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What We Can Learn from Europe’s Urban Success Stories

How to fall in love with your hometown

by Jay Walljasper

Published in E magazine

My infatuation with cities began on a college-vacation visit to Montreal, where 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 this city felt from the places I had known growing up in Illinois. Street life, in the experience of my childhood, was what happened in the few steps between a parking lot and your destination. Montreal showed me that a city could be a place to enjoy in itself, not merely anonymous space that you travel through between home and work or school.

But it was later—appropriately enough, on my honeymoon—that I fell in love with cities. My wife, Julie, and I toured Paris, Venice and Milan along with lesser-known delights like Luxembourg City and Freiburg, Germany. We came home wondering why American cities—most particularly, our hometown of Minneapolis—didn’t instill us with the same sense of wonder. At first, we accepted the conventional wisdom that it was because European cities are so much older, with street plans locked in place before the arrival of the automobile. Yet on subsequent trips abroad, we came to realize that there was something more 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? Why do you seldom see slums?

Intrigued by these questions, I have returned to Europe over a number of years seeking answers. In scores of interviews with urban planners, transportation authorities, politicians, activists, and everyday citizens, I learned that a clear set of public policies accounts for the different spirit of European metropolitan centers. It’s not just the antiquity of the towns, but also the way people there think about urban life.

In fact, many of the Europeans I talked to worried about the impact of increasing auto traffic and creeping sprawl on the health of their cities. But rather than accepting these changes as the inevitable march of progress, as many Americans do, they were taking action to maintain the vitality of their hometowns. Urban decay was being reversed, pollution reduced, historic neighborhoods protected, transit systems improved, pedestrian zones expanded, green spaces preserved, bike lanes added, pedestrian amenities installed, and development guidelines enacted to head off ugly outbreaks of sprawl.

European Epiphanies

Throughout my travels, I was frequently thunderstruck at some sight (a beautiful plaza, comfortable public buses, a street crowded with bicycles) that was amazing to an American, but to Europeans simply a part of day-to-day life. These moments would depress me at first—why can’t we do this at home?—and then rouse me. Of course we can! Americans are an enterprising people, restless in pursuit of improving their lives. If Europe’s successes in making cities more livable and lovable were more widely known, people would insist on doing something similar here. Maybe even better.

This notion first hit me when I entered the central train station in the Dutch city of The Hague. In America, I marveled, 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. It was the building’s basic function that startled me: the large-scale movement of human beings by means other than the automobile. Streetcars wheeled right into the station, unloading and loading throngs of commuters while an underground parking facility accommodated 3,000 bicycles. I consulted the electronic schedule board and counted more than 20 trains an hour departing for destinations all over the Netherlands and Europe—this in a city about the size of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

A transportation network like the Netherlands’ would be beyond the wildest dreams of commuters, environmentalists and city lovers across North America. In Amsterdam, for instance, only 20 percent of people’s trips around the city are in a car; 36 percent are made on foot, another 31 percent on bikes, and 11 percent on transit. In the Dutch city of Groningen, 47 percent of all urban trips are on bikes, 26 percent on foot, and 23 percent by car.

But that’s not good enough for the Dutch. Alarmed by studies showing sizable increases in traffic in the years to come, government officials have worked to boost alternative transportation. 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 heavy and light rail, and major employers are now required to locate new facilities near transit stops. New housing and commercial developments are not approved without close scrutiny of their impact on traffic congestion.

With studies showing that people are much more willing to walk or take transit when the pedestrian environment is attractive, attention is being given to sprucing up train stations and making nearby neighborhoods more pleasant places to walk. Forward-looking transportation planners advocate expanded home delivery of goods and increased availability of public storage lockers, recognizing that some people stick with their cars because it’s difficult to carry and stow belongings when they’re biking, walking or riding transit.

Cities with Centers

On a trip to Germany, I sat in the ornate town hall of Heidelberg—a small city known widely as the setting of the beer-garden romance The Student Prince—while Bert-Olaf Rieck pointed out the window to a public square so picturesque it might have been used as a set for the famous operetta. He explained that it was where he parked his car while he was a linguistics student at the university. Now that he is a city official, it’s his job to help clear cars out of the central city and make Heidelberg known for bike riding just as much as beer drinking and dueling.

