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An Interview with J.H. Crawford

Pete Menchetti

Imagine life in a city free from the noise, stench, and danger of cars, trucks, and buses. Imagine that all basic needs, from groceries to childcare, lie within a five-minute walk of every doorstep. Imagine that no commute takes more than 35 minutes from door to door, and that service is provided by a fast, cheap, safe, comfortable public transport system. This is the future that J.H. Crawford envisions in Carfree Cities.

Crawford argues unapologetically that the car is a technology that has run wild, and that the time has come to reclaim city streets for human activities. He proposes a city planned to maximize the quality of life for individuals and communities, and gives practical suggestions for implementing this basic design in both new and existing cities. Crawford believes that sustainable development can only be achieved by ending car use within cities.

In the face of passive acceptance of declining quality of life, Carfree Cities is a beacon of hope and sanity that offers a practical solution to the danger, pollution, and breakdown of social systems caused by auto centric development. By rejecting the assumption that continued car use in cities is inevitable, Crawford takes us a step closer to the tantalizing possibility of a return to the pattern of lively, attractive streets that we had enjoyed for thousands of years, until the advent of automobiles.

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Please give us some background on yourself.

I was born in 1948 and raised in North America. From the age of seven I lived within the orbit of New York City, except for two spells in the Town of Mount Royal, a railroad suburb of Montréal. As a teenager, I traveled by train and bicycle through France and England at a time when these countries were still relatively free of cars. Later, I traveled widely in North America, Asia, and Europe. I moved to Amsterdam in 1990, where I live today.

I attended public schools in the New York area, and now marvel at the fine education I received. At the time I thought nothing of it – I believed that all public schools were as good. In the late 1960s I attended Johns Hopkins University, graduating with a BA in social relations. I also delved into science, architecture, and engineering in my teens. In 1973 I went back to school to get a masters in social work.

I trained as a case worker (i.e., dealing with individuals) and also as a group worker, especially with children. I worked for several years with the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, doing child welfare work. That exposed me very directly to the difficulty of the lives of the poorest members of society, in which transportation limitations are a serious constraint. (Poverty was, of course, the largest problem most of my clients faced.)

What provoked your interest in urban planning? What led you to believe that cities should be built without cars?

I started drawing house plans when I was seven, and my interest in architecture continued quite strongly into my teens. I never really lost that interest, although for many years it lay dormant. In 1980, I moved to Hilton Head, a rich resort island in South Carolina, where I was involved in land-use planning and related development issues. Harbour Town was an interesting fixture on Hilton Head. It was the only place on the island that was remotely urban, and had been deliberately modeled on the Italian Riviera. Harbour Town included a small pedestrian-only district, the most popular gathering place on the island. It turned out that real estate at Harbour Town was the most expensive on the island on a per-square-foot basis. We were at the time involved in a project to duplicate the success of Harbour Town at another site on the island.

It was then that I discovered Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, thanks to a glowing review in the Whole Earth Catalog. This book was a real eye-opener for me, and I devoured its thousand pages whole. The book explained to me why I was so drawn to traditional architecture (now denigrated as "vernacular") and really didn't care much for most Modern buildings. Alexander gave me the framework I needed to understand why I (and most adults, according to one survey) have a strong preference for good traditional buildings and an active dislike of most Modern architecture. I regard the book as one of the most important of the 20th century, and it is interesting to note that the concept of "pattern languages" has also been eagerly adopted by software designers. Both Alexander and Nikos Salingaros (who is writing the foreword for Alexander's forthcoming magnum opus) are mathematicians, and they have attempted to uncover the order that underlies the form of the built environment.

I mulled over A Pattern Language for years, and finally discovered that there was one aspect of the work that troubled me: the assumption that cars could not be done away with. True, many patterns reduced the impact of cars and sought to develop alternative transport, but I was becoming steadily more concerned about the impact of cars on the environment, energy consumption, and aesthetics. However, it was Donald Appleyard's Livable Streets that finally pushed the button. Appleyard (tragically and ironically killed by a drunk driver in Athens not long after the book's publication) laid out the social effects of cars on cities in glaring detail, using the best social-network-analysis methods available. The book is simply an indictment of the effects of street traffic on the fabric of urban neighborhoods.

