Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What are the differences between the American and German ways of living, but in the town planning context? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread. Thank you to the team at Quora for making this happen!
This is an area where I don’t take sides. I love the German way when I am in Europe, but also understand and appreciate the American urban system.
1. General layout
An American quickly notices that German towns and cities, in addition to being walkable, are less likely to have a grid pattern that characterizes parts and often the whole urban structure of most American towns and cities that are not remnants of the 18th Century. This allows for some of the easy numbering systems that you see. In Minneapolis, streets are numbered in some areas and named alphabetically in others.
The typical German town is likely to have a much more organic structure. Smaller towns still have narrow roads that were built for horse-drawn carts, not Mercedes automobiles. It is both charming and inconvenient, especially when a pedestrian zone, which was not part of the original town pattern until the late 20th century, is included.
2. Traffic Flow
Because American urban culture is, as others have noted, designed for a car culture, urban planners have focused on easy access to central districts and quick exit of the same. It is usual for a city to have a whole pattern of expressways that both encircles and crosses the city, linking suburbs and exurbs to the metropolitan area.
Driving out of a larger German city, like Munich or Cologne, involves finding those streets that eventually lead to the expressways. It is a different sort of experience than jumping onto one next to a major parking garage in the city center. Once out of the city center, both countries have a wonderful nationwide automobile transportation system. Most Americans dream of driving on a speed limit free Autobahn sometime in their driving lives.
German cities have set boundaries. It is not surprising to get to the edge of a large city like Berlin and notice high rises on one side of a road and farmland on the other that stretches out for miles. What this seems to create is a cityscape that, while lacking skyscrapers, has a large vertical dimension. Most people seem to inhabit high rise buildings as the city has always grown up instead of out.
American cities, particularly those that are not limited by a coastal “wall,” tend to grow out rather than up. While the cityscape will generally include some very tall buildings at the center that are surrounded by high-rises for urban types, neighborhoods very quickly turn into single-family homes on lots that are increasingly larger as you leave the center core. In addition, a city like Chicago or Minneapolis will be surrounded by scores of suburbs, each with their unique shopping core and housing pattern. Some will be grids while others will be cul-de-sacs.
There is an American Lifestyle, constantly moderating, that is driving the urban landscape. One trend that seems to be occurring right now is the gentrification of the urban core.
I sense a slower pace of change in Germany. Yes, there are shopping areas where you drive to but the same dependence on public transportation and urban street life is consistent over time.
The only real change seems to be the slow disappearance of bratwurst stands and their replacement by kebab stands and American fast food outlets in most urban settings. But fewer of the fast food outlets offer drive-through service. That would be a killer in the USA.