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.