Reclaiming the Public Space for People and Nature
Originally published in ‘Mark and Focus: Building a Smart, Resilient, Nature-Based Future’, by Bax & Company’s Sofia Aivalioti.
Cities are fascinating. They are the places where most of us live, work and grow. If cities are not designed for their people, then we are doing something wrong. What makes a city thrive? What makes a city a good place to live? Cities should first cover our necessities, such as access to clean water, shelter, and safety, and offer opportunities for work and socialising. Public spaces play an important role in some of these aspects, and they can help give people fulfilling lives. However, at the moment, we do not make the most of public space.
For the past 100 years, ideas on how best to design cities have generated several conflicts. Many citizens decided to make these decisions themselves, reclaiming their public space and the streets. In a post-pandemic world, a citizen-centric planning approach for cities has gained popularity for a better recovery achieving “build back better”. Why is reclaiming the public space for people and nature a great idea?
CITY SCALES: FROM ON FOOT TO BY CAR
The space taken for parking, roads and highways stole the community life. Entire neighbourhoods became soulless…
Cities did not always have the same structure as we see today. In the past, cities used to have high density, low-rise buildings mixing various uses. The distances between work and home were far less, and the personal perception of distances was different. The available modes of transport and the speed of those transports defined the distances that people used to move daily. In the 60s and 70s, we moved from that humanscale city model to a car-centric city. This changed everything. The cluttered blocks of buildings for residential use were considered remnants of the past that needed to be replaced. The vision back then that shaped today’s cities was constructed by wide boulevards that facilitated a large volume of cars to cross the city from one side to the other as fast and direct as possible. Streets became impossible and dangerous to cross by pedestrians, having six or eight lanes of motorways. A characteristic example of that era that has been heavily debated is the New York of Robert Moses. He prioritised motorway highways across the city to connect the suburbs and favour cars over public transport. Prioritisation of cars offered us the freedom to move but also doomed the overall health of the population in and around the cities. Air pollution, exposure to high noise levels, and promotion of a sedentary lifestyle made cities dangerous places to live, let alone thrive. The space taken for parking, roads and highways stole the community life. Entire neighbourhoods became soulless, areas where people do not want to socialise, cross the street, or shop. Places unsuitable for children to play.
Photo: Jared Murray on Unsplash
OPPOSITION TO CAR-CENTRIC CONSTRUCTION
Critical mass events have made a difference in many cities, changing public administration views on the bike’s role, and making bikes an essential element in urban mobility.
The opposition to car-centric developments has been strong and persistent. Citizens defended their neighbourhoods, streets, nearby parks, and even big trees that represented the essence of a community. Various protest movements sprung to prevent the construction of streets or buildings that would steal public spaces and the life of the neighbourhood. In the 1970s, the London-based political movement “Homes Before Roads” emerged to oppose plans to construct a system of four interlinked concentric motorways through and around London. In 1974, in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, city officials authorised Jaime Ortiz Mariño and more than 5,000 bike-enthusiasts to close traffic for three hours on 12 kilometres of avenues and ride freely on their bicycles through the centre of the city. In that moment, the Ciclovía movement was born. It started first as a protest and transformed into a weekly holiday where citizens enjoy family walks and bike rides, recovering the urban public space ever since. In 1991 another organised movement, “Reclaiming the streets”, took form in London, occupying highways for street parties. They reclaimed the streets for the people. This action was copied in cities around the world. In 1992 the critical mass movement started in San Francisco, where cyclists moved as a unique vehicle blocking the traffic to declare their presence in the city’s life and demand more bike-friendly public space. The event is still happening regularly in many cities all around the world and has been ever-growing. Critical mass events have made a difference in many cities, changing public administration views on the bike’s role, and making bikes an essential element in urban mobility. Such movements continue to this day and promote city living alternatives, allowing people to enjoy their environment away from noise and pollution.
Another influential element of this historical shift that shaped our cities was the 1973 global oil crisis. This halted the car movement and made cars an impossible mobility option. At that moment, governments had to act. Many governments in Northern Europe decided to invest in long-term policies to move away from the dependence on cars. The Netherlands and Copenhagen are two prominent examples of this. Across the Netherlands and Denmark, cities built bike infrastructure, people-friendly streets that maintain each city’s character, and invested in high-quality public transport. Five decades later, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are leading authorities on bike-friendly planning. They are leaders of this movement, and people worldwide visit them to understand how this model works and take ideas back home. At the same time, they kept their original building stock, with low rising buildings and smaller streets suitable for walking and shopping.
LIVEABLE, WALKABLE CITIES TODAY
Superblocks transform the neighbourhoods where they are implemented, giving public space to the people, and creating more lively and vibrant neighbourhoods.
