Photo via Gaceta

Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta attended yesterday the official inauguration of the new Retiro Peatonal, a “pedestrian-friendly” area around Plaza San Martín in downtown Buenos Aires and part of a larger project in the city that aims to create five new areas of pedestrian priority that focus on reconfiguring public space for improved, safer, and revitalized pedestrian traffic, as well as regulating vehicle flow.

This project is part of a larger overall effort by the city to “take back the streets” from cars and other motor vehicles and give them back to pedestrians, as well as to promote sustainability.

Retiro Peatonal, which affects the area inside the borders of Carlos Pellegrini, Avenida Del Libertador, Maipú, and Avenida Santa Fe, is the second of these five pedestrian priority zones to be completed. The first one in Microcentro has already been finished, and there are plans for other zones in Tribunales, the historic district and Once.

To achieve the goals of making the streets safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, the zones include stricter speed limits (20 km/h), leveling of roads (putting the sidewalks and streets on even ground), widening sidewalks, improvements in street lighting, and the installation of bicycle stations, bus stops, and benches. This new, improved area in Retiro included 5,000 square meters of new pedestrianized streets, 109 trees, 150 LED lights, and the renovation of the facades of the Fernández Blanco Museum and Socorro Church.

With cars traveling slower and not whizzing by, people should feel more comfortable and at ease, and the addition of benches and other forms of urban furniture (i.e. tables) should make them actually want to spend time on the streets. Leveling the roads works toward breaking down a sort of invisible barrier that exists between the street and sidewalk. Having the street slightly lower than the sidewalk makes the street seem distinctly like a place for cars. When pedestrians are on the street, it feels like they are trespassing, and that at any moment they may be struck by a car defending its turf. Leveling the two grounds erases this divide because the street does not feel like an entirely different place, and pedestrians are more likely to feel comfortable when crossing the streets, contributing to an overall more enjoyable experience on foot around the city.

Efforts to install more “pedestrian interventions” represent another way the city is attempting to promote safer, vibrant street life for the people of Buenos Aires. A “pedestrian intervention” is an area of the street that is redrawn with a different color paint, indicating that this area is effectively now part of the sidewalk. These interventions are typically installed at “unconventional intersections,” with crossing routes difficult for both cars and pedestrians to interpret. According to Luchemos por la Vida, a local NGO that advocates for safer streets, Argentina has had a significantly higher number of fatalities in traffic accidents per million automobiles between 1993 and 2012 than the United States, Spain, and the Netherlands combined. Evidently, the country could benefit from techniques targeted toward reducing traffic fatalities, such as the interventions mentioned before.

Not only does this improve street safety, but it provides the city with an opportunity to further revitalize street-life by placing benches, tables, and other urban furniture in these designated areas that allow people to enjoy their public space. In the words of Juanjo Mendez, Buenos Aires’ Secretary of Transport, “pedestrian interventions are the result of rethinking the city on a more human scale, with a new look based on how we relate with public space.”

These various efforts by the city also have potential to make Buenos Aires a greener, more sustainable urban environment, by helping Buenos Aires achieve the goals put forth by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Agenda, specifically the one that mandates that cities should, by 2030, “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green areas and public spaces, in particular for women and children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.”

Significant increases in the number of trees in a neighborhood have a definite positive impact on the presence of green space, and the placement of benches and tables on sidewalks makes it easier to enjoy public spaces without having to travel far.