Thursday, February 10, 2011

Jens Jensen, and the automobile among us...

A number of years ago, as I was undertaking some academic studies, I discovered the work of Jens Jensen, a Danish-born landscape architect perhaps best known for introducing the "Prairie Style" to landscape design. I was recently looking through his book Siftings and came across a couple paragraphs in which he shared his thoughts on the automobile and its place, and role, in shaping our urban environments. 

"And it will not be at all surprising if the city of tomorrow excludes the automobile. Today, the automobile rules, and it destroys the parks as gathering places for the multitudes. Urban travel to the downtown areas of the large metropolis will be taken care of by public conveyance, and the art of walking will come back as a healthy necessity. Why should the motor car be permitted to make life unpleasant for those who are not able to afford such a luxury. It is a poor democracy that allows one crowd to destroy the freedom of another. When any person chooses the congested city for his home, then he must be willing to live according to definite rules. In that way only can so many people live in one small area without trespassing on each other's rights."

"...a street lined with automobiles is not a pleasant sight. The architectural beauty of the buildings and of the park-like streets is lost in the sea of cars that today line the streets. The car has done much to destroy the finer feelings of man, and in the tomorrow it will have to keep it's place."

Sounds a lot like today; many of the same thoughts, same concerns, but Jensen wrote these words in 1939. It is rather disheartening to realize that these thoughts are no different than comments one might hear today. The free-reign that Jensen noted as being given to automobiles in 1939 has continued virtually unabated over the intervening 70+ years. The goal of widespread public mass transit to move large numbers of people, and the health benefits of active transportation are yet to be realized in far too many places. By giving the automobile carte blanche control of our streets, society has indeed infringed upon the freedoms of users who choose other forms of mobility. By refusing to recognize limits, we have allowed our urban areas to grow beyond sensible, sustainable bounds. 

What hope is there that anything will be different in the next 70 years? There are some factors which suggest that things may be different: 
1. congestion will continue to worsen,
2. the obesity epidemic,
3. rising fuel costs,
4. the Copenhagen Factor, certain cities around the world have proven to be "successful" without giving in to auto-dominance,
5. rising infrastructure costs,
6. the rise and viability of transit oriented developments, and most recently bicycle oriented developments,
7. new ways of thinking about mobility; you cannot forget that in 1939 the auto dominated world of today was still in its adolescence, 70 years on and that world's defects and destructive nature is evident every time we step out the door.

Jensen may yet prove to be correct.

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