TBD / Concept

A concept for letting people and cars co-exist in cities

Want to live in the city and be able to take the car to work and have it handy for weekend-escapes? While at the same time live in a car-free environment that is pleasent to stroll and safe for the kids to run around in?

Doesn’t sound like it is going to happen. The benefits of the dense, humanised city seem incomptabile with the, potential, convenience of the car.

Or maybe not entirely …?

Nobody wins by mixing this one up

The car has pretty much taken over an environment it is not very suited for: the city. People have been pushed onto narrow strips of concrete while cars roam the streets — or, more likely, sit in congestion. Nobody wins. Not the pedestrians. Not the people sitting in cars.


The Swedish Road Administration commissioned illustrator Karl Jilg to depict what cars do to people in cities. No further explanation needed. It is a testament to how paradigms can come to dominate thinking that this is accepted as the de facto standard for designing streets in cities.

In America and elsewhere, whole cities have been designed around the car — with devastating consequences for the quality of life in these cities. Crippling daily commutes, pollution and loss of a sense of community being just some of them. Uniform cityscapes and a basic lack of safe and pleasant surroundings being others.

The funny things is that while a new wave of “liveability awareness” is rolling in on our post-industrial and post-modernism society, we largely continue to expand our cities in the same car-centric way. And this includes Europe, too. The walkability, the picturesque lanes and the beautiful squares of Europe are largely to be found in the old city centres that were constructed long before any of us were born.

Visit, say, an Italian city and find an old centre that holds some of the charms of urban density but is often marred by the presence of cars that the city was never designed for. Venture outside the old city and find largely dull, uniform spaces full of cars — that still move through traffic at a snail’s pace.

What we need

Basically, most of us want pleasant, safe spaces where we can stroll freely without constantly being stressfully made alert by the presence of fast moving machines made of steel.

But at the same time we want to allow those same machines at least some access to the city. We want them to bring in the goods we need and, yes, well, ideally we would sometimes like to drive them ourselves.

The feeling created by walking on a car-free street is entirely different from sharing a space with noisy, polluting, potentially harmful machines. In car-free spaces, you are less tense. You let your hair down a little. You start to observe people, buildings, objects in windows — instead of screening for danger. All parents will testify to the sense of calm evoked by moving into a pedestrianised area from one full of cars. Suddenly you don’t have to watch every single step taken by your children.

We want to co-exist with the car which is also a very useful tool

But, at the same time, we want to co-exist with the car which is also a very useful tool — and a tool that will most likely be noise and pollution free in a few years’ time, once battery technology and charging infrastructure has caught up with drivers’ demand for range and quick charging.

What we need is a clearer division of spaces. In some places, especially in Europe, the introduction of pedestrian-only streets and areas have come some way in doing this. But the areas are usually relatively small and if you find them at all there are normally just a very few of them in any given city — Europe’s biggest city London has but a handful of pedestrianised streets out of thousands.

A concept

A conceptual solution to the problems is what we call ‘city islands’: In its purest form, numerous small islands of car-free areas built on top of underground car parks.


Utilising staggered building lines, irregular shapes and revolved building plots, the environment on any single city island has well defined spaces as opposed to never-ending streets. It allows for the mild surprises and diversity of scale that please human beings — and creates public spaces in a more organic manner than simply leaving a plot blank.

On these ‘islands’ the only modes of transport would be on foot, on bicycle or on trams/light-rail.

In between the islands, wide streets would allow for car traffic, but those cars would not be allowed onto the islands. Instead, they would drive underneath them and park, and their occupiers would emerge on the pedestrian-only surface by way of escalators.

As no cars are allowed on these islands, planners would be much less constricted by the need for rational infrastructure created by cars. Within the sub-city that each island consists of, a human-pleasing variety of spaces could exist: narrow lanes, wider “high streets”, intimate squares, bigger squares, green veins and small pocket parks. All entirely walkable.

Buildings could be more playful in their shapes and sizes, creating the variety of spaces that please human beings.

The “waterways”, or car friendly boulevards in between the islands, on the other hand, would retain a grid like structure in order to make navigating by car more convenient — while allowing easy crossing for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

You could imagine each island as a virtually self contained unit — enough demand to create plentiful shopping options, enough supply of labour to attract office openings, and enough living and loving to create a buzzing cultural life and feed its own schooling system, from primary up to high school.

Each island in the city would naturally develop a specific style, a particular feel, and “island-hopping” for business or for pleasure would become a little bit of an adventure. At the same time, the structure would reduce the overall need for intracity transport, reducing the overall need for cars.

Implementing in the world of reality

Fully realising the City Islands concept would require building a major city from scratch. Not something humans do very often, and have failed at in the past, like when the Brazilians built a new capital city in less than four years.

Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates should fare better and is based on principles slightly similar to the City Islands. Masdar seeks to create great variety in urban spaces while reducing car traffic in large parts of the city. As the plans for it are being revised, though, roads for electrical cars are increasingly becoming a part of its future infrastructure.

To get an idea of how the City Islands principles could be incorporated into existing cities, one can get an idea by looking to certain Spanish cities, like Barcelona.

The Spanish are virtually as car-loving as the North Americans, but at the same time they have inherited dense, historical city centres. It is not easy mixing medieval heritage and density with a love of the machine best suited for the great wide open.

But the Spanish are having a go at it. Undoubtedly Spain is among the countries with the highest number of underground parkings spaces per capita. In Barcelona, the virtually car-free historical centre is flanked by several, huge underground parking facilities. Whilst hardly a car-free city all-round, this helps keep the historical centre relatively accessible by car whilst keeping it almost free of them at the same time.

This basic idea is not difficult to implement in other existing cities: closing certain areas to car traffic while keeping main car arteries open and supplying those same areas with underground parking facilities that will eventually pay for their own construction through parking fees.

City Islands is a basic concept implementable in both Masdars and Barcelonas.