Pictured: Pedestrians and bicyclists enjoying Main Street, Ventura being closed to vehicles. June 20, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.
by Annette Taylor
There are a few groups of people who think the five current downtown blocks that are closed to traffic in Ventura should permanently stay that way. Most have cited obvious economic incentives, like helping small businesses survive the pandemic. While I agree that it is a really good idea, the reasons I have for keeping cars off Main Street are not so obvious.
Recently, I came across a few books from the early 1970s (1) that examine the dangers of building cities with vehicles as the focus instead of organizing them around pedestrians. Their authors predicted that people who lived in “modern” cities would experience loneliness and disease, and have little choice but to escape into a world of fantasy and withdrawal from community.
At least one community has attempted to undo some of the “damage” created when city planners put cars before people. Barcelona, Spain has successfully arranged some neighborhoods into “superblocks” — nine square blocks that include the streets between blocks — and reserved them just for pedestrians. For those communities, the physical benefits include more greenery, less pollution and safer places for children to play. (2)
That’s awesome! But I think Ventura can do better.
I think having a city center that is permanently car-free would provide not only physical benefits to our community but psychological ones as well.
I am a big fan of evolutionary psychology. It operates under the assumption that some of the ways we process information about our surroundings have not changed all that much since we first started learning how to be human. One lesson we can take away from our cave-dwelling ancestors is the value of experiencing things as a group. As a result, they could coordinate their behavior in such a way as to give them a feeling of safety. One researcher refers to this group awareness as “civic imagination,” (3) and I think Ventura County has a good one.
Ventura County is eclectic. In the city of Ventura alone, there is oil refinery, farming, white collar, blue collar, food, retail and arts/entertainment industries that all co-exist. Many ethnic groups are represented downtown, and having a social center where lots of ethnic groups are represented provides a sense of reality.
Because of our ability to use the Internet to cherry pick who we want to hang out with, the chances of getting to know our neighbors are reduced — and our tolerance of people who might think slightly differently than we do is also. Giving people a place to interact face-to-face increases feelings of familiarity, which can ultimately lead to feelings of trust . . . as long as community members continue to be tolerant of “outgroup” members. Given our track history as an eclectic but cooperative county, I am encouraged.
Keeping part of downtown pedestrian friendly would also help fight isolation. If more of us are going to be working from home more often, that’s all the more reason to have a fun, motivating place to mingle face-to-face. It seems that if we don’t have to deal with our neighbors, we won’t, so any motivation to get us out-and-about would help.
Not knowing the people around you has been normalized, but it’s not how our cave-dwelling ancestors lived. We will feel safer if we know a bit more about the others in our community. We psychologically need our neighbors, but we just aren’t aware of it.
I guess I can only hope the businesses that have been benefiting from increased foot traffic will refrain from “posturing” or angling for more power/better exposure. I hope business owners downtown feel grateful for this unexpected opportunity our post-COVID world has thrown at them. I also hope that the citizens of and visitors to our county will continue to appreciate the change, too. Keeping cars off Main Street would give people from different worlds another place to practice getting along. And just as if we were a tribe of cave-dwellers, we are all in this together!
Annette “Penny” Taylor is a homemaker who lives in Ventura. She earned an M.A. in Educational Psychology from California State University, Northridge.
1. Schneider, K. (1971) Autokind vs. Mankind; Packard, V. (1972) A Nation of Strangers; Pawley, M. (1973) The Private Future