Monday, June 21, 2010

Unfamiliar places, familiar issues

ATHENS – We’ve taken a rest in a bench in the shade, on a 95-degree afternoon climb up to see the Acropolis. Hearing our English another perspiring American tourist asks to share our bench and as we chat about where we're from it emerges that not only had he lived in Charlotte (on The Plaza) but he knew several of our friends.

Three days later at an elegant former residence that's now the Museum of the City of Athens I chat with a smartly turned out Athenian with impeccable British-tinged English. It turns out she's an alumna of East Carolina University and has relatives in Greenville. N.C.

Indeed the world is small. That was driven home when I did an informal survey of some three dozen planners and urban academics from around the globe, at a Johns Hopkins University-sponsored conference in Athens. What's the biggest problem your city faces, I asked. Despite different histories, cultures and governments, the list would sound familiar to any U.S. observer of cities:
problems of urban regeneration/gentrification.
maintaining social cohesion/integrating immigrants.
retaining jobs/boom-and-bust economies.
undeveloped infrastructure.

Except for this: The architect/planner/professor from Calcutta and the architect/planner from Mexico City both pretty much said, "all of the above."

Cities with strict urban growth boundaries – that is most of the rest of the world except the U.S. – still struggle with sprawl. In Greece it manifests itself in people building illegally, on land preserved for agriculture, and then eventually becoming legal, and demanding sewer service, schools and other urban infrastructure. Hmmmm. Except for the part about it being illegal that's pretty much the pattern in the U.S. as well. We may sprawl, but at least we're not creating as many criminals while doing it.

And speaking of criminals, Athens traffic engineer and professor Thanos Vlastos told me that for 30 years Athens has had a law that you can only drive into the center of the city every other day. They check for odd-even license tag numbers. If you get caught, the fine is substantial, he estimated it at about 700 Euros. But, he said, everyone ignores that. It's not well-policed. And it simply inspired people to buy a second car. We humans do have a way of trying to outsmart most everything.

(Disclosure note: The Johns Hopkins Urban Fellows Program paid my travel expenses to Athens for the conference.)


consultant said...

"We humans do have a way of trying to outsmart most everything."

And we procreate every minute we get a chance.

Every place on the planet, and some places more than others, is in population overshoot caused by disease control and cheap food. Cheap food produced by corporate farming has pushed small farmers off the land and into the cities, contributing to their monster growth over the last 3 decades or so.

One problem (hunger and disease) begats another.

Notice how gas at the pump hasn't dropped back below 2 bucks?

Scarcity and price, the next stories for anyone in the mainstream press who wants to cover it.

Danimal said...

Hmmmm...sounds like the typical european is no more different than the typical American, living in the 'burbs, finding a way around certain city policies, etc. Another thing worht noting is that people in London and Paris probably tend to view cities such as Prague, Budupest, Brussels, etc. as those in New York and San Francisco view their counterparts in Kansas City, tulsa, and even...Charlotte... They are probably just as likely to go to a local WalMart (or the equivalent) before going home and watching TV after work rather than sitting at a street side cafe and sipping a chardonay. Can we say mary's views of how the rest of the world lives are being diminished right before our very eyes? Perhaps charlotte's no different from the rest of the world after all.