A few years later, I finally stated the question: Is it possible to build a city that works well without the use of cars. That led directly to the development of the reference design as it now exists. I first considered a number of simpler forms and then sought to find an optimum "topology," the spatial arrangement of the city's parts.

Tell us about your book, Carfree Cities. How long had it been in the works? What do you hope to achieve through its publication?

I began development of the carfree city in the late 1980s as an intellectual exercise that stemmed from my interest in Alexander's study of cities and their buildings. By 1989 I had already developed the 6-leaf-clover design that still characterizes the "reference design." I set the work largely aside until 1996, when I decided to put it on the Internet and then to develop it further. This led to presenting the ideas at several conferences and finally to the decision that a book was necessary, due to the complex nature of the arguments and the limitations of the Internet as a long-term method to shape change. The writing and preparation of the book took only two years, because much of the underlying work had already been done.

If the book becomes truly successful, it may assume a place in the urban design literature comparable to Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-Morrow, first published a century ago. While that work led to a number of unfortunate consequences, it was one of the most influential books on urban planning ever published, and, to a degree, led us to the separation of uses and spread-out land occupation that characterizes so much of what we build today. In a way, I'm hoping that my book will right some of the wrongs that flowed from Howard's work. There are several similarities, including the presentation of a radical new form of urban occupation, with one catch: most of what I am proposing as far as city form is concerned, is actually reactionary, not radical – the medieval city is still, I believe, the best urban form ever devised. I have simply restored it to its rightful place, and tinkered with some of the technology, so that residents of the city will enjoy good passenger and freight transport by rail, while reestablishing city streets as a public living room for human, not vehicular, uses, such as in Venice. I believe that the reference design for carfree cities solves several very serious, seemingly unrelated problems while at the same time holding out the promise of a much better quality of life.

While the book might be criticized because it does not state quantitatively the improvements in energy efficiency, preservation of open space, restoration of the public social realm, or the return of beauty to urban spaces, I believe that the urban form I propose is evidently superior to every other form so far proposed, and that a mathematical proof is not now necessary. (I do see this as a necessary next step, however.)

How have you liked living in Amsterdam? How is Amsterdam different from US Cities you've lived in?

I've now lived for 10 years in Amsterdam. It's different in many ways from most American cities, although it's not so different from the typical European city (the canals are an obvious exception, but they don't affect the operation of the city very much). The principal difference is that Amsterdam, particularly the older parts, is laid out with narrow streets, connected four-story buildings, and interior courtyards. In many ways, it was the model for the reference design, except that the blocks are rather larger than I propose, and the streets are, in effect, much wider than I have proposed, because of the space occupied by the canals. All this having been said, the density of Amsterdam is about the same as I propose for the carfree city. This value is far lower than the density of most of Manhattan, and it's even somewhat lower than central Paris, so it's by no means extreme.

Have you ever held any political office or government jobs?

Commissioner Louis J. Gambaccini of the New Jersey Department of Transportation appointed me to the position of Ombudsman for Public Transportation. I really enjoyed the work – it gave me a chance to be an effective advocate for improved public transport, to dig into operating problems and suggest solutions. I learned a lot about day-to-day public transport operations in a period of about 18 months. Other than that I haven't held public office.To most people I've thrown it at, the idea of a carfree city sounds great. But few think it's a realistic idea – especially Americans.

Do you find that the idea is a more welcome possibility in other parts of the world?

