Europe and America: Grounds for Comparison

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 30, 2006

In cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris or Prague, I always pay attention to what's underfoot -- and not just to avoid stepping in something unpleasant.

The masterfully composed forms and facades of old and new European architecture are wonderful but also worth noticing is how wonderfully Europeans treat the ground in cities. They see it as another facade, a horizontal surface no less deserving of creative design and solid construction than the vertical surfaces of buildings.

What's underfoot in Europe inevitably invites comparison with U.S. cities, where horizontal urban surfaces -- streets, sidewalks, parking lots, plazas, vegetated areas and even parks -- are often minimally designed, cheaply constructed and poorly maintained.

Look no further than Washington to find plenty of examples of such design and construction shortcomings.

Serious cracking and car-rattling potholes plague major and minor city streets, along with crumbling curbs yet to be replaced with granite. Street paving patches abound, long overdue for permanent repair or repaving.

Throughout the District, neighborhoods have seriously damaged and sometimes unsafe sidewalks. Inadequately constructed when they were built, many of the city's concrete sidewalks have heaved, cracked and been torn apart by tree roots and repeated cycles of freezing and thawing.

Perhaps most surprising in Washington, America's much-visited capital, is the treatment of some of the city's ceremonial public spaces.

Take a good look at the National Mall, where grass lawns abut walkways cheaply built with exposed-aggregate concrete. No attempt is made to create visually distinct seams or edges that materially define the transition. Usually lawn-walkway edges are defined amorphously by dirt.

And why aren't the Mall's walkways themselves made of better materials?

By contrast, ground planes in European city centers are thoughtfully designed, well constructed and continuously maintained. Whether for people to occupy, walk on, drive through or look at, Europe's urban streetscapes and civic spaces are almost always artful compositions.

Underfoot are durable paving materials arranged in meaningful patterns that articulate patterns of use and movement. Pathways and their edges -- streets and sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, alleys and narrow passages, medians and transit stops -- are demarcated by visible changes in paving. Europeans do not rely only on reflective white paint.

Likewise, borders around and within public squares, courtyards and plazas are typically delineated with pavers of differing materials, shapes and colors. Contrasting pavers are further used to produce geometric patterns, which may be purely decorative. But they also can mark and differentiate functional zones, accentuating elements within civic spaces -- fountains and pools, trees, light poles, sculptures, columns, pavilions and pergolas, or even rainwater drains.

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