Summer 2001, p.2

Provocateur: Vision For A Just City

Presently we are living in a time of continued effort to minimize the role of government in society. However, urbanism by its very nature cannot go along with that trend. It is highly interventionist. Urbanism necessitates community and societal decisions to be enforced through some form of government, therefore it clashes with libertarian conceptions. This is evident even in the most basic of matters. It cannot be left to the individual owners' whim the height of a building, the width of a sidewalk or a street, or even the kind of trees to be planted in public space. A city is a collective creation bound by rules that can only be enforced through community organization which is best described as government.

A fascinating aspect of government-enforced rules for city building and city living is that there are no objective criteria for many of them. They are largely ideological, more akin to taste than to reason, to art than to science. This is true not only of building regulations, but also to decisions such as hours at which alcoholic beverages can be sold, the closing off of a street for a parade, or whether to allow for car-free bicycle riding.

Constructing a city which functions efficiently is not enough. We must strive to create an environment where the majority of people will be as happy as possible. Happiness is difficult to define and hard to measure. Over the last 40 years the environment became an issue of deep concern. Today 8-year-olds in wealthy countries are taught to worry about tropical forests and the survival of mountain gorillas. Curiously, a similar interest in the human environment has not arisen. There is much more clarity as to what the ideal environment is for a happy gorilla, less so for that of a happy child.

Before we talk about a transport system for a city, we must know what type of city we want. But when we talk about a type of city, we are really talking about a way of living. And if we talk about how we want to live, we are touching upon the deepest human values. We have to start with an ethical and aesthetical conception. Before we have a vision of a city, we need a vision of what it is that makes people happy.
Public spaces in cities are essential for creating a more just and integrated society. High quality parks, sidewalks, pedestrian streets, libraries, and plazas are not frivolities. They are as important as roads or sewage systems. They are places for rich and poor to meet and experience as equals. For a child growing up in the midst of a city, access to the green space of a park is a necessity for physical and emotional health. Likewise, pedestrian and bicycle paths connect neighborhoods and make a larger world accessible to all ages and classes of citizens. All of this contributes to a happier society.

The failings of suburbs have been amply written about. In America, car dependent low-density suburbanized cities produce severe quality of life deficiencies and economic inefficiencies. Their empty streets without sidewalks are lonely and boring. Children and the elderly are left stranded because low-density developments cannot be effectively served by public transit.

The implicit assumption is that advanced countries have a monopoly in science, technology, and invention in general. However, when it comes to creating cities, the urban experts of such advanced countries themselves recognize the failings of their models.

The cycle of more cars, more roads, more cars, is very hard to break. Once cars get into jams, immense pressure develops to build more, and faster roads. Faster roads soon generate development around them and thus their own traffic jams. But in the process they push suburban development farther, and spread it thinly over vast areas. Concentric circles of paved wastelands ripple outward from an ever-neglected city core slipping over land where productive farms, wetlands and even small forests once thrived.

The futility of trying to solve traffic problems by building new roads should be obvious. In the U.S., traffic congestion has doubled every five years. But despite its massive social and economic costs, road building continues to be the backbone of transport policies throughout the world.

We can create a new high-density city with quality housing for all, excellent public transport, ample parks, and a network of pedestrian bicycle paths. A city safe from crime, with people meeting as equals in public spaces. A happy, child-friendly city rather than a car-friendly one.

Enrique Peņalosa
Visiting Scholar, New York University

Provocateur is an exploration of ideas related to cycling, walking, or the impact of car culture on how we live. It is intended to provoke indignation, reflection and just plain thought. Provocateur does not reflect the official position of transportation alternatives.

Read the latest information on this subject.