Building Cycling Infrastructure in Cities

An increasingly important focus in cities around the world is how to improve quality of life in terms of sustainable travel and associated health benefits. Cycling is a big part of these endeavours. Much has been written on the different ways to improve cycling and increase the uptake in cyclists. For example, there are a number of different ‘schools’ to follow (Danish, Dutch, or somewhere in between). But, there are many issues for getting different groups interested in cycling and for developing cycling in cities where cycling is either a low priority or little prevalence.

The first is an issue in big diverse cities with populations from all corners of the globe. For women, ethnic minority groups, and children cycling can be perceived to be dangerous and the city unwelcoming for the practice. Colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have examined such issues with regards to encouraging a wider uptake in cycling for short trips or commuting within under-represented groups (Steinbeck et al, 2011). This is a complex problem that involves many different things from learning new skills, cultural norms, costs, and perceptions of what cycling involves.

The second is a problem that is associated with how to integrate new or sustainable infrastructure in cities that are envisioned as the preserve of the private motor vehicle. Ageing infrastructure is a growing problem in most cities. The case for infrastructure maintenance and renovation is a key theme in Amin and Thrift’s recently published “Seeing Like a City” (2017). But, there are many problems when it comes to actually trying to build new infrastructure like cycling paths where one doesn’t already exist. In Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria is a prime example of a city with low but growing cycling rates and cycling infrastructure that is best described as patchy (with good and bad elements – Barnfield and Plyushteva, 2016). Recently the municipal authorities have outlined ambitious plans to include a cycle path in the renovations of Dondukov Boulevard in central Sofia (the road surface requires repairing and the renovations will include a cycle path).

The photo below shows the current situation, with sparse current cycling facilities. The addition of a cycle path will be a big change: materially, spatially, and culturally. In the plans set out by the municipality in their cycling programme 2016-2019 (Програмата за развитие на велосипедния транспорт на територията на Столична община за периода 2016 – 2019) the exact finalised provision hasn’t been settled. Local advocacy groups are concerned by the lack of detail with work due to commence in June 2016. The decision whether to include two one-way cycle paths or a two-way single path is still unresolved (See the images below on the visualisation of one of the potential options). The challenges faced by Sofia and other cities in the region on how to integrate sustainable travel within existing and new infrastructure will be part of efforts to shape urban space and cultures for many years to come.

 

 

 

Amin, A., & Thrift, N. (2017). Seeing like a city. John Wiley & Sons.

Barnfield, A., & Plyushteva, A. (2016). Cycling in the post-socialist city: On travelling by bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria. Urban Studies53(9), 1822-1835.

Steinbach, R., Green, J., Datta, J., & Edwards, P. (2011). Cycling and the city: a case study of how gendered, ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport choices. Social Science & Medicine72(7), 1123-1130.

MAKING KIN WITH EARTHLINGS: An evening with the children of compost and Donna Haraway

On March 31st, I was fortunate to attend one of three events that Donna Haraway held at the BOZAR in Brussels. The themes of the events covered varied ground but were held together by Haraway’s work and interest in exploring the potential of living-with others. The first two events focussed on film. The first was a series of videos that were the result of the joyful interactions between documentary filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova and Donna Haraway. It included “animation shorts of militant cows, anti-globalization preaches, GoPro cameras strapped to aquatic animals, anti-Trump folk songs… as rituals of resistance and dance against the horror and stagnation”. The second was the presentation of film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival by Donna Haraway and Fabrizio Terranova. The film foregrounds Haraway’s unique intellect and warmth of character that has explored planetary life for over 40 years. The final event was Donna Haraway reading from her new book Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. The event was based around Haraway presenting her science-fiction short story The Camille Story, Children of Compost, an inter-species fable for making a liveable world for all. It is this final event that I attended and found extremely engaging, interesting, and informative for thinking through the potential of living differently with all sorts of beings on an equal footing.

donna-haraway

Image courtesy of BOZAR Brussels.

