Before our cities had many streets, most had many waterways, railways and canals, for hauling goods between the land and the sea. The above map of Boston from 1849, (http://www.transitboston.com/resources/transit-rights-of-way-project/) shows a city that car-dependent Bostonians would hardly recognize. Some cyclists and joggers would know a few of the old bulk-haulage routes as their greenways or shortcuts, but without a study of historic maps, few people would see the potential for a city-wide network of urban trails on old rights of way. And without physically exploring those rights of way, or at least studying satellite photos, the potential for unlocking many underutilized sites for redevelopment, if they had greenways ran by them, would be invisible too.
June and July is symposium season for cattle-class academics like me, when we dump carbon from our jet seats into the atmosphere between Australia, the US and Europe, hopefully for some greater good. Back when I was researching tenuous relationships between architecture, the artworld and philosophy, my travel was grotesque and indulgent (it’s a shame you couldn’t have joined me!) But now I have something to say, I’m at pains to justify the emissions by giving as many talks as I can in each place I go to. This post outlines a talk I’m planning in Boston, with similar planned for New York and Seattle. If you’re reading this in the US or Europe, and know of some agency who might enjoy one of my slide shows, please, put them in touch. The jet fuel is already committed, and every talk helps balance the scales.
My main claim is that we should build parallel bicycling cities on urban wastelands. This is contentious. Quite rightly, most people say it would be more logical to follow the lead of the Netherlands, and reengineer busy streets to be more appealing to risk-adverse cyclists. Unfortunately for car focused nations, the circumstances that helped the Dutch win their cycle tracks were particular to their situation in the 1970s: there was an oil crisis at the same time as mothers were taking to the streets to protest against the death of hundreds of children each year on their bikes. Politicians were swayed from car-focused planning, as very few can be swayed now. While we hope to one day catch up with the Dutch, we cannot treat their story as a meta-narrative, as though the sequence of events that played out for them can be repeated across countries where bike transport has been through a Dark Age.
My book Cycle Space draws attention to a foothold bike transport is gaining in conservative cites where most voters drive. Active and former rail corridors, as well as waterways and canals, are being developed with what appear to be circuitous bike infrastructure, of no use for transport. We make this generalization because most of us have cognitive maps of our cities that grow from our experience of the road network. We don’t see old haulage easements the way urban explorers on bike or on foot might: as level and direct routes, to the back doors of existing amenities, and potentially to the front doors of new buildings on the industrial sites that are intersected by rail routes, waterways and canals.
The Minneapolis Midtown Greenway is causing warehouses to be replaced by apartments. The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway is triggering new apartment developments on 12th Avenue in Hells Kitchen. Docklands redevelopments in Brisbane and Melbourne Australia are funneling cyclists to work via longer, but much more pleasurable routes.
Interestingly, the phenomenon occurs in the Netherlands too. Even though cycle tracks are ubiquitous, something like the rail trail between Amsterdam and Haarlem, crossing former industrial wastelands, encourages the use of bikes for long trips. If we consider the role played by towpaths in that nation’s original adoption of cycling, we might wonder if cycling piggybacking on industrial infrastructure, isn’t some kind of law!
The phenomenon I call “brownfields-to-bikefields” is highly advanced on Copenhagen’s redeveloped docklands and the former wasteland of Orestad. A new apartment building in Orestad—the 8-House, by architects BIG—uses a novel figure-8 spiral to enable cyclists to ride to the top floor via ramped balconies.
The 8-House has been a key source of inspiration for an advanced design studio I lead at the university where I am teaching, where we have been investigating the urban morphologies and building typologies that would result if brownfield redevelopments had a bike focus. In the sense that Venice is a boating city, or that Houston is a driving city, or that most of Europe’s old cities are based around walking, we are designing urban districts attuned to bicycle motion. This means undulating ground planes that help cyclists slow down and speed up; building typologies based around bicycle ramps; ways to spend developer infrastructure contributions on cycling instead of driving; new approaches to the design of retail and entertainment districts; office workspaces that incorporate bikes; bike rooms in apartments; and strategies to promote chance interaction while riding. The work draws on Jane Jacobs, The Picturesque and Utopian theories, rewritten from the standpoint of cycling.
I’m giving talks on this subject, because I believe alternative ways of life often have to be seen to be thriving somewhere remote, before they are accepted by the mainstream, or on our main streets.