Photo taken standing on the edge of the Hauptstrauss (highstreet) in the centre of town, Heidelberg Germany. 5:15pm on a Thursday evening.
I’ve recently returned from trip to Heidelberg where I attended ICCA 2019, an international conference on Collaborative Climate Action. The conference focused on the role of cities and was a key step in the lead up to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York this September. It was an honour to have been invited to help shape the global conversation on cities and collaborative climate action. I learned a lot and will spend the next few blog posts sharing.
In addition to attending the conference, I had an opportunity to study the city while I was there. I made a particular study of the town square and the streets surrounding it. I did this both during early morning runs and in the late afternoon sunshine – between the conference ending and dinner meetings. And, if I squinted hard, I could see the future of Government Street and maybe the rest of old town too.
Cars aren’t banned from the area. It’s just that they aren’t the priority – people are. It was remarkable to see people in cars, people riding bikes, people walking, people drinking beer, all sharing the same space so gracefully. Jane Jacobs calls this kind of urban activity a “sidewalk ballet.” But amazingly in Heidelberg this ballet takes place in the middle of the streets. I sat and watched for a while and here’s what I saw:
A young child walking her bicycle.
Two young boys kicking a soccer ball. I didn’t get my camera out until they were a bit far away but they literally walked right past my table, there in the street passing the ball between them.
A catering truck delivering food to City Hall (building on the left).
A woman, child and dog standing in the middle of the street.
A bike and a car sharing the road where only moments before the woman, child and dog had stood.
A server carrying a tray of beer across the road where only moments before a car had driven.
And look, she made it without incident!
I even spotted the mayor! Before our evening event, taking a break in the sunshine.
Remarkably, when I returned to this space one more time to see how it would be used at 9am on a sunny Saturday morning, I was in for a surprise. I expected to find tables full of people drinking their morning coffee. What I saw instead, where the night before had been a crowded street and square full of Friday evening revelers, were parked cars! The town square and streets surrounding it could even function as a surface parking lot if needed.
Businesses are flourishing. People are everywhere. The city centre feels alive! Heidelberg isn’t even a large city – the population is approximately 150,000. Their regional population is larger than ours at around a million people, but they get less tourists per year than we do. So what are we waiting for?
We don’t just need to “close Government street to traffic”, which is a 2020-2021 Action in Council’s Strategic Plan, we need to rethink the whole purpose of Government Street and maybe other streets too. Streets are for people. They are for kids kicking soccer balls and grandmothers bending down tenderly to their grandchildren without any thought of being run down by a car. Streets are for commerce – for the exchange of goods and services, for afternoon coffee, evening beer, for sharing a meal. Streets are for connection and joy.
The most remarkable and moving thing of all – considering the climate crisis we are in – is that running down the Hauptstrauss in the mornings, there were so few traffic noises that I could hear the birds singing, right there in the city centre. Streets can also be for nature.