Know Y: Three Things European Cities Do Better

This is so un-American. I’m almost ashamed to be writing an article with this title. But it’s true. When I go new places, I compare them to home and when my most recent travels took me across Spain, France, and Italy, there were constant comparisons to Michigan. Fair? Absolutely not. European cities are woven from far different materials, and they live their lives in these cities accordingly. All the same, I noticed that places along the Mediterranean did many things better than home, but three things in terms of urban development stood out for me:

Public art

No, my good man, I’m not asking Ann Arbor to stack up to the birthplace of the Renaissance. Florence has its special place in the world and, my goodness, is it spectacular. I’m not suggesting we put The David in the Arb, I'm simply talking about improved integration of art into public spaces.

For instance, there was a children’s playground (picture 1) in Montpelier in the south of France that looked like something right out of Dr. Seuss. Tell me this kind of bizarre sculpture wouldn’t be embraced by a town as quirky and fun-loving as Ypsilanti?

Cinque Terre in the northwest part of Italy had beautiful murals (picture 2), which commemorated the hard work of the residents that built the gorgeous walking trails along the coastline. And I do mean gorgeous. Just check out that view (picture 3). We acknowledged the hardworking people of this region once. It was back in 1933 and is displayed (rightfully) at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Since then? Well, that's a long time to hold your breath. I want more of Detroit Industry’s kind out in the streets, amongst the people.  The Liberty and State St. rendering of Woody Allen, Poe, Kafka, Hesse, and that chick who looks like Beethoven on a good day is a start, but we need so much MORE. Please.

Balancing development with historic preservation

My favorite stand-up comedian, Eddie Izzard, talks about a show he was watching on the restoration of a building in Miami. The narrator respectfully intoned, "We’ve redecorated this building to how it looked over 50 YEARS AGO!!!!", and Americans are saying, "No! Surely not, no! No one was ALIVE then!" And it’s true. As Americans, what is 'historic' or even 'ancient' to us is just yesterday’s newspaper to a country like Italy.

All the same, European cities have maintained their reverence for their history. What would happen if you got off the bus at Blake Transit Center and stumbled upon the Wright Bros. house? It's a huge stretch of an analogy, but that's what residents of Rome are experiencing when they exit the metro and bam!, there's the Coliseum (picture 4). What is mind-blowing as a visitor is that you're in awe of this spectacle of a structure, and life goes on around it. There are office buildings, hotels, and even the train station just a few blocks away. Taxis speed by to get their next customer whilst you take pictures with the tourist-racket Gladiators. The old and new sit nearby one another, with respect given to the value of each. We could learn from their example.

Even unfinished historic structures are shown some love. The Sagrada Familia is a building that Barcelona’s beloved Antoni Gaudi had been working on since 1882, up until the time of his death in 1926. Since then, private patrons and visitors to the unfinished building have funded its completion (picture 5). Trying to think of a similar comparison here in Michigan, I could only imagine how unreal it would be to have people paying to see an incomplete Ren Cen, with their dollars going to complete the Coach Insignia in Detroit. And yet there's a respect and an appreciation for architecture that's far from finished in Barcelona.

On the topic of what should be preserved and what should not, I chat with an expert on the topic - Russ Collins, CEO of the Michigan Theater. "Every theater can't be saved", he says pointedly. And then he throws me a curve ball. "You know, when you think about it, one of the most architecturally significant buildings in this area is Briarwood Mall." What?!?! "It's not something you would consider ordinarily, but it was a great design by Alfred Taubmann [the man whose namesake belongs to the university's Architecture and Urban Planning school.] He pioneered the modern shopping mall design in the '70s, and that's about when Briarwood was built."

Russ was right. Things in the United States that were built in the '60s and '70s are not regarded as 'historic' but just plain 'dated'. We talked about Briarwood's future. The possibility that, in another 20 years when interest in the huge shopping mall experience has completely ebbed, whether or not people would be rallying to "Save Our Malls!" Someone please get me a t-shirt and a bumper sticker a.s.a.p.

Russ also praises the preservation of such significant buildings as the Detroit Opera House and the Fox. But he says that it's not Detroit or Ann Arbor theaters that need the most help. When your only historic theater closes down in a town like Flint, that's the real tragedy.

Public squares

Marseille could rely on its port as a hub of urban activity (picture 6). Even though one French teenager told us in heavily accented English, "You’re so lucky to live in America, Marseille is shit", you can't take his hormonal word for it when people are bustling around the shops and buying fresh fish.

Kerrytown on a nice Saturday is what you're going for. Minimal vehicle traffic, open air markets, lots of reason for interaction. Las Ramblas and Placa Real in Barcelona, however, take this vibe to a whole new level. Imagine the connected, sociable, exploratory environment fostered around the Farmer's Market in the summer – then add some club music and move this to the nightlife. That's Las Ramblas. Shops and restaurants are open until 4 a.m.. You can dance, hang, eat, and drink all the while, and even the homeless men speak five languages. (Author's note: true story. Before asking for change, one man asked the Austrians we'd met whether they spoke French, Italian, Arabic, or German)

I would even settle for a nice Ponte Vecchio-like experience in Florence (picture 7). This bridge that spans the Arno river is a place for strolling, perusing the jewelry merchants who've set up shop there, and catching some live music from the same guitarist who has busked on that bridge since the 70s. Ann Arbor doesn't even allow street performers at the Art Fair any longer. I've always thought of buskers as a good indicator of a downtown's vibrancy. While we're not exactly pulling in the street performers by the busload, I’m sure happy to see the guy that’s been playing the pink bass near The Ark lately.

Audible sigh. Ann Arbor is never going to be Barcelona, and that's okay. I certainly love what we do have here and consider it special and unique. If it weren't that way, I wouldn't return from my travels. But I think there are a few pages in Europe's book of urban development that we should borrow. After all, the Constitution clearly states that we're out to"…form a more perfect union… insure domestic tranquility… promote the general welfare". I’d consider my welfare promoted with a little more public art. What about you?

Kate Rose is an MSU grad and native Michigander. Her day job is at Google; her views here are her own. Her previous article for Concentrate was Know Y: Part II of Young and Entrepreneurial

Send comments here.
Signup for Email Alerts