Shame, Blame and the City Building Game: Moving Forward With the Way We Move

I returned from Burning Man a few days ago. Similarly to last year, I’ve come back inspired – and somewhat tired. My week in Black Rock City was admittedly a lot tougher this year. It was oppressively hot, which took a toll on my energy to explore the expansive pop-up city. But, while I return physically tired, I feel emotionally and mentally rejuvenated. As the saying goes, “the playa provides”.

I left for Burning Man emotionally exhausted. I’ve spent the last year and a half living in Kitchener and working on my PhD at the University of Waterloo, while doing my best to advocate for cycling infrastructure in a city that desperately needs safer streets. I arrived in Kitchener with an optimism for the city that slowly eroded to a point of hopelessness. I’ve had friends ask me why I let these issues get to me. It’s quite simple, actually. When your daily bike commute involves near misses with speeding cars and run-ins with the angry people driving them, the stress accumulates. When you, justifiably, see every vehicle on the road as a potential threat to your safety, streets become a minefield of sorts. Their potential as vibrant public spaces disappears.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me before I left for Burning Man was a Twitter discussion (maybe more aptly labeled as a war) sparked by a column in my local newspaper. The TLDR of the article was that cyclists should follow the rules of the road. These sorts of columns are nothing new, and people who cycle (PWC: person who cycles or people who cycle. I’m using this from now on!) have probably encountered some version of it in their own cities. The message is straightforward enough, but, in my mind, was a little out of touch with our current context. I’ve never really seen these “think pieces” as  helpful to making our streets safer. Most PWC know the rules, and the ones who don’t follow them likely won’t be swayed by a newspaper article. What I do see these articles doing is adding fuel to the divisive “cyclist” vs “driver” fire, and maybe even emboldening some to use their cars to be more aggressive towards PWC. This is dangerous in a city like Kitchener, where we have very little cycling infrastructure protecting us. Finger wagging at PWC to follow road rules in a city with no separated bike lanes is like telling someone to stay in their swim lane when they’re drowning in the pool. I just don’t see it as helpful in the midst of what I see as an emergency. We don’t have any floatation devices handy and the lifeguard is nowhere to be seen.

Finger wagging at people who cycle to follow road rules in a city with no separated bike lanes is like telling someone to stay in their swim lane when they’re drowning in the pool. I just don’t see it as helpful in the midst of what I see as an emergency. We don’t have any floatation devices handy and the lifeguard is nowhere to be seen.

The ensuing online debate provoked by this article was what really took it out of me. It turned into a circular argument where facts on cycling infrastructure weren’t acknowledged, nor the complexity of the issue at hand itself. It just became nasty and I felt gross after a certain point of engaging in the back and forth.

This social media conflict connected to a deeper sentiment that I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been involved in the urbanist conversation: How do we best move forward on the way we move in our cities? In other words, what will it take to get quicker action on better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure? I don’t have any answers at the moment.

As some of you might know, I’m big a Twitter user. When I lived in Edmonton, I used Twitter to highlight urban design issues I saw as problematic and bring attention to them. I was told by local politicians and fellow citizens alike that my tweeting was useful. I guess I could have called the municipal hotline to report my concern, but I didn’t see that being as powerful as an open, public discussion on these design flaws. I am aware, though, that embedded in this approach is an element of public shaming. Revealing a city’s flaws on a public platform with the potential for virality can perhaps serve as a motivator for politicians and city officials to respond more urgently than they would to a polite email or a complaint on the city’s mobile app. And so, I’ve spent a lot of my time on Twitter being vocal about urban issues I see affecting quality of life and citizen safety. But, maybe my efforts are futile. I’ve had a few people in Kitchener tell me they think my tweeting is too harsh or that it’s detrimental to the cause. My response has been something along the lines of, “has asking nicely for bike lanes or better crosswalks accomplished anything?”.

At the end of the day, I just want my city to be safer for everyone. To be happier and healthier. And, at this point, I’m not really sure on how we go about this best. To be honest, I find the constant task of highlighting the flaws in my city burdensome and, to some degree, toxic. The negativity gets to me. But, I haven’t seen other viable options that will expedite the process and I don’t think we can afford to wait around. I don’t want a tragic traffic-related death to be the impetus for our politicians to move on something that should have been a priority years ago.

