Potterstraat was one of the first streets in Utrecht to be widened. In this 1960s picture the 800 year old street has a four lane road, today no private motorised traffic is allowed here. The development of this street serves as an example in the video with this blog post.

From car centric to people friendly urban planning

Billet en français

Historic city centres and modern traffic do not go together well. All the functions of city life compete for a part of the limited space that is available in the old streets. In many places there is no question that private motorized traffic gets a large chunk of this limited space, but in many cities in the Netherlands that is no longer true. The big shift in thinking about allocating public space took place in the 1970s. This had huge consequences for cycling too. Many cities in the Netherlands are very old. The street patterns of these cities developed in a time when traffic was very different. For centuries pedestrians, the occasional carriage and freight barrows didn’t pose many problems in the largely narrow medieval streets. But in the early 20th century this changed. Mobility increased and the vehicles that were used in higher numbers changed. Trams, bicycles and later motorized vehicles made drastic measures necessary. For example in Utrecht where from the 1920s some through streets were widened by demolishing whole blocks of buildings on one or even both sides of those streets. This was even before the advent of the private car.

Potterstraat was one of the first streets in Utrecht to be widened. In this 1960s picture the 800 year old street has a four lane road, today no private motorised traffic is allowed here. The development of this street serves as an example in the video with this blog post.
Potterstraat was one of the first streets in Utrecht to be widened. In this 1960s picture the 800 year old street has a four lane road, today no private motorized traffic is allowed here. The development of this street serves as an example in the video with this blog post.

When after World War II the increasing number of private cars became a big problem in the streets, the solution was again sought in widening those streets. In stead of a single street the whole fabric of the city was now targeted. It took decades to make plans and then to execute them. The number of houses that had to be removed was enormous but the people of the 1950s and 60s had different views on the historic value of cities. To them it was a blessing to get rid of the old dark homes that were almost falling apart anyway. The new wide streets with fresh light modern buildings were welcomed. But when the large scale demolitions were taking place several things became clear. The new streets were good for the flow of traffic but not good for people. It isn’t pleasant to be in a street with tall buildings and heavy fast moving motorized traffic. Also the whole appearance and atmosphere of the city changed. In the 1970s there were gaping holes all over the city of half finished street widening projects. Ironically the open places were all used as temporary parking places. But times were changing. People began to see the value of the historic buildings. The human scale of the old streets was appreciated much more when the wide windy streets of modernism became ever more present. They were hard to cross for pedestrians as well. And it became very clear that the scale of motorization was so large that the old city centers couldn’t be adapted to it. If you demolish the whole city for the flow of traffic what destination for that traffic would be left?

Utrecht, Korte Nieuwstraat in 1968. Centuries old homes had been removed for the plans of a big through street here. It never came. Today the street is restored, new apartment buildings came in place of this temporary parking lot.
Utrecht, Korte Nieuwstraat in 1968. Centuries old homes had been removed for the plans to build a big through street here. It never came. Today the street is restored, new apartment buildings came in the place of this temporary parking lot.

The 1970s became a turning point. A new generation of decision makers scrapped the old plans and the exact opposite was done. In stead of changing the city streets for through traffic, through traffic was gradually completely banned from the city centers. Large pedestrian areas with shops were created. Making these areas places where people wanted to be. Private motorized traffic was diverted wide around these streets. Large parking buildings were built just outside the city centers so cars would not have to enter them, but people could easily reach the shops and other destinations on foot. Removing parking from the centers in itself already decreased traffic enormously. Not every street had to be made car free. By blocking just a few key streets cities were divided in ‘compartments’ with only one or two entrance streets. This makes every destination reachable by car but rat races are impossible. As a bonus the blocked streets remained usable for cyclists giving them a more direct route and an advantage over motorized traffic.

This video shows the development of the Utrecht Potterstraat. It explains the shift in urban planning in the Netherlands from car centric policies to more people friendly cities.

Not all Dutch cities went through this development in the same way. Some cities only made plans or had only just started tearing down buildings. A situation which could easily be reversed. Utrecht had already demolished very many buildings. Some streets were already finished and remained wider. Other streets were reconstructed to their original width. New buildings were built in a similar scale to what had been removed earlier. The more recent the reconstruction the more ‘historic’ the replacement buildings appear to be. To the trained eye the scars in the tissue of the city remain visible but it is good that the “car-first” thinking is a thing of the past. Modern urban planning makes the cities much more livable and it also gives the bicycle much more room.

As a warning and to remember the -in retrospect needless- demolitions, this protest was replaced on the wall of a rebuilt home. It came from one of the demolished buildings and was put there by a protest group. The poem goes a bit like this:

This post, written by me, was first published on a different platform.

original 10 comments

Edward said… Great post. What surprises me is that the Dutch “saw the light” in the 1970s whereas other countries, particularly English-speaking countries, still persist with the car-first ideology. In some Australian cities, we are starting to see some progress. For instance, current plans of Adelaide City Council adopt a lot of the ideas and principles that you describe. It is still greeted with a great deal of resistance from those people who seem to identify themselves first and foremost as motorists. Weird. 1 December 2011 09:59

oranjeflamingo said… Thanks so much for sharing this with me. It’s an area I know very well, but I didn’t realize just how many changes had been made. I’ve seen many photos of the streets in the Utrecht Archive photos, but often didn’t recognize areas that I thought I should. Now I understand that whole swathes of buildings were demolished, particularly over by Neude/Voorstraat. The old photos make so much more sense now! That said, I’m grateful that they realized the mistake before too much was destroyed. I’m also thankful that the heavy bike traffic is the main worry when trying to cross these wider streets. 1 December 2011 12:29