Rieck recently had been appointed Heidelberg’s bicycle commissioner, a new position arising out of the city’s determination to reduce auto traffic in its historic streets. That’s why Rieck was plucked out of the ranks of a bicycle activist group and installed at city hall. He was busy working on ways to make bicycles the vehicle of choice for at least one-third of all trips (up from 20 percent) around the city—an ambitious goal already achieved by Copenhagen and the German city of Munster. In the Dutch cities of Groningen, Harderwijk, Houten, Veenendaal and Zwolle, bicyclists account for 40 percent or more of urban trips.

To put bikes on par with cars, Rieck planned a major expansion of the city’s bike paths. He had already succeeded in adding 1,500 new parking spots for bikes outside the main train station and snatched a lane of traffic from cars on a main thoroughfare. He proudly led Julie and me down this street on bicycles the city had recently purchased for its employees to use on trips around town. For a frequent bike commuter like me, it was nothing short of euphoric to pedal down a busy avenue in the safety of my own lane.

Heidelberg has a way to go to match the accomplishments of another German town, Freiburg, a city of 200,000 in the Black Forest. Freiburg showed the way for many European cities with its early efforts to incorporate environmental and quality-of-life concerns into its transportation planning. In the early 1970s, it made the radical moves of not scrapping its streetcars, as most cities across the continent had been doing, and establishing one of Germany’s first pedestrian zones.

The pedestrian district is now the bustling heart of the city, filled with folks strolling between department stores, an open-air market and numerous sidewalk cafés. The city has also built a new network of bicycle lanes and overhauled its streetcars into a modern light rail system. While people hopped into their autos for 60 percent of all vehicle trips around the city in the 1970s, cars accounted for less than half of those trips 20 years later—with bikes increasing from 18 to 27 percent of all trips and light rail moving ahead from 22 to 26 percent.

Freiburg’s success provides a firm answer to American naysayers who contend that people will never leave their cars at home and who deny that what happens in densely populated Old World cities is applicable to our own spread-out metropolitan areas. Freiburg is one of Germany’s fastest-growing cities with new development stretching across a wide valley. You see packs of bicyclists waiting at red lights in its expanding suburbs and light rail trains gliding past single-family homes on ample lots.

Freiburg also has promoted many other environmental initiatives. It banned pesticides for urban uses and built a biochemical plant to recycle organic wastes from the city’s garbage. The city established a hot line to answer citizens’ questions about environmental matters, and it now subjects all new development projects to an in-depth environmental review.

What makes this small city so eager to buck business as usual in favor of environmental innovation? The presence of 30,000 university students helps, but most observers point to the citizens’ deep regional pride. People cherish the city’s historical charm (the center city was painstakingly rebuilt after suffering substantial damage in World War II) and the natural beauty of the Black Forest, which itself is under assault by pollution.

Biking to Tivoli

The Danish capital of Copenhagen is, as Danny Kaye sang in an old movie about Hans Christian Andersen, “wonderful, wonderful.” It rivals Paris and Amsterdam for charm, with 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.

One of the first things a visitor notices about Copenhagen is the bicycles. They’re everywhere. You see prim, briefcase-toting business executives on bikes. Fashionable women in formidable high heels on bikes. Old people, schoolkids and parents with toddlers on bikes. Half of all people who work in the central city arrive by bicycle in the summertime, and, despite Copenhagen’s chilly, rainy and sometimes icy weather, almost a third do in the winter.

All these bicycles, in addition to a good train system and an extensive network of pedestrian streets, explain why Copenhagen feels like such a pleasant, comfortable place. This is 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 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 town was first closed off 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. Slowly, central Copenhagen has been transformed from a noisy, dirty, exhaust-choked downtown into a pleasant spot where you just naturally want to hang out. Jan Gehl, head of the urban design department at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, pointed to extensive studies showing that social and recreational use of the city center has tripled over the past 30 years. And he noted that the streets are just as lively when the shops are closed in the evenings and on Sundays: “A good city is like a good party,” Gehl explained. “People don’t want to leave early.”

Copenhagen’s initial plans to create a pedestrian zone were met with just as much skepticism as we would hear about similar plans in America today. “We are Danes, not Italians,” Gehl recalled the newspapers complaining. “We will not use public space. We will never leave our cars. The city will die if you take out any cars.” But the pedestrian zone was popular from the first day, he noted, and downtown business leaders eventually took credit for a plan they once adamantly opposed. One key to the success of Copenhagen’s efforts, Gehl said, is that they have been implemented gradually over 40 years. Drastic changes all at once provoke overreactions, he said.

