Rethinking the city – Less traffic, more greenery

Not only the effects of the pandemic, but also climate change urge us to think about the future of cities and especially city centres. Both challenges show that a lot has gone wrong in the development of cities so far.

Greenery – a scarce commodity in many cities.Shutterstock -PIXEL to the PEOPLE

”Rethinking the city – against chain store monoculture in city centres“, the first part of this insight, was concerned with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s recent efforts to counteract prevailing chain stores in the French capital’s city centre by supporting the local economy. But with her campaign “Réinventer Paris” (Reinvent Paris), Hidalgo has still more in mind. She generally pursues a policy that she summarises under the catchword “social ecology”. This includes increased social housing construction and the banning of plastic waste. She is taking action against offers of housing on platforms such as Airbnb that are not approved by the city and she no longer wants to allow second homes in the inner-city arrondissements.

With her plans to massively restrict car traffic in the city and instead create more greenery and space for pedestrians and cyclists as well as squares and parks for recreation, she repeatedly encounters fierce opposition, but nevertheless adheres to the goal of a “green” Paris with clean air.

She is by no means alone in the idea of curbing traffic in cities. Probably one of the first cities in Europe to close its city centre to car traffic was Pontevedra in Spain. Here, the decision was taken at the turn of the millennium, with the result that the town has gained in quality of life and has seen a corresponding increase in population. Furthermore, traffic accidents decreased significantly, and CO2 emissions have been reduced by around 70 percent.

In the meantime, many cities are thinking about how to channel and reduce the flood of cars that roll through the city every day. This undoubtedly includes a well-developed public transport network. But it also – and more urgently – needs a change in thinking. This change can already be seen mainly among younger people, for whom the car is no longer a symbol of status and freedom and who prefer cities in which they can easily get around on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. In Germany, for example, 86 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds still had a driving licence in 2010; in 2019, the figure was only 79 per cent.

Another aspect is the space that cars take up in the city. The average time private cars are rolling is between one and one and a half hour per day. The rest of the time cars are parked – with a share of 80 percent mostly on public space. So, everyone is familiar with streets where parked cars line up next to each other. Each car occupies seven to eight square metres of parking space – and often without a corresponding fee. Even if parking fees are charged, the price is f ar below what land in the city is worth. Here, too, the question is whether more space for pedestrians and cyclists and for more greenery in the city would not make more sense.

Greening and air corridors in the city are necessary, especially because climate change results in increasingly hot periods during summers. The more densely a city is built up, the less green it has, the fewer air corridors provide cooling, the more buildings heat up and the city becomes an oven that can hardly cool down even at night.

But all these changes need politicians and city leaders who have staying power in the face of any resistance to such plans. Those who are a little older still remember the discussions when the first main shopping streets in city centres were converted into pedestrian zones and the demise of city centre shops was prophesied. This demise did not happen, on the contrary: the shops profited from it and the people in the city also appreciate these traffic-free and often additionally greened miles, in which appropriate outdoor gastronomy has often settled.

Basically, the question has to be asked who owns the city and to whom it serves. The people who live in the city want to be able to move around safely, they want clean air, but they also need green areas – climate change with its hot summers demands a rethink urgently –, they appreciate a diverse range of cultural institutions as well as shops and services, in short: they value as much quality of life as possible. Uniformity and excessive individual traffic with noise and polluted air are not conducive to identifying with a city and perceiving it as attractive.

Marianne Schulze

Independent journalist