City Planning

One Andrew writes about city planning and urban development, and he advocates the ‘human-scale’ city. Pretty much the historical European inner city, sometimes fairly successfully imitated in new developments. Some neighborhoods in the Netherlands for example qualify for his human-scale cities I think.

As a resident of Lyon, I know all too well what he means with car-first municipalities. Cycling here is a daily matter of life and death, because no one is familiar with it. I have only one or two colleagues or friends here who regularly commute by bicycle, car or public transport are the defaults. Especially the car is surprising to me, because the average speed is lower than a bicycle in Lyon. The city isn’t built much different from Amsterdam in it’s road network, and I know of no Amsterdam residents who commute by car, have a car, or would ever consider commuting by car. Must be cultural then.

Onto Andrews article: a good, but to me familiar, advocacy for non-car-first urban planning. What struck me was his inclusion of the tram in the ‘hypertrophic’ city, a not quite-car-first city but still way too extended to be walkable (although non-Dutch people might learn that a cycle can cover quite some distance, here in Lyon the concept of cycling to the outer cities areas is considered lunatic by anyone but the most sportive of types, while I know that a 15km commute isn’t far or long). The tram ‘enables’ extended planning, and is therefore an enemy of the human city. Now, that is a new idea to me, as I associate the tram (again, based on Amsterdam experiences) with a pretty human-level city.

Perhaps I misunderstand, but then Andrews human city can’t ever be a large city. A large city does not have to be hypertrophic, in that residential areas and offices and industry needn’t be far apart. Covering more than a few km on foot every day is just not very practical, and precludes institutions that are not easily distributed, such as hospitals, universities, international company headquarters, and such. Perhaps we shouldn’t think about ‘scale’ as much as ‘modes of transport’. What works very well in the Netherlands is that young people grow up with the bicycle as the default mode of transport, for distances up to 10-25km, and public transport for the rest. Inner cities have an active discouragement of car traffic (parking a car in central Amsterdam can be up to €10 per hour), but don’t actually remove the ability to use the car. There are very few streets where a car can’t go, but still most residents wouldn’t even consider it for any intra-city commute. The tram fills the gap for tourists, the disabled, rainy days, those who can’t or won’t cycle. At the same time, no Dutch city is very large, so perhaps there is an upper limit to this kind of transit culture.

Anyway, interesting to think about. I fully agree with Andrew that any car-first urban planning is not the way of the future, nor safety, nor comfort.