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Future Cities: Park Benches instead of Cars

Future Cities: Park Benches instead of Cars

We’ve spent 70 years building our cities for cars, not people. That has made them less livable, says Fred Kent. This New York urban planner advises communities on how they can change that.

Fred Kent is wearing a red down vest and hiking shoes when he opens the door to his brownstone in the idyllic Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. He says we should go for a walk before we talk, because he wants to show us what he loves about the neighborhood he has lived in for the past 30 years. Such as the schoolyard across the street where from his living room window he can see his grandchildren playing during recess. Or the Italian butcher shop on Court Street that has been run by the same family for three generations. Or the benches installed around the old oak trees in defiance of city regulations on which there are always a few local residents chatting away. Kent’s neighborhood is a place that his “placemaking” services, which are commissioned around the world, could not have designed better. When we return from our walk, we sit down in the corner of his spacious living room which features a brick wall covered with city maps from the 19th century.

Mr. Kent, do you want our cities to look like those of the past?

Fred Kent: Cities back then at least used to be designed for people instead of cars.  (Photo: Fred Kent with historical city maps in his living room in New York.)

Do you want to ban cars from our cities?

No, there’s too much ideology in that. Basically I would only want to think about what best serves a given place. And the only thing I insist on is a focus on people. The outcomes will differ, depending on the location.

Do you have a car?

My office has a car that’s shared by ten people. We also have a car at our house in the country, a 3,000-dollar Mercedes, which we use for the ten-minute drive to the train station.

How do you get around in the city?

I use the subway, walk, or ride a bike.

The subway in New York City is not terribly reliable, because it hasn’t been modernized for decades and is constantly being repaired.

That might be true. But it’s still my favorite public place in the city. I always feel like asking the other passengers where their grandparents came from. The answers from just one car would probably cover the entire globe. The subway always gives me the sense of being a citizen of the world.

You say we’ve ruined our cities by basing our urban planning on cars.

Yes, we’ve spent the last 70 years building cities for cars, and in the process we’ve destroyed our sense of place. We don’t even know how places function anymore.

We have a deep-seated fear of public space.

What do you mean by that?

The suburbs, for example, have lawns that no one uses for human interaction. It doesn’t occur to anyone to put a bench on them and sit down and talk. The people are isolated, and completely afraid of really coming into contact. They can’t do that anyway, because there aren’t any places anymore where they can come together. We have a deep-seated fear of public space, which is why we look for ways to control it, manage it and keep people out of it. That makes our cities sterile. But people are starting to break with that mindset. Things are changing for the better.

Are cars really the culprit here?

Not cars per se, but the privileged position they occupy. If you look at city streets before the 1940s, they were utterly chaotic with trams, cars, bicycles and pedestrians all sharing the same space. We need to return to that. We have to stop regulating our cities so rigidly. We need medleys and complexity – that generates vitality.

When you are asked to make a place more livable, or as you put it, more human – where do you start?

We start by talking with the people who live there. We encourage them to think about what they like about their surroundings, and what they don’t, and what they need. The results are often surprising, even for them. People know much more than they think they do. We’re always told that so-called experts like star architects and designers know better. But they generally aren’t at all interested in the actual residents.

Fred Kent in his home neighborhood of Cobble Hill. With its many benches, parks and cafés, it could easily have been designed by the famous urban planner himself.

Whom exactly do you ask?

Essentially everyone who lives or works there. Usually when you get a number of people on board, others want to join in. Actually, it’s a matter of activating the community and getting it to take responsibility for and help shape its surroundings. We’re not experts who come in from outside and tell people what they should be doing. The locals are the ones who know best.

You say the focus is on people. But presumably people also want to own cars?

Sometimes what people think they want and what they truly want are two very different things. In a small town in New Hampshire, for example, people used to drive from store to store on the main street. We simply removed barriers like hedges and fences between the stores, and filled the gaps with more shops and parks and places to relax. Now people walk up and down the main street.

So the people there don’t need cars anymore.

As I said, I’m not trying to get rid of cars. It’s more a matter of asking how to make communities more livable. Then you have to look at how that changes people’s behavior. How does it affect the way they get around, and the type of transportation they need? Would a slower, more open vehicle make sense, one that would enable them to interact so it’s not just a mode of transit but also promotes social networking? Those are the types of questions that need to be asked.

You’ve lived in New York your entire life. Do you have a favorite place here?

Absolutely. Union Square.

Even though you’ve never worked there, but rather either at Times Square or Bryant Park?

That’s true, but Union Square is so much cooler than Bryant Park or Times Square, which mainly have office workers and tourists. At Union Square you never know who you’ll meet, from skateboarders to Hare Krishna devotees. Union Square is crazy with all these people who are doing all kinds of different things. It has that organic, chaotic quality that you’ll lose if you do too much designing.

The streets around Times Square are always jammed, but you still recommended that two lanes be closed, so chairs and tables could be put on them. What was the rationale behind that? 

At Times Square people simply didn’t have enough space on the sidewalks anymore and were spilling over onto the streets. We gave them more space and more things to do there. 

Would Times Square be better without cars?

No, cars bring more activity and a higher level of energy. They make sure things don’t get boring. But we’ve been tailoring the square too much to the needs of cars, like everywhere else in New York City. The avenues are too wide, and the sidewalks are too narrow. At Placemaking we never start by focusing on cars. We start with the place itself. Cars have to find their own ways of integrating into the place, not the other way around.

What social or political vision lies behind this?

Public space has always been the breeding ground for democracy, and we’ve lost sight of that idea. The point is to give public space back to the people. That’s fascinating and marvelous at the same time. People suddenly realize what they didn’t have. Placemaking is a natural human activity. We’ve just been prevented from doing it for a long time now.

  • Fred Kent

    ...is the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization that works to make public spaces in cities more people-friendly. Influenced by the work of urbanist and journalist William H. Whyte, Kent began making small changes to neglected and run-down places like Rockefeller Center and Bryant Park, which revitalized them and turned them back into places where people gather. Today his organization consults for public and private clients around the world. His “placemaking” process has become the core of a new philosophy of people-centered urban planning.