Look South!

Barbara Knecht's picture
A week ago I spent some time with Enrique Peñalosa, urban strategist and provocateur. North Americans don't often look south for innovation, but Peñalosa made remarkable changes in the public environment as Mayor of the city of Bogotá, Colombia. Nearly impeached for his actions to push cars aside in favor of people, now he is invited to provoke and inspire others.  "We have Environmental Impact Statements; why don't we have Human Impact statements," is a sampling from last week.

Enrique Peñalosa was in Boston at the invitation of the Livable Streets Alliance.  My organization, the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), and four other advocacy organizations co-hosted.  The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) made it possible.   What all these organizations have in common with Peñalosa is a vision for a different kind of city, one that privileges human comfort and social interaction. Hence the potentially provocative jab at the EIS.  The EIS process has prevented or mitigated the effect of some potentially harmful projects, but perhaps we hide behind the spotted toad and the striped bass when we need to stand up for people more forcefully. We may not be able to measure the value of beauty and usability (Planetizen '07) but we need them everywhere. Peñalosa calls it Urban Happiness.

While the U.S. tends to look to Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, even Italy, for examples of urban space wrestled back from cars.  Our southern neighbors have equally distinguished examples. In a recent trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile I traveled through Montevideo and Colonia, Uruguay; Rosario, Mendoza, San Juan and Cordoba, Argentina; Viña del Mar and Valparaiso, Chile.  All ten cities had significant thriving downtown pedestrian zones. The smallest was perhaps 5 blocks in San Juan, the largest 30 blocks in Santiago.

These images (San Juan, Argentina and Santiago, Chile) seem impossible to imagine throughout the U.S.

Our pedestrian zones are timid attempts in comparison.  New York closes a few blocks along Nassau Street in the financial district in midday.  Madison, Wisconsin closes six blocks, Charlottesville, VA about the same; Portland, OR two blocks; Memphis TN ¾ of a mile, Boston 4 blocks: not bad, but not much.

Temporal street closings in parks such as Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. are spreading, but non-park street closings are still a radical idea.  Notable exceptions include the 1.6 miles of Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA which has been closed on Sundays for more than 30 years.  But facing it across the river, Boston holds on stubbornly to Storrow Drive, only allowing a car free 30 minutes a year for the city-wide bike tour.  El Paso, Texas on the other hand, looked across the Rio Grande and saw the success of car free Sundays in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and jumped at the cheapest way possible to increase public open space. New York managed to close Park Avenue (except for cross traffic) from 72nd St to the Brooklyn Bridge for 3 weekends last summer. Chicago, Portland, Miami and Las Cruces are inching towards regular summer closings. But our neighbors have been at this for decades. Not only Juarez, but Quito, Ecuador, Curitiba and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico and the grandaddy of them all, Peñalosa's Bogatá, Colombia which started in the 1980's and now closes more then 70 miles of city streets for the 2 million people who come out every Sunday.

Car-free Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Bogotá, Colombia        

There are endless arguments against taking public space away from private vehicles for car-free days. But no one says that ordinary citizens won't like it and won't use and won't celebrate it. Every living example proves that they will. If we start from that human-centered perspective, then I have no doubt we can figure out the details. Peñalosa points out that solutions in Bogotá were driven by limited time, limited funds and limited happiness. Sounds familiar. Look to South America. Urban Happiness is in the works there.
Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.


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