Earlier this month Barcelona became the largest European city to ban residents from renting out private rooms on short-term rental sites like Airbnb. The move comes several months after Venice banned cruise ships from its lagoon. Both are the result of a massive crush of tourists turning those cities into the equivalent of amusement parks. The travel shutdowns caused by COVID-19 allowed those cities to rethink their tourism economy, and apparently they came to the conclusion that the costs to the quality of life of long-time residents outweighed the benefits of visitor cash.
We gave three full cheers to the cruise ship decision, but have mixed feelings about the Airbnb decision. As young parents we were able to enjoy traveling Europe in a much more affordable manner thanks to that platform, and we hope that this isn’t just the hotel industry circling the wagons and protecting their guild.
At the same time, as much as we love the history and architecture of Barcelona, Venice, and countless other Old World cities, we can’t help but consider that their beauty is so popular precisely because so much of our modern built landscape is ugly and uninspired.
It was not always that way: US cities were largely walkable and had their own charm until the advent of the automobile drove city planners to bulldoze their downtowns to make way for massive freeway projects.
Because cities have always been the first stop for minorities seeking to make their way in the US, minority communities were particularly hard hit by this disruption to the cityscape, one which is only recently beginning to be recognized and remedied.
This is an aerial view of Detroit in 1949:
And this is the same part of the city in 2014
The Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma has a fascinating tool that lets you use a photo slider to see how urban landscapes changed in the US Midwest over the last 60 years. Neatly arranged boulevards that would not be out of place in Paris were replaced by snarls of freeway interchanges, concrete jungles, and towering skyscrapers, all due to the ascendancy of the automobile during that time period.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement to help heal and beautify broken cities by removing sections of freeway. The New York Times recently reported on this growing trend in an interactive feature showing cities that have committed to or are exploring removing sections of freeway.
The Congress for a New Urbanism, which promotes “walkable urbanism,” has been leading the charge with its “Highways to Boulevards” program. Proponents of this movement have been successful in gaining congressional support via the infrastructure bill now pending in Congress.
This idea of walkable cities has been condensed into the catchphrase “15-minute cities,” in which cities around the world are trying to redesign themselves to allow residents to do most of life’s basic activities within a fifteen-minute walk of their homes. As if Paris weren’t already beautiful enough, it has been a leader in this movement under the leadership of Mayor Anna Hidalgo.
Paris had given in to the car culture in the 1960s and 70s, but beginning in 2014 has begun to prioritize pedestrians over vehicles in an experiment that Bloomberg’s “City Lab” documented in 2017 and that as of 2021 has reclaimed seven major squares for pedestrians.
In perhaps the most audacious version of this “15-minute city” concept, a billionaire e-commerce founder named Marc Lore is drawing up plans for a “City of Telosa,” that aims to create a brand-new city somewhere in the United States. It would consist of multiple 1500 acre circular neighborhoods that can fit 50,000 people each and that fit the definition of a 15-minute city. He has already signed on architecture firms and is in discussions for finding land that could host the city.
According to the project’s website “Telosa is derived from the ancient Greek word used by Aristotle meaning “highest purpose.” For the Greeks, the highest purpose of a great city was to have the individual and society as a whole flourish together. They believed that no individual could reach their full potential unless they lived within a strong cohesive society. This was achieved by both the individual and the community working together to create new opportunities to prosper.”
Here’s hoping that this and similar initiatives rediscover the power of beauty in our urban landscapes. Venice and Barcelona are well worth the visit, but imagine if we did not have to travel so far to experience similar transcendent beauty.