In the movement to reinvent American cities into bicycling friendly (warning, the jargon will begin …now) “Complete Streets” there’s NYC’s JSK (Janette Sadik-Khan, if you don’t already know) and there’s everybody else. She’s a villain to the local business associations and conservative/car centric community boards and the world’s greatest super hero to NYC cyclists and urban planners. Why? Because once the planning studies and design proposals were in on how to physically alter NYC’s streets to be more cycling friendly she used her considerable power, under mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is also a fan of the totalitarian approach), to do it quickly without bothering to go through the considerable process known as “community engagement.”

Not coincidentally, the biggest reoccurring theme to emerge from last week’s ProWalk/ProBike conference in Long Beach, California was  all centered around a single lynchpin in changing the world, which in the urban planning world is called “engagement.” Actually engagement mean a lot of things: feedback from a community on what improvements they want, approval from everyone from government to businesses and local citizens that a project is something they will support, pay for or at the very least not protest or deface. It can also mean conversations, corporate sponsorships, community board meetings, surveys, blah, blah. If you had to it could easily substitute for every other word in the common language and urban planners would still think they understood what was being communicated.

 Community support for change is incredibly important.

That said there are two major problems that are preventing urban planners from being the rockstars of change and holding back the country as a whole (not just cities) from the myriad benefits of things like walking, cycling and mixed modal infrastructure: the slow death of small ideas through complex engagement processes  and the inability to do what the closing speaker, Mark Gordon, founder of Streetfilms and Streetsblog, begged of the audience.

“Don’t go for the incremental improvement.”  The only way we’re going to get out of the mess we are collectively in (obesity and related health epidemics, looming energy crisis, climate change, etc., etc.) is to “Go for the Big Win.”

Harsh?

Here’s a few things I noticed very topically as someone from a privately owned business at a conference for government and non-profit advocates and planners.

  • Everyone was in pretty good shape: men almost all around wore relaxed cargo shorts, teva sandals and looked like they enjoyed the outdoors. The majority of the attendees were middle aged males, with a smaller contingent of women who also tended to be middle aged caucasians. They all seemed to have at least two masters degrees.
  • They are all very concerned with helping their communities through things like bike lanes and developing better accessibility to schools, jobs and recreation without requiring a car, but are not exactly sure how to help or what solutions people who are poor/culturally diverse need. They are very concerned on how to poll these people in innovative ways but are oblivious to the idea of hiring from these groups.
  • Their lives are relatively comfortable and middle class. They have not traveled extensively. These are not bad things, but collectively they hobble the nation’s ability to understand complexity or to visualize solutions or new ways of reinventing our civic space.
  • The de facto view of cycling as transportation is seen as a “step down” from the implied luxury of driving a car.
I think everyone has a grandparent whose ideas of the world are a little… out of date. It doesn’t mean grandpa isn’t a good person or that you should love him any less, but do you really want someone who cannot relate to your experience of the world to determine what it looks like?  I would argue that the larger awareness of cycling as a healthy form of transportation has more than anything else standing in its’ way a lack of insight and motivation that stems from the homogeny of the very well intentioned people charged with enacting those changes.
So, is it that urban planners are hopelessly stuck in committee on how to make “complete streets” the new normal? Or that there should be more bold JSK style visionaries enacting change and letting communities get used to it after the fact? Both approaches clearly have strong possibilities for success or failure. What is likely to be a better answer, however, is going back into those communities and giving people credit for being intelligent enough to contribute their experiences beyond participating in surveys and actively participating as paid members of the civic, consulting or non-profit actively working at the local level.

 

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