Illusory Choices

20170807_161734B[4]

We are often persuaded to do things because it’s easier than not doing them. This is particularly true when getting around town. But it’s also true in terms of deciding which places to visit, not just how we get there. Some destinations are more difficult to get to, if not by design, then by a coincidence of circumstances. I rule out going across town for just about everything, because it’s such an ordeal to make that journey. Instead, I choose to go places that don’t have quite what I want, but which are easy to get to. In that way, the road layout and transport options persuade me to visit one place and not another.

What I’d be interested in considering here is whether those constraints are in some sense intentional. Are we steered toward some places and away from others by circumstances that aren’t coincidental?

~

Cities are particularly constrained where getting around is concerned. While there’s considerable choice in the mode of movement (walking, cycling, driving), the routes are peculiarly constrained by roads and buildings. Sometimes getting from A to B means going round the houses, along one way systems, and then being detoured by temporary measures.

The image above shows some routes we took with particular destinations in mind. The central route, in pale green, was how we got to and from the Sage, even though our intended destination was the Baltic.

We started from the Interchange, a Metro/bus station and shopping precinct along West Street in Gateshead. We had a rough idea of which streets we’d follow to get to the Baltic, but no idea of the detail. What that meant was a series of spontaneous choices based on the presence or absence of pedestrian infrastructure, traffic conditions, interesting landmarks, and our sense of orientation.

This resulted in major and minor mishaps, plus some nice discoveries. Fortuity and misfortune, and some opinions about city spaces.

Minor examples of misfortune happen at junctions with no pedestrian crossing, which necessitate jaywalking, retracing one’s route, or continuing along until a crossing is found. In Gateshead, the dual-lane dual carriageway called Askew Road does that at various places. It is the concrete river, a difficult crossing for pedestrians. In the image above, red stars mark the points where we had to deal with an impasse of some sort. The two green stars are discoveries we would not have made had we not been sidetracked. Misfortune begets fortune, but not necesarily the outcome one aimed for.

20170807_195357[4]

We hadn’t planned to go down the side road (Bottle Bank), but were routed that way by the difficulty of crossing the bridge approach road. Halfway down we spotted the fiddle sculpture tribute to James Hill and had to go interact with it.

20170805_140329

At that point reckoned we’d get to the riverside and walk along a promenade. Finger posts pointed the way. One pointing uphill to the Sage, another pointing downhill to the riverside and Baltic, a third one pointing west to the Swing Bridge. Down we went.

20170807_215919[3]

That notion was short-circuited by the security fence around HMS Calliope. But this became a pretty useful sidetrip, focusing on the the now-derelict mooring.

In brief, the finger posts pointed to a brownfield cul-de-sac. What’s odd from the perspective of us tryiong to get somewhere is that those signs have been installed within the last few years – after the mooring was abandoned. Google Streetview shows new signs in 2016, after having been taken away in 2015.

20170805_140756[4]

This mooring was formerly the home of floating nightclub Tuxedo Princess, which left in 2008. There’s been no economically significant activity there since. Here’s a Streetview photo from July of that year.

20170807_204002[4]

Once we’d done looking about the mooring, we reversed course and went up the Sage ramp, thinking we’d go through on our way to the Baltic. Except that we weren’t going to get there, either. The west entrance is barred, and visitors are directed all the way round the back to the east side, where there’s a security checkpoint. So the notion of passing through from west to east just wasn’t going to happen.

The Sage redirection notices are in polypockets, duct-taped to various surfaces; the checkpoint itself is very insubstantial, two pop-up gazeboes tables and sandbag to stop them blowing away. They look temporary, and hastily installed, not properly thought throgh and provisioned.

What’s more interesting, though, is the way we are once again directed to the less salubrious side of things, in this instance, around the back of the Sage, with makeshift interventions. This serial redirection is beginning to have form, as though it’s part of some wider scheme. It’s a bit sloppy, intimating that there aren’t the resources to do it properly, or that whoever’s doing it just ain’t bothered about whether it’s suitable.

