J.H. Crawford presents his ideas for how a city - old or new - can function without the automobile. He tries to demonstrate how we can shake our dependance on the car and build urban centres with a whole new mindset.
Author: J.H. Crawford (International Books, 2002)
Reviewed by Laura Kozak
The title of J.H. Crawford's book – Carfree Cities
- caught my attention: encapsulated in this short phrase is a concept almost as radical as "building-free cities" or "human-free cities". Automobile infrastructure has become so ingrained in the design of our urban environments that picturing a car-free city unlocks the imagination. Suddenly curious about how roads and parking spaces might get used in the absence of cars, or even about how much spaces those things actually occupy, I was compelled to get my hands on a copy of Crawford's first book.
With the sincerity of an activist and the anecdotal affection of a traveler, Crawford establishes some yardsticks for cities through case studies of Los Angeles and Venice. Accompanied by photographs taken by the author, these case studies are both surprising and not: while the two cities are clearly different, this is a good reminder of how powerful cars have become in the shaping of cities. Though backed by some thorough research and measured data, the first section of the book, which covers existing conditions in cities, imparts the same uneasiness as a political speech. So one-sided is Crawford's distaste for cars that I almost found myself arguing against his observations and guessing at what statistics might have been omitted.
The second section of the book presents a reference design for a car-free city - a siteless model for a city upon which to base implemented design. Design goals, drawn largely from Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language
and Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities
, are addressed with solutions in the reference city that transcend scale and demographic. These design solutions are sophisticated and detailed, attempting to consider the complex web of factors involved in urban design, from noise considerations to freight delivery to job distribution. The reference design goes so far as to equate population sizes with commute times, political boundaries, and building typology. However, this type of tidy, start-from-scratch, top-down planning is not so different from Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine
, the infamously brutal urban design scheme of which Crawford is so critical.
Most surprising is Crawford’s proposal that car-free cities be built anew on agricultural sites, near but separate from existing cities. A photograph of Montezuma Hills, near San Francisco, a proposed site for a car-free city, shows a long dirt road and a vast swath of uninhabited, flat farmland. Building a new city from scratch seems a very odd practice, particularly in North America, where cities are comparatively roomy. It would demand the psychological and physical abandonment of what we have already built, and would force us to use sites that have already been passed up as good urban spaces. Even the examples of other ‘new’ cities Crawford sites – Canberra, Milton Keynes, Chandigarh –lack the character and vitality that he clearly notices and loves in places such as Amsterdam or Venice.
Going Car Free
, the third section that delves into the implementation, is where I anticipated finding the most practical information on how to gradually and effectively design auto-centrism out of our cities. Crawford again gives sound design principles, mostly taken from Christopher Alexander, but maintains a zoomed-out view when discussing the actual implementation of such designs. The way that the author’s proposals can mesh with existing infrastructure seems critical, but we are given little more than some super-imposed, large-scale maps and one diagram of infill housing. It is a missed opportunity to provide some of the detailed and carefully considered designs from the reference city, but in the context of a real place.
Though well-meaning and serious in its attempt to solve what is undeniably a problem in our urban spaces, Carfree Cities
fails to address the real ways cities grow and change. Without regard for the self-organizing quality and gradual implementation of change, these proposals stay stuck in the realm of unfeasible schemes and drawings on paper. In the meantime, I will do my best to imagine how some of J.H. Crawford’s design gems could play out in my city.
For more information on this book and the ideas surrounding car-free cities, visit the website www.carfree.com.
Laura Kozak is a cartographic enthusiast and bibliophile. She has a BFA from Emily Carr and a BEnds in progress at UBC.