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Nice city, nice people: Washington DC’s lesson for the UK

PUBLISHED: 07:51 11 December 2017

Washington DC: A well-designed city with friendly people. It's surely no coincidence, says Sharon Griffiths.

Washington DC: A well-designed city with friendly people. It's surely no coincidence, says Sharon Griffiths.

Songquan Deng

Sharon Griffiths has a Stateside lesson in how nicer towns and cities might help create nicer people too.

Maybe it’s all down to the town planners…

I spent last week being loved by strangers. It was wonderful, if a bit overwhelming - like being mobbed by Labrador puppies.

I was in Washington DC, which is unlike any other city. For a start it’s not as busy. Apart from rush hour, downtown is remarkably empty of screaming sirens, sounding horns and squeals of brakes. The traffic – mostly – moves fairly quietly and efficiently. The pavements are wide enough for people to stroll or stride without having to dodge each other every yard or so.

It’s a city of monuments and memorials, splendid buildings, wide avenues and grand vistas – the Capitol gleaming above it all, the White House in the middle. There are vast open spaces and parks. City centre pavements are bordered by trees and – even in December – masses of pansies, roses and decorative cabbages and very little litter.

Locals are eager to help, to get to know you, to be friends. From the scarily trendy black teenagers in the Five Guys burger place to the rather grand ladies in the Round Robin bar of the historic Willard hotel, everyone wants to talk to you.

Look a bit lost or uncertain and you’re immediately surrounded by strangers wanting to help. Or just talk. Hearing our accents in a coffee shop, a stranger immediately invited us to lunch “So you can tell me about England…” Every day brought at least a dozen random conversations, most of them delightful. Favourite topics were Meghan Markle or Brexit about which they were surprisingly knowledgeable and curious. But there, it’s a political town.

Of course Washington has its problems – poverty-stricken areas, homelessness and drug use and has had plenty of troubles in the past – but now it seems remarkably stress-free, give or take the odd scandal on Capitol Hill or President Trump’s latest tweet.

Younger son has been working in DC for the past few months and after working in London for ten years, has found it’s another world, not like work at all.

He can even walk to work – a treat that gives him an extra two hours a day over his London job as well as saving a fortune. But driving there is comparably easy, even for a foreigner, and the subway, which the locals complain about of course, is fast, reliable, clean and ridiculously uncrowded compared with London Underground. It also has an elevator at every station – a boon for young parents with a baby in a buggy.

There are far fewer pubs and bars than London, but it seems a lot more coffee shops, bakers and patisseries.

Maybe all those memorials instil a sense of pride, but maybe it’s the very design of the city that reduces the stress in its inhabitants. Those wide pavements, straight roads, public spaces, greenery. It’s what Haussmann did for Paris but there he was working on a long-established and overcrowded city not one built virtually from scratch. A blank slate is so much easier.

When people have room to breathe and are not constantly rushing, jostling, pushing, to get to where they want to be, it must make a difference. It’s better for them individually and better for society as whole. They have more time for the community, more time for strangers.

We all know that our surroundings make a difference to how we feel about life. We’ve learned the mistakes of the brutality of many of the those 60s housing blocks, for instance.

Nicer surroundings calm us, relax us, inspire us. They seem to make for nicer people too.

If only the planners could always make it happen.

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