"Do not cross the mayor’s red line." Courtesy City of Accra

At CityLab 2015 in London, the mayor of Accra explains how he solved a thorny problem with red paint and some brushes.  

One day, about four months ago, Alfred Vanderpuije told some staffers to meet him at 6 a.m. with brushes and paint. As mayor of Accra, the capital of Ghana, he had a problem on his hands. Traders near the central marketplace in Accra were increasingly encroaching from the sidewalks into the street, making for a chaotic mix of vehicular, pedestrian, and market traffic. So the mayor set out to fix things with buckets of red paint.

“Before and after, just with a red line, it made a difference,” Mayor Vanderpuije said during a discussion at The Atlantic’s CityLab 2015 summit in London. With one broad brush stroke, the mayor delineated where vendors could and couldn’t operate. The very next day, pedestrians and traders were talking about it. Vanderpuije said that the local press reported on the new rule: “Do not cross the mayor’s red line.”

Vanderpuije—who was named the best mayor in Africa in 2015—joined Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner for New York City’s Department of Transportation, and Jan Gehl, the architect and urban planner, to talk about the joys of redesigning city streetscapes. Cities on every continent are embracing the kind street designs and planning that until only recently seemed to be exclusively reserved for Copenhagen. Today, Gehl’s transformative ideas for Copenhagen are being exported everywhere. These efforts are shaping new behaviors, curbing traffic fatalities, and encouraging healthier transit.

As part of her presentation, Sadik-Khan offered a preview of the Global Street Design Guide, a forthcoming book from the Global Designing Cities Initiative. The how-to book explains best practices for transforming neighborhood main streets (like the kind you find in India), grand streets (from South America), shared streets (Europe), and other typologies. It shows concrete ways to make streets more accessible for pedestrians, cyclists, transit (formal or informal), personal vehicles, city services, and street vendors.

(Courtesy Bloomberg Associates)

The book is the product of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, a network of experts from 70 cities across 40 countries. Sadik-Khan provided examples to showcase the scope of this work across the globe (see below). She also explained the scope of the problem that the Global Designing Cities Initiative is working to solve. Traffic crashes account for 1.25 million deaths annually—a public health crisis that can be greatly diminished by better design.

While this work is incomplete, it’s spreading, thanks in part to the fact that the largest cost involved in redesigning streetscapes is political will. Paint may be the lightest, cheapest form of infrastructure in the world.

“Paint the city that you want to see,” said Sadik-Khan.

Above slides courtesy Bloomberg Associates.

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