In 1999, author and educator Timothy Beatley’s book Green Urbanism caused something of a stir in the environmental design disciplines and beyond. While not the first introduction the U.S. has had to foreign concepts such as cohousing and Dutch woonerfs, the book and its authors subsequent appearances on the lecture circuit did a great deal to popularize the topic. Its timing was critical as well, coming out as more domestic cities were becoming interested in sustainable building technologies and techniques and as the LEED rating system was gaining steam and becoming established.
Now, over a decade later, Beatley has produced an edited volume that serves as a sort-of sequel to Green Urbanism. In Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism (2012; Island Press; 248 pp.; $35), Beatley provides the introductory and concluding chapters of the book where he sets forth his argument for looking to European cities as sustainable models, as they are generally ahead of the U.S. although he notes that much progress has been made domestically since Green Urbanism. In the intervening chapters, seven experts write on the environmental efforts in their respective cities from across Europe. While Cities isn’t likely be revelatory to many the way Urbanism was to many, what it does offer is a more nuanced view of how sustainability efforts are implemented in specific locales as opposed to the previous text which tended to focus on details such as green roofs and show various examples from across Europe.
The results are occasionally surprising. Take for example Copenhagen, which according to contributor Michaela Bruel has a long history of green regional planning dating back to the 1930s and to a 1947 “green fingers” plan that remains influential. One might assume that a city with a history of green planning would have an expansive transit system by now (which many European cities do), but that’s not necessarily the case. Building a metro system there has been discussed for decades, but it remains unbuilt because no organization or public agency has been willing to foot the considerable bill for it. In addition, traffic congestion remains an issue there, and that combined with a high residential density also causes noise issues throughout the city.
Also intriguing are the cultural insights which go a long way to explain why efforts in Europe may be more successful than they are here. For example, contributors Luis Andres Orive and Rebeca Dios Lima note that pedestrian and greenbelt efforts in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain are successful due in no small part to the local tradition of taking walks for recreation and for the general outdoor-oriented culture as opposed to the U.S.’s indoors-oriented culture. Cultural habits aren’t helpful everywhere, however, as Maria Jaakkola notes in her chapter on Helsinki that the city’s traffic problems are due in part to the Finnish tradition of having vacation homes in the countryside, which result in increased vehicle trips in and out of the city. Particularly fascinating is the chapter on Venice, which explicates the challenges engendered by that city’s aquatic transportation system.
Challenges and difficulties aside, Beatley makes a convincing argument supporting his contention that European cities are world leaders in sustainability efforts. While it’s a shorter volume overall, and is less likely to cause as much of a stir as Beatley’s previous text, Green Cities offers detailed insights into what some of the leading European cities are doing to promote sustainability, offering new and updated information that avoids simply becoming a rehash of Green Urbanism. As such, it offers important and valuable information to those who are interested in the topic.