The myth that we are not Europe

When North Americans and Australians visit Europe they spend most of their time in the really old parts of the cities they visit. That’s where the coach drops them, so that’s where they stay. If they took bikes (like I do when I’m there, because I am fully formed) they would venture beyond those ancient but miniscule kernels of cities and see that European cities are actually no older than ours. The industrial revolution hit both the old world and the new world at the same time, in the late eighteen hundreds, or a little earlier if you look at Britain. But generally speaking European, American and Australian cities were all rushing at once to house workers arriving to work in the city. Whether building Georgian row housing or perimeter blocks with walk-up apartments, the population densities were roughly the same. The streets were likewise laid out for walking and buggies.

Urban growth in the first half of the twentieth century was a stop-start affair for the old and new world alike. It was really only during the second half of the twentieth-century that fast growth, coupled with different philosophies of urban expansion, started to make new world cities markedly thinner.

Even that was short lived. Classically sprawling cities like Los Angeles and Sydney are thickening as inner suburban and city lots are redeveloped with flats. At the same time, European cities are sprawling. If in doubt take a google earth flight over Belgium:


That’s a coffee break blog post, not a comprehensive solution. I’m really just making the point that brainlessness in the past is no excuse for brainlessness now. European cities are investing in bike infrastructure because they can’t fool themselves or their people that their situation is any different from that in the neighbouring city where bike infrastructure is working. So next time someone tells you Europe is different, drill them with questions like these: Where have you been? I mean, where exactly? Did you ride to the suburbs? What do you know, really? Who do you think you’re kidding? Are you being paid to sit here telling us bullshit?


  1. Luke says:

    ” If in doubt take a google earth flight over Belgium:”

    Try an easyjet flight from Milan to London (Gatwick). Seriously weird that the most crowded country in Europe (if you ignore the irrelevance that is Scotland) has more open green space than Italy.

  2. crank says:

    I had to visit the Chinese embassy in Copenhagen and found a inner suburban enclave similar to those in Australia, even including a fairly bike-hostile highway. It was illuminating.

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