We've been cataloguing exactly how architects, designers, urban planners and city officials are undertaking the transformation of outdoor urban spaces, helping turn the city inside out in the process. We did so schematically, breaking down the street into its constituent parts, from the facade to the pavement to the roadway and the point at which the street meets, or more likely becomes, the park. This is the final instalment of the series – read more here.
The pressure from the pandemic to expand public space might finally spell out the end of the car as the core unit around which our cities are designed. It’s a battle urbanists have been fighting for decades, especially in countries in which personal vehicles dominate the transport landscape, such as the US. In New York around 75 per cent of all street space is dedicated to vehicles according to the US Department of Transportation. And in Austin, for example, just over half the streets have proper sidewalks.
Calls to decrease provision for vehicles in dense urban areas have grown over the last five years, largely driven by increased awareness of air pollution’s impact on public health. Tangible change has been limited, however, and public pushback strong. Madrid took the bold move to severely limit traffic, before a new local government won power on the promise to reverse the decision. The pandemic has now provided renewed impetus, with Athens planning to reallocate 50,000 m2 of public space for cyclists and pedestrians and many other cities pledging to do the same. But in spite of our current crisis, resistance to car-free zones remains. In London, some local councils are already refusing emergency funds provided by the Mayor’s office to create new segregated cycleways.
This lack of enthusiasm amongst some groups might be explained by a commensurate lack of vision for how car-free public space should be realized. Swapping the convenience of car travel for access to an expanse of asphalt is a hard sell, especially for those disinterested in cycling. Europe’s busiest shopping street – London’s Oxford Street – has seen repeated plans to ban vehicles fail. In an open letter published in Wired, co-founder of London-based transport architecture specialist New Territory Luke Miles criticized the lack of imagination shown by the Mayor’s most recent unsuccessful attempt: ‘There needs to be a broader, more ambitious discussion about how best to transform one of the world’s most iconic streets that reaches beyond simple pedestrianization.’ His alternative vision – to ‘transform Oxford Street from a grey retail canyon into a new piece of urban parkland for London’ – is the sort that will likely receive renewed attention in the post-COVID era.