Our love affair with automobiles has shaped our cities and our lives – but mature metropolises are finally realizing that the needs of people are even more important. Here are the impressions of Patricia:
“We bottled water and it became fashionable. That’s what we need to do for walking.” By the late 1990s, it was obvious to us that making London more walkable – and “liveable” – was fundamental to the future success of the city. There seemed an urgent need to create streets and spaces that made people feel they were planned for them, not cars; that exploration on foot or a bike was a positive choice, not a necessary evil.
As chief executive of the Central London Partnership (CLP), I led the lobbying for the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square. We were in the last gasp of a century that had brought us the motor vehicle: the resulting love affair with cars, and their link with modernity, had shaped our towns and cities, and our lives.
Fifteen years on, the notion of a liveable city is well understood, and measured. Mature cities across the world have shifted their priorities towards people-centred urban spaces, accelerated by the realisation that reshaping our cities around quality of life is intrinsically linked to economic success. Of course, getting the balance right is crucial, which is why there is a segment in The Human Scale – Andreas Dalsgaard’s documentary on the work of Gehl Architects – that makes my stomach crunch in frustration.
The film explores the impact around the world of Jan Gehl, the Copenhagen architect who has promulgated the need to look at the life of cities beyond buildings themselves. At one point we see the NGO Work for a Better Bangladesh, which was inspired by Gehl, struggling to keep the country’s authorities focused on creating sustainable solutions for all people, not just those who can afford a car. To reduce vehicle congestion – primarily caused by chaotic, unregulated parking – the government has banned rickshaws rather than sorting out the cars. At a stroke this condemned 600,000 rickshaw drivers to poverty, leaving millions of people without affordable transport.
My first encounter with Gehl was more than 10 years ago when, with Transport for London (TfL), we commissioned him to cast a forensic eye over central London’s streets – observing, enumerating and critiquing conditions and people’s behaviour in the spaces left over after the city had taken good care of all its vehicles. “I’m looking at London with fresh eyes and I don’t like what I see,” he scolded.
Gehl believes “it is cheap to be sweet to people” – that making places which feel great to be in, move in and sit in, rarely costs significant amounts of money. He has studied human behaviour in cities for four decades, blending observation with statistics, casting a fresh light on what is present, and what is absent. “Why are your traffic engineers legal graffiti artists?” he once asked during a drive around London, gesturing to the amount of paint on the capital’s roads.
The documentary picks up on this approach, exploring what happens when we put people at the centre of our urban equations. London is conspicuous in its absence – perhaps because Gehl is disappointed by our efforts in the intervening decade since his report. It’s a claim I strenuously rebut (including to him in person), not least because I still bear the scars of the Trafalgar Square pedestrianisation project.
The Norman Foster-led scheme was set to transform London’s iconic square from a heavily trafficked and dangerous gyratory into a more enjoyable and accessible space, closely linked to its prominent cultural neighbours. But Trafalgar Square’s influential opponents played their hand well, arguing strenuously against the two extra minutes that would be added to their car journeys. It was a polarised debate that exposed a faultline, questioning who London belongs to, and whose needs we should be planning for.
Finally securing the go-ahead marked an important milestone for the capital. For us it was the start of a major push to shape central London around the needs of people, which grew to include Legible London’s “wayfinding” system (the now-familiar map-based beacons across central London and beyond). Quality of experience was, we argued, a key component of the capital’s future economic success, as a city that welcomes and supports people is one that will also attract the talent and workforce it needs to succeed.
A similar vision was espoused by New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who put quality of life – and good public space – centre-stage in his policy making. One of his most high-profile successes is Times Square, whose 356,000 daily visitors had, until 2009, been penned into just 11% of the space, despite outnumbering cars by more than four to one.
Tim Tompkins, president of Times Square Alliance, had long campaigned to reduce the resulting “pedlock”, with businesses, visitors, workers and theatre-goers citing this congestion as a reason to avoid the area – or even relocate. Getting the city’s attention was tough, until Bloomberg’s vision of a “greater greener New York” provided the rationale for a bold and visionary move. Virtually overnight, the City of New York implemented a pilot pedestrianisation of the strip of Broadway that forms Times Square’s “Bow Tie”, placing tables and chairs on strips of tarmac previously occupied by cars and trucks.
Immediately, this bustling part of Manhattan attracted more people to meet, eat and enjoy performances – or simply watch and daydream, enjoying, as Tompkins puts it, “the power of the pause”. Pedestrian movement is up by 11% yet accidents are down: 35% for pedestrians, 63% for traffic accidents. Almost three-quarters of people – including local workers – think it has improved the area. Businesses and people are voting with their feet, with retail spend, hotels and office occupancy all booming.
The bold experiment was implemented during the worst recession in living memory, yet a 2011 economic impact study shows that Times Square, while taking up just 0.1% of New York City’s total land area, now creates 11% of the city’s economic output and 10% of its jobs. The district’s $110bn of economic activity went up by 22% since 2007, outpacing city growth by 9% during the same period.
Buoyed by this success, Bloomberg’s administration made the Times Square experiment permanent. His initial hunch was backed by a realisation that, like London, New York’s economic future is intimately linked with creating a place in which people want to live and bring up families.
In London, the winds of change have continued to blow softly through the city’s streets. The introduction of congestion charging in 2003 was probably the most significant indication that London wanted to do things differently; that much of what once indicated streets were for cars, not people, could be unravelled.
A roll-call of schemes has followed, ranging from the incremental (pedestrian phasing on most traffic lights, dropped curbs, small road spaces transformed into spaces to sit) to major engineering-led schemes including Kensington High Street, Exhibition Road, the Oxford Circus Diagonal, and unravelling the Piccadilly one-way system. All are aimed at making life pleasanter for people to move about on foot, as well as improving the look of the streets, clearing out guardrail and the detritus of “traffic”.
Yet there is still much to do. London’s transport and road system is carrying record numbers of people (every year its buses carry the equivalent of half the world’s population), and the city’s population graph shows only an upward trend, with two million or so extra folk anticipated to be living in the capital by 2030.
The key question is how we balance our need to move – people, goods and services – with our new appetite for creating places that are “sweet to people”. To that end, deputy mayor Isabel Dedring is leading one of the most important initiatives in London’s stewardship for several decades.
An Independent Roads Taskforce is undertaking a fundamental rethink of road use and the approach to planning our roads and places. But more than that, the Taskforce has explicitly set out to consider how London can craft – in the words of TfL’s Ben Plowden – “place-ier places” from our network of roads and streets.
This means creating desirable neighbourhoods and thriving high streets, not just functional spaces. It means achieving streets and spaces that form the backbone to a neighbourhood, softened by planting, enlivened by other people. Such places are designed to reduce the impact of traffic volumes and attract people to walk or cycle, to sit or shop, helping to sustain local retail and restaurants and in turn creating more life and activity.
For Jan Gehl, the goal is to ensure that cars can be “present, but not king”. And as with New York, UK studies show this makes economic sense. Places that have improved the public realm and design of streets are outpacing other areas, even in the face of falling retail spend. London’s Oxford Circus Diagonal saw a 25% increase in turnover in the stores immediately adjacent – rising from £20m to £25m in the year after completion of the scheme.
I am heartened that our 21st-century selves can see the need and logic to reverse some of our 20th-century ways. Yet while it may be relatively cheap to be sweet to people, it takes considerable skill, time and effort to strive for the balance we need in our big cities.