The year I laid down a sword leaving an axe to grind

Out of the blue

On a personal level 2016 truly was a year of change, some that came to me shooting out of a true blue sky. I spent January in Germany (Bremen, Braunschweig, Hannover, Berlin) on my exploratory fieldwork for the PhD. What is it that the Germans do with regard to urban design? I was completing my annual progression application – this is done online at this stage (end of year 1). Business as usual, but then, at the end of the month something hit me. My partner of 12 years handed me his notice. That breakup would cast an emotional red thread and a huge shadow over the coming months (an on-going matter to evaluate trust and not turn bitter).

Travelling

It was back to the UK for me in mid February facing a new arrangement, perhaps something to be described as a new life even. The ex had moved out, as we had managed to agree during the sparse conversation he was able to offer. Luckily a housemate was to move in for my company and comfort, and that turned out to be a fantastically good thing for the next few months. A big hurrah to people and friendships. Newcastle friends, in-situ, local and present, helped me keep gathering myself – thanks everybody! At the end of the month I “tripped over” to Taipei for a conference. What a beginning to the year! I was exhausted even just arriving in Taiwan not to mention the helter-skelter of conferences still being in front of me. In addition, I am not much of a natural traveller. Ultimately I really enjoyed presenting my talk which was well received I think, and I managed to return to Newcastle in one bodily piece if mentally d/fr-azzled.

Transience

March was a months of slowly becoming aware of my vulnerability some more – it was a timely reminder of the transience of life. My doctors pushed blood pressure pills down my throat, and my dentist a splint into my mouth so I could keep gritting my teeth but without the side effects of crumbling teeth. All standard procedures, but try telling your ever-worrying inner chimp just that. My chimp runs on independence. A constant negotiation with your inner self, exhausting indeed, especially when one gets older and natural cracks and fault-lines appear.

Pilots

In April I carried on still, at that time, thinking that “catching public’s perception on street scenes” was way to go for the PhD. Pilots to that effect were well underway. Also, I started drafting the method chapter for the thesis, but it was not until later on in the year when my SAGE reading had caught up (in Germany) that this whole “methods thingmajig” began to make good and healthy sense to me. Pennies did drop but at first it was a drip drip.

More travels

In May I was lucky to contribute to WACC2016 in Hereford. I also popped down to London – mostly on CIWEM committee business, but did manage to catch up with campaigners and professionals too. It’s good to talk. I would realise that later in the year.

Back to London in June. Having realised and admitted to myself that I was an uneasy traveller (Taipei hammered it home to me), I devised a cunning plan of self-medicating travel. In July I visited Cambridge (CEoGB AGM) and “stopped over in” Edinburgh on the way back. It was great to meet Deborah in Newcastle this year too. I pack my stuff for an impending office move.

Fieldwork

Off back to Germany in August, staying till early October. I started getting involved with research design and method in earnest. Thanks to SAGE and, one more thing that is thanks to the my parents, providing the perfect place for thinking and reading. I also set up a couple of online surveys to gather some data for analysis.  There was dark clouds however. The German months coincided with the destructive plans that council had put out in years, Blue House / Northern Access Corridor. I will not forget the shockwave this caused. Personally, I was totally distraught for this to happen, and in the way it did. My trust in the council waned and I suspect will not rebuild to any levels close to before.

Realisations thick and fast

It was in September that my Bremen fieldwork continued on from earlier on in the year. I threw myself into the Bremen scene with much gusto thanks to local bremenize informants, and this helped me tons to reformulate my PhD focus – a necessary change that had become more and more apparent to me, progressively.

Academic things

October, back to Newcastle. I duly submitted abstracts for Velo-City but was not successful for the main conference (as I learnt in December). Give and take. Additionally, I was drafting an article for the ICE journal “The Municipal Engineer” and even managed to submit a couple of days before the deadline. I am currently awaiting comment. And, yes, the change of thesis direction became real. It felt like a breakthrough.

Dealing with change

Some more method chapter redrafting happened in November. Another London visit. I switched my library to zotero (an on-going feat, snagging it). Found myself back in London for an APPCG meeting, at the end of November. I was raring to talk to MPs about real promotion of cycling and its real barriers. I am not sure how much they were able to listen. At least I had the chance to pull Lord B’s leg a bit. Never shy. But then again. Women know their place.

Salvation reading hell

December saw some serious travel data analysis, and the completion of the annual progression document for the panel – yes, we come full year. There was some lovely cat sitting and masses of (auto)ethnography reading, not to mention political sciences and realising how rotten democracy had become. Brexit and Trump are a phenomenon of just that. An unprincipled system, begets unprincipled citizens. Change the system to emancipate the citizen. Putting a deliberative ingredient into democracy is an interesting subject. Too many great books and brilliant authors. I am drowning. Where is my lifeboat?

In some summary

Thanks to my wonderful supervisor for sticking by me throughout the research direction change (on-going, it’s falling out, left, right and centre, all good). On the whole, casting back it has been a year of losing some, gaining some, remodelling and remaking it, and coming out a different person altogether. Change is coming – some of it is made, most of it just happens for no apparent reason whatsoever. Time will tell the story. We, humans, love to see sense and are desperate clutching at a red thread. We are, after all, only human, fallible.

I observed, with pain, the lack and misguidedness of the national campaigning effort. Further, I was developing a feeling of “it’s lonely at the local top” – that is lonely at the helm of a local cycle campaign, especially when there is no-one to look up to, aspire to, share with, and learn from. If others feel like that too, we should try to change this unfortunate constellation.

This year I certainly developed the feeling that I was sidelineable. What I mean is that the system and its gatekeeper Mr Status-Quo will always attempt ways to marginalise me (as it would with every other dissenting person). Putting it in a rather direct and personal way, as a German, (forthright v nagging…) women, (woman) engineer, cyclist (…) I am often deemed “too strange” or “a bit weird” to be given a platform, listen to or be heard. Yes, the world is unfair. Much feels unfair indeed in the world where a blind belief in automobility runs (ruins actually, #wonkyeyes) our society, communities and democracy. It’s naturally a case of pluralistic ignorance and the wheels will come flying off soon. All this adversity, personal and systemic, would not however mean that I give up the “fight for what is right and for the common good”, it rather means there is some continued thinking to be done about what, how and who delivers which message most effectively. Not to forget that strangeness of course can also be a formidable weapon in communities that value diversity and welcome change, yearn for deliberation, debate and open exchange.

Now, at the end of this year, I know for definite that humans are only half-rational beings, sometimes we fail through cognitive bias, sometimes through our emotions being (too) involved. The year 2016 medicated me with quite a strong dose of reality, at least strong for a German-born woman engineer who loves cycleways and spatial justice. Here we come, 2017. Your story has not been written yet… let’s do it.

My three most read articles in 2016, thanks for reading!

Thank you all.

 

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