Google Street View Shows The Merits Of Urban Density


It seems as if anything and everything pertaining to suburban sprawl and its detrimental impact on American society has been well researched and reported over the past few years. We know Americans are driving less. We are quite familiar with the trend of Americans returning to urban cores across the country, and the death of the suburban mall is happening before our eyes.

Unfortunately, few appear to be swayed by facts anymore. Anecdotes are favored over research. I personally can recall a conversation with an exurban Cleveland representative who justified connected parking to help rebuild the city’s urban core because it was convenient and allegedly works fine in Tokyo. Yes, the same Tokyo, Japan with 13.1 million residents (35.7 million metro) and 16,000 citizens per square mile compared to Cleveland’s 400,000 residents (2.1 million metro) and 5,000 Clevelanders per square mile.

Instead of commenting on another hackneyed sustainability study, I decided to try the old adage, “seeing is believing.” What does a bike-and-pedestrian-friendly city look like? Surely, without swaths of urban land dedicated to parking, cities focused on cyclists and pedestrians are destined to become ghost towns.

A simple Google Street View trip across European and American cities shows what modern U.S. planners have been trying to hammer home for the past decade – if you build it, they will come, as they say.

Detroit, Michigan

Population: 701,475, down from 1,849,568 in 1950

Population: 701,475, down from 1,849,568 in 1950

A popular image to come out of the Detroit bankruptcy announcement was that of a Google Maps aerial comparing the Motor City to neighboring Windsor. Anyone could see the urban freeways are plentiful in Detroit while Windsor remains relatively unscathed.

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Unsurprisingly, the Detroit landscape is riddled with parked cars. People, honest to God people, are a rare commodity on the sidewalks of the city.


Amsterdam, Netherlands

Population: 802,938, up from 695,221 in 1990

Amsterdam provides a stark contrast to Detroit in regards to what you can do with close to a million people.

Drop into the heart of the city and you’ll find narrow streets lined with thriving businesses, people and bikes. Contrary to Detroit and many other American metros, cars are the rare commodities.

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Zoom out for an overview of the greater Amsterdam area and you’ll find what looks almost like a protective rim around the city center. Freeways seem to be restricted to the outskirts of the city, smartly sacrificing commuter convenience for the integrity of the city itself.

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American motorists might look around an aerial of Amsterdam and wonder where all the surface parking is. Good luck. It’s essentially an urban European version of Where’s Waldo. Instead you’ll find historic buildings and corridors left intact for people to enjoy. For surface parking, turn back to Detroit.

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Of course Detroit is the extreme example of how developing for cars has proved fatal for cities. But when looking at the two opposing extremes of Detroit and Amsterdam, where would you rather live? Feel free to play this game yourself. Drop in to Geneva, Dublin, Paris and even chilly Oslo. You’ll find more of the same, including that protective rim around the urban core from freeways that seemingly serve as a vibrancy vacuum.

Back in the United States these vacuums and surface parking lots are plentiful, even in cities we like to trumpet as models of walkability and sustainable planning like Portland and Minneapolis. Only Manhattan seems to have (just barely) escaped the grasp of urban freeways.

Pay Attention

None of this is meant to be taken seriously from a research point of view. City limits vary drastically from city-to-city within the United States let alone outside the continent, thus density and population numbers are surely skewed to some extent. Not to mention, there are a myriad of factors to consider in the life and death of a city. Nor is this a ringing endorsement for all things Europe. They have plenty to figure out on their end, like how they plan on employing the next generation of workers.

But these pictures cannot be dismissed. Clearly our American taste for fast and wide thoroughfares has taken life out of the cores of our respective cities. And now that younger generations can see what vibrancy is like abroad, that aforementioned taste for asphalt is souring.

To our leaders: Now will you pay attention to that boring ole research?

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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