Build A City I Can Be Proud Of: How Urban Design Impacts Civic Pride

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.

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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.

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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.screenshot_2017-08-01-22-06-21.png

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.

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Prescription: Bike Lanes

Some context: I am writing this blog post after spending three weeks travelling around Europe visiting numerous cities, including the urbanist mecca of Copenhagen. I had the privilege of experiencing the delight of biking the complete streets of that glorious city. So, I’ve returned to Canada feeling both inspired by what I saw there AND irritated by what I don’t see here. The reverse culture shock I am currently experiencing mostly involves getting acclimatized to the brutal (and brutish) car culture that is pervasive here.

My Eurotrip kicked off in Moscow. I was invited to speak at their International Cycling Congress where I joined city builders from around the world to discuss cycling infrastructure and culture. There is a rapidly growing cycling culture in Russia and this conference was a way to bring changemakers from across the country together to equip them with ideas they could bring back to their cities. I’ll save my observations on my time in Russia for another blog post, but for now I’ll say it was a really positive and eye-opening experience.

In addition to giving a talk on how to promote cycling in winter cities, I also moderated a panel discussion on Vision Zero. For those who don’t know, Vision Zero is an international initiative aimed at reducing traffic related injuries and fatalities. In my opening remarks for the panel discussion, I made what, at the time, I thought was a bold statement: that Vision Zero is truly an issue of public health and that urban planners and policy makers should see themselves as part of the urban health care team. I made this same claim at talks I gave this past winter at the Winter Cities Shakeup and the Winter Cycling Congress. As someone who was formally a healthcare professional, I feel it is imperative that I take every opportunity to communicate to the people who build our cities that they play a vital role in the health of the general public. When working as a community based occupational therapist, I saw firsthand how urban design impacted both the physical and mental health of the people I supported. This realization of the health impacts of urban design is what drove me to quit my job to start my PhD where I am currently examining these issues in more depth.

In retrospect, I recognize my claims weren’t bold at all. They were just common sense. We know that cycling infrastructure reduces injuries and fatalities caused by drivers. Furthermore, active transportation has recently been shown to reduce illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.

So, what’s the hold up? Why are we stalling on getting quality cycling infrastructure in cities across Canada? The evidence can’t be any clearer, yet cities are dragging their heels on moving forward with these live saving decisions. Could you imagine our state of affairs if the same thinking was applied to adopting medical interventions that were proven to save lives? If we ignored expert opinion and engaged in long and drawn out consultations on decisions that affected the health of the public? As it stands, cities are disregarding the evidence, pandering to the car-driving majority and listening intently to people who vehemently oppose bike lanes. It’s maddening.

I thought about this a lot during my trip and I came to the following conclusion: There is little difference between the anti-bikelane faction and the anti-vaxxers out there.

Ok. THAT might be a bold statement, But, think about it. Both vaccines and bike lanes save lives: vaccines protecting us from viruses, bike lanes protecting us from drivers. Obviously the mechanisms are different, but I hope you can see the parallels I’m trying to draw here. We see anti-vaxxers and their opinions as absurd – there’s no reason we shouldn’t see anti-bikelaners and their rhetoric as equally ludicrous.

Given the research that exists on how cycling infrastructure reduces injuries and fatalities AND promotes health, it’s just stupid that we are so far behind. The science behind cycling infrastructure isn’t nearly as complicated as the science behind vaccines, but it would seem so given how slow we are to move on building out our bike lane networks.

Thinking of cycling infrastructure as a medical intervention may be helpful to planners and policy makers in making the decisions that often get derailed by the anti-bikelaner complainers out there. I believe in consultation, but I also believe that sometimes the experts know best – and we’ve heard loud and clear from the experts that bike lanes save lives and promote health. In accordance with this, perhaps it’s time that our cities consider a prescription for bike lanes to inoculate us from the perils of car culture.

Canada 150: Shifting From Celebration to Reflection

I can still remember the moment I got down and kissed Canadian soil.

It was tarmac, actually. I’d been travelling for 45 hours from northern Russia to my home of Victoria, BC. I spent that summer with my best friend (both of us having just graduated with our bachelor’s degrees) running a Canadian International Development Agency project in Siberia that promoted inclusion for youth with disabilities. My time living in, what to me, was a foreign culture, gave me perspective on what I thought being Canadian was all about. The funding for the project was actually motivated by CIDA’s desire to foster relationships between Canada and Russia. I was there, in some capacity, to represent Canada and demonstrate “Canadianness”, while collaborating with Russian agencies on developing inclusion programs. While the development work was interesting, the most profound aspect of my trip was the relationships I developed with the families we worked with. Although I could barely speak Russian, I experienced deep connection with them. I can recall befriending one family who invited us to their dacha (cottage). We spent the weekends connecting through hiking the Russian taiga and sweating in their makeshift banya. That summer changed my life. But, it was also tough. It was the first time I really ventured away from home, on my own.

