Looking Beyond Minnesota (But Beyond Europe, Too)

While Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Minnesota appear at the top of lists for biking, health, literacy, and other enviable qualities, we’re fortunate enough to have at least some policymakers well aware of the lessons we could still learn from our counterparts across the world. In particular, there have been many efforts to apply urban planning practices and ideas most commonly associated with Europe – protected bikeways, shared streets, and (ahem) historic preservation, for example.

While this is a “woonerf-ul” trend, the collective peek over the shoulder of our transatlantic neighbors should only be the beginning. Communities across the world are—on a broad level, at least—coping with many of the same challenges as Minnesotan cities, from Laos to Lesotho and Uruguay to Irkutsk. Insufficient infrastructure, funding gaps, parochialism, and political foot-dragging exist across the world; the economy, like the climate system, is changing everywhere. When it comes to flash floods or congested roads, American exceptionalism simply doesn’t apply.

I write this plea for big-picture thinking with a particular bias, as I am a Minnesotan currently residing in Thailand, working with a major implementer of international development aid projects. In my work and throughout the region, I see cities coping with air pollution, stormwater, dangerous roads, poverty, you name it. Solutions vary, but given that, for example, Minneapolis published its streetcar feasibility study seven years ago and has yet to implement a single line (maybe a good thing), it couldn’t hurt to see if there are any useful lessons from the community-owned LLC developing a tram system in Khon Kaen, Thailand, or to keep one eye on Vientiane, Laos, as it constructs its first bus rapid transit (BRT) lines with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank.

This isn’t an indictment of Minnesotans’ worldliness (we’re doing pretty well), and there are definitely some non-European role models like Curitiba and Bogotá that get the attention they deserve. It’s just a reminder that there is a world’s worth of policies out there that can inspire us, but we’ve got to look for them – and they’re not always dressed in skinny jeans and smoking a cigarette.


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5 Responses to Looking Beyond Minnesota (But Beyond Europe, Too)

  1. Mike Sonn
    Mike Sonn June 16, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    Umm…

  2. Julia June 16, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Totally agree–the tendency to turn only to Europe for inspiration/guidance mirrors a very strong historical trend of Eurocentrism in Minnesota. That kind of intellectual homogeneity/tunnel vision isn’t healthy and we’ll be well-served to be broad in our curiosity and willingness to learn from others.

    In my light reading yesterday, I read about South Korea’s huge decrease in car crash deaths of children between 1992-2012 (maybe we too could have speed limits actually enforced and crosswalks kept clear adjacent to schools!) and a creative smog awareness advertising campaign out of China (we’d be well-served to come up with ways of making visible the direct local costs of emissions, even if we continue to subsidize them). From last week, discussions of Seoul’s reorientation to its river made me think of Bassett Creek while my family talked about ADUs and looked at photos of porch spaces in Hanoi and courtyards in Japan and I listed to friends compare the walkability of Monrovia (Liberia) and Taipei (Taiwan). There’s so much out there besides Europe.

    I’m glad to see this topic being raised on Streets.mn. Increasing space for non-European/Eurocentric voices, experiences, perspectives, and solutions would go a long way to making us a more innovative and stronger region.

  3. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino June 16, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    I just got back from Hamburg where I read this awesome article about reading articles about cities outside Northern Europe, why can’t we do that in Minneapolis??

  4. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini June 16, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

    From a messaging and ‘options-on-the-table’ standpoint, 100% agree. The pro-urban community gets lumped in as Euro-fetishists and it doesn’t help win over people predisposed to fight anything from “over there.”

    As a counter point, there are some advantages to studying Europe vs other parts of the world (***not all will apply to every other place we can compare to). They include:
    – Similar geography for most metro areas (mostly inland cities on flat-ish land around rivers)
    – Mostly similar timeline of industrialization/urbanization and current economic breakout
    – Aside from a few metros, weather patterns aren’t so different that most policies wouldn’t apply
    – Wealth/car ownership rates, effect on construction costs/labor prices/etc for roads/transit/housing (ex. there’s a reason Curitiba BRT may not be as applicable in the US)
    – History of infrastructure investments and city growth/disinvestment
    – Political systems more comparable (and consistent enough over the past 70 years to draw reasonable conclusions of cause/effect)
    – Research materials available (though this should change, per the article)
    – Language barriers (less relevant today than even 10 years ago)
    – Travel costs to Europe vs Asia, Africa, even South America

    • Anders Imboden
      Anders Imboden June 16, 2015 at 9:44 pm #

      To me, a lot of those variables are more useful for their descriptive value than their normative one — i.e., they help explain how we got to where we are, but not so much how to proceed from here.

      And even given the similarities you point out, there are such differences in built environment, political culture, geographic scale, etc., that contradict the perceived equivalence we see with Europe. And even in places that aren’t so similar superficially, there are deeper levels of analysis than the ones we often look at (e.g., maybe the bricks-and-mortar solutions are different, but what about the political or institutional lessons?).

      Policy learning isn’t just about replicating positive role models in our own local context, though that’s one facet of it. There are very valuable lessons to be learned and ideas to be considered in places we don’t so frequently consider. As the old saying goes, “12 million BRT commuters in Brazil can’t be wrong.”