In his science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury describes a city where books are outlawed and must be burned. There are no speed limits on the roads of this city. Instead, drivers must observe a minimum speed: an obligation which discourages them from paying too much attention to what’s around them, except to view the advertising billboards which line the roads. It also prevents them from thinking while they’re driving; the blur of speed, and the fear of accidents, leave no room for other thoughts.
City and speed are closely linked. The urban expansion of the 20th century was closely bound up with the rise of the automobile, which reduced travel times and allowed cities to expand. In the early decades of the 20th century, speed was a synonym of modernity, acceleration a symbol of increased efficiency (of production lines, processes, cycles, exchanges etc.).
And acceleration increasingly marks many aspects of life in the city: in moving around, in forms of consumption (fast fashion, fast food), in the formation of social and affective rapports, right down to contemporary “same day” deliveries.
Speed had its opponents, however: historically, among the anti-modernists, in the 1970s among the opponents of capitalism, and more recently in the environmental movement. For many observers (including French philosopher Paul Virilio, whose Speed and Politics was first published in 1977), speed is an expression of violence – one of the instruments of oppression wielded by the powerful and by blind market forces (with rampant consumerism, everything is fast); for others, speed attests to a will to dominate nature (this is the argument advanced by philosopher Hartmut Rosa in his book Social Acceleration, first published in 2010) and the withdrawal from the self (never “having the time”, never being available).
Several movements have emerged in opposition to the acceleration of our lives and cities, calling instead for a global slowdown. These movements break down into two principal tendencies. The first emerged in the 1980s under the influence of urban theorist Jan Gehl. In this tendency, cities should be planned at a “human scale”, and therefore at a human speed: as stress-free environments where everything is within walking distance. The second movement is more recent and more political. It calls for a rupture with the concept of growth and professes the virtues of the slow city - a city that takes its time, with a return to short cycles and lower consumption. One offshoot of this second movement calls for a break with the whole urban model and a return to country life, even if only on a part-time basis (a position not without its contradictions).
What does today’s slow city look like?
A slow city is not necessarily a sluggish city. Even if the construction of urban expressways is no longer a priority in cities, that doesn’t mean they don’t seek to guarantee the pace and fluidity of movement which make them work (a congested city is no example for anyone).The question, then, is not to slow things down but to produce a city which accommodates different speeds and allows them to co-exist.
A slow city has three intrinsic qualities:
It’s an inclusive city for slower users
A slow city allows different rhythms and paces of life to co-exist without tension. Nobody’s forced to keep up with the fastest: instead, speed is managed and confined to the appropriate channels. This is the big challenge facing today’s cities: the need to create new models of circulations that combine different uses and practices and respects the right to be slow. Recent controversies on the hazards posed by electric scooters are prompted less by the actual speed of these machines than by the threat they pose to the safety of people moving more slowly and in close proximity. The first rule of the slow city is that the slowest users can always negotiate the city without putting themselves in peril. The slow city adapts to slow movement, even if that means questioning the pre-eminence of majority modes of transport.
It’s a city that strikes a balance
The decision by many cities to reduce vehicle speed limits has caused annoyance and consternation among many users. But these frictions express much more than the sterile opposition of factions who refuse to understand each other (although this is undoubtedly the case in many instances). They also reflect differences of purpose, which must be reconciled in a functioning city. While it’s normal for tourists to want to “take their time” when they’re visiting a city, the desire on the part of the city’s commuters to get home as quickly as possible is equally legitimate. The slow city is one which strikes a compromise, and allows intrinsically contradictory patterns of use to co-exist in the same space. The second rule: the slow city is a constantly-evolving consensus.
It’s a city where spare time counts
The people who produce our cities are pressed by the need to “accelerate”: promoters, because “time is money”, elected officials, because slowness “is a mark of incompetence”, and engineers, because speed “is a sign of efficiency”.
Every slow city must take these considerations into account if it’s to become a reality and not a utopia. But it can uphold the virtues of slowness in the organic processes of the city: allowing time to stroll and contemplate, time to stop and talk with others, time for the city itself to take the time to build projects without circumventing natural rhythms. In this regard Hartmut Rosa speaks of a “reconquest of availability”: and what evidently holds for new technologies also holds for our experience of the city. The slow city, then, does not turn its back on progress. It affirms the primacy of the human over the mechanical. Which brings us to the third rule of the slow city: to make spare time count. For spare time is a precious commodity which enriches the city.