So, as I exited that plane at Victoria International Airport and smelled the salty ocean air, I was overcome with emotion and fell to the tarmac and kissed it. Ugh, even writing that was hard. It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?

In retrospect, I recognize that it was more likely that home represented comfort to me, after spending three months in relative discomfort. But, at the time, I thought my sentiment was purely driven by pride for my country. And, in some parts it was. But, I now realize that my understanding of my Canadian identity was not particularly nuanced. I was desperately trying to grasp on to something. My relationship with my Canadian identity has always been complicated. I’m a brown-skinned “first generation Canadian” of Indian and Bangladeshi descent. Growing up, I was regularly reminded by society that I was not as Canadian as my white peers. I can also recall going to India as a kid, looking for some form of acceptance in a place where everyone else looked like me, but still feeling like an outsider. And so, there was a tangible sense of displacement I carried. I don’t know that my experience is unique. I’m sure many people could relate.

My trip to Russia was about 9 years ago. Since then, my understanding of my identity has shifted. I’ve learned more about myself. I’ve also learned more about my country and its history. Three years ago, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton. Prior to attending, I was somewhat aware of our history, but I don’t know that I had truly connected with it the way I did when I witnessed the stories shared by survivors of Canadian residential schools. It shook me to my core and since then I’ve acquainted myself with the TRC report, have tried to read more Indigenous writings and to be an ally in whatever capacity I can be to First Nations peoples in Canada.

Despite being born in this country, I am a settler. I’ve done much thinking about how my parents ended up in Canada, largely influenced by toxic remnants of colonialism in India and Bangladesh. But, I am still a settler. And so, as part of my settler Canadian identity, I think it is imperative that I learn about our history, listen to the stories of First Nations peoples and do what I can to help amplify their voices.

The celebrations are starting for Canada’s 150th anniversary. In my mind, Canada 150 should focus mostly on educating Canadians about the history of cultural genocide carried out by our government. We must recognize that in celebrating our Canadian pride, that there is also much to be ashamed of. In promoting reconciliation, I also think Canada 150 plays a role in teaching Canadians about about the rich and diverse culture of First Nations peoples. There are over 600 communities in Canada with their own traditions and culture. There’s obviously much more that can be done, and I am certainly not the expert here, but these are just a few of my thoughts.

I love my country. And that is exactly why I feel it is so necessary to concentrate Canada 150’s efforts on reconciliation. My Canadian identity is one that celebrates our freedoms and diversity but also, more importantly, recognizes that these privileges are possible as a result of cultural genocide and ongoing oppression. To celebrate Canada without acknowledging its true history would be a travesty. I suggest we shift the focus of Canada 150 from celebration to reflection. In reflecting on what it means be a Canadian, we should also reflect on what it took to make Canada what it is.

 

Indigenous leaders and scholars I’ve learned from (please send recommendations my way to post here):

IndigenousXca: Twitter

Zoe Todd: Website  Twitter

âpihtawikosisân: Website Twitter 

Anna Marie Sewell: Website Twitter

Robert Jago: Twitter

Kim Tallbear: Website Twitter

Aaron Paquette: Website Twitter

Read the TRC report here.

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:

 

On Multiculturalism in Canada: It’s Time To Practice What We Preach

So, yesterday was pretty much a write off for me, as I suspect it was for many. Our neighbours to the south voted in a fascist for president, and the reality of what that truly meant was quickly setting in. I reflected about what this victory meant for women, people of colour, people with disabilities, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who has a vision for a society that is compassionate, just and inclusive. I thought a lot about my little brown skinned cousins. To know they woke up yesterday in a country that was perhaps now more dangerous to them made me distraught. I worried. I cried. I got angry.

I had a fleeting moment of reprieve when I thought to myself, “They can always move back to Canada. It’s not as bad here”. But then I really thought about it. I realized we are doing ourselves a great disservice by assuming Canada is immune to what has happened in the US. We have our own issues of racism and hate here. We’re all too ready to proclaim that we are a melting pot country and that we all get along smoothly here, as if it’s a badge to wear. As a person of colour, I can tell you that my reality differs. The statistics would also indicate that Canada has a growing problem of intolerance. A recent poll shows roughly 70% of Canadians feel that minorities should try harder to fit in and rid themselves of their languages and traditions, which to me flies directly in the face of the multiculturalism we like to celebrate in Canada.

If we look at exit polling from the election, the racial divide is pretty clear. White America put Donald Trump into office, completely disregarding the safety and needs of their fellow Americans of colour. Some people would like to say that it was the poor, forgotten and disenfranchised people that were moved to vote for Trump, but the people that voted him in came from all classes and demographics. Trump capitalized on the huge problem of racism that exists in the US.

