Mommy PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (2)

Mommy PhD: The unresolved childhood theory (2)

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Image of the Walking to School Campaign, Victoria, Australia

 

Dark anger about injustice regarding freedom of movement, especially for children, definitely motivated my PhD and its focus. On the flip side, so did joy. Some of my own happiest childhood memories were made on streets. One of my earliest memories is of simply walking along a suburban street. The light is that impossible fresh green which glows through leaves during the first days of a warm English spring. I remember it as one of the happiest, most peaceful experiences of my life. These memories provided a deeper, almost spiritual motivation for my thesis. The substance of the thesis actually found its roots in these early childhood experiences. Understanding these memories as not only key motivators, but also as the essence of my real fascination helped tremendously in defining my work and writing my introduction.

Is it necessary to dig this deep into motivation? If, as a mother, your Masters or PhD process is going to stretch over several years then I think it’s crucial you get to the bottom of what angers, frustrates and really moves you. Without a real, authentic motivation the inevitable question of why you are doing this simply won’t have a good enough answer.

In my experience finding your purpose, is quite difficult to do on your own. Exercises in the book “What Color is your Parachute?” helped me. So did various More To Life courses, especially the Power of Purpose. Talking to friends and family helped.

But once found this motivation is like a mythical potion. When you feel like you’re failing, or question what you are doing, you can revisit this purpose and it will reinvigorate you when nothing else seems to work. Find it, cherish it, and keep it close.

Cape Town 2050?

Cape Town 2050?

A Commuting future, 1950s image

What, I was asked, did I think that Cape Town would be like in 2050? My mind immediately jumped to a 1962 edition of The Star newspaper giving future predictions for Johannesburg by ex-president of The Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir William Holford. Holford spoke of coin-operated taxis which could be picked up on any street corner (Uber?!) and completely segregated road systems so that pedestrians never had to cross a road. Oh and helicopters. Lots of helicopters. So with due humility here’s my prediction for 2050:

The Cape Town day starts early in 2050 with the mosques calling to prayer. The background hum of traffic that Gran spoke of, though, can’t be heard. Whatever cars are on the road became quiet electrics or hybrids a long time ago. The cars rushing through to town as the mosques call out are avoiding the “congestion charge” which starts at 6:30am and lasts all day. By the time it was implemented in the 2020s the “congestion charging” wasn’t the political problem that everyone expected. After all, by 2025 every car had an automatic payment system for the licenses and so charging a bit for using the road when it was busy was no big deal. Anyway the gridlock got so bad that something had to change and the only thing that they knew would work (because other cities had shown that it could) was the “congestion charge”.

When cars became part of the “Internet of Things”  then speeding cars were automatically controlled by the System. “Speeding” became technically impossible to do in town. The city councils lost a lot of money that they had been getting from speeding fines. By automatically charging cars for how much they contributed to the congestion and gridlock, then the city council got one of those rare win-wins. They reduced the congestion which everyone complained about, and they raised money. At first everyone complained that the roads had become a rich person’s playground. Anyway, the council had no choice but to invest massively in the public transport systems so in the end everyone won.

I can’t believe my grandparents devoted so much of their money to owning and driving a car! Imagine! What a burden to have to look after it, pay for space to park it, not to mention the fuel they had to put in. Fuel is so expensive these days thanks to the carbon charges. I would rather just walk or cycle when I can. Now that the cars are self-driving with collision control and I have my under-skin GPS then it’s really safe to cycle and my battery pack gets me up the hills. I also get money taken off my hospital insurance premiums every time I walk or cycle. For the longer trips about town I use one of the public transport systems or, if it’s to somewhere unusual, then I just use a vehicle optimiser on my smart phone  or Uber which means I get to share a car with people vetted automatically by Facebook to go where I need to go. Easy.

One of the great things about Cape Town in 2050 is that every Sunday over 100km of roads in Cape Town are closed to cars for five hours of “Open Streets”! After the congestion and carbon charges came in then people couldn’t afford to go to the beaches and parks so much and so they started looking around for more local things to do. “Open Streets” was the perfect answer. For five blissful hours we get a break from the busy-busy of the city. I learnt to run, skateboard, skate and cycle on an Open Street, and so did most of my friends. We call them “Slow Sundays”. I love Cape Town.

