An American in an Average European Town

France Rear GardenAs I move through my European vacation, the inclination to look for evidence of sustainability (or its absence) is all but reflexive. Years ago I wrote about European standards in sustainability being naturally higher than ours in America after I spent a week in London. With the opportunity to venture across the Atlantic again I was eager to see if my second experience would uphold my first impressions.

Though my trip is comprised of a few different stops across the continent, the place where I am spending the most time is Perpignan, France. Located in the south of the country, the small city is about an hour away from Montpellier and a two hour train ride from Barcelona, Spain. At first glance the city fills most of the preconceived notions that the average American would have of a European town: blocks of aged masonry buildings 4 to 6 stories in height, small shops lining slim streets filled with small cars. Around 125,000 people call the city home as of 2009 within an area of a little more than 26 square miles, making it comparable to American cities like Syracuse, New York or Hartford, Connecticut. It seemed to be a fair choice for a random litmus test of European, or at least French, cultural norms.

As expected, the city is well connected to destinations outside of its borders. Its airport can take passengers all over Europe. A healthy network of buses provide a convenient and viable option for traversing the city without a car and the newly renovated train station brings access to not only regional trains, but the TGV as well–France’s high speed rail. As a note, I also noticed glass-integrated PVs over the atrium of the train station as well. Here, the high speed rail is not a silver bullet for travel, but a component of an ecology of alternative transit.

On one hand, the city does not scream sustainability. It is not as though every buildings produces its own power or its streets are dominated by only electric vehicles. However, a more intimate look unearths a series of basic qualities that most American cities have yet to emulate.

While there are plenty of cars on the streets, the vast majority of them are small and compact, undoubtedly making them more efficient then the average American automobile. SUVs are thankfully very difficult to find and I haven’t spotted a single Hummer while I have been here. More importantly, the presence of cars does not negate the walkability of the city. Most local destinations and errands can be accessed by a short walk, giving the streets a pedestrian life that keeps them safe and the local shops active.

Smaller cars, combined with a network of one-way traffic, also makes for smaller streets. American city planning devotes a great deal of square-footage to providing vehicular manuverability that ultimately pushes things farther apart and makes walking that much more difficult. Small streets help ingrain the pedestrian scale that Europe is famous for while allowing for a more densely packed downtown fabric. This is why an American city like Sarasota, Florida that is almost exactly the same size (with a comparable climate) has only 73% of the population density even with its tall ocean side towers of condominiums. Density lies at the core of sustainable planning.

I also noticed how frequently the small yards, either in front or in back of a home, are used for fruit-bearing plants. Citrus trees are very popular with lemons, oranges, cumquats and grapefruits seemingly popping up on every corner. Though perhaps once a more common occurrence in America when victory gardens were prevalent after the second World War, growing a portion of your food on your own land can make a meaningful difference in the health of one’s diet not to mention help displace the heavy carbon footprint that comes with the bulk of our nation’s produce.

I was fortunate enough to stay with a great family in the center of town and I found the experience at the home level to be a continuation of my time on the streets. Though not a posterchild of sustainable design, many of the easy opportunities for improvement were capitalized on. Toilets were of the dual-flush variety (as they have proved to be throughout my trip). Light fixtures were fashioned with CFLs or LEDs. Hot water impressively came from solar thermal panels on the roof. Though there may be no game-changing technology, the basic standards show more signs of evolution. Most Americans have not yet realized that there is a great deal to accomplish between where we are now and a sea of net-zero homes. a series of basic changes can amount to a significant result and our homes are rife with opportunities for improvement after 40 years of consistent energy consumption.

The Blessing and Curse of Age

One could argue that some of these planning characteristics are the result of the old building fabric that predates the majority of America’s built environment. However, in some ways, when it comes to creating a greener urban landscape the age of the city’s buildings is their Achilles Heel.

A walk through the city reveals many of the common problems that older buildings have with a transition to a modern, more efficient, existence. Things like wall and roof insulation are less common and certainly not up to today’s level of possibility. Even building materials like terra cotta blocks or concrete masonry units (CMUs) have more efficient successors coming into regular use that do a better job at negating the use of energy to temper space and better utilizing the energy once its been used.

Windows and doors are another sore spot that carry both meaningful consequences and costly remedies. The high quality in craftsmanship and materials have kept many of them still in use today. The downside is that not only are many of them ripe for air leaks but they are virtually guaranteed to have single-paned glass–something considered to be archaic in many parts of the U.S. Punctures in the exterior wall are a prime opportunity for energy loss, but windows and doors can be expensive, especially with the goal of replicating historical conditions and their custom sizes. None of these problems are unique to Europe, but a higher average age can make it more of an issue than it is for a larger, younger country across the Atlantic.

Thus far, my opinion of Europe has not changed. Evidence points to a population more willing to make easy, effortless changes to daily norms in order to arrive at a more positive outcome. When it comes to sustainability, Americans still have plenty to learn.