For those of you who have been following us here at A Town Square for a while – 8 years(!?) – what follows may seem like a bit of heresy, but, as we often say, onward.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. It’s true that the way it has turned out is what Henry Ford wanted, and the Rockefellers, and Le Corbusier, and GM, but it really didn’t have to turn out this way.
Mr. Ford, looking rather smug.
Mr. Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.
GM’s Futurama – the nightmare that came true.
Cars have wrecked nearly everything in most every city in the world, and almost everywhere it’s getting worse.
But the car has never required us to behave with almost unfathomable stupidity. The car never required us to build beltways and inner loops, to raze our downtowns, rip out our terrific multi-modal transit systems, sprawl across our countryside, and build ridiculous strips of monomaniacal shopping. Cars themselves never said we had to abandon the dense, fine-grained, walkable and heterogeneous fabric of our city centers and neighborhoods. It could have been otherwise.
So, car people, you can keep your cars, and motor along. That’s the heresy part – we haven’t usually left much room for the future of the automobile in the next city.
Here in Rochester, as in cities across the world, our task is clear: find ways to put the car in its proper place. And we are actually making some progress. Our inner beltway, here called the Inner Loop, which savaged our downtown for nearly 60 years, is at least in part going away at last. Hurrah!
Finding the proper place for cars is, quite simply, a very difficult task. Achievable, certainly, but very challenging. And so as we travel to cities, we watch carefully for evidence that others are getting it right. We want to learn these lessons, witness the results, and then share the good news. Here are a few examples.
The Old town of Krakow, Poland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, first on the UNESCO list as that list began in 1994. Old Town is encircled by Planty Park, constructed on the foundations of the city’s medieval walls. At the heart of Old Town is Rynek Glowny, Market Square, one of the most sensational bits of urbanism on the planet, and unknown to me until 3 weeks ago. (When we stepped into Market Square a few days ago, I had two instantaneous thoughts: “Why have I not known about this place – -it belongs in the top five anywhere”, and “Where are the cars that are usually molesting even the finest urban spaces on earth?”).
The cars, except for local residents and service vehicles, were banned in the Old Town in 1998. The qualified ban certainly does not mean no cars – it just means cars in their place. The streets are commanded by walkers, and the cars – with a few exceptions in our experience – do not assume that everyone will instantly jump out of the way. Truly, shared space.
Ahhhhh: shared space.
Another great example of a city with the car increasingly in the right place is Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Yes – on an island in the middle of the Atlantic.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, and boasts a population of around a million. Santa Cruz is the largest city, and the island’s capital. We have been visiting Santa Cruz for quite a while – our first visit was not long after they began service on their streetcar system (now 2 lines, 27 stations, about 10 miles in length).
During each visit we could see the city, already a very nice walking city in 2007, improving, becoming less car-centric, with rights-of-way increasingly biased to pedestrians and flaneurs, or as they may say in Santa Cruz, paseantes ocioso. In our most recent visit, the transformation was startling. Plaza de Espana, redesigned by the Swiss architecture firm of Herzog & de Meuron, is wonderfully revived and enlarged, and has become a true downtown centerpiece.
But best, the coastal highway that was once a barrier, and introduced rapidly moving automobiles to downtown Santa Cruz, is now GONE. As it approaches downtown from either direction (remember this is an island – it’s all about the edges), it dives beneath the city, includes turn-offs into hidden parking, and then rises to emerge on the other side, clear of the central city.
The residue of this, of course, is a very substantial increase in the walkability of Santa Cruz. And as if this wasn’t enough, this has been coupled with changes to most of the downtown streets. They are now paved in cobbles, many feature bollards (or no bollards, ala shared space), and all are linked to the already substantial network of ped streets. Progress!
When we were in Berlin recently, we found their “Urban Transportation Development Plan 2025: Sustainable Mobility.” Berlin is not exactly a car-free city, nor even a shared space city, but the city’s Senate recently adopted the plan (politics and transportation are always uncomfortable bedfellows) which says, in part: “In the future, mobility is more barrier-free, socially just and eco-friendly. Compact and traffic-efficient spatial structures (hmmm – I wonder about this) facilitate active mobility for all, and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, Berlin can look forward to the image (and reality, I trust) of an appealing major city which is, at the same time, one of the most pedestrian friendly in Europe.”
Berlin – the future.
Now this is not exactly breaking down the door of progressive downtown planning, but it is remarkable for the fact that a city of almost 4 million can find the collective will to say that cars are not their only, and probably not their best, future.
I wonder what it would take to get our City Council to enact such a document? Or your city.
The work of putting the car in its rightful place is the work of building a truly convenient city, and a much better, if not good city. Perhaps if we could see our way to merging convenience and goodness we could make some progress. Onward!
Cairo – Reuter/Abd el Ghany.