The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized
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The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized

Image of pilot redevelopments in New York City courtesy of the New York City Department of Transportation and supplied by Gehl Architects.

The next time somebody tells us that Toronto is in the midst of a war on cars we are going to buy them a plane ticket to Copenhagen. Or possibly Bogotá. New York if they want something closer to home. We will send them to one of the growing number of cities that are actually demonstrating the nerve to redefine their planning priorities in favour of liveability and environmental sustainability and dare the auto-obsessed malcontents to say that they aren’t all the better for it. For all the recent controversies over Toronto’s Bike Plan and Walking Strategy, over our notions of just talking about taking down one portion of one disastrous highway, and converting one traffic lane on a road that is not used to capacity [PDF] to allow five times the number of people to use it on their bikes, Toronto’s initiatives are piddling, tentative, nibbling-around-the-edges sorts of things when compared with what is happening elsewhere in the world.
In front of a packed house on the trading floor at the Design Exchange on Wednesday, Jan Gehl—internationally renowned architect and urban-design consultant—laid out a vision for what cities can look like which made us frankly feel ashamed of ourselves. We love that Toronto has been exploring pedestrianization and beefing up cycling infrastructure, we’re thrilled that there are serious new public transit expansions in the works, and we can’t wait for some of the new urban agriculture plans to take root. But all of these things, really, are the merest shades of what is possible, and of what ought to be done.

Image of pilot redevelopments in New York City courtesy of the New York City Department of Transportation and supplied by Gehl Architects.

Gehl graduated from architecture school in 1960, during the heyday of Modernism, a period he describes as “the all time low point of city planning.” Shortly thereafter he met the woman who would become his wife, a psychologist who kept wondering “why architects aren’t interested in people.” It was a question that more and more people were asking, as urbanites began to wrestle with the notion that conventional wisdom regarding the layout of their cities—which maximized car access and kept different land uses siloed and separate—was failing to deliver on its utopian promises.
The publication of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, along with the successful battle against Robert Moses’s plan to run an expressway through Manhattan, signalled the start of a revolution, a movement to counter urban-planning truisms with a renewed appreciation for liveable, human-scaled, multi-use spaces. In the decades that have elapsed between then and now a new kind of ideal has emerged, along with some real strides in implementing it in some locales and hard data which demonstrates the benefits “humanistic town planning” provides.
One of Gehl’s themes was that people need to be invited to use their city and its spaces, that we follow the cues provided by our environments: build roads and people will drive on them, build parks and people will picnic in them. The oft-repeated cry that we don’t need bike lanes because we don’t have a sufficient number of cyclists gets the causal relationship precisely backwards—we don’t have sufficient cyclists because we haven’t given people an environment in which they can cycle. Similarly, we don’t have a large number of pedestrians to accommodate simply because we haven’t provided accommodation for pedestrians.
People respond to the cues provided by their environments.

Rendering of Perth waterfront redevelopment plans courtesy of Gehl Architects.

But we don’t live in Europe! goes the refrain. We simply have a different culture, inhabit a different climate, and have different infrastructure to work with. What works there won’t work here.
Utter nonsense.
How exactly does anyone think that culture gets created? When did deferring to failed fifty-year-old planning imperatives become an article of faith for some of our elected officials?
Copenhagen did not spring out of some idealistic urban planner’s head, like Athena out of Zeus, fully formed. It worked to become a place where businesspeople take their bikes to meetings and cafés offer blankets so you can still sit outside in November. That those things are now natural to its residents is not a coincidence or a stroke of luck: it is the result of forethought and planning and making hard choices, of purposefully shifting the culture to accommodate new insights about how cities work best. That we are somehow incapable of attaining the same results—or far worse, that we ought not even try—is hidebound, or perhaps fearful, obstinacy, and it needs to be done away with. It is simply false to say that we cannot do it here.
Of course, Gehl was preaching to a very enthusiastic choir. Like attracted like, and the room was brimful of planners, architects, politicians, and activists who already shared Gehl’s goals and vision. In that sense, the lecture counted more as a pep-rally than a tool of persuasion—those that have yet to be persuaded didn’t show up in the first place. As we filed out into the street afterward the most common complaint was that it was all well and good to wax eloquent about the ideal, but missing was a political strategy by which that ideal could be implemented on the ground.

Photo of Brighton’s New Road, a multi-modal street with pedestrian priority, courtesy of Gehl Architects.

There is a sense in which this is true: no such political strategy was on offer. But it is the height of naïveté to think that it could be. There isn’t, sitting in a drawer somewhere, a masterful plan to revolutionize a city, or a City Council, by deploying the right radio ads and talking points at their appointed times. We cannot simply wait for someone to show up on our doorstep and tell us how to do it. What we need are some politicians with the intestinal fortitude to run on a genuinely ambitious platform for reshaping Toronto rather than trying to sneak measures in under the radar piecemeal.
Every single bike lane is a fight right now, as is every pedestrianization initiative and almost every shift towards public transit. We are told we need to prioritize, pick the one or two projects that matter most, and then justify those to everyone with a car and a (mistaken) belief that businesses benefit more from vehicular traffic than that which arrives on foot.
The incremental approach might work if we had forty years, and endless resources to waste until we saw fit to do what we already know should be done. But we don’t. It is time for those who agree with Gehl, that “a city needs to be sweet to people,” to have the full courage of their convictions.