How does city planning in German and Dutch cities enable people to be themselves?
The United States prides itself in being the land of freedom. It is the land where people can turn their dreams into reality. However, this summer has showed me that the way that our society is organized today can hinder the realization of these dreams in a way German and Dutch society does not. In the US our society is structured in a way that alienates people from each other, whereas many European nations foster a sense of community. I would like to argue that this difference is primarily rooted in economic and political differences. While the EU and the US both operate on a system of capitalism, the EU tends more toward the stakeholder model whereas the US system prioritizes shareholders. This means that companies in the EU make decisions by considering the interests of all of the people affected by these decisions. This system maximizes equity, and can be seen in practice at many of the Mittelstand companies that we visited in Germany. With the shareholder model, which is utilized by the US, companies consider the interests of their shareholders above the interests of the people affected. This disregard for the fellow man stratifies the economy. The middle class in the US is shrinking, and the gaps in socioeconomic status are polarizing the country. The polarization affects even the most fundamental aspects of our culture; from education, to innovation, to city planning.
Like everything in our society, cities are divided based on socioeconomic status. It is common for the rich, wanting to distance themselves from the ugly realities of poverty, move into sheltered enclaves, while the poor are confined to neighborhoods that are often neglected. Many towns in the US are not densely developed and have limited public transit, so people who cannot afford cars are relatively immobile. As a result there is less interaction between socioeconomic groups, and less empathy for people who are different from one’s self. This creates a positive feedback loop; because people are not forced to understand each other’s perspectives, little effort is made to encourage intermingling through public institutions (parks, events, transit, etc.) and the lack of empathy deepens and the problem is exacerbated. In Germany and the Netherlands, we saw that many neighborhoods are developed to have a variety of housing options for people; subsidized, high-end, and regular housing can be found in the same area. Many neighborhoods have a park where children can play and people can meet each other. Community projects, such as the community gardens that we saw in The Hague, foster a sense of connectivity through people working together to achieve a common goal. The prevalence of public transit discourages people from using personal vehicles and forces vastly different people to encounter each other on the train or bus. Public events, which often have cultural themes (for example, the Thailand festival that we encountered on our last day in The Hague), bring people together and promote an understanding of different cultures. This strong sense of connectedness and responsibility to one’s peers is mirrored by the higher taxes that people in Germany in the Netherlands pay; tax money provides a financial safety net for people in need. However, it is important to note that taxes in the EU are only slightly higher than in the US. Instead of fortifying a monstrous military, European nations funnel the majority of their taxes into supporting their citizens.
I feel that the sense of community that is present in Germany and the Netherlands allows people to be themselves, and do the things that they want. In a society where you are only surrounded by people who are similar, it is really difficult to be different. Creativity is choked in the name of homogeneity. Cary is a good example of this phenomenon. Neighborhoods are planned with row after row of identical houses in identical yards on identical streets. Homeowners associations limit the modifications that people can make to their properties in fear that any discrepancy will lower the value of the homes in the neighborhood. Driving through these neighborhoods is eerie; it is as if one has entered into a science fiction world, where the people live mechanical lives and have lost the beautiful, organic quality that is quintessential to humanity. This is, of course, and exaggeration. I’m sure that people living in these communities live fulfilling lives. But boxing oneself into a life that looks like all of the others must do something to a person’s mental health. In Europe this summer I observed people ranging across the spectrum of the human experience coexisting together, and generally embracing the things that make people different. Our tour of Kreuzberg provided great examples of this. Street artists are treated as anonymous celebrities, and their work has become one of the main attractions of the area. Their art provides insight into where they find meaning, and this personal monument is celebrated. Osman Kalin pieced together a home on public land, and his creativity and resourcefulness is now admired. The African art collective, YAAM, is successful enough to be housed on property in the heart of Berlin along the Spree. This celebration of arts and culture is what I will miss most about Europe.
Of course human nature will always have beautiful and ugly pieces; xenophobia will always exist, and European society also has many problems with this. But I got the impression that this is a problem that Europe is working to overcome, whereas in the US many people seem content with the status quo.