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.

January 18, 2024

Something I've been thinking about a lot over the last year is the way our societal obsession with protecting private interests is spilling out into our public spaces and fundamentally damaging them.

A good example of this is the increased use of surveillance tech. As more and more people leverage it to protect their private assets, it has a negative ripple effect of eroding the public trust and hospitality of our neighbourhoods. I was confronted with this the other day as I walked past a house the other day and heard a loud, recorded voice call out, "smile, you are being recorded!" What stands out to me here is that I was on public property, the sidewalk, where I had every right to be. Yet, this individual's need to protect their private interests made that public space less hospitable. The private space spilling into the public and ultimately trying to claim it as its own. Heaven forbid I had decided to stand there for a while; a picture of me might have ended up on facebook labelled as a "suspicious individual."

It's sad to think of sidewalks going the way of streets before them, hijacked by private freedoms and interests to the point of no longer being truly inclusive spaces for everyone. But it is something I am reminded of whenever I see them covered in snow while the streets are cleanly plowed, or cars parked halfway across them to fit more vehicles in a driveway, or whenever I warn my kids to interrupt their play in order to make it their responsibility to pay attention to the massive SUVs and trucks that are backing out of their driveways across the sidewalks.

More on this to come I'm sure.

August 9, 2023

Been reading a bit about Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, who attempted to change the trajectory that the city was on. Throughout the 20th C, Bogotá had become dominated by private vehicles and had privatized much of its public space. Peñalosa believed that cities could inspire happiness if they were planned for people, rather than cars. During his time as mayor he scrapped highway expansions, installed bike paths and public parks, put in a highly ambitious rapid transit system, increased gas taxes, and began to ban cars from the city centre.

Of course not all of these changes were readily accepted by the public and certain demographics pushed back. But he held to a conviction that we don't have to just give in and do things the way they always have been. Cities can be whatever we want them to be.

“A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can't be both.” -- Peñalosa

It's amazing how easily we acquiesce in our planning to car centric thinking. We look at busy streets, backed up traffic, drivers making unsafe decisions, and think we can solve this by adding more infrastructure for private vehicles. Give them more lanes, make it so they don't have to wait at lights, make parking more available. The results of this are always the same: if you make streets better for cars, more people will drive on them. We need to fight this impulse. Instead of making things easier for drivers, make them harder. De-prioritize the convenience of private vehicles and invest in helping people get around in other ways.

In every way this makes a city better.