Ben Bartosik

July 8, 2024

Caught an old podcast interview on the weekend with Jennifer Keesmaat in which she made an interesting comment that connects to what I was reflecting on the other day.

She was talking about the social contract in Holland in which people were willing to forego larger personal spaces in exchange for higher quality and more accessible public spaces. People have less need for larger backyards when they have lots of parks and multi-use paths around them. She also contrasted this with the way in which larger private space is seen as a status symbol here in Canada; a larger home is indicative of moving up the social ladder. Yet she recalls family members in Holland living their whole lives in modest row houses, something here we would likely call a starter home.

The key piece here is that achieving this sort of standard of living requires a value or mindset shift from all of us. We need to see a thriving public realm as a worthy trade off; but it also requires investment. It's not enough to just carve off some land and then leave it. Vibrant public spaces need resourcing and creativity in order for them to bring the sort of joy that makes them worth it.

July 3, 2024

Picked up a book from the library the other day called The Joy Experiments: Reimagining Mid-Sized Cities to Heal our Divided Society. Early on, one of the authors has this interesting bit on Danish culture:

"In Denmark, there’s a belief that there should be a healthy balance between private spending and public good. In other words, an acknowledgment that life is played out in the public spaces of cities as well as in private homes, and the things that give us joy should be in both realms... Without questions, their taxes are high, but the people I spoke to felt they got satisfaction from this form of allocation of their Joy budget. They saw joy as part of their habitat."

This feels like a direct contrast to the values that I see here in my area of Canada. Here, the protection of the private realm is prioritized above all else, even at the cost of the public good. We can see this in the way that public resources are underfunded in favour of private alternatives (healthcare, education, leisure services). It is also revealed in the way our private experiences of shared spaces have become cultural battlegrounds.

Perhaps the major difference is the way in which people in Denmark still see themselves as sharing in the benefits of the public realm. Here in Canada, it increasingly feels like the public-private divide is becoming a class war and those with the means to fund public services are taking their ball and going home, so-to-speak. Advocates for public goods need to make sure that they are drawing their lines of division in ways that include the most amount of people possible.

May 16, 2024

"People move through a space and dwell in a place."

In Building & Dwelling, Sennett draws this interesting relationship between spaces and places in terms of the speed at which people travel through them. He makes an interesting note around the way in which we can take in more liminal visual information when we are walking as opposed to being in a vehicle. This speaks to the role of a place in nurturing a desire to slow down and take in all the sights and sounds that it has to offer.

He also noted how the anxiety or frustration around the speed at which we are able to move through a city is a relatively new thing that came as we attempted to "improve" it. Slow movement through cities used to be the norm and this kept people in a far more relaxed state. Now, as sought to make moving through cities at greater speeds a goal, when it slows down it feels as though something with the city is broken.

Mobility then became a core goal or urban planning. And in the process, places to linger were reduced to spaces to get through.

May 13, 2024

Started reading Building & Dwelling by Richard Sennett and I'm honestly quite surprised I have not read any of his stuff before. It feels like a strange oversight in the trajectory of my thinking over the last decade or so. I was so immediately taken by him that I ordered the other two books in this trilogy. One of the more interesting connections is finding out that he was taught by Hannah Arendt, someone whose thinking has really inspired my own over the last couple years.

In this book Sennett is exploring the relationship between the built environment of cities (the 'ville', or buildings) and the character of life within them (the 'cite', or dwelling). He begins by posing the question, "should urbanism represent society as it is or seek to change it?"

He points to several hallmarks of modern cities emerged almost accidentally, as urban engineers were often trying to improve the quality of life of people within cities. One example he gives is smooth stone paving for streets was initially thought up in an attempt to make it easier to clean up horse droppings and hopefully by making them easier to clean, people would be less likely to dump their garbage all over them. This had the added effect of making streets cleaner and more useable as a social space.

February 14, 2024

A study from Happy Cities found that the lifestyle benefits that come from well-designed density show a strong correlation with happiness.

"Living in walkable neighborhoods, spending less time driving and commuting, and having access to third places like coffee shops and parks are associated with better well-being and social connectedness."

We know that density is necessary to stop sprawl; but if we want people to embrace it, we need to ensure that these benefits come with it. This will likely involve some changes to our zoning and parking requirements. But let's plan for a better future, not continue doing it in a way that perpetuates the problems associated with car dependency.

Also noted is that people are willing to pay more to live in areas like this. I'm not saying that's a good thing, walkability shouldn't be a luxury. But it does show us that people want to live in dense, walkable neighbourhoods.