City planning as if people mattered

| 22nd June 2008
road sign.jpg
Philip Parker flies the flag for a people-first approach to traffic management to regain control of the streets.

Our local built environment has the power to affect our moods and behaviour. It will suggest certain values and can promote positive feelings. But for the past 50 years the streets and spaces where we live have primarily been designed to facilitate the movement of cars. This has frequently had a negative impact on local communities and affected the way we live.

Radical alternatives have been developed on the near-continent, however, pioneered in Holland, that offer the hope for a future where communities can prosper. By designing for people, a safer, more pleasant and sustainable environment can be created with many resulting benefits. These include promoting a healthier lifestyle, reducing crime and antisocial behaviour, cutting carbon emissions and assisting social cohesion – but above all improving quality of life and contentment.

It was apparent in the early 1960s that future car growth would be significant. In 1963, the Government commissioned the Buchanan Report, which determined that cars and pedestrians should be segregated for their mutual safety. Since that point, and especially throughout the 1970s, even minor housing developments have featured wide roads and separate kerbed footways. This created the perfect environment for the car, which, like any pest given perfect conditions, thrived and multiplied, claiming the space as its own.

Children that once played in the streets and moved aside when a car appeared were now told to play on the pavements. Consequently car speeds increased. Children stepping on to the street were considered even less safe and told to play inside. Due to this spiral of retreat, the streets became roads, solely for cars. Victory for the car! As a result, houses have now become self-contained play areas and children’s bedrooms entertainment centres. With home cinema and garden mini-parks, furnished with playground equipment, there is no longer a need to venture outside or interact with our neighbours at all. Community life has suffered as a result.

In recognising that traffic in our streets had become a problem, local authorities had to find solutions. A new breed of engineer was created: traffic engineers, trained to control this new menace. The space between our buildings became their exclusive domain, as no planning permissions or consultation was required for them to develop their art. As a result of recognising traffic problems solely as such, however, only the solutions proffered by experts in that field were considered and developed. Traffic engineers naturally used the knowledge and skills in which they had been trained – but the expertise available was necessarily onedimensional and limited.

So public spaces became increasingly engineered to be roads for cars and less as streets for people. As a consequence, traffic problems increased – and we turned once again to traffic engineers to solve them. More traffic signs, road paint in its various garish colours, chicanes, road humps and flashing signs appeared. When these did not work, even more regulations were introduced and more signs and paint appeared to try and enforce them.

It is a spiral that has continued. With the introduction of every sign, kerb, additional road paint, zebra crossing or traffic calming device, it is reinforced once again that the space is primarily one for cars, and the quality of community life is yet further diminished. Standard solutions – using standard materials in a standard way, often inappropriately and with no respect for local character – are inflicted. Creeping suburbanisation has been occurring by default in many of our villages and small towns.

We need radical new thinking to break this cycle. Happily this is available. Like the punk reaction to the over-elaborate music of the mid-70s, a New Wave of street design has been sweeping the near-continent.

Contrary to perceived conventional design wisdom, actually reducing road width and creating obstructions to visibility – as well as removing traffic signs, road markings, kerbs and other segregation, so that pedestrians, cyclists and cars share a common space – has been found markedly to reduce vehicle speeds and the number and severity of accidents. Even assessed purely on engineering grounds, complete removal of traffic signals at junctions in Denmark and Holland has shown significant improvements both in traffic flow and safety. The examples are proven and dramatic.

As a result, a more attractive and natural environment can be created, one designed principally for people and where traffic has to accommodate itself to the social life of the streets rather than vice versa. Creating such a community environment, which respects the individual community identity and its values, will encourage and sustain moods and behaviour that are important to our contentment. Appropriate and sympathetic design lifts the soul and allows communities to flourish, rather than degenerate further into a dreary and monotonous world of traffic.

The alternative world of the UK traffic engineer is uncomfortable, cheerless and risks greater abuse and vandalism. Hans Monderman, the celebrated Dutch engineer and pioneer of the Shared Space concept, neatly summed it up when I met him: ‘Spatial environment is very strong in the story of telling people how to behave. When you want people to behave as if they are in a church, you build a church, not a disco. If you want people to behave as if they are in a village then you have to build a village. We have made many discos of our villages in the past!”

In a recent Unicef survey, Dutch children were found to be the happiest in the rich world, with British children languishing in last place. A similar study has been conducted by the European Commission since 1973 to find its most content citizens. Each year the country ranked first has been Denmark.

Likewise in a poll of satisfaction, Colombia, despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, was found to have as high a satisfaction level as Denmark. Its homicide rate in 2005 has been reduced to less than a quarter of that in 1993.

Colombia has invested heavily in its public spaces and public transport over the past decade, creating 1,100 parks and play areas in three years in its capital, Bogotá, and building a 45km greenway for buses, cyclists and pedestrians in preference to an eight-lane urban highway. They have car-free Sundays following the success of a car-free Christmas, which attracts three million people into the city to share the streets. It has won a 96 per cent approval rate from the people.

The Colombians followed three interesting principles: that the distribution of quality of life is more important than income distribution; public transport is for everyone, not simply those on low incomes; traffic congestion is good, as it forces people to make more intelligent travel choices.

The philosophy all these countries have followed has been to invest in designing public spaces for people, rather than for cars. The benefits are manifold, including better mental and physical health, lower carbon emissions, greater safety, more social cohesion and lower crime rates.

Reversing established mainstream thinking challenges more than 40 years of conditioning that regards our streets primarily as conduits for the passage of traffic. The alternative ideas proposed are considered by some to be eccentric, but as the philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out: ‘Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.’

The future of a civilised society living together in peaceful co-operation depends fundamentally on the local environment we help create. We have a responsibility to future generations to bequeath places that offer encouragement and are a fitting testament to the values that are important to us. We must not leave the design of our public spaces to chance, developed remotely and by default in piecemeal fashion by engineers based in county halls. There are attractive and more sustainable alternatives available. It is important for communities to take ownership of their own local spaces and demand change.

Churchill advised that we shape our public spaces and that our public spaces then shape us. If we can create sympathetic public spaces and streets that reflect our needs and values, we could rediscover the soul of our communities. Then perhaps we will be as happy and content as the Dutch and the Danes, or even those impoverished folk in Colombia, who nevertheless have learned, as Epicurus taught, that ‘wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants’.

Philip Parker is a chartered civil engineer with an interest in urban planning that maintains local character.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2008

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here