People First: Impressions from the Canadians’ Visit to Groningen

Weeks before the general capitulation of Germany on 8 May 1945, Canadian forces entered and liberated the eastern and northern parts of the Netherlands from the German forces. One of the liberated cities was Groningen, after the Canadiens defeated the Nazi forces during the Battle of Groningen between April 13 and 16, 1945. The Canadians must have a warm place in Groningen's heart.

Decades later, the Canadians visited Groningen again, now for a much more peaceful visit. I’m Talking about Brent Toderian and Gil Penalosa who participated in Let’s Gro Festival, an urban inspirational festival that took place last weekend (to be fair, Penalosa is actually Colombian, although he lives in Canada for quite a few years). The two urbanists gave inspirational keynotes during the festival, and they were also shown to the city and participated in a couple of seminars. Here are some insights I took from their visit.

Sticky Places and Pedestrian Parking

In a seminar I arranged to participants from nine outstanding European cycling cities, Toderian remarked that he hasn’t seen a lot of pedestrian parkings in the city. Yeah, pedestrians and Parkings in the same phrase. I dare all planners out there to be the first to propose a plan with a café terrace instead of a requested car parking lot with the title: ‘Pedestrian Parking Lot’.

But seriously, Toderian’s contradiction in terms stroke a chord. Being a great cycling city is not enough. Of course having bicycles dominating your city’s streets is better than having them filled up with vehicles, but it still doesn’t guarantee a great experience for pedestrians. All the more, having so many parked bicycles around, Groningen might lose opportunities for public spaces that are “sticky” - places that people want to stay in.

8-80 or 20-60?

Penalosa is the founder of 8 80 cities, a non-profit organization with a simple motto: “build a city that's great for an 8 years old and an 80 years old, and you'll build a city that's great for all”. During one of the seminars he said, and rightly so, that Groningen is an amazing city for people between 20-60, but younger and older might feel a bit intimidated getting around so many bikes.

I couldn’t agree more. Groningen is a cycling heaven. Case in point, one can cycle across the city without encountering a single moving car, being able to cycle well faster than 20km/h without braking the entire way. But how do the more vulnerable in society feel about this kind bicycle infrastructure? It turns out that not so good. When Penalosa raised the question, the local participants suddenly realised that they know a relative or a friend that feels intimidated by the overwhelming amounts of fast cyclists around.

Vulnerable citizens are in many times out of the decision making process. There are plenty of ways to get their opinions, either by organizing neighborhood meetings or just asking them people on the street. Our job as planners is to balance between everybody’s desires, while making sure to hear those who didn’t (or couldn’t) share theirs.

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All in all, the visit reminded me again that people should always come first when planning, and that when focusing on bicycles too much, you might forget pedestrians and those who can’t bike. Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 plan offers a ‘hierarchy of modes’ that is “intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made”. It’s a good idea to always evaluate a plan against this hierarchy.

The hierarchy of modes, adapted from Vancouver's Transportation 2040 plan by Lior Steinberg

I don’t think that Groningen is worse in that aspect than most other western cities, and to be fair Penalosa and Toderian live in Vancouver and Toronto, cities that are in my experience much less pedestrian-friendly than Groningen. However, it’s always good to hear impressions from outsiders, let alone two world-class experts. Groningen, the world’s cycling capital, can learn a lot from their efforts to promote walkability and bikeability in cities around the world.


Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.