Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I was faced with a choice. A decision many people wish they had more often. Six days, one round-trip flight, and no itinerary. Pour over a map, point, and head to the airport.
As with most of my travels, I try to flex my frugality muscle where it makes sense. So I decided to choose the cheapest round-trip flight I could find from Reykjavik, Iceland to anywhere in mainland Europe. As it turned out, that place was Brussels.
I still get butterflies making such impulsive decisions. A sense of recklessness and irresponsibility flood my head hours later. By the time I walked off the plane at Brussels Airport, I had two nights booked at a hostel near the Grote Markt, but absolutely no plans, no connections, and no umbrella–unfortunately.
In time the rain blew over, yet my uncertainty remained. In all honestly, I didn’t know much about Belgium. I heard it was the capital of Europe, home to the European Union. And of course I knew of the waffles and chocolate. Yet, after a few discussions with fellow travelers, I learned of Bruges, the capital city of West Flanders in Belgium’s Flemish Region.
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Belgium, Bruges is located in Europe’s “low country”. This discovery hit fairly close to home. Until moving to Savannah, I didn’t realize the American southeast was also referred to as the Low Country, for it’s low-lying, coastal topography. Furthermore, I later learned that the Netherlands, Belgium’s northern neighbor, comes from nether (low) and lands.
After a short train ride to West Flanders, I rode the bus to the quiet Langestraat in the old city’s eastern quarter. I spent my evenings at the wonderful St. Christopher’s hostel which offered excellent walk/bike access to downtown, a warm and friendly community space/bar/restaurant, and (most intriguingly, I think) a beautiful bike share for its visitors.
For €3 and a collateral piece of identification, I immediately expanded my access to Bruges and the surrounding towns. Two legs, a set of gears, and a curious mind. A bright green cruiser branded with the St. Christopher’s logo would transport me through 20 kilometers of country roads, brick streets, cattle trails, and paved bikeways lining the Damme Canal.
It was a perfect fall afternoon in the Belgian low country–65 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny, with a light breeze across the fields. I took advice from the hostel staff and headed towards the nearby town of Damme, which history dates to the 13th century when it was just a port to Bruges. Thankfully the infrastructure has improved immensely since the Middle Ages.
Covering hundreds of square kilometers, a network of bike paths create a lattice of transit channels across the city and rural setting. The network designers identify routes and intersections with a simple numbering scheme allowing for intuitive navigation–especially for foreigners. No need to memorize street names or glance at Google Maps.
After gliding beyond the city canals and into the outer developments of Bruges, I began noticing things. While my decision to ride through the Belgian countryside wasn’t to dissect the urban fabric of West Flanders, these thought experiments weaseled into my brain on back-country bike paths.
When it comes to density, a lot of North American urbanists identify a huge gap known as the Missing Middle: the gap in urban form between high-density live-work spaces and rolling suburban hills many of us will continue to call home.
The form and feel of urban downtown art galleries and parking lot-encompassed Big Lots are equally prescribed. Current zoning laws in many cities have produced this stark dichotomy of dense city streets and sprawling suburbs (and exurbs) connected by six-lane commercial corridors.
It commonly leads to a “choice”, a decision between one or the other. I often find these conversations taking place at all age demographics, independent of location. In my opinion, this is a restriction of freedom, commonly framed as a binary choice.
As the narrow streets widened and sounds of the city dissipated, it gave way for a slow transition to modest homes, quaint streets, and extremely walkable centers of life. I found myself in the district of Koolkerke.
In stark contrast to my American experiences, I found a distinct middle during my bike ride to the rural area of Damme, about 6km beyond the old city. A gradual transition of bustling streets, to American-like townhouses, to detached single family houses, to 5 acre plots of cornfields and 15-cattle farm estates. A slow and visible stepping down of geometry that provides freedom for residents to choose the best of both worlds. A place with high mobility as well as the housing options they value.
Unlike many transitions in the United States, these facades retained shallow setbacks from the sidewalk while neighborhood streets exhibited geometry that invited 30kph cruising rather than 55kph cornerings. Churches and schools at the fringes of development (neighboring dozens of acres of corn) sat on grass plots and cobbled alleys.
For houses along many car, bike, and pedestrian corridors, the distance between building and property edge remained narrow. Therefore, doors face outward toward the community. The main thoroughfare, N374 retains biking lanes, dedicated parking, and other painted features to naturally slow traffic through town. Because what good is having two equally desirable parts of town separated by a chasm of fast-moving traffic?
Now let’s turn our attention to an American exurb outside of Savannah, Georgia. It boasts a higher population than the Bruge district of Koolkerke, but retains a similar distance from the central business district and exhibits a similar purpose. The community is regarded as a census-dedicated place effectively contributing to the Greater Savannah Metropolitan statistical area without being a stand-alone city. Both photos are courtesy of Google Maps 3D view at 100 foot scale.
The first thing I observe are distinct zones and patterns across the region. Tracts of land contain repeated building designs. It markets a sense of community, without being integrated with the entirety of the city. Trees and green spaces are prominent throughout the landscape (more so than our European counterpart), most likely to create privacy and retain the feelings of retreat.
Now notice the setbacks of single-family homes and commercial developments in Georgetown. If you didn’t require space for cars (ie. were a pedestrian), why maintain setbacks of 20-30 feet? It becomes an extremely inefficient use of space and energy. The setbacks don’t invite one to enter the property from the street either.
Unlike our European example, doors face inward toward a microcosm (apartment complex, neighborhood, or worst of all, parking lot), effectively reducing the possibility of passing foot traffic and feeling of “community” many people expect to exist in suburban environments.
No comparison is perfect, but identifying these elements are the first step for me in growing my knowledge of urban spaces–what they look like and how they got there. A comparison such as this illustrates some common design themes of urban spaces when you size them for people vs cars. Back in the 19th century, the vast majority of our daily personal and economic transactions existed within walking distance of our home and work, and was simply limited by our mobility at the time.
“We’re all in a prison of where we can get to in a reasonable amount of time” -Jarrett Walker, humantransit.org
Conversely in the late 20th century, the car was applied to the urban scene as a primary method of personal transportation and the world responded. One extremely common feature of modern cities, prominent in Georgetown, are dedicated and isolated spaces. With the increased geographic mobility, we could easily limit land to specific uses: 1) places to work, 2) places to live, 3) places to gather. No longer did we require the personal and economic exchanges of life to happen within geographic constraints of two feet, a bike ride, or the financially prudent reach of public transportation (bus, street car, rail).
When sized for cars, the manner in which we move through the city completely changes. Space and energy requirements follow a different set of priorities. (In case you’re wondering, the reason this doesn’t occur to the same degree with public transit is because all users are ultimately pedestrians at the beginning and end of each trip.) Zoning and regulation play a heavy hand–too heavy in my opinion–in the formation of these areas, but I mainly wanted to focus on infrastructure observations for now.
As I continued my journey through the Belgian country-side, I reflected on the manner in which the brick jungle of Bruges dissolved into cow pastures. The gradient I saw was unlike many transitions I witness throughout the United States. It’s simply a critique on the landscape and nothing more. It was an opportunity to view the city in a new light, and understand the constraints, demands, and regulations that guided us to these forms.