Friday, March 10, 2017

What communists got right

If you have ever tried to drop off your first grader at American school, you know that feeling very well. Inching forward slowly in a long line of cars, checking your watch and wondering whether you are going to make it to that morning meeting on time. Unless, of course, you are one of the brave ones (or the lucky ones - if you live close to school) who walk with their kids - then you're really screwed. No one expects you to walk to school here. Driving up to the front door is considered normal. And your kid riding a bike to school? Give me a break! What normal parent would ever allow that!?

This general approach creates a giant morning mess when hundreds of cars line up and clog roads. Ideally, I would love to see cities introducing a "no car zone" policy around all elementary schools, with a car-free zone of at least 500ft radius. This way no one (except the school buses) would be allowed to drive up to the front door. A short morning walk should be good for any parent and child.

Otherwise, what you get is this:

Believe it or not, such pictures have been completely foreign to me (at least until recently). It's no secret that I grew up behind the Iron Curtain - in communist Poland. And while communists got most things completely wrong, there is one they got right, not even knowing about it. Confused?

Let me explain.

American cities are huge because everyone's dream is to own a house and a piece of meticulously maintained piece of grass called the yard. And as I mentioned in my previous post, they are willing to spend long hours in car, driving to work, just to be able to live in places where they can actually afford their own piece of land. That's how the wasteful urban sprawl is made.

On the other hand, many European cities are much smaller (area-wise) yet still hold the same number of citizens. On average, people tend to live closer to each other in apartment buildings, not single-family houses. In 1960's-80's in Poland, the government built a fair number of such buildings all across the country. Because of their inherent "beauty" and shoddy construction, I wouldn't dare to call them apartment buildings, but maybe... housing blocks. Yes, that sounds communist enough.
A typical housing block in Poland. The fancy bright colors can't brighten your life enough in this concrete bunker (Source: Wikimedia).

One single block of this type may typically have about 40 apartments (depending on building's length) and those are usually small: ~2 bedrooms and 500-800 sq. ft. That's a third of an average American house.

The place where I grew up had a large number of these blocks scattered on a 1km x 1km plot of land. I made a simple sketch (please forgive me for my crude drawing abilities) to illustrate my point.

Such housing community can still be found in every major Polish city. Mine housed about 4,000-4,500 people and was somewhat self-sufficient. As you can see in the drawing, we had some basic amenities such as schools and kindergartens, grocery stores and other usual commercial buildings, a clinic, a church and a number of sports facilities.

What is also pretty clear that major roads were placed on the outskirts of this land and parking lots we located away from the front doors. Compare it with this section of Arlington, MA - roughly the same area of a fairly typical, suburban development - many more roads and a much lower population density:
This high-density design had some major consequences. In order to run your daily errands you didn't need a car to:
  • drop off kids at school, kindergarten or daycare,
  • get groceries,
  • see a doctor,
  • take kids to the soccer practice,
  • visit the church,
  • get a haircut,
  • do many, many other things.
In fact, you would only use your car if you want to drive to another city. Going to work in the 70's happened mainly thanks to the public transportation as few people could actually afford a car. Public transport was available (even though wasn't of particularly top quality) - a nearby streetcar line and multiple bus lines took care of the problem. If you wanted to go somewhere by bike, you could easily ride on wide footpaths or merge with the cycling "highway" that would take you to the downtown.

For my fellow Americans such place may sound like a slum. No one had their own driveway, own yard and own swimming pool after all. But for us, kids, it was like a large playround. Wherever we wanted to go, we never had to cross a busy street. We walked everywhere. Walked to school and to see our friends or to the field to play ball. If we were tired of walking, we rode bicycles instead. There were no cars around so playing outside was easy and safe. We ventured out for the entire day coming back home late for dinner.

Despite all the ugliness of housing blocks and compact size of apartments our community was a safe and fun place to live.

Of course, communists didn't build it that way because they had a visionary development plan. They did it because that was all they could do at the time - place lots of people in one location and provide them with cheap housing (I know it's hard to believe but the state was providing basic, i.e. lousy, housing for everyone).

Don't get me wrong. Even though it may sound nice there were just too many things wrong elsewhere in the system and at one point in 1989 we just showed our government the middle finger and ended the whole stupid experiment.

The housing blocks, however, survived. They still stand today and after numerous renovations still perform their function. And while many single-family dwellings started to pop-out around cities later in the 90's, the block communities are the ones to remain the most people-friendly. Yes, the apartments are still small, but are well-located and well-connected to the rest of the city tissue.

I see similar developments in the U.S. but at a much smaller scale. American apartment neighborhoods in the suburbs can't even compare to the old communist solution. Not only they are smaller but they also place large parking lots right in front of the buildings. Due to the local zoning laws, they don't include any commercial or educational institutions within the complex. And any public transportation is severely limited, which means you still have to drive everywhere to take care of the simplest needs.

I wonder, will it change or will we still prefer to own a yard instead of owning more time?

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