 

 

 

 

“Welcome to Cape Town! The first thing you need to know? It’s treacherous to cross the roads…”

“Welcome to Cape Town! The first thing you need to know? It’s treacherous to cross the roads…”

Image from http://grosvenortours.com/incentives/our-team/

“In Cape Town”, she said, “the green men are ‘shy’ and drivers don’t care about pedestrians. Please be careful. I don’t want to lose any of you along the way!” So started the “Footsteps to Freedom” tour by Karen Goslett, our tour guide of over 20 years experience. As a long-time lover of the Central City it was a shock to hear these opening words. Yet, despite wishing it were different I came to see that Karen had good reason to headline her tour with a warning, rather than with a long list of Cape Town credits. For sure Central Cape Town has so much going for it: an energetic creative and arts scene; dynamic places to buy and hang-out; street life as vibrant as anywhere in South Africa. It was, though, difficult to focus on these on as I re-experienced – with visitor’s eyes – that sense of treachery and lack of care which greets us all as we work our way around Cape Town Central City. At street corners Karen urged us to wait patiently (sometimes very patiently) for the green man to appear and then like a fretful mother hen she carefully nudged us across, scolding the inevitable turning driver who tried to mow us down. We walked single file down quiet side streets, dodging the one or two cars parked there and the minefield of street furniture in the footways. We ran across Wale Street, nervously eying the fast-moving traffic.

Through my intermittent work with the City transport officials I know that the built environment of the Central City is steeped in history, difficult and expensive to change. Nevertheless the status quo of signal settings; on-street parking and design speeds for major inner city roads is seriously out of step with best practice. In the social democracies of Europe and increasingly in  North America streets and roads are being designed and retrofitted to be much safer and to treat people with more respect. The quantitative outcome of this is lower road fatalities and injuries.

As I listened to Karen talking about our apartheid history I wondered again about the relationship between politics and street design, and whether it was an accident that South African streets treat those on foot with such disdain. Streets are clearly not ‘just’ a matter of moving people from A to B. They are also more than ‘just’ ‘places’ and ‘spaces’. Streets are an integral part of our experience of our City, and so of how we experience our lives, and our sense of our-selves. No-one, whether visitor or resident, can escape experiencing a lack of care on the streets of Cape Town. What does that say about our compassion for others and the role of streets in expressing it?

Image from http://grosvenortours.com/incentives/our-team/
Being human on Cape Town’s Open Streets

Being human on Cape Town’s Open Streets

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Towards the end of Sunday’s Bree Open Streets Day I finally took some time to sit with a cup of tea and enjoy the street. As a survey volunteer I had spent most of the day interviewing. The people I spoke to had talked about the “the cool vibe”, how great it was “to just hang out”, the “freedom” (especially for kids). One even said it was chilled, so “serene”. I looked around and slowed a little. It was, as they had said, easy and relaxed. Ambling walkers. Meandering cyclists. Friends and family meeting, hugging and chatting. Skateboarders lazily flipping boards.

There were plenty of activities around attracting interest and small crowds. There were some people intent on getting exercise and the businesses were open. What most struck me most, though, was how low key it all was. We think of “events” as exhilarating and adrenalin-producing. By that measure this “event” was a non-event of sorts. There was nothing too dramatic to see. No big “wow” to post on social media, and yet everyone I spoke to loved it. The crowd who came mostly enjoying simply watching each other. We were enjoying the experience of being stripped bare of cars and the push to buy, buy, buy. We were just a bunch of human beings being human together. No big deal.

Except that in Cape Town an Open Street like this IS a big deal because there are so few places where people can go and simply be with each other. The genuinely public spaces we have – safe places that welcome all and that don’t require tickets or big budgets – are few. None of these spaces allow for safe and respectful movement, the lounging AND the creative expression that Open Streets provides a platform for.

Great cities of the world all celebrate and provide for this “Open Streets” relaxed way of being together with plazas, piazzas, or pedestrianised high streets. They make space for people to enjoy being with and watching each other. Our history hasn’t celebrated our peoples and so perhaps not surprisingly our city hasn’t created spaces for this kind of experience. We have all missed out. After all, where better in the world to people-watch than Cape Town with its eclectic, flamboyant, creative, fun and energetic mix of people? Open Streets really seems to answer a suppressed yearning in Capetownians. Here, at the tip end of Africa, there’s a lot people who simply want the chance to hang out with each other on a street closed to traffic.

Random acts of kindness, and respect, on Open Streets

Bored with your daily commute? Here’s a game to play while driving around the suburbs. Give way to any pedestrians you come across : those trying to cross a road, at a traffic signal or stop street, pedestrian crossing or just some random spot. The reactions you will get are, as they say, priceless. My number one favorite is give-way tag. I stop and wave my hand saying: “please go”. The pedestrian, graciously, waves back, saying: “No! You first!” I gesture back: “Really! I mean it!” and then I nod and smile. “I am not mad!” I try to say. I really am happy for them to go, and so they trot across, grinning from ear to ear, bags flailing, thrilled to have been both gracious to me, and to get priority on a road. All this within the space of a minute. In return for my 30 second wait I get that warm feeling which comes from (as Princess Diana named them), “random acts of kindness”.

