Can we rewild our urban streets?
With the optimization of our streets in recent decades, there is a movement to reshape them.
It is now generally accepted that monoculture is bad for our countryside. We see how economies of scale have devastated the intricacies of our farmland and changed our complex primeval forests into production forests, with rows and rows of standardized trees. But what about our cities? Like natural ecosystems, cities also used to be complex and diverse places that hosted a whole range of different activities. Our streets were public spaces, used for many purposes: work, trade, play, socializing and transportation. But just as our countryside, our city streets have also been optimized for one goal: to move people around as quickly as possible, unhindered by anyone using public space for other purposes.
The rewilding movement centers around a new, more humble attitude towards intervening in nature. Moving from an engineering mindset to the mindset of a gardener. Instead of trying to simplify and optimize, this approach teaches us to dance with complexity. In most cities however, the discussion does not yet get to that level and still often hinges around how we can shift the focus to new means of mobility. Can we also learn to ‘rewild’ our urban streets?
Groningen, in the Netherlands, known for its progressive steps to reclaim streets for bikes, certainly thinks so. It recently adopted the Leidraad Nieuwe Ruimte; a set of guidelines that reduce mobility to one thing that a street should facilitate, as well as, for example, better health, an awareness of cultural history, or the city’s ability to adapt to the climate emergency. Whenever a street needs to be redesigned, the Leidraad now ensures that at least ten dimensions need to be considered. Instead of changing one goal with a new one, instead of moving for instance from a mobility focus to a proximity focus, this forces society to come to terms with the irreducible complexity of public space. And the municipality to reorganize its bureaucracies. Remember: deep leverage points will fundamentally change entire systems.
More to explore
The lab of thought recommends
- Follow and engage with social media accounts that question the language we use to talk about streets, such as those of Tom Flood (who is also flipping the script on road violence), Strong Towns, Jan Kamensky. Follow Marco te Brömmelstroet as Cycling Professor on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tiktok, Reddit.
- Share information on the website roaddanger.org by adding news items on crashes and other traffic accidents that you come across in the media. By doing so, you can help raise awareness of how people write and talk about such events — often in a dehumanised way, despite the long-term, deep, and wide-ranging impact they have.
- More inspiring accounts: Playing Out, Modacity, Monkey Wrench Gang and The War on Cars.
- Read Marco te Brömmelstroet's free e-book, which forms the academic basis for The Movement.
- Take a look at the Groningen Guideline for Public Space, which refers to nine other dimensions in addition to that of mobility: accessibility, safety, human perception, health, social interaction, ecology, climate adaptation, economy, and cultural history. Learn to identify these various dimensions and to look at them as a whole.
- Read Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson), Thinking in Systems (Donella H. Meadows), Fighting Traffic: the dawn of the motor age in the American city and Autonorama: the illusory promise of high-tech driving (Peter Norton), and New Power: how power works in our hyper-connected world (Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms).
- Watch the Ted Talk How language shapes the way we think (Lera Boroditsky).
- Follow one or more of the MOOCs offered by the University of Amsterdam: Unravelling the Cycling City, Alternative Mobility Narratives, and Reclaiming the Street for Liveable Urban Spaces or Getting Smart about Cycling Futures.
BECOME A THINKER OF TOMORROW
There is an urgent need to rethink our thinking about mobility. The current expectations on mobility innovations are often rooted in the advances in digital technology and are generally greeted with eager optimism. Unfortunately what is often overlooked are the unmet needs of humans and our planet. The Lab of Thought attempts to explain mobility from this standpoint, so we as individuals and as societies lessen our impact on the planet, now and in the future.