For some North Americans after a long European vacation trip, returning home is to the familiar and mundane –especially when home doesn’t have soaring, centuries old architectural monuments or lots of jaw-dropping art. Or
the North American just might be relieved: thank goodness for space and wilderness. As a Canadian, I don’t quite view Europe as prime destination to experience stunning, immense Nature..though I’ve seen the Swiss Alps and loafed by turquoise Mediterranean and Agean Sea on Greek islands. Norway probably has fijords that rivals the British Columbian Pacific coast in beauty. I go to Europe to overdose on magnificent, solid very old architecture, fabulous art and culture.
For some, urban heritage treasures, are just stuffy. I worked with young German ex-pat employees for a Vancouver project. An employee from Hamburg with its historic medieval town square, remarked: “Oh that old stuff.” If there was no financial benefit nor aesthetic inspiration for her, then it may be a tad stultifying.
Pause with me.
Convenient European Cities for Residents and Visitors
I’ve been to Europe on 4 different trips over the past few decades. Each trip from 2.5 to 4 weeks, included a potpourri of different countries and experiences, shared with different companions. Cities where we wandered happily on our own by foot, transit or if available by bike: Paris, London, Amsterdam, Athens, Prague, Barcelona, Brussels, The Hague, Venice and smaller cities, such as Copenhagen, Florence, German cities of Karlsruhle and towns Freiburg and Rothenburg ob au Taber, Brugges (Belgium) and Gouda (Netherlands). Each city or town, had central areas where the city or town began its roots back usually to Roman or medieval times.
Urban design and transportation planning today in these cities, is deliberate to restrict car volumes for several practical reasons –pollution emission control. Athens and Florence had instituted these limits over 25 years ago when I was there over 25 years ago. There is emphasis on higher volumes of walk-in customers for local businesses, higher cost of car fuel in Europe making car ownership more expensive and transit to move very high volumes of people more quickly.
For me, it’s a whole host of interdependent reasons why I and many other Canadian visitors, found it convenient to walk for under 15 min. or half hour in the above cities and towns, or take transit, to see several heritage buildings, museums or find a restaurant or shops in one neighbourhood.
If Heritage, Compact Urban Living Not Your Vibe
However, I wondered how many Europeans view all their very old heritage sights –the cathedrals, art, quaint cobblestone streets, etc. Probably not always thrilled with too many tourists crowding subways and their town plazas, but they know tourists are good for economy. As someone who has lived in and still considers a second home, Metro Vancouver where there as many tourists as Barcelona, Spain —8 million annually or 20,000 per day. Yes, Vancouver does get this many visitors. I know the feeling.
Truth or Some Urban Legends: North America
So here’s what Europeans and Asians may love about Canadian cities and more (with some cheeky observations):
*Uneven cobblestone roads and town squares are very rare in Canada. We can speed through by bike, walk in high heels and roll along wheelchair —if there are sidewalks and curb cuts.
*Canadian cities, seldom impose car speeds under 40 km. / hr. in our downtown cores. Our downtown streets only slow down by natural congestion for a few hours during morning and afternoon because of work and school commuters. As car drivers, we speed by many stores and businesses begging for our business.
*Tendency in North America to stuff empty roads or city square with cars –either moving or parked. In Dijon, France, whole downtown road over 4 lanes wide were closed off permanently for pedestrians and cyclists. No one seemed disturbed no cars nor trucks occupied the space during quiet and night hours.
*Parking garages and lots in North America –either above or underground. Even for shopping where it’s not even bulk buying or any big box store close by. With some much more land, we suck it up for 1 level car parking lots in the suburbs.
*Modern, often faceless buildings –only a few dynamic structures with memorable shape or colours. Oldest Canadian few buildings are in Montreal and Quebec City built in 1600’s. Toronto still has a few structures from 1700’s but you have to look hard.
*Aboriginal reserve land –not always recognizable unless there are road signs. Did you know that there are huge tracts of land in Metro Vancouver which belong to Musqueam First Nations right against the University of British Columbia or right by Lion’s Gate Bridge in North Vancouver? Unless there is a park, museum, it’s just a residential area.
*Simpler historic buildings and places of worship, not festooned with many sculptures, carvings nor religious symbols. In fact, we lock up many historic, picturesque churches, due to vandalism and theft. Even major Canadian churches can’t afford staff nor have volunteers to show their digs to visitors.
*Cleaner air -even for Toronto compared to many big Asian metropolises.
*More space to move around and to create personal space. Sensation of freedom –before you feel lost, isolated when there’s no human being around for kms. to ask for help.
*Thousands of hectares of pure wilderness where some areas there’s enough large, magnificent wildlife to endanger your life or at least dent your car. A lot of large wildlife no longer exists in Europe. Ok, some deer, wolves.
*Driving 100 km. just to get to next village, city –instead of cycling only 5-30 km. to next town, village. If latter happens, in North America, it’s because a big city sits right against a town, resisting amalgamation.
*Diverse great outdoor permanent art –contemporary which draws upon different themes, history of locals reflected in past 2 centuries in some major North American cities. I didn’t see much contemporary outdoor art in old historic Europe areas –understandable. By contrast, Vancouver
is blossoming with its ever-expanding outdoor art murals. Our outdoor art themes reflects strong vibrancy as a young country, aware of its diversity, self-determination and land. We don’t need to manufacture diversity, Nature in our imagination for art: it’s embedded in our psyche as Canadian.
Despite urban form in many North American cities that’s more akin to urban wallpaper, more bland and more easily forgotten, their deficits can be moderated by some locals open in thought, diversity and innovative expression.
Note: First large photo for this post, with woman walking up wide staircase was taken at the National Museum of Catalonian Art in Barcelona, Spain 2016.