The radical environment is scary!

We feel uncomfortable about the idea that our actions might be determined elsewhere. That’s also a problem for cycle campaigning if we are not aware of this.

To explain this further, I will be using the three categories again:

  • conservative (personal strength)
  • liberal (education)
  • radical (system)

The three categories are very useful for clarifying various things from political leanings, policy measures to people’s general worldviews. We can also use these categories to see what kind of problem we are facing, and how the solutions to that problem can be derived:

Where cycling infrastructure exists, keeping up cycling levels, to some extent, is more of a liberal problem: a question of marketing, education and information (and of course the maintenance and expansion of the existing cycle facilities). Wanting more people to cycling in low-cycling cities is a radical problem: we need changes to the public space to make cycling a comfortable experience that is sensible, safe and accessible for all.

Yet it is scary imagining that public space could hold such influence over our decisions. We like to be self-determined. That we are self-governing gives us strength and independence. Anything that is external to us, which a radical problem/solution would be, means that something outside our bodies, our minds has control over us. I suspect this is so scary to some, that the public-space environment is wiped away from their minds entirely.

I suppose that the other thing that plays a role is some form of “lack of imagination”. It’s hard to see that the public space is not set – that it can change and can be changed. Engineers and planners should be the professions that are good at that – they are trained to reimagine space and use spatial thinking. Yet many cities have remained almost entirely car-based. Sociology has been struggling with the external influence too. Under much debate at the time, in the 70s an “ecological turn” took place in sociology. This meant that not just “society” should be taken into consideration to explain and describe human action – but external criteria too. The natural environment is too important to our survival – it cannot be omitted from (academic) assessment frameworks. The human-made environment must be part of that discussion too: how does it support human wellbeing – how does environment and the human body interact?

To me it seems that the urban environment still only has very few people speaking up for it. The current car-dominated environments do not hold human needs at their heart. It’s a hard subject to talk about, as the built environment is so big, so vast, and the people in charge of it, the engineers and planners, do not let go easily of their practices (which are largely centred around car-focussed measures). Urban space is however often framed as a mere technical issue. And what about politics? The politicians ought to wake up to this much more, as people’s health and well-being is put at risk and local economies suffer. Yet, their waking up is slow too – the status quo is strong and has automatic supporters.

Naturally. Change does not happen quickly. But we must acknowledge the radical problem we are facing, and we cannot keep quiet about our cityscapes hurting, injuring and choking us. As with many stuck systems and professional practices, the solutions are nonetheless there, they only must be implemented. I was recently bowled over by the quality of cycle infrastructure in Nijmegen. And they are still improving it. Here are some photos.

Nijmegen (1)Nijmegen (2)Nijmegen (3)Nijmegen (4)

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