Still (slowly) working my way through Happy City and was reading this section yesterday on the way cars began to change the shape of our cities in the early 20th Century. The author notes that
"For most of urban history, city streets were for everyone. The road was a market, a playground, a park, and yes, it was a thoroughfare, but there were no traffic lights, painted lanes, or zebra crossings. Before 1903 no city had so much as a traffic code. Anyone could use the street, and everyone did."
Today, it seems to have been collectively decided that the streets are, actually, not for everyone. Despite the 'share the road' signs that are common in rural areas, we have largely closed the book on any debate that maybe our streets could become public spaces once again. For most people, it's not really something they think could be any different. Streets are for cars. Period. But even I'm old enough (and I'm not that old) to remember a time when riding my bike as a kid through the streets was perfectly normal behaviour - and much safer. Something I've written about elsewhere. We just seem to have abandoned the idea that it could be any different.
But it wasn't always this way. As cars first entered the scene people rose up en masse against the private interests of drivers. They fought to keep streets public; banning things like curbside parking and keeping speed limits to 16 km per hour. And when a driver killed a pedestrian, they were met by an angry mob.
What's particularly interesting about this shift is the way that auto companies were the ones who drove it (pardon the pun). One of the more significant changes was the way they seemed to move the burden of safety onto the pedestrian, rather than the driver. They did this by intentionally designing and legislating streets to keep pedestrians in their place. Again, this perhaps seems like a very unremarkable thing today; but this is why understanding the history of change can be useful. The author quotes urban historian, Peter Norton on how this change came to be.
"They had to change the idea of what a street is for, and that required a mental revolution, which had to take place before any physical; changes to the street."
There's a lesson here in how we both win and lose the fight for public spaces, as well as an important reminder that things that feel permanent emerged from some place at some time. Sometimes that's enough for starting to imagine that we can do better.
Going through an interview this morning with Stephanie Ross, the associate professor in McMaster’s School of Labour Studies. In it she makes some interesting comments about the way support for labour unions is the highest it's been in decades. Her point is that strikes are capturing the general mood of people in response to concerns such as inflation.
She also references the pandemic as a significant turning point in this new labour movement.
"The experience of the pandemic has made people really rethink how much they’re willing to sacrifice for jobs and their employers. Workers are much less likely to put up with bad working conditions, and there’s a generational component to that as well."
This seems to square with other things I've been reading over the last little while that suggest seem to suggest our relationship to work is changing significantly. I think there are a lot of factors at play here -- remote work, safe working conditions, the looming threat of AI, to name a few -- but it all adds up to the way the promises of capitalism are falling out from under us and people are becoming increasingly disillusioned to it. As the labour movement increasingly pushes its way into the forefront of these issues, it's important we find ways to build bridges with our other social concerns as well.
"The labour movement is leading conversations about what kind of society we want to have in a very public way, not just in negotiating rooms where nobody can see."
Time to rebuild in a way that works for everyone, not just a few.
Reading an excellent article this morning by Camilo Ortiz, PhD, that makes a compelling case for childhood anxiety being linked to a lack of independence. His argument is that providing children with more opportunities for independent activities might be the best way to change that. By independent activity, or IA, he means an "unstructured, developmentally challenging task that is performed without any help from adults." Examples could be riding their bike to the park by themselves, taking a bus, cooking a full meal, going to a movie with friends, or even building a campfire.
Ortiz says that so far the kids he has put through this program have resulted in "reduced anxiety in kids and their parents, increased self-esteem and willingness to try difficult things, and more free time for parents."
What interests me most here - apart from being highly relevant as a parent - is the way this intersects with how we plan and build our communities. One of the biggest impacts our car-centric planning has had is on kids. As I've written about elsewhere, I remember moving around quite freely and independently as a 90s child; biking to the library, friend's houses, the bulk candy store, and just exploring the town. My observations have been that this is no longer normal and that many kids primarily experience their communities from the back seat of a car. (Note: I am referring primarily to my experiences in more suburban communities as opposed to denser urban settings.) As kids spend less time moving about on the streets, people become less used to seeing them there and drive less carefully than they should.
I believe that design is always rooted in an ethical choice, communicating something about our values. When we design our communities in this way we are choosing to make them less safe and less inclusive for many people, including kids. It is certainly worth considering that this may be one of the reasons kids are feeling more anxious than ever before - we've taken away their independence.
I stumbled across a post on LinkedIn yesterday that was promoting some, admittedly, impressive AI tech that could translate what you were saying and actually change the movement of your lips while you were talking on video. The person sharing it was excitedly proclaiming, "we'll never need to learn another language again!" Unless of course you're not on a video call.
It's a good example of the way tech is increasingly mediating our interactions with each other in ways that have become so normalized that we're not even noticing it anymore. The pandemic threw many of us into a remote work setting. A side effect of this has been accepting video calls as a part of our lives; and with that has come all sorts of innovations to make our video calls even better.
Yet I can't help but think about what we're losing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for a back to the office pendulum shift. I prefer remote work, it's contributed to a much more fulfilling life rhythm. No, my interest is more around the things that contribute to a meaningful life and the ways tech is slowly eroding that.
One of the books I've been reading lately is all about the way in which our environment can have an impact on our happiness and the author makes some good points around the role that other people play in that. Not just in terms of our close relationships - though those do matter - but on a societal level. By being around other people that we learn to trust, we grow in empathy, and that increases our sense of wellbeing. The author writes,
“Not only does it feel good to experience positive social signs from others — smiles, handshakes, opened doors, bargains kept, and cooperative merging in traffic — but it feels good to reinforce those feelings of trust among both friends and strangers. It works best of all when we do it face-to-face: in the kitchen, over a fence, on the sidewalk, in the agora. Distance and geometry matter.”
This is one of my main concerns with the way tech is creeping into our lives. The digital realm is replacing many of the day-to-day touchpoints we once had with other people. Shopping, interacting with neighbours, learning, even borrowing. And what's important to note is that the tech that now mediates these interactions is made for the primary purpose of extracting profit for someone else. Yes, you can argue that a grocery store is the same; but those micro interactions with real people in the store were not.
This is why truly public spaces will always matter. Parks, libraries, trails, sidewalks/streets, community centres, public schools, etc. These are the places that belong to us all, they don't exist for the sake of profit, and they're where we practice and learn what it is to be human. This is something that online will never be able to replace.
Continuing through Devlin's memoir; she attributes her early political consciousness to her father (who died while she was a kid).
She recalls a story in which she came late to tea and began flipping through the loaf of bread to get to one of the highly coveted square end pieces. Her father stopped her and asked, "do you expect any other human being to eat the food you have rejected as not fit for your consumption?" He then said those five slices of bread that she flicked through would be her dinner and/or breakfast and that no one else would eat that bread but her. In her reflection, he did this not to teach a lesson in obedience but one in having consideration for others.
Her father would also tell the kids stories at bedtime that came out of Ireland's history. Stories of legend and of political struggle. They were told, as she notes, "by an Irishman, with an Irishman's feelings." She remembers one of her first nursery rhymes being a poem about the English flag being found wherever there was 'blood and plunder.'
I often wonder about how much we have given over to technology when it comes to raising our kids. Not just time, but the underlying values of the creators of that tech. What's behind the stories and songs that our kids consume? Anything? Or is it just mindless entertainment? Maybe it's just teaching them to be a good consumers...
There's a value in understanding the history of things, including the people you admire. You can't separate who Devlin became with how she was raised and that's an important reminder for us as parents.