I just returned from three weeks in Europe, and since I am a seat-fo-the-pants traveler I had many opportunities to hang out in (and get lost in--an event that usually preceded my decision to hang out) a lot of urban environments that are one heck of a lot older than most anything we have here in the USA. On one of these excursions, having found sufficient funding for a glass of red wine, like a good planner my mind soon wandered to thoughts of urban form and social interaction, and I wondered: what really makes these impossibly historic, totally mixed use/income cities so darn liveable? Is it the lovely structures? The wide sidewalks? The shopping? The wine?
Now you should know that this question came to mind as I sat peacefully in the middle of a major collector street. This was possible because the street has about 25 feet devoted to two way auto traffic, and a gazillion feet devoted to people. Most of the people space was in the middle of the road, which had been raised about half a foot. Its edges were lined with trees; most of the rest was peppered with tables and chairs so people could eat food cooked in the restaurants on the other side of the car lanes--a situation which made for interesting moments as the waiters weaved their way through the crawling cars. There were also kiosks selling trinkets, costumed mimes of every shape, bicyclists, a very talented tapdancing juggler, and so many walkers that you could barely get through.
You could spend a day in such a place alone, and never feel bored or lonely. In fact you might have to spend the day if you order food because the waiters will ignore you. I discussed this with several European friends and they all said that this occurs because the waiters don't want to be rude by interrupting you to see if you need something, as they do in America. The point of eating is not to eat, but to socialize--fast food is an oxymoron!
I've seen similar places in city after city and village after village in Europe, Asia, Central America and Australia, yet they are scarce as hens teeth in the USA. Even most of our New Urbanist developments don't come close. What makes these places liveable is not the buildings or the sidewalks or even the wine, it's the way all these things and more work together to create an environment designed to attract people. Like eating, these spaces fill our need for social interaction in wonderful, unpredictable ways that are a far cry from the public spaces in many US suburbs, downtown, and even New Urbanist developments.
Cities and towns in most of the rest of the world have much worse traffic, older/smaller housing, and a horrific lack of department stores, groceries and supercenters, but when it comes to liveability they have it nailed. What can we take back and use in the USA from these amazing places?