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Perceptions · 3 August '20

London wasn’t built in a day; but what would it look like if it was rebuilt today?

Søren Kierkegaard once said: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” 

I didn’t come across this quote through an innate love of Danish philosophy, but rather through the first page of Danish architect Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People. The quote is superimposed over a casual street scene in New York City, with families in the foreground, people walking freely, and bicycles parked nearby. It depicts a central premise of Gehl’s work: the human dimension, or the focus in urban planning around creating “lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities” for the wellbeing of all people, which promotes the use of walking and cycling as key components of that.

As Gehl states in the book, “First we shape the cities, then they shape us.” With that in mind, what would London look like if it could be rebuilt today? London easing itself out of lockdown is an opportunistic moment for urban redesign: how can we ensure London opens safely, and apply our learnings about the use of public space and transport throughout social-distancing to ensure London can remain open? Is it possible to reshape urban infrastructure during this time to accommodate the demand for a more pleasant streetscape for citizens?

Source: NACTO Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism

Fortunately, work is already underway to answer these questions. Urban spaces and public transport hubs can be made more flexible in order to cater for safer pedestrian and cyclist usage by expanding safe walking and cycling space onto the roads. In 2018, Arup had proposed a system named FlexKerbs, to “transform fixed curbsides into dynamic, technologically sophisticated spaces that change function throughout the day and week in response to local policy and user demand.” This is a viable way to accommodate the future of connected and autonomous vehicles, with a similar proposal called Flex Zone proposed by NACTO in their Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism.

Widening walking and cycle space by expanding onto roads has already been realised in London through the Mayor of London’s Streetspace plan. This plan is claimed to “rapidly transform London’s streets to accommodate a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and a five-fold increase in walking when lockdown restrictions are eased.” It addresses the safe reopening of the city and complements Gehl’s ideals on urban design.

Manchester has also been taking proactive measures to ease lockdown by deploying cloud-based behavioural analysis to measure the impact of social distancing. With insights into how passenger behaviour is affected by the pandemic and key analysis of how infrastructure is used, the city can plan for better urban design and planning going forward. Behavioural analysis technology can be leveraged by urban designers and planners to create dynamic public spaces that adapt to the needs of its citizens beyond coronavirus, much like the proposals by Arup and NACTO promote.

While Gehl’s work focuses on the pedestrian and cyclist experience in urban redesign, it is important to think about how this affects other mobility systems, like private passenger vehicles and London’s iconic red buses. If we were to redesign the city, these important modes of transportation should complement the walking and cycling experience, not overwhelm them.

Stockholm walks this line perfectly, having designed public space for a dense and mixed-use urban environment. Walking and cycling lanes complement multimodal linkages across districts. Though the number of accidents between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists in urban environments needs to be curbed, solutions exist to solve this problem. The first will see new cycle lanes created to separate from vehicular traffic, and designate specific rules around commercial and residential areas. The second will equip drivers of the next generation of vehicles with insight into how vulnerable road users (VRUs) will behave in complex urban environments.

With this insight, vehicles in redesigned London will be more aware of vulnerable road users, through the use of sensors that will augment the vision of drivers today. As vehicles get more and more automated, cities look further ahead to a future of autonomous vehicles in urban areas. It’s essential that these vehicles are smarter and more in tune with the citizens they interact with; and are built with the ability to understand the subtle nuances of human behaviour in a city like London – whether that’s the busy shopping street of Oxford Circus on a Wednesday afternoon, or around the bars of Shoreditch on a Friday night.

Of course, this approach to the quality of urban life should not be limited to London, but to urban centres around the world. Technology can be used to help urban designers plan better cities for people, and vehicles can better interact with walking and cycling pedestrians. All forms of urban mobility should be able to be scalable and adaptable to different cities, with different behaviours, quirks, and cultures of the cities taken into account.

It is very important that this technology is built around the needs of people, and not the other way around, and is imperative that we utilise this technology to create urban spaces that move away from the less-livable, vehicle-centricity of modernist urban planning, and towards enabling a safe and pleasant environment for all road users, with emphasis, as Gehl would put it, on the human dimension.