I Love Cities

My husband and I recently concluded a ten-day visit with our son who lives in Amsterdam. The visit prompted me to think about the elements that make for a great city, which Amsterdam indisputably is.

My preference for cities runs headlong into a long American tradition of extolling rural and agricultural life. Brittanica describes Thoreau’s movement at age 27 to Walden Pond, in almost poetic terms, rhapsodizing that he

began to chop down tall pines with which to build the foundations of his home on the shores of Walden Pond. From the outset the move gave him profound satisfaction. Once settled, he restricted his diet for the most part to the fruits and vegetables he found growing wild and the beans he planted. When not busy weeding his bean rows and trying to protect them from hungry groundhogs or occupied with fishing, swimming, or rowing, he spent long hours observing and recording the local flora and fauna, reading, and writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). He also made entries in his journals, which he later polished and included in Walden. Much time, too, was spent in meditation.

Those who have adopted this idyllic version of rural life ignore the reality that most Americans residing in pastoral precincts lack both the means and the leisure time to read, write and meditate, even if they are so inclined.

Meanwhile, city life tends to get short shrift from poets and novelists, although not from sociologists and urbanists. Perhaps the best description of a city’s virtues can be found in books by Jane Jacobs, especially The Death and Life of Great American Cities. More recently, Richard Florida wrote about the “creative class:–city folks with creative occupations that facilitate and stimulate the development of new knowledge to solve problems and create value–but in a very real way, his “creative class” is a distillation of the virtues long exhibited by cities: they bring together a variety of people with a variety of backgrounds, skills and interests, sparking innovation and progress.

Those vibrant, cosmopolitan cultures also promote tolerance of difference, and that clearly offends the traditionalists and Christian Nationalists who disproportionately occupy rural America.

Although all cities of reasonable size will foster what we might call urban perspectives,  some cities are more vibrant and appealing than others. And that brings me back to Amsterdam. It’s a city with its share of urban problems–housing prices are astronomical, traffic can be congested, the constant infrastructure repairs are disruptive.

But it’s a truly great city.

Some of what makes Amsterdam so inviting is physical, of course: the canals that snake through the city core and the presence of historic architecture are elements impossible to replicate. But much of Amsterdam’s charm is the result of public policies and good governance. The city pays enormous attention to the maintenance and upkeep of its infrastructure. There are multiple public parks, and excellent public transportation. Some years ago, a decision was made to discourage automobile traffic in favor of bicycles; we saw no large parking lots taking up valuable city real estate.  (Bicycles, however, are everywhere, and– young or old– everyone rides them. In the Netherlands, there are 2 bikes for every person…Probably as a result, we saw very few fat people.)

It was interesting to see how many churches had been repurposed into museums and shops; unlike in the U.S.,I saw no evidence of Puritan religiosity.  Small parks had kiosks selling beer and wine, and of course, Amsterdam is famous for its red light district and its “coffee houses.” No one we met seemed to have any problem with the presence of either…

As we walked along the canals and residential areas, we were impressed with the amount of commercial activity: unlike in the U.S., where street-level commercial spaces are increasingly empty, retail shops and cafes lined the streets everywhere we walked.

It’s the mix of people who live in the city, however, that really gives Amsterdam its vitality. Our son’s friends come from all over the world, and on the streets you hear a variety of languages, although–interestingly– almost everyone speaks English. (In 2012, Amsterdam’s population was 49.5% Dutch and 50.5% foreign ancestry. The city also has a large and visible gay population.

Where we walked, we saw no “street people”–social housing is evidently widely available.

I was especially struck with the good-nature and courtesy of virtually everyone we encountered–there was a pronounced absence of the stress and short-temper that seems to characterize American life these days.

Urban tolerance. Varied perspectives leading to intriguing and instructive conversations.  A well-tended and thoughtfully-designed infrastructure.

Great cities are just good for the soul.


Let’s Talk About Infrastructure

What is government for?

That is the question at the root of all political philosophy, and by extension, all punditry. After all, the way we evaluate how well a government is functioning is by comparing its operation with its mission: is the state doing what it is supposed to be doing? If so, how well?

I began my most recent book by cataloging the areas of “broken-ness” in American governance–what I (and most commenters to this blog) believe to be areas where our government is failing to perform. And that, of course, raised the question: what should government do? Why do humans need the collective mechanism we call government (at least, beyond restraining Leviathan, per Hobbes)?

My conclusion–with which, obviously, you all may differ–is that government is needed to provide necessary infrastructure–both physical and social.

The dictionary defines infrastructure as the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”

Most of us are familiar with this definition in the context of physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid, public transportation, etc. Within the category of physical infrastructure I’d also include physical amenities like parks and bike lanes. Schools, libraries and museums probably fall somewhere between physical and social infrastructure. Purely social infrastructure includes laws that prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and the various programs that make up what we call the social safety net.

I have just returned from Europe where I attended a conference in Stockholm; on the way home, I stopped in Amsterdam to see my middle son, who now lives there. Sweden and the Netherlands vastly eclipse the U.S. when it comes to both kinds of infrastructure.

The academic conference I attended was on “Social Citizenship,” a concept commonplace in Europe and utterly foreign to Americans. (The conference was focused upon the effects of significantly increased migration on the social unity fostered by the European approach to social welfare–tribalism isn’t restricted to the U.S.and Europe is far more diverse than it was even a decade ago.)

Social citizenship and policies that support unity are topics that increasingly intrigue me; my most recent book focused on them and I routinely blog about them. But right now, I want to rant about physical infrastructure.

I took the subway in both Stockholm and Amsterdam (In Amsterdam, I rode their interconnected transit system, which includes trams, subway and buses). In both cities, the subway stations were immaculate, and there was lots of public art. Electronic signs informed passengers when the next train was due–usually, within 4-5 minutes. The cars themselves–and in Amsterdam, the trams–were shiny and clean, and looked new–although in Amsterdam, my son said they were several years old, and simply well-maintained.

Well-maintained. What a concept…

It wasn’t only public transportation. Streets and sidewalks looked equally well-tended; in Amsterdam, according to my son, sidewalks throughout the city are replaced every 30 years. Also in Amsterdam, where there are 1.3 bicycles for every resident and absolutely everyone bikes, protected bike lanes are everywhere–usually, they separate the sidewalks from the roadways.

Thanks to robust public transportation and the culture of biking, there were far fewer cars on the streets than there are here, and among those that were I saw numerous hybrids. Efforts to use clean energy were prominent. (Coincidentally, a friend just sent me an article about a European consortium that plans to deploy 1,000 fuel cell buses in European cities, and to provide the necessary hydrogen infrastructure.)

All in all, the clear impression was that we are a community, and we care. 

In these European cities, government’s approach to infrastructure provision appears to be a collective effort to ensure a workable, efficient and pleasant environment for all citizens–not a grudging and slapdash accommodation for those who cannot afford private vehicles.

I’m jealous.