Europe has been praised for its cities. Wherever I go in the world I get the same stereotypic answers when asking people for their favourite places: “Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona” – sometimes “Rome or London”. Only “New York, Vancouver and Tokyo” can ‘pollute’ the otherwise Eurocentric global charts of favourite places. And – global rankings of the most liveable cities seem to support this. They are also usually featuring and overwhelming number of European places. This is something to be proud of as a European! Is it?
Yes and no must be the answer. And that becomes clear when asking further – asking why people like European cities. In most cases history is mentioned, street life and the fact that our cities feel cosy to many non-Europeans. Depending on the place people come from, clean air and cleaner streets are also a point worth mentioning. What is more interesting to me is what in not being mentioned: forward-looking, big, high, dense, advanced, new.
One could say that that does not matter since our cities are what they are and there is nothing wrong about that. But it does. European cities are subject to forces that drive density, size, urban program or technological developments. Wherever we look building projects are becoming denser and denser and gradually they also start scraping the sky. Street life becomes more and more uniform by processes of high-speed gentrification and commercialisation and the way operate in cities has greatly been altered by the mobile phones we have and use 24/7. The problem does not lie in these trends. In many ways they are good. A denser and higher city after all can accommodate more people on a smaller piece of land – leaving more space for green and nature. The challenge lies in the fact that from the perspective of the European city model we do not have an answer to these forces that allow us to steer and further develop the qualities that our cities undeniably have. If you look around in Paris, London or Berlin then what you see is our old model on steroids. City blocks turn into unproportioned masses – two, three, four stories too high. Highrise buildings either pop up everywhere since – in the absence of a framework – there is no clear idea how to use them in a city or they are so politically loaded by citizens and local governments equally that they end up being oddly looking stumps.
Let’s talk about traffic: I still remember the ripples it created when London announced its congestion charge system. If sounded revolutionary the charge drivers for using city streets. Recently Amsterdam has decided to significantly reduce the amount of parking spaces in the city. These are good examples but in most cities little to nothing has happened. In the contrary. Parking garages are being built like never before. If we have cars, and they are unavoidable, then we do at least not want to see them. Well – there are other approaches. In Tokyo having a car is linked to having a parking place. In Singapore cars the total number of licences are limited, and they expire after ten years. In addition, a hefty vehicle tax applies that makes many people reconsider. Shenzhen does not fight cars but they at least fight polluting cars. Getting a licence plate for an electric car is a matter of minutes, getting one for a conventional one requires participation in a lottery with a 10 per cent chance – only to be allowed to pay tens of thousands of Euros to finally get one. All this is not mentioning the scale and speed it which public transport – locally and long distance – is being extended, linked and made more convenient.
Ok – but we have great public parks. Well – yes we do – but most of them are dating back to the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Many Asian cities acknowledge the need for recreational green space. And they take action. Shenzhen is in the middle of a massive park transformation and park construction program, Singapore has been delivering a whole range of new parks in the last ten years, Tokyo, a city traditionally not very green, uses the Olympic Games to overhaul the Tokyo Waterfront City into a greener environment.
What are we left with then – history. Our cities are old. They are full of history and detail and convey the good life in its best form. Yes – indeed – old they are but Asian cities are old as well – often older. Their sheer scale and their dynamic growth has dwarfed the old parts and in most cases turned them into theme parks of history. And that is what our cities are as well. The difference – 50% of our city is theme park here while in many Asian cities it is 5% or less. In turn that means that Asian cities on average are more modern which allows them to deal with the challenges we face today in a more successful and quicker way. History in these places does not limit change – the change we need to cope with the global challenges, no matter if it is climate change, migration or affordability.
If we learn to develop a new view on our European cities, we can develop a new model of European urbanism. That model must include a different attitude towards density, multiple use of space, a more restrictive car policy and a re-evaluation of the meaning of history and how to approach heritage. It could deliver an amazingly new and fresh idea of living in medium size cities – if only we get over our Eurocentric arrogance and our belief that European cities are better than anything else. Only if.
by Markus Appenzeller