“What is most attractive, what attracts people to stop and linger and look, will invariably be other people. Activity in human life is the greatest attraction in cities.” – Copenhagen architect Jan Gehl, who does for human traffic what traffic engineers had once done only for cars. His studies made pedestrians visible to planners for the first time.
We want the opportunity to watch and be watched, even if we have no intention of ever actually making contact with one another. This hunger for time among strangers is so widespread that is seems to contradict the urge to retreat that helped create the dispersed city in the first place.
But modern cities and affluent economies have created a particular kind of social deficit. We can meet almost all our needs without gathering in public.
We have gotten so good at privatizing our comforts, our leisure time, and our communication that urban life gets scoured of time with people who are not already colleagues, family, or close friends. Tellingly, the word community is increasingly used to refer to groups of people who use the same media or who happen to like a certain product, regardless of whether its members have actually met. …
There is simply no substitute for actually being there.
Can we build – or rebuild – city spaces in ways that enable easy connections and more trust among both familiars and strangers? The answer is a resounding yes. …
Design can prime us toward trust and empathy, so that we regard more people as worthy of care and consideration.
Cities that care about livability have got to start paying attention to the psychological effect that traffic has on the experience of public space. Human bones have evolved to withstand impact with hard surfaces up to a speed of about twenty miles per hour, which is faster than a reasonably fit person can run. So it is natural to get anxious when confronted with hard objects moving faster than that.
This is perhaps the most insidious way that the system of dispersal has punished those who live closer together. Most of the noise, air, pollution, danger, and perceived crowding in modern cities occurs because we have configured urban spaces to facilitate high-speed travel in private automobiles.
When an entire city is designed around easy parking, then everyone shops farther from home, and the chances of bumping into people you might actually see again dwindles. Ample, easy parking is the hallmark of the dispersed city. It is also a killer of street life.
All the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles is public, and it can be used any way we decide.