As a planner, I pay attention to how other areas have developed and how the transportation is organized. As a foodie, I want to know what and how they eat. As a former college economics major, I am curious about how their economies are organized. And as a tourist, I want to have fun and enjoy the surroundings.
So it was with great anticipation that Maria and I set out for a 15 day, 3 country, 1800-mile trek through northern and eastern France with side trips to Belgium and Holland.
The differences in the way we develop the land compared to Europe always amaze me. As someone who professionally rails against housing and shopping centers sprawling across the landscape and consuming valuable farmland, I marvel at how well the French and Dutch have combated sprawl and preserved their agriculture (the Belgians – not so much).
You can drive for miles through countryside and agricultural land and see nary a gas station or strip mall and then - wham - the speed limit drops to 30 MPH and you’re crawling through a village until you pop out the other side and resume travelling at 55 MPH. This development pattern may speak to the lack of growth pressure in these villages, but it also is indicative of the premium the French put on preserving viable agriculture and consuming fresh produce. They do not appear to allow farmland to be converted to subdivisions very easily.
In Paris, motor scooters and motorcycles abound, while in Amsterdam there are more bicycles than cars. And we saw virtually no drivers talking on cell phones.
The economy of France is much more localized and smaller scale than ours. Other than the occasional McDonald’s, there are no chains to speak of. That results in every village having a great local patisserie (bakery) and café. The downside of this smaller-scale decentralized economy is undoubtedly higher cost and fewer choices, but the upside is fewer Walmarts. Take your choice.
Taxes are high, but roads are good and streets are clean. Public workers washed down the sidewalks in front of our Paris hotel every morning. All European societies place a greater emphasis on serving society as opposed to our emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities.
Read the entire article in the November, 2011 issue of the South Coast Insider