I'm going to speak today about what I've seen as a bicycle anthropologist, that there are many unofficial ways of inhabiting our shared streets, even as these streets are shaped by institutions of power and expert knowledge. To start, I want to define “urbanism” really broadly. I see it as diverse and plural, many sets of norms for how people should and shouldn't act when sharing and moving through public space. When seen this way, we can differentiate between “urbanism” as ways of being in shared public spaces and specific expert systems that prescribe how those spaces should be, such as “bicycle urbanism” or “urban planning.”
I got this distinction from planning scholar Bent Flyvbjerg. He distinguishes between individual experts and expert systems, arguing that, “the experts do not use rules but operate on the basis of detailed case-experience. This is real expertise. The rules for expert systems are formulated only because the systems require it; rules are characteristic of expert systems, but not of real human experts" (Flyvbjerg 2001: 85). The knowledge individuals gain from repeated experiences as they work informs their expertise, which is also shaped by the systems in which they structure the presentation and use of that expertise in codified ways. The point is that experts aren't objective; they form ideas, rather, from individual experiences that they feed back into shared expert systems.
This matters, because transforming individual experience into expertise is a powerful act. We all have urban experiences; are we all urban experts? No. People access resources based on their ability to demonstrate knowledge of policy and processes, through shared language and social networks.
As an example, let's look at opera. I've been learning about opera recently because my little sister is training to be an opera singer. In January, Vera visited me on the east coast and we went to New York City. We bought standing room tickets to see "Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera House. As we entered the splendid hall, we saw many people dressed up in their finest. Clearly a night at the opera is still a formal affair.
The curtain rose and the performance began. In front of each of us we had a little scrolling screen with translations of the words being sung. I didn't really know what to make of it. I could tell that the performers onstage had some mad skills, but I didn't know how to evaluate them. At the intermission, Vera excitedly explained a few of the distinctions that would be easy for me to grasp. I had a greater appreciation for the singing after that first break.
Think of urbanism as a plethora of musical genres, from classic rock to throat singing to opera. And then you have expert systems that train individuals to hear distinctions in some of those genres. When experts spend years learning to make sense to each other, adopting shared ideas of what's good and bad, a potential byproduct is transforming untrained voices into something that doesn't sound quite right.
As an alternative to expertise as objective knowledge, I use as an anthropological concept called “situated knowledge.” Donna Haraway defined situated knowledge as “embodied objectivity” (Haraway 1988: 581). It's a way to understand how our individual experiences come to seem objective; because they're what we know, we project them onto the world around us, and for some of us the world reflects back that we are correct. This is one aspect of privilege; when your experience matches the world you inhabit and others around you do the work of accommodating your normal.
As authoritative figures, experts have the power to place boundaries around what's relevant to a given problem and what's not. It is important to notice what an expert system takes for granted, and what has been cut off.
I've spent years studying and participating in the expert system of bicycle urbanism, and I'm interested in the way that advocacy-oriented bicycle enthusiasts identify themselves as an oppressed group who will benefit from street change but do not necessarily encompass other forms of oppression in their scope. I've found that the boundaries placed in bicycle urbanism sometimes make it difficult to show the relevance of other social realities to street activity. The agreed-upon causal relationship between built environment design and how people get around tends to overlook those individuals who do not or cannot comply with the city’s normative demands. These other bicycle users exist even in hostile streets designed without them in mind.
To me, this has shown that where we connect street activity to other areas, such as environmentalism or poverty, is culturally conditioned. Do we see streets as a Metropolitan Opera House, where only certain movements are deemed worthy of performance? The expectation that we'd only pay attention to certain kinds of street abuse when people who use streets are often oppressed in so many other ways shows that in bicycle urbanism certain situated knowledges give shape to the expert system.
What are the other styles for using public spaces that currently don't fit into an expert system? Think about protest as an illustration of how street action relates to other areas, as outrage spills into streets, the place I've heard some bicycle urbanists claim does not relate to racism, classism, and other forms of oppression.
There have been a lot of street protests since last summer, when Black Americans wouldn't take the silencing of their experience of police violence anymore. I don't know if any of you have been out in the street in one of these protests, but they are often much quieter than they're portrayed on TV. What gets portrayed in media is calculated to stoke fears of what a protest could become: a riot. I want to explore what a riot is a little bit, how this antithesis of "livability" has something to say about urban life.
So we're going to visit what was on the radio when I was in high school in Southern California in the late 1990s, Sublime's “April 29, 1992.” It's a song that lists the ways in which a riot offers the promise of fulfilling needs people have been denied the right to have.
April 26, 1992
There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?
You were sitting home watching your TV
While I was participating in some anarchy
First spot we hit, it was my liquor store
I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford
Red lights flashing, time to retire
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire
Next stop we hit, it was the music shop
It only took one brick to make that window drop
Finally we got our own PA
Where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?
When we returned to the pad to unload everything
It dawned on me that I need new home furnishings
So once again we filled the van until it was full
Since that day my living room's been much more comfortable
Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here
It's getting harder and harder and harder each and every year
Some kids went in a store with their mother
I saw her when she came out, she was getting some Pampers
They said it was for the Black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man
But if you look at the streets
It wasn't about Rodney King
It's this fucked up situation and these fucked up police
It's about coming up
And staying on top
And screaming 1-8-7 on a motherfucking cop
It's not in the paper, it's on the wall
Smoke from all around
A guitar to express yourself; liquor to lighten the mood; diapers to keep a baby clean; furniture for a gathering space. In the song, all of these reasonable material goods are the fruits of the riot, which symbolizes fear, disorder, and chaos. The play of the song is to suggest that riots are productive for some people. I'm not endorsing riots; what I'm pointing out is the song's message that there are hurts in this world that make riots seem better than the current order. The riot is pressure exploding outward, people screaming because they can't fit their lives into the system in which they've been told they must survive. You can hear this when you go to a protest, when people shout together in the street. Can you imagine people shouting in the Met?
The riot is not so different from street life; it's just an extreme of street chaos. Our streets are already chaotic, because the world is not just. In bicycle urbanism there's a pervasive idea that the biggest insecurity we face is in interacting with hostile motorists. This denies the struggles that some people who use bicycles today face in many other areas. Housing insecurity. Food insecurity. Water insecurity. Job insecurity. These are global problems. And the streets are the place where the pressure escapes, a melting pot where hierarchies can be overturned. An unemployed Black man can drive a fancy car and assert his humanity; a woman driver can cut pedestrians off, attentive only to her own needs at least in this space. Streets are riotous everyday.
What if we started defining what to include in an expert system through paying attention to all the ways people disrupt and reproduce hierarchy in the street?
The singer for Sublime, Bradley Nowell, was a white man who grew up in a wealthy community on the edge of Los Angeles County. There are important questions we could ask about Nowell's fitness to speak for people participating in the L.A. Riots, or the Civil Unrest as it is called in L.A. activist circles. The song doesn't even get the date right, and there are plenty of other poetic interpretations of the unrest from artists who are people of color. I don't know Nowell's intentions with the song. He had died of a heroin overdose before the song was released in July 1996. I'm not really interested in whether he rioted or not; what I'm interested in here is his role as an outsider, an observer, and a mouthpiece for the anger and pain (and yes, fun too) spewing out through violence during that week. What I'm interested in his decision to document marginal realities he saw in Southern California. More than anything, I see Nowell as a flâneur.
Flânerie is a French word for urban wandering and observation. It is a mode of keen openness to the vibrating life of the city. To learn more, Simon Sadler's book The Situationist City is a great starting point. You can also look at the work of Walter Benjamin.
