“In terms of speed, there is no one-size-fits-all solution” – Interview with Carlos Pardo from Despacio

By |2023-12-19T15:01:46+01:00April 25th 2017|Sustainable Infrastructure|

In his interview with URBANET, Carlos Pardo talks about urban roads shared equally by cyclists, pedestrians and drivers, that we can save money by slowing down traffic and how we can convince people to act more environmentally friendly. 

Mr Pardo, what is the “Despacio City” and why do we need it?

The “Despacio City” is a concept or model of a city that revolves around deceleration and the idea to take the speed out of the city, so to say. Like the idea of “Slow Food”, the Despacio City is based on a certain image of what the city should be like for people to fully enjoy it and thrive in it. Usually, the idea is that the number of inhabitants should not exceed 50,000 people, that cars are completely banned, along with a few other characteristics.

At Despacio, we have a proposal that differs from what is usually claimed and done. We have reformulated the idea of the Despacio City a little because we think that the most important component of it is appropriate speed. This can mean different things in different contexts. For example, the “città slow” idea from Italy is difficult to implement for example in China or in cities like São Paulo, which are much larger than 50,000 inhabitants. This initiative aims to reduce car use, improve liveability and follow the Slow Manifesto in daily life. In their own words, the idea is motivated by “recovered time, where man is still protagonist of the slow and healthy succession of seasons, respectful of citizens’ health, the authenticity of products and good food, rich of fascinating craft traditions of valuable works of art, squares, theatres, shops, cafés, restaurants, places of the spirit and unspoiled landscapes, characterized by spontaneity of religious rites, respect of traditions through the joy of a slow and quiet living”. With Despacio, we try to be more realistic and we have moved away from the Slow City as a universal model. Also in terms of speed, there is no “one size fits all” solution.

According to our definition, the Despacio City is a city that understands where specific speed regulations are needed. For inter-urban highways, the adequate speed can be a little bit higher than in a neighbourhood street. For the latter, 20 or 30km/h is plenty. But then the context will always dictate what is appropriate. What we cannot have is cities where cars or other motorised vehicles drive at high speed on neighbourhood roads or even on secondary roads. We propose to cities to not just put up signs indicating the speed limit, but to really make changes and develop infrastructure, regulations, and even their enforcement. This is the transport-related aspect, but our idea of the Slow City goes beyond that.

For example, being able to walk to your workplace is a luxury in many cities. There are many places in the world where people have to travel more than 15 km to get to work, in many cases because of inequality and spatial segregation. This is often a result of bad urban planning and bad urban policy generating much longer distances for those who are poor. In the case of the US, the long distances go back to planning mono-use areas like suburbs, and subsequent suburban sprawl.

So our notion of Despacio Cities is one of compact cities with mixed land use to encourage short trips. The idea behind it is that by reducing spatial segregation, you add an important component to the urban economy. Unfortunately, this approach is seldom put into practice.

How can implementing slow cities become more attractive for local governments or mayors, especially in developing countries?

What we found is that there is a misconception about high speed. Policy makers and city officials often assume that high speeds are necessary. But the idea that 60 km/h should be the norm is from the 1930s. When you look at the average speed of traffic in many cities, you will see that it is close to 10 km/h, especially in developing cities. When we approach city officials, we do not tell them they need to go below an average of 10km/h. What we tell them is that their city’s traffic speed is very slow because of bad policies, and that they do not even need to aim at speeds above 30km/h for most streets. In our research we’ve found that for all other urban streets, 50 km/h is enough.

So I think this huge misconception that speeds in the city should permanently be increased leads to people making the wrong decisions. It also generates areas that will have very high speeds sometimes but huge congestion at other times. You can communicate this concept to policy makers and show them that it actually makes a city more efficient if you start to implement policies that promote “more appropriate speeds”; they also reduce costs for the local government because they do not require them to build huge infrastructures. Mentioning this could be a more persuasive argument than just saying, go slower.

But how do you deal with the different modes of transportation and the different speeds they require?

