Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bringing the Streets to Life

The following post is based on the Livable Saskatoon talk by Gil Penalosa on September 30, 2010. The photographs are of Granada, Nicaragua.

In Merida, Mexico, the community gathers in the zocolo (town square) at sunset. There are families with toddlers, teenagers out with their friends and old people watching from the sidelines. A military parade officially retires the flag. The shoe shine stands are packing up for the night, but the vendors selling toys and balloons have just arrived. There is dancing in the street on Sunday evenings, and the zocolo is surrounded by stands serving hot food. Even the sky is alive with flocks of birds coming in to roost for the night.

Contrast this image with the downtown core of any Canadian city at sunset. If there’s late-night shopping, the streets will be lined with cars. On a nice night, you may see a few people gathered on the Starbucks patio. But in general, the streets are deserted. All that space and no people – no life.

Streets – for People or for Cars?
Gil Penalosa is the Executive Director for 8-80 Cities and the former Parks and Recreation Commissioner for Bogota, Colombia. Speaking to an audience of believers, he emphasized the importance of creating public spaces that attract pedestrians and cyclists.

“When you define your city around cars, all you get is more cars,” Gil says. You’ll always have traffic congestion, no matter how much money you spend on new bridges and wider streets.

Gil goes on to note that if you look at cities from the air, you realize that streets are the largest municipal public space. “Streets are the most valuable asset of a city,” Gil says. “How do we distribute them – for cars or for people?” Imagine what our cities would look like if we turned parking lots into parks and widened the sidewalks to include benches, trees, outdoor cafes, and play areas for children.

Many cities are closing off their streets to all vehicular traffic on Sundays. Ciclovia brings over 1 million people out on the streets every Sunday in Bogota. 350,000 people in Guadalajara, Mexico, enjoy 65 kilometres of roadway free of cars every week.

Protecting the Vulnerable
Last year in Toronto, a car hit a pedestrian every 4 hours. They hit a cyclist every 7 hours and 10 minutes. Is it any wonder that I make eye contact with drivers before venturing across a street on foot?

8-80 Cities has a very simple but profound goal. They want to make cities and streets around the world safe – for 8 year olds – or 80 year olds.

Take a look at their website and sign up for their newsletter. Let’s work together to turn our cities into safe, healthy places for people of all ages – on foot and on bicycles as well as in cars.

Related Blog Posts on the 2009 Jan Gehl Lectures and Book
     Cities for People Not Cars
     You Can Do It
     Architecture on a Human Scale


Stephanie V said...

You know, this is an interesting concern. Here, we have a struggling town square. It's about cars but it's also about weather. The town square is busy all summer long - as long as the sun shines.
But now with the weather getting cooler it's less inviting for people to sit, stroll or even shop outside. This is a source of frustration for those merchants who long to have a vibrant center.

Penny McKinlay said...

The problem is that urban planners are still designer outdoor spaces for the summer season. We need to start planning spaces for all the seasons with covered patios and heaters, playground equipment that is safe in the rain, space for piles of snow where children can safely create igloos and slides, etc.

In Copenhagen, the restaurants not only provide patio heaters - they supply blankets!

Stephanie V said...

They do that here, too. Somehow eating outside with a fleece blanket around me doesn't sound as comfortable as a glassed-in patio might be.

Penny McKinlay said...

Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, sent me the following email:

“I hope all goes well and that Saskatoon will take advantage of the historic opportunity to make a beautiful destination point along a completely pedestrian and cycling bridge, serving as the heart of the city and providing vibrancy to all. This will NOT have any major impact on alleviating congestion and instead could really trigger many more people oriented projects. I am attaching a photo that I took on my flight out which clearly shows that the other bridges can do fine without this small one.”