In August this year Greater Auckland reproduced a chapter I wrote for a book speculating on our future world, The Big Questions, in three posts; here, here, and here. Included was the section below describing the city centre. In bold is a short description of what I imagine the sensual experience of these future streets will be like:
The whole Queen Street valley will be car-free, plied only by emergency and delivery and service vehicles, the latter at set times. (Most deliveries in city centres will be by e-cargo bike.) Tens of thousands of people will arrive and depart every hour by underground electric rail, by surface light rail, by ferry at the harbour’s edge, by 100 per cent electric buses, by bikes (both powered and not), and on foot.
Especially on foot. Because this century one form of mobility that’s making a huge comeback is proximity: being there already. The Auckland city centre is the fastest-growing residential area in the nation, expanding at six times the rate of the wider city. There are now around 50,000 inner-city residents, and new apartments are rising everywhere. You can feel this presence on the pavement; space given over to vehicle traffic last century will be taken back by people in this one.
Quite soon, say by the mid-2020s, we will be able to experience this future in good chunks of the city centre. Both Victoria and Quay Street are being halved widthways to expand people space, for walking and cycling, for tree and cafe-table space. Loitering is more valuable this century than motoring. The old fume-choked and vehicle-dominated order will quickly become as foreign an idea as the thought of streets filled with horses and carts.
This is the centuries-old power of the city that got lost in the second half of last century, in the automobile-powered anti-urban sprawl era. The city is well and truly back. And the total removal of the internal combustion engine is going to transform the urban experience. It will return the human voice and the scent of the sea to dominance. Citizens will encounter new and old sounds and smells; there will be much more variety; ‘unplugged’ buskers will be effective again; food providers will advertise by their aromas again. This is the return of streets as public places, not simply as traffic funnels.
This also means there is more space for trees on every street, because as the city re-intensifies and more of the street is returned to pedestrians and bike riders, the opportunity to green the streets must be taken. We need the environmental heavy lifting that street trees perform — shade and air purification, combating the urban heat island effect — and also their glory and beauty, and the reminder of our natural selves that only a green city can provide.
To a large degree this writing was speculative, just imagining what it would be like to be in the middle of a large metropolis on an ordinary day in a (nearly) post car and post carbon environment. Well, dear reader, we need speculate no more. Because just a month later I was in Copenhagen and, indeed, there it is. Well pretty close to it. And while you’ll have to take my word for the quality of the smells, the sounds are just as i imagined. With perhaps more clinking and dinging of bicycle parts here than I described.
And it’s truly glorious. The aural and nasal assault we are conditioned to accept in the auto-dependent city is not necessary, healthy, nor productive. And it certainly isn’t pleasant or kind.
The future, indeed, that progressives want.
Now of course I am not saying that Auckland city centre will be exactly the same as this, it won’t, it will be our own version, and all the better for it. For example the attentive reader will notice that I included, earlier in the year when I wrote this, a word that is fast becoming common on our streets but then was not; scooter:
Supporting this, vehicles everywhere are electrifying: bikes, cars, buses, trains, ferries, even airplanes. Everything will automate (ditto — well, except the bikes). Everything will be shared, certainly all those vehicles, but particularly places, and especially the streets. Walking, biking, scootering will boom. The e-bike is the transformational vehicle of the moment.
I had no idea that there scooter would arrive both so soon and be taken up so enthusiastically, but watching this reinforces my feeling that the risk now is on the side being too cautious and stubborn with new possibilities. All kinds of urban transformations are possible now that were previously unlikely to meet the necessary up take. There is now a huge responsibility for those guiding our response to urban growth to be bold and imagine the best of all possible worlds and have a go at creating it in our cities. Because, as I wrote:
The busy peopled city street replacing the fuming traffic-jammed road is at the heart of the solutions to the great environmental, economic, and social challenges of our age. The cities, and the parts of each city, that make this change best and fastest will thrive, and those that cling to the twentieth-century driving and sprawling pattern will stall.
Bring it on, now.