By Maarten Hajer
Some days ago, my eye fell on a simple drawing of a streetscape. While flipping through my twitter timeline I was confronted with an alternative way of depicting something as common as a street. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing. It showed our streets from the perspective of pedestrians, highlighting some details, radically leaving out others. More in particular it highlighted the risks pedestrians face. Pavements looked like mountain rims, on the edges of ravines. A little boy is seeing something and wants to run after it. He would fall off the rim, but for the mother who is holding his hand. There is a man crossing. While he should be okay, he is taking a risk stepping on the plank crossing the ravine.
The drawing, as simple as it was, highlights the peculiar way in which we have organized our streets. The car determines the space, pedestrians are pushed back to the ridges. It is not a new theme, of course. Jane Jacobs famously wrote about the ‘pavement ballet’ in Death and Life of Great American Cities when she fought to protect the quality of the streets of the Village against Robert Moses, the master planner of New York. Yet the simplicity of the drawing is effective in bringing the absurdity of the present. Why is there such a radical unevenness in the way in which we move through our cities?
The drawing, simple as it is, helps re-imagining our urban futures. If the future of mobility takes us beyond the combustion engine, if mobility increasingly becomes a service, less a matter of ownership, and, if, perhaps, we will also more often see self-driving vehicles, then we can really rethink our streets. They become a space of potential, open for all sorts of alternative usage.
Streets are social spaces. Its usage changes with the way in which we organize mobility. The streets of old town of Hanoi are still dominated by motor bikes not by cars. While they can be a hazard in themselves, they still allow for an active usage of the pavements. Women sell fresh vegetables and people buy meat, ready for consumption that day. The fact that there are no cars parked at the curb leaves space for informal markets and entrepreneurship.
But what will happen when the middle classes earn enough to swap their bikes for cars? Seeing the quality of the street as public domain is a first step to avoid loosing this diversity of usage.
In African cities streets are often still to be constructed, again leaving ample space for a diversity of usage. The tarmac is for cars, but besides it there are market catering for the local population. Cities like Nairobi grow fiercely. Shopping malls are under construction wherever you look. Yet at the roads leading into the city vendors still find the place to sell their regional products directly to consumers, and at prices that people can afford.