During a recent long weekend in Paris, I spent some time exploring the delightful Rue Mouffetard, which is a small pedestrian and market street. The street in the picture below is a short branch off of Mouffetard (which was directly behind me when I took the picture).
This street has a lot going for it. The height-to- width ratios are great, there are no cars, the small size means it can be paved in stone rather than asphalt, etc.
But what stands out most to me is the mother and her two sons seated at the bench. While I was eating a chocolate croissant, this mother arrived at the bakery on the corner, bought a baguette and sat down to read a book with her kids. For a number of reasons — her interaction with the shop owner, her language, the type of bags she had, etc. — I believe she was a local.
Watching this little interaction, I was struck by how radically different it was from my own experience growing up in an L.A. suburb, and from the experiences my friends and family members now have raising their own kids in Utah. It’s walkable and safe. This family mostly doesn’t have to worry about cars or traffic on these residential streets. Where cars can pass, the streets are so narrow they can’t go very quickly. This street also has a wonderful outdoor market everyday, so the family has access to fresh fruits, vegetables and bread. And, apparently, they get to these things on foot, giving them exercise and time outdoors together.
This neighborhood also gives this family an immediate and diverse social circle that exposes them to an array of experiences. They interacted with several people while I was watching, including a couple of the local vendors and an older lady.
This all sounds very romantic, but it is a reality for some people. Sadly, I had none of these things growing up, and even Utah’s best neighborhoods fall far, far short by comparison. And when I think about the kinds of places I’d like to raise kids someday, I’d like those places to have the kinds of things that are available in this neighborhood, not the kinds of things that were available to me in suburbia.
It took a long time for Paris to reach this point, but what saddens me about many of our American neighborhoods is that we aren’t even trying to make progress. We look at places like Daybreak — or even our beloved Pioneer neighborhoods — and say, “that’s good enough,” even though they lack virtually all of the things that make this Parisian neighborhood great.
I’m not suggesting we slavishly copy Paris, which isn’t working out too well in China right now. But the reality is that we will never have our own, unique version of this in low-ish density single family home neighborhoods. It’ll never happen in places with streets that are too wide. It’ll never happen in a place where every family has a yard. People won’t read stories to their kids at sidewalk cafes, after all, if they have sprawling McMansions and big lawns.
Its not a secret how to build great places like this. Just look at the picture (or, better, visit places like this) and figure out what works. This isn’t something “we just can’t do in America,” or something that is inherently “European.” It’s inherently human and if we want our neighborhoods to be places where humans thrive we need to start getting more serious about progress.