Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

8 August 2013

Whether you’re in Adelaide or Aalborg, you’ll note a new obsession in city hall. In fact, we’re all already doing it, it’s just that we’re being asked to do it more often and for longer.

You can do it alone or with someone else – and it’s always more thrilling in public. Keeping it restricted to the confines of your home is terribly suburban.

Any guesses?

It’s a simple thing but it will boost the economy, improve your health and help put the city budget back into black. The future city, we’re told, is one that walks. And there’s a directive from mayors’ offices around the world to get streets ready as they push their populations to set out on two feet instead of in a car or even on the tram or subway. We need better pavements, some signage and a nice map or two. In order to make them liveable, cities need places for leisure and commerce that appeal to pedestrians.

From quaint, winding European capitals to grid-based American metropolises, all have found that there is room for improvement. Many drop Copenhagen as a world leader thanks to the work of you-know-who (or if you don’t, his name is Jan Gehl) but even here in London, dramatic changes are being made to the way we integrate foot traffic into our thinking about cities.

Economically the argument is strong: road congestion, it’s said, costs London £4bn each year and, according to data from Transport for London, pedestrians spend 154 per cent more than car drivers (more time shopping and less spent parking, perhaps). And there are entrepreneurial spin-offs, too: design agencies tasked with perfecting signposts and developers crafting apps that help us find a space to ditch our four wheels and get on foot are also getting a piece of the pie.

Less tangibly, I’ll revert to an urbanist buzzword: with more walking comes a much easier path to proper “place-making”: the act of building a community with a sense of purpose and cohesion. The more time you spend on the streets of your neighbourhood, the more likely you are to feel invested in them.

In London, walking is finally becoming a formal element of a public-transport vision. As part of a broad urban-improvement strategy - whereby Transport for London is a leading partner - £30bn is to be spent over the next 20 years to “tackle congestion, support economic growth and transform walking and cycling”. Increasingly, private modes of transportation – either personal cars or your own two feet - are being thought of as part of the public network. When and where does it make sense to use each? And how do we encourage people to fit into this pattern?

It’s a good thing, generally. But London has already had its blunders: Exhibition Road, a half-hearted attempt at pedestrianisation, cost the city £30m and is deemed by many urbanists here as a failure. Correction: an expensive failure. Next up, London is clambering for its very own High Line (a railway repurposed as a public park) in the south London neighbourhood of Vauxhall. And it could use some help: wide roads, fast traffic and complex intersections meet you exiting the tube there. But what should we prioritise: places to meander, such as the proposed parkway, or reworking already existing roundabout crossings that are dangerous and unsightly?

As cities reprioritise and focus on how and where we walk, an important decision is at hand. Perhaps the key to our urban upgrade isn’t capital-intensive PR-able mega projects but smaller interventions that shift the power at our busiest street corners from four-wheelers to two-footers.

David Michon is Monocle’s managing editor.

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