Video: New York streets' 10-year transformation

Before and after the introduction of a pedestriased plaza at the junction of Broadway and Times Square. Image: NYC DOT via Flickr.

Around the world, cities seem to be turning against cars. Madrid's moving towards a car-free city centre; World Car Free day, founded in France in 1998, has now spread to around 1,000 cities in 35 countries. Of course, in most cities, car-reduction measures usually take the more subtle form of bike lanes, pedestrianised streets and improvements in public transport. 

In New York City, measures like these have been introduced over the past 10 years to cut back on congestion and make the busiest areas of the city a little more pleasant. This video, shot and edited by filmmaker Clarency Eckerson Jr for Streetsblog NYC, tracks changes to specific areas between 2002 and 2013:

In footage from five or 10 years ago, cars and yellow taxis sit in stationary traffic, while in later years they appear to be overflowing with cycle lanes, street furniture, potted plants, pedestrianised roads and urban beaches.

Of course, no one’s claiming the city is now some kind of urban utopia, but pro-cycling and walking measures do seem to be having some effect: during 2011, traffic volumes fell by 1.8 per cent despite a population increase of around 100,000, according to the latest figures released by City Hall

For more on this, watch this Ted talk from Janette Sadik-Khan, transport commissioner of New York between 2007 and 2013, on how "bold" transport experiments have improved the city's streets (from a completely objective standpoint, of course).


How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.

Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.


The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.