How European cities get it right — and we get it wrong

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A few years ago, I returned to Europe after a decade spent mostly exploring Latin America. And after such a long absence, I found myself viewing the continent with new eyes, and appreciating it more than ever — particularly its cities.

While the New World has some great cities — and certainly some big ones — there are few that really rank as great ones. New York, Vancouver, New Orleans, maybe Mexico City: they all have some great sights and their own unique style. But few of them have the combination of history, style and convenience you find in the great cities of Europe.

It may be about how new North American cities are, in relative terms. Or it may be our dogged pursuit of profit and modernity at the expense of culture. But to my mind, the cities of the New World pale in comparison to the places they were once modelled after.

Here are six ways European cities get it right, seen through the eyes of a North American traveller.

They preserve their history

Visit almost any European city and you’ll find that all roads lead to the old, historic district, which in many cases has been preserved or restored to give you a vivid picture of how it was hundreds of years in the past. For a North American, this is a revelation. To eat in a pub that’s been doing business in the same spot for 300 years, or hear a town clock chime the way it’s done ever since medieval times, is hard for New World travellers even to fathom.

Bruges7-web

That’s because with some exceptions, North American cities have been masters of getting rid of their histories. I live in the only real historic district of my home town, Toronto. It amounts to about five square blocks, after a wave of destruction in the 1960s. Even today, it’s under constant attack from greedy developers looking to build giant glass towers. When was the last time you visited a city to see its big, shiny condos?

They have pedestrian malls

One of the things that took me by surprise when I started visiting Europe seriously was how many cities have pedestrian malls or zones. Virtually all the capitals of Scandinavia have a pedestrians-only main street in the middle of town. So do Vienna, Rotterdam and Venice, among many others. They’re invariably busy, and likely profitable — I found Stockholm’s downtown mall full of people, even on a Sunday

Pedestrian mall in Stockholm, Sweden

What’s so special about pedestrian malls? They truly make the city centre a place for humans, not one where humans hug the sidewalks to stay out of the way of cars. In North America, of course, the cities are ruled by cars, and proposals to create pedestrian malls are seen as a threat to people’s God-given right to drive anywhere they want.

To be fair, some North American cities have experimented with pedestrian malls, and some are great successes, like the unique San Antonio River Walk, which winds around under the auto traffic street. But a lot of the ones who’ve tried it later rejigged the malls to allow traffic. Well, at least they tried …

They have city squares

One of the other things European city planners got right was to put a large square right in the middle of town. In the Spanish world, they’re in front of the cathedral; in other places they front a government building. And very often, there are others scattered through the downtown area, places where people can gather, attend public events, and have dinner or a drink while they admire the architecture.

Copenhagen square

If North American cities have a square, it’s usually in front of city hall, and you won’t likely find much in the way of eating and drinking places around it. Toronto has two downtown squares — both utilitarian stretches of concrete. To their credit, some cities have come up with public squares on private property, like New York’s Rockefeller Center, whose outdoor skating rink has become an iconic part of the city.

They have canals

A surprising number of European cities are lined with canals. Most of us automatically think of Amsterdam or Venice, but a number of other cities have them too, including Copenhagen and even St. Petersburg (seen here). It’s only natural: through history, many cities have been built beside major waterways. And in the days before cars, the best way to get people and goods around town was by making canals.

St. Petersburg canal

The canals aren’t much needed for transport these days, but they provide a great and unique way to see a city. In many cases they wind through the most historic areas, past beautiful old merchants’ shops, cathedrals, concert halls — some of the best architecture in the city. After all, that’s where the money was. And of course, it’s more fun touring a city by boat than by bus.

They’re transit-friendly

With more people walking around downtown, European cities need a good way to get them in and out of town. So they have good transit systems, with extensive routes that can get you where you want to go quickly, and at all hours. In most cases, they also have a direct transit link to the airport — and it’s affordable, often costing less than $10.

Vienna subway

Major North American cities do have good transit systems, but in places like my hometown, they fail to expand them fast enough to keep up with their population, resulting in a slow, overcrowded system. And in the endless, underpopulated stretches of suburbia, life is almost impossible without a car. That’s no accident: suburbia was created by the car and the superhighway. Transit? What’s transit?

