Ending the American Planning-Inferiority Complex

January 29, 2013 Heated bike lanes?! Traffic-light Pong?! Seventeen-Story Greenhouses?!

Be still my heart.

Throughout my urban planning education, Western Europe has functioned as a shining beacon of possibilities. It exists as the land of enlightenment: where bicycles warrant robust infrastructure investment, where the inner cities are vibrant centers of commerce, where everything is sustainable and gasoline costs around $10-a-gallon.  In fact, if there was one consistent trope throughout my studies, it would be a professor or classmate or academic article pointing a finger towards a new trend or phenomenon in Western Europe and exclaiming, emphatically, ‘we should be more like them’.

And why shouldn’t we?

Western Europe seems to have it figured out— their society is far less auto-dependent, cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen actively promote a bicycle-culture, and downtowns boast small streets, mixed-use everything, and world-class subway systems. It’s easy to be envious. It’s easy to use Europe’s successes to highlight the flaws in our own society.  But if the goal is to increase bicycle-usage, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, to create more vibrant, walkable downtowns, and generally, to Europify our built form, then, without context, maybe comparisons between the United States and Western Europe can be a tad counter-productive.

A few important things to remember before contrasting Europe and the United States:

1. America is more auto-centric than Europe because much of its built form was developed when there were automobiles.

Europe? It developed before cars-- back when you could either live in the countryside and grow your own crops or live walking distance from a town-square or market. Thus, it’s no wonder that Europe’s built form is far more compact than its American counterpart. Because of the crutch of the automobile, (no doubt aided by Henry Ford’s dismantling of American transit networks, FHA regulations that strongly encouraged suburban development, the interstate system, and a whole host of other automobile-centric government policies), American cities instead grew out instead of up.

Although this information is relatively old-hat for any urban planning student—the truth remains: European planners are rarely tasked with moving millions of residents from exurban cul-de-sacs to the inner-city. And instead of anguishing over the last 60 years of American development, we have to be realistic about the challenges we face.  Any American bicycle revolution will inevitably happen in our sprawling American metropolises and will have to look completely different than any European bicycle revolution.  A “we should be more like them” runs the risk of simultaneously over-simplifying our own problems and misdiagnosing our own solutions.

2. The American political and economic climate: not always conducive to investment.

Americans are reluctant to invest in public transportation to the same extent as our European counterparts— and all urban planning students are aware of the pervasive, libertarian, tea-partyer, ‘I’m not going to fund anything that doesn’t directly benefit my current lifestyle’ ethos.  But since political preferences are often related to culture, and culture is often related to built form— one has to surmise that America’s built form has contributed to the libertarian ethos.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as the United States planned and built the interstate highway network, World War Two veterans took advantage of racist FHA home loan policies, and purchased new homes in white, wealthy suburban communities. These communities, located outside the city-center along the interstates, were auto-dependent from birth. Rich white people commuted by automobile—and mass transit would come to be identified as the transit mode for the poor and black, and therefore not worthy of investment. These beliefs have become entrenched.

Similarly, the balkanization of our metropolitan regions has fostered competition between cities and suburbs for business interests— leading to rise of suburbs-to-suburbs commutes.

Compare this with a European city, where the transit-dependent inner city is largely rich and white, and the reasons for the cleavage in the transportation preference between American and European culture becomes clear.


The point of this essay isn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive to build more bike lanes, or we shouldn’t be innovative, or even that we should admire Europe for what they’ve achieved. Even the most gimmicky article that gets us excited about tackling major world issues has value.

But for those not in the urban planning profession, hearing ‘we should be more like them’ is insufferable, and for those of us in the urban planning profession, it creates a false dichotomy: it’s either the American way (cars / suburbs / libertarians) or the European way (bicycles / inner-cities / happiness). Any path towards a progressive built-form inevitably travels through our suburbs, down our freeways, in our economy, and with our politics. We should learn how to navigate this path. We should learn the reasons our cultural biases exist, and how to work within them, and, when necessary, how to change them.

So, Europe: congratulations. We get it. You win. You’re awesome. But please stay out of my articles and away from my classrooms. And Portland, you’re on notice.

Matt Wolff graduated in 2012 with a masters degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He is currently living in Oakland, and can be reached at matthewlwolff@gmail.com