On the national level, Denmark has worked to halt sprawl with legislation that requires nearly all new stores to be built within existing commercial centers of cities, towns or villages.

Urban Decay…in Europe?

Strolling away from the charming pedestrian streets and wonderfully preserved buildings of central Copenhagen on my first visit, I stumbled upon a sight familiar to urban Americans: a district of rundown apartment buildings, poor families, hookers, and drug and alcohol casualties. Middle-class flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s combined with cutbacks in blue-collar jobs brought dramatic changes to an area known as Vesterbro, and to other inner-city Copenhagen neighborhoods.

In America, urban decline is generally attributed to people’s overwhelming preference for suburban amenities, but Denmark’s policy makers bring a broad regional perspective to issues of struggling city neighborhoods. According to Jan Engell, an official in Copenhagen’s planning department, the inner city is seen as an incubator where young people and immigrants can live cheaply as they launch their careers. And if many of them choose to move to bigger homes in outlying areas as they prosper and raise families, this is interpreted not as the failure of city life, but as a sign of its success.

This view of the metropolitan region as a single, unified community in which people choose to live in various areas at different times in their lives has led to an enlightened policy in which local tax revenues are shared between wealthier and poorer municipalities. Responsibility for the higher proportion of low-income, immigrant, elderly, mentally ill and chemically dependent people who live in the inner city and require more government services is borne not just by Copenhagen taxpayers but by everyone in the region.

Imagine what a difference it would make if Westchester County or Chicago’s North Shore suburbs chipped in some of their local tax proceeds to boost public schools or drug treatment programs in the Bronx or the South Side! This is a key reason, along with higher levels of social benefits in general, why even Copenhagen’s shabbiest quarters don’t feel nearly as dangerous or as desperate as American ghettos. Vesterbro, despite its sex shops and drug addicts, remained at the time of my first visit a popular place for students, artists and others attracted to the gritty energy of city life.

On later visits to Copenhagen I have seen the effects of an ambitious revitalization effort that aims to improve Vesterbro without driving away the people who live there. The Danish parliament allotted an ample pot of money for the city, working with landlords and in some cases tenants to fix up blocks of century-old apartment buildings.

All these plans are being carried out in close cooperation with community groups, and tenants have the right to opt out of certain improvements they think will jack up their rents. “This is a democracy experiment as much as a social one,” said planning official Jan Engell, noting, for example, that the emphasis on installing sophisticated energy and water conservation systems in the buildings came from residents themselves more than from city hall.

The Vesterbro redevelopment is drawing on lessons learned from the nearby Nørrebro neighborhood, where the city’s efforts to make Copenhagen more attractive to middle-class families touched off riots during the 1980s. “Residents felt they were being forced out of the neighborhood,” Storskov explained. People were outraged when old buildings were bulldozed and 19th-century streets were reconfigured to meet modern specifications. The new apartment buildings are now far less popular than the old ones left standing, Storskov admitted. “That is why we began to renew houses rather than tear them down, even though it costs more.”

What’s happening in Vesterbro ought to remind Americans that urban revitalization does not have to mean gentrification—and, indeed, that low-income people often know best what works in their own neighborhoods.

Places for People

All across Northern Europe, cities are exploring ways to boost their vitality and livability. Most cities now have bustling pedestrian zones, and bikeways crisscross even the most crowded metropolises. The Norwegian cities of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim (borrowing an idea from Singapore) levy a toll on all cars entering the city. Oslo used some of this money to reroute a harborside highway through a new tunnel, which gave the city a waterfront pedestrian plaza that’s become a favorite hangout for local residents. London recently adopted a similar traffic-pricing measure with surprising success.

“Until recently, American cities with their wide lanes and fast traffic were the model for us,” said Joachim Schultis, an urban planning professor in Heidelberg. “But all that has now changed.”

Being able to get around by strolling, biking or taking a train without always dodging trucks and cars enhances urban life in ways that are hard to imagine until you’ve experienced them. The more I visited Europe, the more charged up I got about wanting to see innovations like these back home. There’s no reason why our cities can’t follow suit, transforming themselves from conduits for cars into places for people. But the first step, I instinctively understood, was finding new ways for Americans to look at the places where they live. We need to fall in love with our hometowns.

