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Royale with Cheese II - Retail therapy and urban planning. ;Photo Heavy!

by senilebiker 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 market

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.

Fresh produce stand

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,

Eggs stall at market

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.

Town centre main street

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

bordeaux tram   source Wikipedia

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.

Transport Hub

Similarly, in nearby Essen, the main train station and bus station lie at the end of this shopping street.

Essen 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.

New town centre mall

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.

hattingen june 09 016

 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.

  1. Proximity to services reduces car usage

  2. Reduction in heating costs due to the small amount of external walls relative to floor space.

  3. 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.)

Long term sustainability

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.


Source wikipedia

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.

Thanks for an other interesting diary - I hope there will be more.

And btw. there is no link to dKos. :-)

by Fran on Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 at 11:33:53 AM EST
and fixed the link. (I hope)
by senilebiker on Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 at 12:00:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This diary absolutely nails it.

Every city, town, and village needs a high density, reasonably affluent, core to remain vibrant.  This core is an attractor for businesses to provide the basics, to feed the body, as well as the externalities, to feed the soul.  Once established the 'event horizon' of the center expands, expanding the market, expanding business opportunity, more businesses are started in a process best described in the words of Firesign Theatre:

"LOOK!  One of the pyramids is opening!"

"Which one?"

"The one with the ever-widening hole!"

More customers are sucked-in (or enter freely and of their own will) until the natural limits - transportation network being one - are reached or it smacks into another core's event horizon.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 at 01:43:58 PM EST
And there I was in today's open thread, praising markets, and oblivious of the fact your diary is on the same topic, and touching the same subjects!! So I'll quote myself then:


One of the better advantages of living, once again, in a small town (as opposed to the massive affair that is Jozi) is how I can do part of my shopping on a market again. This being the Netherlands, there is little bantering to be done here, but flowers, vegetables, fruit and cheaper are still cheaper than most places, and the quality is generally outstanding. Plus there are lots of local products.

On top of that, it is the atmosphere I relish: cozy, friendly, personal - I'm gradually getting to know the hard-working people behind the stands. And there is no insipid music, as is in supermarkets. It's outside: when it's sunny, everything looks more cheery. When it's rainy, everything is in it together.

At home I can stall all my goodies out on a large dish in the kitchen and liven up the place.

And all of that I can do on my bike. (Did I write often enough how I missed bicycling in Jozi?)

Praise to markets!

(NB Sure there were markets in Jozi. Somewhere. Tucked away on degraded industrial terrains. Only to be reached by car - which I didn't have for the first 1.5 years.)

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Sat Aug 22nd, 2009 at 04:39:11 PM EST
I get the feeling that shopping in street markets is experiencing a resurgence - or maybe I  am just getting older.

The environmentalist/organics folks are partly responsible for this, as they want locally produced, low carbon products.

PS - I had to google Jozi - Joburg?

by senilebiker on Sun Aug 23rd, 2009 at 02:39:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Since childhood I've lived in or nearby places with markets - villages or bigger cities. They simply have not gone away... If they're doing a resurgence, it'd mean they get more costumers or sell more, and I don't know if that's happening around here.

And yes, Jozi stands for Johannesburg. Joburg for people who don't know that Joburg is now Jozi. :)

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Sun Aug 23rd, 2009 at 03:59:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Bravo! Looking forward to the next installment.

Having been raised in small-town America, it is maddening how much a car is a requirement even in a town of less than 3000 people. Efforts are becoming more visible in some progressive cities and towns, but it takes time and money, two things that we are all short on these days.

by ahaledor on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 08:12:00 AM EST
Welcome to commenting on European Tribune, ahaledor!

Looking forward to reading your future comments / diaries!

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 08:25:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Small-towns do tend to have historic cores and I see a lot of potential for community revival there.  It is the suburbs that I worry about.  Most are literally impossible without a car.
by paving on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 03:59:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We have some of that in the UK. Most new housing estates have no shops. If you want to buy anything, you have to drive at least a couple of miles.

There's also the giant retail park tradition.

