planning

Discovering the G Spot

Riding a bike - it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

Riding a bike – it should be as simple as, riding a bike.

No, I haven’t gone completely mad and started writing editorial pieces that focus on female sexuality. But I do want to speak about a sweet spot, so it’s kind of the same. And it does with the letter G. And hey, the title got you in, didn’t it?

Sure, I’ve written about a similar topic before here, but this time I’m taking a different tact. To not do so would be, well, boring.

Over a year ago, I started my Masters in Urban Planning, with a pretty simple goal – I wanted to design and plan spaces for people so that they could ride a bike. I wanted to eradicate (or at the very least mitigate) the nagging insistence of obesity and, perhaps more alarmingly, childhood obesity. I spent 6 months signing on to workshops, forums, short courses, conferences and took time off of work to speak to everyone I could in the profession of planning to see if it was what I wanted to do. I read the various prospectuses, I pored over numerous websites and I gobbled up their promises of planning utopias. A sample of their assertions as to what a Planning course would entail are below:

RMIT: This program combines studies in urban planning with the social, economic and political environment and creates efficient, interesting, practical, healthy and sustainable places for people to exist.

Melbourne Uni: Urban Planning promotes the establishment of economically viable, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and safe and healthy human settlements. It has never been more timely than now, as we adapt to global changes that impact our cities.

And Deakin Uni: Deakin’s Bachelor of Planning (Honours) is a distinctive course that brings together the disciplines of planning, design, urban studies and society in a single degree program.

I applied. Needless to say, I was accepted. And needless to say I was excited.

My first year has produced good results – HD’s for everything, except Economics (but I was only 2% off a HD so, you know, let’s be gentle). Throughout the year, many conversations were had, many thoughts formed and numerous opinions argued. All so far so good. But…there’s a little irritation nagging away at me. A little annoyance, a little inconvenience that won’t shift. It’s to do with governance. I have done a little searching for the best definition of this and it is, perhaps alarmingly, from good ol’ Wikipedia. It claims: Governance refers to “all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through laws, norms, power or language.”

Largely then, governance is the how rather than the who.

In terms of Planning as a discipline, a student’s head can be filled with the most delightful notions of best practice, wonderful stories of success from afar and quotes from respected journal articles (that have all been judiciously peer reviewed, obviously). But then I want to ask: And then what? Do we go out into this world equipped with enviable evidence of how we should be planning our places but really have no capacity to implement it? If the laws (and norms) that govern the country are the same that govern planning, what capacity is there for change? In short, to encourage a lifestyle that is (at the very least) not beholden to the car? What is the point of this knowledge without good governance and a system that will utilize these learnings? Is it not, in fact, callous to dangle delights in front of a prospective student and say “Look at all the things you will learn” but leave out the bit that says “you will never have a chance to employ them”. Planning is perhaps the cruelest course in the university’s prospectus.

Conferences suffer a similar fate. The minds of the best planners, engineers, designers, health professionals and academics often meet throughout the year either through formal associations such as the Planning Institute of Australia or at conferences such as the Liveable Cities Conference, to be held later this year in Melbourne. Who are these people going to these events? Sure, there’s an element of networking and seeing old faces, and that’s lovely, but in my experience, and during all the conferences and forums that I attended as part of my research before committing to study, not once did anyone remain in the room who actually had the ability to change anything. In other words, the Mayor or otherwise appropriately elected official would ‘open’ the conference, say a few words and then they would leave. All that was left was a bunch of people who would be receiving information about how to do their job better but have no ability to put this knowledge into practice. If I was 15 I would be saying “Hashtag frustrating”, round about now.

Finally, the cost to attend these conferences is prohibitive for most people. If we take the Liveable Cities Conference as an example, it costs $1,055 for the two days to attend. Who else is going to go to that aside from people who are getting paid to go by their place of employment, even though their place of employment is simply feeding into that complicit world of not challenging the governance structures that prohibit change. If liveable cities are for everyone, shouldn’t anyone be able to attend? I’m beginning to feel like it’s some sort of conspiracy and that the prices are such that the average person’s attendance is precluded. If people could attend and see the broken system that is currently plaguing planning decisions in Melbourne, they would undoubtedly demand better. They would at the very least expect the Mayor to stay until the first coffee break had commenced.

But I’ll persist. I will get my Masters. I will maintain my grade average and I hope with it my motivation. I just want people to be able to ride a bike and to live in a city that supports that. Hopefully somewhere I will discover the sweet spot of governance that allows me to do that.

If all this fails, I’ll become the Mayor.

IMG_1673

What everyone should be able to do, safely.

