Two inventions played especially important roles in radically redefining American social life during the last century: the car and the suburb. Many have lamented the automobile’s takeover of the urban commons and the subsequent loss of opportunities for interaction among city dwellers. Below, OnTheCommons.org editor Jay Walljasper talks about what we’ve lost by not re-creating the agoras, squares and piazzas of the old world. —ARK
Our World 2.0:
I am perplexed by the almost complete lack of pedestrian streets in North America. Why is it that car-free commons — designed for pleasurable strolling, shopping and hanging out — which have become as typical as stoplights or McDonalds in European city centers, are almost non-existent here?
... Look what we’re missing. The heart of many, if not most, German, Italian, Dutch, Scandinavian and, increasingly, South American big cities are bustling pedestrian zones that have become favorite spots for young people to gather, lovers to linger, kids to romp, women to show off their new clothes (and discreetly admire the looks of passers-by), men to admire the looks of passers-by (and discreetly show-off their new clothes) and everybody to feel part of the wider community. This is the urban commons at its best.
... The notion that cars are the Kings of the Road is a relatively new attitude. For almost all of human history, the city street functioned as a vital commons welcoming all — it’s where carriages and streetcars traveled but also where youngsters played, teens flirted, dogs slept and everyone else chatted with their friends. That all changed between the 1920s and the 1970s, depending where you live, as motor vehicles claimed these commons for their exclusive use. We are poorer today because of this — literally in some cases because to experience the instinctual joy of hanging out in the streets you must travel to some faraway spot.
People gather to watch a street performance on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, one of the United States’ few urban walkways.