Friday, 8 January 2016

Book reviews - Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities

Inspired by Paul Cairney, I thought I'd start making my book reviews more widely available. So first off this one, which I did for Town Planning Review.

Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities
Routledge, 2014
1317930983, 9781317930983
346 pages

I live in a slowly gentrifying neighbourhood of Edinburgh, Scotland – of the sort that typifies many of the case studies in this book (Doucet 2009). The main road to the city centre from the neighbourhood is currently being upgraded and there was a local campaign to get it redesigned in what this book, and readers based in North America, would call “complete streets” style – wide pavements, segregated cycle lanes and vastly reduced space for vehicular traffic, with speeds reduced to 20mph. The battle was lost, and non-segregated, advisory cycle lanes were installed which are now predominantly used a car-parking places for businesses on the road. Meanwhile, in the more affluent south of the city, an extensive segregated network of cycle paths is emerging. In the suburban south-west of the city, a non-affluent community I work with extensively have poor quality public realm and a streetscape designed in the 1960s which is hostile to pedestrians and cyclists.

This collection of essays edited by Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman illuminates these issues of equity and road infrastructure design in fascinating detail. The book focuses on the “complete streets” movement (living streets in the UK; standard road design in the Netherlands and Denmark) highlighting through various critical approaches that in societies with high levels of socio-economic inequality ‘when implemented incrementally, Complete Streets will inevitably benefit certain people in certain urban spaces and not others’ (p.7). The book is broken into three sections: processes, practices and possibilities.

The processes section essentially takes us through stories to tell us “where are we now?”, starting off with Peter Norton’s beguiling chapter on the role of the motor industry PR in the US in forming motor-vehicle oriented road design standards, a theme developed further by Aaron Golub. The chapters by Chronopolous and Lee then critically engage with the intersection of sustainability policies – such as complete streets design and congestion charging – and various policies that could be labelled “neoliberal”. Chronopolous, in particular highlights how congestion charging is a regressive tax. The section ends with Mehta using an evocative description of street life in India to describe what a complete street might be like if it was truly inclusive.

The sections on practices and possibilities were less clearly delineated in terms of content. They were mainly case-studies of various cities in the US and how they have implemented various Complete Streets policies, or related policies such as pavement/sidewalk food vending, or community stewardship schemes. Particular highlights in these last two sections were Langegger’s account of the racially-driven removal of Hispanic “lowriders” from the streets of Denver; and Vallianatos' account of the illegal street vendors making the sidewalks of Los Angeles their space.

However, in their introduction Zavestoski and Agyeman rhetorically suggest that ‘this volume initiates the kind of dialogue and future research that can help answer these questions’ – and the trouble, as they allude to in their conclusion, is that many of the chapters signally do not answer questions. Over many of the chapters the bogeyman of gentrification looms large – essentially (and the evidence presented in the volume is compelling in this regard) complete streets as an urban design practice in the USA goes hand-in-hand with gentrification and the displacement of poor People of Color by richer white hipsters on fixed-gear bikes.

I find this troubling, because it leaves the planner with a Hobson’s choice – design safe streets and create a tidal wave of gentrification; or leave things as a status-quo. As a researcher interested in delivering socially just urban renewal I find this troubling – do less affluent communities have to stay in neighbourhoods with poor quality public-realm that endangers their safety and their health just in case improving them leads to some displacement? Obviously, the answer is no; we can do things such as ensure levels of affordable rented housing remain high; but that the logic of their argument ends at this point does not seem to have been fully grappled by many of the authors.

The chapters that get nearest to this are Cadji and Hope Alkon in their chapter on North Oakland farmers market and Goodling and Herrington writing about the Portland Community Watershed Program. Both these chapters offer fascinating accounts of community organisers and workers wrestling with the challenges of trying to deliver environmental equity without exacerbating socio-economic injustice through their work. A frustratingly short chapter was that by Chapple – this highlights that in the US context Complete Streets policies are regressive because most lower-skilled, lower-paid workers have to drive to their suburban work locations. This is an argument and issue that could have been explored in much greater depth throughout the book.

A major weakness of the book was its parochial focus on the USA and this weakened the argument overall. An engagement with practice from northern European countries, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands could have offered real opportunities to learn how to deliver environmentally sustainable street design without exacerbating socio-economic injustices. Parallels could also have been made with UK practice which seems to be following the US trend.

This notwithstanding, I would recommend this book be read by anyone involved in urban design, transport planning and cycling advocacy – it raises thorny issues and questions that stick with you a long time. I wish traffic engineers would read it to realise their engineering solutions have social impacts. As a cycling advocate myself, it has made me rethink what my priorities are for the city in which I live as it expands its provision for active travel.

Doucet, B. (2009). "Living through gentrification: subjective experiences of local, non-gentrifying residents in Leith, Edinburgh." Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 24(3): 299-315.

No comments:

Post a Comment