On Monday London belonged to the people.
Streets that are usually full of cars and cabs, buses and bad moods were full of cheering, flag-waving people. One million of them. Some 400 miles north, within viewing distance of a huge screen showing the London celebrations, I was watching a woman who'd just been hit by a bus on Lothian Road in Edinburgh. She was sitting on the ground clearly dazed, but in time she was thankfully able to get up and climb into the ambulance that had arrived. Behind her she left the bus, its windscreen spiderwebbed with fractures.
The juxtaposition of these two events only stuck me because three days before I'd also been in the capital to hear the Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl give the city's architects and urban planners his own recipe for liveable cities. And guess what? The car – and the bus for that matter – wasn't one of the ingredients.
Mr Gehl's argument is that cities have to reclaim their streets from the traffic planners. He has been helping do just that in cities as far afield as Copenhagen in his own country, Melbourne in Australia and more recently in New York.
Mr Gehl believes that by making cities more pedestrian and bike friendly they become more liveable, more sustainable and their citizens healthier. In Copenhagen changes to the city that gave pedestrians and bikes priority over cars mean that now 36% of the commuters who worked in the city travelled to their work on bikes, 33% travelled by public transport and only 27% used their cars.
The pedestrianising of streets also had an economic impact with cafes and restaurants taking advantage of the increased passing trade. Greater footfall also increased a sense of safety in the city.
He said New York and Melbourne had benefited from similar approaches in recent years, with New York pedestrianising Times Square. New York's cabbies weren't best pleased but the rest of the city seems delighted. Two years after Mr Gehl was hired by New York in 2007 to consult, retail rents in Times Square had risen by a staggering 71% as it emerged that pedestrians spend more money than any other group. There is a hard business case to this argument. Congestion is inefficient.
Given the recent shambolic (trambolic?) history of Edinburgh some might be inclined to take all this with a pinch of petrol. But in many ways it's the failings of Scottish cities that make the strongest case for Mr Gehl's thesis. Glasgow in particular seems to me hugely impoverished in its public spaces. Buchanan Street is cluttered with street furniture, yet remains the busiest street in the city perhaps because there is nowhere else that gives pedestrians such freedom. As for George Square, well it's little more than a big traffic island. Earlier this year I was in Birmingham, a city that seems to have sold its soul to the car. Yet even it is better serviced with pedestrian-friendly areas than Glasgow.
You could argue that we don't have the climate in Scotland for such a wholesale change to city culture. But, as Mr Gehl pointed out, Copenhagen is colder than Scotland and it's managed very well.
Why, Mr Gehl asked, do British cities never feature on the list of the world's most liveable cities? Because, he argued, our cities have been in the hands of traffic planners for the last 50 years.
I am not anti-car by the way. I'm as happy to wax lyrical about the pleasures of driving as the next person. But I can't say I've ever enjoyed driving in urban centres. It's a dreary, miserable grind.
By contrast my favourite times in cities, I realise, have been sitting in a sidewalk café at midnight in Miami while people sipped cocktails or carried out some late-night shopping, visiting the great squares of Italy's medieval cities, or even wandering along London's South Bank and taking in the passing cavalcade of people. Cities are just more fun on foot.
We are in love with the car in this country. Maybe it's time to start loving our cities too.
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