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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Time to Make City Street Pop-Ups Permanent

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2021

Yes, there are people in those cars, but not many for the space they occupy.

This is a piece I published in 2018. Since then, #COVID19 has led to widespread re-thinking of streets, to return public space from automotive traffic to the people who live, walk, and bike around a given neighborhood. With vaccination promising to re-open our public lives, it’s time to make these people-oriented streetscapes permanent.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In many of the major cities of the world, it has begun to dawn even on public officials that walking is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great underrated pleasures in life. A few major cities have even tentatively begun to take back their streets for pedestrians.

Denver, for instance, is proposing a plan to invest $1.2 billion in sidewalks, and, at far greater cost, bring frequent public transit within a quarter-mile of most of its residents. In Europe, where clean, safe, punctual public transit is already widely available, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center beginning next year. Madrid is banning cars owned by nonresidents, and is also redesigning 24 major downtown avenues to take them back for pedestrians. Paris has banned vehicles from a road along the Seine, and plans to rebuild it for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Yes, car owners are furious. That’s because they have mistaken their century-long domination over pedestrians for a right rather than a privilege. The truth is that cities are not doing nearly enough to restore streets for pedestrian use, and it’s the pedestrians who should be furious.

Many American cities still rely on “level of service” (LOS) design models developed in the 1960s that focus single-mindedly on keeping vehicle traffic moving, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, an urban design specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Hence improvements for other modes (walking, cycling, transit) that might increase vehicle delay are characterized as LOS. impediments,” she and her co-authors write in The Journal of Urban Design. The idea of pedestrians as “impediments” is of course perverse, especially given the word’s original meaning: An impediment was something that functioned as a shackle for the feet — unlimited vehicle traffic, say.

The emphasis on vehicle traffic flow is also a perversion of basic social equity, and the costs show up in ways large and small. Vehicles in cities contribute a major portion of small-particle pollution, the kind that penetrates deep into the lungs. (The percentage can reach as high as 49 percent in Phoenix and 55 percent in Los Angeles. It’s just 6 percent in Beijing, but that’s because there are so many other pollution sources.) People living close to busy roads, particularly infants and older people in lower-income households, pay most of the cost in respiratory, cardiovascular and other problems. A 2013 M.I.T. study estimated that vehicle emissions cause 53,000 early deaths a year in the United States, and a study just last month from Lancaster University in Britain found that children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to live in areas with high levels of vehicle pollution.

Among the smaller costs: Most people in cities from Bangalore to Brooklyn cannot afford to keep a car, and yet our cities routinely turn over the majority of public thoroughfares to those who can. They allow parked cars to eat up 350 square feet apiece, often at no charge, in cities where private parking spaces rent for as much as $700 a month. And they devote most of what’s left of the street to the uninterrupted flow of motor vehicles.

But that’s not really such a small cost, after all: It means that we often cannot afford room for parks or shade trees, which other studies have repeatedly shown to be an important factor in the health and mental well-being of residents. Even when car-mad cities leave enough room on the side to squeeze in trees, they tend to be miniaturized, lollipop versions of what street trees used to be. Hardly anyone plants the towering oaks or maples that used to intertwine their branches overhead and make the sidewalks feel like a leafy grove in the heart of the city.

Urban walking has thus deteriorated from a civilized pleasure to an overheated, unshaded, traffic-harried race to a destination. It’s like what the art historian Vincent Scully once said about the demolition of the old Penn Station and its replacement by the commuter hell squeezed beneath Madison Square Garden: “One entered the city like a god; now one scuttles in like a rat.”

Copenhagen (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Happily, some urban planners are waking up to the idea that we can, in fact, do better. Copenhagen has already largely accomplished the shift in focus from vehicles to human beings, thanks considerably to a 40-year campaign by the architect and urban thinker Jan Gehl. I was stunned during a recent visit to the city center when an armada of bicycles actually came to a stop at a red light and waited patiently for pedestrians to cross. I was accustomed to the United States, where cyclists often pay no attention to traffic laws, and cars turn right on red with little regard for either cyclists or pedestrians. Stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks that are not controlled by traffic lights is a legal requirement in only nine states and the District of Columbia.

Maybe we can’t turn every street into a pedestrian paradise. Urban planners in London now follow a sort of zoning plan, with some streets developed primarily for moving vehicles, and others focused on the richer (and more retail-friendly) urban life of the pedestrian. In this country, Berkeley’s Professor Macdonald and her co-authors have recently published a simple system for urban planners to identify — and presumably prioritize — factors that make streets pedestrian-friendly. For instance, on large arterial roadways, walkers feel comfortable only if the sidewalks are at least 15 feet wide.

But we don’t have to wait for governments to wake up to the idea that a street without pedestrians is, as Mr. Gehl put it, “like an empty theater: Something must be wrong with the production since there is no audience.” City residents can stage their own lessons in livability. The “Walk Your City” movement, for instance, provides a tool kit for neighborhood organizations to post signs giving the distance on foot or by bike (with directions via scannable QR code) to local attractions: “It’s just a 10-minute walk to …” a nice park, a sunset viewpoint, a great art museum. Since its start in 2012 in Raleigh, N.C., “Walk Your City” has spread to more than 400 communities in 55 countries.

Likewise, the Better Block Foundation helps neighborhoods stage pop-up events to demonstrate their potential to become more livable, with bike lanes and curb extensions (known as “bump-outs”) in place of parking spaces, and lots of benches, bus stop shelters, kiosks, sidewalk cafes and playgrounds. Sadly, pop-ups aren’t permanent. These temporary displays come down again after a few days. But seeing the possibilities sometimes leads city leaders to make the vision a reality.

This is the fundamental common sense rule: Cities and their streets are about people, not cars, and all urban design should think first about the only transit equipment that comes factory-standard for the average human being — our feet.


Richard Conniff (@RichardConniff) is the author of “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties and the Story of Life on Earth” and a contributing opinion writer to The New York Times. He is now at work on a book about the fight against epidemic disease.

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