And this what worries me. There are many people in Canada that would like to see something similar happen here. In the not so distant past, the openly Islamophobic Harper administration used race baiting to polarize voters. Don’t forget about the Barbaric Cultural Practices hotline. That wasn’t that long ago. Most recently, Conservative MP Kellie Leitch celebrated Trump’s victory and said that it was “an exciting message that needed to be delivered in Canada as well”. We have a member of parliament celebrating Trump’s tactics. Let that sink in.

What happened on Tuesday scared the hell out of me. Knowing that something similar can happen here should scare the hell out of you too – that is, if you love your country like you think you do. We can’t smugly continue on assuming that racism isn’t a problem here. We need to get on top of this. We need to nip it in the bud. If we don’t, well, you know what can happen.

We need to stop talking about multiculturalism and start practicing it. Furthermore, and most importantly, we need to engage the very people that just might turn their back on us. We need to understand those who hold bigoted views. We have to figure them out and learn how to connect with them. We can’t simply just yell at them and tell them to stop being racist. It’s going to take thought and nuance and it will undoubtedly be an arduous task. But, I do think it is possible.

Frankly, I’m not sure where to start. But, we desperately need to do something and we need to do it now. I love Canada and I am legitimately concerned about what will happen to it if we don’t start to acknowledge the problems we have here at home. We’re all in this together. Let’s get to work.

OT and HNPP: Some Thoughts on the Value of Occupational Therapy

It’s occupational therapy month and I’ve been trying to figure out what I should write my annual OT blog post about. I got the idea for the post this morning on my bus ride home from the grocery store. It came to me as I contemplated punting a cantaloupe that escaped a grocery bag while I tried exiting the bus with my hands full. It turns out what I thought would be a brief visit to the store for a few items quickly became somewhat of a survivalist food storage shopping expedition.

Note to self: stop going grocery shopping when you’re hungry. (why did I think I needed three bags of craisins?)

So there I am, cantaloupeless, with eight bags of groceries in my hands and a full length mirror under my armpit (don’t ask), walking home from the bus stop. My fingers are becoming increasingly numb, anxiety is setting in, and the self-critical thoughts begin. “This was a stupid idea. I should have just taken a cab home.” My back starts seizing up and I can feel the top of my hand lose sensation. I think to myself, “How bad is the numbness going to be and how long will the weakness last? I really hope this isn’t permanent.”

I have a rare genetic neuromuscular disorder called Hereditary Neuropathy with a Liability for Pressure Palsies (HNPP). Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it – most medical professionals barely know what it is. Only around 2-5 in 100,000 people are affected by it. It is a disorder of the peripheral nervous system that involves numbness, loss of muscle function, and pain in the limbs. The symptoms are caused by nerve compressions and can last a few days, months, or they can be permanent. Given its rarity, it’s a poorly understood illness.

It’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life, but I only got diagnosed a few years ago after having some genetic tests done. The first significant episode that I can recall was when I was a kid and had broken my leg. Being a lazy adolescent, I would often just slouch and rest on my crutches. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this pressure under my armpit damaged my nerves significantly. I remember realizing something was wrong when, one morning at breakfast, I reached to grab a cup of orange juice. I couldn’t muster the strength to grip the cup, let alone pick it up, and the cup smashed on the floor. It was pretty alarming. I didn’t understand what was happening. I visited my family doctor who told me that I just pinched a nerve. That pinched nerve and the associated muscle weakness and numbness lasted about 9 months. During those 9 months it was hard for me to get basic things done. Over the course of my teens I visited various neurologists and sat through many painful nerve conduction tests, and none of the doctors could really explain what was happening.

When I finally saw the geneticist in my late twenties and got the diagnosis, it was weirdly relieving. I found it quite validating after years of thinking what I was experiencing wasn’t real. But, it was scary too. The reality that I had an irreversible genetic mutation made me realize that the consequences were also very real. I live day to day knowing that there’s a chance that my next palsy might be permanent – and so, it is a constant and delicate act of balancing risk aversion and just living my life as carefree as I can. My genetic counsellor advised me that where I could, that I should take precautions. That I should avoid doing things that would aggravate my nerves. He told me one story about how another patient of his (who at the time of his trip didn’t know he had HNPP) went backpacking with a heavy pack which extremely compressed his nerves and essentially lost all function in his hands and arms permanently. Before my visit with the geneticist I had started exploring the possibility of hiking the West Coast Trail that summer. Realizing that I really enjoyed using my hands and arms and that I probably didn’t have the resources to hire a sherpa to carry my pack, I quickly cancelled any plans I had.

The prognosis is highly variable for HNPP. It appears to present in different severities. There isn’t much out there in the way of coverage, but this BBC piece details the severe symptoms one woman with HNPP experiences. I would guess that I have “moderate” symptoms at the moment, but that can change with time from what I’ve experienced so far.

