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Journal Entry

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On Zoning

We live now in a small suburb of Basel.

When I say suburb, don't imagine an American suburb. The one we left -- Pimmit Hills, in Falls Church, was a textbook maze of cul-de-sacs, a square mile of houses, lawns, and parks bounded by highways and strip malls. Within the square mile, kids biked along the sidewalks, neighbors chatted across fences and verandas. It was a lovely neighborhood.

Pimmit Hills was great to bike within, but you couldn't bike beyond it. The subway station was only a mile and a half to the south, and the vast sensory-overload-inducing shopping mall (Tyson's Corner) a mile to the north; but they were, respectively, unpleasant and literally impossible to bike to. (Getting to Tyson's by foot required taking a bus at least one stop, past the multi-lane I-495 on-ramp).

One of the most strikingly different things about Basel is the granularity of zoning.

In America, from the center of the city, you drive half an hour -- an hour in traffic -- before reaching the suburbs, where trees begin to be taller than houses and greenery to outmass buildings. Then, after you drive through the suburbs for another two hours, you reach the exurbs, and then actual productive agricultural land. Then, after driving through that for an hour, you reach uncultivated land -- forests, etc.

To envision Basel, replace "drive an hour" with "bike five minutes".

Note: this is the honeymoon period, in which I will be blogging about how awesome Switzerland is. Expect me to be bitching in three months or so about how nothing is open on Sunday and a sushi lunch costs $50.

The one thing that I really do miss, though, zoning-wise, is the fact that the kids could run right out the door, through the front yard, and down the sidewalk to other front yards, with other kids playing in them. Here we have to negotiate a side street, a main street, a crosswalk with a light, and a cobblestone piazza before we get to a playground with other kids (when we arrived, at the height summer, most of the other kids were in Kosovo or South France anyway. School starts today, and the playgrounds are full again).

This is a little stressful -- you can't be just like "you're being too loud! Out! Out! Go play!" (Instead, the attic becomes the area to funnel loud kid energy into.)

In an odd reversal typical of crossing the atlantic, when we go downtown, to the center of the city, it's all Fussgängerzonen -- car-free -- so that the kids can run wild, scaring the pigeons, climbing on fountains, parking themselves on chairs of outdoor cafes, and singing their way, hand in hand, over the cobblestones.

Everything is backwards in our new life, so outside your door, in the suburbs, is car-dangerous, but running around in the urban center is safe.

Posted by benrosen at August 28, 2007 10:35 AM | Up to blog

I have to dispute your characterization of American city, suburbs and exurbs. I live in DC proper but in under 10 minutes I can walk to the river, along a forested creek, and from there bike or hike for miles in either direction along the river or the canal. Not everyone in DC lives in along the river, but many neighborhoods (of varying income levels) border Rock Creek Park, which has miles of trails, fields, creek, and forest. Also, as long as you don't drive in rush hour, you can drive an hour -- not two -- west from DC and be in the Blue Ridge -- camping along the river at Elizabeth Furnace, for instance, which is right outside Front Royal. Or you can drive east and be in a small town at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

It seems like you think America is either concrete jungle or mazes of cuddle-sacs surrounded by Tyson's Corners. Of course there are places like that in America, but there are many other kinds of places, too!

Posted by: Shoshana Rosenbaum at August 28, 2007 11:03 PM

It is true that there are many kinds of places in America, and if you make a priority of seeking out a parky part of the city, you may have both shops and nature in walking distance.

However, if you stick a pin in the map of America -- even a population-weighted map -- chances are very high that you will find coarse-granularity zoning of the type I was describing. Whereas there is pretty much nowhere in Switzerland that you could find anything of the sort.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 29, 2007 07:18 AM

(And similarly, I wasn't describing how quickly you can get to uncultivated land if you pick the optimal route to the nearest finger of it, but rather how long it takes on average if you pick a random direction.)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 29, 2007 07:20 AM

Your propensity for making large categorical statements that conflate different things is going to get you into trouble some day. :)

Posted by: David Moles at August 29, 2007 01:32 PM

Not that I am arguing with that, mind you, but go on... what am I conflating?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 29, 2007 01:35 PM

I sense that perhaps David's propensity for making large categorical statements that conflate different things has just gotten him in trouble ;)


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 29, 2007 04:15 PM

One thing that I'd like to remark on, since I keep thinking stuff like this when you post "Honeymoon with Switzerland" comments, is that Switzerland is a very old country, where people have been living in the same settlements for centuries, and that these settlements developed during a time when rapid transit meant you were riding a horse.

America is a young country, created by colonization and subsequent expansion. When most of the aggressive expansion happened, the development of the train was happening simultaneously, and a culture developed where people from Boston would think little of taking a train to Denver to apply for a job. After that, urban expansion took place, simultaneous with the development of the automobile and the highway system.

I think Shoshona is right that DC proper is That Way, but DC was explicitly designed by a European to emulate the Great European Cities, and it's kind of an exception to the general (accurate) rule of America = sprawl.

But, I think that given a few hundred years, America will be a little more comfortable with itself, and not so excited about how much space there is, and that the Big Urban Centers, like DC and New York, and LA, and all like that, will be Sprawling Shopping Messes, but that the small towns (Roanoke is beautiful, for example) won't need to sprawl so much, and the downtowns will be jewel-like in their clarity of social focus, and the suburbs will be pleasant and the trees will drip treacle.

Well, okay, I'm not at all sure that I actually think that. But it's a wonderful little vision, ain't it?


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 29, 2007 04:30 PM

have you been reading 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,' by any chance, Matt?

