The Attrition of Automobiles

The 2022 European Prize for Urban Public Space has gone to the disappearance of an urban expressway in Utrecht, Netherlands, and the restoration and rewilding of the Catharijnesingel canal that the expressway itself replaced in the 1960s, a project by OKRA Landscape Architects of Utrecht. The awarding of this prize to this work sends a clear message: building urban expressways was a big, costly, historical mistake, and it’s now high time we undid these errors. Restoring or rewilding a strip of landscape is admittedly not the most creative or original display of design talent, and in that regard the prize sends another message: a project whose power lies in the difference it makes more than the aesthetics it transmits is much more prize-worthy in the context of climate change.

The idea is nothing new, of course. Jane Jacobs already advocated the attrition of automobiles in the late 1950s in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and converting Barcelona’s Ronda Litoral sunken expressway into a recreational canal was proposed by Josep Bohigas for an exhibition on possible futures for the Catalonian capital. But it’s one thing to draw a pretty picture of an idea and quite another to build it, and that’s what the city of Utrecht has boldly done.

The city of Barcelona is also physically removing road space from automobiles and replacing it with vegetation as part of the Superblocks initiative (though the plan by Salvador Rueda has recently been diluted by a less ambitious one that effectively maintains only the name of the original). Yet, at the same time, Barcelona city council is also undoing a completely pedestrianized street –Ronda Sant Antoni– so that buses, taxis and delivery vans can use it once again, giving in to pressure from local retailers. Apparently, some are still not getting the message.

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