Have you ever walked through your neighborhood and looked upon all those green squares of lawn with conjuring eyes?
What would you conjure?
I’d conjure fruit trees, and vegetable beds in every single yard. I’d see healthy elderly men and women climbing ladders, gathering baskets full. They’ll derive such happiness from tending the plants, and sharing it with their children and grandchildren, so even those who work indoors all day can return to a home grown, beautiful meal. And I’d structure some homes in clusters, with connecting backyards and walkways, so families can live together, or communities could easily coordinate with one another.
Along roadsides wildflowers will prosper. Trees will offer shade and lush green. Unused spaces will become meadows. Not out of neglect. But out of love. Love for the bees that give us honey. Love for the evening stroll, when light grows golden and soft winds play with shadow. And love for cats who know themselves best as tigers in tall grass.
In cities, I see roof top gardens and solar panels on every building. I see water catchment systems. I see large green spaces, filled with hiking trails and ponds and rivers. These protected areas are the lungs of the city and a sanctuary for wildlife or humans alike.
I’d conjure a center square where no cars are allowed and pedestrians can freely claim stone streets as their own. Every day markets take place where extra food can be sold or exchanged.
Also in the square, you’ll find live music, and performers of all kinds. Local artists too.
The roads would be designed first and foremost for bicyclists and pedestrians, with bike paths leading in and out of the city center from every direction. Cars- an outdated technology of the past, will be considered wasteful and expensive, so would be used sparingly or for city to city travel when other transportation is not available. Solar powered or magnetic powered mass transit would also be available.
Think this is possible? Guess what. It’s already here.
In Milano city, Italy, cars are charged a fee if they wish to enter the center. Bike sharing services offer residents and tourists low-cost access to bicycles within the city. The idea is to reduce traffic congestion and pollution while boosting physical activity.
The heart of Ljubljana, Slovenia is her river. The waters flow directly through the city center and along her banks are pedestrian walkways, cafe’s, and space to just relax with a book. Musicians play traditional music while street performers do thar thang, all along her shore. There are also many carless streets and squares within the city and within walking distance one can find many parks and hiking trails. Ljubljana means beloved. I can see why.
In Belgrade, Serbia many neighborhoods are built in clusters so that neighbors share backyards and growing spaces.
In Zagreb, Croatia you’ll find open markets selling everything you could imagine. Homegrown fruits and vegetables, fresh cheese, bread that’s still hot from the oven, smoked meats, and more. The old town district is for pedestrians only. It comes alive at night.
And the city of Sombor, Serbia is a mecca for gardeners and bikes.
Meet my new friends Valentin and Irena.
We stayed in their apartment guest rental while in Sombor. Their front yard is a shady oasis, thanks to a giant black cherry tree. A small alley way offers just enough space for a garden and they’ve managed to pack it full of vegetables! They told us to please help ourselves. It felt so good to walk into the back yard and pick myself a fresh tomato for lunch. They made it clear- theirs is an organic garden. No sprays or chemicals here! I’ve attached the link to their guest rental, in case any of you are so inspired to visit.
With the use of their bikes we were able to explore the surrounding region. As I rode through the neighborhoods I could not believe my eyes. Not a single front lawn without vegetables or fruit trees. Every square inch of land was used in some way. In the evenings I’d watch old men come out to pick the fruit from branches.
And because there are very few cars (everyone uses bikes as their main source of transportation) children claim the streets, laughing and playing in the middle of the road. You can find well maintained bike paths leading into the center from every direction. Young and old alike are riding!
The heart of the city is a pedestrian and bike only plaza, filled with musicians, especially at night.
During the day a large vegetable market takes place and on every street corner people sell ripe, juicy watermelons, among other foods, that they grow themselves.
In only a 15 minute bike ride you’ll find yourself in the country side where fields of yellow sunflowers reach for summer blue sky.
Visiting these cities has inspired me. Its made me realize that my ‘idealistic’ vision is not so idealistic at all. Rather, it is realistic, happening right before my very eyes. And what is even more interesting is these ecological models are strongest in areas that are struggling on an economic level. Maybe the people of Sombor would drive more if they had the money to purchase gas on a regular basis. Maybe they would garden less because they could afford to buy fruits grown in some far away land. And with all the cars on the road, would children be running around in the streets, or stuck indoors watching t.v.? I think of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
In San Francisco, 70% of the space in downtown is designed for the use of vehicles, not people (1).
David Bollier. in his article Re-imagining Urban Design and City Life writes,
“The enclosure of public spaces, by the same reasoning, is anti-democratic. When shopping malls and office towers eliminate our public squares, our parks and our promenades, we lose our capacity to see each other, to socialize and speak publicly, to identify and empathize with each other, to be commoners. Without these spaces, we are forced into playing roles dictated by the Market or the State.”
When we lose touch with one another- loose touch with those daily moments, of exchanging laughter with a stranger, or getting to know a neighbor, we loose community. And when we loose community, crime and depression seem to flourish. The messages from the privatized industry that benefits from us being consumers will tell you to focus on material gain for happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humans need a balance of social playfulness with one another and solitary time for inward reflection. The way we structure our environment will inevitably effect our choices in how we engage in life.
Steve Read, one of the founders of the French Permaculture Association writes,
“Permaculture is about asking ‘why am I doing this?’ It’s not about clever technological solutions for driving, but asking, ‘why am I in this car in the first place?’ I constantly end up taking things out of my life that I don’t need” (2).
So what can we do, or better yet, not do right now?
California is seeing its greatest drought in history as I write this. Do we need that green front lawn that’s sucking up water during a time like this? Vegetables can be grown on a drip system, so that water is carefully distributed where necessary. And all that water just going down the drain every time you take a shower or wash the dishes- why not put it in the garden instead? Get ahold of some large barrels to store it in outside, covering it with a breathable fabric to keep out mosquito larvae and allowing in rain… we can still hope right? And make sure to use only biodegradable soaps.
Ride your bike. It’s great exercise and it’ll make you feel better with all those endorphins pumping through your blood.
Trade food with your neighbor. Plant gardens and fruit trees. Short on time or cash? Check out ‘Time Bank’ Or click on the link below.
And pester your governor to build you a bikeway, threaten not to re-elect!, so we can ride with as much ease as Amsterdam, where women in high heels travel with baby on board.
If our cities are a reflection of who we are as a people, then, who are we? And what do we wish to become?