HNPP is incurable and there are currently no medical treatments. I’m guessing the big pharma companies don’t see much of a cash crop with a disease that has an incidence rate of 2/100,000. In terms of “treatment”, you get a diagnosis from a doctor and pretty much get told to “be cautious” and avoid activities that can aggravate your nerves. And that’s not to say doctors are falling short. There really isn’t much they can do. In my own research, I found that occupational therapy was one of the only things that could help. OTs won’t stop at telling you what you can’t do – using a strength based approach, they’ll tell you what you can do and how you can do it. In terms of symptom management, OTs can help develop splints to decrease pressure on nerves; they can do ergonomic assessments and adjustments to ensure proper posture and work habits (which is important for me as I spend most of my time sitting at a computer for my PhD); and, in the unfortunate event that function is severely compromised or permanently lost, they can provide assistive devices.

As I get older, the disorder seems to be getting worse. It takes less pressure to cause numbness and weakness, and the symptoms tend to last longer.  I’ve lost strength and sensation permanently in various parts of my body. Due to this, my gross and fine motor skills are pretty impacted, which has affected many of my activities of daily living. Buttoning up shirts can be challenging (not that I need any more excuses to wear t-shirts every day…). Opening jars can be hellish. I’ve been wanting to up my guitar skills but those chords that require the pinky are pretty much a write off. I’ve stopped playing competitive basketball as my muscle weakness in my legs has made it pretty easy for me to twist my ankle. Leaky nerves make fatigue a constant issue which is exacerbated by poor sleep. Sleeping is challenging for me, as sleep is when a lot of nerve compressions can occur. I get woken up throughout the night by the pain and numbness that comes if I spend too much time in one position. These are just a few of the issues that come with HNPP (for me at least).

As I reflect on what it means to have HNPP, I realize just how necessary and special occupational therapy is. I don’t think I truly appreciated the importance of occupational therapy until I began to recognize how HNPP affected my daily living skills and my engagement in the activities I loved to do. Helping people with those areas are within the domain of occupational therapy. I can remember when I was doing my masters’s, having a bit of a crisis, thinking, “my friends in med school are doing the important stuff and here I am helping people brush their teeth”. At that point, I hadn’t been diagnosed yet and my symptoms weren’t as severe as they are today. Looking back, it’s pretty apparent that my feelings at the time were naive, and really, quite far from the truth. OTs do much more than that. And, my own experiences have reminded me of how we can take things for granted when they come to us with ease. Living with HNPP has been an interesting exercise in reflecting on privilege and recognizing the ableist attitudes that are ingrained deeply in our society.

As my former professor Dr. Susan Rappolt recently wrote in the Toronto Star, OTs appreciate complexity. Dr. Rappolt also says “For those whose health condition changes the way they get by in the world — who no longer have the physical or cognitive levels they are accustomed to — an occupational therapist can make a world of difference.” This rings true for me.

Occupational therapists take note of the fine details in life – such as brushing your teeth or buttoning your shirt. They recognize how engaging in meaningful of activities like playing the guitar or cooking, are necessary to wellbeing. OTs work with people to help enable them to do the nitty gritty small detail things, the big picture “this is what life is all about” stuff, and everything in between. It’s a really wonderful profession that has a lot to offer.

To any OTs out there reading this: thank you for what you do.

My HNPP story is one that is evolving. The nature of the disorder is temperamental and hard to predict. I’m really not sure what to expect with it but I can say that I’m optimistic. My background as an OT has equipped me with an outlook that prefers to see the possibilities in life – and for that I am grateful.

Thanks for reading and Happy OT Month!

…now, I’m headed back to the market to replace that damn cantaloupe…

Learning from Burning Man: Lessons in cultivating community and building happy cities

I recently returned from the trip journey of a lifetime. I crossed off a bucket list item and went to Burning Man. It’s been a few days since my return and the dust has settled enough (both figuratively and literally) for me to gather my thoughts on what it was that I experienced on that ancient lake bed.

Prior to my departure for Black Rock City, it would be safe to say that I was at peak disillusionment with humanity. 2016 has been a rough year (aren’t they all?). Between the Orlando shooting, the endless news stories detailing racist and gendered violence, and the perpetual stream of terrorist attacks, I hit a point of numbness. I was increasingly becoming disenchanted with people and the horrible things they were capable of doing to each other.

In retrospect, I recognize that there was a tangible tension I carried around with me; a malaise that seemed to colour my perception. Spending a week at Burning Man showed me something different. I witnessed the best that humanity was capable of in the midst of a time when we are constantly confronted with the worst.

Burning Man reminded me of what it is that I love about people. That we are curious. That we are compassionate. That we selflessly create for the enjoyment of others. And that we’re all in this together.

