Cities With a Heart
American travelers to Europe find themselves particularly charmed by the vitality of the Continent's plazas and squares. Open areas carved from dense neighborhoods, they are markets by day and restaurants by night. Strangers connect; people-watching abounds. In Venice, the Piazza San Marco's delights inspired Napoleon to call it "the finest drawing room in Europe."
Why aren't these outdoor salons more common in America? It's partly because we aren't 1,000 years old. The United States expanded in the automobile age as single-use subdivisions supplanted integrated city centers-separating home, work, and play. Cars became essential in an environment that stretched beyond human scale.
But this seemingly "American" pattern might simply be a modern variant on a cycle that has affected all prosperous cities. "Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America," writes Robert Bruegmann in Sprawl: A Compact History. He cites London's Westminster and Whitehall-leafy 18th-century suburbs that became part of London's Central West End as the city grew.
Even a work of unified beauty like the Piazza San Marco required centuries to evolve. "The reason you think Venice is so great today is you don't see all the mistakes," writes social historian Joel Garreau. "They've all been torn down."
Perhaps America simply needs to fill out along the latticework of roads enmeshing the nation.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.