City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

29. Slowdown landscapes: Street fight

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Afternoon walk, Enskededalen 7 August 2020

What does the street want to be? The street can decide. Also, how cities are about inefficiency, learning from the pack-donkey rather than Le Corbusier

“There are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized. We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city.” — Mayor of Washington DC Muriel Bowser, reflecting on the Black Lives Matter street mural

The street is the basic unit of city. Buildings are everywhere, in all contexts, as are schools, farms, ports, shops, and so on. But streets are really, essentially, urban. They are where everything comes together, where all systems converge, where politics and culture happens most obviously and powerfully. They reveal the sheer complexity of our tangled existence, and yet in ways that are entirely everyday and accessible.

“What it is a city, if not its people and its streets? The two are inextricable, one meaningless without the other”—Janette Sadik-Khan, ‘Street Fight’ (2016)

And so it is on the street that our dramas are played out, whether they are quiet vignettes, as the waves of traffic receded in the wake of the virus revealing the soundtrack underneath, or righteously louder, like the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The transformation that is happening on streets all over the world is extraordinary. The lockdown/slowdown due to COVID-19 has started to force the hand of urban politicians, policymakers, and planners, reclaiming the streets as public spaces, not mere arteries. The brakes were slammed on pretty rapidly, and we had, or have still, a moment to take stock. Vehicle traffic dropped massively, almost overnight, as in some cities over half the workforce started working from home, where they could, in turn contributing to rapid drops in pollution.

During April and May, municipalities started making rapid adjustments to streets, knowing that public transport would be problematic for a while, and should be devoted largely to ‘essential’ workers, whilst also trying to resist a swing back towards the private motor car. The phrase ‘tactical urbanism’ somehow made its way into the pages of the Financial Times, via the lips of politicians in New Zealand, referring to the street interventions being deployed there. Berlin bike lanes were being thrown up in around 10 days, a fraction of the time usually taken (and with predictably varied results.) Street interventions based around removing car traffic, and increasing a diversity of uses, have been emerging in Milan, Vancouver, London, Auckland, Paris, Seattle, Oakland, and numerous others cities.

Ed. See a growing compendium of examples in the casebook for this series: Clear skies, full parks, can’t lose’

Roughly simultaneous to these street retrofits, we see a small craze fire up for marking, naming, and describing the biodiversity — the trees and plants — in the street with chalk. (It’s an odd echo of the ‘warchalking’ craze at the turn of the century, which chalked the presence, and characteristics, of wifi hotspots; itself borrowed from the practice of so-called ‘hobo signs’, chalked codes on the environment, allegedly used from the 1870s onwards.) Awkwardly, this lovely little movement, led by children and teachers and using coloured chalk that will wash away with the next rain shower, is deemed illegal in the UK.

Sophie Leguil, founder of More Than Weeds, stands over chalk names of plants on the pavement. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

A month or so later, Black Lives Matter began to occupy streets with politics, vividly exemplifying what public space can be about, and just how potent the street is. Due to infiltration by far-right agitators, and provocation from the police and National Guard, the marches occasionally spilled over into violence, yet the protests were primarily and overwhelmingly peaceful and powerful, transforming the way that race was being discussed in the USA, and the across the world.

Entire cities are beginning to discuss transformation in the most fundamental ways, from proposals defunding the police in favour of an ‘upstream’ focus on environments that prevent harm in the first place, through to autonomous zones flowering in the cracks opened up in fractured cities like Seattle, Oakland, Portland (and it must be said, in differently fractured cities outside the USA: Milan, Berlin, Auckland, London, Bristol, Paris, and so on).

Incredibly, 10 metre tall yellow letters were painted on 16th Street in Washington directly north of the White House, declaring ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’, with city crews sanctioned by the mayor to help local activists produce the street art. (Mayor Bowser would later rename the entire street ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’). This extraordinary symbol spread not only through social media but was quickly being repeated in cities across the USA, with further giant letters appearing, declaring ‘END RACISM NOW’ and ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’, turning public space into a kind of performative broadcast space, existing in the street and Apple Maps simultaneously.