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Doing it with the Danes

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Copenhagen: a city that, you know, gets it.

Facilitate (verb)
From the 1610s, “make easy, render less difficult,” from French faciliter “to render easy,” from stem of Latin facilis “easy” (see facile). Related: Facilitated; facilitates; facilitating. (from online etymology dictionary).

I start this little post with that tiny history on the word of facilitate as it is such a simple word but encapsulates so much about what a city or built environment could (and maybe should) do for its citizens. Depending on how a city is designed, how equitable it is, how healthy, how ‘smart’, how pleasurable, affordable etc. it will enable a citizen to be their best or not. The city, in this sense, facilitates good citizenry.

In Denmark (a place that should be the benchmark of how places should operate, in my opinion), this is evidenced in a myriad of ways, but most notably through policy implementation. Policies on health for example, don’t merely operate in a vacuum as they might in, oh I don’t know… Australia, where they are seen as isolated. They are incorporated into the city itself and the machinations of how that city operates. In doing so, the city becomes a space for policy to manifest, raising otherwise turgid documents from merely aspirational quotes, ideas and stats that no one will ever read.

In a practical sense, an example can be found through looking at the current policy on men’s health in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Survey published in 2009 (which can be seen here), 68% of males over 15 years of age reported doing no exercise or having low exercise levels (supporting facts and figures can be seen here). Obviously, this is sub optimal and the government of the day instigated numerous policies to address such  pressing – and depressing – health concerns. So far, so good.

One of these policies was the Healthy Communities initiative, whereby local Councils and local organisations received funding to implement exercise, nutritional and behaviour change programs in the hope that such stark statistics would change, for the better. Along with Diabetes Australia, the Heart Foundation and others, one such organisation was Cycling Australia (CA) in conjunction with the Amy Gillett Foundation. It was explained that what CA’s role would be on the government website and for clarity, it is worthy of reading it in its entirety:

Cycling Australia (with the Amy Gillett Foundation) – AustCycle – AustCycle aims to equip people with the skills and confidence to cycle regularly through the provision of cycle training. The types of training courses range from beginner programs through to skills for riding in more challenging situations, including coping with traffic and riding safely in groups. AustCycle training courses are designed to teach participants of all ability levels how to ride in on-road and off-road environments and can be targeted for new cyclists or people who have ridden before and wish to increase their activity and bicycle use. Programs can cater for between three to eight students per Teacher depending on the skill, confidence and attitudes of participants.

The program uses a train-the-trainer model to train people to become accredited AustCycle Teachers who then deliver cycling training to the community through their own businesses or for an accredited AustCycle Provider (e.g., cycling school). AustCycle Providers are independent licensees able to run training courses that their Teachers are accredited to deliver. AustCycle Providers are usually small businesses, but can also include community groups, cycling clubs and local councils.

The AustCycle Teacher training course includes elements on nutrition, achieving a healthy weight through exercise and developing programs for individuals and groups to address healthy weight and fitness objectives.

For more information, visit the AustCycle website.

Now this brings me nicely to my point of this post. Whilst such programs may encourage some people to ride a bike more often, it is unlikely that such initiatives will have long lasting positive health implications on a large cohort if the built environment does not encourage (or facilitate) people to ride their bike. It seems to me that health programs and health promotion in general in Australia goes for the quick fix when it comes to cycling. It is far more effective to build separated bike lanes if you genuinely want your health policies to have desired, long term health outcomes, but it is also far more politically contentious. In annual reports it is easier to say ‘We funded all these organisations to come up with ideas as to how to reduce the inactive lifestyle of most males in Australia’, than it is to say ‘ We have put a lot of people offside by building better infrastructure for cycling, and we probably won’t see any evidence of how this will improve health outcomes for at least 3 more election cycles’.

Unless we have political will to genuinely change the paradigm as it currently stands however, we are simply throwing good money after bad. We know what we need to do. Currently, the built form of a city (and largely suburbia, too), does not facilitate riding a bike with ease and a tension therefore exists between policy, practical implementation and long term behaviour change and I would argue that it is this trifecta of ingredients that is needed for a citizen to be healthy. Unless the built form of a city changes to encourage cycling and make it easy, facilitating positive health outcomes for citizens is stymied by the city itself.

This whole post can be reduced to six little words: let’s just do what Denmark does.

 

 

Allowing Planning to be Praised Pupil, not Dejected Dullard

IMG_0400

A recent article in The Guardian beseeches us to make town planning as cool as architecture, for the sake of our cities.

