Friday, May 25, 2007
It's a common observation, of course, but the land uses of big continental European cities forms a stark contrast to those of the United States. The 15-mile ride from the airport of Rome passes through mostly farmland and small towns, until the city, with a population of more than 3 million, quite abruptly appears, with multi-family housing. In the United States, a similar stretch would be filled with housing subdivisions. How does Rome avoid sprawl? (Or, from another perspective, why don't affluent Romans live in detached houses on the outskirts?) There are many factors. One factor is tough land use laws that makes the preservation of farmland a paramount goal. Another is a transportation policy that builds few new auto roads (even though Rome holds a "beltway" and most Romans own a car). Another is an attitude toward metro living. As in many European cities, living in central Rome is pleasant, vibrant, and chic (and demand-driven expensive). The limited suburbs are both bland and far from the action of the city (Mussolini built the cold "EUR" suburb in the 1930s outside the old city walls). Accordingly, most affluent and middle-class Romans would prefer a spacious city apartment above a trattoria than a house in the suburbs.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Advocates of reforming America's wasteful land use practices often suggest that big changes are needed -- replacement of the auto-based culture with public transport, rejection of suburbs for the city, and abandonment of carbon-heated spaces with other techniques. But perhaps the future of a "smarter" land use isn't in big sea-changes but in twists in the established system. This week, fresh from a trip to Rome, I discuss some ways in which European culture manages to create a quality of life equal to that of the United States, while conserving land use and other resources.
One big story in American news this week is that we may soon start seeing on our roads the microscopic "smart" car, made by Daimler, that is now ubiquitous on the streets of Rome and other crowded European cities. The smart makes the Mini Cooper look like a Chevy Suburban.
Italians, and Romans in particular, are as crazy for automobiles as Americans are. Comparing the Eternal City in 2007 with my last visit 16 years ago, the streets are filled with more cars and far fewer of the once famous little Vespa scooters that were so popular with postwar Italians. These have mostly been replaced by larger motorcycles and by cars. But Romans have learned a trick or two in driving and parking their vehicles in a crowded city with few garages (and a growing number of driving and parking restrictions). The "smart" car is so tiny that it is practically square: it is not much longer than it is wide. Accordingly, one can quickly park the car perpendicular to a curb, as with a motorcycle, while behemoths such as the Mini Cooper must be parked parallel to the curb. With this little step, Romans can enjoy the comforts of an automobile, while using up as little space as possible. We may see perpendicular-parked cars on the streets of Manhattan, Miami, and Seattle some day soon …