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Should a sustainable city be horse-friendly? Yea or neigh?

A plan to end New York's famed carriage rides raises the question for cities, including Seattle and its own horse-drawn heritage.
Streets for all: Horses, carriages, autos and trollies in Pioneer Square, early 1900s.

Streets for all: Horses, carriages, autos and trollies in Pioneer Square, early 1900s. Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

Modern-era Pioneer Square horse-drawn carriage rides are for tourists.

Modern-era Pioneer Square horse-drawn carriage rides are for tourists. Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

In the spring of 1964, I visited New York for the first time. For a boy who grew up in Seattle, it was a city of wonder. I saw my first Broadway musical ("Oliver!"), visited the Empire State Building, then still the tallest building in the world. I went to the Statue of Liberty, the museums, the Cloisters. I hunted for beatniks in Greenwich Village.

Small things stick in memory: I loved the multi-colored taxi cabs — especially the spacious Checkers, the only ones who would take our family of five, legally at least. I was almost run over standing in the middle of the street mesmerized by the steam wafting from manhole covers. It was like being in the midst of a concrete Yellowstone. We visited the Plaza Hotel, home of Eloise, and it was near there that I first saw the horse carriages near Central Park.

I begged my mom to take us for a ride. I remember the sound of the clopping hooves and the slow, graceful speed with which the carriages moved through one of the world's premier parks. I was amazed at the way nature seemed to flourish in the middle of Manhattan. Seeing it flow by from a carriage gave me the sense that this was the way the park was meant to be seen. Certainly in Seattle where the Olmsteds designed our park and boulevard system, there had been a reluctance to let the new fangled automobile dominate where views were designed to unfold at a slower pace.

Flash forward half a century from my visit and we hear that New York's new Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a priority to eliminate the carriages on behalf of the horses. PETA says horse-drawn carriages are an outdated, cruel practice — animals should not be used for "entertainment." PETA has also scolded Seattle for its fish-tossers at the Pike Place Market.

Seattle too has lefty mayors and engages in moral crusades. Back in 2000, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell proposed banning circus animals from the city in the name of cruelty. This city of vegans and animal lovers disagreed, however, and the ban failed. It also became a kind of shorthand for a mayor and city council too often distracted by the over-reach of silly politics. What about helping the homeless who, still, wander the city and our greenbelts from encampment to encampment?

De Blasio has said, "We are going to get rid of horse carriages, period." I fully agree that owners who mistreat their horses ought to feel the lash of the law, but horses have always been a part of our urban landscapes. We no longer rely on them for basic transportation and hauling, but they still carry policemen, for example.

I don't believe a horse pulling a carriage is inherently inhumane. If anything, the animals are in the service of the "creative economy." The work has shifted to something that creates unique urban experiences — a bit of magic you take home in the form of indelible memory. The Central Park carriages are an example of that, and horses haul tourists the world over, even here in Seattle on a smaller scale.

The world's great cities are filled with attractions that serve little real purpose beyond changing the way we see and experience a city — the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco's cable cars, the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle.

Beyond that, zoos, aquariums and, yes, circuses are opportunities to put city dwellers in contact with animals in a positive way. Yes, it's entertainment and conditions and treatment matter. But it's not inherently wrong.

Horses are heritage too — urban heritage. Their backs are the ones on which our cities were built. Horses were dominant in urban transport well into the first decades of the 20th century. Seattle explored ways to accommodate recreational use of horses even after the automobile arrived in 1900. The system of citywide bike paths, it was suggested, could be converted to bridle trails. In what is now the Arboretum, a harness-racing track was built — we know it now as Azalea Way — and a large riding club was envisioned. Visitors could rent horses for trail rides. All of that came to nought as the auto took hold.

A modern, sustainable city needs street activity, vendors and entrepreneurs. It also relies on people who visit and spend for reasons that aren't entirely rational — tourism fuels modern urban economies. A city needs to embrace this history as well as put on a show. A healthy city needs to be for more than just machines. There's humanity, too, in the relation between humans and horses — workhorses included. Surely cities that aspire to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly can also, in a limited way, be horse-and-carriage-friendly. Streets for all, right?

