Are North American Cities Boring?

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

Medieval and Renaissance architecture. Rothenburg ob der Taber, Germany 2016. Photo by J.Becker
Medieval and Renaissance architecture. Rothenburg ob der Taber, Germany 2016. Photo by J.Becker

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.

Near the harbour. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Near the harbour. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Medieval oil painting. National Museum of Catalonian Art. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong.
Medieval oil painting. National Museum of Catalonian Art. Barcelona, Spain 2016.. Photo by J.Chong.

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.

Modern twisted building rises near residential townhouses. Malmo, Sweden 2010. Photo by J.Chong. Half hour transit train ride from Copenhagen, Denmark.
Modern twisted building rises near residential townhouses. Malmo, Sweden 2010. Photo by J.Chong. Half hour transit train ride from Copenhagen, Denmark.
St. Nicholas Cathedral. Prague, Czech Republic 2010. Photo by J.Chong
St. Nicholas Cathedral. Prague, Czech Republic 2010. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Crowds in town square watching World FIFA soccer game on giant TV screen. Prague, Czech Republic 2010. Photo by J.Chong. Local businesses would benefit from these pedestrianized areas.
Crowds in town square watching World FIFA soccer game on giant TV screen. Prague, Czech Republic 2010. Photo by J.Chong. Local businesses would benefit from these pedestrianized areas. Car traffic often not allowed in such areas in heritage European core cities and towns –even at night, except for service vehicles.

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.

On left, mosaic art on concert hall, Palau de Musica. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong
On left, mosaic art on concert hall, Palau de Musica. Barcelona, Spain 2016. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Beaune, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong.
Beaune, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong.
Nun cycling confidently. She turned assertively on her bike. Strausborg, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Nun cycling confidently. She turned assertively on her bike. Strausborg, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Wide pedestrian streets, some town squares kept car-free even at night. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong. North American tend to feel entitled to fill space with cars-- a debate in big cities.
Wide pedestrian streets, some town squares kept car-free even at night. Dijon, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong. North Americans tend to feel entitled to fill space with cars– a debate in cities.

*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.

20 km speed limit in centre areas. Nuits Saint Georges, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong. Area is calmer and pedestrians encouraged to linger, shop,rest and eat.
20 km speed limit in centre areas. Nuits Saint Georges, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong. Area is calmer and pedestrians encouraged to linger, shop,rest and eat.
First Nations (native Indian) long boat on Musqueam land / community, beside University of British Columbia land. Vancouver BC 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Outdoor cafes and pubs on early fall evening. Beaune, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong
Outdoor cafes and pubs on early fall evening. Beaune, France 2016. Photo by J.Chong

*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.

Fountain redesigned with doggie bone at top. Toronto 2017. Photo J.Chong
Queen’s Park-Royal Ontario Museum subway stop. One of my favourite subway stops integrating permanent art into subway station design. Toronto ON 2017. Photo by J.Chong. Art points to the treasures of museum, only 5 min. way.

*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

Permanent outdoor mural art installed 2016. Vancouver, BC. Photo by J.Chong. City now has well over 100 permanent outdoor art murals.
Permanent outdoor mural art installed 2016. Vancouver, BC. Photo by J.Chong. City now has well over 100 permanent outdoor art murals.
Mural in historic Gastown area. Vancouver BC 2016. This would have been privately sponsored by a business. In contrast, heritage areas of European cities we visited had little contemporary outdoor murals -- probably very strictly controlled.
Mural in historic Gastown area. Vancouver BC 2016. This would have been privately sponsored by a business. In contrast, heritage areas of European cities we visited had little contemporary outdoor murals — probably very strictly controlled.
Sculptural wall art made of metal birds representing flight of cedar waxwing birds. Entitled- “Amiskwaciw Waskayhkan Ihatwik”, bridging Michael McPhair Park and Beaver Hills Park. By Metis artist, Destiny Swiderksi who organized indigenous community members to design each bird. Downtown Edmonton, Alberta 2017. Photo by J.Chong

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.

Oldest downtown Montrea (Quebec),l is one of rare areas in aCanadian city with some cobblestone streets mid 1600-1700s. Photo by J.Becker 2013.
Old downtown Montreal (Quebec),l is one of rare areas in Canadian cities with some cobblestone streets mid 1600-1700s. Photo by J. Becker 2013.
Another Canadian rare city where historic buildings from 1600’s are preserved. Quebec City,QC 2002. Photo by J.Chong
Queen’s Park – Royal Ontario Museum subway station. Toronto ON 2017. Photo by J.Chong
Walking bikes up a 12% grade, long hilly street. Chancellor Blvd., Vancouver BC 2016. Photo by J.Chong
View from Burnaby Mountain, suburb of Vancouver, overlooking Fraser River. Even local hikers have gotten lost in nearby mountain forests and had to be rescued.
View from Burnaby Mountain, suburb of Vancouver, overlooking Burrard Inlet, with Port Moody in background 2014. Even local hikers have gotten lost in nearby mountain forests and had to be rescued. A university sits on Burnaby Mountain.

