Thursday, November 18th, 2010

European Urban Quality of Life

This post has been sitting in my draft file for a while, but over the summer the European Union put out a study on perceptions of quality of life in European cities that was interesting. The study involved surveying people in 75 cities across Europe (including a few in non-EU countries like Turkey) and asking them what they thought about various aspects of life in their city.

This is interesting to me because as Americans we typically experience these cities as tourists. We stay in hotels in the historic core, we travel to a circumscribed list of sites, well served by transit, well-policed, and well-patronized. But that can give a warped and misleading view of what it would be like to live there. While perception isn’t always reality, it is interesting to me to see what Europeans like and don’t like about their cities.

On the positive side, Europeans generally feel positively about:

  • Cultural Facilities
  • Public Spaces
  • Beauty of Streets and Buildings
  • Public Transport
  • Quality of Health Services (in northern Europe)

A small majority in most cities believed that the presence of foreigners was good for their city, though significantly fewer felt foreigners were well-integrated. This is an interesting finding given the news that makes its way to America about some of the immigrant issues there.

On the negative side, residents did not like:

  • The Job Market
  • Availability of Affordable Quality Housing
  • Poverty

There were also pockets of specific types of dissatisfaction. All Italian cities thought air pollution was a major problem. All German cities but Munich were negative on the quality of city administrative services. Whether these geographic specific findings are legitimate or a result of cultural factors I don’t know. I do know that when my IT group did global customer satisfaction surveys, we implicitly normalized the scores on a geographic basis since some countries were more inclined to give high scores than others. (This was reflected in a broad range of survey types).

It’s an easy to scan report, so worth checking out if you are curious about how Europeans feel about their own cities. You can compare it to how you feel about yours. The only obnoxious thing about it is the use of native spellings of city names rather than using English names. But you should be able to figure it out.

8 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture

8 Responses to “European Urban Quality of Life”

  1. Danny says:

    There are plenty of great things about Europe, and I wish we could all move to secure those great things, without sacrificing the great things about the US. Unfortunately, when people suggest we move in the direction of Europe, they are only seeing the Tourist Europe.

    When we hit 10% employment, we all cried in pain like our world was crumbling. When people suggest that we move to European style labor protections, do they not realize that 8-10% unemployment is considered normal there?

    Or similarly, social services. I am of the opinion that we need a higher level of social services in this country, but when people here demand higher social services just like Europe, they usually think that we could do it just by taxing the rich a little bit more. Do they not realize that European tax laws ensure that even the bottom quintiles have to pay significant portions of their income to support them?

    Studies like these need to become more common. Europe isn’t bad, they just do things differently. If we demand their benefits without understanding their costs, we will make very poor choices for ourselves.

  2. Eric says:

    I actually just got back from a week in Germany today and had been thinking about this topic quite a lot. I spent some time in Offenburg, an apparently typical small city of about 60,000 about 150 miles south of Frankfurt.

    The people I know there think if it as a pleasant, but ordinary and boring place. From an American perspective, it’s an urbanist paradise. There are dedicated bike lanes all over, high-speed rail links to Frankfurt, Munich and Switzerland. Street-scaping is uniformly top-quality and many new sidewalks use pavers, not asphalt. Basically, the sidewalks, lighting and planters look like what you would see in a very wealthy suburb or resort area in the U.S. The city center is walkable and dense and busy with shops and restaurants. The building stock is historic and well maintained. If this was a U.S. city, there would be magazine profiles about what an amazing place it is, probably calling it Portland on Steroids or something. You can get to the Black Forest or the Alps in a morning’s travel. So what’s interesting is that the German company I was visiting there has a little bit of trouble finding talent since it’s seen as such an ordinary place.

    The difference in the apparent quality of life in Offenburg and someplace like Austin–a place that gets talked up for having a high quality of life–is so dramatic that its almost shocking. How is this disparity between an ordinary German town and a booming American one so huge?

  3. Alon Levy says:

    8-10% unemployment is considered normal in France and Italy, which are pre-recession Europe’s two biggest underperformers. In Germany it’s considered fairly high, and in Scandinavia it’s considered extremely high.

  4. Eric G says:

    Urban Europe vs Urban USA

    This is something that most of us urban enthusiasts have most likely pondered many times in our lives, and although European cities *do* have their issues, it goes without saying that the European urban model is superior. Not because Europeans are “better” or “smarter” than Americans, but because they didn’t adopt our post-WWII mass-suburbanization auto-centric experiment that ended up being such a disaster…social disaster, economic disaster, inefficient use of land and resources, and so on. Unfortunately, because most Americans today grew up in this post-WWII world, we don’t know any different.

