Why Dutch & Japanese Cities Are Insanely Well Designed (and American Cities Are Terribly Designed)

Pity the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca: despite its eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and mil­i­tary dom­i­nance of so much of the world, it strug­gles to build cities that mea­sure up with the cap­i­tals of Europe and Asia. The likes of New York, Los Ange­les, and Chica­go offer abun­dant urban life to enjoy, but also equal­ly abun­dant prob­lems. Apart from the crime rates for which Amer­i­can cities have become fair­ly or unfair­ly noto­ri­ous, there’s also the mat­ter of urban design. Sim­ply put, they don’t feel as if they were built very well, which any Amer­i­can will feel after return­ing from a trip to Ams­ter­dam or Tokyo — or after watch­ing the videos on those cities by Dan­ish Youtu­ber OBF.

In Ams­ter­dam, OBF says, “com­muters will use their bikes to get to and enter tran­sit sta­tions, where they sim­ply park their bikes in these enor­mous bike-park­ing garages. Then they’ll trav­el on either a bus, tram, or train to their final des­ti­na­tion, but most of the time, the fastest and most con­ve­nient option is sim­ply tak­ing the bike to the final des­ti­na­tion.”

Near-impos­si­ble to imag­ine in the Unit­ed States, this preva­lence of cycling is a real­i­ty in not just the Dutch cap­i­tal but also in oth­er cities across the coun­try, which boasts 32,000 kilo­me­ters of bike lanes in total. And those count as only one of the infra­struc­tur­al glo­ries cov­ered in OBF’s video “Why the Nether­lands Is Insane­ly Well Designed.”

Tokyo, too, has its fair share of cyclists. When­ev­er I’m over there, I take note of all the well-dressed moms bik­ing their young chil­dren to school in the morn­ing, who cut fig­ures in the stark­est pos­si­ble con­trast to their Amer­i­can equiv­a­lents. But what real­ly under­lies the Japan­ese cap­i­tal’s dis­tinc­tive­ly intense urban­ism, lit­er­al­ly as well as fig­u­ra­tive­ly, is its net­work of sub­way trains. OBF takes the pre­ci­sion-engi­neered effi­cien­cy and the impec­ca­ble main­te­nance of this sys­tem as his main sub­ject in “Why Tokyo Is Insane­ly Well Designed.” But enough about good city design; what accounts for bad city design, espe­cial­ly in a rich coun­try like the U.S.?

OMF has an answer in one word: park­ing. Philadel­phia, for exam­ple, sup­plies its 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple with 2.2 mil­lion park­ing spaces. The con­se­quent defor­ma­tion of the city’s built envi­ron­ment, clear­ly vis­i­ble in aer­i­al footage, both sym­bol­izes and per­pet­u­ates the hege­mo­ny of the auto­mo­bile. That same con­di­tion once afflict­ed the Euro­pean and Asian cities that have since designed their way out of it and then some. While “some peo­ple might think it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to imple­ment these meth­ods into oth­er coun­tries,” says OBF, they “can be repli­cat­ed any place in the world if the peo­ple and lead­er­ship are will­ing to col­lab­o­rate and lis­ten to one anoth­er, and invest in infra­struc­ture that is people‑, environment‑, and future-cen­tered.” As an Amer­i­can liv­ing in a non-Amer­i­can city, I here­by invite him to come have a ride on the Seoul Metro.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Pub­lic Tran­sit Sucks in the Unit­ed States: Four Videos Tell the Sto­ry

Ani­ma­tions Visu­al­ize the Evo­lu­tion of Lon­don and New York: From Their Cre­ation to the Present Day

Why Europe Has So Few Sky­scrap­ers

Ani­mat­ed GIFs Show How Sub­way Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & Lon­don Com­pare to the Real Geog­ra­phy of Those Great Cities

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Designs the Ide­al City: See 3D Mod­els of His Rad­i­cal Design

The Utopi­an, Social­ist Designs of Sovi­et Cities

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Nerf says:

    All you need to do is have your cities destroyed entire­ly dur­ing the 1940’s and then rebuild them with no input from any­one oth­er than who­ev­er decides what they want it to work like. Right? As opposed to 300 years of infra­struc­ture built up on top of itself? I know Rome is a famous­ly well planned city, eh? What about Athens? Oh those? Yeah, a mess…

  • Rudolf says:

    Don’t think Amer­i­can and Dutch cities are com­pa­ra­ble, because they’re not. Dutch cities have NOT been designed, they have formed organ­i­cal­ly from small towns, which is why their cen­tres are gen­er­al­ly cir­cu­lar. I have nev­er been to the USA, so I can’t com­ment on those cities, but my impres­sion is that their cities have been built on a grid. I see no prob­lem with that, it is very organ­ised. The thing that’s wrong with their urban design, is that impor­tant facil­i­ties like super­mar­kets are often not locat­ed near enough to the peo­ple. I have read that peo­ple have to dri­ve to get to the super­mar­ket (as you said, designed for cars). That is just crazy. And don’t get me start­ed on the dif­fer­ing qual­i­ty in neigh­bour­hoods due to past seg­re­ga­tion (in Hol­land we have some bad neigh­bour­hoods, too, though).
    Urban design is sub­jec­tive, though. Depends on what you think is impor­tant, con­ve­nience for res­i­dents or the auto­mo­bile indus­try.

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