Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Western Europe: The Best Place In The World To Live

Urban Life

Some cities are better than others in terms of how they are designed for human inhabitation. One of the measures is how well a city preserves both its historical landmarks and its use of space. One of the defining features of large American cities is high-rise office buildings and residential complexes—maximizing the efficient use of space, cramming humans into the smallest space possible. The latter might be necessary; the former is not and is a concession to efficiency and greed, if not ugliness. Such is reason alone to make the American city a poor place to live, with little connection to the past. Lorna Salzman writes: "The notion of both history and aesthetics having value in themselves seems to have died out in the US starting in the 19th century, replaced by the winner-take-all pioneer mentality that routed out the old mercilessly. The continuation today of the practice of constructing edifices to last no more than a generation and then be replaced is not only a function of aesthetic philistinism but of ruthless economics that does nothing to penalize the destruction of history and heritage."

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by Lorna Salzman

I wrote this upon receiving a posting about the USA having the worst quality of life in the developed world. After living two years in Italy and a year in Paris (with subsequent long visits) one tends to agree. Though the article pretty much proved its point, I am not sure that the US is a worse place to live than southeast Asia, where megacities with their extensive slums are the rule as they are in most of the world, but it is certainly far worse than just about anywhere in western Europe (except for the UK). Measures of well-being include public transportation, higher education, accessibility of cultural institutions, parliamentary democracy, the cultural/artistic heritages of the European countries in which new development is channeled into existing towns rather suburbs, universal health care, prime farmland preservation, regional and local food supplies, and of course assiduous preservation, at great public cost, of old buildings, museums, churches, palaces, and medieval and classical structures and ruins.

The notion of both history and aesthetics having value in themselves seems to have died out in the US starting in the 19th century, replaced by the winner-take-all pioneer mentality that routed out the old mercilessly. The continuation today of the practice of constructing edifices to last no more than a generation and then be replaced is not only a function of aesthetic philistinism but of ruthless economics that does nothing to penalize the destruction of history and heritage.

Connected with these are the intangibles that make living in western Europe a daily delight rather than a chore, such as bans or restrictions on cars in central districts not to mention whole cities like Venice and Amsterdam. One vital (in all senses of the word) characteristic of much of western Europe is the concept of public spaces where people can meet, relax, and just hang out. Italian cities excel in this respect, far more than Paris and London, not because of any explicit plan or forethought but because of the spontaneous nature of development in which the preservation of old residential areas, both affluent and poor, was a requirement. We love Paris because its old neighborhoods can't be demolished and because the whole city has a height limitation placed on it. Without these, Paris would have become an instant high-rise slum like so many American cities. Contrary to American preferences, the Parisian middle class and wealthy have hung on to their homes in the central city; they rarely if ever sell their apartments. The poor were pushed out to the suburbs.

When you visit an Italian city like Rome, you truly feel that the city, even its churches and Roman ruins, belongs to you. In Italy you need not walk very far to find a church, a piazza, a fountain, or even a small space where several streets happily intersect (the better to allow cafes) and encourage socialization, plus hidden surprises like the tiny and unpretentious Via della Pace in Rome. This very short street a bit west of Piazza Navona is easily overlooked and has one structure of historic significance: a narrow Baroque church, Santa Maria della Pace, squeezed in at the end at a slight angle, whose facade and wings (which connect it to the adjoining buildings visually) were designed by Baroque painter Pietro da Cortona. Yet this single feature changes the whole character of this dead end street. You can have an espresso in an old cafe there, which is like any other of the hundreds in Rome, but this small church alone elevates this dead end street to stardom.

I think it is clear that the physical and aesthetic environment of a place are strong factors in how individuals view their place in society and in their community. Public spaces provide not just beauty but a sense of sharing and therefore of greater mutual and social responsibility, towards structures and forces that have persisted for centuries. Americans, having destroyed most of their history and replaced it with repulsive fake surrogates like Disneyworld and Williamsburg VA, have little left, except for their national parks, all of which are too far from most people to provide the daily succor offered by just about any continental European city.

One other neglected aspect of European life is the fact that the destruction of western Europe by World War II resulted in a birth of a sense of social responsibility out of that shared suffering. What were formerly a collection of monarchies and aristocratic entitlements became a model of social democracy with a dedication to individual freedom in a context of social justice. Some of the excesses of unbridled capitalism are deplorable, as exemplified by Greece, Ireland and poor little England where squalor and socio-economic decay have all but destroyed commerce and the social fabric. But these in no way tarnish what is great about western Europe: the sense that its people, not the plutocrats and financiers, come first. How many Americans feel this way about this country?


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The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.


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Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.