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Urban Design- Historical Sketch

Genesis of the car-dependent city

Prior to World War II, motorists shared road space with a variety of pedestrians, cyclists and horse-drawn vehicles.  Speeds were low and care for slower or vulnerable road users was, with some exceptions, indispensible.

Pre-War Motoring

Since the post-war consumerism boom of north America, the car has been seen as affordable and desirable for the majority of citizens of developed-world countries.  This gave rise in the post-war decades to the concept of constructing cities to facilitate and encourage mass transport by car.  In turn, motoring’s sizable demands for road space and parking contributed to creation of the low-density, fully car-dependent city or suburb.  The spreading of cities over far greater areas made other transport modes such as rail or cycling ineffective.

Retro-Futurism City

Official Adoption of Car-Dependent Planning

As well as their attractiveness as objects of design and status, cars appeared to offer the freedom to travel to almost any destination, at whatever time, carrying passengers and luggage, and with minimal need to plan ahead.  The proliferation of car use through the 1950’s and 60’s led to official adoption of personal motorisation as a preferred transport system.

Such policy developments as the UK’s Buchanan Report (1963) enshrined the concept that ‘roads are for cars’.  Such initiatives ratified the notion that widespread motoring was not to be challenged, facilitating high-speed (50 km/h minimum) traffic in urban areas, proposing further segregation of pedestrians and motorists, and contributing to the dismantling of the traditional streetscape.  Streets and roads became places to be feared and avoided.

Those who could not afford to run a car found themselves excluded from the new suburbs, and social segregation resulted; this brought urban centres, abandoned by a motorised middle-class, into poverty and decline.



Reaction began as early as the 1950’s. Unsuccessful aspects of Modernism in design were challenged by the likes of Robert Venturi in the US, Krier and Stirling in Europe. The research of Jane Jacobs and David Appleyard, ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ by Ralph Nader, policies of urban management by such as Jan Gehl and Hans Monderman and many other authors and academics contributed to a questioning of this hegemony.

During the 1970’s, widespread public protest began against the tragic injury toll, loss of life and destruction of neighbourhoods caused by the increase in motorisation.  Advocates for reductions in car use in Germany, Denmark and Holland had success in introducing changes such as lower speed limits, infrastructure like cycle lanes and footpaths, and legal changes reflecting the danger presented by cars. Pressure group “Stop de Kindermoord” (“Stop the Child Murder”) started in Holland in 1973.

Though most developed-world countries officially recognise the health, congestion, social exclusion and environmental damage caused by cars, the work of highlighting the value of traditional, higher-density urban design and preventing further car-dependent development, compared to an ingrained and vested car culture, continues.