This is an in-the-streets kind of city.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- I heard the sound of strangers laughing all day — and sometimes all night — long. They are sitting out on the patios of cafes, they are bellowing from the doorways of bars, they are hanging out chatting in front of restaurants. When I walk down the streets here I see hundreds of people dining, drinking, chatting. They are spending time with each other. They are not on their phones. Their combined vocalizations crescendo in a sweet kind of music that tells me: these people are happy to be together.
It’s nice to be in a place like this.
Summertime in Prague.
There may not be a more beautiful summer city in the world.
Some cities are set up for being outside in the streets, in the cafes, out in front of the bars. Other, are arranged for living inside — driving from home to work to the mall… While someone could easily point out that this is at least partially due to weather — Edmonton is going to be an indoors city no matter what — I’m not convinced this is the biggest deciding factor in most cases.
Rather, I believe the differential between and in-the-streets city and a behind-closed-doors city is its age — as in, the era the street grid was laid and the architecture that currently lines it.
Cities were once made for walking. They were made for being outside. They had sidewalks that were nearly as broad as the streets that could accommodate tables and chairs and places for people to gather. The sidewalks were where life happened.
Old cities are still like this. Even frigid, rainy old London is still an in-the-streets city. So is Amsterdam. But if you go to Rotterdam — which was very much rebuilt after WWII — something feels very different. The streets are wide, the sidewalks are narrow; you can walk for three blocks and pass by nobody. It’s a modern city built on a modern plan. It was made for people to be in-doors.
The air conditioner was the invention that destroys the matrix of culture the most. Even more so than the car, I’d say. In Prague, people drive cars but they don’t have air conditioners. Cultures where air conditioners are not common don’t develop a dependency on them — they don’t think that something is awry because they feel … oh no! … warm.
It’s kind of a man vs. nature ordeal. In lower class countries rebelling against nature is in vogue, because to set yourself up in an artificial climate where the sun can’t darken your skin indicates that you must have money. In moneyied countries, there is no status to be gained from air conditioning, cars, etc, because everyone can afford it — so the converse becomes true and being outside getting sun tanned becomes the cool thing to do.
East Asia’s urban development model makes me shake my head in disgust. We have all of these once walkable, in-the-streets cities being rapidly transformed into car-centric AC-palisaded behind-closed-doors cities. That entire part of the world is rebuilding itself around the shopping mall. Being outside of AC is terminally uncool. Travelers walk down the streets in these places, sweating, sun burned, and smiling … and the locals take us for morons … or, as the case has now become, losers.
But in a generation or so — as soon as enough people have enough money to make being in shopping malls normal — the people are going to wonder what happened to their culture and will venture outside again … looking for precisely what’s being wholesale destroyed right now.
It’s not like it doesn’t get hot in Prague either. It’s the beginning of June and we’ve already had several high 80s, 90 degree days.
People go outside here. They get burnt by the sun. They sweat. But they don’t care.
They’re having fun.
Which I guess is what the city was made for.