A step in the right direction

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					F8              Focus 666 Science & Ideas                                                                                                                                          The Globe and Mail, Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008


Foot and pedal power only: Copenhagen’s famed main drag, the Strøget, is Europe’s longest pedestrian mall. At first, the merchants
were convinced that banning cars would be their downfall. PHOTO BY ALAMY

A step in the right direction
Inspired by a visionary Dane, communities around the world are reacquainting their citizens with the joys
of walking and cycling. Can cities in climate-challenged Canada get off car-free as well?

                                                       ultra-hip current affairs jour-     again in 1973, 1980 and 1992.        but strangled itself trying to      the footpaths, bringing pedes-
                                                       nal Monocle recently declared       From those first 15,800 square       accommodate the automobile.         trians back in – it’s a sort of      Memory lanes
                                                       it the world’s most livable city.   metres of the Strøget, Copen-        By the late 1970s, it was a text-   broad strategy of slow im-
                                                       This newfound prominence            hagen’s pedestrian network           book “doughnut city” – a wide       provement.”                          Especially striking features of
                                                       rests largely on Copenhagen’s       has expanded to about                ring of sprawling suburbia sur-       In Canada’s many doughnut          downtown Melbourne are its
                                                       inviting city centre, which is      100,000 square metres.               rounding a soulless ring of         cities, the converging climate       laneways and arcades, a singular
                                                       latticed with a half-dozen ped-        The city also developed a         high rises that hollowed out        and energy crises have dra-          legacy of city planners back in
                                                       estrian-only promenades and a       unique set of empirical data to      almost entirely at the end of       matically increased the need         the 19th century.
                                                       dozen car-free squares,             chart the impact of banishing        each workday. A newspaper           for this kind of pedestrian rec-       To make the place easier to
                                                       stitched to the rest of the city    the auto. In the early 1970s,        headline had dismissed down-        onquest. “The good news,”            navigate, they decided to con-

