Bristol loves cereal, Tokyo hates doing the dishes, and other lessons from "Hello Lamp Post"

When lamp posts talk back. Image: PAN Studios.

If you were mayor of your city, what would you change? What’s your city’s claim to fame? And what did you have for breakfast? 

Over the last 18 months Pan Studio, the design studio I founded, has been making street furniture ask exactly these questions of their citizens, in three very different cities – Tokyo, Bristol and Austin.

Hello Lamp Post is our playful, citywide installation inviting people to strike up conversations with familiar street furniture using the text message function of their mobile phones. Most street furniture anywhere in the world has a unique code for maintenance purposes. Hello Lamp Post repurposes these, allowing passers-by to identify an object and “wake it up”, prompting it to ask its caller a few questions. By giving specific personalities to specific objects, we are asking citizens to reflect on where they live and what they feel about the other inhabitants of the city.


We originally developed Hello Lamp Post for Watershed’s inaugural Playable City Award in Bristol in 2013, and have since rolled it out elsewhere. We designed it so that about half the questions are unique to a city, creating a sort of comfortable familiarity, designed to elicit conversational responses. The other series of questions are the same everywhere, allowing us to start to look at how the cities differ in language, perception and values.

Some people have recounted their childhood memories (“Watching jeopardy with my grandma and papa while drinking coke out of a styrofoam cup and eating peppermint patties”). Others have tried to explain their city to someone else (“It is a very, very strange place. Lots of big creatures called cars and giant buildings. A whole lot of people”).

Still others have described what they would do if they were mayor (“I would implement a government leadership training program to engage and train tomorrow's leaders”).

The questions asked in many cities have allowed us to see patterns in how people talk about or to the place they live. Below we have visualised some of these, looking for commonalities and differences across the three cities. Typically the data is drawn from a pool of around 25,000 user responses per city, although the sample size in Tokyo is smaller, as the scheme is only half way through its run.

Across the three cities, stereotypes are perhaps most confounded by answers the question, “Do you have a hobby?” In Austin, the city of music, no one identifies it as a hobby. Perhaps, this just  emphasises how much a part of local culture music is. (After all, Bristolians don’t mentions talking about the weather as a hobby either.)

The question of daily activity was skewed a bit in Tokyo by the fact we launched at a cultural event, but is an interesting reflection of where people engaged with the project, nonetheless. In Austin, where the project was promoted more heavily outside of the city centre, people were less likely to talk about culture and socialising, and more likely to talk about daily routine stuff, like working and heading home. Perhaps it’s a reflection that there is just more going on downtown.

 

On the subject of culture, some of the nicest bits of analysis we can do are on how people perceive their city. Both in terms of the memories they carry of it…

…and in terms of what they don’t like. Austin had just rejected a transport bond on a proposed light rail system: a lot of people were angry. Meanwhile, Bristol had a recent hike in bus fares and parking costs.

 

There is some correlation between Austin and Tokyo on chores that you would rather robots did. Going to work and doing the dishes, it seems, are universally loathed. Isn’t there already a robot that does the dishes in most homes? No, it turns out that in Tokyo, with space at a premium, most people don’t have dishwashers. But what’s going on in Austin?

If it’s not robots then it’s super powers. Will we ever really know why the people of Austin want to be able to teleport, but people in Bristol are much more interested in controlling time?

 

Sting got a whole song out of the transatlantic differences in breakfasting habits. Toast and cereal are the overwhelming favourites in Bristol; while in Austin it’s tacos and eggs.

The portrait that Hello Lamp Post paints of a city is often charming, sometimes mundane, occasional profound, but rarely definite. Perhaps one of its most important traits is its lack of tangibility, an idea of a place that is somehow all the more human.

Now if we could just figure out where those people in Austin want to teleport to.

You can find more examples of what people have been saying to street furniture in the three Hello Lamp Post cities at the following links:

Thanks to British Council for their role as cultural broker for the latest incarnation of Hello Lamp Post; watch out for more Playable City opportunities to be announced soon.

Ben Barker is an experience designer and founder of design practice PAN Studio. PAN produces interactive objects for installations and immersive theatre, and creates experimental objects designed to find new ways of enriching everyday living.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.