If 16 million New Yorkers moved to the countryside to escape from city life, the devastation would be terrible. But what if the way to improve life is not to move the people to the countryside but, in a way, to move the countryside to the city? That is part of the idea behind the happy city and livable streets movement.
Making cities excellent for living in, by the way, is a crucial step forward if we are to maintain the planetary habitat that people depend on for their health, happiness and security. Indeed, "smart growth" and compact living are central pillars in the energy policies of many environmental organizations.
To make such policies successful, though, requires not only vision and imagination, but better yet, reliance on an increasing body of real-life experience. As to that experience, Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, sent me an excellent article by Charles Mongomery, published in Air Canada's in-flight magazine enRoute (of all places). The following are quotes from the article:
- "Changing the way we design and use public space can change the way we move, the way we treat other people and ultimately the way we feel."
- "In recent years, [Paris] residents have become so sick of noise, pollution and congestion that they have thrown their support behind a radical plan by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë to reclaim their streets. By 2012, suburban cars will be banned entirely from the city’s core."
- About the new Paris bike-sharing program: "Making the road seem more dangerous by injecting thousands of bikes into traffic may actually be making it safer. Bike accident statistics have flatlined, even as the number of cyclists has jumped in Paris by nearly 50 percent in the last six years."
- "Encounters we have on foot or by bike [as opposed to in cars] tend to build trust. It’s in the eye contact we make as we choreograph our movements. When it works, we become just a little less fearful of each other...So the more we meet outside of our cars, the kinder and gentler we’re likely to become."
- "As a bonus...happy folks are more likely to volunteer, to vote and to return lost wallets to strangers."
- "Bogotá [Columbia] was mired in poverty, chaos, violence and crippling traffic when [Mayor] Enrique Peñalosa decided to redesign it using lessons from happiness theory nearly a decade ago...Peñalosa declared war on cars...He pushed cars off prime road space in order to make room for an efficient rapid bus system so that the city would feel more fair."
- “What are our needs for happiness?” Peñalosa said in explaining his policies. “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And, most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”
- "The number of road fatalities fell by a third. Traffic began moving faster as people switched to the mayor’s rapid bus system."
- "The shift in priorities had a psychological effect on the city. Polls found that optimism shot up. The murder rate fell by 40 percent. By the end of Peñalosa’s term, residents had voted to ban private cars from rush hour by 2015."
- "The more time we spend on foot, on bikes or even on public transit, the more we slow down and the more we fuel this kind of social alchemy. Ironically, it may be the crisis of climate change – and the push for carbon austerity – that reinvigorates street life around the world."
The thing is, I know how much we all love our cars. The thought of not having them horrifies us. But is that because driving around alone in steel boxes is so great, or is it because not having a car in a society so completely structured around the automobile is so difficult?
What if we envisage a better society that did not depend on cars? What if our towns and cities were structured in such a way that the expense of having a car just plain wasn't worth the hassle? What if we designed our cities in such a way that you didn't need to drive to the countryside but could just hang out on street with lots of neighbors, lots of trees and no exhaust fumes?
Isn't there a chance that might be better?
Image courtesy of enRoute.