@GuardianLocal were kind enough to take an interest in my last blog and set me off thinking about how innovative local transport can be. High speed trains, airports and motorway toll roads may make the headlines, but the real news in transport is usually found at a local level where actions can be more varied and nuanced than intercity or international connections. I wanted to explore a few of these innovations in a bit more depth, but wanted to keep my descriptions easily digestible. My approach: divide them into categories and explore a few examples of each. I admit that the majority of my examples are from the UK and the US, not because other cities around the world aren’t doing great things, but because they’re the places I know best. (See About H- D- B-!)
Anyway, here’s category number one. Please note that the numbering and perhaps the designation of the categories themselves have no particular significance.
If I were Michael Bloomberg, I’d be pretty proud that the Highline Park in Manhattan was developed during my watch, even if the idea did come from some local activists. Since it opened in 2011, the Highline Park has become world famous. An urban walkway built on top of a disused, elevated railway line, it is just one example of how local governments are creating new spaces, particularly aimed at pedestrians.
A large proportion of public space can technically be considered transport infrastructure and most of it is managed by local governments. The streets, footpaths, pedestrian areas and plazas in our towns and cities are the essential circulatory system of urban areas. They all serve many non-transport functions too, from meeting places to shopping outlets. Yet it is hard to value these functions in the same way as adjacent private land, developed with commercial or residential buildings.
So in some towns and cities, local governments have found ways to create public spaces without losing private space. This is not necessarily new. From Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro and the Netherlands to New Orleans, land reclamation from seas and swamps has long been a means to increase the size of valuable urban areas for private and public use. Yet more recently, municipalities have created new public spaces in more innovative ways, like the Highline.
Another example is the Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. This floating walkway opened in 2001 and connects a number of bridges and neighbourhoods by creating a new public space that neither uses riverside land nor affects the habitat and flow of the river. Think pontoons and you’ll get the idea.
Other cities make better use of old space. Like the tunnelling in Boston, Massachusetts that put the highway underground and created the next generation of urban boulevard above it. Whatever the backlash of the Big Dig during its construction, the results are stunning. Likewise, the regeneration of canal-side, ex-industrial space in Birmingham, England has also effected a transformation from old space into new.
All these examples are a great continuation of the trend towards more pedestrian space that, in the form of pedestrianized shopping streets, spread through Europe and beyond in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s a celebration of the ten-toe express.