Americans, because of their wealth, natural resources, and vast amounts of open land, have the luxury of continuing to maintain an auto-centric society well into the future, although even in the USA, the carfree city enjoys strong support from certain segments of society. In poorer parts of the world, however, I think that the carfree city is a much more realistic avenue for improving access to services, education, and employment than attempting to ape the American model. Almost any city can be adapted to the carfree model, but it takes enormous resources to adapt a city to the auto-centric model. What Americans have a hard time getting their head around, is the idea that it would be POSSIBLE to live without a car. Most of the rest of the world hasn't become accustomed to driving miles for a loaf of bread or hours to get to work. When you encounter a city, such as Bangkok, that was planned generations before the car was even a dream, it's much easier to adapt it to a carfree model than to attempt to shoehorn millions of cars into it. It just doesn't work, and it hasn't worked in Bangkok. If a carfree city is properly designed, it's actually easier to get around than an auto-centric city. Special attention has to be paid to the question of moving both large and small items of freight. This is a challenge, but it's not impossible. I devoted an entire chapter of Carfree Cities to how the challenge can be met.

What is being done today to realize a carfree city?

At the moment, activity is very low key. The Institute for Carfree Development has been chartered as a California non-profit corporation, but so far we haven't had the resources to do anything with it. As for the web site at, I'm getting ready for a large addition on the art of city planning, but that won't be ready for a month or two. We need some kind of significant support to go much further. There have been some discussions about carfree developments, but so far these are only very preliminary. We've built up a core of people dedicated to the carfree concept, but we don't yet have the resources to proceed further. We need to develop some promotional materials – 3D walk-throughs, slide presentations, and so forth – in order to put the idea in front of millions of people. We also need at least one demonstration project in the USA with a couple hundred dwelling units and a hundred or more workplaces. People need to see this, on the ground and functioning, in the USA before it will achieve the necessary credibility. In some ways, of course, the New Urbanism is helping to prepare the way for the carfree city. The New Urbanists aren't carfree, but they have a clear goal of reducing the impact of cars on urban life. It's a noble goal, and it's succeeded in getting on the national agenda. I think the time will soon come to consider the carfree city as the logical extension of the New Urbanism, and the most suitable urban form for areas that are built to a higher density than the typical New Urbanist development.

Where in the world, if anywhere, do you think the next carfree city will happen? Will it be a new city, a conversion, or an addition?

I think that's very hard to predict. It could happen in the USA, which led the world in adopting cars, and may also lead the world in abandoning them, as the costs of auto-centric life have become apparent to almost everyone. On the other hand, China will have a hard time improving the quality of life for its citizens if it attempts to adopt the auto-centric model of the western democracies. There are also efforts such as Bhaktapur in Nepal, where they are attempting to be rid of cars by 2015. This is an interesting case. It's a very poor small city, with few resources, but the leaders have seen that they can improve the quality of life there by spending scarce resources on things other than highways and parking garages. Curitiba is another interesting example. It's not carfree and doesn't have any stated ambitions to become so, but Jaime Lerner established an innovative bus system there that promptly captured a large share of the market. This was done at a time when there was very little money. Now they are talking about replacing some of the bus routes with trams. Given how good their transport infrastructure is, it wouldn't be so hard for the city to move in the direction of carfreedom.

I think that the situation can be summarized as follows: A carfree city requires far fewer resources to build and operate than an auto-centric city. At the same time, if it is properly implemented, it can provide a much higher quality of life while actually improving both access and mobility. In the era of energy scarcity that almost certainly lies ahead, and in the face of rising concern about ecological problems that attend any attempt to maintain and expand auto-centric urban patterns, the carfree city is the obvious alternative. It's really almost a no-brainer, even if it now seems such a radical idea.

Some Existing Carfree Places Around the World

Venice, Italy
Zermatt, Switzerland
Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
Giethoorn, Netherlands
Mackinac Island, Lake Huron, USA
Gulangyu Island, Xiamen, China
Fez, Morocco

A database of carfree places is being developed. See

Carfree Cities
by J.H. Crawford
Publisher: International Books
ISBN: 90 5727 037 4
Purchase on the web at

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