I started this blog post talking about how my trip to Burning Man re-energized me and rid me of my emotional exhaustion. I witnessed 70,000 people come together to build a city out of nothing where people (on foot, bikes, pogo sticks, and art cars) manage to co-exist and get along. The residents of Black Rock City create something amazing with very little and I can’t help but imagine what is possible in our urban centres where we have an abundance of resources and ideas. I think the key is collaboration and an intention to be good to one another. I hear this intention vocalized by politicians, but I need to see it materialize in my built environment. I am hopeful we can find a way to move forward and progress without the need to shame or blame. There will always be a need for being critical. I don’t think being critical is bad. But, there is a difference between being a critic and being a cynic and it would help our cause to be reflective of the distinction between the two. If we want to be heard, we can’t let people dismiss our voices as being “negative” or “cynical” – it just plays into their agenda to keep our cities car-centric.

If you have any ideas on strategies to move the urban needle forward, please let me know by commenting below, tweeting me, or emailing me. We’re all in this together and I truly believe we can do great things if we recognize each other’s humanity. We aren’t cyclists, drivers or pedestrians. We’re just people trying to move around our cities, and hopefully along on the way we can have a few meaningful and positive connections with each other.

 

featured image: people gathered around the Tree of Tenere

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Put Yourself In Our Shoes: Using Empathy to Build Walkable Cities

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how urban design can impact a person’s sense of dignity. The issue has been on my mind regularly since.

I think about it every day, actually. My research involves understanding how people perceive urban environments. A study I wrapped up this semester examined how being in the presence of skyscrapers affects mood and stress. Considering the rate of urbanization and the trend of building upwards as a method of urban densification, I thought it would be prudent to explore this issue in more depth.

And so, I spend my days thinking about how our cities make us feel and how we can use psychological methods to help inform how we build them to support wellness. The deeper I go into this research, the more I realize that urban design transcends being just built structures or concrete roadways. There’s a qualitative, personal aspect of built environments that I think often evades the people who design them.

Marshall McLuhan is famously quoted as saying that the “message is in the medium”. If we were to accept that urban infrastructure is a communicative medium, what is it that we are telling people? Furthermore, are we being empathetic in communicating with them? Are we considering how they feel?

We need the people who design our cities to think long and hard about this. Perhaps they do, but if my surroundings are any indication of empathic design, then they’re failing horribly at implementing it. I’ve been in Kitchener-Waterloo for about a year. I sold my car before I came here and so I’ve spent this past year as a pedestrian, cyclist and transit user. I’ve been trying to walk more, lately, but it’s usually… how should I put it…not the best experience.  I can count on having a negative encounter almost every day. I often feel disregarded, seeing vehicular movement being prioritized at traffic crossings (if anyone gets an advance signal, it should be pedestrians). We have beautiful trails that have no crossing infrastructure when they meet roadways, giving vehicles the right of way while putting trail users in harm’s way as they try to sprint across high traffic roads without being hit. Construction signs regularly obstruct sidewalks with little thought put into a safe detour for pedestrians. We’re bluntly told to “use other sidewalk”. And, at least in those areas there are sidewalks. Not too far from my house, there’s a strip of amenities on a high speed roadway (Victoria Street) that are inaccessible to those without cars. If you can’t afford to drive, it seems your safety and dignity don’t matter. I regularly see people walking on the grass to these amenities as cars speed by. They even have bus stops on this street – I don’t understand what they expect transit users to do when they get off the bus. Occasionally I see people pushing walkers and baby carriages over a muddy lawn that is soon to be covered in snow and ice. And this issue isn’t unique to KW. I saw it all the time in Edmonton when I lived there. I get frustrated by it when I visit my hometown of Saanich, BC.

All of these cities are trying to tout walkability and they haven’t given pedestrians the basic tools to do so. We’re being set up to fail. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Yesterday, I saw that 22 pedestrians were hit by cars in Toronto. IN ONE DAY.

Car culture is injuring and killing Canadians on a regular basis and we do nothing about it. We occasionally get words of condolence, but nothing more. We need to treat this problem with the attention and respect it deserves. We can’t afford more people getting hurt or killed.

