Strasbourg: the Crossroads of Europe

Not for nothing is Strasbourg called “The Crossroads of Europe”.[i] In the Middle Ages, trade routes met here; goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East were exchanged for local wines, grain and fabrics; and traders speaking a dozen different languages met and conducted business. The places where they met became the market places and squares that enliven the city today and provide settings for continued multilingual dialogue.

The historic center has an extraordinarily healthy urban fabric of compact, historic mixed use buildings, high density and diversity of uses, and a great number of squares. In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument site. This was the first time such an honor was given to an entire city center.

Today, Strasbourg is the site of the European Council and European Parliament. As the European Parliament absorbs more Eastern European countries (there are now 46 member states), Latvian and Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian are added to the languages heard on a regular basis in its squares as propositions are discussed, laws are drafted, and negotiations take place at the outdoor cafes and restaurants.

Transportation planning: Strasbourg’s innovative light rail system

During the 1980s, traffic in Strasbourg became increasingly congested near the center of the city. The streets and squares of the city center were filled with traffic and parked cars, and most were unusable for social life, civic dialogue, markets, and festivals.

The historic city center attracts the most commuters and visitors, but streets are narrow and unsuitable for car traffic. Commuters found that time spent on the road was increasing, and parking was becoming problematic. The high energy consumption and other ecological problems of auto dependency were also troubling factors.

The Strasbourg bus service could not be improved sufficiently to relieve the problem. Congestion was causing buses also to be slow and irregular at rush hours.

Air pollution was affecting health and quality of life for those living and working in the city center. The great amount of space taken up by cars negatively affected conditions for those on foot, especially for children, elders and handicapped persons. Cars were being parked on sidewalks, sometimes making it impossible for wheelchairs to pass through, and the volume of traffic made crossing the street extremely difficult. This was rendering it extremely difficult for residents to walk even short distances to reach stores to fulfill their everyday needs.

In 1990, the Strasbourg Urban Area Project advocated an urban transport policy to find a new balance among the different transportation modes in the city. Specifically, it was decided to introduce a new light rail system into and through the city center. This would be reinforced by new inter-modal transportation junctions connecting a re-organized bus system.

This new transportation system would permit the historic city center to become a primarily pedestrian zone, with the light rail running through it. While it would still be possible to drive into the city, through traffic would become impossible. New parking facilities were therefore required at the periphery of the pedestrian zone. Many of the squares and wide streets that, until then, were used for parking, could instead be used for multi-story underground parking and the historic squares could be returned to the pedestrian. This would also increase the available parking for residents in the city center.

By removing traffic in the city center the streets and squares would be enhanced, shopping and other economic activity in the city center would become more attractive.

The plan recognized the need to improve living conditions in the city center in order to maintain – and increase – the residential population downtown. To increase the attractiveness of living downtown, they launched a number of interrelated programs: to rehabilitate old houses; to protect the architectural heritage; to improve public squares and plant trees; to redesign squares in order to make them more hospitable for markets, social and cultural activities; and to facilitate delivery in the city center.

Urban tourism was also recognized as a valuable outcome of this extensive transportation and urban revitalization program.

The light rail selected was a low floor system that, in combination with raised platform offers easy boarding for those in wheelchairs, or those with prams and strollers to board, because it does not entail steps. The design is sleek and comfortable, with windows from the ceiling almost to the floor so it is very bright. The system is also very quiet – so quiet, in fact, that it had to be equipped with a clanging bell to warn pedestrians. Strasbourg was the first city to implement a fully low-floor light rail system.

The first line was built from one suburb, Hautepierre, through the city center to another suburb, Illkirch, a distance of 8 miles (12.6 km). It has 23 stops spaced approximately every 400 yards. The service runs every 4 minutes at peak hours and each tram carries 230 passengers.

Today there are 34.7 miles of lines on six different routes, and the system carries about 300,000 daily riders on its network. Moreover, the region is planning to extend several of the lines, to construct a new downtown link, and even a connection across the River Rhine into the German town of Kehl.

The decision (by the Socialist party) to construct above ground light rail instead of a subway system (favored by the Conservatives) was wise. Not only was it a far less expensive system, but it also facilitated the pedestrianization of the city center: the streets were not wide enough to have accommodated both cars and light rail. While business owners downtown complained about car drivers no longer able to drive past their shop, and many citizens complained about the inconvenience of going downtown while the streets were being reconstructed, the system was up and running well in advance of the city elections and was found to be so attractive and convenient that the Socialist party was reelected into office.