With these kinds of thoughts in mind I’m starting to speculate about the pressures that direct us toward or away from particular places; the same way we’re dissuaded from crossing the Askew Road, or not directed toward the Baltic in a helpful manner.

20170805_152619[4]

20170805_143728[3]

20170805_152552[4]

It’s not as though someone is consciously making it difficult to get to the Sage. It’s more like a series of unconnected decisions that send us round the houses and ultimately make it a pointless journey, a wild goose chase.

My take on this is that when incidental details make getting there more difficult; when circumstances conspire against us, we might as well conclude we aren’t wanted. Why bother going when it’s going to be a hassle, and a bit naff?

With that in mind, I wonder who is wanted, along with how and where they are being directed.

~

The question is pretty similar to ‘who is being catered for here, and how’? That question is pretty easy to answer: people arriving by car, because the directional signage is adequate and the parking is close by at the east end of the building. But it’s not cars vs. pedestrians here. It’s not as though arriving by car is always a breeze, and that the point of arrival is in tip-top shape. It’s a larger question about the quality of public spaces, how they are maintained, and how we are directed towards or away from thgem.

Signage and access could be easy for everyone, regardless of how they arrive. The answer to ‘who is being catered for’ should be ‘everyone’.

The fact that it’s not the answer says that pedestrians may be harder to cater for, given their tendency to wander all over the place, unlike cars and their channelled routing. It also says that services for pedestrians are somewhat lower priority than for vehicles. When the Tuxedo Princess mooring was abandoned, pedestrian signage was not modified to suit, even though it’s a simple task of pointing the sign a different way.

There’s more to this, but it’s time for a break. So the next post may pick up on the same topic using a different set of examples.

Post 1121 by dglp

Published on August 7, 2017 ~ 04:25 PM

Posted in theory | No Comments »

Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – No Firm Conclusions

6. No Firm Conclusion

So, what to say in response to the proposed cuts?

  • They look like they’ve been chosen in a cursory way;
  • There’s no evidence of how they were identified, and how they’ve been weighed up against other possible cuts;
  • We don’t know what other possibilities were considered

It may be too late to send them back to the drawing board. But if I could, …

  • I’d ask for a new way of funding parks and outdoor activities;
  • Through limited corporate sponsorship;
  • Through public sector funding, e.g. sport, health, congestion charging, etc;
  • through community-based initiative, including asset transfers, land trusts, service agreements, and so on.

Post 1078 by dglp

Published on December 27, 2016 ~ 10:23 PM

Posted in theory | No Comments »

Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – Community-Based Management

5. Community-based management

Management of the public realm is changing. It’s also becoming much less straightforward. There are two themes to cover here. One is how complex these arguments need to be. The other is community-based asset management and what’s being called the sharing economy.

How Complicated!

I started this post thinking I’d stay away from the complicated arguments that need to be made. I haven’t the access or time needed to collect the data, chase down answers and so on. That’s why I settled on emotive, impact-focused ideas.

But the complicated ideas show up anyway. Given the state of national finances, and the multiple demands on public resources, decisionmakers at all levels are trying to come up with ways of maintaining public services and resources. It seems as though there’s no political will to challenge Whitehall’s  centralised view on localism; no willingness to reject centrally imposed revenue and spending limits.

Instead of kicking against the traces, some local authorities are trying new approaches to public service delivery. There are little experiments in doing things differently. These might include corporate sponsorhip of fitness programmes (just don’t mention Coke Zero). Or they might focus on supporting 3rd sector organisations in delivering support services. Or there might be new ways of providing access to resources for community-based organisations. In Birmingham’s case, there’s also an awful lot of foot-dragging on the part of members and officers unwilling to take steps in new directions. The avenues that might be grasped with both hands are being pushed to one side.

So I reckon part of my work is to keep pushing for innovative methods; keep asking about opportunities for us to get involved, and gain access to resources. To a certain extent I’m calling that community based asset management. It could also be called the sharing economy.

What is the Sharing Economy?

