People-centered Urbanism

If cities are not built for people, then what for? Alex Steffen’s article “Deep Walkability” points out the importance of a walkable and people-oriented city. He defines “deep walkability” as “the quality of having a feast of options available when you walk out your front door….”

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, India

Image via Wikipedia

It is well known that post-WWII urbanism in America has become more and more centered on suburban living and the car. Sprawl has become, for the most part, the rule and trend of modern American urbanism. People have been relegated to drab sidewalks along large avenues and boulevards dedicated to the car, an environment in which pedestrians and cyclists are seen as more of a nuisance than anything else. In this slow but powerful force of development, the plans and designs of cities have begun to ignore people.

Planning from the perspective and scale of the person has been traded for planning from aerial photographs. Urban paths and routes for pedestrians and cyclists have been traded for broader streets to fit more cars. One is reminded of the supposed triumph of planning that is/was Brasilia, and yet how it failed completely in use and at the scale of the human.

Steffen points out “the enticement to walk is key to making density wonderful, to providing realistic transit options, to making smaller greener homes compelling….” For many of us, living in a low-density area with few appealing amenities within walking distance is the reality. Further, many have never experienced another way of city living; driving everywhere is normal while walking, cycling and public transit are alien options.

“In most cities, serious walkers (and bikers) share stories about the routes they’ve taken, hidden paths through the fractured landscape that let you walk safely and happily from one people-centered place to another.”

– Alex Steffen

This is a very poignant observation that is fundamental to human-centered urbanism and walkability. Stories, routes, and a lively and happy urban experience circulating through and around people-centered places. I am reminded of the winding streets of medieval Copenhagen that were not designed for the car, or from an aerial photograph, but were originally based on cattle paths. The pedestrian friendly city center is often packed with people exploring, shopping, visiting and socializing. Similarly, the Moorish neighborhoods of Granada are an amazing labyrinth of narrow streets lined with stall after stall of food, textiles, jewelry and many other items. Visitors and residents are not just consumers of food and goods, but also consumers of urban delight. A walk through these areas is so stimulating! Sights, sounds, smells, and noises abound at a scale meant for us. We become connected to the city, entwined with its narrative, and thrive as a result.

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