With an “urban diary,” everyone’s a city planner

Mmmm, planning. Image: Getty.

We may inhabit the same city, but we live in different worlds.

Each of us sees our city from a slightly different angle, the view filtered through lenses of race, class, and circumstance. Even when we encounter the same scene, we experience it differently. Consider this: for a young professional in a gentrifying neighborhood, a new gastropub looks like an inviting place to knock back a few pints. But to a long-term resident facing skyrocketing rents, that same pub looks like the beachhead of an invading army. Or, imagine the imposing view of an iconic cathedral’s stone steps – to someone in a wheelchair.

These all-important individual perceptions are valuable data points; together they form a trove of information that could be used to create better cities for all. But, that information does not often inform urban planning and policy. Instead, our cities are usually shaped by a rather homogenous group of designers and planners, who typically speak the bloodless language of blueprints and building codes.

Old, largely top-down habits can change. Fortunately, we all have within us the capacity to perceive what we like and dislike about our surroundings; to respond with delight, sadness, fear, or anger, and to discover how best to improve the world around us. When crafting urban policy, plans, and related urban design, we must do a better job of finding a role for these perceptions.

To that end, in my book, Seeing the Better City, I offer a tool – the “urban diary” – that can harness the power of perception to transform how our cities evolve. An urban diary is more than either abstract idealism or the “citizen participation” of old.  It takes advantage of what many of us are already doing with our cameras and smartphones: recording what we see, and what we like or dislike, about the cities we inhabit. Indeed, many of us are regularly creating urban diaries, of a sort, on our Facebook and Instagram feeds.


We can take it a step further, by intentionally observing and documenting our experience with photographs, sketches, or notes – and utilising what I call the LENS method (Look, Explore, Narrate, and Summarise.)

It’s easy to start. For example, visit your five favorite neighborhoods and record the sights and sounds you encounter. Or write a couple of paragraphs about your morning commute.

The information collected in an urban diary can be used in multiple ways – as a scalable tool to become more mindful of our surroundings, for example, and hence better advocates for thoughtful urban planning. Or it can be used to enhance traditional land-use or design-review processes, which now typically rely on conventional oral comment or written input from affected neighbors.

The urban diary can provide an inclusive alternative to abstract, top-down prescriptions by engaging a diverse range of city residents in civic dialogue. It can be used, in the words of planner Yuri Artibise, “to reintroduce the human experience into urban planning.”

The trick, of course, is to implement the all-too-frequent lip service to equity and inclusion, and apply the information from our urban diaries to the real world of decision makers and developers. Some pioneering cities are using similar approaches to do just that. In my hometown, Seattle, the Yesler Terrace Youth Media Project used the Photovoice platform to catalogue students’ concerns about a then-pending large-scale redevelopment of their public-housing community. Otherwise-overlooked voices provided Seattle Housing Authority project managers and city officials with invaluable image-laden insights about younger residents’ perceptions about change.

In Adelaide, Australia, personal storytelling through photography became a critical element of planning the city’s future. Stage 1 of “Picture Adelaide 2040” centered on gathering 1,000 stories and photos from citizens on how they use their favorite places. The project’s summary report explains how these perceptions were integrated into planning goals and objectives.

And in Austin, Texas, “Community Character in a Box” was a city-initiated do-it-yourself toolkit that suggested ways for community members to capture images of the assets, constraints and opportunities for improvement in their neighborhoods. Significantly, the process not only taught citizens how to document their perceptions through photography but also allowed project professionals a greater understanding of neighborhood qualities and character.

Other photo- and observation-based examples show the importance of preserving culturally important everyday activities, such as fishing from urban piers or congregating in streets for regular social events. And some architects and developers – who increasingly understand the critical roles for our innate visual sense and storytelling tradition – have incorporated community input into interactive design processes that foster a sense of community empowerment in site-development efforts.

The urban diary and similar approaches can set aside the buzzwords, identity politics, and academic jargon that saturates our discussions of cities, providing a universal language for all. By capturing the perceptions of city dwellers, decision makers will be better equipped to plan cities and respond to urban change.

Everyone – regardless of background, disposition, or profession – can use their senses to explore and observe urban space. We can record what is inspirational and evocative, what seems to work in fostering an equitable, livable, inclusive city, and what does not. In this way, we can envision the better city from every angle.

Charles R. Wolfe is a long time writer on urbanism and founder and principal advisor at the Seeing Better Cities Group. He is the author of the new book Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.