Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Does Culture Matter In Urban Design?

Back in the early days of my academic discipline, cultural anthropology, researchers worked to document what they saw as a rapidly vanishing diversity of cultures. Ethnographers fanned out across continents, recording ritual practices and languages, often conveniently ignoring the massive changes their interlocutors' lives had already undergone through participation in global political and economic systems. Then we realized something: culture doesn't disappear, it changes. And all cultures aren't dwindling to one, western, homogeneous hegemon. Culture isn't something bounded by an ethnicity or a location; it travels, and demonstrating one's familiarity with a particular culture can be a way of showing power across lines of race, class, and geography. Culture is a term that describes the shared systems of meaning and value that regulate our interactions with friends, family, and strangers. It can seem invisible to us, even as we deftly maneuver our way through social situations that leave people unfamiliar with the prevailing culture stumped. 

My research has focused on the immaterial phenomena that filter transportation choices; I've been trying to argue that in a given interaction between a road user and a road, there's a third element as well beyond individual-in-motion and built-environment-at-rest. There's also a scale of accepted behaviors, agreed upon uses, shared ideas about what should happen in given spaces. Other words that might describe this are manners, customs, norms. In my field we call it habitus, and I've been writing about it as human infrastructure. It seems to me, as an anthropologist, that this is precisely what drivers complain about: that bicyclists are challenging their street culture. But their concerns get dismissed as hooey by people who are accustomed to believing that the built environment is the key to determining behavior ("if you build it, they will come"). That's a conundrum to me: if we need to change the built environment to get people to change their behavior, aren't we acknowledging that changed behavior is the end goal? If we want them to come, maybe we should be thinking like them, building cultural networks of shared meanings and values rather than expecting physical changes to make the shift in transportation habits we desire.

Often I see "culture" used as a gloss to talk about identity groups, and I wonder if some of my readers will say to themselves that adding culture into urban design is accomplished through government grants going to nonprofits whose aim is to empower a particular community of color. That's not quite what I'm getting at. Actually a lot of those groups have their hands full trying to achieve American middle class status for their communities, and the bike thing, for all the aspirational aims of the cycle-chic-bikes-mean-business-biking-in-heels lobby, still looks like something for freaks or poors. If you've staked your leadership on showing the way for your constituency to get away from being seen as freaky or poor, would you choose biking as something to support? What I mean by culture is not identity politics; I mean the subtle distinctions we perform to show those around us that we "get" it, that we're normal humans complying with the standards they expect to keep them feeling like we're trustworthy individuals.
A few weeks ago, I was waiting in the Stockton, California train station, and I saw that there was a coin operated lock on the restroom. As I thought about getting out some change, a woman saw me coming and held the door open, explaining that I'd otherwise have to go get a token from a ticket agent. This door had been designed to prevent non-travelers from using the restroom, but people were using it "wrong," so to speak, keeping it open with their bodies so that others could avoid a hassle. I was an authorized customer, so I would have been given a token by the ticket agent. But why follow the door's rules when there was a person there to hold it open for me? In any case, it would have been very odd for me to refuse the lady's offer.
The tensions that we experience on city streets follow the same script: a designed environment, at least two parties, and the expectations of those parties as to how each is going to use the space. Those expectations may be based on the built environment they're inhabiting, or they might be based on some idea of courtesy that person picked up in some completely different built environment. Every bicyclist I know has a lot of stories about times they've been waved through four-way stops by drivers who thought they were doing a kindness, just as every bicyclist I know has a lot of stories about being screamed at or worse by drivers who reacted more or less violently to the fact that the bicyclist had a different idea about how to use the road than they did. People don't react in the same way to the same intersection; people enact different transportation cultures in the same spaces.

Maybe bicycling is attracting people who see change not in community but in design; maybe it is attracting people who come together around technical skills rather than identity politics. Meanwhile, "bike culture" is being trivialized, pipe cleaners poking out of a helmet, a quirky cherry on a concrete sundae. While this may feel comfortable for some folks, culture does more than decorate built environments. It is an embodied experience, reproduced through social life, that feels unchanging, even as it subtly shifts. Pierre Bourdieu likened it to "a train bringing along its own rails." We should be brainstorming more about transportation culture and how it fits in with other kinds of standards for success here in the U.S. Transportation cultures, like cultures in general, change. What might be seen as a streetcar city one decade could become a car city the next; what seemed like a terrible place to bike could spark all kinds of exciting bike life.

