Note: This post is the fourth in a series of posts about my experience at Towards Carfree Cities X in Guadalajara. Check out the first, second, and third. This one covers the plaza event on Thursday evening. In the next and last post, I’ll discuss the later keynotes and overall conference themes.
The highlight of my experience at Towards Carfree Cities was the event held on Thursday evening. Instead of having the evening’s keynote in a theater, the organizers arranged to have it in a below-ground plaza inside a major traffic roundabout in central Guadalajara. The plaza is normally entirely inaccessible. It can only be seen by those driving through the roundabout, and they’re not allowed to stop: there is no parking allowed. That evening, one entry to the plaza was closed to motor vehicles, and attendees on foot and bicycle were able to descend the ramp into the plaza itself.
I arrived early with my host, so I had plenty of time to wander around and watch (and help) the organizers set up the event. This was the first opportunity I had to take many pictures, and I relished the chance to get a unique perspective on the space. The plaza is below the Colon statue, and has all the things you’d expect from a plaza: trees, open space, a monument. You can see the monument from the ground level (it’s tall), but it’s actually affixed (and labeled) at the plaza level. The tiles aren’t in the best of repair – not surprising if no one uses them on a regular basis. Stairways lead down from plaza level into the lower tunnels. The air quality down in the tunnels (and indeed in the plaza, as cars continued to speed by on the other side) was not great, so I quickly came back up. For a while I lent my camera to my host, who took it and went up a nearby building to photograph the plaza from above. We had lots of time to wonder: What confluence of circumstances lead to the creation of a public space that no one can fully enjoy?
As the event time approached, the plaza filled up with people enjoying the opportunity to check out the space. For the first time, I saw kids on bicycles, or being carried on them. I also saw some fixies. People rode bicycles on the roadway, gave rides to others, stored their bicycles upside down on a ledge, and explored the plaza freely. It felt…well, like Portland does at its best. The joy was palpable, with even the organizers looking happy and relaxed. Friends greeted each other; people petted the cute dogs who arrived with their owners. Kids climbed on the statue. It was a visceral reminder of my core belief around land use and transportation advocacy: that using our space for people rather than cars creates more opportunities for community, in the form of human connection, joy, and laughter.
Chris Carlsson, a founding father of Critical Mass, spoke on the history of cars and freeways in cities, with lovely slides of San Francisco at different eras, reminding us that cars have a brief history as the ruling species of the city, and reclaiming our cities for people is reclaiming a long tradition. His keynote reminded me of a quotation from Joel Crawford in York that I opened my talk with this year: “The idea of the carfree city today sounds utopian and radical. It is neither.”
(View the full Flickr set from the event here)