We’ve monocropped our streets

An excellent article by Clive Thompson on how we’ve monocropped our streets , to the extent that they are now used almost exclusively for cars. He argues that it’s time to rewild. We’ve spoken about this before with our post “Rewilding” infrastructures, the idea that much like various projects are giving fields, estates, and farms back to nature, letting them grow as they would without our interference, now some voices are proposing that cities also need to “go wild again.” Thompson starts with the example of Utrecht.

In the 1970s, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands wanted to make it easier for people to drive downtown to shop. So they took a 900-year-old canal that ran through the city, and filled in a big chunk — turning it into a four-lane highway. […]

Then 20 years ago, the citizens of Utrecht decided they’d gone too far. When they looked at their downtown, they realized that in making things easier for cars, they’d made life harder for everything else. Roads that for centuries had been used for a welter of purposes — for children to play in, for congregating and chatting, for selling stuff; for civic life, in other words — had turned into a sea of rushing steel.

You really should have a look at the visuals he points too, at the Dutch newspaper Bouwput Utrecht. Superb and inspiring.

The reason it’s worth bringing up this topic here once again, is the analogy to monocropping, this industrial farm concept we’ve been enamoured with for decades, of cultivating one crop over vast spaces, exclusively for years and years.

Whenever we ploughed over fields and regions to plant a single crop, the land got weaker over time, because it lost that dense, gnarly, diverse spectrum of life. Farmers for centuries knew this, which is why they rotated crops and had a network of animal life interpenetrating small farms. But with big industrial farming, we monocropped, and created — decades down the line — crappier soil, entire regions susceptible to a single pest, and unexpected knock-on effects.

Thompson wonders if cities work the same way. Farmland has been weakened in many places, perhaps city life has suffered the same faith.

They propose that we think of car-dominated streets as a type of civic monocropping. Instead of a street serving diverse purposes — as they did for millennia, before the automobile came along — today’s urban roads have only one major function: Moving gas-powered vehicles around.

He proposes that we can apply this same perspective, this same lens of monocropping, to our attention, and even to software. For our purpose here though, it’s already a powerful idea even “just” for cities as monocropped for cars. It’s a way of seeing things than many have grasped during the pandemic, when streets were closed, but it remains something we can do today, to think-up how we could do things better.

Image: Utrecht by Martin Woortman on Unsplash.