They have city cards

Most of the major cities in Europe — and some of the smaller ones — have a city card that gives you access to many of the major sites for one price. For example, the London Pass gives you free admission to more than 60 attractions, including the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. In some cases, the card even lets you skip the lineup. Many city cards also include free use of the transit system, so you save even more.

Some readers have questioned whether these passes are worthwhile, but with the admission prices for attractions these days, it doesn’t take many museums and palaces to make up the cost. And even if the tourist card doesn’t fit your needs, consider a transit pass, which lets you run around town to your heart’s delight for a pretty cheap price.

The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

City passes do exist in a number of North American cities, but they’re not widely promoted: I only discovered them while researching this post. Do look for them if you’re visiting a new city — attractions are not cheap here, either.

That’s six ways European cities get it right and we don’t. Some of them are accidents of history. But as I noted here, everyone has a history — it’s whether you preserve it that’s the test.

Hopefully, North American cities will someday realize that they exist for more than just making money, and that their addiction to the automobile is making them less liveable than they should be. London has imposed a toll to discourage people from driving downtown. Will North American cities follow suit?

Until then, I’ll continue to visit the great cities of Europe — on foot, or by canal, or by public transit. And I’ll sit in the squares and have a drink (an expensive one, but still worthwhile). And if it’s nothing like my own city back home, well, I guess that’s the point of travelling.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

4 Comments

  1. Spot on. Wait, Toronto does have one glass tower that’s a tourist attraction – there’s even at plaque at the Mies van der Rohe TD Centre. And although it’s a kind of ersatz, the Distillery District is a little bit old. Toronto has a pedestrian mall – The Path (admittedly it’s underground, but it does get pretty cold and snowy in the winter, so …) Dundas Square may be a utilitarian patch of concrete, but it has inground sprinklers, which would certainly be handy if they ever decide to put grass in.

    • True, Maarten: Toronto does have its good points, despite the devastation wrought by the modernizers back in the ’60s (they even wanted to knock down the old city hall, on of the city’s most iconic and stately buildings). I like the Distillery District and the St. Lawrence Market. And we have the islands, which are a great place to go and relax in nature — at least they were, till some money-grubbing plane jockey decided he could turn them into an international jetport. Toronto’s a nice city, but it could have been so much better if city council hadn’t rolled over for every developer willing to wine and dime them.

  2. Thank you Paul for this most interesting post!
    Not everything is perfect in Europe… Clearly, we still have a long way to go to bypass our ‘national’ cultural differences (rivalries) and transform our deep-rooted diversity into a social, political and economical asset. But I do agree with you: European cities do have very unique atmosphere that make them so attractive to live in.
    It did stroke me when I spend a year in North America: cities have usually been conceived for cars much more than for humans. Downtown areas are mostly unfriendly spaces. Endless streets with square blocks, huge parkings, gas-stations, fast-foods and malls. Luckily, as Maarten just underlined it, there are quite a few exceptions, especially in old settlements, as Boston or San Francisco f.i.
    One typical indicator of the conviviality of a town is the amount of its pubs (with terrace). The kind of places you only come – on foot – to savour a drink with a friend or chat with the neighbours. Because there are other things in life than work, car, food, internet and television.
    And of course – you are so right – history plays an important role in this. Old buildings, canals and squares, period bridges and churches, narrow streets and bygone fortification walls do tell stories. They connect us to the past and help us put our lives into perspective in space-time. Historical remains are a never-ending source of wonder. They stimulate our curiosity and make us humble…
    A telling example for this is that you hear old clocks ringing every hour in European cities. I missed that cheerful sound a lot when I stayed in the US.
    However, I wouldn’t make it a question of ‘right and wrong’. Every city in the world has a personality of its own (and its own history). I enjoyed other things in Northern-American towns. The grass is always greener…
    Gery de Pierpont recently posted…The land and seascapes of ZeelandMy Profile

    • I couldn’t agree more, Gery. Despite its constant internal struggles, Europe has managed to preserve its culture and history much better than North America. And history does play a big part: these countries grew up before the invention of the car and modern building techniques, so they were mostly built on a human scale and without things like gas stations and huge parking lots. As for the old clocks ringing every hour, that does happen in a few places over here too, and I have proof: the clock in the cathedral out my window rings every 15 minutes!

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