Acutally, Ben, Isn't it a simple difference of moving from a house to a flat? Flatblocks in many places don't come with a garden that you can just toss extraneous children into. Houses with cute little fences tend to, though.

As for the inner cities being safe; mind those evil pollers https://www.espace.ch/artikel_345538.html

Posted by: susan at August 29, 2007 05:55 PM

No, I'm reading Pynchon's "Against the Day," although judging merely by the title, "Meatballs" would be in character.

Ah, no. Looking it up, it appears delightful. I wondered what the connection was, however. Trees dripping with treacle?

Sometimes, I admit that I let the dada poetry take the wheel, and the reasoning portion of my brain (never firmly in control, in any event) takes a back seat to whatever turn of phrase I find amusing. That phrase in that post was one such occasion.


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 29, 2007 08:20 PM

yes, of course matt. like a more down to earth version of the land of milk and honey. I have no need for excess realism. It would be accompanied by wasps.

The way switzerland is set up has goods and bads, like most things. The good is that pretty much everyone has access to a nice park or a small wood. (It might not be in your front garden, as ben said, but it is withing reasonable walking distance.) The bad, sometimes, is that unless you are standing on top of an alp, or in the grison, it is really not possible to go for a walk without bumping into tons of people. Even from the heart of northern virginia you can drive a couple hours and find an unpopulated area. In Switzerland, you will have driven through several small woods and several small villages, and occaisionally a bigger village, and this goes on and on until you hit france. or germany. or whatever... I need a holliday in a less homogeneous place...

Posted by: susan at August 30, 2007 07:57 AM

Yup, basically population density and time of settlement (really, the graph of population density over time) account for practically all of the differences I'm talking about, without any need for reference to soft factors like "national character" or whatever.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 30, 2007 09:12 AM

Well, and I think that the US is a little too big and diverse to have "national character" in a homogeneous sense, except to the extent that heterogeneity is our "national character." For instance, a Chicagoan, an DCvian, and a San Franciscan will have three different versions of the "national character."

Also, I think our "national character" is undergoing constant evolution, in a sense that the Swiss "national character" is not, and that this is due in large part to the youth of the nation.

It would also possibly make sense to argue that the US is more of a "state," than a "nation," per se, and that this is by design. Just a thought, and I'll leave that argument to people more rigorous of analysis than I.


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 30, 2007 10:14 PM

Oh, I think the Swiss national character is undergoing dramatic change, as a result of big shifts in demographics. The number of immigrants in Switzerland, per capita, dwarfs the number in the US.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 31, 2007 05:22 AM

Can we talk about the car and oil industry too? Because the choice of what kinds of transportation get funding, interstates or cross-country trains or airline bailouts or inner-city public transit or bike paths or, to be slightly inflammatory, oil wars--those things affect granularity of development too.

I think age is a huge factor because European countries tend to be really, really full; but there are still choices to be made. Look at China, for instance, with its weird-ass move from peasantry straight to communism and then "back" to capitalism from there, which makes patterns of development very different from the US.

Posted by: JessieSS at September 3, 2007 03:35 PM

Well, I think a case could be made that everyone in America is an immigrant, if you go back a handful of generations, in most cases fewer than 5 (in my case, more than that - but I don't go so far as to call myself ethnically Saponi, for instance, despite my earliest "American" ancestor having lived in traditionally Saponi lands).


Posted by: Matt Hulan at September 14, 2007 05:03 PM

Sure, oil-company lobbying probably has an effect, but I wonder... I bet Australia and Brazil are laid out similarly to America, even though (I think) neither has much of a domestic auto or oil industry. Anyone know?

China, sure -- I should have said, rather than graph of population density over time, something like "graph of industrialized population density over time". But ok, I think policy probably matters, and you could probably see some significant differences across Europe due to policies -- Germany and France do have auto indusries, and perhaps that's why they have more in the way of megahighways and auto-oriented suburbs. (But they also had more accessible leftover areas of low population density when industrialization was still happening...)

Matt, once you're talking about integration five generations back, it doesn't seem like we can be talking about cultural heterogeneity/homogeneity any more. Everyone is integrated by then. Though I guess a *tradition* of heterogeneity can yield a certain heterogeneity. My point was just that European societies are hugely in flux, maybe more than American society, right now. Sure, America is heterogenous, but it's also just BIG. A Switzerland-sized chunk of America is more heterogenous in some ways (eg racially), less so in others (eg linguistically, perhaps?), than a similar sized chunk of Switzerland.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 14, 2007 05:23 PM

Hm. One thing I meant to imply was that five generations is a pretty long lineage to be able to trace in America, not that it was the norm. I suspect that most Swiss who are not recent immigrants can trace their Swiss lineage back much further than five generations, but I may be wrong about that. Like, for elitist American social clubs, such as Sons and/or Daughters of the Mayflower, or Sons and/or Daughters of the American Revolution, membership is predicated on being able to trace American lineage back two hundred fifty years. That's not all that long a time for a typical European national to be able to trace his lineage, right?

Now, as to "European societies are hugely in flux" right now, I believe you. It sounds like recent policy decisions in the EU and the US probably made immigration to the EU easier and/or more attractive than immigration to the US, and there's probably a fair amount of unfortunate fallout going on from that (like the SVP posters referred to in your current blog entry). I can't speak to that, however, since the last time I was in Europe, it was before the EU existed, and even then, I wasn't there for very long or very frequently.


Posted by: Matt Hulan at September 14, 2007 08:42 PM
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