I was walking through London this weekend, heading towards the Bank tube station after passing through Liverpool Street station. Since I usually walk to Bank from the office, and this was a new route, I opened up my Google maps app as I was leaving the station. I looked down at my iPhone, and there was a nice short street called Liverpool Street that would take me through to Blomfield Street and on my way. But when I looked up, the street was blocked with hoarding (the British word for construction fencing, which I think has something to do with castles; not surprising). It was part of the Crossrail project, and right in the middle of the hoarding was a rendering of the plan for the redesign of the street. I took a picture of it, (figure 1 below).
There are a lot of pictures like this on hoarding around London and there are lots of projects that have already been built, just like this one, that are called ‘public realm’ projects. They are essentially open spaces between buildings with some random paver patterns and a few trees and furniture placed somewhere in the middle of the space. Generally this is only a minor annoyance to me, since the idea of undifferentiated, leftover open space between buildings which is called ‘public’ is so prevalent in this city that to take too much notice would drive any sane urban designer crazy. But in this case I started thinking two things; first how distressing it is that we are losing actual public realm, streets, to something else, and second that we are slowly pedestrianizing our cities. I am sure people will think the idea of pedestrianizing streets is exactly what we should be doing, removing cars and getting people out walking. How can this be bad? If you stand in front of a group of people that live in pretty much any city and tell them you are going to take out a street, a place for cars, and replace it with a well-designed ‘public realm’ project, who would object? But this is ultimately a problem for the future of cities. When we are removing streets to do this, as if they are the cause of people not walking, we are taking out the primary public element that constitutes a city. This isn’t redesigning streets so they are shared streets, with pedestrian safety prioritized and automobiles taking a secondary status. Rather it takes something that both provides connectivity and clearly identifies the public realm, a street, and transforms it into a thing that, by design, does neither. Radically pedestrianized streets are the cul-de-sacs of our generation, and most likely we will look back in twenty years and ask ourselves what could have possibly possessed us to get rid of streets.
So what does this have to do with Aristotle?
Well, Aristotle was trying to categorize the world; figure out the basic characteristics of things and give them names. And he was interested in how we understood our place in this world, the ontological structure of our society. There are two key points in this philosophical exercise that have an impact on the pedestrianizing of streets. The first is his assertion that just because you call something doesn’t make it so. Here he is simply saying that we name various things in the world and in those names the things to which we are referring should have the characteristics of that name, but that in life this isn’t always so and that calling something doesn’t give it the attributes of the thing being named. And secondly he proposes that the collective exists prior to the individual. In this he is describing a construct where we, as individuals, can only understand our place in the world, that we can only come into being, through the prior existence of the larger group, and while this is primarily a political discussion, it has a direct bearing on the way we build, or rebuild, cities. For about 2500 years Aristotle’s collective was manifest through the construction of the streets of a city (whether planned or not) and the individuals were the things built on the resulting parcels, or blocks, in the city, buildings, mostly.
From this we can think about what it means to pedestrianize streets, and how that has a detrimental affect on our understanding of our place in the world, both because it diminishes the power of the street as a recognizable thing, with all the associated characteristics that are evident in great streets and more importantly because the collective element of the city, the streets, are reduced to nothing more than random, circumstantial spaces between buildings, no longer the preexisting framework that unifies all of the individual elements of the city.
This all sounds esoteric and vaguely impractical, but in reality people that inhabit cities intuit this loss.
The image (figure 1 above) of the future Liverpool Street simply isn’t a street in this reinvented version. It has none of the constituent parts of a street and, by design, minimizes any understand that the buildings to either side of it are sitting within something that was prior to each, and would certainly be gone long before the street itself disappears. As Aristotle says, you can name something, but that doesn’t mean it is the thing you are calling it. And the street, the collective political element that binds us and the elements of the city together, is removed and replaced by something less permanent, an ephemeral, temporal design that is individual. So our understanding of our place in the world diminishes. Is this thing I am standing in ours collectively? Or is it simply an extension of the individual buildings? The image below, however, does exactly the same thing as the ‘new’ Liverpool Street. It is a place people can walk through the city, but without losing any of the characteristics that make a street a street. And you can easily either have cars or not.
Just after passing the hoarding on Liverpool Street, I passed by New Broad Street, Figure 2 above, while walking down Old Broad Street. It is hard to imagine someone mistaking the space above for something that is part of any of the buildings that line it. It is clearly another element of the city that exists between each of the individual buildings and works outside the logic of the individual buildings; public realm. In this case, it is incumbent upon the individual (the building) to fulfill its obligation to reinforce the presence of the permanent, collective, truly public realm.
In parallel to this phenomenon, in London, and as a result in many other parts of the world, is Liverpool Street as ‘public realm’ redesigned from scratch, in essence the pedestrianization of streets right from the start. In much of the city large redevelopment sites are merely odd shaped buildings, composed on a sort of neutral ground plane, and the resulting leftover space between the buildings is called ‘public realm’. In almost no instance is this actually public. And it is designed to be as unique and individual as possible, or sometimes, possibly worse, it is just pavers running from building edge to building edge, but with no discernable logic to the structure. If you have to ask ‘who owns this?’ something one would never even consider on Oxford Street, Figure 3 below, for example, the there is a problem.
Today we are all rushing to pedestrianize very good, handsome, well-situated streets. And to the design community this means digging up the curbs, removing the pavement (or sidewalk), and pulling up the roadway (or pavement), removing a nice line of street trees that run continuously in front of various buildings, and replacing this with an idiosyncratic grouping of random things – a curve here, some new furniture placed in the middle of what used to be the street, and two, no three (in deference to Capability Brown), trees planted in a grouping to balance the new furniture.
There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. And people who believe we should pedestrianize our world will point to them as examples of success. But invariably these examples exist in places like London, where the density of pedestrians is so high that anything that can be inhabited will be inhabited. When they are transferred to far less dense places, they simply don’t work, and unlike a street system that can accommodate change (think the Commissioners Plan of 1811), the resulting ‘pedestrianized’ projects are static and the resources to adapt them in any meaningful way are so intense as to be prohibitive.
As we asked ourselves in the 1950’s, ‘wouldn’t it be great to get rid of cut through traffic’, which led to the suburban world of cul-de-sacs, we are now asking ourselves, ‘wouldn’t it be great to get rid of cars, and pedestrianize the city’. We are altering, or building, our cities with the same aim as those planners had 70 years ago.
I simply can’t understand the visceral, negative reaction people have to streets. They are the best parts of cities by far. And without them you don’t really have a city at all. Maybe that will change, but if the trend in places like London is to build new projects without them, or even worse, to get rid of them, then I am not hopeful. From the ancient Greeks on, the public realm has been primarily a system of streets in cities. We can call other things ‘pubic realm’, but as Aristotle told us those 2500 years ago, that doesn’t make it so.