Maybe the solution involves having the policy makers and urban designers who build our cities actually try to navigate them as pedestrians. On a regular basis. Perhaps if they walked a mile in our shoes, we’d have the walkable cities they like to talk about and communities that are safe and inclusive for everyone. It’s a matter of life and death. We need action. Now.

UPDATE: Here’s audio from my interview with Eric Drozd on walkability and urban design:

 

Towards an Inclusive Edmonton: How can we go about having a meaningful and productive conversation about racism?

I’ve always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin – save for a few childhood trips to India, where I “blended in”. Even then, I was contemplating my identity as a Canadian Indian kid and I knew that I still had not found my place of belonging.

As a child, I can remember listening to my parents sharing their stories of experiencing racism. My father recalled a time when, soon after landing in Canada from Bangladesh, someone called him a “paki” on the streets of Toronto. Little did the perpetrator of the racist act know (or perhaps he did) that my father was a Bangladeshi whose life was torn apart by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War. As a Hindu Bengali, he and his family experienced atrocious acts of violence and oppression at the hands of the Pakistani army. So imagine his experience when he was called a paki. I sure can’t.

My mother came to Canada as a 12 year old girl to the small town of Revelstoke, BC. I don’t need to go into the details, but I am sure you can imagine how welcoming a small town was to an Indian family in the 70’s. It causes me a lot of distress to know what they went through.

Looking back, I think the story telling was their way of preparing me. Their way of telling me at a young age,  “Robin, the world is not as you think it is. Some people won’t like you because of how you look. Don’t let it break you.”

I can remember doubting their lesson. My naivete was quickly shattered as I had my first contact with racism in elementary school. And that’s when it began. And it’s continued on, in different ways, ever since.

All of my experiences, subversive or actively violent, culminated in a poignant message that communicated: “We don’t like you. You aren’t normal. You don’t belong.”

And so, as I said earlier, I’ve always been acutely aware of the colour of my skin. I often wonder if the way people treat me – good or bad, is connected to my complexion. I’ve learned well that the dominant perceptions of race informs how we see beauty as much as it shapes who we see as violent.

Lately, I’ve found myself in somewhat of a quandary. I believe that it is important to actively engage in conversations about race and privilege, as I think it is the only way we can attempt to unravel (and hopefully at some point dismantle) the complex issue of racism. A boy can dream.

I’ve attempted this conversation primarily through social media, which I am quickly learning is extremely ineffective at having a nuanced and sophisticated discussion on a topic that requires more than a Facebook comment or 140 characters on Twitter.

Most recently, I shared an article on Facebook that was posted on the GigCity website. The article explores why some people have been offended by the recent “Manner’s Movement” initiated by Sonic 102.9. It’s a well intentioned initiative that aims to help make people more polite in Edmonton. Great idea, in my opinion. We could all use a brush up on our manners. However, the intention isn’t the point of contention for those bothered by it. They are bothered by the method in which the “movement” is communicated – a parody rap video with a white cast of “rappers” dressed up in gangster rap outfits. It is unclear as to who they are parodying, but given the timing of the initiative and the recent release of Straight Outta Compton, one could surmise that it is a parody of the NWA. Describing the parody, the writer of the article states “it’s amusing seeing white dudes from Edmonton in 2015 aping black dudes from Compton circa 1986.” I’m perplexed by the choice of words…

The writer asks local musician Brett Miles (who is black) what his thoughts were on the matter, and Brett indicated that it was just shy of black face. I can see Brett’s perspective and understand how he sees it that way.

My biggest issue with the matter was actually how the the article was written in a generally dismissive tone and concluded with a suggestion for those offended to “lighten up”.

That was what really bothered me. It’s what I hear time and time again whenever I share my opinion about race and racism. I’ve been told that there are more important things to worry about. That I’m being “too sensitive”. That not everything is about racism. I find these comments invalidating and bereft of compassion. I am puzzled by the staunch defensiveness I encounter. And I’m not special in receiving this type of feedback. I’ve seen countless others get it too. At times this comes from people I care about, and people I know care about me. It’s become apparent that many people who hold these beliefs just may not have had them challenged – and so it yields a strong response. Or so I sometimes wonder.

I can’t imagine that any caring person would act in these ways or say these types of things if they truly understood the experience of being a person of colour in this country.

