Pavements are made for walking

July 23, 2003

Came across this article in the Bangkok Post and thought it particularly relevant to Bangkok. Should be required reading for all Bangkok governors, especially the present one.

Pavements are made for walking

Pedestrians tend to be second-class citizens in many Third World cities. Developing countries have developed obsequious tendencies towards the car-owning elite. Life would improve if this were not the case.


In Paris, New York and Mexico City, rich and poor alike escape the summer heat in city parks. But in many places in the developing world, open public spaces are as rare as stable democracies. That may be no accident.

If it appears frivolous to write about public space in cities like Bogota, Delhi and Lima, where poverty and squalor run rampant, consider that the government's subsidy of grass and concrete for pedestrians is a measure of its respect for human dignity and democratic values.

Public spaces are where poor and rich meet as equals. If governments cannot level the playing field in a global economy, they can at least equalise the enjoyment of a city during leisure time.

In the Third World, this means offering residents clean and plentiful public parks and keeping the pavements clear for pedestrians. While the latter is taken for granted in the developed world, pavements in Latin America are often akin to disputed territory. Pedestrians shouldn't have to compete with cars. City and government officials should ensure that parks and paved paths become as ubiquitous to a city's landscape as parking spaces.

As mayor of Bogota, I was almost impeached for insisting that pedestrians win this war with the automobile and commerce. Shopowners and drivers complained that pavements should continue to be shared with parked cars, as they had been for years. We had to explain that although pavements live next to roads, they do not belong to the same family. Rather, pavements are close relatives of parks and plazas.

Pavements are not merely for going from one place to another, they are for talking, playing, kissing or sitting on a bench. To suggest that parking bays can be carved out of pavements is like saying a park or a plaza can be turned into an open-air parking lot with trees.

People need to walk to be happy. A bird can survive inside a small cage and even lay eggs and bear descendants. We, too, could live out our lives in the confines of an apartment. But just as a bird is happier in a cage the size of an auditorium and even happier when flying free, we walk better on a pavements three or 10m wide. We are exuberant if offered an esplanade cleared of cars, noise and pollutants.

For thousands of years, city streets were pedestrian, even if shared with horses and carriages. Paintings up to the end of the 19th century depict cityscapes with people all about the street. Any eight-year-old child was safe walking about these streets. All this changed dramatically when automobiles appeared. Streets became lethally dangerous, particularly for children.

As automobiles drove pedestrians off to the side of streets, cities in the Third World should have developed a parallel network of exclusively pedestrian walkways. Nothing of the sort happened.

On the recently built road from Delhi to Agra to facilitate the flow of tourists to the Taj Mahal, there must be at least 200 pedestrians and bicyclists for each motor vehicle. But there are no pavements or bicycle paths alongside it.

This regressive design is not exclusive to India; it is typical of the Third World. Investing in road infrastructure tends to be regressive in societies where only a minority own automobiles.

But upper income people drive and they make the decisions. Building an infrastructure for an ever-growing number of cars was a daunting task, one that absorbed the attention and resources of many Third World governments over the past three decades. After clogging every square metre of city streets, they cut road space through the most spectacular natural settings. Practically no urban lakefront, riverbank, coastline or mountainside has not been threatened.

Quality public pedestrian space, on the other hand, demonstrates official respect for human dignity and for society's most vulnerable members: the handicapped, children and the elderly. A progressive strategy towards public space deepens democracy, since the pedestrians and bicyclists who benefit most directly are lower-income citizens.

This is especially true in developing countries, where the population of cities will increase by more than two billion inhabitants over the next 30 years.

The new urban areas to be created could be different, more egalitarian and environmentally more sustainable than those built over the last 100 years. Public space networks of greenways, parks, plazas, exclusively pedestrian avenues, and streets could be the backbone of the new Third World city.

As for mobility in a pedestrian city, it is possible to structure low-cost bus-based transit systems and to severely restrict car use during peak hours. Generally, cities in developing countries cannot afford architectural jewels such as Notre Dame; but they can have formidable pedestrian avenues shaded by enormous tropical trees.

Environmental and social sustainability worldwide depends to a large degree on what happens in developing countries' cities over the next few decades. There is not much reason for optimism now. But there could be: If the Third World frees its feet, its mind will follow.

- Enrique Pealosa was mayor of Bogota, Colombia, from 1998-2001. _ Copyright: Project Syndicate.

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