The author, Tom Campbell, makes a compelling argument, pointing to the desperate need for better planning given the current state of affairs. Whilst he focuses on England, the same arguments for the need for this paradigm shift could be applied to many, many countries and certainly here in Melbourne, Australia where barely a day passes without editorial content spilling out of local papers on urban planning and how badly we’re currently tracking.

But this is an interesting point, and brings me to mine. Aside from the fact that everyone seems to have an idea of what Melbourne (or indeed, other cities) should be doing, planners themselves are forbidden from doing what they do best: namely, plan. If the same professional disregard was afforded to medical practitioners, our health would be even more woeful than what our bursting bellies and belts already tell us it is. Similarly, if we neglected the advice from scientists regarding climate change…oh wait, I live in Australia. Bad example. Move on. The point here is that – for the most part – we respect people in positions that we know nothing about, even when we claim we do, and let them get on with their job, safe in the knowledge that they have studied and worked in a field for longer than us and therefore are infinitely better equipped to solve problem X, or at least better placed to discuss it.

Not so with planning. Planning has become the most forlorn child in the career classroom. Always relegated to the back of class, it sits there dressed in forever beige, bruised and bereft, despondent and desperate, eyeing it’s more fashionable friends of design and architecture, vying for teachers attention. But what is so desperate about this pitiful image is that planning could be incredible if it was allowed to be. Brimming with brilliance and bright ideas planning it has been beaten into submission but that does not mean its ideas are any less fantastic, any less valid.

What seems to happen in planning is that people enter the profession and find themselves not only not being brave, but not allowing to be. A friend of mine recently joined a large planning firm where he had to find fault with a perfectly good submission for a medium rise development. I asked him if he had sold out. His embarrassed, awkward smile spoke louder than any words that followed. Sadly, he has become that child at the back of the class.

It’s not up to us, as planners, to make planning ‘cool’ again as the article implores us to. It’s up to politicians and better forms of governance to allow us to do our job. Planning is already cool. Planning has the ability to get you to work on time, or not. It enables you to ride a bike to school, or not. It ensures you have green space near you, or not. It provides security, safety, better amenity. Or not. But what planning has become is a diluted, impoverished version of itself. People, you’re not seeing what its potential actually is.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like in if planners were actually encouraged and allowed to do their job. It would save people from having to tweak the edges and muck about with quick fixes. A recent post on Planetizen entitled ‘How to Crowdfund a Bike Lane’, is an excellent example of this. Heralded as a positive outcome, I can’t help but ask ‘What have we become that we virtually have to hand around the hat and take donations for built infrastructure to make our cities safe and the sort of places we want them to be? Why have we failed so much and ignored solid advice about how to plan place and space?’ I’m all for participatory planning and a keen advocate for it, but planning like this is just, well, sad.

Again, tirelessly, I say: if things were working and everything was awesome and the environment and our physical health was optimal I’d say ‘As you were – keep prohibiting us from proper planning’. Sadly, we’re not in such an enviable position. But we could be if you just let us get on with our job.

Still in doubt? Then ask yourself this: why would planners want to make the world worse? After all, we live here too.

 

Trains of Thought

invite to opening of railway

Well, this is how it used to be.

The above is a – admittedly fuzzy – photo of an invitation to the opening of the first electric railway in England, addressed to the Prince of Wales which I snapped at a recent trip to the excellent Transport Museum in London. So much is demonstrated in this little invitation, from the late 20th Century.

We used to celebrate public transport and its advances, and impacts. Something such as this was not merely a publicity exercise for the press to report on the following day. It was a moment for genuine, national pride. A moment to reflect on the glories of modern technology with a view to making the world better for as many people as possible (albeit within an acknowledged class system – both in English society and on trains). But they were noble, they were brave, they were genuine leaders. And this was before the Planning profession had really been ‘invented’ and a Royal Commission into the plight of the poor was imminent in London, due the stark living conditions of its population. Amidst all of this, they still invested in public transport.

Fast forward 125 years to modern day Melbourne, Australia. The current debate over the building of the East West Link (let’s just call it a huge freeway, because that’s what it is) steadily rages with no sign of abating. It is estimated that it will cost anywhere between 4 and 15 BILLION DOLLARS to build. It’s a tunnel that few want, with most believing that the money could be better spent elsewhere, namely on public transport. Needless to say, I agree.

But where did our pride go in building infrastructure for people rather than profit? Did it really disappear with Thatcher when Neoliberalism gripped Britain and then the world? And if so, why did Australia follow suit so swiftly? Were we really that self conscious that we just had to do anything that came from the UK? Did miners strikes, economic downturns and  a subsequent recession really seem that appealing to us, Down Under dwellers?