This vast political street art sit alongside the tiny arrows and scribbles describing trees and plants. Both marks are political; the former, obviously so, at wonderful and epic scale; the latter, subtly positioning the street as multi-species environment, as a place of learning rather than traffic, as a place for children, as a place to make a mark.

That the potential for systemic change is triggered by events playing out in both quiet and noisy streets indicates that our streets are essentially ideological, political and cultural in character. This makes a mockery of the fact that we are largely managing streets for the purposes of traffic. What are streets for, after all? Have we been making streets to make traffic? Both these events, the pandemic and the protests, provide alternate sketches of what streets can be. Yet both events also provide insights into how carefully we must approach these next transitions.

Tactics versus strategy

What happens next will be the difference between tactics and strategy, between instinctive short-term reaction and the possibility of systemic change. Tactical interventions are based on the ideas “lying around”, in Milton Friedman’s words. Tartakower’s definition of the difference between tactics and strategy is that tactics are what you do when you know what to do, whereas strategy is what you do when you don’t know what to do.

With COVID-19, the decisions were made by the virus itself, effectively. Our cities went into some form of lockdown or slowdown, and streets had to adapt accordingly.

Yet we cannot get stuck with the tactical, the quick and dirty solution to events. The more considered approach — we might say strategic rather than tactical urbanism, if the ‘s’ word wasn’t so loaded with corporate connotations — would question the more fundamental values about what and who streets are for, about how our choices for built fabric and public space embody what we stand for. About what we do next, and how.

These rapid behavioural changes may have dislodged sedimented mental models, yet without that questioning, our streets will bounce back to their previously unhealthy, unsustainable mode, cutting sharply across communities to create unequal social division—indeed, in the last two months, car traffic in many cities has not just bounced back to pre-virus levels, but in some cases increased.

Tactics, like events, are not enough.

Crucially, amidst all the noise, we need to find time and space to discuss the way that we should proceed down the street, as we unhook our 20th century infrastructures from their 20th century ideologies, and rebuild around 21st century cultures. Without checked assumptions, the changes could be quickly reversed, or ‘gamed’ in problematic ways. Many apparently well-meaning tactical interventions could actually make things worst for many.

Some odd projects spring up amidst the early chaos. These are often based on existing urban dynamics, yet with a viral overlay, such as Czech designers Hua Hua, and their Gastro Safe Zone kit, comprising a fixed table within grids of social distancing halos, marked on the ground, built to keep people apart in a piazza. This is well-meaning, yet it runs against the grain of the very idea of piazza, unfortunately.

Hua Hua’s Gastro Safe Zone

Parc de la Distance, by Austrian studio Precht, has an absurdist charm to it. Their speculative proposal depicts a park as tightly wound maze of dense hedges, with gates preventing crossover with other walkers. It’s a provocation, yet even in the midst of the pandemic there is no need for this form of extreme distancing; whereas there is a need for that density of greenery, distributed throughout our streets — could this not be a little less tactical, reactive, and speculative, and a little more strategic instead?

Parc de la Distance, by Precht

These are formal proposals, rather than about process, about politics. Amongst municipalities, only Paris, with their sharp head-start of 15-minute city strategy, may be capable of aligning tactical responses with the strategic. Yet even that may not deal with the broader issues beyond the périphérique that define what Paris actually is.

Some of these interventions — the chalk, the bikes — are likely to stick around longer than the social distancing tables, largely as they can slip in unannounced anywhere. The virus will become a relatively minor ambient threat at some point, through sufficient spread or vaccine or both, and we will be able to congregate again, possibly soon in some places. As a result, the material landscape of police tape, plexiglass, and decals will also fade away, sooner in some places than others. There are many places, from Taipei to Malmö, where it has barely been needed at all. Masks will also end up discarded at some point, one hopes (ideally without creating other problems, in landfill form.) There were early signs that public transport may not be the super-spreader environment people fear, despite unhelpful messages to the contrary from politicians.

