One of the most powerful impacts of the automobile goes largely unnoticed: the automobile requires the removal of the community space through which it travels.

Our towns and villages have two parts, private space (homes, offices, etc.) and public space (the streets and squares.  The public domain is where people gather and meet - in effect the public domain is the place you go when you step outside (1). The public domain binds the individual parts of the city together. It is the bond that a community shares in common. Sometimes it is called the space between buildings but, whatever it might be called, it is the stage upon which the city expresses its life.

Today the public realm exists more as a memory than a reality.  When you step outside your door today you don’t step into a living space, you step into the “automobile’s infrastructure”. This may seem a harsh thing to say.  In the press and on television, we are daily exposed to scenes of safe and welcoming public spaces but these scenes come from travel brochures and carefully constructed advertising images.  Unfortunately, they bear little relationship to true urban reality (2).

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There is a Chinese saying: “To discover the real truth we should seek it in reality”.  Picture if you will the two worlds revealed in the following images.  They are not an illusion; they are real places... There is no trick photography.

LivingSpace

Car Environment - New Urbanism

Photo by LivingSpace

 Car Environment - New Urbanism

Photo by LivingSpace

The first picture shows a community in Venice (3) , the world’s last carfree city (New Urbanism & Carfree) . This community space echoes to the sound of children laughing, to the sound of church bells and bird song. It is relaxed and safe; life fills the public spaces.  Without noise pollution conversation is natural and its sound drifts through the community mingling with the sound of footsteps.  People share this LivingSpace - to read a book, to talk to a neighbour, to see and be seen, to stop for a coffee or perhaps a glass of wine, friendships are formed (4) , “things happen because things happen” (5) - nothing is big or dramatic yet the opportunity to socialise fosters life. This is a place that serves all people, young or old, rich or poor. Dogs reclaim their resting places in the middle of the street. Corner shops still thrive, serving a social function, exchanging information and looking out for those less able.

“You fall into a contented rhythm of movement that must mirror the natural order of the universe - our bodies and souls seem to immediately pick up on it even if our minds can't imagine it. Some would call it relaxation or ease; I think of it as liberation.”
Jay Walljasper, Project for Public Spaces, writing about the carfree island of Hydra (6).

The CarFree environment is radically different. Without the gray of exhaust and tyre dust colours are clean, while windows can be thrown open to let in clean air.  And the true defining mark of a LivingSpace is this, the hard line between public and private space, becomes blurred as the world outside becomes everyone’s living room.

Automobile Space

Car Environment - New Urbanism

Photo by LivingSpace

Car Environment - New Urbanism

Photo by LivingSpace

This image is different (7) : this is not a community space. The community space has become just a pavement, a narrow strip of concrete bordering the automobile’s infrastructure. 

I know this place, I once lived here, it is an old community with the odd name of Dolphins Barn, fading   photographs capture a once vibrant community but stand in the centre of Dolphins Barn today and its a different picture. Actually its now illegal to stand in the middle of Dolphins Barn, if you tried stopping to chat in the middle of this road - as in the Venice picture - you would be doing something both illegal and life threatening.  Here, even movement is curtailed, steel barriers bar the pedestrian. Notice a subtle change here: the people in this environment have been redefined as ‘pedestrians’, i.e. just an inferior form of transport.  They are further dismissed by the automobile engineers who disparagingly describe them as a “traffic flow impedance”.

This is no longer a community space; it is a place lost to the automobile. Its often said that the city can be a lonely place and I’m not surprised (4). In these abandoned streets parents warn their children: “Don’t go outside; it’s too dangerous” (8). Local shops close down. Retreating inside, people try to shut the world out; they close their doors against the fumes and noise. On streets with heavy traffic people don’t even inhabit the rooms that front the street. In these abandoned streets isolation and crime can often replace community. As a society we are substituting TV’s and telephones for community and we hang pictures of unspoilt landscapes and carfree streets on our walls as a token replacement for what’s been lost - the human habitat, nature and community (9).

In fact the automobile environment is alien to us: steel barriers, exhaust fumes, oil-stained asphalt, the mecanical landscape that inevitably follows the car. Indeed, much of the stress of modern life comes from the environment we have created.  People have a deep genetic need to connect with nature and community but the automobile redefines our world in terms of its mechanical function. The urban racetrack kills the city but here's the twist, to escape the noise, the fumes, the danger, people can only flee to the sprawl but suburban sprawl is the home of the automobile.