Haraway’s idea of living-with is a philosophical lineage that includes work by Jean-Luc Nancy and ideas about co-existence and being-with explored in Being Singular Plural and stretches towards Latourian Actor-Networks and Bergsonian-Spinozian explorations of affective potential. It also incorporates Feminist scholar’s attention to alternative political acts and interconnectivity of complex systems that Isabelle Stengers has explored via speculative philosophy. A further tradition that emanates from Haraway is American pragmatism. In de-centring the human as the main principle of action and foregrounding how to improve the future against what we’ve learnt in the past Haraway is continuing the work of William James and James Dewey. Keeping these ‘traditions’ in mind Haraway’s fable is as powerful as it is though provoking and opens up many avenues for urban scholars. I do not want to focus on the story but the sentiment. Haraway’s argument is that due to human influenced effects on the climate and how these are changing the planet “the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge”. The planet had afforded safe spaces to all sorts of species to hide and find refuge from natural disasters but these are no longer available.

 

The answer in The Camille Story, Children of Compost is to make kin by humans taking on the characteristics of an endangered species and even grafting some of their attributes. In this way, making kin is something more that ancestry or genealogy to unite beings. The results could seem an aberration but after time it will have proven itself equitable. The idea of ‘kin-making’ therefore is the notion of making persons not tied to being as humans or individuals. In a time when the notion of refugee is used as a political and social lightening rod to demarcate which section of our species is welcome in which manmade and enforced division of the planet, the answer is to be-with others as Haraway advocates. To live-with others is to reformulate the idea of refuges and refugees. To generate flexible biological-cultural-political-technological healing, rehabilitation, and remaking, some of which Haraway argued must include mourning irreversible losses but not raising the dead. As Haraway sums up in a recent commentary in Environmental Humanities “renewed generative flourishing cannot grow from myths of immortality or failure to become-with the dead and the extinct”.

Spatial Impacts of Office Buildings?

Urban space is shaped and re-shaped by many competing forces. Global cities have been marked to varying degrees by the grand ideas of planners, the whims of political will, and the machinations of capitalism. David Harvey (1985) is a prominent voice in theorising the spatial effects of capital. The essence of Harvey’s contention is that during periods of over-accumulation in capitalist production a shift occurs whereby capital moves from production into the production of the built environment. This occurrence is a method of diverting surplus capital and a means to deter a larger crisis (Christophers, 2011).

 

In London, during the reign of the previous Mayor (2008-2016), a shift in desire and thinking took hold, one that argued that London needed an iconic skyline of imposing skyscrapers. The city soon ‘boasted’ a cheese grater (The Leadenhall Building), a walkie talkie (20 Fenchurch Street), a Shard (Shard London Bridge), and even a gherkin (30 St Mary Axe [formerly Swiss Re Building]). This is not to mention City hall which is either an ‘onion’ or ‘testicle’ depending on your point of view. However, as Harvey suggests capital in times of crisis focuses on the production of urban space. For London, this has been combined with the desire for skyscrapers that offer premium office space in boom times and bust.

Images courtesy: CityAM, Architects’ Journal, Skyscrapers News

The EC3 postcode, in the heart of ‘The City’, is home to the major headquarters of the leading insurance companies. It is a district that is spatially configured and development to the tunes of the insurance sector. However, as new buildings are completed they are standing empty. The Financial Times reported recently that One Creechurch Place which is a modest 17 floors and boasts 272,00 square feet is completely unoccupied. New developments including the 59-floor tower at 22 Bishopgate and 24 floor 60-70 St May Axe with the sobriquet of “Can of Ham’, among others, are being completed without any pre-letting. Some of this due to more efficient use of space or changing working patterns and some is due to nervous businesses reacting to uncertain times. The search for new tenants is hampered by business rates, declining interest of banks wanting to be in this area, and new tech companies preferring a location closer to ‘Silicon roundabout’.

