In the last month, I’ve had the great fortune to visit three key cities in three European countries: Trieste Italy, Ljubljana Slovenia, and Rijeka Croatia. While the cities differ in culture and language, they do share an aspect I greatly appreciate- all of them have sections of their city center dedicated solely to pedestrians.
The existence of pedestrian-only walkways might be a city planning detail that escapes your notice. Although they differ a little from city to city, these walkways typically consist of city blocks filled with shops, restaurants, bakeries, bars, cafés, perhaps a church or two like in Ljubljana or a clock tower like in Rijeka. In essence, they are normal city centers except they are only open to foot traffic. Aside from the occasional biker or skateboarder, these are tire-free zones. Like anywhere else, people meet for drinks, debut new fashion, and purchase goods & services. In Rijeka, the pedestrian area of town opens to the city’s open air market where you can find potatoes piled high and smoked meats hanging from small wooden cabins. Life continues in these places as it would anywhere else but there just aren’t any vehicles.
Had I not remarked that the streets seemed quieter than normal, I probably wouldn’t have noticed that there weren’t any cars around. But once I realized, I tried to identify what it was about the pedestrian-only walkways that I found so delightful. I’ve already mentioned that despite lively conversations of other people walking by, these sections of town are often quieter without the rumble of vehicles and trucks. And then of course, there is the fresh air devoid of plumes of exhaust smoke. (This was especially true in Rijeka where I have a sneaking suspicion that they are less rigorous about controlling car pollutants).
After further observation however, it occurred to me that people seemed freer without the strict need for organized sidewalks. They stroll, weave in and out, and take whatever path suits them. Children run around presumably safe from the dangers of fast-moving vehicles. The lack of vehicles also makes for a less jarring experience because everyone moves at similar speeds. In fact, it was surprising how alert I automatically became the moment we moved away from the pedestrian-free zones.
The walkways relieve us from strict organization, risks of vehicles, and a certain amount of stress that natural occurs when there is such a contrast in power and speed. So, perhaps the most wonderful thing about the pedestrian walkways is their ability to create a relaxing, safe, stress and care-free atmosphere. For me personally, these pedestrian ways resulted in extra moments lingering at window displays and more frequent stops for glasses of wine or scoops of gelato while conversing with friends. It was, somehow, liberating.
Now, you might wonder why I’ve even bothered to write about these walkways… I think its helpful to explore the things around us that contribute to our improved livelihoods. For one, someone or some people, somewhere, took the time to make some decisions that might have been contrary to common city-planning in the age of the vehicle and I’m thankful they did. But perhaps more importantly, we live in a time where people everywhere are demanding change and with that change often comes a culture of complaints and negativity. Most of the time, I don’t mind the discussion, having dialogue about the world around us is essential for making it a better place. But sometimes, negativity begets negativity and slowly we lose perspective. So for me, this is an exercise in recognizing something positive in my life, trying to understand why, and sharing that nugget of positivity with you. So today, I say “yay” for pedestrian-only walkways in cities. What do you say “yay” for?
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