When oppressive governments want to destroy civil society, they destroy public spaces

Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2015. Image: Getty.

If you happen to visit Egypt and find yourself in the famous Tahrir Square, you might be puzzled: how could this space accommodate two million protesters?

In fact, the square looked different at the time of the Arab Spring – up until the new military government ringed its central part with an iron fence. A similar transformation happened with the Pearl roundabout in the capital of Bahrain where demonstrators used to gather – It was turned into a traffic junction. In my hometown, Moscow, the square where millions called for the end of Soviet rule in 1991 now houses an hideous shopping mall.

For a pro-liberty movement to raise its head, Twitter is not enough: face-to-face contact is crucial. That is why when oppressive governments want to destroy civil society, they destroy public spaces. Street markets, green squares and lively parks (think of the iconic Hyde Park corner) are places where citizens meet, negotiate and slowly learn to trust each other.

Joseph Stalin knew it well, hence he made sure that city dwellers had no public spaces to socialise in. The results were devastating: chronic mistrust that post-communist societies are yet to overcome. Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the levels of social capital in Dresden and Leipzig are still lower than in Munich and Hamburg, which bears its economic as well as political costs.

One study shows that residents living in walkable neighbourhoods exhibit at least 80 per cent greater levels of social capital than those living in car-dependent ones. That is something to consider, given that only a half of Brits know their neighbour’s name. The economic benefits are also clear: improved walking infrastructure can increase retail sales by 30 per cent. London has witnessed it on Oxford Street where the creation of a Tokyo-style pedestrian crossing led to a 25 per cent increase in turnover in the adjacent stores.

In the 20th century, the world has fallen in and out of love with urban utopias. Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” with its enormous avenues and gigantic block houses is probably the most famous (or infamous) proposal – look for gloomy pictures to get an impression on how Paris would look like if his ideas were put to practice (or just imagine Barbican extended to the size of a city). American journalist and one of the founders of modern urban studies, Jane Jacobs, challenged these ideas in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” while praising spontaneous order in urban development.

What was common for the socialist urban projects? They glorified the automobile as a means of transportation. In contrast, the most appealing examples Jacobs presented in her book were all neighbourhoods with intense pedestrian flow. Besides boosting community life and helping cities to prosper, she argues, walkable cities are also safer ones. More pedestrians means more “eyes on the streets”, which lowers the need for police surveillance (Britain has almost 6m CCTVs, one for every 11 people).

That’s all fine, but who pays? It’s true that large-scale urban redevelopment projects can be very expensive. However, engaging with private capital has proven to be a viable strategyboth in and outside of the UK.

One inspirational example comes from right across the Channel. In Rotterdam, local architects proposed a pedestrian bridge that would link two parts of the city separated by a railroad. When the local government refused to fund it, they launched a public crowdfunding campaign and raised enough money to complete the project. This is a perfect example of how social capital can bridge aspirations and reality — sometimes even literally.


Many citizens are sceptical about large-scale urban projects, and for a reason: the most ambitious of them are being implemented in a top-down-way. Take Barcelona’s car-free ”superblocks” or Paris' mayor’s pledge to halve the number of private cars: both faced strong opposition from residents.

Back in the sixties, Jacobs warned against one-size-fits all solutions. In one of her public speeches she pointed to the corner grocery store as a sign of commercial diversity in a city – and soon began to receive projects where planners literally allocated slots for corner grocery stores. Such “patronising conception”, she argues, is not something a modern city needs.

Of course, there will always be NIMBYs opposing any changes to the city landscape, but YIMBY is the new black. Few years ago, when I was serving as an elected official in Moscow, I was the only outspoken YIMBY in my district. Once at the public hearings I was even accused of being bribed by the developer – just because I supported a private park project.

Here, once again, we face the problem of trust, and it is hard to blame people for being distrustful when social ties are so weak. This vicious circle – no public spaces so no social capital, no social capital so no public spaces – should be finally broken.

Vera Kichanova is a recipient of the John Blundell Studentship. She was the first Russian libertarian to be elected to public office and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on market urbanism at King's College London.

This article was first published on the Adam Smith Institute blog, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.