But it's not all bad news. One local estate only received planning permission when the developer agreed to move a foot or so of top soil from some local allotments that were going to be redeveloped, and use it to create new allotments next to the estate.

There was a fair amount of 'negotiation', but they caved in the end.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 04:12:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But even so, most of the big estates built in the 70's and 80's have some kind of central hub. When Thatcher became PM, and with the right to buy, construction of housing estates virtually ceased. What you then had were "select" private developments, or what the US would call sub-divisions.

An interesting example, when I was eight (1963), my parents moved to new house in a town in South Wales. It was a private development, three streets - maybe 100 dwellings - but it included a small retail unit with six shops with maisonettes on top. When I was a kid, usually 4 or 5 of those retail units were open - a newsagent, grocery store, hairdresser, etc.

By the end of the eighties it was down to 2 , and now there is only one - the ubiquitous corner shop, run by a Pakistani family, that sells newspapers, sweets, groceries, cigarettes and booze. The other shops have been converted into housing.

But the structure is still there, and it is still there in many of the large council estates. If oil goes to $300/barrel, - it won't be  difficult to go back.

by senilebiker on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 05:47:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
US suburbs often don't have sidewalks, just curbs.  Use your imagination.
by paving on Tue Aug 25th, 2009 at 02:08:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe 4 km from the town centre, but we have a regular bus service,  about once an hour from 7 am to 8 pm, even though I live in a very low density area. It's one street in a valley, maybe 1 km long with on average one house every 40 metres or so on each side. The bus goes up our road, and down the next valley, which is similar.

The main issue will be densities around hubs. If a suburb is constructed with a central focus, with a commensurate commercial and social provision, with a declining housing density from this centre, it is possible to link up the suburbs with the main urban areas in an efficient manner.

The real killer for the US is the grid system, with very flat housing density gradients, which makes it extremely difficult to organise a shared transport system.

by senilebiker on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 04:15:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The real killer for the US is the grid system, with very flat housing density gradients, which makes it extremely difficult to organise a shared transport system.

(stares into crystal ball...)

i see solar-powered conveyor-belt sidewalks in your future.

(prolly made in china :)

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 04:52:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
True to an extent, I suppose, but here in Mexico public transport has always been a necessity since few could afford cars.  That has changed for many in recent years and the resulting sprawl and congestion demonstrates the auto-dependent pattern experienced North of the border for decades.  Now as cars compete with public transport, traffic delays worsen for both.

However, another difference that impacts transportation patterns is zoning laws.  As best I can tell Mexico has few, compared to the US. Not that anyone wants a noxious factory next door, but a small grocer, laundry drop, general store, or carry out restaurant are usually welcome in Mexican towns and cities and save loads of transportation fuel. We are currently staying in an apartment in a residential area near the center of Merida.  On our block (all arranged in traditional Roman/Spanish grid pattern) are one or two each of the above mentioned shops. One store is just a sidewalk window in someones house. The proprietoress has an unbelievably large stock of necessities.  I have yet to ask for something she doesn't have and all for very reasonable prices.

I recall when an "exclusive" residential neighborhood near our home in the US vetoed a grocery store on its outskirts.  They didn't want to be bothered by people coming to and from the store passing through their pristine neighborhoods.  They would rather drive five miles, through someone elses neighborhood, to shop.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 07:22:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Everyday, there are around 80 open markets in the Greater Lyon. Here is one of them:

Marché de la Croix-Rousse

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 08:29:18 AM EST
Tomorrow I am off to the Bordeaux area for a week or so, and mayne a couple of days in the Lot. Hope to have some new photos for the next installment.
by senilebiker on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 11:16:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do you, by chance, plan to go through Lyon?

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 12:20:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No - my route is Liege, Mons Paris, Tours Poitiers, Angouleme.
by senilebiker on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 01:30:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
France, Spain, Italy - never seem to lack in markets.

I'm quite happy with my town, which has an extensive market 2 times a week - but daily markets is definitely something I don't see regularly around here.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Mon Aug 24th, 2009 at 04:33:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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