Historic Cities After Cars…

Posted June 22nd, 2016 by maryanthony and filed in Executive Director's Blog


New York, Philadelphia, DC, Milwaukee and Richmond were all on my travel docket within the past month which wrapped up with a week-long Citybuilders Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark. The first thing I noticed, on the first morning in this medieval city of 600,000 was the noise- or the lack of it. Even at the busiest time of day, in the busiest part of the city, there was more of a hum than the cacophony I had recently experienced in other cities.

Most people cycle or take public transportation in Copenhagen. Over the past 30 years, automobile traffic has been relegated to a more appropriate place in the transportation food chain. The streets have been systematically reconfigured over the years to favor thoughtful protected bicycle lanes that make cycling the fastest, cheapest, most efficient and pleasurable way to get around the city.

While none of our lecturers stated this as one of the desired impacts, it was my observation that the emphasis on bicycles actually has been an incredible boost to historic preservation/revitalization there.

Why? Bicycles have a much smaller footprint than cars. Check out how big a difference at http://indy100.independent.co.uk/image/29187-m4oqnr.gif Far fewer parking spaces, garages and square feet of road are needed for them. They pollute less, make less noise, and allow commuters and tourists to move along at eye-level, at moderate speed, unwalled off by glass and chrome, and in concert with other humans.

Citizens shop, dine and live very locally in Copenhagen, as was the case for hundreds of years in historic cities before cars choked out this historic way of life. Public life is rich and varied and connected and very local- the way it was before cars became the priority.

Better transportation options make the streets, which comprise a very large percentage of public space, public again. All over the world, we have let cars devour ancient roads and lifeways. Our most important public spaces (and this is key) were not built for cars. They were built for people and horses. Streets were where much of daily public life unfolded, before cars made it too noisy and dangerous in most places to serve that critical function.

In short, historic revitalization of cities is strongly supported by the bicycle- they do not require huge amounts of public space and they have a gentler, more fluid interaction with old buildings and with the historic uses of the street- the connective tissue that makes the historic city whole.

The return to my home city of Newport, RI reminded me that the needs of people here have been taken over by those of cars in this beautiful city and made me wonder if a better transportation system here could be as successful as in Copenhagen. Both are historic cities, with a significant seasonal tourist influx. They are vibrant, creative, densely populated places with museums, libraries, and scores of unique architectural gems. Their histories are shaped by the sailing and the sea and thus know old connections with the rest of the world. People are drawn to these cities, for their historic charm and natural beauty.

But, in Newport, the car is still king. This is truly unfortunate. We can do much better and, in doing so, we could serve as a great example to other historic cities. It is not easy to challenge the cherished theory that cars are the only way to get to the heart of Newport and that cars are the best way to move people. A better way to reach the heart of this city is to go back to the future, when the needs of people were more important than those of cars. I look forward to the day when the paradigm shifts to allow people to safely move through this historic city without creating noise and air pollution and in a way that honors the historic buildings and streetscapes.

  • Douglas Stewart

    Very well said. I live in Fairfax City, Virginia. At the center of Fairfax County, Fairfax City has a rich history as the county seat and has done a much better job than the county of preserving and maintaining its historic structures. But being in the center of a county with more than 1.1 million people, and as the place where many of the region’s main roads have always converged, it also sees 450,000 vehicles pass through it every day. Crossing the street in Old Town Fairfax is often quite dangerous. It certainly affects the ability to appreciate our historic assets.

    We won’t overcome this until we shift land use patterns so that people can customarily walk, bicycle, ride the bus or take a train for work, shopping, and other daily trips.