Life in Cities
The following was originally composed in 2008. The project described was mostly forsaken, as being too ambitious, or simply impractical, because the feel of a city cannot well be shown with isolated photographs.
Here will be some notes and photos on life in cities, gathered as I travel and presented here as I have time. See the links below.
I spent the first eighteen years of my life living in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. I spent nine years going to school in Washington. During graduate school, I first lived on the other side of the city, in Maryland. Then, for three years, I finally lived in the city proper. I was happy to do this.
Since 2000, I have lived in Ankara. When asked how I like it, my positive comments include (but are not limited to) the following.
- Ankara is centrally located in Turkey, being just a few hours by bus from both Istanbul and the southern coast.
- The climate is what I am used to, or better. The winters are cold, with some snow. The summers are hot, but not humid like Washingon, and air-conditioners are not common (though more and more people are installing them).
- I am used to living in a national political capital that is not also the economic capital. Ankara is to Istanbul as Washington is to New York. I like visiting New York and Istanbul, but living there could be a challenge.
- Ankara has three international film festivals a year.
- Ankara is an ancient city, with some remains of its past.
- Ankara is where METU is, and I like being here.
- One can easily live in Ankara without a car.
However, the last point is changing. It’s not that life would be easier here with a car; but as more people buy cars, life for everybody becomes more difficult.
In my experience, the rule of the road in Ankara is that motorized vehicles shall prevail. There are few traffic lights, and those that do exist are routinely ignored. Pedestrians are reluctant to cross the street in front of stopped cars; they may prefer to walk behind the foremost cars, in case one of these suddenly speeds off.
Crossing the street means waiting for a break in the traffic. When a driver sees pedestrians in the street ahead of him, his first impulse is not to slow down, but to honk.
Drivers park their cars wherever they are physically able to. If the curb will allow it, a driver parks his car on the sidewalk. He puts two wheels there, or all four. There is no notion that sidewalks are for pedestrians. This is true for road-builders as well. Sometimes concrete barriers shaped like mushrooms are planted in sidewalks, to keep cars from parking; but these mushrooms are so big, they take away space from pedestrians too. Bus shelters are erected in the middle of narrow sidewalks. Advertising billboards may block half a sidewalk, along with the field of vision needed for a safe crossing of the road. When the widening of a road is desired, the sidewalk may simply be wiped out.
An able-bodied person can still get around on foot, though it is stressful to have to make one’s way among cars, whether they are moving or parked. And what if you are old and stiff? Or young and in a stroller? Or of any age, in a wheelchair?
I don’t say how things should be. I have my own ideas, but cannot impose them and do not wish to impose them. For my own personal comfort, I am pleased that Turkey is banning smoking in more and more public places. But I cannot wholeheartedly support these bannings unless people in general agree that they are a good idea.
Perhaps people will want to say to me something like the following:
Sidewalks are not just for pedestrians: they are for whoever can use them, even drivers looking for a place to park. We cannot expect drivers to stop for pedestrians: this would make traffic slower than it already is. Indeed, cars represent success and freedom. We must do everything we can to make this freedom a reality for the person who is fortunate enough to be able to buy a car. If this means killing grand old plane trees to widen roads, this is simply what must be done.
If people want to say this, I shall still disagree, but there is little I can do. At least they have been honest.
I quote the etymology of city given in the Oxford English Dictionary:
ME. cite, a. OF. cité, earlier citet, corresp. to Pr. ciptat, It. città, earlier cittade, Romanic *civ’tade:—L. cīvitāt-em. By another phonetic process the Romanic type gave Pr. and Cat. ciutat, Sp. ciudad, Pg. cidade. L. cīvitās, -tātem was n. of state or condition f. cīvis citizen: its primary sense was therefore ‘citizenship’; thence concretely ‘the body of citizens, the community’; only in later times was the word taken as = urbs, the town or place occupied by the community. The historical relation between the Roman cīvitās and cīvis was thus the reverse of that between our city and citizen, which however is that of the Gr. πόλις and πολίτης.
In short, the Latin origin of city means, in order,
- being a citizen,
- the citizenry,
- where the citizenry live.
The Turkish words for city, namely şehir and kent, do not come from Latin, though it may be of interest that Ankara was once a Roman city. A city is a place for civilization, for becoming civil. A place for getting along, for making plans and settling disagreements cooperatively. See Collingwood’s remarks on civilization.
Currently, in Ankara, it would appear that what is to be done is decided by one man: the mayor. Some problems in Ankara today can be blamed on the mayor’s construction projects. But it should be noted that the general attitudes of drivers predate this mayor. The question of who is going to occupy some part of the road is settled by a show of force. Drivers of cars can kill, so people are expected to get out of their way.
I intend to record here some specific observations about Ankara and the other cities that I visit. Elsewhere I have posted some travelogues, and some of these include observations relevant to the present project. Here I mean to focus more exclusively on how people and cars interact.
- Ankara, Turkey
- Barcelona, Spain
- Berne, Switzerland
- Besançon, France
- Istanbul, Turkey (this is focussed mainly on buildings)
In 2008 I happened to visit the European cities listed above, whose names happen to begin with B. In superficial terms, I could find in them some of the faults that I described about Ankara. This said almost nothing about how well pedestrians were respected in the cities. Thus I pretty much gave up on my project. Having lived in Istanbul since 2011, I could say a lot about being a pedestrian here, but shall only refer to my coverage of the Gezi park demonstrations, starting with a blog article of May 30, 2013.