Planning cities is nothing new. We’ve been living together in urban centres for 7000 years and planning has been a constant ever since. For most of that time, planning was a rational and pragmatic affair that focused on design. It responded to immediate needs as well as preparing for future growth. Indeed, the streets of our cities were the most democratic spaces in the history of homo sapiens.
After seven millennia, however, democracy turned to dictatorship. We made massive mistakes and it all started with the invention of the automobile. After a slow start, the obsession with finding space for these machines increased. Through the 1940s, in America, the traffic engineering profession hammered out their standards and then exported it without opposition to every corner of the world. Our belief in the car blinded our rationality and mutilated our cities. We are only now starting to reverse the damage.
Indeed, we are looking at our cities differently - and more positively - than at any time in the last century. Regarding transport, we are seeking useful solutions that can solve our timeless urban problems. Despite our often-unhealthy obsession with technology, many of these solutions prove to be simple.
For decades we have allowed our streets to be engineered - and not much else. Now it is time to turn back to design. We should be using basic design principles to form the very human spaces in our cities instead. Why? Design is a human-to-human process, with the end user in mind throughout. Engineering is applying mathematical models in a distant office to streets used by others.
Design is as aesthetic as it is pragmatic. Imagine if we designed our streets like we designed our smartphones, toasters, chairs? Enjoyable, functional, practical - and safe. It isn’t a theory - it was the subliminal way we did it for centuries.
When we look at the future development of our cities, we see great potential in using tried and tested ideas. For example, the bicycle as transport is returning to our cities after an absence of several decades. Protected bike lanes are being put in in cities around the world. Transport networks of bicycle infrastructure are once again emerging on the urban landscape. A city like Copenhagen, where 62% use bikes to get around each day, is the benchmark but cities everywhere are racing to catch up.
It’s simple mathematics. A Best Practice cycle track - protected from motorised traffic - with a minimum one-way width of 2.3 metres can move 5900 people down a street each hour. A car lane, when flowing smoothly, can only move 1300 people per hour. The design of cycle tracks is a century old and it is quite perfect.
Pragmatism and respect for established design - not only in urban transport but in all aspects of city development - is the key in rebuilding our life-sized cities. Focusing on the humans who populate our cities is the only way forward. Bringing back urban democracy will define the next century of urbanism.