As we approached Vienna, Austria a familiar scene unfolded. Beautiful farmland dotted with weathered barns led us right to the edge of the city. I have driven over 20,000 miles this year and we have spent time in many of Europe’s great cities.
From Paris to Madrid, Rome to Stockholm, Berlin to Barcelona and beyond, one thing is consistent. There is a surprising absence of suburbs as I have come to know them in the United States. It seems that development begins right in the urban center and abruptly ends upon departure where the countryside immediately begins.
From the top of the Eiffel Tower, from the Bell Tower in Brugge, and from every birds eye view I have seen the same thing. The cities are more compact and development is tight around the center.
After talking to many respected friends across Europe I have learned that suburban sprawl is contained with much more vigilance here because there is so much less land. Chicago takes up five times more land area than Paris for a smaller population.
There are also higher taxes on sales in Europe, whereas the US tax code tends to favor spending, like offering special programs for home buyers. Energy costs are higher in Europe overall, and people tend to stay closer to where they live for work and entertainment. Finally, the European Union subsidizes farmers well to keep them farming and hopefully prevent them from selling their land off to developers.
There are many reasons for the differences but the one that resonated with me the most was that of mobility. In Europe, the cities are the cultural centers of life and people want to stay. Europeans stay put much more so than American’s. The USA has one of the highest mobility rates in the world (about 15% of people move every year).
Would Americans change their lifestyle and elbow room to contain outward growth and sprawl? Would Europeans give up their life in cultural centers for cookie cutter developments and less congestion?
There is clearly a different view of land use in Europe and a different level of control over growth. I don’t know what is right or wrong for either continent but I do know that there are many things we could learn from one another in our changing world.
As I sat less than 3 miles from Vienna, waiting for a herder to wrangle a wayward cow from the middle of the beautiful country road, I couldn’t help but think of flying into Los Angeles just over a year ago. It seemed as though we were over grid like streets lined with houses and back yard pools for more than thirty minutes before the city came into view. I remember the kids saying it looked like a monopoly board.
I wonder what the next move will be as these amazing cities tumble into the future …