05% of the total population of the city, if that. A home in the country is a dream of many Spaniards but I don't think many people are willing to give up the convenience of city life just to have a bit of a garden attached to their single family home. A lot of things are changing in modern Spain and as people become more affluent perhaps they will choose to drive everywhere instead of walking. More and more people are doing the majority of their shopping in the big chain grocery stores instead of at the local markets. The latest figures from 2005 show that Spaniards do 45.4% of their food buying at the big stores, 16.7% in smaller grocery stores and only 28.8% at traditional stores and markets. Convenience and speed are winning out over quality and service.

Although the new suburban-style subdivisions are populated by relatively affluent Valencianos, a lot of the newer, more moderately-priced developments on the edges of town also reflect a move away from the dense urban architecture found in the rest of the city. The buildings are taller. There are fewer, if any, businesses on the ground floors. The streets between apartment buildings are wider. All this translates into less of a community feel to these areas. They seem all but deserted. It's hard to believe that that people are willing to sacrifice a lively neighborhood for a few extra feet of living space in their private dwellings. To each his own. I have friends who live in very modern sections of Valencia but as much as they love their beautiful apartments, with convenient parking and other modern amenities, when it comes time to hang out, most of them migrate to my little neighborhood of older buildings, narrow streets, and dozens and dozens of bars and restaurants.

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