Tag Archives: streets

Look Up!


I don’t regard myself as parochial toward any particular city. I relate to Melbourne best, because I lived there for so many years. So although I imagine myself to be Melburnian (or however we’re supposed to spell it), I cringe at the thought of comparing Melbourne to other places or spouting Melbourne to be anything other than a great city. Sydney’s a great city too. Great because it’s different to Melbourne, and because it’s not Melbourne. I’d better explain.


On this trip to Sydney, I’ve been struck by the beauty of her built form. I’m keenly aware of some of her prominent historical buildings (around Martin Place, St James Park and elsewhere), but my surprise has come from doing something that most forget to do. As I walked down Market street on my way to the water, I cast my eye up to the buildings high above. Looking up is something all of us that love the city, should do.


Downtown Sydney (oh yes, I did go there… girlfriend) is laid out on an elongated grid of streets running south from Circular Quay. The layout is often traduced for its long blocks, narrow street reserves and (of course), even narrower footpaths. But one of the finer points often missed about the elongated grid, is the view it offers those that bother to look up and along the long blocks of buildings that make up the CBD.


The concentration of high-rise buildings are a demonstration in contrast of material, height, shape and colour. The effect is quite unique in my experience, from any other Australian city. Sure, other State capitals have high rise buildings, but what Sydneyhas is more in the style I imagine many US cities like Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago and New York, to be. By Australian standards they look bigger, and there are more of them. They are in the minds of many, a discerning feature that makes the city, the city. Sydney does high-rise better than, um, Melbourne. In my humble view, Sydney does them best.


But there is no escaping inter-city rivalry, unfortunately. On the Airport Link to Central Station I overheard a middle-aged Sydney local explain the difference between Melbourne and Sydney to a couple who had most obviously just flown in from Asia. “It’s the people” he said. “In Melbourne, they think they’re more cultured than us. But I don’t know… I’d prefer the harbor and the sunshine, you know? Plus, I don’t think Melbournepeople are as friendly as us…”


‘Fuck off’ I thought. But I didn’t say it. That wouldn’t have been very friendly. Plus, I’m not one of those that regard themselves as parochial toward any particular city – as I’ve already explained.


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Simply Parisienne

I don’t wish to gush, but; ahh… Paris. It’s nice to see you again.

The streets of Montmartre, early evening, Paris.

Paris is the epitome of a ‘long wave’ city (refer to my Wave City Theory  – you’ll be glad you did). The patterns of life for Parisians are routine, but they evolve with the months and seasons. Consistent with my definition of a long-wave city, Paris has a rich multicultural heritage but maintains a dominant Parisian sensibility. There are always things going on – tourism related things of course, as well as sporting and cultural things. It’s a city of drama, and a city of leisure. But what trumps all of this, is that Paris is a city people live in.

As I explore places beyond postcard Paris, I begin to wonder about how the city evolved, and how people come to form their patterns of life within it. Ideas about chickens and eggs sprung to mind – what came first, the city, or the daily routines of its residents? Of course there has already been much written about Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s layout of boulevards (too wide to barricade, but wide enough for military parades and manoeuvres, according to Mumford anyway). From a planning perspective though, this is only one part of the story.

What I’ve discovered to be so interesting about Paris is the way the city adapts to the demands placed on it throughout the day. Early in the morning, Parisians can be found heading out from their homes in search of their daily bread (quite literally). Its not a cliche; the baguette is a staple of French daily life and a reason to venture out in to the street with money enough to procure one. In Paris, the humble bread stick is at the core of vibrant street culture at 6am.

Every city does street signs - Paris does them best.

By about 9am, cafes are open, and people are out and about doing what people do in any large metropolis. I suspect that in Paris though, most of those sitting at the cafe tables are in fact tourists. These tourists seem to be widely dispersed throughout the city though – each laying claim to their own piece of her. But it’s locals that seem to be bring the most vibrancy to the streets. They’re the ones that bring the most colour and movement as they stop and chat to the shop keepers, cafe owners, tradespeople and others as everyone goes about their morning routine. The vitality of nearly every city street at this time of day is generated by locals – the rest of us are just watching on.

