When knowledge alone isn’t power

Unlike some other experts in the field of bicycle advocacy and urbanism I don’t carry thousands of stats in my head—just a few personal favourites. You amass lots of facts and rational arguments if you’re heading to court. But if you’re heading to city hall or a board room, you won’t get far without power.

I teach my students about power relations in architectural practice by asking them to think back a few years to dinner table arguments with their parents and how they could never win. Even if their logic was perfect, and their parents’ logic was flawed, their parents’ logic prevailed. “While you live in my house, you live by my rules”, parents say when they’re wrong, thus showing how the child’s rationality gives them no power. The rationality that holds sway is that which is constructed by those who have power.

If those in power running your city have decided bike infrastructure is an irrational investment, your rational counter arguments will not change their minds. They will think you are loopy for having ideas that don’t tally with the rules of their house. Our ways of getting through and making a difference roughly parallel the means a teenager has available to them of getting their way.

Jacques Ranciere writes about the power of civil disobedience, something that works in the home. A teenager who locks the door to their room, gets in trouble at school and breaks a vase is likely to bring their parents to the negotiation table. Die ins, stencil campaigns, ghost bikes, critical mass rides, tweed runs, and guerilla interventions can all force authorities to listen. Unfortunately, in cases like these, authorities make few concessions. They do the minimum required to appease dissenters for a few weeks, then go back to business as usual.

Teenagers have power for a day when they bring home glowing report cards. That’s like me having power for a day after I have been recognised overseas. But validation from external sources takes a long time to earn and takes no time at all to wear off.

As for gratuitous favours like doing the dishes, smart kids know their parents will come to expect a favour a day. You get no power at all in this way. So I say to hell with doing nice things for politicians. The bike advocates who play this game are angling for local government jobs or commissions. They don’t want to fight city hall. They just want a job there.

The #1 trick kids use to gain power with parents, even into their teens, is the one they use from the time they can draw. It’s the same trick architects use when they hit city hall. We wow them with pretty pictures. More broadly, we remind those whose power is only economic and/or political, that they lack imagination and talent. Oh and it hurts them to hear it!i-love-my-family

In the case of architects, the pretty pictures we bring are visualisations and plans, of what could possibly be.

The architectural theorist Charles Jencks wrote a genius piece about architectural power, in which he said:

real architectural power has always rested with the most creative designers, in our century. Sant’Elia, Le Corbusier, the early Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Arata Isozaki—you have your own list. Creativity, positive power, gets the last laugh on negative power which must, in the long run, pay its respects.                                                                  

                                     — Charles Jencks, “Aphorisms on Power”, 1995.

Observations like these are what buoy me, and at the same time make me want to engage other architects who identify as bicycle advocates. I really think urban cycling is one of the keys to our species prevailing. Here’s a little gallery of works from our studio here. They represent my gradual accumulation of power over elected officials, politicians and the business community, who have no ideas of their own. They can only hope to be beaten by me, as I can only hope to be ultimately beaten by my own brilliant teenager.


1 Comment

  1. casebike says:

    I like your comment, “I really think urban cycling is one of the keys to our species prevailing”.
    Recently, I attended a local Council workshop where Elected Members were being briefed on a strategic review of the Council Bike Plan by consultants. The questions, commentary and criticisms put forward by the Councillors (and staff) quickly concentrated on packs of cyclists racing 6 wide along the coast making it impossible for cars to pass.
    The struggle for advocates (and architects) is to educate decision makers that bikes are not just toys to be dusted off for the occasional ride with children or to create a fluffy media profile. Cycling in urban areas requires connectivity, preferably along streets and paths that offer a reasonable level of safety beyond main arterials which are dedicated to maximising car speed and convenience.
    I am an urban planner, trying to utilise my skills related to transport policy and implementation, also an active member of the local bicycle user group (BUG). For us, cycling is about allowing people a genuine option to choose an alternative to the private car for all travel types, distances and destinations; but, to be able to do so safely and with reasonable convenience. As advocates, we attempt to influence outcomes by educating politicians and bureaucrats with creative visions of a future enhanced by replacing unnecessary car use with the myriad advantages of cycling.
    Utility cyclists, people who use their bikes for all types of daily journeys and just because it is more fun than sitting in a car; understand the benefits of using bikes for local journeys. I love living in a suburb where I can access shopping, cafes, local entertainment and meeting spots; all of these by riding my bike.
    Going to University in the city 15 kms away sometimes creates moments of hesitation related to travel mode, whether to choose the car, public transport or the bike. Usually the bike wins out, it always turns out to be a lot more fun, exhilarating for the fitness and energy and usually quicker than any of the alternatives.
    Your blog post alerts me to further opportunities that might be explored in seeking to promote our message, that is to create scenarios or models of what a future might look like where urban cycling is promoted as a central component of lively, fun and dynamic urban places contrasted to the dead car parking areas and space stealing congestion caused by car dominated cities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.