What lessons can Citizen Jane share for today’s battle for the city?

Citizen Jane

Image via Dogwoof.com

A few months ago, I saw the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City at the ICA with fellow members of Urbanistas London.

The film was well produced and the use of archival footage and audio was a fun and enlightening way to revisit Jane Jacobs’ work. But, it didn’t dig very deep into the hows, whys and ‘what nows’ of how we think about planning and urban form today in light of the lessons from Jacobs. If you’re new to urbanism, it’s a good crash course on two of history’s most famous planning adversaries, but for those who know the philosophies, it didn’t offer much extra.

The film depicts a battle specific to an era. The 1960s were not only a time in which planners held a lot of power, but government did in general. Much as the political landscape has changed since the 1960s in both the US and UK, so has the role of government and planners within it. Planners no longer have as large of a role in shaping cities. In fact, major infrastructure decisions tend to be done not by planners, but by politicians, special bodies, or worse yet, lobbyists and investors.

As the end of this review from Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian points out, there are many problems with painting Jacobs and Moses as black and white, good versus evil. What ultimately is the film’s message? Central planners no longer exist in the US or UK, and many of Jacobs’ philosophies are codified in planning, design and landscape architecture best practice (e.g. eyes on the street/passive surveillance, people scale and mixed-use design) today. The ills of urban renewal still happen, but rarely triggered by planners, rather by cash-strapped local governments fighting for economic investment.

What is the Moses equivalent we should be looking out for today? The final images of sterile, cheap, closely-spaced tower blocks in China suggest we’re meant to ensure that the lessons are passed on to more recently urbanising cities. That’s important, but nothing about the film suggests planners and designers in China are the intended audience.

Could the ‘smart city’ and ‘big data’ movements be today’s version of urban renewal–where society’s ills and the ‘problems’ of modern life can be solved by sensors, data and algorithms? Rather than leaving control of the city to the technocrats of old, we are meant to leave control to the technology itself. As with central planning, there can be good done with these types of strategies, but as soon as we act like they are a cure-all and stop considering the human side of cities, there are (perhaps unintended) negative consequences.

By focussing on the battles of the 60s without a clear translation for today, the film missed an opportunity to call out the mistakes we may be repeating. It was comforting storytelling and a good refresher, but it failed to note that today’s Citizen Janes are up against a system more complex than just one Moses.

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Room for more action in the London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Sustainable drainage systems, or SuDS, are nothing new. The conventional method of managing stormwater is to transport collect and transport rainwater off site as quickly as possible via hard infrastructure systems. The rainwater is either discharged into the nearest receiving waters or sewage treatment plant, in the case of combined drainage systems.

SuDS, meanwhile, mimic natural systems to slow down, treat and use the water before or instead of sending it into sewers or directly to open water bodies. These systems can have additional benefits beyond managing quantities of water, including biodiversity enhancement, water treatment, reduced air pollution, amenity creation, reduction of the urban heat island effect and more.

Thanks to the multitude of benefits, SuDS are being used increasingly around the world. But in the face of increasing storm intensity, and an overburdened sewer system, how does London start incorporating these systems more quickly and reliably? This past October, the Greater London Authority released their London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan (LSDAP) for consultation. KLH Sustainability submitted comments on the plan, some of our observations are discussed below.

The vision set out in the plan is that: “By 2040, London will manage its rainwater sustainably to reduce flood risk and improve water security, maximising the benefits for people, the environment and the economy.” It outlines actions and a timeframe divided by sector to begin integrating SuDS into business as usual. The plan does a great job covering realistic and necessary actions that should be 100% achievable in the given time frame. However, as a plan, it is not very ambitious and is really only the first step towards making sustainable drainage part of the mainstream.

The key to implementing more sustainable practices is investment. In a very pragmatic way, the current plan relies on existing processes and funding streams as entry points to incorporate SuDS in to planned maintenance, replacement work and planned new projects. This is very important as it is the cheapest and easiest way to ensure this planned work is implemented correctly.

To move beyond incremental changes, there needs to be commitment to new sources of financial support and partnering. The LSDAP mentions Thames Water’s twenty4twenty £20m funding programme, which helps to identify other relevant parties interested in SUDs investment. Many programmes in the US have been successful in the increased implementation of SUDs through the use of demonstration projects, partnerships and incentives funded by central government, increased water management fees or partnership with the private sector.

Additional investment is also required to enforce the adoption of flood-related planning policies by local authorities.  This leads to the second key observation: a lack of support to implement new and existing planning policies.