In my work, flânerie is a central method. I've based my findings about bicycling on ethnographic wandering on a bicycle. I see myself producing situated knowledge about streets through recognizing the situated knowledge of all street users as they move around and express what they see as street rights and street wrongs. There are many different perspectives, habits, and values co-present in shared public spaces. They're not all respectable.
The urban observer is not confined to noticing what's respectable. She sees through her own eyes and can be deeply affected by what is going on around her, even when it's unclear where the lines should fall between right and wrong; there's a lot of sympathy in Nowell's words.
Sometimes what urban observers find are ugly truths that the current status quo would rather ignore. This is what the line “it's not in the paper, it's on the wall” says to me. Realities that exist without recognition overflow into daylight at some point. I have tried to harness the visceral feeling of vulnerability on a bicycle as a way to observe negative experiences as well as more pleasurable ones. It's made me unsure that we already know how to fix our street problems, because there aren't necessarily readymade solutions for improving situations we haven't invested in understanding.
A good starting point is opening our eyes to more forms of life in the street. This isn't a rejection of infrastructure or design; it is a call for further study of the diversity of street habits before making authoritative claims about how people should behave. Why must they change? According to whose standards? What is lost and what is gained, and by whom? Who defines the problems and who defines the solutions? Prescribing urban change can be done in more and less respectful ways, in tandem with struggling communities or in assuming things about them, cause we don't all define urban problems the same way.
Anthropologists Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis found an example of this in studying a once-segregated housing project in New Orleans. They documented how residents of the neighborhood saw the place as having positive aspects, which were overlooked by outsiders and city officials interested in razing it. What would it look like for those residents to decide how their neighborhood should be viewed? Interviewing a man named Troy Materre, they found that,
Although his trips were within the confines of the social and physical segregation of New Orleans, his telling of them recenters the black experience—young people in Desire did not necessarily believe their lives were marginal. And contrary to dominant assumptions, even young people without cars had considerable mobility in the city. Troy’s comment—“maybe they was cut off”—challenges liberal notions that black people are somehow deficient if they are not among white people. In this statement, Troy proposes a revisionist view of segregation: Through their own social practices and restricted spatial mobility, white people denied themselves access to Desire. (Breunlin and Regis 2006:751)The destitute also have an urbanism, though they may not have the resources and expert languages to create positive representations of their norms. As an expert observer, I see the city from my own mobile position, and I also recognize as fellow travelers the people who inhabit other urbanisms, other livabilities. In cultural anthropology we take it for granted that people follow differing logics, and I have found that to support sustainable culture change we must take the time to respect and understand them. Instead of speaking for or on behalf of the voiceless, we can use our expert status to let them start the tune, and then we harmonize, we find through a shared chorus a new song none of us knew before. We can be in respectful solidarity with realities we may not live ourselves, but it takes letting go of the idea that the way we see things is the right way forward. That can be easier said than done.
I know from my experience as a bike user where the urgency in bicycle urbanism comes from. I know it starts with the surge of adrenaline and fear we get when motorists rev engines at us or honk. I know it is fed by the horrible pain of losing loved ones to street violence, and fears about climate disasters. But we need to learn how to situate ourselves and see the security we have in other areas that allows street security to be the biggest thing on our minds. Without that awareness, we uphold an expert system that is calibrated to serve certain groups' needs, when the population of bicycle users is really quite diverse.
We are in an exciting moment right now where people across the country, from all racialized backgrounds, are organizing together to shed light on more realities of racial profiling in policing. I'm not involved in criminal justice work, but what I see playing out in street rallies and protests is the surfacing of more truths, truths that had been pushed down because they are unpleasant and come from a marginalized group.
So for those of us interested in urbanisms and urban planning, let's take note: when are the expert systems that explain and manage urbanisms about transforming the city into a Metropolitan Opera House where only certain trained voices perform? And when are these expert systems modes for observing all the styles out there that people are performing, singing their pain and their joys out in the street? Let's challenge the idea that people need to learn our rules in order for us to pay attention to what they have to say.