Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 06:49:01 AM EST
In the second of this series, I want to explore some of the differences between Europe and the US, based on the interaction between how we shop, and how we allow our towns to develop. To do this, I will also look a little at how we got to where we are.
As I discussed in RwC I, Europe can be defined in different ways, but for this diary, I am essentially focussing on the EU 27, and the few non EU countries that lie within the same geographic area. Although there are many differences between the various countries within this area ( a subject for a future diary), my conclusions are drawn from having lived in the UK, France, Germany and Belgium, (approx 42% of EU population), and my travels to some twenty other European countries.
This diary is crossposted at Daily Kos and Eurotribune
from the diaries - Nomad
In most European countries, if you want to go shopping you go to the town centre. Sure there are out of town hypermarkets/supermarkets, big box stores usually found on the edges, often on redeveloped brownfield sites, but of you want to buy clothes, a mobile phone, a house, a book, luggage, health foods, perfume, a holiday etc then you go to town. What you don't do in most cases is go to an out of town mall, because with a few exceptions they don't exist.
Most European towns also have a market on one or two mornings per week, usually set up on the "Market Square", or a pedestrianised street, or on a town centre car park.
Hattingen Saturday morning market.
Originally these were set up for local producers to sell their produce, and to provide a commercial venue for itinerant traders, whose products were not in sufficient demand to justify a full time establishment in any one town. Today's markets continue these traditions, although more often than not, the market tradesman buys his products from a wholesaler rather than selling his own produce.
The typical market would have a selection of fresh produce stalls, a butcher, fishmonger, hardware stall, clothing (low budget/low fashion), haberdasher and local producers. For example, my local market has one stall that sells nothing but eggs,
and in the Arcachon area of France, you will find stalls that sell nothing but oysters. Fresh produce stalls will tend to favour locally produced seasonal products, and here in Germany, it is the season for pfifferlinge (wild mushrooms)
The size of the market depends on the size of the town, and prices tend to be lower than shops (except high value produce - organics for example). The main reason is the low overhead - In France, you pay around $5 per day per pitch, and that they are owner operated businesses - no staff cost.
City Centre Retail
As mentioned above, Europeans do most of their non food shopping in the town centre. In the 1930's, it was common for towns to have tramways (streetcars) and these would generally run from the outlying residential areas to the town centre, running through the main street. However with the advent of the car in the fifties, these were taken out of service, and replaced with buses as it was thought that the trams consumed too much space, and to make room for cars. The growth in car ownership soon resulted in these town centre street being clogged with traffic, and first to go was onstreet parking, and by the seventies, municipalities started to close the main streets totally to traffic, and paving them to become pedestrianised areas.
Today the overwhelming majority of town main streets are closed to traffic, but in a quirk of history, some towns are reintroducing tramways that run through these pedestrianised streets. As an example, Bordeaux inaugurated its new tramway system in 2003, and is constantly extending it -- Wiki page
There are many reasons for the survival of town centre shopping, but one of the principal ones is transport infrastructure. Unlike US towns which are often built on a grid pattern, European towns have developed over centuries and most often have a radial pattern, with the hub being the town centre. Roads are rarely straight, and have followed topography and historic land ownership lines. Even cities that were virtually flattened in WWII ( Dresden, Coventry,Bochum, check with google maps) were rebuilt using the old street layouts (probably because of land ownership issues)
Because of this radial pattern, public transport infrastructure tends to converge at the centre, and alongside the pedestrianisation of the main streets, it was a common policy to build the central bus station one block away, and usually fairly close to the train station where they exist. The small town where I live has the terminals for buses, strassenbahn (tramway) and s-bahn (light railway) grouped at the bottom of the main shopping street.
Similarly, in nearby Essen, the main train station and bus station lie at the end of this shopping street.
Europeans are not immune to the attraction of malls, particularly in the Northern countries where Winters can be cold and damp. However, with some notable exceptions, for example Velizy 2 in Paris, Bluewater in London, the malls tend to be built in town centres, and are therefore significantly smaller than their US cousins. Because land is at a premium, it is common for them to have three or more floors with undergound or overhead multi story parking. Thus the malls compliment the town centre retail network, as opposed to competing with it.
110,000 sq feet city centre mall.
To cater for the shoppers, you will also generally find a selection of bars, cafes, pubs and restaurants ( and fast food outlets unfortunately), and a major proportion stay open long after the shops shut. One of the main advantages for these is that the evening trade can use the car parks that the shoppers used during the day, thereby eliminating the requirement for the restaurant to provide parking. Most town centre places close down around 10 to 12 pm, with later opening on Fridays and Saturdays. Many towns run late, or sometimes night bus services on weekends.
Spin off benefits of vibrant town centres
Housing within walking distance ( say a quarter mile) of the main street is popular with older people, or younger singles, and tends to be high density = often 4 floors with no breaks between buildings.
These are popular with older people because of the access to shops and services, and younger people because access to entertainment. Families are more likely to move out to burbs for the space and lower land cost.
This high density housing has several environmental benefits.
Long term sustainability
- Proximity to services reduces car usage
- Reduction in heating costs due to the small amount of external walls relative to floor space.
- The scarcity of available parking incentivises the population to buy smaller cars. (Walk down a Parisian street, and you are in sub compact paradise, and you still need thiry minutes to find a spot.)
Compared to the US Planning model, European towns and cities are much better placed to weather the resource crunch that is coming. As oil prices increase in the future, the existing public transport infrastructure can be upgraded or used more intensively. The combination of employment , for example office/information industries co located with retail allows work and shopping to be done without additional trips. High density areas promote low environmental impact transport - bikes, walking -scooters etc. The resilience of the European model is demonstrated by the graph below.
Slightly off topic, the comparison between Australia and the US clearly demonstrates the relationship between gas taxes and usage.
Conclusion - Back to the future.
The current US car based economy is unsustainable in the era of peak oil. Comments such as "Our American lifestyle is non negotiable" are ridiculous in as much that the laws of physics and nature don't negotiate. Resource depletion and Climate change will force the developed nations to revert back to practices and models that existed before the advent of the motor car.