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.

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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