"There are civilized countries in the world, we just don't live in one," said Pax. "Why don't we move here?" I asked. "Because it's always raining or cold or both at the same time," replied Hawina.
This conversation was precipitated by my amazement at discovering the waste bin for the municipal compost pick-up outside Irene's door (Hawina's neice, who we're staying with right now). "Yeah?" said Hawina. "Of course. It's the Netherlands." The compost pick-up had been the last straw.
Immediately upon arrival in Heerlen I was blown away (again) by the layout of the city streets. Car lanes are probably 25% thinner than in the U.S., there is rarely more than one lane in each direction, and the average size of motor vehicles reflects the size of the lanes. Sidewalks are huge, and there are bike lanes everywhere - often specially designed lanes that separate them from both cars and pedestrians.
Last June, Kassia and I attended the keynote speech at the Towards Car-Free Cities Conference in Portland, OR. The speaker was the former commissioner for parks and recreation as well as transportation of Bogata Columbia. Portland had just been awarded Platinum status as a bicycle friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists. He was congratulatory, but also told the audience not to spend too much time patting themselves on the back.
Portland is good, he said, not great. And sometimes, he said, it's much harder to go from good to great than from bad to great. He showed pictures of how they'd transformed Bogota's nightmare of transportation infrastructure into a veritable paradise. They'd designed the bike and pedestrian path network so that it is possible to traverse the city without ever crossing a car lane, while intertwining them with the public parks. Simulataneously, they reneovated all the parks to include pavillions, stages, and other public gathering places, and began organizing concerts, festivals, and other social activities.
He showed pictures of bicycle friendly cities around the world. Recently in the C'ville weekly, the author of an article about bicycling in Charlottesville had the audacity to repeat the line that Portland is the Amsterdam of the U.S. Hardly. Even Heerlen, a medium sized city in the far south of the country (which folks in Amsterdam consider very backwards) blows Portland out of the water as a bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit friendly city.
The day after we arrived we visited Oma (Hawina's mom) in what could be considered the Heerlen suburbs. She lives in a fairly new andtasteless 12 story apartment building. Not much to speak of there. But when Willow and I went outside to find the nearby playground, I was again blown away. We walked around a neighborhood with clustered housing units, clustered (for the most part) parking areas, narrow two-lane thoroughfares, and even narrower one-lane bricked driveways connecting the parking areas to the roads. Pedestrian walk-ways link the housing clusters, lined with trees, bushes, and other facets of simple landscaping, and in the middle of the neighborhood was a large public green with a playground.
Minus the usual facet of a common building, I could easily have been walking through any number of co-housing communities in the U.S. When Willow and I got back to Oma's apartment I asked her who owns all that space? Who owns the houses? The answer was that the park, the landscaping, and the paths and roads are all city land, maintained by city employees who are often part of a special hiring program for disadvantaged and handicapped individuals. The housing units are generally owned by the people who live in them. It's like the whole city is a co-housing community.
It's amazing being in this place where all these aspects of radical environmentalism and social engineering are assumed, even taken for granted. When Hawina said, "yeah, of course," about the municipal compost pick-up I thought, what would it take to get something like that started in C'ville? You'd probably have to start it as a private business first to prove it was financially viable and then maybe the city would buy it or start their own.
Several days ago, I was reading a news piece on the failure of the first bailout package to make it through congress. There was some quote from some conservative having something to do with the slippery slope towards socialism. This is a common argument against significant increases of taxpayer dollars towards public lands and public services. Somehow people in the U.S. still seem to believe that this kind of government activity will hamper prosperity and liberty. What will it take to prove to them that this is untrue?