The politics of pedestrian spaces

December 11, 2014

As a happy (and sometimes wet) walker, I am concerned by the design of my streets – and I’m not the only one. Recently, a French city decided to remove hoardings to stop the visual pollution associated with advertising and thus to prevent the hyper-stimulation of pedestrians.

This ban reminded me of an important urban sociology debate about the interaction between people and the built environment, and the meaning of such interactions. Indeed, the design of pedestrian spaces carries powerful political intentions – or at least regulatory purposes: just think at how Haussmann created Paris’ large avenues to allow troops [1] to move around the capital quickly in case of insurrection. How sustainability objectives are currently turned into practice by encouraging healthy, non-polluting travel modes such as walking. How we can be so easily watched thanks to CCTV cameras.

Such decision makes me wonder about the kind of cities we want to live in and how we can achieve them. One could argue that in these austerity times, when local authorities’ fundings are drastically reduced, getting rid of the money collected through advertising is, whether you approve it or not, a strongly symbolic policy for a recently elected council. But I believe the debate should go past purely financial considerations and be approached from another perspective: are pedestrian spaces to be thought and designed only in terms of safety, security or sustainability?

Advertising is nothing new in our streets, and famous artists [2] contributed to its success. And their works inspired other artists [3] in reaction. Today French souvenir shops sell early 20th century posters that tourists buy because they find them inspirational, beautiful and creative – whereas it seems indeed difficult to create a ‘sense of place’ with today’s fast food posters. But keeping the city’s hoardings only for health and cultural promotion does not satisfy me either: what about all the other forms of cultures not promoted by the council and these that don’t fit with current good taste?

So, as a pedestrian, I believe I care less in being hyper-stimulated compared to being completely anaesthetised by empty and colourless public spaces. And although I do appreciate my safe and sustainable walk every morning and I understand that I am lucky not to suffer from any impairment, I can’t help but think: I like the mess, the heterogeneity, the subversiveness of my streets. For my experience as a pedestrian is determined by what lies at the core of urban life: movement rather than stability, diverse rather than prescribed behaviours, creativity rather than mechanical regulation.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haussmann%27s_renovation_of_Paris
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/sep/11/art
[3] https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/pop-art