These responses, whether political or scientific, are all highly localised. Distancing itself, with its dependency on the variability of personal space and physical modes of social interaction, is highly cultural, of course. There’s a joke circling here in the Nordics, usually aimed at the Finns — including by the Finns — saying people can’t wait for the two metre social distancing rule to be removed, so they can return to the usual five metres.

Yet either way, these tactical measures have helped reclaim the street, at least for the moment. To those of us working in strategic urban design, it’s almost a little sobering, as interested as we are in the outcomes. All that work — for years, decades, even — designing, discussing, and lobbying for ‘living streets’ and car-free districts, and all it took to provoke the largest street experiment in history was, in all probability, a diseased bat taking a bite of something it really shouldn’t have?

As MIT’s Nicholas de Monchaux writes, “While it pains me to say it as an urban designer, we often do not need entirely new ideas to improve our cities. But sometimes, it appears, we need a crisis.”

But why did we need that crisis? Why has an apparently rational urban planning discipline failed to reclaim the streets in recent years, whereas the virus and the protests have forced large-scale behavioural change within weeks. This is the kind of mass ‘show-don’t-tell’ experiment that many of us thought necessary, but were completely unable to initiate.

The issue perhaps, is in the mischaracterisation of the work as simply ‘rational’: seeing the street as a technical object to be optimised, and pursuing that line of argument, as if there was no such thing as ideology or culture, as if we only had to ‘follow the science’. Whereas actually, the street is precisely about politics and identity, and driven by ideology.

The pack-donkey versus urban planning

That critique can be levelled firmly at urban planning. This apparently ideology-free technocratic emphasis on optimisation can be traced back through much of the 20th century’s more destructive manoeuvres, and of course remains pervasive today.

The City of Tomorrow and its planning, Le Corbusier (1929)

Le Corbusier’s 1929 book ‘The City of Tomorrow and its planning’ is perhaps the Svalbard-like motherlode when it comes to storing the seeds of this efficiency-driven approach, particularly when it comes to urbanism.

There’s a fable in the book featuring a pack-donkey, or mule. The vignette neatly captures Le Corbusier’s interests, and those more broadly of a thoroughly technocratic strain of modernism, which sees Man (and really, a handful of men) at the centre of all decisions, rejecting the more nuanced multi-species approach lying in front of us. Although Le Corbusier’s urban visions were far ‘greener’ than is usually understood, he was clearly in awe of the automobile, and its machine-age brethren, and was determined to find a way to design around it. His fable tellingly places Man’s goal-oriented and decisive action over nature’s apparently retrograde, unaccountably inefficient, even indolent animal instincts.

“Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance…The Pack-Donkey’s Way is responsible for the plan of every continental city.”—Le Corbusier, ‘The City of Tomorrow and its planning’ (1929)

Corb’s Way versus the Pack-Donkey’s Way

It was Corb’s Way, rather than the Pack-Donkey’s Way, that came to be responsible for the plan of almost every subsequent bit of city building, aligned as it was with the industrial development of the automobile: “A modern city lives by the straight line, inevitably.”

The curve, he spat, was: “An appalling and paradoxical misconception in an age of motor-cars.”

Le Corbusier’s framing of this conundrum, with its symbolism precisely attuned to its age, has plagued us ever since. His line of thinking is still prevalent in urban planning today, implicitly led by traffic engineering cultures predicated on efficiency. (Apparently few noticed the implication of another of Le Corbusier’s metaphors in The City of Tomorrow: that the “surgery” of “arteries” allowing the “bodily fluids” to flow would have slowly but inexorably have drained a body of its life force.)

In the current slowdown, we need only look at the places that people still tend to gravitate towards, that have proved resilient for centuries but remain attractive, in the richest sense of that word. We must now be aware of the value in the donkey’s route when we walk along a Barri Gotic side street, via a Melbourne laneway or an alley in Kyoto, around a curving colonnade in Torino, through the medina in Fez. Those places are not really efficient, or the “sane and noble orthogonal forms” that Le Corbusier extolled.


Yet as freeways begin to fade, which has proved more valuable over the long term? Which do people keep returning to, given the choice? Perhaps “man (sic) has made up his mind” that the donkey was right all along?

