How I Learned That an Urban Lifestyle Does Not Imply Living in a Huge City


Traditional urbanism attracts all sorts of people because of the many benefits that come from a well-built urban environment. Designers are drawn to the visual appeal. Environmentalists come for the sustainability. Economists like the financial gains. The list goes on. For me, a multimedia journalism student, it is the productive and car-free lifestyle.

Growing up in Western North Carolina, I cannot say that I ever experienced an urban lifestyle at home. I never lived in multi-family housing, and we got everywhere by car. However, I was fortunate enough to travel a fair amount with my family and even have extended family in Europe. From an early age, I found exploring a new place on foot, navigating public transit, finding unique restaurants and experiencing the diversity of a city to be one of the coolest things ever.

It wasn’t until I went off to college that I had a somewhat urban lifestyle without being on vacation. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I had a full year of life with no car and discovered everything I needed within walking distance, an experience other Strong Towns writers can identify with. I remember people asking what my favorite part of college was after my first semester and answering, “I can be so much more productive.” I could get to the dining hall, classrooms and gym within 10 minutes by foot or bike. Better yet, many of my friends lived in the same building as me.

UNC is a big university and is part of The Triangle, the second largest metropolitan area in North Carolina. My exciting memories in urban environments were all in cities such as New York, DC and Chicago. Naturally, I believed that, in order to have an urban lifestyle, you needed to go to the biggest cities. My most recent semester of college proved that belief false.

I spent the spring of 2019 in Pamplona, Spain. It blew my mind that even in a city considered a “slow, small town” by Spaniards, a car was not only unnecessary but was actually often slower than walking. Why did this small Spanish city feel like a big US city to me? This week is coincidentally the week of San Fermín (aka Running of the Bulls), so what better time to write about the city known for this crazy festival?

For starters, nearly all of Pamplona is built four stories or higher, yet is entirely free of high rises. People are spread evenly throughout the city in apartments above stores and restaurants on the ground level. I noticed that apartment floors were different than ours in the US; an apartment addressed as the first floor was actually on the second building level. This may be because mixed-use design, with residential uses beginning on the second floor, is the standard.

Walking through the city feels welcomed, not discouraged. Sidewalks and crosswalks prioritize foot traffic and vehicles actually yield to pedestrians (crazy, right?). Well-marked lanes and slow speeds meant cyclists and cars could coexist.

I lived in a five-bedroom flat with four Spaniards in Plaza Yamaguchi. I regularly met with friends for an informal Spanish lesson at the bar directly below my room. The cafe 100 feet from our door was my go-to study spot. A grocery store and bakery were a three-minute walk around the corner. Best of all, a beautiful little park just across the street hosted regular hangouts with friends. What’s more? Rent was less than my previous year and a half in a six-bedroom apartment tucked away in the Chapel Hill woods.

From right to left: my girlfriend Abigail, I, my flatmate David and his girlfriend Isabel spent an evening out in the old town and enjoyed the Plaza del Castillo, the main square and center of Pamplona.

 

My home for the semster: Plaza Yamaguchi. My flat, favorite bar and cafe are on one side of the road. Parque Yamaguchi, one of several parks in Pamplona, lays across the street.

 
It blew my mind that even in a city considered a “slow, small town” by Spaniards, a car was not only unnecessary but was actually often slower than walking. Why did this small Spanish city feel like a big US city to me?

Going beyond the plaza, I got to class in 15 minutes by foot and the old town in 20. When I needed to shop for something other than food, department stores and special retail shops were all located between my apartment and the old town. Daily life was incredibly convenient.

When I wanted to get out of town, I used the bus and train stations within walking distance to get to San Sebastián, Madrid and Bilbao many times throughout my five months abroad. In order to get to the occasional remote destination, I luckily had a German friend with an amazing 90’s VW van, but I also rented a car with friends when necessary. Even including these trips and a few taxis, I believe I stepped into a car no more than 15 days out of five months in Europe. I loved it. This lifestyle is something very few US cities can support as well as Pamplona, a city of 199,066 people in the north of Spain. How is that so?

A normal street in the old town of Pamplona. Cars are able to be driven here but rarely are. The Pamplona Cathedral glows in a setting sun at the end of the street.

Population-wise, Pamplona is comparable to Montgomery, Alabama or Salt Lake City, Utah. However, in terms of population density, Pamplona compares to our most densely populated cities. At 20,427 people per square mile, Pamplona would be the second most densely populated city in the US. New York City, our most dense, has 28,317 people per square mile and San Francisco, our runner up, has only 18,569 according to Wikipedia. Of course, the way in which a city draws its boundaries is a huge factor in this comparison, but these numbers are crazy regardless of how some variables may affect them.

One key factor that may boost the Pamplona population density is the relative lack of cars. Of my four flatmates, none owned a car. I knew only a couple people who owned cars at the university. Compare that to an American college, where I would bet that well over half of students have cars. The significantly reduced number of cars means a significantly smaller amount of space in the city dedicated to “non-place” uses: roads and parking. That quickly increases both walkability and density.

These observations do not delve into the financial health of Pamplona, nor I am choosing to compare the Spanish and US economies. Rather, I am sharing the lifestyle I had in Spain and how it inspired me with a greater passion for urbanism. It also demonstrates that a walkable, urban lifestyle does not have to mean a fast-paced, big-city lifestyle. It can be a simple one in a small city. Traditional urbanism does not imply high rise buildings, a ton of traffic and chaos. It just requires a traditional development pattern: pedestrian-oriented, human-scaled, compact, and mixed-use. I believe if more Americans shared the experience of traditional development in a modest European city, we would begin building stronger towns and cities of our own.