Future cities? More park benches rather than cars

Future cities? More park benches rather than cars

According to urban planner Fred Kent, we have spent 70 years building our cities for cars, not people. That has made them less liveable. But how can we change that?

Fred Kent is an urban planner and founder of the non-profit organisation Project for Public Spaces, which works to make cities more liveable and people-centric. He has lived in the Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, NY for the last 30 years. Through his living room window he can see his grandson playing during recess in the schoolyard across the street. Taking a walk through the neighbourhood, he passes the Italian butcher’s shop on Court Street that has been run by the same family for three generations. Or he can stop under one of the old oak trees to chat with his neighbours. Cobble Hill is a people-centric neighbourhood, which all architects involved in placemaking around the world would like to be able to reproduce. In the past, cities used to be designed for people instead of cars, but over the decades things changed. The solution for going back to that situation, however, is not banning vehicles, but rather to better regulate them, taking into account the needs of each urban area and putting people first.

Socialisation locations

Kent does not use a car to get around Brooklyn, preferring a bike, the subway or simply to walk. His office does have a car available, though – it is shared between ten people. His opinion? “For decades, cities have been designed without thought of those who live there. The suburbs, for example, have lawns that no one uses for human interaction. It doesn’t occur to anyone to put a bench on them and sit down and talk. The people are isolated, and completely afraid of really coming into contact. They can’t do that anyway, because there aren’t any places any more where they can come together. We have a deep-seated fear of public space, which is why we look for ways to control it, manage it and keep people out of it. That makes our cities sterile. But people are starting to break with that mindset. Things are changing for the better”.

People-centric neighbourhoods

Cars occupy a privileged position in this scenario. If we look at city streets before the 1940s, they were utterly chaotic with trams, cars, bicycles and pedestrians all sharing the same space. This complexity generates vitality”. To make a neighbourhood more liveable, according to Kent, “you have to start by talking with the people who live there, encourage them to think about what they like about their surroundings, what they don’t, and what they need. The community needs to be stimulated and take responsibility for its surroundings and act; it can’t be the experts who come from elsewhere who tell the residents what they should or shouldn’t do”.

Real needs

Sometimes what people think they want and what they truly want are two very different things. In a small town in New Hampshire, people used to drive from store to store on main street”, tells Kent. “We simply removed barriers like hedges and fences between the stores, and filled the gaps with more shops and parks and places to relax. Now people walk up and down main street. The key to everything is understanding what people really need, what can change their behaviour – even if a different kind of vehicle could be more efficient”.

More space for people

The urban planner provides a concrete example: “Even in a lively, multicultural place like Times Square, in the heart of New York City, there is too much space for cars and too little for pedestrians. The roads are too wide, and the pavements too narrow. When designing a place, cars should find their own ways of integrating into it, not the other way around. Public places were always spots for socialising, and now this is no longer true”. Kent’s message is strong and clear: we need to give public spaces back to people.

SourceTOGETHER.net – Volkswagen AG

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