In conjunction with the installation of the light rail, the bus system was overhauled. Bus routes were improved and bus lanes were prioritized to enable buses to travel more quickly than automobiles, with special electronic devices at intersections to enable buses to have right of way. New buses with lower floors were introduced, and bus stops constructed with higher platforms to facilitate access.

Further improvements related to the creation of the light rail system include the planting of 1,700 trees, the improvement of three bridges, the pedestrianization of major squares, and the renovation of the streets along which the light rail would run. Park-and-ride lots were built at outlying stops, parking on street was eliminated downtown and replaced with extensive underground parking facilities, and new inter-modal junctions were created.

Reclaiming the squares

By removing cars from the city center it became possible to improve the environmental quality of central areas, provide more space for urban dwellers, and enhance the commercial and cultural role of the city center. Without cars in the streets and squares it became possible to appreciate the beauty of the architecture, and to enjoy the social ambience.

The original street layout had been a grid plan laid out by the Romans. The grid gave way to the vicissitudes of time and were rebuilt in the Middle Ages, resulting in an irregular plan of streets and squares large and small. Many of the small squares recall the specialized markets that took place there: Vieux-Marché-aix-Vins (the old wine market), Marché-aux-Poissons and Vieux-Marché-aux-Poissons (the fish markets), Marché-aux-Cochons-de-Lait (suckling pig market) and Marché-Neuf (new market). Other squares are named after famous figures associated with Strasbourg: Place Gutenberg after the inventor of movable type, and Place Kléber after an eighteenth-century military officer.

A major program of urban re-animation was initiated to bring back the activities, social life and special events that once flourished in the squares. Numerous festivals and markets now revive the city’s traditions. Strasbourg is renowned for its Christmas market that begins in November and lasts until the end of December. Centered on Place Broglie, it spills over into Place de la Cathédral, Place-du-Marché-Neuf and Place Kléber, where a giant Christmas tree is erected. Place Broglie in front of City Hall is also the site of a twice-weekly market selling a variety of goods throughout the year. Popular events, concerts, garden shows, and free theatrical performances are staged on the expansive Place Kléber. The Saturday book market takes place on Place Gutenberg abd surrounding streets. In the summer, street performers focus on the more tourist-oriented Place de la Cathédral and Marché-aux-Cochons-de-Lait.

The historic center of Strasbourg fulfills many functions. It is a primary shopping destination for the region, and also contains a substantial residential population. It is a cultural and administrative center, and a flourishing business center. While the European Parliament buildings lie outside the historic core, delegates from the 46 member states are accommodated in hotels in the old city during parliamentary sessions.

The special markets, festivals and free concerts organized in Strasbourg’s squares, the ease of access into the old city by light rail and car, the beauty of its streets and squares, the unpredictability of impromptu entertainment in public, the diversity of businesses, the residential population and the rich gastronomic variety of restaurants and Weinstube help to counteract the commercial pressures put on the city by the construction of Les Halles, a monstrous concrete shopping mall on the northern edge of the old city, and the trend towards hypermarkets at the city’s periphery.

Place Kléber

Place Kléber has undergone drastic changes in its design and use over the last century. In 1900, photographs show it as essentially a park with lawns, many trees, and wide pathways to accommodate movement across the square. Images from the 1930s show it was already being heavily used as a car park, and this continued until the 1990s. In 1992, Place Kléber had around 50,000 vehicles per day traveling through it and parking in the square.

Today, Place Kléber is the central hub for those arriving in the city by light rail, and for many who drive to the city. At the north-western corner of the square, two light rail lines cross on Place-de-l’Homme-de-Fer, bringing commuters and shoppers into town and representatives out to the European Parliament. Beneath the square, cars are now accommodated in a major parking garage that holds 465 vehicles. Adjacent to the square are the main department stores such as Galleries Lafayette, Monoprix, and fnac. Major shopping streets, Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and Rue des Grandes-Arcades run off in a southerly direction. Large events, rock concerts and festivals take place on the square.

