Review of "Carfree Cities"

Carfree Cities, by J H Crawford. ISBN 90-5727-042-0.

Today's cities, especially in the United States, are designed around the need to accommodate cars. This book argues that it's possible to make cities that are better places to live and work than we have now by abandoning that requirement, as we may in any case have to do some time in the next few decades if the price of oil increases drastically.

To this end, "Carfree Cities" proposes a design for a car-free city of about a million people, with public transport that actually works and human-scale social spaces. Supposedly, life in such a city would be just as practicable as life in a typical modern "auto-centric" city, but more pleasant and less dependent on plentiful cheap oil.

As something of a car-hater myself, my prejudices are all in favour of this. But I finished Crawford's book unconvinced that he'd really made his case. In particular, after reading his description of a car-free city, I was unconvinced that I'd want to live there. And if I wouldn't, who would?

The biggest difficulty is one to which Crawford admits: his proposed design requires that people be packed very densely. In his car-free city, just about all the houses are narrow terraces, with light entering only at the end walls, and with no gardens. I lived for years in houses a little like this (but with gardens, and appreciably less narrow than Crawford proposes), and it's maddening. Crawford quotes Christopher Alexander's denunciation of disconnected houses, which basically says that the only reason why people would want to live in houses that aren't physically attached to other houses is some sort of psychological sickness. I'm fairly sure Christopher Alexander lives in a detached house himself.

Another weakness: the treatment of transport between a "carfree city" and the rest of the world is rather perfunctory. Crawford proposes that buses could be the main mode of such transport, which seems pretty optimistic to me. He mentions that some people will want to own cars, which they'll keep in garages on the outskirts of the city (time between home and car: up to 35 minutes). His treatment of freight also seems optimistic.

There's one more thing that troubles me about Crawford's prescription for a car-free city: it isn't organic. I don't mean that it's all straight lines and squares and the like; it isn't. But it seems as if everything needs to be designed top-down for it to work. Of course, any book that proposes a design for a city (or for anything else) is likely to give that impression, but I just don't see how a city of Crawford's sort could really grow up without a lot of control being imposed from above, nor how (once completed) it could acquire and lose population naturally, as cities generally do. And I worry about the effects of the sort of top-down control that would be needed to keep it in order.

Still, this is a thorough examination of the case for carless cities and of one way to make them. Crawford considers the structure of such a city at every level from the overall layout down to the individual buildings; despite my misgivings expressed above, he makes a good case that such cities are viable.

The book is nicely designed. The pages have wide inner margins in which there are illustrative photographs and diagrams, references, definitions, and other notes. There is an annotated bibliography and a good index.

Not the last word on its subject, I hope, but an excellent beginning.