Fleeing from the Public Realm

By Dom Nozzi

Over the past several decades, Americans have increasingly cocooned themselves. As the fear of crime (and “strangers”) remains high, many spend more time than their parents and grandparents inside the private realm of their homes – homes that are increasingly becoming walled, fortified, burglar-alarmed fortresses on cul-de-sacs. Many have fled from the more communal, compact town center neighborhoods to dispersed, low-density sprawl neighborhoods. Some of us live within “gated” communities where a guard grants permission to visitors wanting to enter the “compound” of a walled-in neighborhood.Phoenix-Gated-Community

The move toward the private realm is a form of escape from public life. I believe the desire to escape is driven, at least in part, by the increasing misery, barren-ness, and danger associated with the relatively awful American public realm. As the public realm becomes increasingly dreadful in these ways, we have almost completely lost any sense of community, or the common good, or any form of civic pride. Of course, some might point to the jingoistic pride that is often exhibited (flag waving, “USA!!”chants, etc.), but I think that most of that sort of national “pride” is largely associated with the fact that our cheap energy economy is able to deliver a cornucopia of consumer goods (and political freedom, which has lost its meaning because there is no one worthy of our vote) to even those in the lower classes.

2012-garage-full-of-yard-saleIndeed, many, many people, in my opinion, mistake the ability to buy a bunch of consumer goods with political liberty, freedom, and quality of life. The end of cheap energy, I believe, will lead to big increases in political turmoil fueled by economic resentment and economic misery. Scarcity and the high costs associated with that will, I hope, compel us to be more interested in and drawn to community and the public realm, and less focused on an “all about me” attitude.

As a side note, I was horrified a number of years back to see a quote from a University of Florida student in the College Park neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida. The student was being cited by City Codes Enforcement for his unkempt, littered yard. He told the officer that he had a right to have his yard be a mess because of the political liberty that Americans enjoy.

WHAT??

In other words, a good many people apparently (and bizarrely) equate liberty with the right to litter or otherwise behave in an uncivil manner. “Screw others!”

In my travels in Europe, by stunning contrast, I am invariably completely astonished by the magnificent, ornamental, historic civic buildings, public squares, and shops that I see nearly everywhere I go. The public realm, unlike the downwardly spiraling and increasingly neglected place of misery that so many Americans are fleeing, consists — in the older parts of European cities — of places worth caring about.

In these charming, romantic, human-scaled sections of Europe, one finds it fantastically rewarding to walk the livable, human-scaled streets — many of which were bustling places filled with pedestrians and busy shops and outdoor cafes.

The vitality is contagious. And powerfully rewarding, because the human species is naturally sociable, yet as an American I so rarely can experience it in public – in American cities and suburbs. Nearly everyone on the European streets seem to be friendly and happy and sociable. It is so very exciting to me to see the enormous number of people walking and bicycling on very narrow, cozy streets. Traveling without a car is clearly and dramatically more humanizing for the Europeans.

In a car, even the most mild-mannered, friendly person is often compelled to get angry at “slow-pokes”, or to fume about pedestrians and other cars in the way, or how long it takes for the signal light to change. Blood pressure rises. Fellow citizens become enemies in a competition for road space. The ability to offer a friendly “hello” to your fellow citizen is lost inside a car, as is any real sense of SERENDIPITY, which is so important to a rewarding journey.

Inside a car, one usually feels as if he or she is always in a hurry.

Only as a pedestrian or bicyclist does one experience the unhurried pleasure of taking your time to smell the flowers and enjoy the morning sun. To stop to chat with an old friend you run into. To pop into a store because of something that caught your eye.

So the rich, rewarding experiences I so often joyously find in Europe are due to these human-scaled, slow-speed, pedestrian-oriented, activated streets I see there so regularly. Streets full of happy, sociable people, busy shops and cafes, and proud buildings lavishly ornamented.vibrancy stroget st

In America, most of what we experience is what Jim Kunstler calls an “auto slum.” Who wants to go for a walk in a place full of angry, high-speed motorists on 8-lane arterial roads, vast and empty asphalt parking lots?

The wretched, all-too-common experience of a strip corridor littered with auto repair shops and car dealerships, and buildings that are so far from the road that a person on the sidewalk would need a telescope to see into store windows? Assuming there even ARE windows, since growing numbers of buildings now turn their back to the street.

The natural, expected reaction for almost any sane person is to RUN FOR YOUR LIFE from such a place and safely cocoon yourself into your own little private realm, where you can endlessly, pathetically strive to be happy by buying flat-screen TVs, iPods, and luxurious furniture as a surrogate for living in a rewarding community. But how satisfying is it, in the end, to have a stupendous living room, when you don’t even know your neighbor? When all of your “friends” are simply characters in sit-coms you watch every night on TV? When your city is little more than a tangled, dangerous mess of stressed and hostile motorists, highways, parking lots, and fast food chains?

Our consumer economy thrives because it is simply not possible to buy things as a way to be happy, yet we feel compelled to buy, buy, buy in our endless, hopeless pursuit of happiness. There is, after all, no alternative, since we have no community or quality public realm to satisfy our gregarious human desires. Advertising constantly tells us that we will feel so much joy if we buy their product. But we learn that buying and owning the latest gadget is, ultimately, an empty, sterile way to live and enjoy life.

I’ve heard more than once that the Europeans are destined to a future quality of life that nearly everyone throughout the world will see as higher that the quality of life experienced in America. A recent book is titled “The European Dream” (an illuminating play on the “American Dream” we have grown up with).

I am convinced that this transition to looking at older Europe as the new dream is certain, because the European public realm is very high in quality (light years better than the miserable public realm in most all of America), and a quality public realm is the fountainhead to a high quality of life for the entire community. Quality of life is NOT found by buying the latest plasma TV set or SUV.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

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