Kicking Our 20th Century Addiction and Reclaiming Our Cities

Kicking Our 20th Century Addiction and Reclaiming Our Cities

04.4.2017

[This article has been published in Spanish in Planeta Futuro-El País]

We have come to see cars not merely as a mode of transport but as a fundamental right. But at what cost?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are addicted to our cars. Nearly a century of seductive marketing, convenience and speed has made driving an indispensable part of our lives. Cars are sold as symbols of freedom, power and success. In theory, they make our lives better, happier and more adventurous. We have come to see cars not merely as a mode of transport but as a fundamental right. But at what cost

 

The invention and massification of personal motorised transport have drastically altered the way our cities are designed and lived. And a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not very good for us at all, either individually or collectively. However, because we have become addicted to our cars and the ideas they have come to represent, we have been slow to admit this. Road rage, hours of time stuck in traffic, air pollution, noise and accidents, these are just some of the undeniable by-products of this reality. And in turn, we have decreased our physical activity and increased obesity, cardiovascular disease, asthma, cognitive impairments, and stress among others.

In Spain alone, it is estimated that particulate matter has cost the lives of 26,830 people over the past decade

In Spain alone, it is estimated that particulate matter—a major component of air pollution generated primarily by motor vehicles—has cost the lives of 26,830 people over the past decade. Is this a number we would tolerate if it was caused by contaminated water or a viral outbreak? Of course not; it would be treated as a public health emergency. And if we want to look at the global context, according to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, 1.7 million children under 5 years of age die every year from causes related to unhealthy environments. So why are we willing to accept these costs? Why do we remain so resistant to really consider changing our habits, to kicking our driving addiction?

We do not need to demonise cars; instead we need to face our addiction and rethink how we use them

We do not need to demonise cars; instead we need to face our addiction and rethink how we use them. If we could use cars more rationally, to complement other forms of transport, such as walking, cycling or public transport. If we used cars sometimes, but not always, we could reverse many of these dangerous trends and reclaim our urban space. Most of us don’t realise that in many Spanish cities, public space is dedicated to a single use: mobility, getting from one place to another. By rethinking our prioritisation of individual transport and redistributing part of our public space to other activities, we have a tremendous opportunity to transform our cities into places that protect and promote our health and well-being. In cities like Barcelona, for example, it is estimated that 20% of premature deaths could be prevented by changing the way the city is designed, most importantly by increasing physical activity and reducing air pollution to the levels recommended by international organisations.

Instead of being dedicated to cars, public spaces could be used for recreation, sports, social and cultural events, commerce and social interaction. Possibilities like more green space, urban gardens and artistic spaces can become realities.In fact, experience shows us that in neighbourhoods where the streets are pedestrianised, there is almost always an increase in social and commercial activity.

Cities are the modern engines of innovation and opportunity, but an unhealthy city cannot prosper

Cities are the modern engines of innovation and opportunity, but an unhealthy city cannot prosper. The aim of ISGlobal’s Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative is to apply rigorous scientific evidence to promote healthy cities. It is also the focus of The Ideal City, a short documentary made recently by Morrosko Vila-San-Juan for the Soy Cámara programme at the Barcelona Centre of Contemporary Culture (CCCB). We hope that it will also be the subject of many more initiatives yet to come. We all share the air we breathe and the streets we walk on. Our policies should protect these public goods, because cost of not doing so is a burden we are ill prepared to bear.