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 3, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Horses have no more place in an urban setting than wood fired stoves do (or coal for that matter).

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 1:51 p.m. Inappropriate

A true urban dweller would pick up the horse pucky to dry and burn for fuel. Totally sustainable and natural. Perhaps the homeless should be given little heaters that will burn pucky.

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

The issue is air quality in the case of heat with inefficient combustion (wood or dung, coal is non-renewable to boot) and the energy costs of transporting animals and supplies in the case of horses. Fine for rural areas with relatively infrequent use, but totally inappropriate in an urban setting, even as an entertainment distraction.

I really don't enjoy smelling wood smoke in the city. There are far too many people around for that (some of whom suffer from asthma).

Posted Fri, Jan 3, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

It's funny that sometimes people who absolutely hate or fear something--as, for example, horses--will find themselves advocating the same policies regarding those loathed entities as the persons who claim to love them. "Ban them, get rid of them, such creatures have no place in cities!" sounds a lot like what a hippophobe would say and think, no?

Posted Fri, Jan 3, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute - You are correct. For many of us, horse drawn carriages are a magical part of New York's history and banishing them from Central Park is a political sop to PETA. Replacing them with electric antique automobiles is another bit of pandering. Two panders right out of the gate and the new Mayor hasn't been in office for even a week.

Posted Fri, Jan 3, 2:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, I don't think zoos or circuses belong in the city. Took me almost 60 years to come to that conclusion, but there it is. Not a vegetarian, but careful where I get my meat from, and nothing PETA does interests me and I don't read whatever it is they have to say. I can think for myself about how we treat animals.

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 9:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Those circus animals have it pretty tough. If you are careful where your meat came from I'm sure no animals were harmed in the process.

kieth

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 7:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Horses? Magical? Really? Too many horses and you get too much dried horseshit, leading to respiratory ailments like tuberculosis.

I'm willing to listen to your "political sop to PETA" argument. Please provide more details.

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute is an intelligent fellow who has lived in cities too long and been "progressively" educated.

Sadly I believe that he (as most today) is relatively blind to what sustainability means, and it is probably partly due to his progressiveness. That may be what makes him more vulnerable to the many appearance measures that are now dominating unsustainability awareness, and not recognizing that they are only ritualistic, feel-good actions rather than real attempts to solve problems. Just as magical incantations in the peak oil scene were soon replaced with such power words as "hydrogen economy" "algal biodiesel" "advanced petroleum recovery technology" and the like, the rituals that will be practiced by the revitalization movements intended to spur growth through incantations of ecological economics where social aspects including cultural, health-related and monetary/financial aspects are supposedly integrated. Then there are the numerous invocations for changing local and individual lifestyles and what is called ethical consumerism. Thus it is sold that ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from re-organizing living conditions (eco-villages, eco-municipalities, sustainable cities), most of which is achieved by reforming economic sectors ( permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture), or through work practices (sustainable architecture), using science to develop new technologies (green technologies, renewable energy) to adjustments in individual lifestyles that conserve natural resources.

Thus he notes riding a heritage-hearkening, horse-drawn carriage by a mid-city park, and thinks that pitifully micro ecosystem is a reflection of sustainable living, and that preserving some "heritage" items of the human jetsam and flotsam is recognizing sustainability. I can only suggest that he take a course on ecosystems and sustainability.

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 1:36 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd like to hear from Veterinarians as to whether the horses in New York City are either mistreated, or in poor working conditions. Loved those Carriage rides, but I do not mind if professional, expert opinion says it's not good for the horses. I'd be just as happy to have young bicyclists pedal me around instead. (With nice butts to watch!)

However, there is just no tragedy happening when a fish monger tosses a fish at the Pike Place Market, except for potentially bruising the firm flesh of that fine eating fish. Pick a pack of peppers and toss them around, will anyone whine? NO. So why whine about tossing a fish? Just because you can doesn't make it make sense.

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