Kevin Love said… Very interesting. We went through the same thing in Toronto in the same time-frame. Here it was a proposal for a series of American-style expressways. The Spadima Expressway, Crosstown Expressway, Richview Expressway, Scarborough Expressway, etc. Fortunately, these were all cancelled. The iconic battle was over the Spadina Expressway. It was cancelled in 1971 by Ontario’s prime minister Bill Davis with his famous saying, “The city is for people, not cars.” 1 December 2011 12:45

Theo Z said… What a nice translation of the poem! 1 December 2011 13:00

John Romeo Alpha said… Do you foresee narrowing the streets back to a human scale, and re-building up to the sidewalk line, to re-humanize these cities that were first re-done in cement, stone, and steel for cars, then the cars excluded? One would almost hope it would be a natural evolution, as new buildings go up in these areas, they would grow to fit into this new non-car centric environment. But that would depend directly on the building codes, I suppose. Have those changed? 1 December 2011 14:15

Mark Wagenbuur said… @John Romeo Alpha; I’m not sure I understand your questions. The whole point of this post is that most of the damaged streets were indeed restored to their original human scale and medieval widths. Only a few main streets remained their new width because the new scaled buildings were already finished there. But even those streets are now made car free, or are at least no through route anymore. They have wide bus tracks and wide cycle paths. @Theo Z.; thanks for the compliment. Judging from your name you can also read the Dutch original and you will know that it isn’t an entirely literal translation but I hoped to catch the original tone and message. @Oranjeflamingo; I thought you would like to read this as you live right in this area of the city. Glad you indeed liked it! @Edward; I am not sure the Dutch really ‘saw the light’ it was just that people’s living environment was attacked in such a way that they stood up against it. Cars are still very important in the Netherlands and people own and use them, but not for every trip and not to every price. 1 December 2011 17:42

highwayman said… In what now seems like great prophesy in retrospect: Dwight D. Eisenhower, as President of the United States (1953 to 1961), signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act that began, in his words, “the greatest public works program in history”: the construction of a network of expressways (or motorways) we call Interstates. It was a policy dream-come-true for Eisenhower. The President did have one grievance with the States and builders of this new Interstate Highway System, and it was based on what he saw in Germany. His objection was that these modern highways should be built “around the cities, NOT through them.” The video showed us what a broad boulevard could do to a city centre –let alone a highway. Way back in the 1950’s, President Eisenhower knew something that we denizens of today’s era have come to appreciate. 2 December 2011 02:40

Severin said… I am consistently surprised that you are able to top your best work time and again– excellent video! This is my new favorite! And on an unrelated note, not sure if you’ve seen this youtube vid but the guy used your footage and nowhere does he credit or acknowledge you as the source of the video. I suppose that’s to be expected in this technological era but… well, what’s your view on people using your footage without crediting you?  2 December 2011 04:52

Mark Wagenbuur said… @highwayman it also proves it is good to look at what others have done already and learn from their mistakes and especially learn from what works best. That is the whole point of this blog really… @severin thanks for the compliment! And to the surprise of some, I don’t mind how that guy took my images and turned them into something new. He did what I did too, after all I didn’t film the historic images in my latest video either. I do mind when people repost an entire video without credits. That is just stupid. If you want the whole vid you can look at mine. Unless it is for a reason and that is explained with credits, like this Brazilian-Portuguese version of one of my videos. For an audience that is not used to English or subtitles. 2 December 2011 11:57

workbike said… Thanks for this. As I recall the protests at ‘De Waag’ (probably mispelled) in Amsterdam were a turning point in this, so I went to visit last time I was in the city: it seems inconcievable tha anyone would consider building a highway through such a place… 2 December 2011 15:54

5 thoughts on “From car centric to people friendly urban planning

  1. Here in the US, the nation’s cities are diverse. Cities like Portland and SF long ago gave up on the car-first way of thinking. NYC had long given it up but for the longest time the streets they had remained extremely car-oriented. They have now begun reversing that mistake (at a rate that has impressed planners from all around the world). Los Angeles’ transformation was so total and complete that it may have permanently erased the pre-WWII Los Angeles and permanently altered the city. Seattle has recently been undergoing a level of transformation. Washington D.C has done quite well. Dallas and Houston seem stuck in the old car-centric way of thinking, although there are signs this is changing. Chicago is also trying to make changes to its streets, as is Philadelphia. Many other cities, such as Pittsburgh, remain totally car-centric, although this is slowly reversing, starting with the removal of freeways. Nevertheless, I am glad that it didn’t take 60 years in the Netherlands so that the whole world has an example to follow now that they want to fix their mistakes.

  2. Love this post! Particularly the part about how buildings were rebuilt to their original scale, and in some cases, appearance. It seems pro transit and bicycling advocates sometimes are completely behind density, suggesting all buildings should be 10 stories high or taller in downtowns. That’s great and all but then it blocks the sun, and makes the environment less friendly and not many people want to live on such a scale.

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