Building a city for people demands experimentation

[by Beatrice Ekoko for] For this year's 100in1day of civic engagement, I participated in an intervention to make Wentworth Street North into a friendly street for walking and cycling. Fun!

It's been a long time since I did some direct "tactical urbanism." Throw back to the 2000s and my involvement with Transportation for Livable Communities (TLC), taking part in parking metre parties, that is, putting money in the meters of parking spaces then temporarily converting them into urban living spaces, arm chairs, sod and all.

It was thrilling to see the immediate effect of setting up orange cones, applying spray chalk and making a nonpermanent pedestrian crossing at Mars and Wentworth St. North (directly across from a bustling park, where, I was horrified to learn from local residents that in past years, a child was hit by a car).

With the placement of objects and bright colour on the road, traffic calming was automatic. Cars started going slower, since it was obvious that something was happening and they were being forced to slow down. Right-hand turns on Mars were performed with caution because we had extended the sidewalk by lining up cones on the street, making it harder for cars to simply whip around the corner.

Plastic cones, spray chalk and kids chalk cost very little and yet can transform a street from a danger zone to a safer space in a matter of minutes.

Occasions like 100in1day are ways to engage community at the grassroots level in demonstrating the possible and imagining what can be.

It became obvious to me that to build cities for living, working and playing in, that are sustainable and fair for everyone (yes, kids are people too), we need more opportunities to run more pilots and test out ideas on the cheap. We need many such opportunities to tweak, adjust and evaluate before arriving at a permanent product.

In building a city for people, city leaders need to feel comfortable with experimenting.

A case in point is the astounding bike capital of the world, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Their awesome bike network came about as a result of testing, trying out and running many, many small pilot projects.

A 2015 Guardian article describes how The Hague and Tilburg were the first to experiment with special cycle routes, bright red and very visible through the city. While cyclists would change their routes to use the paths, in the end, one single bicycle route did not lead to an overall increase in cycling. When they constructed a whole network of protected cycle paths, this encouraged more people to get on their bikes. One by one, other cities followed suit.

Continuing with the theme of bike paths, something like putting in more substantial temporary bike lanes with paint and posts protected bike paths, planters, plastic bollards etc. do not cost a fortune. The Bloor Street Bike Lane Pilot Project approved by Toronto City Council in May 2016, is proving that this infrastructure is working for the entire community, business included. Our own Cannon bike track is a pilot that, despite some concerns, is proving to be very helpful for cyclists.

Another example is "way-finding," defined by the City as a series of signs, maps and graphic materials that are used to provide locational information and directions to travellers, enabling people to "find their way" within a geographical location by providing visual cues which are consistent throughout a complex environment. Out of another 100in1day intervention, way-finding will now be added to SoBi bike locations.

U.S. based People for Bikes' Green Lane Project recently released a report showcasing a "spectrum of change" a city can go through in delivering a project. These are: demonstration, pilot project and interim design (quick build) and finally a permanent installation. In communities all over North America, we are seeing just how far pilots can take us in improving conditions for all people.

Piloting ideas offer a way of reorganizing the cityscape without jeopardizing much, is a great way to engage residents and community stakeholders, and ideas that emerge from such processes, often lead to permanent, and welcomed solutions to problems.

Pilot projects help make local government and the general public less nervous about the worth or success of a project. If a pilot doesn't work out, it is easy enough to scrap or try out another direction. Increased confidence is an outcome of such an agile approach to city planning.

This approach works across sectors of community building, including housing, health, social justice and education.

With new information comes more insights into improving conditions for all people, toward more equitable, healthier communities.

Beatrice Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton.