In the United states there is a pervasive believe that cities are dangerous places, thus as we’ve moved across the country, from east, New York City to west Los Angeles our cities spread out until they are barely recognizable as cities.
In Spain the entire culture is built upon living in cities. From the assumption that nobody ever wants to be alone (they actually don’t have a word for solitude) to the reduced amount of personal space, Spaniards are city folk. Indeed, according to the population division of the United States Secretariat more than three quarters of Spaniards live in urban areas. Yet the Spanish crime rate is the third lowest in the European Union, and when you compare the Spanish crime rates to those in the United States the results are frankly embarrassing for us Americans. While yes, this is probably influenced in large part by other Spanish policies such as gun and birth control what fascinates me is the expertise with which they design their cities.
There are new shinny, plastic mushrooms on a street that runs directly through the club-district in Alicante. They seem out of Alice in Wonderland, growing out of colorful pathways and lining what was a small one-way street that once had a reputation as a street to avoid. Now small play grounds sit in the middle of the road, blocking the cars and luring the pedestrians and children. Magic. Suddenly an unsavory street is made safe, not by shunning it, nor by warning people away, but by embracing it. Inviting pedestrians by preventing traffic, and discouraging crime by welcoming children. They put playgrounds in the middle of their dangerous street. They didn’t completely knock it down and put in a park, they didn’t put up fences in an attempt to protect the children. Instead they trusted in one of the most fundamental and magical qualities of a city, diversity.
In Mosaics last year we read “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” (I know I can’t believe I benefited from that class!) by Jane Jacobs. Here are some of the things she wrote about that really stuck with me and I see in action every day in Alicante.
Diversity, diversity, diversity.
The key to making any place safe is…diversity. A diverse kind of diversity. The safest place in a city is the busiest place and diversity of activity is created by diversity of people. Safe streets, like the newly refurbished mushroom one are safe because they attract a wide variety of people. In the morning, people walk too work, they stop at a cafe for coffee and exchanging pleasantries with other commuters. Later in the morning mothers take their kids past the smiling mushrooms to school, and then bring them back before Siesta. During the big lunch the restaurants put tables out into the street and feed families along with bosses and young couples. While there aren’t very many clothing stores on this particular street (a big attraction in Spain around 5:30-9:00PM) parents bring their children back to the small play structures to play with other children from the neighborhoods. So throughout the day the street serves just about every sector of a city.
Sidewalks are parks
European cities, Spanish cities, are designed for pedestrians. Assisted by public transit and wide sidewalks, people walk everywhere. Massive sidewalks spread out in the middle of the bigger streets, twice as wide as the car lanes, and many of the smaller streets are pedestrian-only. In the middle of the big streets are small play structures. Spaniards embrace the diversity of uses inherent to city sidewalks. Not only are they routs on which to travel, they are places to run into neighbors, chat with friends, roller blade, and play. Restaurants spread their tables out into the street (where it actually costs more to sit), and children climb on structures while their parents sit and watch from the numerous benches. Is it a park? Is it a sidewalk? I don’t know, but it’s definitely a city.