The large speed differential between fast and slow modes of traffic is an important point. Of course it is counter-productive to only plan for fast transport, which would generate horrible inequity and risks for people who are walking, for example. If a city says, “We need a very wide lane for the road because that will enable cars to go faster so that people will get to their destinations quicker” it will only generate traffic, induced travel and greater congestion. Even if there happens to be no congestion, this approach will only lead to excessive speed. Such plans only lead to the vicious cycle of having less space for pedestrians and cyclists, keeping both these groups off the roads because of the dangers, and pushing them to use motorised transport instead. Once you promote and implement policies where cities have mixed land use and promote walking, cycling and public transport, you will revert those trends and have better quality of life with lower expenditures!

Can you name cities that have implemented slow travel concepts? And if yes, did the push come from the government or the people?

In Germany for instance, you have the “Spielstraße” (literally, “game street”). I think this is a wonderful way to tell people: this is a street for kids to play, so forget about speeding. If you are in a car, you have to be prepared for a soccer ball flying out onto the street any moment and a kid running after it, so you have to go very slow.

The 30 km/h zones which have been implemented in many different places mostly in Europe and that are starting to be implemented in other places, or the UK’s “20 is plenty” initiatives, are positive examples of slow travel concepts. The effects that slow traffic has on those roads as well as the roads surrounding them are quite incredible: reducing the speed by 40 per cent on one road also results in an 8 per cent reduction on the nearby roads that do not fall under the speed limit. The “woonerf” (places where cars, bikes, and pedestrians all share the road as equals) in the Netherlands is also a nice idea.

But it is difficult to answer the question of why this started. It is not easy to track the exact moment when somebody said “We should go slower”, because in some cases there was no leap-frogging but people remembered that shared roads was something they already had once, a few decades ago. The woonerf and the Spielstraße already emerged during the sixties or seventies as a reaction to very severe road safety problems. Road safety is the major thrust to building the argument for Slow Cities.

One of the aspects of the New Urban Agenda is the Right to the City. Does the Right to the City not incorporate a variety of lifestyles? Some people will still want to own five cars while others will become passionate cyclists. How do these kinds of arguments play into the discussion about Slow Cities?

Whoever understands the actual Lefebvre description of the Right to the City already has a clear picture in mind. But of course there are always twisted interpretations that say, “I have the right to do whatever I want”. The New Urban Agenda with its short sentences about the Right to the City also runs the risk of depleting the concept of its original meaning.

The Right to the City is essentially about being able to enjoy urban life, with a very strong emphasis on everybody enjoying urban life. If your understanding of enjoying a city is going by car, then you are neglecting other people’s opportunities to fully enjoy it. But the key to this concept is that it is not the individual, but the community that has to have the ability to enjoy the city. The Right to the City is not about every single person getting their way, regardless of what other people want.

One of the most important aspects here is environmental consciousness. How can people be motivated to change their habits and behaviours in that regard?

Normally, people in any city – or maybe people in general – will never respond to altruistic benefits or to anything that says, “The community will benefit if you change your habits”. There is a small portion of the population that will actually change voluntarily, but humans by nature are selfish. Drawing on the studies of human ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I would say the environmental awareness movement needs to make arguments not based on altruism, like saying you need to change your behaviour so that the polar bears and the whales can survive, but on selfishness. They need to tell people that they are going to die and that pollution and climate change are an imminent threat that implies losing a lot of the commodities that they have and take for granted, such as clean drinking water.

At the same time, it is really difficult for somebody to say, “If I turn off the water tap right now, it will generate huge global benefits”. Although these small things do have a huge impact in the grand scheme of things, it is hard to make people see that and convince them to change their behaviours accordingly. It is a huge challenge.

If you were to predict the future – where do you think we will be by the time of Habitat IV, 20 years from now?

With the way things are going, and the lack of seriousness of action and the lack of proper mechanisms to actually improve the state of the world, I do not see how we are going to turn things around. The UN processes to improve policies are incredibly bureaucratic, and also weirdly democratic. The over-democracy of decision-making in the UN system and all these long hours of discussion are actually generating no benefit for anyone.

Because I am extremely pessimistic, I think that we will be dead in 20 years, or at least most of us will be. There will be a very small percentage of the world population that will have had the benefit and the luxury of surviving because they were extremely rich. We will probably have electric cars and very advanced technological devices, but if we continue the way we are currently living it is highly probable that Habitat IV will have 200 participants, because the global population will only be 100 million at the very most. I am actually saving money to be part of that small percentage of people who will be able to pay for clean water in the next 10 years!

Carlos Pardo