Our mission as transport planners is to make cities enjoyable places to be

This article was published in Local Transport Today on 6 January 2017 and is available at https://www.transportxtra.com/publications/local-transport-today/comment/52337/our-mission-as-transport-planners-is-to-make-cities-enjoyable-places-to-be

2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, the great writer and urbanist. It’s fair to say that this landmark hasn’t received all the attention that it deserves, what with one or two other events dominating the news, but for anyone involved in planning, designing and building our towns and cities it is an anniversary worth celebrating because her ideas affect us all. Or, at least, they should.

Jane Jacobs is best known for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it she took on the planners and theorists who were then busy reshaping America’s cities based on modernist principles, ideas of order and efficiency that Jacobs thought fundamentally misunderstood what a city should be.

The problems she identified will be familiar to anyone who has cast a critical eye over post-war urban planning here in the UK: a failure to incorporate the human dimension into design and a lack of understanding that when we over-rationalise our spaces building on utopian ideas of order, we kill them. Instead of harmony we introduce monotony.

I am sure that everyone can think of a British place that exemplifies what Jacobs was warning about. The challenge she made to planners was to think about cities in a wholly new way, to ask fundamental questions about what they are for, what we should be trying to achieve when we make or adapt them and, crucially, how they can be enjoyed.

Enjoyment isn’t a word that is heard much when it comes to transport planning, but it should be. We don’t live in and use cities just because they are economic centres, efficient, well-connected, served with utilities – important as these things are – but because they are a way of life that is (or should be) rewarding in itself.

This idea is the ‘buzz’ in the current buzzword of ‘place-making’. Cities and towns are places in their own right, before they are anything else. If we don’t understand that, we risk losing all the other benefits that appear in our plans and prescriptions: places won’t thrive if they are not enjoyed. Design of the transport infrastructure that cities depend on has to be understood in this light. It is time we started to understand that how our transport is experienced, how it contributes to the broader experience of urban life, how (and how much) it is enjoyed, is fundamental to its function, as central as speed, safety and cost.

Car manufacturers already understand this in one sense, of course. When a new car is advertised it is generally selling a fantasy of comfort and lifestyle first, efficiency and utility second. And yet, when we try to tempt users out of their cars, it is all too often with arguments from morality or necessity: protecting the environment, avoiding congestion. But we make a stronger argument when we present public transport as an essential element in the deeper, richer experience of urban living. There are already many good examples

of this sort of transformative thinking at work. Look at how Birmingham New Street has been redesigned to give travellers a sense of adventure and arrival, a destination in its own right as well as a gateway to the city that has a real sense of drama and identity, flowing naturally into the city where once it was cold, indifferent, discouraging.

It is not always easy. Compromises have to be made, safety and efficiency really do matter. But a holistic planning approach, one that breaks down the barriers between transport and land-use planning, thinking hard about what outcomes both are trying to achieve for the place as a whole, can achieve dramatic results. We can continue to make the mistakes of the past, asking how our cities can be designed to make best use of new technologies, or we can be tougher minded, asking how new technologies can serve the needs of the city, needs that are understood in terms of quality of life, pleasure and enjoyment. Infrastructure can kill places as well as bring them to life. It is hard to believe now that the planners of the 1950s imagined that beneath the motorway flyovers of Birmingham and elsewhere, children would play, and communities would thrive safe from the menace of the motorcar. They did not understand what those communities needed. They forgot what a city was. We have the chance to do better.

Transport planners can’t save the world. But at a time when social division and fragmentation is very much on our minds, political and economic uncertainty all around us, we should remember how well-made places that encourage as well as facilitate interaction – walking, cycling, mingling, sharing space on-street, train or bus – can bring people together, mending divisions instead of creating them, diffusing tensions, encouraging understanding.

If we take this to heart, work with our colleagues to break down barriers, build a broader picture of cohesion and place, think harder and better about what we want our transport plans to do, maybe we can make a difference in a darkening world. It’s not utopian, in fact it is the opposite: it means looking at the reality of how we live, abandoning the tendency to abstraction before we start building. But it is going to take vision.

As Jane Jacobs said: “Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”

Emily Walsh is an associate director at SYSTRA and leads its movement and place team. She is based in Birmingham.