Americans have always harbored a bit of mistrust toward cities—these crowded, complex and creatively chaotic places. Going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s exaltation of yeoman farmers as the backbone of democratic culture, country life has been seen as the American ideal. Generations of conservationists and environmentalists have reinforced these views. Tracing their roots back to Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, ecology activists have sought redemption from ecological devastation in the untrammeled lands. Blessed with far more wilderness than any European nation, Americans generally have viewed any landscape shaped by human hands as somehow tainted. That’s why protecting wilderness and saving wetlands are more often the focus of environmental organizations than curbing sprawl or revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods.

Yet our unease about cities—we see them as unnatural, unhealthy, almost un-American—has spawned one of the most spectacular environmental disasters in history: sprawl. Over the past 60 years, millions of Americans have forsaken compact urban neighborhoods for sprawling acreage outside town. Closer connection to nature among the green lawns may have been the dream, but the truth is that suburban living often means countless hours in the car, cruising down endless miles of pavement, passing ceaseless stretches of new subdivisions and strip malls, all of which depend on limitless supplies of land, fossil fuel, lumber and other environmentally precious resources.

In terms of the environment, cities clearly offer the most Earth-friendly lifestyle. A resident of an inner-city neighborhood who takes public transit to work, walks to local businesses, and shares a modest home with family or friends imposes far less damage on the environment than most Americans do. Of course, an urban address does not automatically confer an enhanced ecological consciousness; indeed, city dwellers are capable of merrily plundering the planet the same as anyone else. But city life does at least offer the opportunity to walk, bike or take the bus to your destinations, and to conserve resources by living in a compact neighborhood. Those things are impossible in most suburbs, where autos are the only way to get from point A to point B. Houses are cut off from stores by impassable swaths of pavement. Schools, day-care centers, libraries and workplaces all sit isolated amid a sea of roaring traffic.

The environment is not the only victim of this all-for-the-auto way of designing our communities. Children can’t wander down to the park or skip over to the candy store. Sometimes they can’t even cross the street to see neighbor kids. To go anywhere, they have to wait for someone to chauffeur them. Old people and the disabled, many of whom can’t drive or have trouble walking across wide busy streets, are similarly placed under a sort of house arrest.

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, insists that there is an even deeper way we pay for this folly of poor urban planning. “It matters that our cities are primarily auto storage depots,” he says. “It matters that our junior high schools look like insecticide factories. It matters that our libraries look like beverage distribution warehouses.”

When so much of what you see on a typical day is so drab, it’s hard to care about what happens to these places. I have fallen in love with Paris, Stockholm, Oxford, Florence and Gouda, Netherlands, as well as New York, New Orleans and even Madison, Wisconsin, because they stir something in my soul. It’s more than scenic charm; it’s a feeling they inspire as I walk around them with my family or soak up their atmosphere just sitting at a café table or on a public bench.

It’s been 15 years since I began roaming European cities in search of ideas that we could take advantage of here in America, and I am happy to report that I’m not alone. Many people, it seems, have returned from Barcelona, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Toronto or Portland, Oregon fired up by what they’ve seen and wanting to do something like it at home. Historic preservation and sidewalk cafés, tapas bars and Irish pubs, bicycle lanes and farmers’ markets all owe some of their popularity to inspiration from abroad.

Recapturing the Cities

A growing legion of citizens is slowly changing the face of America with the message that there are other ways to build our communities besides the all-too-familiar patterns of sprawl. Architect and town planner Andres Duany argues, “Everything you build should be either a neighborhood or a village.” He says great cities are nothing more than a series of villages artfully stitched together. These traditional villages and neighborhoods, he says, provide the basics within walking distance—a grocery, cleaners, café, pharmacy, bakery, park, day-care center, schools and perhaps a bookshop, ice cream parlor, movie house and other social amenities. They should also offer a mix of housing types that can accommodate people of all ages and incomes. Ideally, a transit stop sits in the middle of things, and all parts of the neighborhood are within a five-minute walk of the center.

