Walk the Line: How to Reclaim our Public Spaces?

At some point every day, we use the most ‘human’ form of urban transport: our feet. Walking has always been the basis of human mobility and even now, in our mistaken belief that ‘development’ has to mean cities filled with highways and polluting vehicles, pedestrians are still fighting for recognition.

For many, this battle has intensified since the 1960s, thanks to Jane Jacobs’ book The Life and Death of Great American Cities. This challenged the US model of towns built for cars while criticizing previously ‘untouchable’ architects such as Le Corbusier and Robert Moses. Indeed, Jacobs’ public protest against Moses’ plans to build a highway over Washington Square Park in New York City is now legendary. Frustrated by the protests, Moses declared: “There is nobody against this. Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.” In the end, the mothers won!

Washington Square Park, NYCDuring the 19th century, walking was a concept so synonymous with the city that even the great European cultural figures of the time would study the activity. Balzac and Baudelaire wrote about the Parisian flâneur (stroller); Caillebotte depicted flânerie in his impressionist works; and Manet and Degas often painted this quintessential urban exercise.

Then in the first half of the 20th century appeared the modernists, for whom the car was the key component of city planning. They dreamed of great commercial towers shaping city skylines; far removed from ‘dirty’ industrial areas, and connected from all cardinal directions, through endless elevated highways, with vast suburbs on the outskirts, where the (segregated) humans would live.

The journey by foot lost its raison d’être and the car became our most valuable possession. The mighty automotive industry was clearly very satisfied with this urban model and has done its best to promote it ever since. Yet, history has proved it a failure.

Separating our homes from our places of work, education and leisure tears apart our social fabric; isolating or segregating communities neutralizes human interaction. The realignment of life towards the suburb and away from the inner city creates extremely negative economic, social and environmental consequences. Moreover, traffic congestion is never solved by building more roads, as demonstrated by decades of academic research on such concepts as ‘induced traffic’ and ‘induced demand’.

La Rambla, BarcelonaOne of the geniuses behind the Barcelona model, Toni Puig, makes this clear: “Cities in which you cannot walk are not cities; they are merely consumption camps”. And indeed the way we build our cities predetermines many of the human activities that take place there. If every neighbourhood comes with an attractive park offering a combination of green and leisure areas, easily accessible by foot and safe both day and night, then  we notice a lot of positive human interaction taking place there. On the other hand, if recreational areas are only accessible by car and promote mass consumption as the ultimate goal, then it is not unusual to see large masses of shopping malls on the outskirts of cities, filled with unnecessary and unhealthy products.

Latin American cities used to be pedestrian-friendly, and until recently the ‘the block’ was the fundamental centre of urban life. If you don’t believe me, try this simple exercise: ask your mum how she used to do the groceries when she was 25. She almost certainly lived in a more ‘human’ city: walking, buying fresh produce directly from local producers, and interacting with the vital components of any society: other human beings.

In a city where the car is king, pedestrians stop existing. In Medellin, Colombia,  between 12 and 15 pedestrians die every month and more than 50 are injured (the vast majority of these casualties being over 50 years old). In Bogotá, between 250 and 300 pedestrians are killed every year. In all Colombian cities, pedestrians are critically vulnerable actors on the roads.

The good news is that in many of our cities, the journey by foot remains a fundamental component of the urban mobility system. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), 35 per cent of daily trips in Manizales are made on foot; 25 per cent in Pereira, and 14 per cent in Bucaramanga. In Cali, according to the 2005 origin-destination survey, pedestrians account for 24 per cent of daily trips; in Medellín the figure stands at 26 per cent. Would you ever have imagined that this still happens in all these cities that seem to bow before the car? Don’t worry, many of our politicians don’t realize either. It’s not easy to understand city mobility from the back of a 4×4 truck.

Colombian pedestrian crossings...Some weeks ago, I saw a group of young people who, tired of the disrespect shown by drivers towards pedestrians, painted a crossing in Medellín. They did it with their own hands, and instead of an ordinary zebra crossing, painted a series of walkers with crowns on their heads. Later, another group of citizens did the same in Barranquilla, and others are planning to do it in several other cities in Colombia.

Kudos to those youngsters, who instead of sitting back and criticizing, decided to act! No doubt they are successful in reminding every passer-by that pedestrians still exist; that the pedestrian is you and me; that the pedestrian should be the real king of public spaces in any innovative city.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at UNU-MERIT / School of Governance. First published in Contrapunto, 11 March 2013. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Images: Flickr / M.Marquer; C.Schoenbohm

2 thoughts on “Walk the Line: How to Reclaim our Public Spaces?

  1. I miss the position for the cyclists…these have lost their place too (see Asian countries with their motorcycles instead of bicycles and cycling riksja’s. These are environmental friendly too and are for the longer distance a better option than walking.

  2. Pingback: UNU-MERIT » Sustainable Mobility: Are We Still on Track?

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