I think the hour before lunch is my favourite hour of the day in Paris. Everyone seems to be preparing for something. The shops are open, people are busily going from place to place. It seems like everywhere you go, there are tables to set and food to prepare. This is a city that knows how to eat – and sitting down is really the only right way to do it. It feels as though lunch time is viewed less by Parisians as a time to escape from work, and more a time to socialise, and rest. A glass of wine (or more) with lunch is perhaps the single most prominent manifestation of this. It’s a reminder that what’s to come for the remainder of the day ought only be viewed as deed, and not as duty. It’s well understood that wine to the French is something of a National icon – something to be revered. But more than anything, it’s something to drink and enjoy. It’s effect is not to impair what remains of the working day, but to enhance it. There are two sides to every coin.

A street vendor and his spotter, early evening under a certain Paris landmark.

In the evening, during summer at least, Paris transforms again. Bars and Bistros swell with patrons bringing the streets back to life after the afternoon lull – and everyone is welcome. Crowds gather around performers along the streets and boulevards. They gather too, at the numerous big attractions, where street vendors wander through the crowd; their spotters ever watchful for any sign of the police.

The streets of Paris are a place where young people, old people and families can feel safe. Absent are marauding packs of antisocial youths; of drunken and belligerent men; or others looking for opportunities to inflict harm. Paris at night, like so many of the other great European cities I have visited on this trip, is a safe, attractive and pleasant place to be. The revelry is contagious, and dispersed throughout the city. And on the Metro ride home, I’m commonly joined by sweet old ladies, mature couples and polite young people enjoying each others company. There’s not a drunk or stoned passenger in sight.

"Le Pouce" by César Baldaccini (obscured), and La Grande Arche (from the North), La Defense, Paris.

If what I have to say here seems less a commentary on the planning and urban design characteristics of Paris and more like a passage from a travel diary, then you have misunderstood my meaning. Paris is less a city and more a pattern of life, at least for those 2.1 million or so that live within it’s 20 central arrondissements. Paris is famous for so many wonderful and unique things, but the overwhelming thing that attracts people to this city is something that few visitors are readily able to identify or understand. It’s very much buried in the physical form of the place.

Everyone who comes to Paris lives a little differently when they do. The city makes you live differently, and inevitably leads you to thoughts of how city life might be improved if we did some things more like the Parisians do, or if we built our towns and cities in a way that would allow us. Not everyone who visits Paris likes it, and indeed, not everything about Paris is desirable. But everyone who visits Paris is changed by it, even if they don’t recognise or admit to it.

Paris is a wonderful city.

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A City from Scratch

Dublin: Day Twenty-four

From what I’ve seen, few cities are intrinsically difficult to move around. Most feature the same devices to facilitate movement; paths, lanes, alleys, streets, roads, watercourses, open space reserves, light (trams) and heavy (trains) rail. The difficulties arise in response to attempts by administrators and policy makers to favour one mode of transport over another by installing obstacles, barriers, laws and regulations. I wonder, if I were to build a city from scratch, what would I do differently?

After identifying a piece of land that was topographically and ecologically suitable, I’d start by asking people where stuff should be put. Schools, shopping areas, and their homes, industrial and large scale commercial facilities. I expect it might be difficult to reach some consensus on these things, but I reckon there would be more agreement than disagreement in the room by the end of the process.

This process would also determine who wants to live where. The more popular the location, the higher the density, but the price would be less than for those that wanted to carve out their own private plot. The antitheses to what we do now in some respects.

Then, I’d start to look at how people might get from their homes to the places they need to go, and back. I’d prioritise walking above and beyond all other methods used to get from place to place. Next I would prioritise bike riding, skating, scooting and other active ways of moving around. Then I’d prioritise public light rail, then public heavy rail. I know buses are cheaper and offer more flexibility, but people don’t like buses as much as they like rail. Public buses are prioritised next, along with motorcycles (motorbikes and scooters), then cars, light trucks and finally, heavy (articulated) trucks.

I would design these priorities into the system by the way I allocated space – higher priority modes get the best bits, lower priority modes get whatever is left. This way, trucks give way to cars which give way to motorcycles, who give way to buses, who give way to light rail, who give way to bikes and pedestrians. The only exception might be when each mode is separated from the others. Pedestrians shouldn’t walk along rail lines, just like cars shouldn’t drive along bike lanes.