I can’t help but wonder about those men (and let’s face it, they were) who instigated the building of England’s first electric railway. They were brave men, proud men, nation building in every sense of the expression. What would they say if they knew that same railway service had been sliced, diced and left for dead by the Government that funded it and handed what was left of its near mortal remains to a private company?

We need that pride again. We need that vision. We need that collective idea of the world we want. We need to cut our ties of ways that have not proven to be a success. Build a road and see it filled in an average of 3 months. Build public transport infrastructure and you have, well, over a century of contented commuters. Is this train of thought really so hard?

Piecemeal planning: impracticality for pedestrians

path1  path2

No matter how much you might want people to walk somewhere, they will walk where they feel right.

There’s a little path that runs from the bottom of a road, near where I work, up the side of a park to the top of a hill. This path, in the 6 years I have worked nearby, has not been completely paved. You can see (if you squint) that the picture on the left does actually have a slab of concrete but it then ends and the pedestrian is left with a treck to the top with bare dirt. At the time of taking these snaps (about, oh, I don’t know, an hour ago), we are at the tail end of summer so things are looking a little less muddy than they will in 6 months’ time. Come July however, that is a pretty nasty path to walk up (or down).

So why, I hear you ask, why do these brave pedestrians make this perilous sojurn, risking mud on their clothing and a nasty spill? Here’s your answer:

bus stop

Low and behold! A bus stop! Who knew?!

In my world – in my ideal, wonderfully bike, pedestrian and public transport friendly world – there would be an accessible (and paved) path leading from where people live (the top of the hill) to where people catch the bus (the bottom of the hill).

You might look at this and ask “Goodness, this is one path, who cares?”, but I think it is a small demonstration of not only piecemeal planning but not looking at how people move, naturally, and designing places for them with this in mind, instead of looking over a plan and thinking ‘Mmm, straight lines look good from up here so we’ll use them at street level’. Well, we’re not birds.

Certainly, there is a road (with a footpath on the side of it) that could be walked up to reach the top of the hill, but that would involve at least another 5 minutes of exercise. What would you choose to do? Walk down the feetmade (as opposed to handmade) path through a park and get another 5 minutes in bed, or walk down the road?

Recognising people’s behaviour and how they move in public space has to be more considered in planning. Otherwise you end up putting in partway paths for pedestrians, with impractical applications.

Seven Year Olds and Seagulls

girl

Cycling along the other day, I caught this delightful little pic (yeah, I know it’s little). It’s of a young girl, maybe 6 or 7 years of age who was just skipping, running and generally being active with the seagulls on a hill. Her parents/guardians were on top of the hill, however they’re out of this frame. It was a beautiful day and I thought to myself: that little girl feels good. She’s in the city and she’s feeling good. She obviously feels safe, and from what I can tell she is doing something that is fun whist being active.

For her, this city is working.

Imagine if that’s what we did: designed cities for seven year olds and seagulls.

Not all Nights Need to be White

Oftentimes, even without a night that is white, Melbourne still gets it right. The City of Melbourne does a simply amazing job in welcoming people, inviting them to stay in the spaces between buildings. After securing my bike, I had wander through the city and this is what I witnessed:pub1

That truly is a bloke just reading a book at one end of a long wall and a bloke at the other end strumming a guitar and then a random few people chatting, staying and just ‘being’ in between these two urbanites. Nice.

pub s2

Meanwhile, further up the same street, a seriously good busker, Jack Man Friday draws a not insignificant crowd as he entertains young and old alike (and yes, you do need a permit to busk in Melbourne and have an audition – basically if a busker is legally busking in Melbourne, the quality is beyond question).

pub3

And then, further still – a couple of folks play chess as onlookers, well, look on.

It may be presumptuous of me to say, but I suspect that these two may never have met were it not for the novelty sized chess game. Connections are made, albeit fleetingly, but that is the role of a city that works well and space that is utilised affectively. It allows for these connections. It facilitates them. It invites them and welcomes them when they arrive.

garden city

People stop and stay to smell and touch as they discover this pop up herb garden outside of the Town Hall (this was actually seen two weeks ago, but it just proves my point that this happens in Melbourne often).

beanbags

And lastly, people lounge outside of the State Library on beanbags provided by the Library (as is the chess). It could be argued that there is nothing really to ‘do’ here, but that is the point. People stay, because people are there. People go where people go because, well, we like people. We like being with them. We don’t want to talk to them (necessarily), but we like being near them and knowing they are there. People are interesting. People watching is legitimate.

