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Giving the Streets Back to People - A Road to a Sustainable Future

Jacob Scherr

Posted January 29, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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Recently, the severe air pollution in New Delhi, India, has been getting significant media attention. Yet New Delhi is far from alone. Hundreds of millions of people in cities around the world are choking on traffic, and local officials are feeling more pressure to take action. One of the most important promises in the June 2012 Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was from the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT) – a new “action network” which could drive the huge investments needed over the next 10 years to make urban transport more sustainable. Recently at the UN, cities have gotten a lot of attention in an intensifying discussion about a new set of global goals; and there is a lot of momentum behind an urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), which would encourage and support the initiatives of mayors and local leaders worldwide to improve their cities and contribute to tackling climate change and other global challenges. In the second of her global-local blogs, Sarah Glazer reports on a recent talk in London by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect whose thinking on livable cities is already having an impact worldwide from New York to Dhaka:

Flatiron BuildingWhen a triangular park appeared overnight in the middle of the asphalt in Times Square seven years ago, it seemed like a radical move hardened New Yorkers would never tolerate. As we now know, people instantly embraced the new park and others like it, sunning themselves on the beach chairs (later exchanged for Parisian-style chairs and tables) in a city that offers few places to rest.

Where did city officials find the chutzpah to do this? After all they had big ambitions-- to make New York “the greatest greenest city in the world,” in the words of Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s former transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

For inspiration they went to Copenhagen to consult the international guru for cities that want to become inviting places for walkers and cyclists-- Jan Gehl. The Danish architect is responsible for transforming Copenhagen into one of the world’s most livable cities, and he has inspired similar movements to redesign streets for the people in cities as far-flung as China, Australia and South Africa.

Over 1,000 young cyclists, architects and other urban enthusiasts packed a movie house in London last week to hear Gehl and to watch the documentary about his work The Human Scale. The jovial grandfather with a potbelly likes to utter warm, humane aphorisms.

As cities try to become more environmentally sustainable, “Taking care of people is a good way to address these issues at the same time,” Gehl said, pointing to the reduced pollution once people start frequenting welcoming public spaces on foot and on two wheels.

Gehl was trained as an architect in the 1960s when Le Corbusier, one of modernism’s gods, considered cities bad for humanity and propounded instead soulless high-rise apartments separated by empty expanses of lawn. It was also the era when traffic engineers held sway, designing new highways slashing through cities based on the number of cars counted from a helicopter, but rarely coming down to street level to count the pedestrians.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia CommonsGehl changed all this, by asking a simple question: Why were Italian cities so pleasant to live in? He began studying how pedestrians used the street, including the communal evening promenade so common on Italian shopping streets before dinner. Starting in 1962 under his guidance, Copenhagen pedestrianized its main shopping street—now the longest such street in Europe. The way people started using the space changed dramatically.

“We didn’t know we were Italians at heart,” Gehl said. “The moment we had the spaces we began to promenade-- and we’ve become more Italian all the time.”

Today 37 percent of Copenhagen residents travel to work or school by bike. Only 27 percent commute by car—the lowest proportion of any city in Europe. New York’s bike path along Ninth Avenue, a lane protected by concrete planters and parked cars, was copied directly from Copenhagen’s extensive network of safe, well-designed bike lanes.

Yearnings for this kind of livable city extend far beyond Europe and are even more pressing in fast-growing cities like Chongqing in China and Dhaka in Bangladesh, choked with rising car traffic and pollution.

Every year a half million people move from the countryside to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, many of them living in wretched shanty towns, in a nation where almost half the population earns less that $1 a day. One of the most accessible ways of earning a living for people at the bottom of the ladder is to pedal a rickshaw.  

So when the government banned rickshaws from Dhaka’s main roads in 2011 in an effort to solve road congestion, it effectively banned employment for thousands (Up to 300,000 rickshaws operate in Dhaka.) And traffic jams just got worse.

In one of the most moving scenes in “The Human Scale,” some of Dhaka’s poorest demonstrate for a car-free city and for the rights of pedestrians and bus riders but get almost no press coverage or attention from the government.

Western assistance often doesn’t help. As Ruhan Shama, the translator of Gehl’s books into Bengali, says in the film, development banks have traditionally given countries like Bangladesh loans to build ever-bigger roads—loans that “we have to pay back.”

But they rarely fund safe lanes for pedestrians or rickshaws.

In developing countries like Bangladesh and Kenya, where incomes are low but wealth is increasing, pedestrians are the top victims in the rising body count of road fatalities, the Economist reported.

Roads that were supposed to make everyone richer have brought untold deaths to the poorest of the world’s developing cities, often because they are built with no protection or space for pedestrians.

In Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, every month at least two patients who have just been discharged from St. Mary’s Mission Hospital have to be readmitted because they’ve been run over waiting for the bus.

The challenge for places like China is that they are reaching Western-style modernization in just a generation, notes Jiangyan Wang, executive director of the China Sustainable Transportation Center. Already, she says, “We made a lot of the same mistakes Western countries have made,” by creating far-flung suburbs and long commutes.

Still, a bad pollution day in China is an average one in India, which has some of the world’s worst pollution and the highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, the New York Times recently reported. Pollution has increased exponentially as cars have flooded India’s roads, from 800,000 in the 1970s to 7.5 million today, with 1,400 new vehicles added daily.

The other night, frustrated Londoners asked Gehl how their city, which still stubbornly favors cars over cyclists and walkers, could follow New York, Melbourne and even Chonqing—all cities that have invited Gehl to “copenhagenize” their downtowns.

  “Every city has an arbitrary amount of traffic and thinks it’s given by God,” Gehl observed. But if you can exile cars and trucks even from hard-bitten Broadway, you can make it happen anywhere.

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NRDC is advocating for a new architecture for the Sustainable Development Goals which would help to accelerate this transition to more livable sustainable cities.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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