The long and winding road to safe and healthy cities

I believe in the strong correlation between physical space and social behaviours and I believe that buildings and artefacts are not only environmental modifiers but social modifiers. As Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."

Davey Street, Hobart. Image by Anthony Tong Lee via Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Author: Massimo SantanicchiaAssociate Professor in Architecture, Iceland Academy of the Arts – ‎Iceland Academy of Arts

I’ve always loved Australia for its nature, cities, and its people. Strolling around in Paddington, Sydney, or in Prahran, Melbourne; the conviviality of the place, the food markets, the small art galleries, the street life, the trees, the people, brings me a lot of joy.

These little hubs are excellent examples of healthy environments – of places which have been designed with the thought of how people can come together. Cars, bigger shops, high-rise buildings have of course happened and has been part of the adaptation process.

Although living in Iceland, I try to stay on top of Australian news and recently came across an article that caught my eye in the Guardian ‘Sydney’s ‘war on cyclists’: ‘I got fined $106 for not having a bell’.

As Bernard Cannife states in the book Citizen as Designer: “We have the choice to engage or not. We have the choice to act or walk away. If we do nothing then, sooner or later it will come knocking on our door, in one way or another, whether the knocking is from inside of us or from the outside actions resulting from the societal neglect.”

So I decided that it was time to reveal what I have kept inside for almost a year.

I have to take you back to Hobart, Tasmania, January 22, 2016 – the day when a 15-year-old crashed a stolen car into my friend Sarah´s car at 120kph, instantly killing her on Davey Street. I was in Sydney at the time of this tragic event and although heartbroken, I could not stop thinking: how on earth can someone drive that fast in the centre of any city. In the city where I was born, Perugia, Italy, with its narrow roads, crooked streets, and busy pavements, driving at such speed would be practically impossible.

A few weeks later I was in Hobart, and I decided to walk along Davey Street and I realised that what had happened was not entirely an accident. An accident is any event that happens unexpectedly, without a deliberate plan or cause, but it seems to me that this occurrence was the result of a limited vision of what the role of streets is in an urban context. A vision that prioritises speed, flow, and the capacity of cars first and pedestrians’ second, while cyclists are hardly even contemplated.

As you follow the Tasmanian Highway you enter into the city centre of Hobart. This is a fast two-lane road and the more you progress into the CBD, the larger the road gets, and soon the Highway becomes Davey Street – a 17-metre-wide street with four lanes directing you to the west.

Despite the signals that indicate for you to slow down to 50kph, you do not actually receive the same sensory message from the street design, or its context. You don’t realise that you are entering another realm, an urban one, where people should come first.

Davey Street is straight and wide, traffic lights briefly interrupt the flow of cars, leaving few seconds for the pedestrians to cross the street. It has discontinuous cycle lanes, narrow pavements, and few pedestrians. It has been well designed with the purpose of connecting motorists from Tasmanian Highways to the Southern Outlet.

After the Southern Outlet Davey Street becomes a neighbourhood road of one lane per direction, aligned with homes, low fences and gardens with majestic trees. We start feeling more connected with its surroundings and with the people who inhabit this space.

Davey Street is not the only street that plays an anti-urban role in Hobart. Generally speaking, the Hobart CBD has been designed more for cars than for people. Its large one-way streets are fundamentally speedways, the pedestrian space is limited, space for cars is overwhelming.

There are hardly any trees and many activities have been internalised, leaving few spill overs on the pavement. The once active and vital street life of Hobart has been edged out by bad design decisions which focus more on traffic and the flow of cars rather than the social life of people on the streets and hence, city life itself.

This is the same attitude that has brought the Sydney to fine its bikers with heavy fines for not wearing a helmet or carrying an ID card. Of course, I am not objecting to wearing a helmet, but are we sure that this is the best strategy to protect bikers’ health?

These to me are technological attitudes, equal to the one that says: the traffic is increasing, we need more space for it! But then where do we stop? When does enough become enough?

There is a paradox associated with technology called the Jevons Paradox which occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used and as consequence we tend to consume more of it. Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that the technology behind cars improves so much that cars become perfect with no toxic emissions. That incredible technological miracle could prove to be highly problematic.

