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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More Than Books: Libraries as Catalysts for Healthy Urban Transformation

Over the past few months, I’ve had the honour to serve as Guest Librarian with the Kitchener Public Library. Guest Librarians are invited by KPL to bring new ideas and to act as ambassadors for the library within their communities.

During my tenure, I chose to focus on healthy cities. Specifically, how we as citizens can work towards making our cities places that support wellness. Following this theme, I organized a panel discussion where we heard from experts in the field as well as community members on how we could make Kitchener a healthier and happier place. You can read more about it here. I was especially excited to learn from the community and hear their ideas. In my mind, engaged citizenship and bottom-up urbanism are crucial to creating healthy cities, and I think the library plays the perfect host to this ongoing conversation.

As a physical space, libraries embody what we should aspire towards when we are talking about healthy places. They are inviting public spaces where people from all backgrounds come together in the spirit of learning – perhaps about topics of interest to them, but also, maybe more importantly, learning about each other. In a sense, libraries are the living rooms of our communities. These living rooms are needed now, more than ever, as we are seeing xenophobia and intolerance being stoked all around us. As the bigots continue to try to create divisions amongst us, we are increasingly in need of spaces where we can come together to connect as humans.

“Libraries are the living rooms of our communities”

This connecting quality of the public library is also important in a time when we are witnessing increasing rates of urban isolation. The library is the first I place I visited after moving to Kitchener last year. I was feeling lonely and just wanted to be around people. I don’t know that I am alone in visiting the library for that reason. No surprise then, that KPL’s slogan is “where community connects”. It should be noted that the library is one of the few spaces people can come together to connect without the pressure to purchase something. There’s a particular indignity someone experiences when trying occupy a space that demands they spend their money when don’t have much of it. This was very apparent to me when I practiced as a mental health occupational therapist and tried finding places for my clients (all who lived under the poverty level) to connect with others. The library was a much better option than a shopping mall food court.

Libraries aren’t just warehouses for books. Libraries are constantly evolving to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. For example, KPL provides coding lessons to children and was the first library in Canada to lend out wi-fi hubs. As we move into the age of the smart city, access to the internet will be paramount and we’ll need people who are code literate. Ultimately, through various means, libraries promote equity and level the playing field so that we all have the tools and resources required to participate in civic life. We can’t talk about healthy cities without also talking about equitable and inclusive cities. I’ve often worried that the conversation on urbanism caters to the privileged, while leaving out the voices of the marginalized. The library helps address this inequity through operating under the premise that everyone deserves a seat at the table.

In 1968, Henri Lefebvre, a sociologist and philosopher, wrote a book called “Le Droit à la ville” – which translates to “the right to the city”. In his treatise, Lefebvre states, “the right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city… The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Fifty years later, we are still grappling with this most neglected of human rights. Recently, change makers and city builders from around the world met in Quito at the UN Habitat Conference to discuss the future of cities, and central to the conversation was the “right to the city.”

Through both its physical design as an accessible meeting place and the equitable values upon which it exists, libraries will continue to safeguard and foster this right to the city and will assist us, as Lefebvre puts it, in changing ourselves through changing our cities. As our cities continue to grow at a rapid rate, libraries will serve as think tanks for urban transformation and will play a vital role in our collective effort to make cities healthy, happy and inclusive places.

Photo: Flux at KPL Central Branch

Photo Credit: Joe Martz