In the late 20th century there was a fundamental change in the way cities were designed, as planning and development came to focus on motor cars rather than people. The change can be characterised by making a distinction between ‘roads’ built for traffic, as opposed to ‘streets’ built for people to carry out their daily lives.
The developed, western, 20th-century city is hugely different to what went before, all of them developed around the internal combustion engine and remarkably similar to each other. Compare the swathes of highway, out-of-town retail and business parks and cul-de-sacs of housing estates found almost everywhere with, say, the hutongs of Beijing, the favelas of Rio, early north American cities or the pre-20th-century parts of just about every city in Europe. All of the latter were built before the car was created, and all are unique and individual but, nevertheless, are recognisable to people all over the world and through millennia as the natural habitat of human beings.
In the UK, road traffic engineers have dominated the planning of cities and towns and even our method of land release often relies on road building, with the car accommodated first and then zoned residential and commercial development following. Master planning is too often made on the assumption of traffic needs: channelling, calming and separating cars and pedestrians, and creating a very different urbanism to that which most people would build for themselves in a carless world.
Car-orientated development has had big consequences for the society we live in. A reliance on the car means increased pollution, congestion and oil usage and has wider implications on CO2 levels and climate change. The car has contributed towards obesity in the West as walking and cycling in20th-century cities is difficult to near impossible for everyday life. There are few places in the modern city where you can walk to buy a pint of milk or a pint of beer, and the hatchback car was practically invented for out-of-town retailing.
Because of these problems, urbanism orientated around humans has never been higher on the agenda for town planning. There is increasing pressure to reinvent design for urban clusters and to return to the streetscapes that proved so important in previous centuries. Segregated use zoned development is all about integrated, fine grain mixed use with vibrant streets designed for humans and not vehicles. Cutting-edge designers are now anticipating driverless cars and, with a decreasing presence of automobiles in the city, changes will serve to make streets for people more important than roads for cars.
This blog first appeared on WriteYou.co.uk