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.

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27 Comments Add yours

  1. A wonderful comparison of European and North American cities, certainly different with both having their endearing qualities.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jean says:

      I’m sure for a jogger, it can be noticeable.

      Like

  2. I wouldn’t say boring – just different 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jean says:

      I see..you probably a more fulsome opinion that’s too complicated here. 🙂

      Like

  3. Mabel Kwong says:

    I too also wondered how Europeans and Asians viewed Europe, and interesting to hear some locals there just see it as a bit of old stuff. From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t seem many of the mind tourists. I’ve never been to Europe, but my impression of it from reading and seeing about it online is that it’s rich with stories from the past, and locals are proud of them. In Canada it’s interesting to hear that cars go fairly fast – maybe it’s how the road infrastructure are designed to streamline traffic for most part outside peak hour, and many are pretty much safe drivers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Hope you get to Europe one day, Mabel. (Of course, I have yet to go to Asia..) My guess, in Australia, driving maximum speed limits might be similar to Canada. In thinly populated countries, there may be a tendency to think that driving speed limits should be higher… Not that it’s right since the onus is on the driver to be alert and skilled as well as not distracted by cellphone use, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pit says:

    Now that first picture evokes memories: I’ve stayed twice in that hotel on the right, the “Hotel Markusturm”, and both times enjoyed the hotel, [the hospitality and amenities plus the gorgeous ambience] and Rothenburg itself.
    As to your question: I don’t think American cities are boring. They’re just different, with their own unique appeal – if you know where to go and/or where to look.
    Have a great week,
    Pit

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Wow, what a coincidence to have used a photo plus have a regular blog reader stay there in the past.

      True, given the sprawl of some North American cities, one has to know more specifically the cool spots to visit if one has enough time. (instead of collapsing in bed to rest, etc.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pit says:

    🙂
    Of course, those German [and Swiss and British villages and towns] do have their unique charm!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      They certainly do..and no doubt, there are strict local bylaws (ordinances in the U.S.) of how homeowners should maintain the appearance of their homes/properties.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pit says:

        There definitely are those bylaws,

        Like

  6. lilisar says:

    Still smiling, (or grinning) from reading your post: I’ve got a Canadian son-in-law who during his first years in Germany and Europe just HAD to visit every castle and ruin and old town in reach… I just came back from Brittany, France, where there are even more old half- timbered houses, cobblestones and castles – yes, I love it, too, but visiting cities for me always has to be counterbalanced by long walks or hiking tours in nature. I’ve visited Vancouver, which is a great city, I love First Nations Art, and the murals of Chemainus. But the day at Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island was a highlight, too! As well as the Rockies in Alberta… The mix is perfect. As for speed limits: most European countries have one, in Germany, alas, there is none. Believe me, driving is much less stressful with a limit! And deadly accidents could be

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Yup, enough Canadians are charmed by old castles and half-timbered houses. I haven’t been to Botanical Beach but have been to other areas of Vancouver Island. Glad you enjoyed Vancouver Island /Lower Mainland area. Speed limit on some highways in Alberta is 110 km./hr. Not good. Gives people inflated sense that driving fast is safe.

      Like

  7. lilisar says:

    Reduced considerably with a limit. But here the car lobby is the same as in US the weapons lobby..

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      I agree completely.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sartenada says:

    Wonderful post. It was full of information and many gorgeous photos. I loved for example the photo of Queen’s Park-Royal Ontario Museum subway stop.

    Not all countries are similar, but they offer different art, houses, habits, customs, handicrafts etc.

    Happy Sunday.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love Europeans towns and cities and miss paricularly the French compact downtowns and walkable streets, but it seems that many Europeans love American cities too when I see the number of tourists all across our continent. Looks to me that people enjoy what’s different. Love your photos and recognize a few (from Quebec City and Montreal and from France too!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Compact downtowns and walkable streets certaintly are easier to find and experience in Europe.

      The only thing I can see that Europeans like in North America is a lot more wilderness (if one loves Nature) and simply more personal space around themselves to move around faster by car and to own property if you have enough money/live in less expensive areas that’s not close to neighbours. Downside is more social isolation because of physical distance, more complexity and time to get around because cities are built around the car with only recent effort to change that slowly. It must have been a huge change for you when you relocated.