      ast summer Montreal                              by one of the world’s more ex-      Mr. Gehl, then a professor of        town Melbourne as “empty,           says Mr. Adams, “is if you con-      nect long east-to-west blocks
      transformed 12 blocks of                         tensive networks of bicycle         urban design at the Royal Dan-       useless.”                           vert to a sustainable model for      with narrow lanes.
      Ste. Catherine Street, one                       paths.                              ish Academy of Fine Arts, be-          In 1983, with new govern-         a city, it’s actually going to be-     By the early 1990s, however,
of its busier thoroughfares, in-                          At the height of summer, a       gan to measure foot and              ments at the local and state        come a better place to live in.      only about 300 metres of this
to a vibrant public square.                            quarter-million people stroll       bicycle traffic and the use of       levels, a fresh strategic plan      Because increased densities,         network were still “active” –
Outdoor cafés spilled out on                           Copenhagen’s downtown               public space in Copenhagen.          recommended that the city           mixed use, connectivity, local       most of the lanes had been
the cracked concrete, and                              streets each day, and 36 per        He soon was joined by col-           take several measures – wider       character – all the things that      walled in and were being used
buskers and sculptures filled                          cent of residents cycle to work,    league Lars Gemzøe, and they         sidewalks, an expansion of its      we did to improve the livabil-       merely as service alleys.
the curbside parking spaces.                           with the help of more than          started to publish their find-       historic streetcar network, a       ity of the city – are exactly the      To reactivate them, the city
The catalyst for all this was                          300 kilometres of dedicated         ings every 10 years.                 dramatic increase in down-          same things you need to do to        obliged developers and property
simple: The city closed the                            bike lanes and guided in con-          One statistic measured the        town housing – but the most         improve the sustainability.”         owners to punch storefronts into
stretch that serves as the main                        gested areas by bike-only traf-     steep growth in “stationary ac-      dramatic, enacted in 1991, was        He and his staff are now           the lane-facing sides of their
drag for Ville-Marie, also                             fic lights.                         tivities” in downtown Copen-         the partial “reconquest” of         pushing for higher densities         buildings, reviving several kilo-
known as its gay village, to                              Most days the Strøget – the      hagen – people seated at             Swanston Street, Melbourne’s        and downtown-style “walka-           metres and re-energizing the
motor vehicles.                                        city’s high street and Europe’s     outdoor cafés or around the          most important north-south          bility” in communities along         downtown.
  In the process, Montreal be-                         longest pedestrian thorough-        rims of fountains, people win-       thoroughfare. Only streetcars       tram and commuter-rail lines           However, “you just can’t pick
gan to look like – for 10 weeks,                       fare – is a forest of marching      dow-shopping or watching             and service vehicles were per-      outside the core area.               up one model and transport it to
at least – what famed Danish                           feet. Café seats encircle every     buskers. From 1968 to 1995,          mitted during the day.                As for the inevitable resis-       another city,” cautions Rob
architect Jan Gehl calls a “rec-                       downtown square, many of            the average number of people           Here, too, merchants feared       tance, he says, “the way you         Adams, head of the local urban-
onquered” city.                                        them draped on cool days in         so engaged on a summer after-        the apocalypse. “The retailers      get round that fear is you say,      design department.
  Mr. Gehl is the chief prop-                          blankets for public use, with       noon shot up 330 per cent, an        were up in arms – we were go-       ‘The amount of city we are             “For instance, Sydney is get-
onent and visionary for a bur-                         more sidewalk cafes crowding        increase in magnitude almost         ing to kill them,” says Rob         asking you to change is around       ting hung up on the lane culture
geoning global movement                                the narrowest back lanes. The       identical to the growth in the       Adams, a consultant at the          5 to 10 per cent. We’re not ask-     we’ve got in Melbourne. Unfortu-
known as “pedestrianization.”                          whole scene looks as en-            pedestrian network’s size.           time and now director of Mel-       ing you to change 95 per cent        nately, they don’t have the lanes,
He feels people are healthier                          trenched and timeless as the           The two men also assembled        bourne’s urban design depart-       of the city.’ ”                      and they’re not going to gener-
and happier when their feet                            façades of the city’s 500-year-     evidence of qualitative success.     ment. “Well, we’ve doubled the        Along one formerly “grotty”        ate them overnight. So they’ve
are on the ground, and his                             old Lutheran churches.              For example, their 1996 study,       number of pedestrians walking       commuter artery just outside         got to find their own particular
ideas have helped to turn his                             Copenhagen’s lively inner        Public Spaces Public Life, fea-      past their doors. You know,         Melbourne’s city centre, for         character.”
native Copenhagen into a ha-                           city started with a bold experi-    tures before and after photos        you don’t shop from a motor-        example, a stretch of low-rise       66 Chris Turner
ven for walkers and cyclists –                         ment similar to Montreal’s          that depict a radical transition:    car – not at 60 kilometres an       buildings housing car-rental
