Everyone loves pedestrianisation – but what if it made all retail districts look the same?

A car-free street in Lisbon. Image: Steven Vance/Flickr, reused under creative commons.

The municipal government in Oslo recently hit the headlines after announcing it was to ban cars from the city centre by 2019. “We want to make it better for pedestrians, cyclists,” says a council spokesperson. “It will be better for shops and everyone.”

Pedestrianised areas are nothing new, but Oslo’s car free zone is on a pretty big scale. Although the newly care free Central Business District is only around a kilometre across, 15 per cent of the city works within it. This in a city where around half of the 600,000 residents own cars.

Even if few metropolises are prepared to launch plans of this type immediately, the trend towards car-free city centres is clear. Increasing urbanisation has gone hand in hand with a growing appreciation of cities and the public realm.

In recent years districts of Milan, Dublin, Paris, Madrid and Brussels have all been closed to private cars. Hamburg recently announced plans to go car free by 2020. India had its first officially car-free city in 2008, while China is working on building its own (from scratch, naturally).

Across the channel, Paris trialled banning cars from its own business district for a day. The move was ostensibly to celebrate European Mobility Week, but it also served as a valuable pilot scheme which is likely to be put into practice again in the future. (Given the similarity in scale of the two cities, the move is something which London government will have been observing closely). Though European cities tend to already be far more walkable than those around the rest of the world, these incremental steps are gradually minimising barriers to formal pedestrianisation.

The UK’s biggest cities are heading in that direction, too. Some cities are pedestrianising entire districts, such as that announced in Birmingham; other cities also are taking smaller steps to a similar end.

In 2011 the EU proclaimed that all of its member cities should be free of petrol-powered cars by 2050. That suggestion was met by resistance from the UK government on the grounds of civic autonomy – yet many UK cities are likely to meet that target under their own steam. Drivers in Leeds could soon find themselves restricted from taking Diesel vehicles into the city, something which the London Assembly has been calling for in the capital too.

At the local level, some London boroughs now require new housing developments to be car-free. Policy gurus such as Andrew Adonis have called for better integration between car-clubs and public transport infrastructure. Both the Labour and Conservative London mayoral candidates have endorsed the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. And the impending arrival of London’s 24-hour tube (whether TfL launch it sooner or later) will likely encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport, too.

The human scale

But why are so many cities looking towards pedestrianisation – and what does it mean for their inhabitants?

Of course the need to reduce vehicle dependence and improve air quality is a huge driver. But so is the need for what Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl termed the “human scale”.

Gehl’s thesis that cities should be shaped towards facilitating human interaction led to the reinvention of Copenhagen’s city centre for pedestrian use in the 1960s. The aim was, fundamentally, to make urban centres a more pleasant place to work and live.

And it has proved hugely successful. Following the main stage of Copenhagen’s pedestrianisation (reclaiming the Stroget, its main retail street) footfall increased. But the real victory was not in increasing commerce but in allowing people use of the public realm. The number of people using the streets doubled. Cafe culture boomed.

Copenhagen’s reinvention was widely praised, and in the decades following tourism and migration increased significantly. Since then, Gehl’s his ideas have been applied to cities all over the world

But pedestrianisation brings drawbacks too. Research from both major cities like Izmir, Turkey, and from relatively small towns like Hasselt, Belgium, show that, as you would expect, pedestrianisation of centres causes surrounding property prices to increase significantly.

In almost all cases retail businesses also benefit – a great thing for the city as a whole (and its tax-collecting authorities). But that inexorably leads to a rise in commercial rents, too. According to a report by property consultants Erdman Lewis, pedestrianising a site means an instant rental premium of as much as 50 per cent over comparable vehicle-access sites. And with margins constrained, it tends to be the larger retail chains who are best suited to move in and take advantage.

All this means that pedestrianised retail centres risk becoming further homogenised, with only the most high-end independent shops able to operate.

The challenge for policymakers is how to develop a city’s public realm and so attract footfall and businesses, but at the same time minimise the gentrification which comes with it. In major cities such as London and Paris, where we already see a doughnut effect of wealth concentrated in the centre, pedestrianisation could further increase the economic divide.

There is one reason to be optimistic. Pedestrianisation may create a stark contrast in property prices, dividing the “haves” in a relatively small pedestrianised zone from the “have-nots” outside it. But this could be mitigated by introducing pedestrianisation such a scale that it becomes the norm, rather than the exception. 

Governments may need to tread carefully – but we are moving towards a future of car-free urban centres. We will surely enjoy improved and more successful cities as a result.



CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.