Recognizing that I will never truly understand the mystery of Burning Man, I’ll attempt to explore some of the elements I think make it so special and conducive to elucidating the best we have to offer.

Given that my research involves examining how the built environment influences mental health (from the perspective of neuroscience), I went to Burning Man with a particular curiosity about how the physical environment played a role in the “user experience”.  For starters, the natural environment, aka the playa, looks like a scene from The Martian.  In my experience, I found the other worldly context threw me off kilter – in a good way. I found myself wriggling out of the habits I had (including my morning coffee – not one cup over the week I was there!). It made me reflect on how our environment influences habitual behaviours and thinking. Perhaps this is one reason why some of us have such a love of traveling. The playa in many ways seemed to function like a tabula rasa. It was a place where you can reset. A place where you were encouraged to be yourself and express yourself freely (trust me, people were feeling verrrry free); accordingly one of the 10 principles of Burning Man is radical self-expression.

The playa was also a blank canvas for some magnificent pieces of art. One word I found myself saying quite regularly was “wow!”. I was constantly in a state of awe – whether it was the epic sunrises and sunsets or the larger than life art installations that adorned the playa. A study done in 2015 by Paul Piff examined the effect that awe had on people. They found that awe induced a sense of humility, which came with an increase in prosocial behaviour. Prosocial behaviour included generosity and compassion, two elements that, to me, were abundant at Burning Man. Burning Man supports a culture of gifting, in which they promote giving in a non-reciprocal manner. Burners are encouraged to give without expecting something in return. I found giving much easier than receiving. I always had the inclination to reciprocate the gift. It took a few days but I eventually got the hang of openly receiving gifts. Gifts I received included attentive listening, bourbon iced tea, hugs, and poutine (a nice reminder of home!).

As I mentioned earlier, compassion was everywhere I looked. Burning Man also promotes radical inclusion. This was probably one of the most transformative elements of the experience for me. We live in a society where we have to fight (hard) for inclusion. Social isolation is becoming an epidemic that has real implications on health, both mental and physical. I know this from the time I spent working as an occupational therapist in community mental health with adults with disabilities. Most of the clients I worked with would be hard pressed to name one true friend. At Burning Man, it was glaringly apparent to me what we are capable of when it comes to inclusion. I can’t count the number of times I was asked to join someone for a meal or a drink or a bike ride. One morning I got up to use the bathroom and someone (now a friend) on an art car stopped me as I was walking over to the washrooms and yelled, “hey you! join us!”. I was slightly groggy, and unkempt at best, but I just said “yes!” and spent the rest of my day having amazing conversations with a lovely group of people.

It seemed that the awe inducing setting in concert with the culture of inclusion and gifting made for a perfect (dust) storm of social connection.

One of the most wonderful aspects of Burning Man was the playful energy in the air. At Burning Man I felt like a kid again. I spent my days with my pals, old and new, riding bikes around and playing. It was a return to innocence. When I thought about it, I recognized the absence of play in my own life back in the real world. To be honest, it made me a little sad. I think that adults would be much better off if they played more often. Play can build trust and foster connections amongst the citizens of a city. I experienced this first hand at #yegsnowfight, a giant snowball fight my friend Jeff Chase and I organized a few years ago in Edmonton. (note to self: have more snowball fights).

Something that became quite clear to me at Burning Man was that we can’t fully depend on urban design to promote connection. Animation of spaces and placemaking is equally important. Just building a beautiful public space isn’t enough – citizens need to activate that space. Black Rock City pops up for only a week in the middle of the desert – I wouldn’t say that it’s the “urban design” that makes it special. It’s the energy and placemaking the people bring that truly make it what it is. A space that is otherwise inhospitable to life turns into a place that is teeming with it.  Principles of Burning Man related to this are radical self-reliance, communal effort, and participation. Radical self-reliance entails individuals “discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Communal effort encourages cooperation and collaboration. Describing participation, Burning Man states “transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.” Reflecting on these three principles together, I am reminded of a quote a dear friend once told me: “You have to do it by yourself, and you can’t do it alone”. Change takes personal agency and radical participation, but requires a communal effort to execute. There’s a lesson here for changing our cities for the better.

Interestingly, I am writing this blog post between sessions at the Pro Walk  Pro Bike Pro Place conference in Vancouver where there are more than 1000 planners, policy makers, health professionals and community leaders gathered to discuss ways we can make our cities healthier and happier. I am here to help run an experiment/urban tour which is a collaboration between the Urban Realities Lab and the Happy City Team where we are exploring how urban design influences the way participants feel and behave. The results of our study will be posted here and I’ll be presenting them at the closing plenary on Thursday.