and inspired similar changes                           summer test run. Traditionally,     on the left, in black and white,     hour, you don’t.”                   outlets and auto-body shops
in cities as diverse as Oslo,                          the Strøget had been closed to      a desultory 1950s-era parking          Soon, Mr. Adams brought in        has been replaced with multi-
Barcelona, London and Mel-                             vehicles for two days each          lot; on the right, a colourful       his old friend, Mr. Gehl – who      use residential developments
bourne.                                                Christmas, but by the 1950s, it     scene of shoppers strolling          had taught at the University of     six to eight storeys tall – a
  Now he is facing his greatest                        was choked with cars, trucks        among market stalls and com-         Melbourne in the late 1970s –       height common in Europe.
challenge: bringing this vision                        and buses every other day of        muters hustling by.                  to sell the city on the plan’s
to the car-obsessed cities of                          the year – as was every other          The result, says Jeff Risom,      next phase. Mr. Gehl’s 1994 re-     CANADA’S HURDLES
North America. His company,                            downtown street. Stately old        an urban designer at Gehl Ar-        port, Places for People, em-        The challenge may seem even
Gehl Architects, is working                            squares served mainly as park-      chitects, was a “powerful em-        ployed the data-gathering           greater for Canadian munici-
with municipal governments                             ing lots.                           pirical tool for shifting the        techniques he’d developed in        palities – which are even more
in Seattle and New York, and                              In November, 1962, half-dis-     mindset,” and soon Mr. Gehl’s        Copenhagen and recommend-           sprawling and car-dependent
San Francisco may sign on                              guised as an extended holiday       techniques were widely adopt-        ed many of the same measures        than Melbourne, with much
soon.                                                  closure, the Strøget went car-      ed. Traffic engineers around         – expanded pedestrian and           harsher climates. Then again, a
  In Canada, a special case be-                        free for good. The initiative im-   the world were tracking how          transit network, wider side-        generation back no one
cause of our extreme weather                           mediately ran into opposition,      many cars zoom through ma-           walks and more “active fa-          thought Melburnians would
and sprawling urban centres,                           particularly from merchants,        jor intersections, the impact of     çades” (such as street-level        want to sit out under patio
Mr. Gehl has given a series of                         who assumed that a car-free         adding a lane of traffic or the      storefronts in office towers)       umbrellas in the frequent rain.
high-profile lectures. But so far                      Strøget would be their ruin.        demand for parking spaces.           plus a radical makeover for         And Copenhagen has become
no major city has committed                            Other critics argued that the          But they’re still missing         Melbourne’s moribund river-         a global leader in bicycle com-
fully to implementing his ideas                        move was simply un-Danish –         something crucial, says Mr.          front.                              muting despite a winter nearly
– which revolve around his                             “We are not Italians,” they ar-     Gemzøe. “We need to make               In the decade that followed,      as cold as that in most Cana-
core message: “Cultures and                            gued. “It’s too cold here. It       pedestrians visible in plan-         the residential population          dian cities and much drearier.
climates differ all over the                           rains too much. We like cozy        ning. All the problems of vehi-      downtown jumped 830 per               “The natural resistance to
world, but people are the                              meals at home, not outdoor          cle traffic are well known and       cent. Pedestrian traffic shot up    change exists, I think, every-
same. They will gather in pub-                         cafés.”                             you’d never dream of changing        39 per cent overall and 98 per      where,” says Mr. Risom, the
lic if you give them a good                               The fears proved unfounded       anything in the public space         cent in the formerly quiet eve-     only American designer at
place to do it.”                                       – the Strøget soon boasted          without knowing how it con-          nings. More than 250 new out-       Gehl Architects. “But luckily,
                                                       more shoppers (plus an explo-       flicts with that. But you have       door cafes appeared, almost         what we’ve found is that when
COPENHAGEN                                             sion in café seating) and even-     no information about people.”        triple the original number.         you begin to plan for people,
If the pedestrian revival has a                        tually a new kind of urban                                                 “The secret to our strategy       invite them to spend time in
birthplace, it is Mr. Gehl’s                           culture, one focused on out-        MELBOURNE                            has been incrementalism,”           the city, they do. And it’s just
hometown. Considered a dull                            door public spaces. Building        One of the first cities to call on   says Mr. Adams. “We’ve got          that simple.”
provincial burg in the 1950s,                          on this success, the system ex-     Mr. Gehl came quite a distance       about 200 things running at         66 Calgary journalist Chris Turner
the cozy Danish capital now                            panded piecemeal – another          to do so. Once an elegant port       once. You know, improving           is the author of The Geography of
routinely tops international                           street and a few more squares       city and Australia’s premier         the footpaths, planting trees,      Hope. His feature appears month-
quality-of-life rankings – the                         emptied of cars in 1968, and        metropolis, Melbourne had all        signage, furniture, widening        ly in Focus.

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