A Kenyan island with an unusual freight-transportation system has inspired Amanda Levete to think again about designing for cities without cars

I have just returned from a fabulous holiday on the island of Lamu in Kenya. Apart from the miles of unspoilt beaches, the intricate network of waterways through mangrove swamps and the ancient town of Lamu - an extraordinary blend of African, Arabian, Indian and European cultures barely changed for centuries - what makes it so different from anywhere I have been before is the absence of a transport system.

There is a complete reliance on communication by foot. If you want to make contact with a neighbour, you don’t telephone, you send a billet-doux by foot messenger. If you want to transport goods, you rely on donkeys.

The working donkeys of Lamu are intelligent and very independent. On a donkey’s first working day, its owner will feed it outside his home, load it with goods and walk with the beast to its destination, which may involve multiple drop-offs and complex routes. After the work is done, the owner escorts the donkey back to his home and feeds it again. The donkey then wanders off into the night but will return to its owner’s home at the same time the following morning. After having been fed, the donkey takes the same route, this time without an escort and without instruction, returning later for its evening meal.

When the donkeys are not working they roam the narrow alleys and beaches. For all I know they may be two-timing and have two sets of owners and two sets of meals, but I suspect they are loyal. It is a system so simple, so minimal, so cheap but so clever.

The Swahili architecture of Lamu, most of it dating from the 18th century, has evolved not just because of climate and culture but in response to this form of communication and transport - with alleys so narrow that the houses are designed to have open, semi-public porches with built-in seating so people can move out of the way of donkeys or rest from the heat or chat with friends.

Now I know Lamu is not a city but the fact that it has evolved without cars made me think about pedestrianisation and its impact on the way we design, the way we behave and the way we see the relationship between buildings and outdoor public places.

Imagine planning without all the things that go with cars: without road signs, road markings or pavements. Imagine a city without pollution, traffic lights and the incessant drone of traffic and horns. Imagine not having to look left, right and left again when you cross the road, or not having to hold tight to your children lest they run into a car. And yet pedestrianisation can suck the lifeblood out of a city; it encourages an unnatural number of cafes and restaurants and, for some reason, it seems to attract the more chi-chi, less interesting shops and businesses.

But there is another model - one of partial pedestrianisation - borrowed from the Dutch. Vehicles are still allowed but road signage is removed and the boundary between road and pavement is blurred. The ground surface is replaced with cobbles and slower speed limits are introduced. As a result, drivers feel inhibited, they proceed with caution and car numbers naturally reduce. These are relatively small changes to make, but they have a huge impact on behaviour and they create a sense of place. So Exhibition Road, when the works to part pedestrianise it are finished, will become a place, even a destination, rather than a road that leads from the park to South Kensington.

It makes you realise how much the planning, even of the old European cities, has been based around the motor car. If the Exhibition Road scheme is a success, perhaps we will see the beginning of the dissolution of the grid that has divided up our towns and cities for centuries. And this in turn will invite architects and planners to think differently about the boundaries of buildings in relation to the road and about the very nature of public space. How apt for our times if moves so small could create changes so big.

Yesterday I read an article about electric driverless cars. These intelligent vehicles, which will no doubt become a feature of cities in our lifetime, will be programmed to go from A to B, to drop you off and pick you up. They will in effect be ownerless and shared by many, they will self-navigate without causing accidents and obviate the need for traffic lights and signals. Now, doesn’t that remind you of the Lamu donkeys?