An Interview with J.H. Crawford
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 carfree.com, 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
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
Some Existing Carfree Places Around the World
Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
Mackinac Island, Lake Huron, USA
Gulangyu Island, Xiamen, China
A database of carfree places is being developed. See http://www.carfree.com/carfree_places.html
by J.H. Crawford
Publisher: International Books
ISBN: 90 5727 037 4
Purchase on the web at http://www.modfirsts.com/