Healthy Green Transport for a Small City. 2.

Following on from Part 1.

Map all the existing and potential routes for bike paths that are nowhere near cars, against the redundant industrial sites those bike paths could unlock for bicycle oriented redevelopment. I’ve hypothesised for about a year now, that that is the first planning step toward making bicycling oases in cities that are otherwise overridden by cars. The cites we have created make driving too easy and cycling too hard, with preference giving to driving in every decision by planners, architects and road engineers. The sites that are revealed when we map bike routes against potential redevelopment sites, provide the best opportunity to do something different: to make districts where cycling is easy and driving is hard.

The red lines on this map of friendly town Launceston Tasmania are off-road bicycling routes that either exist now, or that could be built with no opposition from drivers for the price of some asphalt. Black (roughly) indicates land vacated by industry, that could be developed with cycling as the main mode of transport.

This kind of mapping exercise will often bring into a focus a picture of a city in its industrial heyday, and it certainly has done in this case. Rail lines brought goods from the East to the docklands to be loaded onto boats to be transported by river. Immediately downwind from those docklands, workers built cottages in the area marked Invermay on this map. Civic buildings and up-market residences were built away from the industrial din, on high ground South of the river.

You could say it’s a pity that industrial land can no longer be used for industrial functions, but I would argue that bicycling districts are engine rooms of a new kind of industry: the knowledge economy. Bikes are conversation starters, like dogs. And because cyclists are mobile, yet can park at the door, they can squeeze more social engagements into their days. All this means cyclists are better able to meet to exchange and develop ideas. Bike cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and emerging bike cities like Portland Oregon or New York, stimulated cycling because they are creative centres, but are also creative centres because they have cycling. So don’t bemoan industrial lands being developed with new apartments, bars and cafes, if their ground planes are inviting of cycling. Yuppies coming by bike, even if it’s just to get drunk, could actually be developing intellectual property for export. If the land is not used for places of meeting, it will only be used for places to buy mulch for your garden, and outdoor furniture that is close to being mulch anyway.

It is rare to find former docklands completely undeveloped like the port lands in Launceston. In rapidly developing cities, sites such as this have new apartment blocks and entertainment facilities already. But they also have a lot of camouflaged parking behind and underneath the new buildings. The opportunity for doing something truly healthy and green around bicycle transport has been thwarted in places like the South Yarra district of Melbourne, London’s Isle of Dogs, and Darling Harbour in Sydney. Sure, waterfront promenades and possibly trails along former rail routes will make cycling a natural way for some to get around in these places. However, mass reliance on cycling has not actually been planned for, so won’t actually happen. Promenades have been designed by architects who were thinking about walking, not cycling. The spaces resulting often make cyclists feel as though they’re not welcome—especially when they see a “no cycling” sign.

Launceston is lucky that its docklands provide a blank canvas, but unlucky to have no population growth to drive new development. We have the blank canvass, but we don’t have any paint. Launceston doesn’t even have a great dearth of centrally located affordable housing, at least not to the extent seen in bigger cities. Any plan made this city must be viewed as long term propositions, presented now to protect the city from expedient decisions that may limit growth in the future.

One thing that will create significant demand for new housing in this city, one day, will be the failure of the existing housing stock to cope with rising energy prices. Having outgrown the capacity of its hydro power, Tasmania is relying more every year on coal power that is cabled under Bass Straight from mainland Australia. The cost of heating Launceston’s old weatherboard cottages is already high and will only get worse. Worse still will be cost of vehicular transport in a city that not only sprawled outward in the 50s and thereafter, but upwards as well, to the tops of steep hills. Every trip from a house with a view to the valley below, brings with it the inevitability of lugging a tonne of steel car back up that hill, to one or two hundred meters elevation. Think of the energy it would take to hand-winch a car 100 meters into the air, then ask yourself if hilltop sprawl can be sustained as fuel prices continue to rise.

It is the need for low energy housing, and low energy transport, that will create demand for development down on the flat lands. I can foresee a gradual shakedown of property values, from the hills to the valleys.

A quick recap of the argument developed thus far. With the first part of this saga I argued that these small to medium scale “fools paradise” cities (that actually typify human settlement), frustrate those of us seeking the healthy green lifestyles offered these days in mega cities. Sydney, New York, London, New York and Paris are on their way to becoming quite liveable with fewer cars and safe bicycle infrastructure. Some of us in regional cities want healthy green lifestyles as well, just not as matter of urgency, because driving and low density living still more or less works.

With this instalment I’ve shown how a process of mapping, that I’ve applied to a number of cities so far, draws attention to Launceston’s old docklands as a site to do something other than the car oriented development we are accustomed to seeing. With one of these blog posts I will need to get down to the business of breaking up this huge site I have identified, into viable separate developments that are completely reliant on bicycle transport.

Share if you care, and here is part 3.

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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