In late May I went on a European vacation, visiting four cities in two weeks: Prague, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona. All four cities provide reams of insight into building the city, four interpretations based on different histories, cultures and climates. It is impossible to exhaustively describe a city’s architecture, history, urban form, main sights and culture in a blog post. So what follows are brief impressions of the cities, and comparisons one to another and to my hometown of Seattle.
First, a general note on history: European cities are widely perceived as ancient; artifacts of medieval urbanism and architecture. True, to an extent, but the vast majority of neighborhoods I visited on this trip were built out in the nineteenth century as a result of Europe’s industrial revolution, which turned rural peasants into urban factory workers. The cities’ building stock is not particularly older than Boston, New York or even San Francisco. Paris was rebuilt during the Hausmann renovations of the late 1800’s. Medieval Paris was almost entirely swept away, covered over with boulevards lined with buildings representing a high point of wealth, grandeur and gracious urban design. The other cities visited have historic districts in their centers, dating back to the fourteenth century, yet most of what is considered “the city” was built in the 1800’s. In some cases the winding, narrow medieval streets survive, yet the poorly-built, one-to-three story medieval building were all replaced with the nineteenth century with grand, solidly-built six-story edifices. European cities were purposefully built, around 150 years ago, and built grandly. It is within our means to build new cities along the same guidelines today.
Paris versus Barcelona: These two large Western European cities vie with each other to be the busiest and most stylish. Both are very densely populated throughout the municipality (while having a wide range of suburban suburbs)and provide immense transit networks. There is never a break in central paris: no matter where you attempt to stop and take a photo, you will be in someone’s way. The streets appear as canyons cut through a pre-existing mass of six-story buildings.
Now Barcelona, my favorite city of the trip, is in a whole different category. The level of density and intensity went beyond the typical European city into an Asian realm. People, people everywhere. Shops, shops everywhere. Bicycle and motorcycle are the only practical personal transportation devices. Many streets were wide enough to accommodate a vehicle (such as an ambulance), but cars just aren’t practical in such as environment. The question isn’t “is there a grocery store within walking distance?”; but “which of the half-dozen produce shops, bakeries, meat markets and supermarkets within two blocks should I go to?” Streets are still crowded with pedestrians at midnight. Our room faced onto a 10-foot “lightwell” fronted with windows into kitchens and bedrooms from other apartments. The street-side windows faced towards the balconies across the street, a mere 20 feet away. Basically, no privacy, no quiet. But urban energy everywhere. I loved it.
Prague versus Vienna: These two central European capitals have similarly sized metro areas, in the same range as Portland and Vancouver. Despite having top-notch transit systems, street-level activity paled in comparison to the larger Paris or Barcelona. Yet, life was convenient, and many needs could be met within a few blocks. Prague and Vienna are generally built on a grid of superblocks, with streets lined with continuous 6-story buildings holding large interior courtyards.
The streets have moderate width, similar to narrower Seattle streets, typically with at least one row of parked cars. On busier streets, the ground floors house retail businesses. On quieter streets retail is more rare. The interior courtyards provide everyone access to ample greenery, as a view out the interior-facing windows or as a gardening or recreational area. Building coverage area is low as a result, as is the population density, which results in a lighter smattering of shops and quieter streets than Paris. Vienna, in particular, appeared to be equally optimized for automobile as well as bicycle and public transit. Car parks were common, as was separated bicycle infrastructure. The example of Vienna is the most applicable to Seattle: moderate density, eminently livability, lots of green space and transportation options.