I've realized over my years as a bike advocate that most of my collaborators take for granted that the only way to change how people use streets is to change the street materially through infrastructure projects. Clearly some of us have figured out a different transportation culture, cause many of us are getting around on bikes by choice or by necessity, but even community projects that build human infrastructure get reduced to a call for more street redesign. CicLAvia, where tens of thousands of people come out to walk and ride bikes, gets used to say that if only there was bike infrastructure, people would ride in L.A. For example, in a piece LA Streetsblog posted last year about mayoral candidates' views toward CicLAvia, Kevin James commented that he was impressed by "the sheer size of the crowd, which I believe speaks volumes about the number of Angelenos willing to use their bicycles more often as their primary mode of transportation if the City were more bike-friendly." More recently, a friend forwarded me an article from The Atlantic that speaks positively about CicLAvia, but the author, Conor Friedersdorf, observes that "seeing the masses out on bikes hinted at how a safe system of bike lanes could improve Los Angeles, a city with temperate weather, a fitness obsession, and gridlocked traffic." It's strange to hear these "if you build it, they will come" statements from speakers who also note the tens of thousands of people around them.

Culture is playing a role in how we use and imagine our streets. Shouldn't it be something we discuss as we work to change them?


  1. I didn't realize how reductive I might have sounded in previous posts advocating mostly for, and leaving the work of "cultural shift" and "change" to street infrastructure improvements. But that's not what I wished to say! The material infrastructural improvements are mainly the physical and symbolic [imperfect] tools that advocates use to go about effecting their vision of change or shift.

    IMHO, I think that people advocate for that infrastructure because it insures that formal pathways are inscribed into the civicscape. What's one big reason you'd advocate for formal pathways? Because you are sort of in tune with the reality of what it's like without that "insurance" and know that without them people will continue to ignore and forget...tangentially, advocating for that infrastructures reminds me of all the advocacy for first-generation, pathways community college programs and affirmative action programs...formal pathways insures against an institutional discrimination.

    Material infrastructural improvements are signs if not symbols that help a driver remember, instead of constantly forgetting if not outright ignoring. Without these symbols, people (namely drivers whose bodies are insulated in their fast-moving steel-framed boxes) will forget and therefore not expect, and continue on with a script of forgetfulness and bliss from street-to-street.

    I think what the "build it" people are talking about when they speak about insuring more material infrastructural improvements is about achieving a publicly acknowledged guard against a cultural amnesia or a short-term memory deficit that many drivers seem to experience.

    1. I agree that material infrastructure has's just a necessary step to consider who those benefits are going to. There's a long history of changes to built environments having unevenly distributed effects. My hope is that if bike advocates can talk about these harder to see issues more directly, we can intervene in that unfair process a bit. Otherwise we're going to get very expensive, but "bike-friendly," cities.

  2. Thanks for another interesting post. Some thoughts of mine:

    I don't really buy into the contrast between materiality/infrastructure and culture that you seem to be advocating for in this post(and I might well be mis-understanding your argument).

    Sure, some bike advocates/transpo planners might be in a materialist-deterministic version of "build it and they will come," but I would rather understand it as a shorthand for something like "material changes in the environment effect or mediate changes in multiple different domains, with the possible end result being more people on bikes."

    As fields like science and technology studies have shown, culture is always-already material, and vice versa. But maybe you disagree here.

    In light of this, I'd also like to offer an alternative reading of the CicLAvia example: isn't the argument here that if the conditions that exist during CicLAvia were made permanent (one could think of CicLAvia as temporary infrastructure), then that would bring a comparable number of cyclists permanently? And I would of course agree that "conditions that exist during CicLAvia" are not limited to material things like road closures.

    So to answer your concluding question: Sure, culture should be something we discuss in re-imagining our streets. But let's not assume that culture is something entirely separate from materiality and neglect that materiality.

    1. I certainly think culture and materiality are intertwined; my goal as a scholar-advocate has been to drag this out into the light a bit more, rather than going along with the prevailing idea that there's an objective materiality to streets that we can manipulate with guaranteed results.

    2. Okay, no disagreement then. It's quite possible that I underestimate a lot of people's infrastructural determinism.

    3. I think it's an open question, the infrastructural determinism. I've seen it exhibited in a lot of bike advocacy at the city and national scale, but people probably have more nuanced perspectives on this stuff than comes across in official strategy. I think bringing some of that nuance into the strategy would be a good thing!