Here are some snippets from folks in the know:

There has also been a revival of non-monetized initiatives such as tool libraries, which arose decades ago in in low-income communities. These efforts are typically neighborhood-based in order to enhance trust and minimize transportation costs for bulky items. New digital platforms include the sharing of durable goods as a component of neighborhood building (e.g., Share Some Sugar, Neighborgoods). These innovations can provide people with low-cost access to goods and space, and some offer opportunities to earn money, often to supplement regular income streams.

Juliet Schor – Debating the Sharing Economy


The theory of ‘collaborative consumption’ is defined as ‘the reinvention of traditional market behaviors—renting, lending, swapping, sharing, bartering, gifting—through technology, taking place in ways and on a scale not possible before the internet. It includes three systems: product service systems, collaborative lifestyles and redistribution markets that enable people to pay to access and share goods and services versus needing to own them outright.

Rachel Botsman

A lot of the discussion centres on merchandise and commercial services. But there are much deeper and older ways of managing land and access to resources through sharing. These include things like open access to data, land reform, and a rediscovery of the Commons.

This essay is a good starting point for the whole book Wealth of the Commons. In part, this argues for a reconstruction of the public sphere through citizen-led, voluntary activity in managing public spaces. There’s a sizable bunch of people across Birmingham willing to give these ideas a go, but from my perspective it’s been a talking shop, with no allocation of resources, no commitment to act.

BCC could really pull a finger out, get some of these initiatives going, and find they can reduce costs and preserve the public realm.

 Next Section – 6

Post 1076 by dglp

Published on December 27, 2016 ~ 10:23 PM

Posted in theory | No Comments »

Birmingham Parks Budget 2017 – Other Approaches

4. Other approaches

Turning to other tactics, where we try to influence councillors through carrot-and-stick approach, we can focus on what a given member may gain or lose. I’m not keen on telling them off and saying they’ll lose votes and so on. They hear that anyway, and they’ll also know what the real vote-losers are.

Instead, I’d focus on how they can benefit from our energy. What most councillors want is for their patch to gain good marks, so most will support anything locals do to make positive change. If you go to a member and say you’ll help manage a volunteer group so long as there are plenty of Rangers, you will have ticked several boxes for that ward, and any sensible councillor would make an extra effort to protect that budget.

Focusing on alternatives brings me back to my starting thoughts. What can we do to find funds elsewhere? Someone on Facebook suggested levying a congestion charge, and using it to pay for greenspace maintenance. I like that idea. At the time, I didn’t know that it’s exactly what Cllr Trickett has mooted. I also didn’t know that a Coventry MP and a 4th rate newspaper rubbished the idea without so much as a kind word. (Best not to let me get started on topics relating to public malfeasance by the 4th Estate, journalistic incompetence, and the deterioration of political discourse, as I don’t know when to stop. So I’ll do a separate post about that, when I can find the words to write about reporters and editors who undermine the public trust.)

I like the idea of congestion charges, just as I like the idea of 5p for carrier bags, & bottle deposits. But it will take too long to set up; it’s not going to save the Parks and Rangers budget this year. This would be the case with any number of other funding streams. Setting them up takes a long while. So we ought to look for money that’s already available. I think we can’t look at private sector money, at least not in the short term. I’d accept a limited corporate sponsorship of parks maintenance; but no financial sector involvement, please. :p

Do I have enough info to identify alternative funding sources? Nope. Can I speculate? Yes. For example, does the NHS have money for fitness programmes? How about Sport England? What about the Public Health bodies? I want to know who has money, and how that money could support greenspace and activities therein. I think there could be stop-gap ways to use lottery money to fund training for volunteers, who then provide specific services – and which the council can draw some income from. This requires a willingness on the parts of BCC and funders. But it can be done. It requires lateral thinking and a willingness to loosen up. Not likely, I know. But still worth requesting.

Given the crude and unexplained way cuts have been targeted, I believe the council have not looked into alternatives. I think the current targets are cursory and unexamined. We are having to do their job for them, but without the resources. So I reckon we ought to be swatting it right back at them.

 Next Section – 5

Post 1074 by dglp

Published on December 27, 2016 ~ 10:23 PM

Posted in theory | No Comments »