So, to bring it all together, here are some lessons I think we can take from Black Rock City and apply to our own cities:

  • Promote public art and urban design that facilitates awe. Experiencing awe has been shown to make us friendlier and more social.
  • Be intentional about social inclusion. Don’t just talk about it. Do it. Move beyond the policy statements and start organizing events and encouraging citizens to create inclusive communities.
  • Have fun and be playful. Placemaking can be used to promote play amongst citizens; through play we can develop a sense of trust and connection with others.
  • For cities: promote civic engagement. Enable citizens to be change agents.
  • For citizens: if you see something that you think needs to change, do it! And be open to receiving help. You can’t do it alone.

Clearly, we can’t recreate the magic of Black Rock City, but we can try our best to aspire towards it. We have our jobs and the mundane day to day obligations to attend to. Life happens. But, something that is important to remember about Burning Man is that it is an intentional community. Burning Man participants try to live out the principles I’ve discussed in in this blog post. We can’t always be perfect, but with intention comes action and I truly believe we can do great things if we put our hearts and minds to it.

I began this blog post describing that I left for Burning Man… jaded, to say the least. I’ve returned with a renewed hope in people and the cities and communities they co-create. Our future is bright!

(featured image is a picture I took of Gracie, our Camp Salty art car)

 

Unsafe at the intersection: Racism, road rage and the role of urban design

A few weeks ago, while biking to the University of Waterloo (as I do every day), I had a jarring altercation with a motorist. I use the Spurline Trail, which is a lovely bike path that connects Downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo. The path is well taken care of. It is beautifully lit, which recognizes that cyclists and pedestrians use the trail at night (unlike the Ironhorse Trail in Waterloo, which can be challenging to navigate in the dark). It is a much needed piece of cycling infrastructure in a region that has an apparent lack of it.

Despite its positive attributes, the Spurline Trail still puts its users in dangerous situations. Where the trail meets roadways, the crossings are uncontrolled and drivers have the right of way. Trail users are instructed to “look both ways” before venturing out into the road. And that’s about as much as there is to protect trail users as they put themselves in harm’s way. One particular intersection is quite dangerous. Cars drive by at ridiculous speeds. Most motorists barely even realize there is a trail crossing there. I’ve seen kids on bikes, the elderly, and individuals with mobility issues trepidatiously try to make their way across the roadway. I’ve had numerous close calls myself. It’s almost a daily occurrence.

As I had mentioned earlier, I had a pretty negative experience while trying to cross at that intersection. While trying to speed across during a momentary break in traffic, someone driving a sports car at an exorbitant speed swerved around me and yelled out “get off the road and go back to your country”. As a person of colour in Canada, these experiences aren’t new to me. Sadly, for many people they can be quite normal. Despite our social progress and the inclination to celebrate our country as an inclusive one, the reality is that we have a largely unacknowledged problem of racism in Canada. It’s pervasive and insidious and it isn’t something that only lives in small backwater towns, as much as many people would like to believe. The guy who yelled that nonsense at me wasn’t wearing a KKK outfit. He was a middle aged city dwelling white guy in a sports car who could easily pass for one of my friend’s dads.

Late last week, a student by the name of Bashir Mohamed was cycling in downtown Edmonton  when he was verbally assaulted and called racial slurs by motorists, on two different occasions in a short span of time. In one of the news stories, Mr. Mohamed is quoted to say:

“This happens often, I have people yell and scream at me when I bike and that’s just because there are no bike lanes up here and I have to ride on the road. Sometimes they resort to my race.”

Mr. Mohamed’s experiences, which he has courageously shared with the public, made me reflect on the importance of urban infrastructure in situations like the ones he encountered.

Road rage and racism are a toxic mix. Both are plentiful. When cities build proper infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, they’re not only making the streets safer from the perspective of physical injury. They are also creating safe spaces for marginalized peoples and helping minimize the interactions we need to have with angry racists who spew hate. Physical violence is also a possibility. Let’s not forget that these angry racists are driving around 4000 pound weapons. That may seem alarmist, but the reality is that I ride around with a healthy fear of the worst case scenario. I ride with the caution of a cyclist in the context of an anti-bike culture; I also ride with the vigilance of a person of colour in Canada. I expect harassment on both fronts. When I reflect on the intersectionality of my identity, I often wonder if I should add cyclist to that list.

I didn’t write this piece with the intention to garner sympathy. I don’t need nor want it. I wrote it in an attempt to provide a different perspective on the importance of good infrastructure.

I often get the feeling that cities are built by and built for one type of person.

We need to acknowledge the complexity of urban design and the implications the built form has on the people that occupy it. We need a more sophisticated understanding of what safety means. And, we need to act more urgently in building these safe spaces. I recognize the importance of long term planning, but the timelines that some cities have on making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists are, quite honestly, pathetic.

If we really are intent on touting our urban centres as inclusive places, we need to recognize the privilege embedded within the built environment and build better cities. Now.

Make Something Edmonton: Is The Writing On The Wall?

