Slow cities

How do you make a city livable? City planners, development specialists and urban residents debate and struggle with this issue — particularly in North America. Meanwhile in Europe, a solution taken from the past is gaining momentum — slow cities.

A great article in Der Spiegel (found via Planetizen) details how the slow city movement works.

“Slow City” advocates argue that small cities should preserve their traditional structures by observing strict rules: cars should be banned from city centers; people should eat only local products and use sustainable energy. In these cities, there’s not much point in looking for a supermarket chain or McDonald’s.

For such a plan to work, citizens have to support it. In a large city, it would be difficult to ban automobiles in the downtown and still have a viable business and retail district — many people simply wouldn’t go there. Indeed, to belong to the official slow city movement in Europe, a city must have fewer than 50,000 residents. Most cities joining the slow city network have histories dating as far back as medieval times and residents are proud of this heritage.

No North American city dates back that far (even those few places with settlements dating to the 15th century or before like Mexico City or Santa Fe, Taos, etc. no longer have the same roads and buildings). Unlike in the European slow cities, downtowns in North American cities (whether large or small) were typically built either for automobiles or at least for a combination of streetcars and horse carriages which required wide roadways.

So could larger North American cities (or larger European cities) learn anything from the slow city movement in terms of livability. I think they could at the neighborhood level. Some neighborhoods have community spirit, and are small enough to continue fostering that camaraderie.

While banning automobiles might be challenging as a 24X7 policy, it might be doable in a busy pedestrian area on weekend afternoons, for example. Encouraging residents to support local family owned businesses can inherently discourage large chains from setting up (if the locals won’t shop there, they don’t last).

Could it work? Are there any “slow neighborhoods” in big cities? If you know of one, please leave a comment.

One comment

  1. Ryan says:

    Hey, I found your site a couple of weeks ago while researching density in Vancouver. I live in Austin, and I’ve been following its “density” movement very closely, and blogging about it some myself. I’m not near as much of an expert as you are, though. I LOVE your blog. Please keep it up. Thanks!

    Ryan, thanks for the note. I seem to have a lot of readers in Austin. I wish I knew the city better – was there briefly a couple times to use the UT library about 13 years ago, but didn’t get a feel for the city (and from reading, I get the sense the whole vibe has changed since then to a much more creative atmosphere).

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