Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A golf course is not green

There isn't much cycling, or a lot about bikes, in David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, but luckily the places he and his bike visit provide plenty of other opportunities for rambling on about stuff that he finds interesting and entertaining.

If you are interested in the same sort of stuff – music, art, food and urban living – then this will be a pleasant, thought-provoking few hours in the company of an erudite and genial guide to early twenty-first century life. If you aren't you will probably think that he is a pretentious, self-important wanker who only gets his witterings published between hardcovers because he once sang Psychokiller.

I thought it was mostly great, but then again I would probably also score quite highly on the pretentious wanker index.

He starts out with a quick and fairly simplistic history lesson about American cities and how many developed into inhuman car-centric, planning disasters with desolate centres and soulless, endless tracts of suburbia. As he acknowledges though, not all American cities are like this and many may still be rescued, helped by the recent economic downturn, peak oil and climate change:
Cities as a rule use less energy per capita than do suburban communities where people are living spread out [Thanks for explaining that David!], so as the cost of energy spirals up, those grimy urban streets start to look like they might have possibilities. The economy has tanked, the United States can lose its place as number one world power, but that doesn't mean that many of these cities can't still become more livable. Life can still be good – not only good, it can be better than most of us can imagine. A working class neighborhood can be full of life. A neighborhood that has many different kinds of people and business in it is usually a good place to live. If there were some legislation that ensured a mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhood would emerge when developers move in, it would be wise, because those are the liveliest and healthiest kinds of communities.
Then he heads off round the world to demonstrate what he means. Berlin – Istanbul – Buenos Aries – Manila – Sydney – London – San Francisco and back to his hometown New York. Although he seems to forget what it was that he set out to do and gets distracted by all the interesting people, music and art that he meets on the way. Which is fine, and I suspect makes for a much less dull book than if he had spent all his time trying to force his experiences to prove the point.

And to be fair he does get back to the point in the epilogue, The Future of Getting Around, which talks about how we can make our cities more attractive, livable and safer places. He highlights the work and thoughts of the wonderful Enrique Peñalosa, who was mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2001. During his tenure as mayor he created an efficient and inexpensive public transport network, closed streets to cars at weekends and made many streets pedestrian (and bike) only. Although initially met with resistance, his ideas have gradually been accepted in Bogotá and put into practice in other cities around the world. Not only has the city become a more pleasant place to live, but many other indicators like crime rates, school attendance and health have improved.

As Peñalosa himself explains:
When I got to city hall, I was a handed a transportation study that said the most important thing the city could do was to build an elevated highway at a cost of $600 million. Instead, we installed a bus system that carries 700,000 people a day at a cost of $300 million. We created hundreds of pedestrian-only streets, parks, plazas, and bike paths, planted trees, and got rid of cluttering commercial signs. We constructed the longest pedestrian-only street in the world. It may seem crazy, because this street goes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Bogotá, and many of the surrounding streets aren't even paved. But we chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians. All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We're telling people, 'You are important--not because you're rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human.' If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.
Now, if only Robert Doyle and all the anti-clearway numpties would start thinking seriously about ideas like these, and how they could be used to improve Melbourne, then maybe we really would have a chance to live up to our billing as one of the world's most livable cities ...

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