My intention was that these types of conversations could incite a curiousity and empathy about the experiences of the people involved in the discussion, but they usually fall apart into a finger pointing match and an awkward e-silence. I find this very disheartening, as I do have hope that we can evolve in our understanding of racism – and oppression as a whole. It is very necessary if we expect to move forward as a society.

But, I don’t see this evolution of understanding happening online and I am at a loss as how to facilitate a real-life conversation on the issue of racism and privilege without it turning into something that only makes things worse.

This is my formal request for assistance: If you would like to help or can think of a way that we can host a meaningful forum and conversation on the subject of racism in Edmonton, please let me know. I think the time has come that we expose these types if issues and develop collaborative approaches to addressing them.

Thanks,

Robin

p.s If you’re interested, you can share suggestions or your experiences related to this post on Twitter, using the hashtag #yegracism.

Please Talk. We Are Listening

It’s Bell Let’s Talk Day tomorrow. Across the country, people will be tweeting #BellLetsTalk in support of mental health. Each tweet raises 5 cents towards funding for mental health research and program development. To date, they have committed over 66 million dollars.

Beyond fundraising, the initiative has done great work in helping challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. Through encouraging people to talk about their mental illness, they are helping to work towards a society where it’s “normal” to talk about mental health issues.

Most people probably don’t think twice about telling their co-worker they have a headache. You can be sure that most people DO have a difficult time sharing they experience a mental health issue. Understandably, people are scared of sharing their experiences with mental health. Stigma acts as a barrier to what those people need the most – human connection and a support network.

The Bell Let’s Talk initiative comes at a good time. This upcoming weekend, Edmonton will have the opportunity to listen to stories and experiences of LGBTQ youth in relation to the importance of gay/straight alliances. As you’re aware, the issue of GSAs has been in the media lately. This past fall, Laurie Blakeman proposed Bill 202. If Bill 202 was passed, it would require school boards to allow gay-straight alliances if requested by students. Bill 202 was tabled, and Bill 10 was proposed by the PC party. Bill 10 essentially would require a student to engage in “legal recourse” in the event that their school board denied a request for a GSA. This would undeniably tie up youth in a red-tape ridden legal struggle. It also sends a strong message that the youth voice does not matter.

Why are GSAs relevant to the #BellLetsTalk conversation?

Because LGBTQ youth are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing verbal and physical violence at the hands of their own classmates.

Because LGBTQ youth experience higher rates of mental health issues.

Because LGBTQ youth are 3 times more likely attempt suicide.

Because GSAs have been proven to help counteract these sad realities of LGBTQ youth.

GSAs have been shown to help LGBTQ youth feel safer, be less likely to be bullied by fellow students, have more supportive adults in their lives, and indicate that their teachers treat them with more respect. You can read more about their benefits here

GSAs provide a safe environment for all students to talk. To share their experiences. To receive support from one another. To work towards creating a school environment that is conducive to good mental health for everyone.

If you care about the #BellLetsTalk conversation, you care about the #GSAyeg conversation.

Just today, Edmonton City Council voted unanimously to support the efforts of the Edmonton City Youth Council to share their concerns with Bill 10.  We need to stand behind them and demonstrate loud and clear that Edmonton is a compassionate city that supports human rights and values inclusion.

If you can, please try to attend the event this Saturday January 31 at 3 pm at the Winspear Centre. The event is titled “We Are Listening – Sparking Public Conversation on Gay/Straight Alliance”.

You can sign up to attend here.

You can also tune in to the live stream of the event here

If you can’t attend, you can help by sharing the event with your networks. Tweet your messages of support or thoughts about GSAs using the #GSAyeg hashtag.

You can also help by letting me know if you know any youth who would like to share their experiences at the event.

Thanks,

Robin

“I’m no longer accepting things I cannot change. I’m changing things I cannot accept.”

– Angela Davis.

Pop-up Bike Lanes, Poverty, and Progress

I was planning on posting to my blog on a monthly basis, but before I knew it the summer flew by. Between attending weddings, prepping for teaching the fall semester at MacEwan, and working on a few Make Something Edmonton projects I’ve been involved with, it’s proven to be a little difficult to sit down and write. However, one project that I was recently involved with has compelled me to take a moment and try to make sense of some of the thoughts that have been buzzing around in my head.

Over the past month, I worked together with a group of dedicated Edmontonians to put on a pop-up bike lane rally that took place on September 20th. Earlier this summer, I saw a call to join a working group that focused on the 102 ave bike lane. The group, headed by the amazing former city councilor and community activist Michael Phair, was concerned that there was a possibility the city would not fund the proposed 102 ave bike lane. And so we brainstormed ideas that could generate public awareness on the issue. On August 13th we decided to look into the possibility of staging a pop up bike lane rally. Barely a month later we were able to bring that idea to fruition. If anyone is looking for a living example of the Make Something Edmonton spirit, you can look to this event.  The support we received from the public was amazing. People offered to help with the event in many capacities – without their help we wouldn’t have been able to pull off the pop up bike lane, which spanned 10 city blocks. My original thought was that we’d set up a bike lane that covered a block, maybe two.  Michael suggested we go big, that we would set up a bike lane on 102 ave that went from 108 st to 118 st. I originally didn’t believe we could make it happen. Most pop up bike lanes that I’ve read about only span a few blocks. But we managed to pull it off. And that’s Edmonton for you – it shows up, helps you carry out your ideas, and exceeds your wildest expectations.

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The intention of the pop up bike lane was to get people together and show the City that we are serious about these bike lanes. To communicate that we want them prioritized in the Capital Budget. We have a small window to act. The Capital Budget will be approved in December 2014 and we need city council to budget for the 102 ave bike lane. It was announced by the City on September 19th that 102 ave was the preferred route – now we just need to pay for it. In the next 5 years, downtown Edmonton will be transformed by new developments of all kinds. The downtown core will attract more people, and bike lanes (in concert with public transit) will need to be part of the strategy in getting those people around our growing city. I know that Edmonton has aspirations in being a “globally competitive city” – I don’t see it being one without viable and smart cycling infrastructure.

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But bike lanes are more than just segregated pieces of concrete or lines painted on a road.

The social, economic and health benefits of bike lanes are numerous. You can read about them here.

One aspect of cycling that I’ve come to appreciate is that it is an accessible and affordable method of transportation for Edmontonians living in poverty. Based on Alberta’s minimum wage of $10.20/hour, annual income would be $21,216 (before taxes). The other day I read an article that stated the average annual cost of owning and operating a compact vehicle is approximately $9500/year . Factor in the average cost of groceries at $5400 a year .  And then there’s rent. Based on these stats from October 2013, the annual cost to rent a two bedroom apartment in Edmonton is $13, 692.  At this point if you do the math, you’ll see that the average person living on minimum wage is barely able to afford their basic needs, let alone own a car. Owning a car could take up to half of their annual income.  And this is assuming they are employed. There are many more people living in much more dire situations. Current stats indicate that 100,810 Edmontonians live in poverty – that’s roughly 12% of our city living in circumstances where it may not be feasible to own and maintain a car.

It is evident that we need more affordable options for transportation. Mayor Don Iveson has done some amazing work working to obtain the funding needed to expand our LRT system. But it doesn’t end there. Public transit is just one facet of active transportation.

We need safe and accessible bike routes throughout our city. Amongst other benefits, establishing bike lanes will demonstrate that we recognize the needs of those who can’t afford cars. For far too long, the system has catered to a certain subset of our population, often those who are the most privileged. We need to shift that type of thinking, and establishing smart and safe bike infrastructure is part of that shift.  Bike lanes are crucial to Edmonton being an inclusive and healthy city.

Last night I had my first meeting with the Community Well Being Working Group, which is working to support the mandate of the Mayor’s Task Force to Eliminate Poverty in Edmonton. I am honored to be involved in helping co-chair that working group, and proud to live in a city where our Mayor has prioritized poverty elimination as one of the foremost areas of action.

When I reflect on how community well being is tied to poverty elimination, I see the establishment of safe cycling infrastructure to be an undeniable part of the solution. I don’t see bike lanes as the sole means of eradicating poverty, but a supportive element that would contribute to that mission. Cycling promotes health, is affordable, and contributes positively to community.

I’ve blathered on a bit, as this topic is one that I am passionate about.

This post was my longwinded way of saying that I encourage urge you to write your city councilors in support of establishing the 102 ave bike lanes in the 2015 Capital Budget .

Thanks for your time,

Robin