In the late Twentieth century there was a fundamental change in the way cities were designed, as planning and development came to focus on motor cars rather than people.
For the first time, planners began to make a distinction between ‘roads’ built for traffic, as opposed to ‘streets’ built for people to carry out their daily life.
The developed, Western, Twentieth century city is hugely different to what went before. These new cities were all developed around the internal combustion engine and are remarkably similar to each other. Compare the swathes of highway, out of town retail and business parks and cul de sacs of housing estates found from Poland to Portugal to, say, the Hutongs of Beijing, the Favelas of Rio, early north American cities or the pre 20th century parts of just about every city in Europe.
All of Europe’s medieval, Victorian or Georgian cities were built before the car was created and all are unique and individual, but nevertheless recognisable to people all over the world as the natural habitat of human beings.
Here in the UK, road traffic engineers have dominated the planning of cities and towns for decades. Even our method of land release often relies on road building. The car is accommodated first and then zoned residential and commercial development follows. Master planning is too often made on the assumption of traffic needs; channelling, calming and separating cars and pedestrians and creating a very different urbanism to that which most people would build for themselves in a carless world.
Car orientated development has had big consequences for the society we live in. A reliance on the car means increased pollution, congestion and oil usage and has wider implications on CO2 levels and climate change. The car has contributed towards obesity in the West as walking and cycling in Twentieth century cities is difficult to near impossible for everyday life. There are few places in the Twentieth century city where you can walk to buy a pint of milk or a pint of beer and the hatchback car was practically invented for out of town retailing.
Because of these problems, urbanism orientated around humans has never been higher on the agenda for town planning. There is increasing pressure to reinvent design for Twentieth century urban clusters and to return to the streetscapes that proved so important in previous centuries.
Development is now all about integrated, mixed use - literally mixing shops with restaurants, hotels and bars. Planners want to create vibrant streets, designed for humans and not vehicles.
Cutting-edge designers are now anticipating driverless cars and with a decreasing presence of automobiles in the city, changes are coming that will make streets for people again more important than roads for cars.
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