As the local body elections near we’ll see more ideas emerging from candidates and their teams. Late last year we had an interesting one in Wellington advocated by none other than Sir Robert Jones.
Sir Robert, a Wellington property millionaire, and supposedly retired, is putting together a team to run for the Wellington mayoralty. Running on the single issue to create a pedestrian-only boulevard from Lambton Quay to Courtenay Place Sir Robert says there’s “Nothing else. This is what people will vote for.”
The concept, modelled on cities such as Copenhagen and Budapest, would include free bikes and trams, water fountains every 100 metres, and possibly an ice rink and sound shell for entertainment. The car-free space would be perfect for open markets too, of which Sir Robert says: “Women are mad, we all know that, but they love Saturday markets. Some men do too.”
Unsurprisingly, Sir Robert’s vision has hit a road block with many Wellington businesses worried at the impact that it could have on their custom. Is it time to look at possible compromises? A post on the New Urbanism Blog provides some interesting ideas worth considering.
In other cases, it means getting creative, and using our spaces more efficiently for more hours of the day…
How about some examples?
One of my all-time favorites is Belden Alley in San Francisco. By daytime, this is a typical service alley like so many in any downtown or urban area. By nighttime, however, the alley transforms. Restaurants actually open onto the alley, and move tables and chairs out onto the pavement space. Bollards are placed at the alley entries so that vehicles cannot drive through. The space becomes alive with people relaxing and enjoying the evening.
The same condition exists in various ways in older cities throughout the U.S. A key component of a recent master plan that we co-authored in downtown Evanston, IL emphasized better use of the alleys as pedestrian ways, building upon a small successful couple of local examples. Other cities with increasingly active urban areas have experimented with this approach, which incidentally helps with safety as well by providing more activity in otherwise dark areas.
But we need not stop at just alleys. Our streets themselves deserve the same kind of thinking. Again, by thinking creatively about how to manage space, we can create more life, and more pleasure in our cities. A great example is the Cicolvia phenomenon. Begun in Bogota, Colombia, the idea was borne to shut down a large amount of the city’s streets (or portions of streets) for most of the day on every Sunday. On the temporarily-closed streets, people ride bikes, jog, walk with their kids, play games and much more. I had the chance to observe this in both Bogota and Medellin in Colombia, and it’s truly one of those experiments that the people who live there find great enjoyment from. Just think of our own over-sized streets, and how easy it would be to close them down for a “slower” Sunday to get out and simply enjoy life in the neighborhood or the City.
The possibilities are endless – the only hurdle we have to overcome is the assumption that all pavement space must be for vehicles all the time. Ray Bradbury eloquently wrote about this in the short story, The Girls Walk This Way,
“We drive… and drive… and drive and come home blind with exhaustion. We have seen nothing, nor have we been seen. Our total experience? Six waved hands, a thousand blurred faces, seventeen Volkswagon rears and some ripe curses from a Porsche and an MG behind.” And later: “Now we must remember that drama and theater are not special and separate and private things in our lives. They are the true stuffs of living, the heart and soul of any true city. It follows we must begin to provide architectural stages upon which our vast populations can act out their lives.”
If anyone is going to get traction on the concept of turning much of Wellington’s CBD into a pedestrian zone it is Sir Robert Jones. We will watch with some interest.