The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 12

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Posted By Megan Wildhood
Dec. 11, 2012
Weis and Arnesen argue that elected officials sometimes just need to step in and do what needs to be done to preserve a city’s longevity.  Rebuilding Munich did not happen by consensus – in fact, there was a sizable public outcry against what now makes this city sustainable for 2020 and beyond.


             Americans in 2007 understand that major public capital projects must survive layer upon layer of public input before the first shovel of ground is broken and this period of public input ranges from very, very long to infinity.  But it wasn’t always this way.  The subway systems in New York City and Boston were built without a single popular vote cast in either direction (Katz, 2007).  No one voted to begin rebuilding San Francisco on April 19, 1906.  The street grid in Seattle wasn’t the outcome of a contentious political campaign.

            There was a time now long past when elected city officials simply did what was necessary for a city to be a city.  And that included laying out street plans, designing and landscaping parks, and either building public transportation systems or inviting private transit companies to build and operate those early systems.

            The Munich example must seem incredulous to the American reader an entire comprehensive mass transit system installed in six years.  But the public input expectations in Germany were changing by the late 1970s, as city leaders took the Munich experience and built similar systems in the major urban centers.  This transformation wasn’t without its detractors, and it was evident to the mayor of Heidelberg in 1976 that there would be well-organized opposition to his dream of turning the mile-long Hauptstrasse (Main Street) into a pedestrian-only zone, especially among the intellectual elite that populated this old university town.

            On April 29, 1976, Heidelberg’s city council (Gemeinderat) voted to transform the Hauptstrasse into an attractive pedestrian way (Weber, 2007).  This would entail not only eliminating cars, but also dismantling the streetcar line that ran the length of this historic street.  Vocal opposition to the plan erupted immediately, with critics arguing that closing the street would violate the historical integrity of old Heidelberg.  After all, street cars, albeit horse drawn, had plied the Hauptstrasse since before the mythical Student Prince, Karl Heinrich, drank and sang the Gaudeamus with his Saxon corpsmen in the 1860s (Meyer-Forster, 1903).

            Sensing that this opposition could derail plans for the pedestrian zone, Oberburgermeister Reinhold Zundel announced a special weekend Hauptstrasse Festival a weekend devoted to partying and celebrating the delights of the town’s main street.  To do that, he argued, the Hauptstrasse would need to be closed down for the weekend, both to cars and to the street car line that ran its length.  On Friday at noon closure signs were put up at each end of the mile-long main street.  The party began.  During the early hours of Saturday morning two multi-ton slabs of concrete were place at each end of the street.  During the early hours of Sunday morning the street car tracks were filled in with concrete, abruptly and permanently putting an end to the Hauptstrasse street car.  On Monday morning the mayor announced joyfully that the Hauptstrasse Festival and been such a smashing success that he decided to keep the street closed awhile longer.  The intellectual elite were up in arms, as it was painfully obvious to them that there would never again be cars and trolleys navigating the narrow width of this ancient street.  And there never were.

            There was a lot of screaming and gnawing when the destiny of the Hauptstrasse became obvious.  But the merchants along the now-bustling stretch didn’t have time to join in the demonstrations they were too busy taking care of burgeoning sales.  Mayor Zundel neither went to jail nor was run out of town.  He was quietly regarded by the business and cultural leaders as someone who side-stepped a contentious public debate in order to assure Heidelberg’s future as one of Europe’s showcase tourist destinations and vibrant commercial centers.  Keeping the Hauptstrasse open to vehicles would surely have prevented that, as example after example were proving throughout the country (Stadt Heidelberg, 2006).

            Sometimes decisions need to be made, and actions taken, for a city to remain a city.  And those decisions need to be made intelligently and expeditiously, bringing to bear the best planning and best forecasting input available.  The source of that critical input is often not the collective wisdom of the masses, as democratic as that ideal seems.  That was not how decisions were made when our cities were first laid out.  Of course, no city plan is perfect; but no city plan which is what emerges from a protracted, never-ending public debate is untenable.

            Many American cities might have been saved if a strong mayor, or a strong governor, had stood up and let the Interstate Highway Commission know that the system would not be slicing through the middle of our great cities.  Many American cities would have been saved had strong mayors treated the construction of comprehensive mass transit as necessary not accessory or discretionary to the future of their cities.  The legacies of Neil Goldschmidt and Tom McCall in Oregon are testimony to the impact that dynamic leaders can have on the urban landscape of one city, Portland now arguably one of North America’s most vibrant and livable cities (Oregon Historical Society, 2006).

            And Seattle might have been saved had Burgermeister Zundel, rather than Mayor Nichols, presided over the aftermath of not one, but four consecutive yes votes to build a monorail to augment the city’s negligible mass transit capacity.  Instead of commencing construction after the first vote, or after the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th votes the mayor let the fifth vote relieve him of his responsibility for civic leadership (Ritter, 2005).

Also in Seattle, a campaign put on by Streets for All failed to make much progress as the city’s voters didn’t vote to provide more transit choices – something which could have, according to Weis and Arnesen, been decided otherwise by elected officials.  In LA County, a vote to extend a tax that supports the upkeep and construction of their transit system is, according to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, slowing the much-needed project down.  While it may seem un-American to argue against a popular vote, Weis and Arnesen make the point that, for the sake of sustainability and survival in the coming decades, sometimes civic leaders need to take a stand.  It might just mean the difference between life and death for a city.

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