The reactions to these giveway gestures are many, and reflect the rich variety of the human condition. There are the surly young men who, with their swaggering tell me in body language that they, of course, have the right to the road and so it is only proper that I stop. There are the energetic women, who gallop across, glad for the break I give, but worried that the gap may close too soon. There are the schoolchildren who woop and sprint and nudge each other and giggle. There are plenty of grateful smiles, and proud lifted chins, but the most humbling are the old and frail. They simply look relieved. Finally, they seem to say, I have been noticed. Now I can have a chance to cross safely. Who knows how long that eighty year old stood there?

The reactions of fellow motorists are similarly varied, from shame, to dismay, through to astonishment and rage at my bizarrely deferential stance towards pedestrians. Truly, it seems this is odd, unacceptable, even revolutionary, behavior in Cape Town. The pedestrians crossing in front of me are frequently accompanied by scowls, or the horns of cars behind my stationary vehicle. I like to think of myself as humane for doing this, but others drivers seem to judge me as a radical. When did deference and respect for others become so counter-culture?

These experiences came to mind recently when I reflected, as part of the Open Streets working group, on our working tag-line, and shared aspiration, which is to “foster streets which embed and generate respect for one another regardless of who we are and how we move.” As working group members coming from different backgrounds, it took us a while to find this shared expression of what we believe in. Even now it can feel a bit idealistic, nostalgic even, for these commercially material and media-spinning times. But I firmly believe that aspirations like this have the potential to bridge barriers: of race, age, gender, income and neighborhood. It’s easy to talk about an integrated city, finding practical ways to make it happen is much harder. “Open Streets” as a philosophy, a daily behaviour, a programme, or as an aim provides one way of moving towards integration.

Changing the culture of our streets away from aggression, rage and disconnection, we believe, will require many changes. One change, possible for all drivers from today, is the embedding of respect for one another during the simple activity of driving through the City. This can mean small acts of kindness to others on the road. It can mean quite literally “giving way” on the street regardless of who you meet and how they move. It can mean slowing down while driving next to those walking. Or allowing the pedestrians time to finish crossing. Giving way to your fellow driver. Thinking the best of them, rather than the worst. These small daily random acts of kindness are commonplace in other cultures, and there is no reason why they can’t become commonplace in ours. Each one sends a small but powerful message about worthiness and equality. As well as respect.

“Open Streets” opening more than just streets

“Open Streets” opening more than just streets

Photo: Jodi Allemeier
Photo: Jodi Allemeier

We guessed that about 5000 people came through to walk, skate, cycle or just be on the streets of Observatory, Cape Town on Saturday. We expected the locals to be there, we thought a few might drift in from the surrounding suburbs, but we didn’t expect the scale to which Open Streets drew different people in. Like the three well-heeled ladies who drove in from Somerset West saying they hoped to do something like Open Streets there. Or the mom with toddler in tow who said that she had been chatting with her neighbours about a street event like this in Plumstead where kids could come out to play, and chalk the road. Or the older guys from Maitland, keen to build community there, and wondering “how best to do it?” Or the kids from Khayelitsha, brought through by their mentors, and lapping up the attention. And of course there were the pick-n-mix array of Cape Town creatives in great number, and in all their glorious variety. People of vastly different incomes, ages, backgrounds – but all attracted to something about this Open Streets thing in Observatory. How so?

Open Streets is such a simple idea it can sound dull and until people have experienced it, it is a hard sell. Choose a day and close the street to traffic is one basic description of it. But beyond this apparent simplicity is also an invitation which cuts across our daily habits, and steps us into other possibilities. Open Streets allows us to come out onto the public space we normally call “roads”, without the usual barriers of vehicles and haste.  Like the gents who heaved a sofa onto the footway and watched the world go by; or the many, many kids who got down on their knees and chalked the road into a riot of colour; or the cyclists and skaters who meandered through; or the dancers who just kept dancing on. And on. We are ultimately curious, social creatures and Open Streets (like the Fan Walk before it) attracts us because at some fundamental level people love to watch, and be around, other people. And the outcome of Open Streets was a strange phenomenon which many remarked upon – there were just so many smiles. Surprised smiles, charmed smiles, smiles of realisation and children’s smiles. This is a rare, rare thing to see on our streets. The design of our South African cities boxes us up, separates us out, and rushes us though the public space we call roads. Open Streets not only opened up Lower Main Road yesterday, but it opened up us all. And that was what made it so special.

For more on Open Streets see www.openstreets.co.za or follow Open Streets Cape Town on Facebook