First we had “slow food”, “slow parenting”, “slow fashion” and “slow gardening”. Now there’s a “slow cities” movement emerging, where people take slower modes of transport to reduce damage on public health and the environment.

The view that “faster is always better” is deeply entrenched in society, such as in travel, communications, manufacturing and domestic chores.

However, city transport systems based on the goal of getting to destinations faster have had a damaging and costly legacy, including road deaths, pollution, physical inactivity, noise, community severance and the health impacts of the climate crisis.

As devastating as COVID-19 has been, its health and environmental impacts are easily surpassed by those that stem from another, less frequently recognised pandemic – what Carl Honoré called the “Hurry Virus”. We argue that an effective yet largely overlooked strategy to combat many of the global challenges facing humanity involves simply “slowing down”.

Increasing numbers of people appreciate the benefits of “slowing” in daily life. Numerous slow movements have emerged in recent decades, including “slow food”, “slow parenting”, “slow fashion” and “slow gardening”.

Most recently, lockdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic have allowed millions of people around the world to experience elements of what a “slow city” has to offer: safer and quieter streets, space for people walking and cycling, children and families playing in local streets and meeting neighbours, cleaner air and the return of birdlife.

Now that people have seen the transformation with their own eyes, heard it with their own ears and breathed it with their own lungs, they can appreciate personally what they have been losing, bit-by-bit, from a lifetime’s pursuit of speed in the city.

No longer can “slow cities” be regarded as some far-fetched theory of what could happen in a future utopia.

In our new book – Slow Cities: Conquering our speed addiction for health and sustainabilitywe focus on the slowing of city transport, which promotes human health by reducing road danger and air pollution, and increasing physical activity levels, social connection and access to green space.

Shifting to the slow modes, particularly walking and cycling, also boosts environmental health through reducing sprawl, heat island effects, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Benefits for economic health in slower cities are also significant, for households (lower transport and medical costs), businesses (stimulating the knowledge economy), city administrations (reduced municipal costs and greater competitiveness), and future generations (reduced financial burdens in decarbonising transport).

How it’s done

Achieving “slow cities” involves reducing the speed of motorised traffic and rearranging land uses to shorten trips. Creative and rapid change can be facilitated using tactical urbanism, such as pop-up bike lanes and painted intersections to calm traffic. However, lasting change requires reshaping the behaviours, values and cultures of both urban residents and policy makers, creating a paradigm shift in the way we think about speed and slowness in cities and reversing a process that began 100 years ago.

COVID-19 is both a stimulus and a justification for this shift. The difficulty is that although disparate interventions to create more space for walking and cycling are to be welcomed, without an organising principle, such opportunism is vulnerable to push-back from the immense power of the motoring lobby.

Many cities have been unable to resist pressure to “return to normal” as fast as possible, once again prioritising speed over health, liveability and sustainability. A typical progression is that lockdowns lead to lower traffic levels and fewer new COVID-19 cases. When case numbers fall, the city once again speeds up, and another COVID wave emerges.

In Slow Cities we use a health lens to focus on the benefits of a simultaneous application of the twin strategies of slowing the speed of existing vehicle traffic, and changing the modal split towards the “slower” modes. This achieves synergistic benefits, because it is only possible to significantly increase the use of “slower” modes when motorised traffic is also slowed.

However, it is important not to conflate two connected – but separate – ideas. Challenging car-centric planning is a necessary process – but this is insufficient on its own.

In addition, reducing the speed of motorised traffic in the city is essential to achieve “healthier” cities in all senses of the word, and this requires far-reaching changes in the way we organise our cities, our transport and our lives. It is time for us to embrace a fundamental truth: more speed is not the solution in our cities, it is the problem. 

A hard sell, depending on the words used

It might seem that this altered perception would be a hard sell. In a society that values speed, “slow” invites pejorative synonyms such as indolent and slothful.

But “slow” can also be used to mean calm and unhurried. Slowness in this sense is associated with a better quality of life for communities living more sustainable lives.

The problem is not just that we have been brainwashed with the idea that speed is good, but we are constantly told that we need ever-increasing doses of mobility (that is, how far we can go in a given amount of time), when what we really want is more accessibility (that is, how much we can get to in that time).

In the high accessibility/low mobility slow city, responses to the twin viruses of COVID-19 and Hurry reinforce each other. For example, cities of 20-minute neighbourhoods, where people can meet most of their daily needs within an 800 metre (10 minute) walk from home, including access to safe cycling and local transport options, would undoubtedly reap the health, environmental and economic benefits of slowness.

Moreover, constellations of such relatively self-sufficient and independent precincts would simplify dealing with a local COVID-19 flare-up, as precincts could be temporarily closed and isolated from others, while allowing them to function.

In other words, networks of such neighbourhoods across the city would not only encourage local, healthy and sustainable living, but also build lasting resilience to future contagions.

To help achieve shifts in thinking and practice throughout society, we offer a statement of principles and a declaration of intent in the form of a “Manifesto for 21st Century Slow Cities”.

Implementing this manifesto, using the practical actions discussed in our book, requires visionary and courageous leadership. Leaders who challenge the culture of speed will be rewarded with cities that are healthier, happier, safer, less unequal, more sustainable and more prosperous. Slow cities will be the most successful cities of the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what we can do when we make health, rather than speed, a priority. Just as belief in the (illusory) benefits of speed quickly became an accepted feature of newly motorising cities in the 1920s, COVID-19 has shown that a new reality of slowness is achievable.

It is imperative that post-pandemic, we seize the chance for revolutionary change in the way that we plan, design and operate our cities. The key is for society to grasp that the speed-induced climate and ecological emergencies are as serious and immediate a threat to life as is COVID-19.

It may be no exaggeration to say that if the city itself is to survive, all future cities must be “slow cities”.

Dr Rodney Tolley is Conference Director, Walk21 and Honorary Research Fellow, Staffordshire University. Dr Paul Tranter is a Honorary Associate Professor at the School of Science, UNSW Canberra, Australia.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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