By Katie Williams….
My blog this week is on a subject that I’m yet to research professionally, but have thought a lot about in recent years. In my job I spend much of my time reading other people’s research, looking at various book ideas and new publications, perusing conference marketing and so on. One thing I’ve noticed is the growing trend from academics, NGOs and others to label cities worldwide as ‘something-friendly’. That ‘something’ could be ‘child’ (i.e. child-friendly cities), ‘age’, ‘cycle’, ‘disability’, ‘tourist’, ‘dementia’, ‘bike’, ‘autism’, ‘family’, ‘LGBT’, ‘eco’, ‘climate’ or ‘women’. This list is growing, and new city movements, identities and research agendas are being invented all the time. Recent additions I’ve come across are ‘bee-friendly’, ‘vegan-friendly’ and ‘food-truck-friendly’ (yes, really!). And, as an aside, in the USA there seems to be a demand by some for ‘RV-friendly cities’ – with one motoring journalist helpfully warning us to ‘Forget trying to drive a 40-foot diesel pusher through Manhattan’[i]. I digress.
Some of these ‘something-friendly’ labels are devised by the tourism industry, seeking to differentiate places and highlight the benefits to certain groups of travellers. But many are relatively established, serious movements, backed by academic research and with policy clout to improve existing places for certain groups, or to achieve environmental or economic benefits. The majority of these movements have a solid social or environmental rationale, with many seeking to eradicate urban problems such as inaccessibility, poor public health, or exclusion.
On the whole, I am positive about these initiatives (well, maybe not the RV-friendly cities) and can see how and why they have grown. Cities are such complex and multi-faceted entities that it makes sense for people and organisations to focus on one thing. Researchers are funded, and rewarded, for specialising. And single-issue politics is also at play here.
‘Cycle-friendly cities’ is a good example of a movement that has pretty clear objectives and is making a real difference. There are cities where sustained pro-cycling strategies have delivered major infrastructure projects that prioritise bikes and support active travel. In other cases, labels such as ‘climate-friendly city’ seem to be given to mark an aspiration for a place – and to help guide the trajectory of future decisions. Again, this seems to be a positive idea, as long as action follows.
But deep down I feel uneasy about the narrow focus that these titles imply. As a planner and urban designer I know that all of these ‘friendlies’ need to come together in any given space, in any given city. Who wants a place that is great for cyclists but not for older people? Or a city that works for women but not for bees? As a tourist, does it matter how friendly the visitor facilities are if the residents are living in poverty and have no access to clean water?
Our task is to make cities ‘friendly’ for all groups and the environment. We have to understand how to ensure that the same city can be accessible for people with disabilities and support ecosystems and be safe and attractive for families and be beneficial in terms of climate change, and so on. We need help and evidence from different sectors on what works best for them. We need to work with, for example, ecologists, climate scientists, accessibility specialists, transport engineers, sociologists, and health experts. But we must be able to synthesise the evidence, and sometimes make compromises or trade-offs. Then we need to plan and design places that work for us all. So instead of aspiring to ‘Something-friendly’ cities, we should try to make our cities ‘Everything-friendly’ or, as I like to call it, ‘well-planned’.
This reminds me: there is also a movement for ‘Friendly cities’, and apparently we all need to head to San Miguel de Allande[ii] in Mexico, to experience the most sociable city on earth! Sounds like a plan for 2019.