Aligning Urban and Environmental Goals

For many years diesel was seen as the future for Europe. It was regarded as more efficient than other fossil fuels and thus also received the reputation of being ‘less polluting.’ Yet pollution is an awfully broad category. And the smog that has recently settled in European cities has proven that while diesel might be less polluting in some ways, it is certainly more polluting in others.

At the end of 2016, for example, Paris had one of its worst episodes of smog in its history. It was blanketed by a thick, black cloud for more than two weeks, forcing the city to enact emergency measures that restricted car use.

Yet rather than harping on the ill effects of fossil fuels, I would instead like to point out the great possibilities that movement away from them presents.

Cities across the European continent are experimenting with efforts to reduce smog and pollution for their citizens. And instead of turning to another engine, they have decided that it is perhaps wisest this time to eschew the car altogether and instead to encourage other forms of transportation. This means that cities are looking for ways to boost alternative transportation options—in alignment with many other urban efforts in the transportation space.

Paris is a particularly good example of the positive effects that this movement away from diesel engines is having. The city has decided that it wants to move towards car-free streets and is gently prodding its citizens in that direction. Last weekend, for example, the city added three new zones where cars are banned on Sundays. And they intend to introduce at least one of those zones per Arrondissements in the coming years. The idea: if citizens see how vibrant car-free life can be on weekends, they will be more willing to give up their rights to drive cars on those streets.

Those efforts are part of a greater initiative called Paris Respire (Paris Breathes), which was appropriately dubbed a car-free ‘charm offensive’ by CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan. And Paris Respire is, in turn, clearly a key cog in France’s efforts to reduce vehicle traffic and pollution, as laid out in a recent announcement that France will ban all sales of diesel and gasoline vehicles by 2040.

Yet beyond the environmental impacts, those efforts also clearly align with urban initiatives to make cities more walkable. Planners see walkability and reliance on alternative forms of transportation as essential for the health of any city: it improves safety, reduces crime, makes people healthier, makes neighborhoods more vibrant, increases sense of place—I could go on and on.

So what I am saying is, in short, that it is great that the environmental and urban planning interests are very much aligned for European cities these days.

Yet I would like to offer a word of caution: those on both sides should be sure to communicate. It is important that those pushing from the environmental side and those from the urban planning side not put on blinders for their respective purposes. If both understand the interests of the other, there is the possibility for an even great whole as opposed to little victories here and there.

Regardless, I am excited to see what the car-free days in Paris will bring. It is a clever ruse and one that promises great results.