Cities serious about cultivating civic pride and building their brand need to recognize how urban design can detract from their efforts. The best ambassadors for a city are its citizens, and so it would make sense that their ability to speak positively about it would be influenced by their experience of the city itself, particularly the built environment.
I’ve come to this conclusion after living in Kitchener. I’ve been here for the past year and a half, and I’m still unsure about how I feel about the city. I can, however, confidently say that if I had better experiences as a cyclist and pedestrian, I would be singing the city’s praises.
When I reflect on what I love about Kitchener, I think about the Kitchener Public Library and their new instrument lending program. KPL is constantly innovating to ensure everyone in the community has access to what they need to thrive. I think of the Kitchener Market, where I find myself on Saturday mornings shopping for vegetables in a sea of people from all walks of life. I appreciate the equalizing force the market plays in a city I fear is gentrifying at a rapid rate. Or, I think of the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery which makes thought provoking art accessible through their free admission program. All of these institutions embody the ethos of the inclusive city I want to be proud of.
Most importantly, I think about the wonderful community of people here who have welcomed me with open arms. A few days into living in Kitchener I tweeted about having moved here and soon after got a reply from (then stranger) Jacob Shelley welcoming me and inviting me out for a coffee.
I feel fortunate that we’ve become good friends since then. This past weekend I was over at his house for one of his family’s regular music nights, where neighbours come together in Midtown Kitchener to jam and enjoy each other’s company. This neighbourhood music party is just one example of how Kitchenerites create connections and community.
But, I find that the city’s strengths, as I see them, are tarnished by my experience as a cyclist and pedestrian. Kitchener is built for the car. As it stands, there is no adequate cycling infrastructure in this city. Almost every day I have a negative interaction with a driver. Last summer, I even had a terrible experience with a racist driver that has stayed with me since. As a pedestrian, I can’t confidently cross a street safely, even if I have the right of way. Recently, a driver accelerated towards me when I didn’t cross fast enough and then swore at me as she drove away. This was on the street I live on (pictured above), which is essentially a 4 lane freeway that cuts through my neighbourhood. No one obeys the posted speed limit of 50 kmh and I’ve yet to see it enforced.
Given these experiences, and the apparent disregard by the City for my safety as a cyclist and pedestrian, it is difficult for me to drum up any civic pride. I thought that perhaps I was alone in this sentiment, so I decided to run a Twitter Poll. It was by no means scientific, but it appears that many others feel similarly.
How can you expect people to speak positively about a place where they regularly feel unsafe?
Kitchener, like many other cities, is trying to attract people. As I mentioned earlier, residents can be great ambassadors for a city. I’ve had a few people ask me about living here, and I told them that while the city has its positive attributes, that the cycling and pedestrian infrastructure doesn’t meet my needs. I moved to Kitchener to do my PhD – not specifically for the city. Whatever city I choose to live in, and (most importantly) stay in, will require good cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. As crazy as that might sound, I just prefer not having near death experiences on regular basis. Another Twitter Poll I ran indicates that others are on the same page.
City branding strategies can do wonders. I’ve seen it firsthand and say this based on my experience as a board member of Edmonton’s branding initiative, which has won international acclaim.
But, marketing efforts that aren’t complemented with changes to the physical landscape of a city are hollow. The adage, “substance over style” comes to mind. Given that Kitchener prides itself as a tech town, I’ll use an appropriate metaphor. A city’s branding and marketing efforts can be seen as its “software”. Problems can arise when its hardware (the built environment) doesn’t keep up with its software. I think Edmonton recognized this, and in the past year, I’ve seen monumental shifts to its built environment. The city isn’t perfect, but its trying. In just three months they rolled out a separated bike lane network in their downtown core. My wording may be crass, but Edmonton chose to put its money where its mouth is.
If Kitchener is intent on staying on brand with being an innovation hub, it would be appropriate to innovate in the realm of active transportation and move past being a car-centric city. Furthermore, Kitchener (and other car-centric cities) must appreciate how the built environment negatively impacts civic pride and consequently their brand.
If cities want citizens to demonstrate civic pride, they need to…well…build cities people can be proud of.