With a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and his bicycle by his side, Alderman Paul de Rook welcomes us to Groningen. Within moments, you can tell how proud he is of the small and lively student city of 200,000 that he calls home.
Groningen is known as the “Cycling City” and de Rook tells us about the public spaces and bike routes that help make the city a wonderful place to be. Parking lots and busy roads have been transformed into fish markets, pedestrian shopping streets, and public parks. The city centre, says de Rook, isn’t a commercial district. People come to the city centre “to be,” and to have fun with their friends and fellow people in the city. While they’re there, if they need to, people shop. But shopping isn’t what brought them there. It makes sense that people come to the city centre of Groningen just to be among the hustle and bustle of the day. People like being around people, after all.
This idea that people actually choose to be around others may seem strange to some, considering the isolating design and way of life in many North American cities. In Calgary, for example, one can go an entire day without even really interacting with a stranger. You leave your house and enter your attached garage, get into your car and turn on the radio. You drive down the freeway into the city centre, and park your car in the parking garage. You enter the Plus 15* and walk to your office where you start your day of work. For lunch, you go grab some food in the office building, where fellow office-workers are having lunch, and then you head back to work. Once work is finished, you go back to the parking garage and get in your car, and drive home.
Here, in a city like Groningen or Amsterdam, it would be near impossible to not interact with people on your daily commute. You hop on your bike and instead of obeying traffic signs you make eye contact with each other to decide who has right of way. You bike past people sitting on their windowsill eating breakfast, and slow down for a mom who is riding her two kids to school in a carriage on the front of the bike (a “Dutch-minivan” as my mom likes to call it). As you bike along the bumpy cobblestone streets, an older woman bikes up next to you and says she really likes your dress! You say thank you, and she bikes ahead. You lock your bike to a canal bridge and head to work, or school, or whatever it is you do. A tourist asks you for directions and after pointing them in the right direction, you go inside to start your workday.
De Rook walks us through the city and tells us stories about different historical buildings, canals and shops. We walk down one of the roads where he hopes to banish buses to create even more public space for pedestrians which will, he tells me, help the city breathe.
While talking to de Rook, I couldn’t help but think of Enrique Penolosa, a past Colombian mayor that revolutionized the crime induced and automobile oriented city of Bogota. Although I haven’t met Penolosa, I have read a lot about him and have seen some films,** and both of these municipal politicians possess an inspiring amount of enthusiasm for their city. They emphasize the importance of designing a city that is happy, and is built for people as opposed to cars. De Rook didn’t focus on the economic strengths of Groningen, but instead spent the entire night talking about public spaces, bike routes, and the overall happiness of Groningeners. During his election campaign, Penalosa’s assurance to the people of Bogota wasn’t to make them richer, but was to make them happier. He did this by adjusting the infrastructure of the city so that everybody could use it. Concentrating on the development of bus routes and bike lanes as opposed to freeways and parkades can do wonders for a city’s overall well being.
I could go on all day about why cities that focus on pedestrian use versus automobile use enhance the public life, safety, energy, and overall happiness of cities, but I have to head out on my bike now. There are things to do and places to be. Maybe someone will even tell me they like my outfit on my way.
*The Plus 15 network in Calgary is an extensive pedestrian skyway system, connecting over sixty buildings downtown with bridges that are about fifteen feet above ground. Although the system is usually praised, the quasi-public space has resulted in a number of unintended consequences, such as a lack of vibrant street life.
**If any of this urban studies stuff interests you, I suggest watching Urbanized (it’s on Netflix) and reading Happy City, if you haven’t already.