This simple wisdom, which guided the building of towns and cities for all of human history, was forgotten in America during the post-World War II years when it was assumed that all travel would be by auto. Over the past 50 years, our federal, state and local governments have been preoccupied with building new and faster roads. We’ve spent billions to widen streets and highways in almost every urban neighborhood and rural township. Millions of trees have been chopped down, tens of thousands of houses torn down and communities everywhere ripped apart, all to meet the needs of the ever-escalating volume and speed of traffic.

But now, in place after place across North America, citizens are speaking out, holding meetings, and fighting city hall (and in some cases working with city hall) on the issue of slowing down traffic. They are fed up that the time-honored tradition of taking a walk has become a frustrating, unpleasant and dangerous pastime. They are tired of worrying about the safety of their children, their pets and their elderly and disabled friends. They are determined to restore a sense of peace and community to their neighborhoods by taking the streets back from the automobile.

Speeding traffic sets in motion a vicious cycle in which people who might prefer to walk or bike end up driving out of fear for their safety. Numerous studies have shown that the speed of traffic, much more than the volume, is what poses a threat to pedestrians. One study conducted by the British government found that pedestrians were killed 85 percent of the time when they were hit by cars traveling 40 miles an hour compared to only five percent of the time when vehicles were traveling at 20 miles per hour.

Lowering speed limits is one logical response. Most German cities have posted 30-kilometer-per-hour (19 mph) limits on all residential streets. But many observers note that people pay less attention to speed limits than to the look of a street in determining how fast they drive. Wide, open streets encourage motorists to zoom ahead. Many people herald the new idea of traffic calming as a more effective way of slowing drivers because it’s enforced 24 hours a day, not just when a police car is on the scene. Traffic calming was born in the late 1960s in Delft, Netherlands, when a group of neighbors, frustrated with cars roaring in front of their homes, placed furniture and other large objects at strategic spots in the street, which forced motorists to slow down. City officials, called out to clear these illegal obstacles, knew a good thing when they saw one and began installing their own more sophisticated traffic-calming devices. The idea spread across Europe and Australia, and now has come to North America.

Traffic calming encompasses a whole set of street designs that increase safety and aesthetic satisfaction for pedestrians. The aim is twofold: to slow the speed of traffic and to give drivers a visual reminder that they must share the street with people. Speed bumps, narrowed streets, four-way stop signs, brightly painted crosswalks, on-street parking, median strips, bans on right turns at red lights, crosswalks raised a few inches above the roadway, and curbs that extend a ways into intersections all help make the streets safer and more pleasant for pedestrians.

Opponents claim that traffic calming simply shoves speeding traffic onto someone else’s street. But numerous studies have shown that traffic calming measures not only reduce speeds but can actually decrease traffic in general as people make fewer auto trips, either by handling a number of errands on one outing or by switching sometimes to biking, walking or taking public transit. Transportation officials in Nuremberg, Germany found in 1989 when they closed a major downtown street that traffic on nearby streets decreased—exactly the opposite of what opponents of the plan had warned.

Many American communities are rethinking traffic issues. Eugene, Oregon, which used to require that all streets be at least 28 feet wide, now allows some to be as narrow as 20 feet. Wellesley, Massachusetts, faced with a plan to widen its congested main street, instead chose to narrow it and expand the sidewalks to encourage walking. Even in auto-happy Southern California, the cities of San Bernardino, Riverside and Beverly Hills have narrowed major commercial streets.

In neighborhood after neighborhood across my home city of Minneapolis, citizens have risen up with new ideas about how to make it a better place to live. A vocal supporter of street narrowing was elected mayor, unseating an incumbent in large part because of his vigorous urban-livability platform. Many streets around town have been narrowed or now have speed bumps. A series of new bike paths wind around the city and suburbs. A light rail line has opened to great success. New developments, reflecting the best of classic Minneapolis architecture, are popping up all over the metropolitan region. Independent and idiosyncratic coffee shops have blossomed all over town, giving a village feel to many neighborhoods. New investment has flowed into once-rundown parts of the city, bringing a new sense of hope.

But most important of all, the citizens of Minneapolis have a new appreciation for their home. They understand that the city will thrive if it nurtures its special urban qualities and will fall on its face if it merely tries to imitate suburbia by widening streets, developing strip malls, and adding parking lots. Minneapolis has become proud to be a city once again. It is far different from the disheartened town Julie and I came home to from our honeymoon. Minneapolis now feels like a city whose residents care about it. We’ve fallen back in love with our hometown.