The motif of the donkey is not completely coincidental: perhaps this is another sign that a designing around humans and nonhumans is a more profoundly complex, resilient, and equitable route through that city?

Black Lives Matter, and the line of most resistance

The dynamic of the political protest in the street is similarly slow and haphazard. It may be channeled or kettled by police, but its goal is hardly getting from A to B. Whilst its actual route may have more in common with that ‘donkey urbanism’, as Catherine Ingraham dubbed it, based on taking “the line of least resistance”, the protest march is clearly about being the line of most resistance.

Either way, the march exemplifies this richer idea of streets as not being about traffic. Instead, it is a place to articulate what the late Michael Sorkin, an early loss to the coronavirus, described as “the collusion of difference that only cities can produce”.

“People have always lived on streets. They have been the places where children first learned about the world, where neighbors met, the social centers of towns and cities, the rallying points for revolts, the scenes of repression.”— Donald Appleyard

The resilience of this less efficient but more effective and affective space, and the broader range of value it generates, may change not only our approach to urbanism, but a broader range of mental models. The short-term changes to many of our streets due to COVID-19 could presage longer-term structural changes in areas like public health, commerce and climate resilience, as well as an impact on our city more generally. This moves the question beyond the ‘urbs’ of the built form and into the ‘civitas’ of our culture, about public life.

So part of what is happening on the streets is a re-positioning of values, as well as a re-patterning of urban form. In both, we have to be clearer about the public life in question: whose lives, which public, to what end? The street is a such a beguiling combination of potent and open, unlike other urban spaces, that we cannot mess this up.

“The piazza is a space for encoded rituals. You know how to conduct yourself in the piazza, its ideal version, what we call civilized urbanity. The street is the space of indeterminacy.” — Saskia Sassen

Yet there is some significant ‘messing up’ occurring. Alissa Walker quite correctly and angrily takes down numerous urbanists and designers for their wish-fulfilment fantasies about what they wanted streets to become. Written before the protests about George Floyd’s death, her article seems remarkably prescient now, describing the need to reassessing “our broken cities” far more fundamentally than simply painting a bike lane and popping-up a parklet. Without a systematic transformation, centred on social justice, such moves would only reinforce existing power structures.

Walker’s scathing critique of American urbanists fiddling around with bike lanes whilst America burns should force a deeper level of participation and ownership in what places are for, in who decides, and what they are about. The outcome can tend towards bikes, birdsong, and barbecues over time — those are things we can also optimise around — but the way that we get there, what’s at stake and who decides, is far more important.

Destiny Thomas makes this point too, and forcefully. We must not leap ahead to a built form outcome, even with something so apparently intrinsically ‘good’ as open streets, without first assessing the power structures that build up or tear apart our cities and their people.

“Without a plan to include and protect Black, Brown, Indigenous, trans, and disabled people, or a plan to address anti-Black vigilantism and police brutality, these open streets are set up to fail.”—Destiny Thomas

This does not mean that streets should not be open, green, car-free, and with diverse applications. Quite the opposite. But without addressing this context of social transformation, and the way we get there, tactical measures may actually make things worse. As I wrote elsewhere, put traffic planners in charge of the street and you get traffic, just as if you put gardeners in charge of the street, we’d get gardens. But put a diverse range of people in charge of the street and perhaps we’d get a diverse range of people.

A single image somehow captures these collisions, depicting a group brunching at a parklet in the foreground, whilst a protest marches past in the background. COVID-19 is an accelerant for moving the street away from cars, freeing up the space for these activities, and more. But it is politics that decides what happens here in the end, and whether that turns into parklets for privileged white brunchers, or parklets for a more diverse wealth of applications and peoples. The way that happens, the values they embody, and what the street becomes, have now become crucial questions.

Optimising the street for brunch. Photo: Nick Swartsell/Cincinnati CityBeat

The prism of a shattered USA at this point means this ‘brunch versus BLM’ image is a lightening rod for the fiercest of debates — again, quite rightly, given the context. In this, it further reinforces that the street is where both these movements — the reclaiming of public space, the reclaiming of public politics — collide in real time and space, intrinsically linked.

