When we think of European cities, we always think of their perfect old central cities that seem like models of urbanism.
What we forget is that they struggle with the same problems of sprawling suburbs and massive commuter congestion as much, or more, than North American cities do. That was brought home to me when I spent a summer living in suburban Paris, where I spent more time in freeways, chain grocery stores and malls than I like to admit.
I was also reminded of that the last couple of days as I drove around the Pays Basque area on the border of France and Spain, with San Sebastian 30 kilometres on one side of the border and Bayonne 20 kilometres on the other. Both Bayonne and San Sebastian are lovely, historic cities in very different ways. Both are surrounded by sprawl that goes on for miles.
The International Herald Tribune published this story recently (don’t know why it only appeared last week when it was in the Times much earlier, but anyway) about Sarkozy’s efforts to link Paris with the suburbs — more than just a problem of carbon footprints here. As you’ll recall from international headlines a few years ago, the suburbs are also a serious problem for many European cities because they house huge proportions of their immigrants populations where they are cut off geographically, along with other ways, from the native French population.
Sarkozy’s efforts are a reminder that the successful cities of the future are going to be those that figure out how to function efficiently and even pleasurably as grand metropolitan regions. I don’t know of a city yet that has mastered that dilemma, which was born in the 20th century and really coming of age in the 21st.