| International planners emphasize genial leadership
Fran Taylor, Member of Walk SF Feb 26, 2009
Be sweet to the pedestrians. This is urban planning in a nutshell, according to Jan Gehl, author of Life Between Buildings.
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The Danish planner and his counterpart from Colombia, Gil Peñalosa, both visited San Francisco last fall. They delivered presentations that emphasized the potential joy planning can bring, in contrast to the tortured process locals endure in San Francisco.
Details differed in the two talks, but both speakers demonstrated how vision and leadership work. Instead of dwelling on minutiae or settling for half-hearted measures, the international planners use the broad picture to steer change.
“If you’re sweet to bicyclists and sweet to pedestrians, what can you accomplish?” Gehl asked. “You hit all the birds with one stone.”
Gehl described the three basic functions of a city as meeting, market, and moving. A successful city combines all three seamlessly, as individuals run into friends while they shop and travel about on foot. This informal mix gets disrupted, however, when city design revolves around driving. The three functions become separated, and city dwellers find their lives compartmentalized. Friendly encounters don’t just happen. Shopping takes place apart from movement, which becomes an end in itself.
Good public transit and a good public realm go hand in hand, according to Gehl, who has helped transform cities from Copenhagen to Melbourne, Australia, and is currently analyzing several neighborhoods in San Francisco. His outsider’s take on Fisherman’s Wharf: “Too little water and too much everything else.”
Peñalosa, creator of the Ciclovia in Bogotá, model for San Francisco’s carfree Sunday Streets along the Embarcadero last September, cited the “8/80” rule for successful urban bike lanes. They need to be safe for an eight-year-old child and an 80-year-old elder, not just for ultrafit Spandex greyhounds.
Peñalosa proudly pointed out that new greenways in Bogotá connect rich and poor areas that had long been segregated, and the Ciclovia gives just as much room to the cheapest bicycle as to the most expensive. Another sign of good public spaces that emerged in Colombia was a high proportion of participation by women.
“It’s up to us,” Peñalosa said, echoing Gehl’s plea for public spaces and street corners, “places where you actually get to meet your neighbors.”
Colombia has been wracked by civil war, kidnappings, death squads, and a violent drug trade. In Bogotá, however, homicides dropped 70% after Gil Peñalosa and his brother Enrique, the mayor, began planning for parks and pedestrians.
Timidity and empty gestures are the antithesis of the sweeping efforts recommended by Gehl and the Peñalosa brothers. Unfortunately, they are the hallmarks of San Francisco process, as Shannon Dodge, a fifteen-year Mission resident and bike commuter, describes:
“I visited New York recently and rode on new, buffered bike lanes that had been rolled out fast, along with space for pedestrians carved right out of wide thoroughfares like Broadway. I’m frustrated that we let ourselves get mired in process instead of taking action. The City came out with a great report in 2004 on improving Market Street. It had lots of commonsense ideas that could be put in place quickly. But only a paltry few of them are complete.”
Enrique Peñalosa faced furious opposition to his push to get cars off the sidewalks in Bogotá. He did it anyway.
“I was almost impeached for getting cars off sidewalks, which car owning upper classes had illegally appropriated for parking,” he said. It’s hard to imagine a San Francisco politician making that statement, much less actually doing the deed.
Gehl described how he and his wife, both in their seventies, celebrated their anniversary in Copenhagen. Cruising along protected bikeways to a downtown restaurant, the two enjoyed an evening out on the town and pedaled home safely, with no parking or traffic hassles and no threat to their well-being.
Gehl is a big fan of public seating and plazas where strollers can dawdle and engage in people watching. San Francisco actually rips out benches and locks up parks, out of fear that “the homeless” will use them. Gehl wasn’t even quite able to fathom a question about how to deal with this kind of attitude. He simply reasserted that adding benches and making it easier for people to gather in public revitalizes a city.
Is there hope for San Francisco? So many of the battles in the City seem to revolve around one group wanting to avoid some other group: homeowners concerned about property values against day laborers, business owners fighting street people, and so on. Always, elements of race and class pop up. Our dense environment keeps them from being hidden the way they can be when people just move away from each other, as in the suburbs. But if residents of Bogotá can stop killing each other, perhaps San Franciscans can stop moving away from each other on the bench, if they can find one.
“For the poor, the only alternative to television for their leisure time is the public space,” Enrique Peñalosa has said. “For this reason, high-quality public pedestrian space, and parks in particular, is evidence of a true democracy at work.”
Fran Taylor can be reached at 415/874-4570 or email@example.com.
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