After my last blog post about German children having more everyday freedom than their English peers, Andrea – a German-born woman who now lives in the USA – got in touch to leave a comment. She had some revealing things to say about the differences between her home and adopted countries, and has agreed to let me share them more prominently. She paints a depressing picture of car-dependence and isolation: a stark comparison with her experiences in Germany. Here is her story.
I am German, have lived in the US for 18 years and have raised three children here. I very much miss the German way of being able to let my child go outside by himself, or walk anywhere from our home. I find the infrastructure very car oriented. Distances, as well as property sizes are considerably larger, thus there is hardly any bike paths, but 80% large roads. Hey, even a small town has double the width roads that you would find in any German town, so traffic is much more unpleasant. The sight is usually anything but inviting if I compare it to bike paths I know from back home. Same for distances, with everything just soooo stretched out.
I do see very gratefully a movement here in the US by architects, trying to rethink communities and how to build them more “inhabitants friendly.” Car joy is not everything. Community is built by people passing each other in the streets, by NEIGHBORhoods, not “stranger”hoods. I never felt so disconnected from other people as I do here in my life in the US. And I do believe the way communities are built plays a BIG role in this.
Also having more green spaces everywhere, planting trees along roads (the green lung has always been a respected issue in German city planning), reducing distances between people, or at least creating social areas within any of these neighborhoods. Also, how about a playground, WITH nature: shrubs, trees, boulders, tree stumps, etc – not only school playgrounds – incorporated in all those estranged neighborhoods? It would draw people back out and together, and help overcome the hurdle of keeping your children from going by themselves into the “unknown”.
Andrea subsequently emailed me, and added these closing thoughts:
I am very deeply concerned and also convinced about these issues. Living in Alaska for 15 years, and raising 3 girls here, made me very much aware of what difference it makes in children’s lives. Whilst living in Germany and having grown up there, we are so spoilt, we did not even see how one could NOT build like this: the playgrounds, the social interactive life and such.
It is intriguing that Andrea does not even mention the apparent American fixation with personal safety and security. Rather, her comments shine a light on the impact that planners and politicians have on the places where we live and the choices that are open to us (and our children).
My own view (influenced by the work of Jane Jacobs) is that parental fear of crime and abduction are more symptoms than causes: they are understandable reactions to living in places where it is rare to see many people out and about in the streets. For another illustration of how poor planning deprives children of everyday freedoms, read this blog post on how school location and neighbourhood design make it all but impossible for children to walk or cycle to school.
Intriguingly, the climate in America may be improving. There is a lively ongoing debate about the potential for good town planning, urban design and public transport investment to improve people’s lives. What is more, it appears that Americans – especially younger Americans – are falling out of love with the car, as influential urbanist Richard Florida noted last year.
If you want to follow these debates, here are a few ideas. Some readers will be aware of Mike Lanza’s pioneering Playborhood blog and book, and the longstanding non-profit organization the Project for Public Spaces. I can also recommend the Placemakers blog, Kaid Benfield’s blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Atlantic Cities website for lively, informed, progressive discussion.
Of course, poor neighbourhood design is not just an American problem. I am sure that Australian readers will recognise the pattern. My recent visit to Moscow showed a picture that, while different in its detail, was just as depressing. While perhaps not so extreme, we in the UK have plenty of examples of town planning that places too much emphasis on the needs of car drivers.
I’d welcome your reactions to Andrea’s thoughts, as ever. Also: if you share my interest in urbanism, town planning and transport policy, which writers, bloggers and websites do you read? I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Update 23 Jan 2013 09:00 GMT: This post was picked up by the Hacker News pages of Ycombinator.com, a tech startup site. It has so far generated 140 comments there, including some useful references as well as lively debate.