PARIS. Just outside the dense suburban ring encircling Paris, a scene unfolds that is extraordinary to most visitors from America’s major cities: Development abruptly ends and the French countryside begins, complete with postcard-perfect farmhouses, green pastures, villages and rural roads lined by ancient trees.
The French have a kinder, gentler word for this scene of suburban sprawl: éparpillement, or “scattering.” It’s a subdued but appropriate term to describe outward growth, Parisian-style. There are no seas of cookie-cutter homes. No endless strings of shopping centers and strip malls. No parade of two-car garages, basketball hoops and backyard pools.
Suburbs look and feel like cities, crisscrossed by subways, buses and trains. They’re thriving towns with plenty of small shops but few mega-stores or supermarkets. While McDonald’s restaurants are popping up throughout France, in a suburb such as Saint-Germain-en-Laye, it’s the smell of freshly baked baguettes and brioches – not burgers – that wafts through the cobbled streets. This typical European urban pattern is the envy of American planners, environmentalists and, increasingly, politicians who worry that suburban sprawl is out of control. In the USA, where people are abandoning closed-in suburbs for more remote areas, where subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers are eating up farmland, the struggle to rein in relentless development farther away from cities is intense.
“Bottling up growth?”, an American visitor to Paris might ask, “Why can you see farmland on the edge of the city from atop the Eiffel Tower, but only a sea of buildings spilling over state lines from the Empire State Building?” Why does Chicago take up more than five times the area as Paris for a similar population? Compacting is key. In a major city such as Paris, there is a tight perimeter that bottles up any American-style sprawl. Of the 11 million people in the Paris metropolitan area, about 86% are packed within a tight 15-mile radius of the city. About 2.2 million live in the city, a 41-square-mile area. Another 7 million-plus live in suburbs within a dozen miles from the city limits. By contrast, in the New York metro area, with a population of 20 million, fewer than half live that close in.
In Paris, the “scattering” starts outside the suburban ring around the city. The Paris metropolitan area fills the entire region of Île-de-France, an area roughly 75 miles by 62 miles. Yet only 1.5 million people, or 14% of the entire metropolitan population, live farther than 15 miles from the city center.
“One minute and a half before the plane lands in Paris, you are over the countryside,” says Guy Burgel, head of the urban geography laboratory at the University of Paris in Nanterre, just outside Paris. “But in the U.S., even if you’re landing in Columbus, Ohio, you’re over suburbia for 15 minutes.”
European countries have traditionally contained suburban sprawl because land is precious here – there’s less of it. France is twice the size of Colorado but has 15 times as many people, about 60 million compared with about 4 million. The average Parisian family lives in cramped quarters. If a family wants more space, it buys a weekend house in the country.
Europe is not immune. The paradox, says Alex Marshall, an urban design expert and fellow at Harvard University, is that visitors to European cities feel there is more space because growth is controlled more tightly. European cities are not immune from sprawl, especially now that the European Union has increased trade across borders. There is pressure to build more highways. High-speed trains allow people to live farther from work. But the strong anti-sprawl policies are not likely to change overnight because the shape of cities is rooted in decades – even centuries – of social, political, and economic policies:
Central control. European countries keep a tight grip on development at the national level. In Britain, landowners do not have an automatic right to build. “There is a national planning policy that is administered at the local level, but development rights have effectively been nationalized,” says David Shaw, senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool’s department of civic design.
In 1965, when French demographers projected that Paris’ metro population would rise from 9 million to 15 million in about 30 years, the government built five villes nouvelles, or new cities. They’re all on the edge of the innermost suburban ring, further tightening the urbanized area around Paris. The government “has complete control over the development around Paris,” Burgel says. As it turns out, population grew by only 2 million because of lower birth rates, the surge of women in the workplace and stricter immigration policies. The new cities each have about 200,000 people instead of the projected 1 million.
And when France decided to build a 75,000-seat stadium, it considered – briefly – a more rural area about 35 miles away from Paris. Instead, it was built in an old industrial suburb less than 10 miles outside the city. “Why didn’t we build it out there?” Burgel asks. “Because there’s no population there, no life there and there was no mass transit.” It was also a way to revitalize a run-down area.
High taxes. Europe tends to tax sales more than earnings. The tax on a new, medium-size car in the Netherlands is about nine times higher than in the USA. “The U.S. tax code, by contrast, favors spending over saving and provides inducements to buy houses” says Pietro Nivola, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
High energy costs force Europeans to live closer to shops and work because they can’t afford to drive long distances every day. Because of heavy taxes, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline costs about $ 4 in much of Western Europe, compared with $1.28 in the USA, according to Energy Détente, an oil-industry newsletter in Camarillo, Calif. Taxes account for 75% of the price in France vs. 30% in the USA. High taxes on home-heating fuels encourage living in apartments and small houses, instead of a typical American three-bedroom-plus-family-room home on its own plot of land.
Farm subsidies. The European Union has an extremely protectionist system designed to keep farmers farming. Import quotas block foreign agricultural products until homegrown supplies run out. Farmers can earn more than half their income from price guarantees and subsidies-and are not as tempted as their U.S. counterparts to sell their property.
“If they really got serious about reducing farm subsidies in the European Union, you would see farmers retiring and selling land to developers just like they do here,” Nivola says.
Love of cities. European cities remain the center of employment, culture and power – and most people want to be as close to them as possible. Pierre André, 39, a project manager for France’s biggest private bank, Société Générale, lives in an old house in a close-in suburb, Neuilly-Sur-Seine. He drives about 3 miles to work in another suburb, La Défense. He is less than 10 miles from the city and wouldn’t have it any other way. “If you live (18-24 miles) away from Paris, you might as well be (180 miles) away,” he says.
As in the USA, homes outside Paris are cheaper, and those who want more space have to move. Some of André’s less-well-off friends live in nouvelles cities such as Saint Quentin en Yvelines, southwest of Paris, where a few American-style subdivisions are popping up. As often as he’s visited his friend, André says he still can’t recognize his house because it looks like all the others on the block. But even those new subdivisions are close to the city, about 16 miles from the center.
Mass transit. Many European countries pour about half their transportation budgets into public transit, according to Nivola. France spent about $ 7.7 billion on mass transit and $ 5 billion on roads in 1999, according to Burgel. This budget year, the United States is spending almost $ 27.7 billion on highways, or five times as much as for mass transit. Better highways cut driving time and make it easier for workers to live farther from cities.
Culture. Europeans do not move as often as Americans do. The USA has one of the highest mobility rates in the world (about 16% of people move every year). “People (in Europe) don’t budge. Even if they’re unemployed for one year, two years, three years, they’ll stay,” Burgel says.
As pressure increases to contain outward growth in the USA, a critical question is whether Americans would really trade their lifestyle and living standard to curb urban sprawl. And with compact European cities wrestling with worsening traffic congestion and mass-transit strikes, just how green are their pastures?
“We can learn lessons about sensible ideas that we might be able to emulate,” Nivola says. “But some are not such good ideas, and we should resist them. Do we want a huge, top-heavy central government, extravagant welfare state whose national tax rates are much higher than ours?” Americans, wary of centralized power, might find that a high price to pay as U.S. planners warm up to a “new urbanism” that looks a lot like Old Europe. “The idea that you can somehow roll back American urban development and convert it back to a European pattern is quixotic,” Nivola says.