I love to walk, and my passion for walking is enhanced as I stroll the enchanting streets of Europe’s city centers which are bustling with vibrant cafes, charming boutiques, and lively markets.
On my first trip to Europe, I remember feeling struck by the absence of cars in the city centers and how enchanting and vibrant those towns felt with all the people milling about. This was in stark contrast to the automobile-centric places I have lived in and visited in the US. Experiencing the walkability of European cities has opened my eyes to the fact that U.S. cities and towns, predominantly designed for cars, seem to lack that human-communal vibe. I can say now that my favorite feature of European communities is their emphasis on pedestrian-friendly city centers.
As I see it, the pedestrian-only streets provide benefits beyond merely reducing traffic. The streets become centers of community life, encourage social connections, support physical well-being, and contribute to a cleaner environment. By prioritizing pedestrians over vehicles, these streets have evolved into vibrant communal spaces. They offer secure areas for children to play and peaceful walking zones for adults, removed from the risks associated with fast moving traffic. These areas are often more serene and less polluted, providing a calm retreat from urban commotion.
In cities such as Florence, Amsterdam, and Granada, the streets serve as more than mere pathways from one location to another; they embody the heart of community life. Cafes spill onto sidewalks, vendors hawk their wares in open-air markets, and residents linger in public squares. These interactions create a sense of community, supporting local businesses and fostering social connections.
During the COVID pandemic, I remember reading that Milan, Italy transformed several streets into pedestrian-only areas. Initially, some local business owners expressed concerns, fearing this change might harm their businesses. However, contrary to their expectations, the change significantly boosted their business activities. As a result, these changes were made permanent even after COVID restrictions were lifted.
Asheville, NC, my home for the past three decades, is a city with a downtown area that radiates charm and is ideally suited for pedestrian exploration. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when indoor cafes extended onto the streets, I had hoped that Asheville might consider turning some of its streets into pedestrian-only zones. Regrettably, they did not do this. It certainly felt to me like a missed opportunity for a town that could so easily benefit from that.
I am convinced that through the integration of smart and progressive urban planning and development, the United States can create areas in its cities that foster community connections, promote social engagement, support sustainability, improve the general quality of life, and remain accessible to people from all income brackets. Adopting such a strategy has the potential to turn American towns and cities into more community-oriented, eco-friendly, and probably more joyful places to live.
The shift towards pedestrian-friendly centers is not just about traffic management or city planning. It's about fostering community spirit, improving quality of life, and creating centers that put people first. As I walk the vibrant streets of many European cities, I have experienced this firsthand. It's time we bring that same spirit to our cities in the U.S. - trading our exclusive car-centric ways for the communal, healthful, and joyful experience of walkable environments.