I wondered why Juanjuan was so excited to see it. We had been friends for twelve years, after meeting along the tree-lined streets of his old Poblenou neighborhood in Barcelona. This was his first visit to the United States and somehow, all he wanted to see was the Parkway.
“We have to go there. First thing.”
“It’s probably not exactly what you are imagining, Juanjuan. You know, this Parkway is different from the ones in Barcelona.”
But Juanjuan insisted. So the morning after his arrival, we went by bicycle, to the overpass that looks out onto the Guadalupe River Parkway.
“Here it is, Juanjuan.”
“Here it is what?”
“I can’t see it.”
“There. All of it. Guadalupe River Parkway.”
“But. The cars. There’s no park. There’s no river.”
“It’s just a name, Juanjuan.”
“A name with no meaning?”
With his fresh set of eyes, Juanjuan helped me see something I had not realized it until that moment. How modern cities have so many names with no meaning. Names detached from, or at odds with their meaning. Names meant to conjure up imagery beautiful enough to outweigh the reality, of things like a former wildlife corridor with a highway down the middle of it.
Well, Juanjuan did find many other features in San Jose that he loved. The small Taquerias, the old California Oaks along the hillsides, and an ornate little Cathedral Basilica that reminded him of home. But his dream of what Guadalupe Parkway would be remains a kind of running joke between us.
“I’ll meet you at the Parkway.”
“Carpool lane or emergency turnout?”
Joking aside, this series of writing is about The Possible City, so let us imagine what Guadalupe Parkway could be, if we took its name literally. If this road were less like a state highway and more like the lively, nature-filled streets of Juanjuan’s Poblenou neighborhood. Could such a parkway serve the purpose of moving people from one area of the city to another — like a highway — while also being a pleasant place for humans and other living things to spend time?
The illustration below is an attempt to take us here, into this possible parkway. In it, I borrow concepts from various places, though admittedly mostly from my years lived in Japan. Picture yourself standing in the middle, as if we did a cross-section, looking straight down the parkway. The width of this cross-section from edge to edge, is about the same width required by a typical American freeway.
This illustration might seem to throw out the idea of a commute route, but in fact this is a commute route. In fact, an arrangement like this could move 5-10 times more people than any street ever could, while at the same time including space for housing, small businesses, gardens, and all sorts of friends from the broader natural ecosystem that we live in. All of this, in the footprint of a highway. What makes this possible is largely the simple fact that bicycles, walkers, scooters, wheelchairs, pedestrians, and frequent train and bus service altogether take far less space — and can move far more people per hour — than other means of urban transportation. That’s just math.
And I have a hunch, that this is why so many cities have been replacing large portions of their ultra-wide avenues and freeways with real parkways, with rivers, with forests, and with diverse, interconnected neighborhoods. If we are into the idea of human beings staying viable on this earth, moving this way just makes sense.
It is possible, Juanjuan. That the parkway of your dreams might just exist one of these years. Maybe it will even have a few small Taquerias in it, too.
A little update from here. For years I had been hoping to read a book that not only spelled out the importance of nature in cities, but that highlighted real-world examples from cities that are doing things differently. Well, now not only do I get to read it, but I got to be a small part of it.
Good friend Carmen Bouyer and I were recently asked to contribute a writing for the book "BiodiverCities by 2030," published by the Humboldt Institute in Colombia. Just published, the entire book has been made freely available for download, and features 80 contributors from over 40 cities. The writings are a mix of practitioners with their feet on the ground, and a few artistic biodiversity dreamers. In it you will find both ‘experiments’ and 'how to' studies for transforming cities into places that are both sustainable and equitable.
Many of the examples are from South American cities. As you might know if you've been looking, they are really on top of things in a lot of respects. A lot to learn here. You can read our opinion piece, or the entire book here:
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