Walking from the light rail diagonally across the square towards the cathedral one sees the square’s most attractive aspects. The north side is closed by l’Aubette, a handsome, eighteenth century military structure. This red sandstone three-story building now houses a restaurant and city information office. To the south and east are four and five story buildings with steep roofs containing additional floors. Some are plaster finished in pastel earth colors, with sandstone window and door frames, others are sandstone with red tile roofs, but all blend harmoniously. Behind these historic buildings, the cathedral spire draws one to the city’s heart.

Returning across the square towards the light rail a less attractive view is presented. The west side is closed by a boxy concrete and glass commercial building, behind which rises a sixteen story apartment tower that is completely inappropriate in the historic urban fabric. City fathers agree with citizens that this tower was a mistake that will not be repeated.

The square was redesigned in 1994 at the time of the installation of the light rail. According to "modern" design principles, it was lit by huge pivoting light fixtures like giant oil derricks. When the Conservatives reclaimed city government, one of their first changes was to remove these lighting fixtures and to create two broad pools with arched fountains that reflect the arches of the l'Aubette. Low walls around the fountain now provide informal seating.

At the center of the square there has always been a monument, dedicated to General Kléber, his brothers in arms, fellow citizens and the homeland. The General stands on a high pedestal, with a sphinx at his heels. 

Place Gutenberg

In honor of Strasbourg’s adopted son, Johann Gutenberg, this square hosts a second hand and antique book fair every Saturday. As a bi-lingual city the books are in French and German and attract buyers from far and wide. Children, teenagers, students, housewives, business people, the retired and book dealers mingle, browse, and discuss editions and bindings. The canvas stalls are sturdy, with canvas walls in case of rain, and even a downpour does not deter the avid bibliophiles.

In the center of the square is a statue of Gutenberg holding a printed page of his Bible. Beside him a merrily painted carousel grinds out barrel-organ tunes as small children mounted on an elephant, a roaring lion, a pink pig, and a dozen prancing white horses gallop gleefully past their parents.

Beneath the square is an underground parking garage that holds 270 cars. Shoppers and visitors arrive here from the south. No doubt the carousel provides children from the suburbs with a treat to look forward to before going home.

The south side of the square is framed with the typical Strasbourg four story mixed-use buildings, with sandstone window frames, wooden shutters and high pitched roofs. Two restaurants continue well into October to serve beer and traditional Alsatian food at their outdoor terrace.

Towering above the five story shop and office buildings on the east side of the square is the omnipresent cathedral.

Place de la Cathédral

The cathedral stands alone in its square, a massive, imposing red sandstone structure dwarfing the intricate medieval urban fabric that clusters around it. Like Münsterplatz in Freiburg this square was once the graveyard but is now the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in the summer.

Several buildings around the cathedral contain private apartments with window boxes filled with colorful flowers.  The famed restaurants in historic buildings are popular with business people and representatives in the European Parliament as well as with tourists.

This is the heart of the city for tourists who come to visit the cathedral and the cathedral museum, sit at cafes and restaurants, buy postcards and souvenirs and enjoy the ever-changing street entertainers. On a typical day in October a jazz saxophonist was playing at one corner, a classical violinist at another. 

In front of the cathedral a puppeteer presented unique cameos. His young puppet cannot choose between a red and a green apple. As we watch the puppet seems to become older, stiff with rheumatism. The puppeteer gives him a stick for support, and still he cannot choose. He dies, still unable to choose.

At the beginning of the academic year school classes are brought to Strasbourg. The little children sit on mats on the cobblestones and enjoy the clowns perhaps even more than the visit to the toy museum.

Marché-aux-Cochons-de-Lait

This pretty square and the narrow street that leads to the cathedral are almost entirely filled with outdoor restaurants that stay open late into the night. Tourists predominate, entertained by jazz musicians, mimes and clowns.

The crossroads of Europe

Strasbourg is not primarily a tourist city where crowds of strangers come and go. It is a city fully in control of its historic center, where residential, commercial and businesses uses are well integrated. Strasbourg is especially fortunate that the European Parliament settled here, helping to ensure the city’s prosperity. The permanent presence of parliamentary staff and the frequent, repeated presence of representatives from across Europe ensures a dynamic ambience where people from different countries work together on a long term basis and intermingle in the public realm. As they were in the Middle Ages, Strasbourg’s squares continue today to be the crossroads of Europe.


[i] Part of this article is taken from Genius of the European Square (2008) by Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard and Henry L. Lennard.