Let’s look into why visiting an American city center is often disappointing whereas European ones are mostly pleasant
Visiting Europe conjures up images of charming downtown marketplaces, quaint bridges connecting towns, and thriving communities you can stroll through in a way that most American cities simply cannot offer. Sure there are certain vibrant downtown cultural areas and a few wonderful public transportation systems that help pump life into the organism that is the modern metropolis, but the phrase “Downtown America” more often than not implies homelessness and poverty and broken windows. Why is it that European cities are seen as thriving cultural centers whereas American cities are centers of urban decay?
One of the many differences between this side of the Atlantic and that is the scale that cities were built. It goes without saying that Europe is much older but what may not be obvious is how modern the United States truly is. European cities are walkable and American ones generally are not because most European cities were built and designed well before the car was invented. Towns and markets needed to be connected via horse and walkable once inside simply because there was no other popular mode of transportation. This makes Europe feel quaint, human and livable. It creates a more natural cityscape that is suitable for interaction, exploration and visitation. Trolleys, cable cars and train stations featured prominently in Europe before the rise of mass automobile ownership which created a space and legacy for public transportation within and between cities that were already spaced much closer together than in the United States.
Parking lots and garages are featured heavily in American homes and are often the first architectural introduction to a space that we have here in the States. The driveway and garage door are the most prominent features of the average home. This contrasts with many European facades which are built and designed for people instead of machines.
There is always the idea that you could pack up and move somewhere more open out West, and this features prominently into the creation of internal migration. Giant freeway intersections and massive highways transverse the plains, deserts and mountains allowing for huge distances between urban centers. American cities sprawl.
The United States is a vast expanse that the car conquered.
The highway system that connects the continent was conceived and constructed after World War II under the Eisenhower administration with the idea that the military needed to rapidly and efficiently move massive equipment like tanks and transports across the country in case of invasion from the Soviet Union.
The prosperity that flooded the US in the post-war boom epitomized by the 1950s domestic household’s white picket fenced-in lawn was due in part to the position of the nation throughout the World Wars. The industrialized and urban parts of the world had been decimated by decades of conflict inflicted by the mechanization of war that had never been seen before.
The entirety of the United States was completely spared from harm. Our infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation and financial centers were left fully intact and running hotter than ever before with new demand to rebuild Europe and Japan. We became the world’s bank, regulator and guiding force, for better or worse.
This era saw the rapid construction and expansion of the suburb to house the many hundreds of thousands of returning veterans. Encouraged by government subsidy to buy homes, many flocked to the newly built neighborhoods across the West, especially if you were white. If you live in the suburbs today chances are there are no buildings older than 1950 in your neighborhood, or for miles and miles around. The pioneering mindset of manifest destiny saw its maturity in the filling in of the West with the American suburb. This brought with it a racial and economic division.
We became the world’s bank, regulator and guiding force, for better or worse
Contrasting with America, European suburbs sprung up a century before, in the 1850’s, due to the early Industrialization of the continent. Cities at this time were Dickensian, with striking urban poverty, child labor and life-shortening pollution and workplace hazards. It was expensive to live downtown and difficult to find room for large new buildings such as factories and refineries. These polluting new heavy industries were instead constructed along the banks of rivers outside the city centers. Thus suburbs for most Europeans at the time meant low-wage industrially efficient apartments and grueling factory work as opposed to the American ideal born a century later of the middle class individually separated housing with a private lawn. American suburbs today are where the rich go to escape the poverty of inner cities, contrasting with European suburbs which are often less rich compared to the inner city centers.
This was exacerbated in the 1970’s when a worldwide economic crisis forced the globe to rethink how monetary policy was handled. This may seem irrelevant but the moving away from fixed exchange rates and a theoretically gold-backed currency led to the decimation of American downtowns.
It was suddenly cheaper to have corporations take advantage of exchange rates and move manufacturing overseas for cheaper labor and then ship the goods back to America than it was to pay workers at home.
This led to a decline in middle class factory work such as the automobile industry across the Midwest in areas like Detroit. As manufacturing left the US, steady paying, entry level low-education jobs able to support a family also moved, both physically and conceptually, into new territory. Manufacture transformed into service sector work. One steady job and a set way of life shattered into an ever changing workforce and multiple paths to earning an income. The Modern world had come to an end, Postmodernism had arrived.
Most middle class careers were now found in the suburbs. With the rise of shopping malls and commercial centers the need for the average American to trek downtown disappeared. This led to a spiraling lack of economic opportunity in urban centers and concentration of wealth in suburban areas. This also shifted the tax base out of cities, forcing them to slash budgets and programs, made much worse by the Regan budgets of the 1980s. Factory welders had to shift to become customer support agents. Large Walmarts, huge call centers, and the relocation of retail to shopping malls took place. Abandoned downtown buildings fell into disrepair.
While suburban schools bloomed, inner city children were left to wither on the vine. This created a vacuum of urban poverty where those who could afford to leave moved out. Sometimes referred to as “White flight” to the suburbs this also fostered additional racial tensions and helped discriminations become even more systemic. This makes many American downtowns underfunded centers of poverty, not flourishing centers of culture and commerce.
European poverty can be found in suburbs, which are not as visible to tourists nor seen as “harsh” as urban poverty is. Make no mistake, there are poor, marginalized and homeless people across Europe as well, just not to the scale or extent that is to be found here in the land of the free. European slums can be just as harsh and limiting as inner cities, but my work here is focusing on the issue I am most familiar with which is comparing city centers.
The heavy industry and factory conglomerations built during the industrial revolutions throughout Europe were mostly destroyed by the bombs of World War Two. So were the majority of city centers, with the thankful exception of certain highly valued cultural areas. This presented Europeans across the continent with a choice on how to use the post-war relief funds: to rebuild as they once were or to modernize into something new?
Rotterdam chose to modernize, as did Frankfurt. Berlin and London took the opportunity for both, to modernize while also retaining the look and feel of the old cities. Amsterdam and Bruges were mostly spared from destruction and therefore retain the pre-modern feeling throughout the downtown areas because they were never engulfed in flames in the way other places were. The urban poor moved away from city centers during the post war period of renewal.
Most of Western Europe had trains and trams and subways before mass car transit and these were factored into the rebuilds and designs of the modern post-war continent.
Designed on a human scale, Europe retained its human scale. America designed on an Automobile scale grew rapidly along that axis instead. The saying goes “100 miles is nothing in USA, 100 years nothing in Europe” and there is plenty of truth to that.
This means European cities are more walkable, have vibrant urban markets, have accessible, affordable and sensible public transit, have thriving cultural centers in downtown areas and do not have as many overt signs of poverty in comparison to their American counterparts.
Additional Thoughts: We are seeing online commerce destroy the shopping mall, again moving the centers of commerce and public interaction into a digital space. This is creating a new rise of anxiety and social tension, similar to what happened in the 60s and 70s when shopping malls grew and forever altered downtown.
Just like then, protests and economic insecurity grew.
With growth of online work and the steady presence of online retail and commerce have American suburbs simply become a place for the wealthy to live with no spaces for meaningful cultural interaction?
Will the suburb itself decline? What comes next? The 60s/70s moved us from the “Modern” into the “Postmodern” what is the next economic/architectural/political/cultural movement going to be?
What spaces will it lead us to, physically and conceptually?
What spaces will it lead us to,
Physically and conceptually?
Original Photos by Austin & Jamie
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