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Out Exploring

14 Sep 10
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I think Washington D.C. is one of the most livable cities in the United States. Not because of its people – to be honest, I believe attitudes there are not reflective of much of the rest of the country. I think Washington is a great place because it’s a big city that can feel like such a small town.

This effect comes in part from a piece of federal legislation enacted back in 1910 that restricts the height of buildings in the nation’s capital. The law was passed after a building in Cairo reached 12 stories – an unheard of height in those days, and well beyond the reach of fire ladders. U.S. lawmakers, worried about safety, simply wanted to prevent a disaster.

Interestingly, there is a pervasive myth (one I’ve also told in the past believing it to be true) that the law requires structures to be no taller than the Capitol building’s dome. The actual legislation determines height limits using a formula that involves the width of each street, but the effect is the same – few buildings stand taller than the Capitol. The tallest commercial building in the city stands just 12 stories, or 210 feet high (One Franklin Square, at 1301 K Street NW). Compare that to the Empire State Building in New York City, not the tallest building in New York and yet rising 1,250 feet.

The lack of skyscrapers gives Washington an open, approachable texture. But that’s not the only reason it has a small-town feel. It also has plenty of green space. Pocket parks abound and tree-lined streets can be found across the city. The man who designed Washington, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, also created site lines that end in public squares.

The result of these low buildings, open green spaces and streets that invite walking are momentary impressions of small-town life.

Oddly, Bandung leaves me at times with the same feeling. Traffic is nuts here, even worse than the snarls produced by DC’s notoriously nasty drivers. Under Indonesian traffic laws, motorcycles are presumed innocent in pretty much any traffic dispute, so they weave their way around cars and trucks with seeming impunity, behaving as if the law which gives them protection from wrongful prosecution also confers upon them some sort of immortality. A friend here refers to the motorcyclists as ‘temporary Indonesians’ because he says they drive as if they don’t expect to live for very long. And for those special few whose behavior even defies the rules that seemingly govern most motorcyclists, Adam has taken to calling them “Indo.” That’s because their life expectancy is even shorter than temporary Indonesians.

But even with the macet (pronounced mah-CHET), which is the Bahasa word for bad traffic, Bandung can give the impression of a small town, despite its size of about three million people. This comes from the very same things that make DC so livable.

For whatever reason, buildings here are rarely tall. The majority of buildings lining the main streets are two or three-story affairs, usually with retail below and either more retail or housing above.

I’m not certain why this is. Perhaps the way many of the buildings are constructed does not allow them to be tall. Watching some buildings go up makes me think that such things as architects and engineers are luxuries in the building field here. Perhaps the lack of tall buildings may also come from a concern for earthquakes in this natural disaster-prone part of the world. There are a scattered few relatively tall buildings, but these are generally reserved for hotels and shopping malls, businesses that can afford proper building design. But whatever the reason, except for a select few commercial districts, buildings remain low and spread out.

Bandung also seems to have a lot of leafy cover. Using Google Maps to fly over the city, one finds a good deal of green from trees and public parks. There are also many places where something has been torn down, but no structures have taken its place.

And while sidewalks are often missing, and when found are at best marginally passable, there are many areas of the city where walking can be a pleasure. In part this is a result of poverty – many people are forced by necessity to walk, or take the inexpensive Angkut buses that run on fixed routes, so pedestrians are readily accommodated and found lining most of the busier roads. But it’s also enjoyable to wander the streets, peeking in warungs (food stalls and small stores) and watching people. Just know that you must often wander onto the edges of streets to make your way around obstacles or to avoid falling into large holes that might suddenly appear along the footpath. And while much of the city has very good drainage ditches along roadways – ditches that are needed since it rains every day here – their coverings are often suspect or missing, so these potential pitfalls must also be avoided.

The point of all this though is that I find Bandung a livable city – with of course some major caveats. Pollution, as it is for many developing nations, is a constant. Trash litters streets and streams. Exhaust clouds from poorly maintained cars and trucks can at times produce enough particulate matter to choke not just one horse, but a whole stable of horses at the Saratoga Race Track.

Having been in Indonesia a couple of times in the recent past though, none of these issues came as a surprise. So we are enjoying the discovery of our new home for ten months, by foot, car, and sometimes even byKijang.

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