Public spaces make our cities liveable, not superhighways

Sunday October 25 2009


In recent months, town planners and policymakers have been trying to convince Nairobi residents that the growing problem of traffic congestion and long commuting times will be solved soon by the building of bigger highways, modern flyovers and double-decker motorways. This futuristic vision of the city has been embraced by many residents, particularly those who own and drive cars.

However, according to Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota, the worst thing a city can do to solve its traffic problems is to build bigger roads that can carry more motorised traffic. High velocity roads do not reduce traffic jams; they just make it easier for more people to use private vehicles.

Mr Penalosa, an urban strategist and renowned city visionary who was in Nairobi last week to give a talk on what defines a good city, knows what he is talking about. During his three-year stint as mayor of Bogota, he transformed the city by building hundreds of kilometres of protected sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets and green spaces.

In 2000, he received the Stockholm Challenge Award for organising a Car-Free Day, banning car use throughout the entire city for one weekday in the year, planting more that 100, 000 trees, creating a new, highly successful (and much replicated) bus-based transit system and turning a neglected city centre avenue into a dynamic pedestrian public space.

Mr Penalosa’s vision is simple: make cities more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, get cars off the streets and pavements and create dedicated lanes for public transport. Why? Because public spaces, such as pavements, plazas and parks, are the essence of cities – without them, cities die.

His vision may not appeal to Nairobi’s elite, a tiny minority of the city’s residents who can afford to drive their own vehicles, but makes perfect sense to the majority of the city’s residents who walk to work or use public transport. According to this former mayor, there is no issue that is more political than that of transport. Transport systems determine whether public good prevails over private interest.

Unfortunately, private interest – in the form of big car manufacturers (who would like more roads for the use of their products), corrupt politicians (who take on multi-million dollar road projects with an eye on kickbacks), transport agencies and traffic engineers (who mistakenly believe that bigger roads will ease congestion) – has always prevailed not just in Nairobi but in all of Kenya’s urban areas.

THE BUILDING OF PAVEMENTS AND pedestrian walkways is not just a political or a class issue; it is also a basic ingredient of a good, prosperous and liveable city. In a recent article, John Norquist, a former mayor and urbanist, explains how over-dependence on cars and motorways killed the city of Detroit in the United States.

Detroit, once the most productive city in America, decided to pursue a big-road policy that led to the building of bigger motorways and the degradation of pedestrian streets and transit systems. Roads and streets were designed exclusively for motor vehicles; sidewalks and public spaces were deemed unimportant.

“In an urban context, this was a stark departure from the time-tested practice of building streets with three purposes: movement, commerce and social interaction,” writes Norquist. Because it failed to cater for people, Detroit today is struggling to survive, while pedestrian-friendly cities such as Berlin and London, which did not pursue the big-road policy, are thriving.

What the planners of Detroit failed to consider is that cities are experienced through the sights, sounds and smells of their streets; they cannot be enjoyed in isolation from a motor car. The 19th century writer Charles Baudelaire described walking down a diverse and crowded city as “an exciting adventure” that could not be captured in any book or play.

In successful cities, sidewalks, pedestrian walkways and public parks are the great levellers, where factory workers mingle with corporate executives, and where the dignity of all, regardless of social class, is respected. Penalosa claims that highways are “a monument to inequality” in a city, and you can tell that a city is sick “when shopping malls replace plazas and public spaces”.

He defines Nairobi as a failed city for the simple reason that it seems to cater more for cars than for the thousands of human beings who walk on non-existent pavements. He is also against the use of pavements as parking spaces or for hawking, as both take away space from the public.

If cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam or New York had neglected their pavements, parks and plazas, he adds, they would today be lying in ruins.