  3. I've been thinking about this question since I first read the post. Darn it Adonia! I wish you were here in Seattle so I could just throw some ideas around with you. So here goes:
    First, and most obvious, infrastructure and culture are intertwined. Why do we build gigantic freeways? because we have car culture. Why do we have car culture? it's a long story, but freeways and the past 50 years of urban design reinforce car culture and serve to freeze it in place.
    Infrastructure - roads, buildings, bridges, parks - are the quintessential manifestation of power, a physical demonstration of who gets to control the physical environment. And the physical environment also makes a statement about what is important, WHO is important in that environment. Looking at Seattle's roads, our road network was originally built for bikes, streetcars, horses and people walking. East Madison - that was originally a streetcar running on an elevated trellis; Lake Washington Boulevard was a bike path. When cars came along, there was initially a debate about how to tame the cars so that people could continue to use the roads for streetcars and bikes and walking (that's according to "Fighting Traffic" - fascinating story of how car culture won). So it wasn't the initial design of the streets that turned them over to cars, it was a cultural and political power struggle. Regaining the streets for people is the same. Building infrastructure requires power; and once it's built it proclaims power.
    I've been in conversation with other Greenways folks about the significance of the traffic circles and traffic diverters that exist around Seattle. They are not especially useful for creating calm, safe greenway streets, and are not recommended for state-of-the art greenways. I argue that they should be embraced anyway, as they are evidence of a long history of neighborhood activism for safe streets, even though they were not designed to create transportation corridors for walking and biking. Now I'm learning that some of that "neighborhood activism" most likely had racist overtones; I hadn't thought of that. What does that mean going forward? I mention this as an example that the physical infrastructure does not define the street; it's a manifestation of political power, even on a very small scale. This is a cautionary reminder that Seattle has (at best) a very spotty history of working together across lines of race and class. How we go about organizing for changes in infrastructure will impact how those changes resonate with history and how they impact our commmunities.
    OK, enough for now.

    1. Thanks for meditation! As you put it, "infrastructure and culture are intertwined," but it's an uphill struggle to get people to see that. I think it gives planning-oriented people a sense of security to see the world as something stable beyond them, as something they can count on to have predictable effects. What so often gets left out of the picture is the very frame through which we act: the norms of the places we grew up in. For example, it clearly has an effect on our cities that so many children of suburbs are now returning to them and following design principles from other times and places to change them, but I never see this discussed, as though if you live in a city now you never spent time outside of one. So what's happening is people are bringing the cultural norms of suburbs (social distance enforced through spatial regulations, i.e. traffic infrastructure) into urban design.

  4. just realized I missed reading about 3 months of your blog, now catching up. When will your dissertation be available to read?

  5. Your questions prompt the variation "If you build it *who* will come?"

    As an active-transportation planner I've always seen the appeal of the physical determinism attitude behind the "If you build it they will come" statement. It makes it sound so simple: objective changes should lead to objective results in safety, mode-shift, or other supposedly desirable behaviors. But it's not that simple. It wasn't that simple in the 50s when streets were widened for more auto lanes or when highways were run through neighborhoods, and it's not that simple now that we're removing general travel lanes to add bike lanes.

    I recently heard another variation on the theme: "You get what you build for." It strikes me as even more deterministic than the original version, but I like the way it raises the stakes. There are no "ifs" about it, people *will* be affected by what you do, and you need to make decisions about who and how and to what end.

  6. My view is that new bike infrastructure, lobbied for by local cyclists and built in consultation with them - and usually along the 'wear lines' - the trajectories that people actually want to go - is a good thing. Sometimes this involves a lot of expenditure, since most cities are now designed for four wheels.

    What is bad is a bunch of outside consultants designing cycle paths, paid for a city council that does not really know anything about cycling but has a 'cycling strategy' that it needs to spend money on by the end of the financial year. Hence the 'crap cycle lanes' websites and books featuring examples from that type of council.

    The former example shows the power of local cyclists of any background; the "cultural networks of shared meanings". the latter shows the power of the planning bureaucracy. I have no problem at all with making better infrastructure a major focus for cycling organisations - this is forced upon cyclists since the idyll of plentiful organic meandering routeways with courteous and sharing people on them is long behind us in most cases - you have to assert a certain amount of power, or you get crap cycling infrastructure or usually none at all.

    For cycling groups, this means engaging in research on routes, risks, desires of the locals for change; reaching out for local feedback and participation; and then convincing planners about what they should do. But they definitely do need to get involved in physical infrastructure planning - a roads department can make a street worse or more dangerous in a matter of weeks, and it will then stay that way for a long time. I don't see any way around this need to engage the formal planning process, and this is indeed a political negotiation.