Salon magazine's Will Doig has been running a remarkable series of essays on the future of cities. In his latest, he explores the role of bicycles in slowing down the frenetic pace of city streets until they become safe, comfortable and attractive people places again.
The entire essay is well worth reading, but the following passage jumped out at me:
It feels strange to equate slowing down with moving ahead, but in some ways, slowing down cities, much like the slow-food movement, is about shrugging off some of the 20th century’s ill-conceived "innovations."
This really articulates a lot of what motivates my thoughts on cities: not some reflexive get-off-my-lawn conservatism, but the sober recognition that you can't just throw out thousands of years of embedded knowledge about how to enable large groups of people to coexist peacefully and productively.
Of course, there are some amazing 19th and 20th century innovations that, either by design or happy accident, really are material improvements that make city living cleaner, safer, friendlier, more attractive and more rewarding:
and so on.
What all these innovations have in common is that they are compatible with or actively encourage density, by which I mean a lot of people and a lot of uses in close proximity.
Density is the magic pixie dust that turns agglomerations of people into engines of economic development, and anything that makes it easier and more pleasant for a lot of people to live close together is going to accelerate the creation of wealth.
In a dense urban environment, you don't need fast-moving vehicles, because you generally don't need to travel long distances to get where you are going. What you need are safe, comfortable streets that allow you to move at a human scale around your environment.
As Wesley Marshall and Norman Garrick explain, when we design streets to accommodate a variety of modes instead of allowing automobiles to dominate, that almost necessarily results in lower vehicle speeds.
Lower speeds, in turn, accomplish two tangible goals: they reduce the number of crashes and collisions, and also reduce the severity of injuries in the crashes and collisions that do occur. (Intangibly, they allow for a street environment that feels safer to pedestrians and cyclists and attracts more of them.)
Most of the 20th century, and particularly the latter half, was characterized by an almost frantic desire to break with the past and invent whole vocabularies of architecture and city design from scratch, with the inevitable result that a lot of authentic wisdom was discarded along with the conventional wisdom that had perpetuated so much historic misery.
We saw writers gleefully celebrate the act of "cutting away the rot of the Victorian age" by wiping away whole city blocks to drop in futuristic mega-projects for futuristic people. Could personal rooftop helipads and jetpacks be far off?
It's as if we became collectively incapable of distinguishing field-tested good ideas from self-serving prejudices, and so we tossed it all away just to be safe.
Now we're stuck undergoing the painful process of re-establishing those practices that actually did work - like "New Urbanism", which is nothing more than a modern code for traditional neighbourhood development, and "Shared Space", which is nothing more than a modern code for traditional mixed-use streets.
Thanks to the methods of inquiry to which we now have more or less general access, the process of reinventing and rediscovering what works shouldn't take nearly as much time - or as much random trial-and-error - as it did the first time around.
Yet it's still depressing to contemplate how much needless ecological destruction (not to mention personal alienation and depression) we will collectively suffer in the meantime.
It's also depressing to contemplate how tenaciously some people are clinging to these new, disruptive and unsustainable ways of living - and all, irony of ironies, in the name of tradition!
It's a strange world indeed when those who defend the recent, radical, unimpeded auto-mobility that is well-proven to attenuate community engagement can be regarded as conservatives, while those who defend traditional neighbourhood development are considered radicals.
(h/t to M Adrian Brassington for sending me the Salon article.)