OK. A few things before I get into it. It’s been 7 months since I left Edmonton. In an attempt to try to settle into my new home of Kitchener, I’ve increasingly tried not to get too involved in #yeg happenings. I also recognize that as someone that doesn’t live there anymore, that I should be cognizant of wading into issues that don’t directly affect me. But, there is a possibility I may end up back in Edmonton one day AND my sister and my best friend recently moved there, so I feel inclined to share some of my opinions (you can tell me to shut up at any time). I should really be working on the endless list of tasks involved with my graduate studies, but whatever. This is my leisure for today.

I’ve been seeing a number of commentaries on the divisive Melcor “take a risk” mural. It’s safe to say that it wasn’t universally welcomed by Edmontonians, and I think that’s a good thing. Criticism opens avenues for important conversations that can create necessary change.

One of my favourite pieces about the Wall was from Dani Paradis. She called out the dissonance between the risk taking encouraged by the mural and a risk averse city council with a proclivity to hum and haw on seemingly common sense items (cough* bike lanes). She also highlights the challenges that artists and organizers have in dealing with the City when it comes to permits and red tape. Seeing a mural pop up telling people to take risks when the municipal bureaucracy places numerous barriers on said risk taking can be understandably maddening.

I also caught wind of the thread started on Fish Griwkowsky’s Facebook page. Wow. I almost popped a bowl of popcorn to accompany the read. There were some pretty juicy exchanges that provoked some deep thinking on my part.

In my opinion, the concerns about the corporate feeling of the initiative are warranted. During my time on the board, I tried to advocate for Make Something Edmonton to become an arms length organization much like REACH is today (I also sat on the board of REACH and quite admired their organizational structure and relative autonomy). I think Make Something Edmonton is in an interesting situation in that it is involved with EEDC which is charged with marketing and selling Edmonton, but is also deeply connected to grassroots organizations and initiatives that are anything but corporate. I had felt that being an arms length organization would have perhaps minimized some of those conflicts. That said, we can thank the amazing staff at Make Something Edmonton for impressively balancing those tensions.

The board of Make Something Edmonton has since been dissolved, so I’m unsure of the chances that it could move towards being an arms length organization. But who knows. It is Edmonton, after all.

Another sentiment in Fish’s thread that resonated with me was that the messaging of Make Something Edmonton was exclusive of marginalized peoples – those who live in poverty, new Canadians, people of colour. As a person of colour and the son of immigrants, I recognized that Make Something Edmonton and its messaging would not resonate with all Edmonontians, and I was particularly interested in understanding how it was perceived by IBPOC (Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour). During my time on the board, I and a few other members of the board submitted an application to a call for submissions for an event run by an organization that focused on IBPOC in Edmonton. I thought that approaching the issue as citizen board members would allow for a more open and candid conversation on the flaws and areas that needed improvement. Our intention was to have a dialogue on Make Something Edmonton and if/how it resonated with that community. We didn’t end up being chosen for the event, but this was all to say that this issue was something that was at the top of my mind and an issue I thought needed attention.

Most recently I read Todd Babiak’s letter in response to David Staples’ article. To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know exactly what Staples was attempting to articulate. I would especially appreciate some clarity on his comment on risk taking and installing suicide barriers on the high level bridge.

In his letter, Todd highlights the stories of risk taking that define Edmonton. Some people might consider the citing of these stories as “entrepreneurial propaganda”, but I thought I’d share my own experience on the Edmontonness Todd talks about.

I showed up to Edmonton in 2012 knowing very few people. I spent one year bemoaning my choice to live there. I spent the next two getting involved in a few community projects that were grassroots at best. I didn’t have the network associated with growing up in a city, but I still managed to get the help I needed to get my projects off the ground. Not only did I get the help, but I also got incredible amounts of encouragement. I was a nobody ex-Torontonian occupational therapist with a few ideas. That’s it. In the process of implementing some of these collaborative projects, I saw what Edmonton was all about. I saw its enthusiasm for change. I saw its boundless generosity. I saw a city that was open to ideas. And that’s why I’m so diehard about the message Make Something Edmonton promotes. It really captures what I love about that city. You can criticize the layer of corporate interests on top, but at its core, Make Something Edmonton is attempting to communicate a quality that I haven’t encountered in any other city I’ve lived in.

Part of taking risks also involves making mistakes. I think great risk takers are good mistake makers too (sorry, I know that sounds kind of lame). Erring allows for evolution. Was this choice of mural a mistake? Maybe.

The pushback on this mural should tell Make Something Edmonton, the EEDC and the City, that the messaging and the method isn’t resonating with everyone and I think can open the door to some fruitful conversations that can help the initiative evolve and perhaps solidify its grassroots connections. So, in response to my clickbait title, I think the writing is on the wall, but not in a “this is the end” kind of way. I think the recent criticism is an invitation for iteration and reflection. I’m looking forward to watching the conversation on Make Something Edmonton as well as the ways in which the initiative evolves.

