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Europe and America: Grounds for Comparison

The choice of paving materials depends on structural needs. For roads subject to continuous heavy automobile, bus and truck traffic, paving is usually monolithic concrete or asphalt.

Where vehicular traffic is infrequent, including curbs and gutters at the edges of traffic lanes, you may see honed slabs of durable granite, by far the most commonly installed paving unit. For walkways, bikeways, medians and plazas, various types of granite and other tough, non-brittle stone, as well as ceramic tile or brick, are frequently used.

Also increasingly seen are precision-engineered, precast paving units. Made of cement, sand, reinforcing fibers and stone aggregates, precast pavers can be manufactured to achieve diverse colors, surface textures, hardness and moisture impermeability. In fact, precast paving units can be made to look and behave like natural stone.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself that, sure, all of this sounds great, but it must cost an arm and a leg to build and maintain. And you would be correct.

But Europeans generally have a very different attitude than Americans about spending money for public space, an attitude rooted in culture and history. Because Europeans walk more, they care more about the quality of the pedestrian environment. More importantly, they take the long view, ascribing high value to both permanence and quality of design, especially for civic amenities and infrastructure. Striving for longevity, durability and beauty is no less important than seeking to satisfy schedule and budget objectives.

We Americans are motivated much less by aesthetic aspirations and much more by schedules, economic expedience and the imperatives of finance. This is why construction budgets often allocate minimal funds for landscaping and enrichment of the ground plane. During the inevitable process of value engineering undertaken to stay within project budgets, this is why landscaping frequently becomes an easy cost-cutting target.

Could an attitude shift about investing in development and redevelopment of urban streets and civic spaces be in America's future? It might happen, but probably only if Americans invest more time in walking.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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