European cities unite their urban systems, heritage

Christine Tomlinson

The economic union of European nations marks an epochal shift in the political, economic and social culture of urban Europe, said Paul Knox, a keynote speaker for this weekend’s Second Annual Great Lakes Consortium for European Studies.
The three-day conference covered issues of national traditions in Europe and the urban systems working in a changing European culture. Presentations at the conference ranged from film and popular culture to the crisis of the underclass in Europe and the competition of urban areas in the European Union.
The aim of the sponsors of the event, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is to consolidate their scholarship on the broad issues of Europe.
Roger Miller, the director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Minnesota, said the conference is intended to “get people talking to one another; working in areas that are complimentary.”
Most of the discussions focused on how the urban condition in Europe could be seen in American terms.
“Europe is simply a wonderful laboratory for the study of culture, the study of politics, of history, the study of society,” said W. Phillips Shively, provost of arts, sciences and humanities, in his introductory remarks at the conference.
“The city is becoming a motor of redevelopment and change and restructuring in a way that it wasn’t a couple of decades ago,” said Knox, a University distinguished professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech.
Knox referred to his hometown of Portsmouth, England to illustrate regional regeneration in Europe through architecture and the emphasis on building up sites of cultural heritage.
The town has sponsored projects to rediscover its heritage by renovating a castle in the city and displaying historical battleships. “The emphasis at the level of the European Union, the emphasis in Brussels, is pretty much on cultural vitality and the implementation of heritage,” Knox said.
The economic impact of the European Union was addressed at the conference. The effect of intra-urban competition between what Knox described as “world cities” and the less developed urban regions was discussed by Linda McCarthy, a doctoral candidate in the University’s geography department and an assistant professor at the University of Toledo.
McCarthy said less-developed urban areas could get lost in the competition of the European Union. But, she said reducing trade barriers helps the weakest cities grow economically.
“One of the things which may come out of this discussion is the notion of a comparative dimension, looking at how things develop,” said Professor Eric Sheppard of the geography department.
Andrew Lainsbury, a doctoral candidate from the University and former “Imagineer” for the Walt Disney Company, addressed the question of American cultural influence in Europe. Arguing that there is a difference between cultural globalization and cultural homogenization, Lainsbury said Disneyland-Paris was reinvented for a multinational audience.
“When we think of Cinderella, we think of the Disney version. In Europe, they have a different perspective,” said Lainsbury. Many Disney fairytales were first European folklore.