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How to Fall In Love With Cities

Lessons from Europe in making great places

February 2, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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Paris, like so many European cities, is beloved because of its lively streets, tidy parks, vibrant neighborhoods, cosmopolitan culture, relaxed cafés, and young people — the wonderful results of inspired thinking and hard work in response to real-world urban conditions.

My infatuation with cities began on a visit to Montreal more than 20 years ago. I was enchanted by picturesque squares, sleek subway trains, and the intoxicating urbaneness all around. Sitting up most of the night in sidewalk cafés along Rue St. Denis, I marveled at how different Montreal felt from the cities I had known growing up in downstate Illinois. In my childhood, street life was what happened in the parking lot between the store and your car.

Appropriately enough, it was on my honeymoon that my love affair with cities grew deeper. Julie and I toured the continent. We came home wondering why American cities didn't instill us with the same sense of wonder.

Not Just Older, But Better
The conventional wisdom is that European cities are so attractive because they are so much older, with street plans locked in place before the arrival of the automobile. But something more is at work. What explains the fact that most European cities gracefully end at some point, giving way to green countryside at their edges, unlike the endless miles of sprawl in America? How is it that public life and street culture feel so much richer in France or Germany ?

The answer is in the way Europeans think about urban life. A different set of public priorities, and urban policies that respond to these priorities, accounts for the lively spirit of European metropolitan centers. Rather than accepting increasing auto traffic and creeping suburbanization as the inevitable march of “progress,” as many Americans do, Europeans defend the vitality of their hometowns. Historic neighborhoods are protected, transit systems improved, pedestrian zones expanded, green spaces preserved, bike lanes added, and development guidelines enacted to head off ugly outbreaks of sprawl.

The Hague, Amsterdam, Copenhagen Stand Out
One example that stands vividly in my mind: The central train station in the Dutch city of The Hague. In America this building would qualify as one of the world's wonders. Not for its ultramodern architecture — we have suburban office parks from Tampa to Tacoma that can match it for glitz. The building's basic function is what  dazzled me: The electronic schedule board tracked more than 20 trains departing every hour for destinations all over the Netherlands and Europe — in a city about the size of Chattanooga. Streetcars wheeled right into the station, unloading and loading throngs of commuters. An underground parking facility accommodated 3,000 bicycles.

Example two: Amsterdam, where only 20 percent of people's trips are in a car; 36 percent are on foot, another 31 percent on bikes, and 11 percent on transit. But that's not good enough for the Dutch. Voters in Amsterdam approved an ambitious plan to eliminate most automobiles in a three-square-mile section of the center city, an idea later adopted in a number of other Dutch towns. Increased public funding has been invested in railroads and light rail, and major employers are required to locate new facilities near transit stops. New housing and commercial developments are not approved without close scrutiny of the consequences for congestion.

Example three: Copenhagen, which rivals Paris and Amsterdam for charm with its lively streets, tidy parks, vibrant neighborhoods, cosmopolitan culture, relaxed cafés, and cheerful citizens. But Copenhagen's wonderfulness stems not from some happily-ever-after magic but from inspired thinking and hard work in response to real-world urban conditions.

Priorities Matched By Policies
The first things a visitor notices about Copenhagen are the bicycles, a good train system, and an extensive network of pedestrian streets. This civic equipment, missing in too many American cities, ensures that Copenhagen feels like such a pleasant, relaxing, comfortable place. And it’s not just the luck of an ancient city unsuited for modern roadways. Indeed, Copenhagen is no older than most East Coast American cities, having been completely rebuilt after 1807, when the British navy burned it to the ground.

It also is the happy result of sensible urban planning with a strong emphasis on making the town attractive to pedestrians. Ever since a street in the heart of Copenhagen was closed to traffic in 1962, planners have added additional blocks to the lively pedestrian zone each year, eliminated parking spots, and turned traffic lanes into bike lanes. Gradually, Copenhagen transformed its noisy, dirty, exhaust-choked downtown into a pleasant spot where you just naturally want to hang out.

In America, urban decline is generally attributed to our overwhelming preference for suburban amenities. But planning departments in Copenhagen and other European cities view the inner city as an incubator where young people and immigrants can live cheaply as they launch careers. If they choose to move to bigger homes in outlying areas to raise families, this is interpreted not as the failure of city life but as a sign of its success.

There's no reason why more of our cities can't follow suit, transforming themselves from conduits for cars into places for people. The first step is finding new ways for Americans to look at the urban places where so many of us still live. We need to fall in love with cities again.

Jay Walljasper is editor and editorial director of Utne magazine, where he writes frequently on urban and community issues. This article is adopted from an essay in the book Toward the Livable City (Milkweed Editions, 2004). Reach him at walljasper@utne.com

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