Where separated pathways meet, a hierarchy rule takes effect. Everyone waits for the pedestrian, then they let the bikes go, and so on.

I’m not suggesting that this system would work, but in the spirit of Ebenezer Howard, someone ought to give the whole thing a go!

Dublin is a great example of a place that could do with a rethink regarding the priority given to each of the transport modes represented. For reasons that I’m sure relate to past attempts at easing congestion’, Dublin now consists of lots of double and triple lane but one-way streets furnished to give cars and buses priority over everything else. And despite Dublin’s acclaim for the inroads it’s made with it’s bike share system, this is a difficult city to ride a bike in. A surprising number of bike lanes end inexplicably, or merge into vehicle lanes without warning. The idea of “A to B ism” (facilitating the most direct route from one place to another, and back again) is challenged here. I believe footpaths are for pedestrians, but at times while riding I found that this was my only haven from the risk of being run over by an errant car driver (of which it seems, they have about as many as we do, per capita).

Incidentally, the cost of unleaded petrol in Dublin today was €1.44 (AU$1.94) per litre. In Prague I remember seeing it at a similar price, as well as in Germany and Spain. Suck it up Australia. Our fuel is dead cheap compared to what many in Europe are paying.

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Bikes at their Best

Since beginning my studies in early 2010, I have developed a great interest in alternative transport and the issues around car dominance as a feature of the Australian culture. I have become so exasperated by the subject in the Australian context, that I don’t want to go on and on about it. I’ll try to keep my comments from now on, relevant to my observations of here (although I can’t promise it). And a good place for any one to start in my opinion, is online.

For over a year now I’ve been following the work of Mikael Colville-Andersen, and both of his mega popular blogs http://www.copenhagenize.com and the equally influential http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in alternative transport, and bike riding in particular, to subscribe to both blogs. In Australia, film maker Mike Robbo’s blog http://www.situp-cycle.com is also one you should check regularly too.

My first experience of bike riding in Europe happened today. We hired bikes from a service located in the centre of the old town of Prague, and rode out to look at Karlin, a redevelopment precinct on the edge of the city centre. Some people went for the bike styles they knew – geared mountain bikes to get them up hills with handbrakes and a sport seat (sorry – saddle). I on the other hand, went for the cruiser style with the broad saddle and wide handlebars, back-peddle brakes and an upright riding posture. I had a much cooler set of wheels.

What better way to get around an unfamiliar city? Given my need to get orientated, and my desire to do it quickly, bike riding is perhaps the best and easiest way to do it. But I’m convinced now that the type of bike you ride contributes significantly to your enjoyment of the pursuit. My sit-up cruiser bike was so comfortable rolling over the cobblestones that after three hours I wasn’t nearly as fatigued as I expected to be. Bike riding is fun, for sure. But there’s more to it than that.

The ease with which a group of travellers such as ourselves were able to move around the city on a bicycle tells us a lot about how functional the city is. Riding on streets, footpaths, through parks and paths built particularly for bikes allows bike riders to navigate the fastest, easiest and/or most picturesque route they choose. Bike riders are not constrained or cajoled to follow a particular path. Bike riders and other active transport users are not precluded from accessing places that cars may go. In fact, quite the opposite is true. And by not wearing a helmet, we weren’t made out to be criminals as we are in Australia – although I probably shouldn’t get started on the stupidity of our helmet laws, given my undertaking at the beginning of this post. Riding in the free spirited way we did today brings other benefits, too.

Most noticeable was the caution with which all road users moved through the city, and the obvious courtesy that is shown even when mistakes are made. We witnessed assertive and insolent behaviour by drivers, it must be said; but not the displays of aggression and arrogance that are such a common feature on our roads. The space is one to be shared, equally, it would seem. Common human decency is what it is. Something that many of our road laws preclude us from demonstrating.

Online is where much of my understanding of alternative transport options in other parts of the world has come. Today I had my first experience of bike riding in the European style, and it certainly won’t be my last. Because I’ll be visiting Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dublin, London and Paris, I’m bound to discover many of the other reasons why so many Europeans choose to ride their bikes, and seek alternatives to using their cars. The virtual is about to become very much my reality.

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