This leads to questions of the possible spatial impacts of Brexit and how this will play out in urban space. If companies move or working practices continue to be increasingly flexible then these high-rise projects could stand temporally as indicators to the uncertain flows of urban capital. However, as Harvey suggests, the tendency for destructive creation in a capitalist economy means that maybe these building will be more ephemeral than expected. At present the show still goes on. The Scalpel (Lime Street/Leadenhall Street) is under construction and two further buildings, at 22 and 100 Bishopgate respectively, are part of a projected extra 4 million square feet of office space that will available by the end of the decade. How much of this will stand empty and what will happen if they do are questions that will soon to be answered.

Christophers B. Revisiting the urbanization of capital. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 2011;101,6:1347-64.
Harvey D. The urbanisation of capital:  Studies in the history and theory of capitalist urbanization. Oxford, Blackwell. 1985
Ralph O, Evans J. City of London skyscrapers rise just as demand heads down. Financial Times. 2017: https://www.ft.com/content/15cab8e6-f511-11e6-95ee-f14e55513608

Cities that want to breathe: Clean air protests in Brussels and Sofia

Europe has a problem with air. The levels of air pollution across the continent are getting worse and one of the main contributing factors is motor vehicles. Brussels and Sofia are two cities that have high levels of air pollution and a growing concern among citizens. In Brussels the quality air and the volume of traffic is linked to the tax free status of company cars that are offered to employees as part of reward and recognition processes. In Sofia the large increase in cars following the end of state socialism and the growth in private transportation is connected with coal or wood used in homes for heating and in industry. In both city’s local resident’s have become increasingly concerned over the health implications that include a growing prevalence of childhood asthma. Throughout Europe as many as 402,00-432,000 deaths are caused by the poor quality of the air per year. This raises questions of what to do for those concerned. In Brussels CleanAIRBXL (http://www.cleanairbxl.be) is a pressure group that is working to highlight the issues of air pollution. The group has staged several protests in visible places around Brussels to inform others and promote the cause. The latest protest on18/02/17 was involved placing safety masks on statues around the city with slogans to help drive home their message. The day ended with a mannequin challenge outside the Magritte Museum in the heart of Brussels. For a video report follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RHPOiYv3K4.

Images courtesy of @cleanairBXL

In Sofia a similar protest saw famous landmarks co-opted into the cause (for a photo gallery follow this link

http://m.dnevnik.bg/photos/2017/01/31/2909605_fotogaleriia_emblematichni_pametnici_v_sofiia_osumnaha – this site is only in Bulgarian). As well as drawing attention to an important cause and one that draws on urban sustainability, mobility, culture, and health the clean air protests also work to raise question of the different techniques groups have for influencing policy. In this instance, it is a case of big visible demonstrations.  Alternative or accompanying style are small acts of everyday alternative practices that include choice of transport, ways of living in cities, or concerted efforts at animating political action. The use of iconic urban space is key tool in the urban protesters arsenal. The clean air protests are an attempt to engage residents in activism for more sustainable urban futures.

85123Image courtesy of novinite.bg

Introduction: Andrew Barnfield

Hi,

 

My name is Andrew. I am Assistant Professor in Public Health and the Built Environment at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). My main areas of interest are practices of physical activity, Post-Socialist Cities, and autonomous geographies. My interests are associated with the interrelations of moving bodies and space, and how these develop novel experiences, affectual intensities and all sorts of interactions within cities. My interest in moving bodies has developed to include questions of physical activity and public health policy within cities, primarily in the form of recreational running clubs and post-socialist urbanism. I predominately write about Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. It is a city that I am pleased to call home and a place I miss every time I am away.

 

My main focus in my research is on recreational running as it is a democratic and ubiquitous activity, while at the same time challenging the notions that cities are sites of alienation and decline. I am fascinated by the novel ways small urban practices can inform notions of autonomy and the desire to establish pluralistic versions of urban life. I am primarily a qualitative researcher and I utilise a range of research methods. These include participant observation, ethnographic studies, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and go-along methods. I am extremely excited about working with my fellow assistant editors to help grow the Journal of Urban Cultures and explore new avenues of urban analysis. I hope that together we will be able to participate in a journal that brings thought-provoking scholarship and beautifully written pieces to a wide audience.