I look at how I use the city on a day like this one and know that I will be taking the long route to wherever I need to go just to be in the city for longer.

This is a city that invites me to stay, and I welcome the invitation every time.

Lycra, lace or leather

blac

Anyone who rides a bike knows what sort of rider they are.

Some will be what a friend of mine refers to as ‘la de dar’ bike riders. They are good. Others are Lycra lads and ladettes or MAMIL’s. They are good too. And then there are those like me. Common commuters who don’t really even know a fixie from a mountain bike, a hybrid from a unicycle. OK, I’m exaggerating to prove a point, but hopefully you get my drift: Common commuters just want to get from A to B and use a bike to get there. We were probably doing it before it was cool and will ride no matter what the weather. And we are good too.

My point is that we all want the same thing, essentially: we want to be able to ride safely, whether it be in Lycra, lace or Blundstones.

And yet, and yet…all too often there is a division amongst us. The la de dar riders hate the fixie folk, the fixie folk hate the Lycra lads and ladettes, the Lycra ladettes and lads hate the common commuters and the common commuters hate the BMX bandits. The BMX bandits hate everyone. And that they have to wear a helmet.

What is with this? Why do we need this division? Are we not all road users? Are we not all struggling to get better paths built for cyclists, regardless of the sort of cyclist we are? I would like to think so.

I have a theory about the people who ride aggressively on the road and it comes from riding a bike in city streets for 10 years and looking at how cyclists interact with one another. There is definitely a competitive element amongst us all. Even if you don’t own the expensive bike, you want to prove that your bike is just as good, just as worthy and just as capable as any other (namely the one sitting next to you at the lights). Where there should be camaraderie there is competition. There also seems to be a sense of entitlement with many riders. Not stopping at stop signs, red lights, or pedestrian crossings (even when pedestrians are clearly crossing) all seem to be a ‘right’ for some cyclists, even if the law would deem it otherwise.

My theory, and this is the point of this post, is that some cyclists have this competitive, tough person ‘I’m above the law’ stuff going on because to ride a bike on a road in Melbourne right now, in 2014, is dangerous. Of course you’re going to feel tough and above the law and a little competitive and just a little bit arrogant and maybe a bit too cool for school. What would solve this? Better infrastructure. If people didn’t feel that riding a bike was ‘tough’ then they wouldn’t have to prove themselves as it would be seen as any other mode of transport.

Do people who ride trains feel tough? Do people who ride buses or trams feel tough? No, because it’s an everyday thing with a very small degree of risk as it’s so safe and people from all walks of life do it – it is seen as normal.

Still not convinced? Do you believe that most of Amsterdam feel ‘tough’ and therefore flout the rules when they’re on their bikes? Of course not. It’s a normal, everyday form of transport that 7 year olds do amongst 70 year olds. Make it normal, allow people to feel safe and I believe attitudes amongst cyclists themselves (along with perceptions of them) will change.

 

With all the Intimacy of a Lover

The local Government of Victoria is instigating a new initiative for bike paths along Glenferrie Road, in Hawthorn – an almost daily journey for me. Whilst anything to do with improvements to cycling infrastructure is celebrated in my little head, I find no reason to be popping champagne bottles over this proposal.

In short, the plan is to slice half the on road bike lane in half, the half closest to moving traffic, not parked cars, and paint that half green in an effort to stop cyclists being ‘doored’.

One of the complaints that has come from the proposal is that motorists will think cyclists are only entitled to half a bike lane and so may start to park in the other half.

My issue is that cyclists use common sense (most of the time) because, well, they don’t want to die, and so hug the right hand side of the bike lane with all the intimacy of a lover as it is safer to be riding an inch from a moving tram than half a meter from a parked car. Crazy.

A solution instead might be that we get rid of parked cars altogether on Glenferrie Road or move the cars over so that cyclists are riding right up against the pavement rather than a parked car.

Slicing a bike lane in half, painting it and saying ‘that’ll do’ is not sufficient. If this becomes a spring board for genuine improvements in infrastructure then I would like to see those plans before getting too excited.

The full article is here

As I can’t help myself, I had to comment on The Age’s website where the article was. I’m nothing if not full of opinions…

I ride everywhere and I hug the right of the bike path as it is. I don’t need paint on the road to tell me to do this. Seriously, we need more Copenhagen bike lanes. Make it an inconvenience to drive, improve infrastructure for cyclists and more people will ride. NYC has had a 223% increase in cyclists since they built better infrastructure for peole to feel safe when riding. Seriously, build it and they will come.

Commenter: the_innocent_bikestander