These are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who use the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.
I’m a linguist who travels and writes about cities and has no academic background in urbanism. During my trips, I analyze the cities’ infrastructure and functioning. I spend hours watching how people use public space. Also, I interview urbanists, University professors, activists, NGOs, and experts working in city halls.
As a city person, I thought I liked all cities. But then I realized that wasn’t quite true. So I’d say that what got me into walkability was the question, “Why do I find some cities so exciting and others dreary?”
I read Jeff Speck’s Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. The book changed the way I relate to cities. I became aware of sidewalk’s width, public transport’s frequency, pedestrian crossings, urban trees, and other meaningful elements that have a daily impact on our lives.
Walking and the livable city
The most powerful factor of livable communities is the sense of belonging. When citizens actually identify with the place they live in, they take care of it. Second, they are considerate of others. As a result, they create and protect public spaces. One clear symptom of healthy districts is cleanliness. If people go on a picnic, they bring garbage bags.
Also, people are more likely to choose sustainable transport. In Vienna, for instance, kids start at a very young age to learn how to ride a scooter. Neighbours can work together to beautify the streets, too. In Tokyo residents place flower pots on the sidewalks. Of course, having smart people planning and designing cities is helpful. But a group of engaged citizens is still more important.
Hyperwalkability and the 15 minute city concept are deeply connected. Post-COVID cities must change the design and use of space. We need to create additional places we usually go to, so that we avoid crowds. This is especially important in today’s less liveable areas. There, residents are practically forced to commute everyday. They commute to work, they commute to school, they commute to groceries. Besides the daily pain of commuting, one consequence that has became dangerous is that more and more people gather in those destinations. If we can multiply the number of places that make certain areas walkable, we’ll have to deal with fewer risky crowds. The reproduction of walkable districts leads to hyperwalkable cities.
The most interesting COVID response strategies are those that reduce car space. In Buenos Aires, they are closing roads to traffic so that people can run, bike, or walk keeping a safe distance. Something similar happens in many restaurants and cafes, where they convert parking lots into dining spaces. Fingers crossed these pro-pedestrian policies are here to stay.
A great piece of street furniture responds to pedestrian needs. The designer has to understand the requirements pedestrians may have in a specific area. Take, for instance, a bench. Depending on where you are planning to place it, the bench will have certain characteristics. The benches at the bus stop are narrow and rather short because there’s little space and people aren’t supposed to stay there for a long time. On the contrary, park benches can be big and comfortable because there’s more space and people may sit down and relax. One of the best benches I’ve sat on was at Moscow’s Gorky Park.
I can’t call myself an expert, but cars are still a big issue, even in walkable cities. Pedestrianizing more streets, replacing parking lots with parks, closing streets to traffic: measures like these will keep enhancing our experience in the city. Vehicles might be useful for driving long distances but they aren’t needed in the downtown.