Last spring, SuDS were written into the National Planning Policy Framework, requiring most development to incorporate SuDS. At that time, the capacity within local authority was raised as a barrier to enforcement and it is not yet clear if the new London Action Plan has resolved this resource issue. The LSDAP should highlight how local authorities will be supported, whether through funding, expertise or enforcement. The LSDAP should use the forthcoming Sustainable Drainage Opportunity Model to identify high-risk geographic areas that are in particularly need of robust drainage requirements and enforcement.

There are additional aspects that could be included in the LSDAP, including:

The LSDAP target is “to achieve a 1% reduction in surface water flows in the sewer network each year for 25 years, resulting in a 25% reduction in flows by 2040.” The final piece of the puzzle is for the LSDAP to identify what financial benefits could be accrued through the delivery of that target using wide-spread, small-scale SuDS solutions rather than relying on expensive, single-purpose hard infrastructure solutions to handle storm flows. By articulating the long-term value of SuDS adoption across London, the LSDAP can demonstrate how sustainable drainage scheme can really contribute to a world-class, sustainable city.

Does London really care about cyclists?

A hopeful message posted by woman-run bicycle accessory shop Po Campo.

A hopeful message posted by woman-run bicycle accessory shop Po Campo.

Who has a right to the road? With all the news lately about air pollution, roads overcrowded with buses and cyclist deaths, it’s clear not everyone does in London.

I desperately want to cycle in this city. As I expounded on profusely a couple years ago as a new regular rider, there are so many benefits to cycling and I miss them dearly. When I lived in Chicago, bike share was my primary mode of transportation–for commuting, for socialising, for errands, spontaneously and in any season. I do not by any means consider myself a hardcore cyclist, nor is Chicago any sort of cycling utopia a la Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But Chicago has gone through considerable investment to make the city cycle friendly for more people; and it’s their investment in physically protected bike lanes and inexpensive, well-managed bike share that propelled me into being a committed rider. And the beauty of these types of cycle infrastructure is that they’re not reserved for only the hardcore lycra-clad road cyclists (MAMIL-middle aged man in lycra, as they’re called in Norway) or the hipster fixie set, they’re meant for me and all the other regular people out there who just want a faster, cheaper, healthier way to get around.

But then I moved to London. Between the lack of a straightforward street grid and absolutely no space on narrow roads for legitimate cycle lanes (let alone protected ones), I was already wary. But so many people here cycle. All my colleagues do. Full lanes of streets on my commute are filled with cyclists. Mayor Boris Johnson is an avid cyclist and he and Transport for London recently unveiled plans for new “cycle superhighways.” But then there are near weekly headlines of cyclists dying under the wheels of lorries. Friends warn you to practice your commute on weekends (so much for spontaneous travel). You see daily others having near misses in front of you.

According to the London Evening Standard, 82% of women killed while cycling in London since 2009 have been by lorries.

A few weeks ago, the London Evening Standard featured a front page article trying to make sense of why most of this year’s cyclist deaths have been women and most of them have been at the hands of lorry drivers. The article states that “every woman who has died on a bike in the capital since August 2011 was hit by a truck — 16 in total.” It’s a startling statistic. Those women could have been me. In fact, I’m even more at risk, as most of them were seasoned London cyclists. Despite other commonalities such as the fact that most happened at major roundabouts and bridge approaches or that many of the lorry drivers were driving with violations, the article chose to focus on what the women cyclists were doing wrong. This level of victim blaming is not only wrong, but irresponsible.

It may be true that women cyclists may tend to be slower, more tentative or follow rules, all of which may make it easier for vehicle drivers to kill them, but a system that not only penalises, but kills people who follow rules or cycle conservatively is not a system that supports cycling, or frankly, people. There are different types of cyclists, just as there are different kinds of vehicle drivers. You wouldn’t expect a football mom in a minivan or pensioner in a station wagon to be able to navigate race car tracks and obstacle courses, nor should you. When you send your teenage child out to drive as a learner driver, you don’t expect them to die because they’re new or your grandmother to die because she drives slowly, why is that the expectation for cyclists? And does that mean children, slow riders, people who can’t afford fast cycles, new riders, tourists and other regular, rule abiding people like I am aren’t meant to be on the road? Because that’s what it feels like.

Research shows that when cyclists don’t wear helmets, cars tend to give them more space. This isn’t an argument not to wear helmets, but perhaps the London cyclist culture of aggressive, rule-breaking puts car drivers not in the mindset of sharing the road with vulnerable users, but instead competing for the road against equals. This might work for the subset of people willing to and physically capable of aggressive cycling, but leaves out the rest of us regular people. And if as a society we want to promote low carbon, sustainable modes of transport (which we must, for air pollution, climate change and other reasons), then building a cycle network for that small percentage won’t work.