      Glad photos give you great memories, evelyne

      Like

      1. Totally agree with you on nature and space in America. It was a big change for sure. But I love nature and space:)
        Again, great photos!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Sue Slaght says:

    I agree there is quite a difference when one returns from trips abroad. i always think our cities lack the colour and of course in many cases the history. Still I do feel embracing the positive wherever i am makes me a happier person. I do know that some cities and areas in Europe, Venice and Cinque Terre as examples, are looking to find ways to crease tourist visitors as the locals feel they can not lead anything resembling a normal life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      For tiny villages, it would be tough. Somehow in big cities, the tourists can be easier to absorb. When I went to Venice, it was overwhelmingly crowded with tourists.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Alicia Joy (thetokyogirl.com) says:

    As a Canadian I agree! North America just doesn’t have the rich cultural history of other places. I think that’s why those ancestor DNA things are so popular here. People long to connect with something large and meaningful that just isn’t here, it’s too new and doesn’t have a singular culture.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      The DNA testing stuff –or people are just curious about genetic/family roots.

      I am not so sure about singular culture in Canada. Well, yes Eurocentric/modern. First Nations would disagree vehemently except the architecture and art gets subsumed as the “other”. Japan would be quite interesting. What do you think of historic and present architecture between Tokyo and Taipei?

      Like

      1. Alicia Joy (thetokyogirl.com) says:

        When I first saw Taipei I thought it was a perfect city. First of all it’s small, easy to navigate and has excellent public transit. It has more street greenery than Tokyo, and you can go from a very old, charming area like around Longshan Temple to ultra modern Taipei 101 in minutes. Taipei doesn’t have as many very old buildings as Tokyo but they do make an effort to preserve certain things, like Huashan 1914. But, I can’t say the same for New Taipei City which is pretty rough in some places.

        Although Japan colonized Taiwan for a long time, there is very little architectural evidence of it. Old mansions like the Lin Mansion were built by the Chinese immigrants, and built in their fashion. Other things like the fort in Danshui were built by Europeans in their fashion. Off the top of my head I can’t even think of anything built or designed by the Japanese except the layout of the city 🤔 But they say the attitude rubbed off and residents of Taiwan are much more polite than residents of Mainland China ^^ I can’t comment, I’ve never been to China. I only passed through Beijing and everyone seemed perfectly polite imho 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Jean says:

          Thx for your insight re Taipei. I’ve never been to Asia yet. My partner has been there for just a few days several yrs. ago and was shown specific areas of the city as it relates to cycling infrastructure –which for him, it included cycling abit in the city. He gave a conference presentation and was interviewed briefly on Chinese local tv. He was impressed by the wealthier modern parts of the city which was what he was shown by conference and government hosts. He didn’t have enough time to explore the city on his own since he was on work-related trip that began in Seoul, Korea and after Taiwan, was in Australia.

          My question was more on Tokyo’s architecture as it compares to Taipei’s.

          Most likely individual behavior on mainland China is heavily influenced by social-economic class, education, family background, and if the person had ever lived elsewhere outside of China in past. But then brusqueness /rudeness can be found in other countries.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Lani says:

    I love all your photographs and your point of view captures. I could definitely see how N. Am cities might be boring compared to the rich history of Europe. In the USA alone, there is a big difference between the West and East coast as far as history is concerned. These extreme coasts offer different architecture, energy, people, weather, politics perhaps as well, than say from middle America. Sometimes I think we Americans take for granted how expansive N. Am is.

    While I did love the buildings and the orderliness of Austria when I went, I found myself strangely missing the chaos of SE Asia. Now, I appreciate both. I think part of the reason why many expats do live abroad is because they enjoy the challenge and the differences of their home country versus their new one. This, naturally, can also be said about travel, and why traveling is so valuable.

    I will admit, I do find some US cities quite boring in their strip malls, concrete sprawls and lack of beauty or originality. I find myself gravitating towards small town America because those places have usually retained some uniqueness, friendliness and quiet, which I crave and love. Perhaps when we learn to appreciate art again, we will become better city planners with an eye on functionality, efficency, and beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Methinks many North Americans take for granted the huge distances they drive to do certain things. Here where I live, it’s common for locals to drive a 200-km round trip just to enjoy snowshoeing, snowboarding or hiking in the Rocky Mountains/Banff National Park. They may often not stay overnight and simply come home same day. That would not be typical in the smaller European countries. They would tend to take high speed/ordinary train to do this.

      Some of the orderliness and super peacefulness in the small German or French towns which may have well-preserved architecture..it’s almost too quiet for my taste. If someone talked loud on the street, 5 houses would hear them. I agree the historic core areas of many North American towns and cities are interesting to live in –which is what we have chosen when living in the last 2 Canadian cities. No doubt, the semi-chaos of Asian cities is probably something for me to become comfortable.

      Liked by 1 person

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