First, all possible doubts about this machine would vanish and therefore increased production would consequentially be demanded. Its production would require a higher extraction of raw materials (on average, a single automobile requires 150,000 litres of water and it is made of 47 per cent steel, 8 per cent iron, 8 per cent plastic, 7 per cent aluminium, and 3 per cent glass. Other materials account for the remaining 27 per cent.

Secondly, the externalities associated with car usage are not just about CO2 emissions but also about spatial, social, and health related. Cars occupy a lot of space in our cities and the more space cars occupy the less dense cities tend to be and the less conducive to walking. As a consequence, we walk less and drive more. The more we drive the more congestion is generated and therefore the more time we waste in queuing. The more time we spend inside a car, whether driving or standing idle, the less time we have for our friends, family and to pursue other activities and look after our well-being.

So technology alone is not enough to truly improve our daily lives, nor to lead us into the much aspired condition of sustainability.

In order obtain the sustainable paradise we desire, we need a paradigm shift and we need to rethink our economic and social system. As the French philosopher Felix Guattari said in Chaosmosis: “We need ‘shifting the human and social sciences from scientific paradigms towards ethico-aesthetic paradigms.’

These ethico-aesthetic paradigms need to find a choral response.

University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies analyst Chris Standen says that in Australia there is a state roads authority whose number one objective is to maximise the flow of motor vehicles through our neighbourhoods, and is therefore reluctant to approve any roadway changes that would affect vehicle flow.”

I find this an abstraction of the meaning of streets and what they should be about. Streets existed long before cars arrived. Streets are the primary, essential way of being together in a city….and they have been under attack for almost six decades now.

Swiss architect Le Corbusier hated them, and wanted to erase them, but despite out efforts to kill them for half a century, we still have not come up with a better solution. We did try hard: we built shopping malls and gated communities, we built isolated high rise buildings and covered large areas of our cities with tarmac and parking lots, we built neighbourhoods so lowly populated and with so few services that we obliged their inhabitants to use cars to support their lives, but still the street incarnates the very essence of living in a city: conviviality and sharing.

The Hobart tragedy was an accident waiting to happen. It was the result of a series of bad decisions.

It is time to reconsider these decisions as technology alone will not save us from the biggest challenges of our times: climate change and increasing inequalities, we need to make decisions at a more profound level. As Simon Schama states: “Sustainability is a debate about how to live. It suggests we rethink our relationship to the cultural construct we call ‘nature’, to the earth, and to each other” (Schama 1995).

Redefining this relationship means advocating for our built environment to be ‘nicer’ to us – nicer to the elderly people, nicer to the kids, nicer to the pedestrians, and nicer to the bikers. It should be more silent, more shaded, more welcoming to people from different walks of life, and more space should be given to nature so that water can find its natural path into the soil instead of being piped out to the ocean.

It means that the space of the street needs to be renegotiated and this requires breaking down the hegemony of the car realm. It means thinking of the greater good with a long-term view, which means reclaiming our streets for people and not cars.

The American urban theorist Richard Sennett declared: “To deal with this physical crisis (of our own making) we are obliged to change both the things we make and how we use them. We will need to learn different ways of making buildings and transport and contrive rituals that accustom us to saving. We will need to become good craftsman of the environment” (Sennett 2008: 12).

UN Habitat has declared that urban sustainability can be achieved only by securing a good public space: which is socially inclusive, healthy, vibrant, safe, and conducive to street life.

Professor Susan Thompson at UNSW states that healthy places should encourage physical activities, bring people together, and be part of our everyday life.

Even if we had made these decisions, there is no guarantee that that 15-year-old lad would not have stolen that car, but I am sure we would have designed a deterrent for him to drive at 120 kph in the city centre because that young man would have felt that he could not, because of the trees, because of the narrower roads, because of the people.

Similar logic should apply when people are trying to rethink the concept of mobility far away from the CO2 emitting objects that we currently use. This alternative mobility based on public transport, bicycles, and walking, should be encouraged, facilitated, and promoted because it is healthy, it is socially inclusive, promotes conviviality, and it is good for the environment.



Resnick, E. (2016). Developing Citizen Designers, Bloomsbury, New York

Schama, S. (1995). Landscape and Memory. Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman, Penguin Books, London