Photo: Sant Antoni superblock by © DEL RIO BANI
In recent years, redesigning cities for health and liveability has become a greater priority – at least in Europe. The superblocks of Barcelona present an important urban intervention held up as an example for imitation. In 2016 the Catalan city decided to stop the flow of cars within nine building blocks located in the neighbourhood of Poblenou, eliminating the car flow and creating spaces with playgrounds, benches, picnic tables, trees, and flowers. Initially, the project gathered strong opposition from car owners and shop owners, but today in most cases, the complaints have been replaced by praise, and locals feel fortunate to live within a superblock. Superblocks transform the neighbourhoods where they are implemented, giving public space to the people, and creating more lively and vibrant neighbourhoods. This can come at the cost of raising the prices of properties, but in the case of Poblenou, many houses around those blocks are social housing, ensuring some stability in the housing market. Currently, Barcelona has implemented a new superblock in the Sant Antoni area – a very central and busy part of the centre. The city is also preparing a huge transformation plan of twenty-one streets and twenty-one road junctions, converting them into parks and public squares in the coming years.
Barcelona suffers from poor air quality, classified as one of the most polluted urban areas in Western Europe and failing to comply with European air quality regulations. As one of the densest cities in Europe, Barcelona also lacks green spaces. Reclaiming the public space and making it safe and greener for people is not a luxury but a necessity in this city. The opposition will always be strong to such plans, but over time, citizens will reap such projects’ benefits in terms of both mental and physical health.
SLOW CITIES, SLOW STREETS
The slow city concept promotes an entirely alternative way of living focusing on young people, employment, environmental protection, and rural development.
Some cities have adopted policies and practices to create slower streets. The slow city concept promotes an entirely alternative way of living focusing on young people, employment, environmental protection, and rural development. The movement of slow cities “Cittaslow”, born in Tuscany in 1999, provided an alternative approach to urban development. Municipalities joining this movement place citizens and nature in the centre of their design. They also focus on local food consumption, eco-gastronomy, and promotion of local art, culture, and history. Small municipalities with less than 50,000 inhabitants must comply with a list of criteria, including topics on environmental policies, urban design, support of the local economy, conviviality, and hospitality to be part of the network. The Slow Cities movement now has 277 members around the world. Slow streets support community-based development, prioritising quality of life and giving space to pedestrians and cyclists. The slow streets programme blocks streets to traffic, decreasing the lanes where cars can pass through and the speed limit. In various UK cities and towns, school street closure schemes have been successfully trialled, where cars are prevented from passing by the school gates at drop off and pick up times.
PLANNING IN A PANDEMIC
The 15-minute city promotes walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods where the car is not needed, enabling citizens to move in an active way.
The years of COVID-19 are very relevant to the movement of transforming cities for liveability. Since the pandemic started, cities worldwide doubled or tripled their bike infrastructure, as it was an option for safe commuting maintaining social distancing. For the same reason, areas around schools also expanded, reducing crowdedness, and making it safer for parents and children. On other occasions, closed streets were occupied by extra tables from nearby cafes and restaurants, allowing for safer dining during the pandemic. In big cities such as Madrid and Paris people experienced cleaner skylines and fresher air, for the first time realising how noisy and polluted their homes are due to the constant flow of cars. After the first months of lockdown, cities everywhere started to plan for more car-free areas as permanent solutions, transforming important areas into gardens, combined with bike lanes and spaces for social activities.
In the meantime, in the absence of nightlife, restaurants and gyms, European citizens re-learned to appreciate walks in the park and doing more exercise outdoors. Most people visited their city parks for the first time and discovered new walks and routes in nearby natural areas.
Photo: Paris en Commun
Others realised the absence of quality parks in their proximity and wished for more and better green public spaces close by their homes. In many countries, citizens had or have limitations of movement to only a couple of kilometres from their home. With this restriction in place, people revaluate their neighbourhoods and services in proximity. To solve this, along with many other urban problems, long before COVID-19, a new ambitious urbanistic concept was born. The 15-minute city by Carlos Moreno. This framework designs the cities we would like to live in, not the cities we have. The 15-minute city promotes walkable and bikeable neighbourhoods where the car is not needed, enabling citizens to move in an active way. Access, proximity, and safety are key concepts, and the reduced need for travel could also reduce the cost of transport infrastructure. But it is not all that simple.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
Concepts such as the 15-minute city must be well embedded in all agendas. Citizens and stakeholders’ consultations and co-creation should be considered, and well-planned alternatives to current practices and uses must be painstakingly investigated. Cities are networks with flows of people and services. How can we best serve those flows by bringing out the maximum positive outcomes to our lives? Could clean air and less noise pollution be a reality even after the pandemic? How can we quickly transform our cities to become suitable places to live and thrive, with low traffic, places that promote physical and mental health and support the environment? On the one side, city administrations must ensure that those plans are a priority and secure the necessary funding. On the other side, the citizens should be part of creating those plans and shaping the neighbourhoods they want to live in.
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