Europe has its own significant problems with racism. We may not see it so clearly, simply because we are not as heavily-armed.

As Gary Younge wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Perhaps only because (Europe) is not blighted by the gun culture of the US, racism here is less lethal. But it is just as prevalent in other ways … The precariousness of black life in late capitalism is not unique to America, even if it is most often and glaringly laid bare there. To that extent, Black Lives Matter exists as a floating signifier that can find a home in most European cities and beyond.”

And find a home it has, on the streets of Bristol and Barcelona, Stockholm and Sofia. It’s been very powerful to see Europe respond to America’s pain, and across its former colonies, and reflect upon its own role in inflicting such pain in the first place.

Yet it’s unclear how much Europeans are genuinely reconciling with the racism at home. An EU report found Finland to be one of the most racist countries in the European Community, effectively, with a kind of pervasive background racism suffered continually by migrants and new Finns. Yet many, perhaps most, would see Finland as a paragon of progressive values in action. Are we reconciling these issues at home in Europe?

The protests are a genuine step forward. Without richer values being instilled, or at least discussed, however, the impact of these marches may be limited to tactics. Already, a few months in, the focus that Black Lives Matter was able to pull during May and June is blurring a little. And it should not take Black bodies to keep it on the agenda. Outside of these more obvious and fundamental social justice questions, if we settle for merely pop-up bike lanes on our city streets, the car lobby will find it easy to make the case for the hermetically-sealed existence of driving—“And through such decongested streets!” There will be calls to further optimise the city around solitary, individualistic modes like car-driving, which will do little to repair social fabric, never mind rebuild climate resilience or public health.

“Marches are a tactic. Not much has emerged about strategy, or even specific articulated goals, beyond major reform of police practices and responsibilities.” — Noam Chomsky

Optimisation is tactical too. It only refines a set of existing metrics; it does not ask questions as to what or who things are for. That would be a strategic impulse, and would allow in the range of perspectives, many of which are beyond efficient and optimisation, that Walker, Thomas and many others are calling for, so clearly.

Optimising the city, without addressing the shredded social fabric it lives within, will do no more than reinforce the problems that got us into this mess, whether racism or the lack of broader resilience, or the wilful ignorance that ignores the reality that all these things are connected.

The line of thinking that runs from Le Corbusier to Y Combinator, via mid-century transport planning, has been largely unbroken until now. In a few short weeks, other narratives have emerged, whether chalking biodiversity into the pavement or pulling down statues, or stopping the traffic to make giant Black Lives Matter street art or plant gardens, or simply the idea that it is your right to live amidst streets that enable you to thrive; that are rewarding and enriching, as well as safe and sustainable.

To rebuild those streets will take a level of participation and ownership of the process, structure and the values underpinning them that we have not seen before. But right now, that seems possible.

“If we want to prevent unintended impacts as a result of our planning practices today, our solutions and responses to these crises (and the interlocking systems of oppression that they exacerbate) must be rooted in collective decision-making, with a special emphasis on those who experience and access “outside” from a disadvantaged position in society.” — Destiny Thomas

Reflecting on the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone emerging in Seattle, activist and mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver almost echoed that difference between tactics and strategies when she said:

“It’s one thing to take a space, it’s another thing to turn a space into something functional that actually serves the community.”—Nikkita Oliver

‘“Building People Power”: Nikkita Oliver on Seattle’s Extraordinary Protests and What Comes Next’, Vanity Fair, 11 June 2020

Her phrase, taken out of context, perhaps inadvertently reads like a brief in an urban design project. Our job as designers, perhaps, is to flip it around: to see that urban design actually is already in that broader political context, and always has been.

The street is where it all happens; the question now is how it happens, and with whom.

Ed. Many elements of this piece originally featured in Optimising for Brunch, an essay produced for Disegno Lockdown Paper, in June 2020, though it has been substantially rewritten and updated. Many thanks to the editor Oli Stratford for his insightful and engaged contributions to that piece.

Next: 30. The quietly radical importance of everyday infrastructures
Previous: 28. Slowdown landscapes: Small pieces, loosely joined
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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