Vibrancy: Lessons from Europe

We’d been to Europe before. In the summer of 2005, I spent two months studying and traveling through Austria, France, Germany, Italy and several other countries and Kelly spent five weeks traveling with Contiki. But this was before my elective course in Social Geography and long before I became attuned to the principles of urban planning and design. So this return trip in 2014 was in a lot of ways my European awakening.

In our travels to urban areas across America we always seek vibrancy. It’s the first thing that strikes me, and really most visitors, when setting foot in a big city. Things like bright lights, skylines, and big stadiums might be more noticeable from a distance, but it’s ultimately the hustle and bustle, the traffic (vehicular and pedestrian), the transportation hubs, and even the noise that tangibly delivers the pulse of a big city. Vibrancy is a buzzword for city lovers; we talk about it like it’s a color or a texture. The kind of thing you know when you see…the kind of thing that can’t be faked. And the truth is that most mid-tier metropolitan areas in America struggle to achieve vibrancy outside of perhaps one or two distinct neighborhoods.

So it was quite a shock for me to experience European-level vibrancy this time around. Sure, I had experienced it already less than a decade ago, and sure, I was aware of the reputation for walkability and transit in Europe as a world standard. For me, rather, the shock came upon researching the population numbers of these vibrant cities that we visited.

I’ve seen Vienna pop up near the top of numerous “Best Cities to Live” lists. It has fantastic architecture, wonderful walkability, and a transit system with trams, buses, commuter rail and heavy rail that almost rivals the biggest cities in the world. It is the capital and largest city in the country where I studied abroad, so I’ve long had a personal affinity for Vienna. Total population? Less than 2.5 million. That’s like Pittsburgh or Charlotte. While they are both awesome cities, no one would ever confuse them with a global cultural and social mecca.

Prague is the darling tourist destination of the region. More or less “discovered” by mainstream tourism in the past decade, Prague offers an amazing combination of history, fun, beauty, charm and value. Before we arrived I told Kelly that Prague was a true big city bigger than Vienna and more in line with Milan. The street level activity proved my statement correct. The transit system was efficient and comprehensive, featuring an effective underground subway system, a complementary streetcar network, and timely express bus routes. Prague delivered on my initial promise but to my amazement when I actually looked up the numbers I was wrong all along. Prague has a population around 2 million. That’s comparable to Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio!

Bratislava is the small brother of Central Europe, rarely anything more than a stopover for tourists traveling between Prague, Budapest or Vienna. And so it was for us, but standing in the central district (Old Town) of Bratislava felt like being in the center of the European universe. People everywhere; business suits rushing briskly into buildings, students sauntering about the bars and clubs, trams running constantly in every direction. It helped that we stumbled upon a glitzy fashion show right in the middle of Slovakia fashion week. Anyway, Bratislava population: ~600k. We’re talking Augusta, Georgia or Jackson, Mississippi numbers. No knock on those old Southern towns, but certainly neither evokes bustling metropolis the way Bratislava somehow manages to.

In a way I am stating the obvious. Most European cities developed centuries earlier than their American counterparts, long before automobiles and highways existed. My point is that although I knew all of this already, it’s one thing to understand things in theory and it’s another thing to experience it in real life. I was absolutely blown away by the vibe created by these differences in urban design. The things that so many of us want to see in our American communities do really make a huge difference.

And with that I leave you with three observations:

1) Every city has tons of transit options. You do not need a car to explore urban Europe. The multimodal options allow for effective transport in a variety of geographical areas and situations. It also allows for better walkability focused around transit lines and stations. In America, good transit also serves one more benefit; it helps to shape real estate development in an organized way and boosts property values (and taxes too!) As a regional railroad hub with a substantial private streetcar network during the early 20th century, Jacksonville has an incredible opportunity to return to its roots with much of its transit and rail infrastructure still in place. The urban core neighborhoods stand to benefit significantly if the city and transit authority can ever take advantage of this.

imageone part of a comprehensive transit system that takes you all around the Vienna region…as far as Bratislava

2) Many European cities have relatively few skyscrapers, if any. They achieve vibrancy, walkability and density through smart planning and urban fabric that almost always includes street-level interaction. Skyscrapers do not necessarily add to vibrancy and pedestrian-scale. Many mid-tier American cities would do well to have a dozen four-story mixed-use buildings rather than one 48-story supertall. This is one reason why the neighborhoods in which we invest surrounding downtown Jacksonville seem much more vibrant than downtown itself.

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Prague city view

3) Architecture in Europe is breathtaking…to me, a guy who is impressed by old Jacksonville buildings from the early 20th century. But to people who walk amongst 90% historic structures, they don’t seem so special anymore. My new friend in Prague, a video producer who does primarily corporate and government work, says it’s incredibly difficult for him to find areas worth filming. Meanwhile, he looks at pictures or on Google streetview and dreams of filming “any street in America.” On the other hand, he says that producers from outside Europe have no trouble finding locations. I guess architectural beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Jacksonville has demolished a lot of its history in and around downtown, but the urban neighborhoods have fought hard to preserve what history is left. While I hate to see preservation at the expense of progress, it’s important that we find balance and don’t erase too much of our history. In a few centuries visitors from other continents might have a similar impression of America as I did in Europe.

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