 

(image credit: Mack Male, photo link: https://flic.kr/p/JstX85)

 

 

 

A few things I miss about #YEG

If you couldn’t tell from my social media channels, I was in Edmonton last week. I was in town to facilitate a workshop on lean community building for the Alberta Council For Disability Services. I was particularly excited to facilitate that workshop because of the time I spent on a community mental health team working with Edmontonians with developmental disabilities. While working on that team, I found that social isolation and exclusion were huge issues. I think community building projects are a viable way to promote social connection, and so the opportunity to talk to the amazing people working on the front lines in disability services was a wonderful opportunity to share some ideas with people who can really make a difference in our communities.

 

My trip back to Edmonton was a bit of a rush of feelings. You never really realize how much attachment you have to a place until you return to it after a time of separation. It’s pretty powerful.

 

Something I recognized right away was how much I missed the river valley. I can remember when I first moved to Edmonton and spoke to locals about what they loved about their city. Almost everyone raved about the river valley. I didn’t really get it until I got a bike and started exploring the trails. Seriously #yeg. You have access to a spectacular network of trails and parks at your fingertips. From most areas of the city, you can get to the river valley with relative ease. Which is huge. To be able to get lost in the woods in the middle of one of Canada’s largest cities is something you shouldn’t take for granted. And it’s something that we’re beginning to understand has implications on our health. Emily Grant, a fellow doctoral student in the Urban Realities Lab is undertaking some pretty exciting research and looking at that exact issue. So there you have it. Get out there and lose yourself (and also probably find yourself) in that majestic river valley. I like that… “Lose yourself and find yourself in Edmonton’s River Valley.”

 

Another thing that I love about Edmonton is it’s “Make Something” energy.  While in town, I had the honour and privilege to participate in the Paths For People City For Life workshop with a number of community builders, the Mayor, some stellar city councillors (Ben Henderson, Scott McKeen, Andrew Knack, Mike Walters), and my favourite cyclist MLA, David Shepherd. Gil Penalosa kicked off the workshop with a talk that really hammered in the importance of putting people first in Edmonton. It was apparent that Edmonton has some work to do in prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists when it comes to the built environment. What really moved me about this workshop (and the corresponding movement that Paths for People is creating) was that it happened because a group of concerned citizens came together to do something about the state of affairs of walkability and bike lanes in Edmonton. It totally embodied what I always tried to communicate about Make Something Edmonton during my tenure on the board: that Edmonton was a place where you could make things happen – that what made Edmonton Edmonton (at least to me) was a special quality about the people who live here. Edmontonians support each other, stand up for what they believe in and work together as a collective to bring change to their communities. I should say that I was also moved to see such strong political representation at the workshop. It was a Saturday morning and none of them had to be there, so I think that says something positive about the political will and interest in improving Edmonton for cyclists and pedestrians. I’m excited to see what happens in Edmonton when it comes to bike lanes and pedestrian safety.

Here are a few other things I missed about the city

  • COFFEE – #yeg’s coffee scene is unbelievable. I had a tough time choosing where I caffeinated myself over the week. I ended up stopping in at Transcend, Da Cappo and Elm.
  • Old Strathcona – During my time in Edmonton I lived in a few different areas. When I first moved to town I lived in Garneau. Then I moved to Montrose and I also had a brief stint in Bonnie Doon. The last neighbourhood I lived in was Old Strathcona. I don’t need to tell you why it’s an amazing hood. It just has it all. Notable spots are The Next Act (you have no idea how much I had been craving their burgers), steak tartare night at Accent Lounge, and gelato at Block 1912. I also missed my favourite menswear shop, Mr. Derk.
  • Sattva Yoga – I’ve been doing yoga for the last 11 years and I can assure you that Sattva Yoga is the best I’ve ever encountered. I made sure to get in there as much as I could while I was in town. I’d recommend checking it out if you interested.

 

Something else I value about Edmonton is its proximity to the mountains. After my time in #yeg I took off to Banff to speak about poverty and the built environment at the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists conference. I really never realized how amazing it was to be able to be in the mountains within a few hours. You can be sure that I’m very aware of this now that I’m living in Southern Ontario. I’m hard pressed to find a decent ski hill, let alone a mountain range as magnificent as the Canadian Rockies.

 

Anyhow. This was a bit of a mish mash of feelings and reflections I had wanted to get out on paper and I thought I’d share them.

 

My takeway point: don’t take #yeg for granted. It’s an amazing city. I always knew this when I lived here, but it took some time away from #yeg for it really to sink in for me.

 

The old adage you don’t know what you have until it’s gone holds true.

 

Thanks for reading,

Robin

 

 

photo credit:https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7046/6970600451_af2eb60950_b.jpg