“People are nicer to each other when they move more slowly and have time to make eye contact.” How to create a happy city.
Big cities are finding ways to foster Slow Living.
I’m in Amsterdam now – one of my favourite cities. I love the art, the energy, the architecture, the sense of humour. Small wonder the Dutch capital has inspired legions of painters. Bathed in spring sunshine, the canals, flanked by rows of tall, narrow brick houses and willow trees swaying lazily in the breeze, are achingly beautiful. I always feel like I could happily live here.
Amsterdam could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about being a Slow city. It mixes the dynamism and swagger of a major metropolis with the approachability of a smaller town. Much of that comes from the way its citizens get around. Amsterdam is not in hock to the car. The streets are a buzzing ecosystem of trams, pedestrians and cyclists – and the car is kept firmly in its place.
It’s the cycling that really makes Amsterdam stand out. The city has dedicated paths and traffic lights for cyclists all over the place. The locals bike everywhere. You see businessmen in smart suits pedalling home from work. Or elegant women in high-heels cycling off to meet friends for lunch. Even bad weather doesn’t put them off.
If only the rest of the world would follow suit. Imagine if you could cycle round London or New York or Buenos Aires without fear of being squashed by a bus or an SUV.
No one in Amsterdam wears a cycling helmet, by the way. Apart from the tourists.
Chatting with John Brown, the man behind the Slow Homes movement.
Talk about climate change. Britain is grappling with the largest snowfall in nearly 20 years. London is buried under seven inches of the white stuff – and there are still flurries blowing around outside my window. The country has ground to a halt. In London, there are nobuses, no Tube, no school, nothing.
This is a huge inconvenience for many, but there is also a silver lining. To begin with, children are over the moon to have the day off school. Mine dashed outside in just their pajamas and boots this morning before breakfast. My son declared it the “best day of his life.”
Many Londoners know how he feels. The absence of traffic has changed the whole mood and feel of the city. Streets normally clogged with cars and buses are now full of children (and adults) building snowmen, throwing snowballs and even tobogganing. Neighbours who usually avoid eye-contact are stopping to chat about the weather. This is hardly surprising:Studies around the world show a direct correlation between cars and community: the less traffic that flows through an area (and the more slowly it flows) the more social contact among the residents.
I do not mean to demonize cars. I drive one myself. The trouble is that driving has gained too much ascendancy over walking. For decades, urban life has been haunted by the words of Georges Pompidou, a former president of France: We must adapt the city to the car, and not the other way round.
How wrong can someone be? The city of the future – a truly Slow city – must take a different tack. It must adapt not to the car but to the citizen, to the pedestrian, to human beings. And it shouldn’t wait around for a snowstorm to do so.
By coincidence, this snowfall has hit Britain on the day that alandmark studyon the statechildhood hit the headlines. The report sounds fascinating and flawed, and I will blog on it later once I’ve actually read it. But a quick comment now.
On the BBC this morning, one of the report’s authors blamed the unhappiness of modern British children on career-obsessed parents, competitive schooling, broken families, excessive consumerism etc. But he failed to mention our collective reluctance to let them run around and play outside on their own. If we want happy, healthy kids, then we need to redesign and rethink our cities so that they have plenty of outdoor space for play. And surely reclaiming the streets from traffic must be a first step to achieving that.
I’ve just heard from a psychiatrist in Poland. He has a plan to set up a network of small urban refuges where people can escape the hurly burly of city life and reconnect with their inner tortoise. There will be a quiet space to relax, recharge and reflect. There will also be consultants on hand to measure stress levels and give advice on how to live more slowly. These venues will be called Slow Corners. Someone in Norway is working on a similar idea. Certainly I can see a role for little oases of slowness in big cities. I was in London’s Oxford Circus filming a segment for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) a couple of days ago. The idea was for me to stand still while the crowds swarmed around me. The place was an ant-hill – pedestrians racing hither and thither, barging past each other, cars and buses lunging through red lights. The closest thing I could find to an ubran refuge was Starbucks, and it wasn’t a refuge at all. It was jammed with customers jostling to get their caffeine fix. Two men almost came to blows over who was first in the queue. And all of this to a pounding soundtrack by the Arctic Monkeys. I was almost relieved to get back out into the mania of Oxford Circus.