A place without a car is not essentially a better place; it only carries the potential of being one.

Urban traffic management has become an incredibly segregated field that only differentiates the black from the white: the empire of the car and the hermetic pedestrian area. Over time, the car became too possessive in our cities: what initially began as a layer of mobile freedom evolved into the partly choking of mobility and - even worse - quality of life. It is logical that European cities now put a hold to this evolution and systematically push the car out of their cores. The liberated area is than generally transformed into pedestrian zones.

One of the major problems we notice is that the transformation of a "motorised" street into a pedestrian area often looks as if its modal shift was a hasty decision. It regularly results in an urban no man’s land where no pedestrian really feels at ease. Transforming a broad street - originally laid-out as one of the main traffic axes of a city - into a car-free zone unveils the place’s lack of affinity with the human scale. A place without a car is not essentially a better place; it only carries the potential of being one.

It is simply because of the lack of known alternatives that the strict pedestrian zone is so commonly - yet blindly - cherished as an ideal solution. A new type of urban mobility can replace this attitude and above all intensify the quality and experience of a proper designed pedestrian zone that has more sense to it than just banning the car.

If we want to create places that are better adapted to their use, we cannot deny the daily flux and flow of a city. The streets are the urban veins through which the masses move themselves as a vibrant blood-flow, its pumping rhythm dictated by time and daily routine. To take out the city’s flow and movement is to take away part of city life. What happens if we imagine a new type of in-between space? An area that combines the lack of cars with the benefits of still being mobile? Envision a city with 3 conceptual areas (not to be mistaken for urban zoning):

Granstudio_urban levels

Intercity: unaltered mobility
The outskirts of the city is the home of the conventional motorised traffic as we know it today. Sometimes beautiful in its ugliness, sometimes choking and destructive. This type of mobility is very flexible in use, but unsuitable for a dense city centre. Park en ride hubs function as main points of interaction with the inner city.

Inner city: a shared centre
This is the new intermediate level that tries to match the need for mobility with the urge for a liveable inner city. Due to newly conceived mobility solutions, it combines the flexibility of car-use with the free grounds of a pedestrian area. A variety of pod vehicles forms a valuable addition to the non-motorised mobility.

Cells: specific traffic free areas
These are pedestrian areas in the most prestigious sense of the word. They are carefully selected upon scale, activity and location, and provide a profoundly meaningful environment for the pedestrian. Cells are conceived as points of destination rather than transit: shopping streets, event squares, parks, theatre foyers... Their size and shape depends on the urban condition and is based upon the genius loci - the feel and spirit of a place. In rational quantified parameters, this could be partly translated into dimensions, urban typology, functionality and amount of users. Traffic-free cells could be permanent, solidified in keen urban design that takes the human scale as an inalienable factor (which is by no means a definition for cute or small). In addition, cells could be free in space and time: a weekly market, a summer festival, an important movie première...

People form an essential element of the cells. Local initiatives, adaptation and spontaneous use are key elements of creating a space to live the city to the utmost. The researched model is no top-down piece of a puzzle that fits into an urban fabric, but a structural urbanism that starts to exist from the apparent context and structure. The liberated streets could form an ideal trigger to become the symbolic and functional backbone of a renewed urban core. The altered areas can structure urban flows, but to a larger extent also steer future development. Their impact on a city is profound and fundamental. If realised in the spirit and culture of the particular city, a project in a preliminary state can grow over time into a comprehensive system that becomes almost synonym to the city itself: a picture to be found on the cover of every city guide.

(Wouter Haspeslagh)

Article published in
July 2015