    American cities were never *quite* European cities…American cities before WWII had their own charm and character and development patterns…but they were still REAL cities back then, with density and neighborhood life, much like European cities today. So American cities need to go back to what they were, in the golden age of American cities, before the 1950s.

    One big part of the problem is that Americans lack the type of civic pride that Europeans have. We seem more content with OUR homes, OUR lawns, OUR cars, and we don’t care for public spaces, public squares, beautiful avenues, and beautiful buildings facing those avenues…as long as I have access to a movie theater, or mall, and I can drive to these places, then I just don’t care! Unfortunately, I think that this is the mentality that most Americans have, yet paradoxically, we love to spend a weekend in New York or San Francisco, or a Friday night in Chicago, or twelve days touring London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome…so Americans have this paradoxical duality where we embrace the status quo of post-WWII suburban America (and can’t imagine life being different from this norm), but have have this guilty pleasure that we love to visit traditional cities as a passtime. But if someone proposes more city-friendly policies, we get all up in arms about it.

    @Danny

    I *generally* agree with you on the labour protections in Europe, although it’s important to differentiate between individual countries. Labour protections are a good thing, so long as they’re functional and sensible, and don’t make the labour market rigid. In countries where these policies need reform (mostly southern Europe: ES, PT, FR, IT, GR…and maybe we can add Germany and Belgium too, I don’t know enough about the labour policies in DE and BE)…in these countries, the policies are in dire need of reform, because they’ve basically become protection rackets for those already employed, and exclusionary to those just joining the work force. In these countries, 8-10% unemployment is the norm as just as you mentioned. In countries where the labour markets re more flexible, then unemployment is usually lower. Unemployment tends to be lower in SE, NL, FI, although there’s probably additional factors as well (and note that these countries actually have larger social welfare systems than the former). The US isn’t necessarily a good model, however, where we normally have very low unemployment -true- but we also have chronic *under*employment, which tends to go unreported. So, there needs to be some happy medium between the two.

    On taxing the rich a little bit more, that’s something that can be debated without end, as I’m sure we can all come up with subjective arbitrary limits of what would be considered too much taxation on a wealthy individual. And I’m saying this from a strictly pragmatic POV, not an ideological one. Obviously, tax them too much, and they’ll take their money abroad. But tax them too little, and you’re left unable to balance budgets (and pay for things like defense), let alone gross disparities between the rich and the poor, leaving the poor with no access to public education, public transit, and the like. Again, there needs to be a balance between allowing a free market to flourish and drive individuals to work for themselves and be innovative, but also addressing the undeserved inequalities caused by such a system (teachers, for example, are important hard-working members of society, but don’t get paid much, so we as a society should pitch in and transfer some wealth to these individuals, like provide them public healthcare…just a hypothetical example. I *know* most teachers work for the public sector). And where that tax rate for the rich is set is pretty much supply-and-demand, and *should* be seen as supply-and-demand, and not through an ideological lens. So, again, it’s about balance. Unfortunately, this sensible mindset is slowly disappearing in America, where we assume that higher taxes for the rich means food stamps for lazy baby mama’s…when in fact it goes towards things like public transit, social security for grandma, roads, fire and police depts, public schools and universities, tax exemptions for first-time homebuyers, and so on and so forth….the VAST majority of Americans have needed public assistance at some point in their lives, but we don’t recognize it. Single-payer health insurance (basically, Medicare for all….like in Europe), wouldn’t be such a disaster.

    :)

  5. Jo says:

    “Obnoxious” seems a bit strong for the courtesy of using the actual names of the cities rather than the English versions… It is, after all, an official EU report not a “digest for Americans”. Still, an interesting report, thanks for sharing.

  6. Eric G says:

    @Jo

    Ditto. The European Union publishes internal reports like this all the time. It’s meant for Europeans to read, not for Americans. And while someone in, say, Germany may be perfectly proficient in English, he may be more familiar with the Italian names of Italian cities (like Firenze), rather than their English names (Florence, etc).

  7. James says:

    Interesting- at least the Europeans have all the “positives” to enjoy. Americans deal with none of the positives, but still all of the negatives.

    Also, Europeans happily tolerate 8-9 percent unemployment because they have a strong safety net – nobody in Europe is going to go bankrupt (or die) for lack of health insurance during an employment drought. In America, well, you know what will happen.

    The reality is that the highest quality of life today is not in the United States – it is in Western Europe, more specifically Scandinavia, but not excluding France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

  8. Eric G says:

    @James,

    Despite the bad press recently, and the American stereotype that Southern Europe is “poor”, add Southern Europe to your list. In quality of life rankings, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal may not rank as high as Scandinavia, but they’re always on par with Germany, Belgium, and France. The US is too, actually, when you look at the *average* and don’t take unequal wealth distribution into account.

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