A powerful Gift – pt. I

Humankind is bestowed with an amazing gift. A gift so powerful that it could cure diseases, epidemics. A power that makes us much stronger and faster. And many of us would become kings, with access to many of the world’s marvels.

But once this power was unleashed it was impossible to control it. There was a price to pay. There is always a price. And this is a very high one. First, the sacrifice of many human lives. Second, it would also make us sick, even though we can live longer. Miserable lives,even living as kings. An artifact that poses a threat to the world as we’ve known for generations.

I love stories. This is what we call, one of the archetypical stories. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and Avengers are stories that tap into our collective wisdom. That is why they attract so many people. They are fictional stories but they actually talk about our everyday problems. They are stories about ourselves and we are connected to them in a visceral level without even realizing.

A more familiar story?

I am going to tell now a different version of the same story.

There were 1.4 million individuals living in London, England in 1815. It grew to well over three million by 1860, and six and a half million by 1900.

Unregulated coal burning darkened the skies in Britain’s industrial cities, and it was plain for all to see. As early as the 1850s, higher coal intensity was associated with higher death rates from respiratory diseases, especially among the old and the very young. An increase of just 1% in coal intensity raised the deaths of infants – Air pollution in Victorian Era

The Thames River was thick with human sewage; and the streets were covered with mud”. By the 1890s, the city’s 300,000 horses produced approximately 1,000 tons of dung a day. On top of that, lots of carcasses were left to decompose on the streets due to the high cost of disposing of them properly. – The Great horse manure crisis of 1894

We need to know that to understand what the automobile represented in 1900. The unsolvable problem vanished. Cars were a miracle! Scientific American, praised the automobile for its economic sustainability and ability to reduce traffic – Wasteless Future. Doctors prescribed regular drives to the countryside to prevent respiratory diseases and to relieve stress. – Divorce your car

The smoke and stench seeping through the house was unbearable. Diseases like cholera, typhus or typhoid were reaching epidemic levels. Living in the city was undesirable. It became a synonym of low quality of life. 

Trains and ultimately cars allowed cities to be built anywhere. And we began to sprawl without worrying about being close to our sources of food, or to nature. Food that was fundamentally a social phenomenon became an anonymous financial transaction.

However, they still needed to make it feasible to use cars. To build a road system for cars is the most expensive and inefficient way to design a city. But it wasn’t the auto industry who pushed it initially. Cyclists started paving the way for cars at least thirty years before drivers. It is important to notice that to be a cyclist at that time meant you were rich and privileged. The motivation to build roads wasn’t equity and inclusion. It was to indulge in their personal pleasures. No wonder, those cyclists became drivers as soon as they could. You can read more about that in a book called Roads were not built for cars.

Between 1918 and the end of the 1920s, there were more than a half a million new motor vehicles on the streets yet there had been no new highway construction within the City, choking the City with traffic. – Car push

Gradually, trains and trolleys were dismantled to give way for cars. The idea that public transit is inefficient is a cultural construct. They were intentionally designed to be that way. 

As early as 1925, cars were responsible for two-thirds of all deaths in cities with population over 25,000. And after the natural pushback to restrict car traffic and speed, a well-engineered public relations campaign succeeded in shifting behaviour and making people think that the street belongs to the cars, not pedestrians.

Agriculture is the mother of cities. They are both bound together since the beginning, thousands of years ago. And until recently, just before the industrial revolution, it was impossible to live in a city and not know where you food comes from. Food always shaped cities. And cars now broke that connection. We were led to believe we don’t need nature at our doorstep anymore, because we now have cars to take us to nature.

A powerful gift series was produced for the Green in the City event organized by the London Environmental Network.

Next blog post we will talk about where this powerful gift took us.

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