Bring back the strong body in town planning theory.

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Suppose our grand parents’ generation had rejected the car. Whether that was because cars have gratuitous motors that waste the use of our bodies, or because they become cumbersome liabilities wherever we try to gather in crowds, or because they are dangerous, is beside the point here. All that concerns us, in this hypothetical, is that our ancestors were far less excited about cars, than they were about bikes and spent the past 70 years developing and expanding their cities thinking at each turn: “how will we get there by bike?”

92-1_doreen-mason-early-195The city you live in will still have doubled in size since WW2, only it will have done so without any motorised vehicles. Bikes, trikes, pedicabs, cargo bikes, and a combination of electric trams and heavy rail, would have been the basis of urban expansion.

What would your city look like today? I’m not asking about the built fabric predating the 1930s depression. I’m asking you to imagine what kinds of buildings and streets might have been built since WW2.

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It would be a mistake to think a bicycle mobility paradigm would have inextricably led to high density apartment development. The Garden Cities movement had gained a lot of momentum before cars were anything more than a novelty. In fact Ebenezer Howard  was formulating his ideas about Garden Cities in the midst of a bicycling boom, in the late 1800s.

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We can’t even assume there would be no peri-urban development, or an absence of hobby farms in a world where cars had been rejected. Here where I live, in Australia, what exited people most about bikes was the distance they were able to travel.

While urban expansion in the twentieth-century would have certainly played out differently had the bike been chosen instead of the car, we cannot assume our cities would have kept growing as they had been in the 1800s. Germ phobia, sun worship, nature loving, sports loving, and their corollary in garden cities town planning philosophy, had set cities on a path toward sprawl—albeit more limited—that people were planning to achieve with the bike.

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The car carried sprawl to perverse extremes, but it wasn’t the cause of low density development per se. What the car has done, that is insidious, is make planners believe the body is weak. What is worse, is that planners who think about cycling, do so with a weakened body in mind. They speak about 2 and 3 kilometre journeys being ideally suited to cycling. My mother walked further to school! In my parents’ day, people went to the expense of getting a bike if their daily commutes meant crossing horizons. My dad rode a fixed gear bike 20km each way to school and to work, all through his teens and his twenties.

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Since WW2, the strong body that was once at the centre of Modernist thinking has been a source of discomfort. We can blame Hitler for that. He took a global fashion for fitness and national pride, seen at its best in the Modern Olympics, and amped it up with eugenics and racial hatred.

Hitler made it politically incorrect to compare the physical statures of our nations’ indicative specimens. We stopped imagining modern mens and womens bodies getting taller and stronger and browner. Henceforth we would all be evolving to have giant brains and shrivelled up bodies. What need would we have for strong bodies, with cars, elevators, and soon spaceships and the internet to move us around?

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If you can’t imagine bicycle transport having any meaningful impact beyond the historic dense core of cities like New York, Copenhagen or Amsterdam, or some similar district that you’re hoping will get some cycle-tracks soon, then you are working with a conception of the body that was formulated in the post-WW2 age of the car. Put a body from the 30s, on a bike from today, and it wouldn’t be daunted by the scale of the suburbs. Traveling at 25-30kph, it would only be daunted by traffic and by having to stop.

The antithetical points of view expressed by my colleague Mikael Colville-Andersen and myself on the topic of SkyCycle, reflect our antithetical perspectives regarding the body. I can’t really single out Mikael, because his position is shared by all of the bicycling embassies, John Pucher and just about every town planner. His view represents conventional wisdom.

The conventional view, and my own, both sacrifice something. Urbanists focus on apartment dwellers living in urban cores. I focus on cyclists with a fitness incentive, no matter where they might live. I don’t think so hard as an urbanist about the needs of slow cyclists, including children and seniors, but then neither do urbanists think so hard about the needs of people living out in the suburbs, struggling with obesity, gas bills and poor mental health.

This is my blog, so I’ll defend my position. The working classes, I would contend, have greater personal control over how much physical effort they can put into their transport, than the distances they need to commute. Thinking of myself, even if I could afford an address in the urban core of a large city, I doubt my wife’s job, my job, and my kids’ schools and hobbies would all be within slow-cycling range of that address. For bike transport to work for my family, we would all have to pedal, sometimes quite hard and up hills, and often for considerable time. Without a pre-WW2 conception of the body as a strong motor, that would be depressing.

You can hear Dr. Daniel Oakman, curator at the National Museum of Australia, talking about the need to re-conceptualise the Modernist body, in his introduction to this seminar Angelina and I presented in Canberra last year.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore.
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6 Responses to Bring back the strong body in town planning theory.

  1. Easy says:

    Wouldn’t be daunted?

  2. Dmitri F says:

    Too bad this “rivalry” exists between your position and the urbanists.
    In my city, Stockholm, there are plenty of “commutes” in the 15km range since the city is already rather spread out. There are also plenty of 5km commutes for those of us lucky enough to live in the city.
    And London is also a great example as you mentioned in your post.

    It is a shame that the 5km (ala copenhagen) “max distance” attitude is so strong, especially since it enshrines this “weakness” into our consciousness.

  3. crank says:

    Ha, I love this post. For what it’s worth, I love the intense intellect AND brutish strength of the engineers (aliens) in Prometheus. I bet that guy could clean up at the velodrome.
    http://whatculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/1-ENGINEER.jpg

    I kind of like that we have both in Australia – those doing it ‘Ducth’ and those hammering home on the 35km commute. I also find it curious that gym goers may be reluctant to ride for transport. Missing strength of character?

  4. Bec says:

    Not often that you need a nswf warning on an urban planning blog! Good work. Great to see a nice retro-futurist vision. Reading the headline I actually thought “strong body” might be a specialist architects term, referring to perhaps an imposing edifice.
    But thinking about it, yes, so much of building and planning these days comes from a basic assumption of weakness and probably stupidity too. As crank says, mass marketing has been pretty successful at steering people’s concerns towards looks, away from capability. Not just in gym session but in clothes, phones, yadayada.

  5. Colin says:

    People area lazy, and they were prior to the age of the car as well. Yes, you and your father are exceptions, as are today’s cyclists in Australia, but that doesn’t disprove the rule. Cars got popular because people were lazy. Look at south east Asia where a generation ago everybody rode bicycles and today they drive motor bikes, and the idea of doing physical exercise to transport yourself is resented as a western perversity.

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