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.