Transforming the world's streets is the mission of the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI). Established in 2014 under the aegis of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and Bloomberg Philanthropies, now operating under Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, GDCI is made up of a team of city developers, designers and planners who, from their New York headquarters, work in the four corners of the globe to make the road safer, and the street a catalyst for new opportunities for socialising. Authors of the first Global Street Design Guide on best practices in street design, the GDCI recently launched Designing Streets for Kids, a set of child-friendly street design guidelines. We met with their director of design, Fabrizio Prati, to talk about how street design can promote environmental and social equality in public life.
With GDCI you work to redefine a more sustainable face for our cities. How do you imagine the urban environments of the future?
“Our vision for the city of tomorrow is quite simple: a city that puts people at the centre. It is designed on a human scale from the point of view of the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, people with disabilities. It takes into account the gender approach, rethinking what has hitherto been defined according to predominantly male ‘lenses’. It is a city where a car is no longer necessary and daily needs can be accessed quickly, easily and above all safely. We devote a big focus to road safety. Accidents are one of the biggest planetary killers: with 1.35 million deaths, they represent almost a pandemic every year, in addition to millions of people made permanently disabled.”
What is the role of design in this process? Is there a system of possible interventions?
“Street design can play a key role in overturning the auto-centric vision of the last century and favouring a multimodal, multi-use street. With GDCI, we work to not relegate the street to mobility and transport, but to make it a place open to play, physical activity, sociability, rest and recreation: all spheres of expression of democracy.”
What method do you follow?
“We try to focus on the variety of users and uses. In addition to the focus on people there is the focus on places: when we contextualise our interventions we do not only think about the urban context but the social, economic and environmental as well. No intervention can be a cut and paste of a predefined solution. Dialogue is another indispensable tool, because we cannot impose projects without explaining them, but on the contrary these must come from a process of co-creation. The use of language is also central and must limit technicalities. If my question to the user groups is “Shall we remove a vehicular lane?”, we are unlikely to get an informed answer. Tactical urbanism can also play an important role.”
What does tactical urbanism mean?
“It is the idea of being able to transform spaces with paint and movable elements, so that we can show them to the citizens, evaluate them and then decide whether to adopt them permanently. The advantage is definitely that of showing a possibility of change through low-cost elements, a bit like we did with the City of Milan with the Open Squares project.”
Can you tell us about the project?
“Some spaces, identified through participatory budgeting or through citizens’ recommendations, have been chosen for a demonstration of tactical urbanism, in a ‘pilot’ mode. For example, Dergano square had become a car park since the war, but it was reconfigured and given back to the citizens, not without some controversy. The impact was monitored and, after four years, the transformation was made permanent. The project with the municipality continued with an open call for proposals from citizens and associations. In one month, 65 proposals arrived, and in four years the city was able to transform 40 spaces: a record, I think, for any city in Italy and I believe also in Europe.”
And do you renegotiate the reuse of public space with all interested parties, including those against?
“In every city we have worked in we have come across push back. That is why it is important to have broad involvement from an early stage of the project, to understand whether the disagreement is expressed by a majority or a vociferous minority, and what the reasons for rejection are. Monitoring remains crucial. Lately, there has been discussion about the 30 km/h limit, which many believe would lengthen journey times. The data, however, help to frame the problem: in both Europe and Latin America, going from 50 to 30 km/h changes the mileage by a negligible 5/7 seconds/km. Data are used to dispel some myths, such as the notion that cycle paths are not used: of course it depends on the individual case, but tools like videos can be very useful to show the real use of a public space.”
Other cases of virtuous cities?
“It is difficult to point to model cities because context always has a big influence. GDCI has worked extensively with Bogotá, which has promoted cycling for decades to the extent that one million trips a day are now made by bicycle by people from various social classes. Investments have also been important for public transport: with two million trips per day, the TransMilenio is one of the largest Bus Rapid Transit circuits in the world. The paradigm shift has taken root: people who can afford a car choose not to own one. Like Bogotá, many cities in the global south, such as Fortaleza, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, have revolutionised their mobility. Becoming an example also for the cities of the global north.”