Leave it to those pesky university students. Just when Halifax staff and council seem all prepared to fully embrace the concept of Complete Streets, Dal planning students are bringing Vikas Mehta to Halifax to remind us that the popular new urbanist concept might have a weakness or two of its own.
Mehta will be here for Shift:Streets, an annual free and open conference organized completely by students in Dalhousie’s planning department. The conference kicks off Thursday with Tamika Butler delivering the annual Carmichael lecture, and continues through Friday and Saturday.
For the past seven or eight years, Mehta and graduate students at the University of Cincinnati have been observing streets. To be more precise, they have been observing people, and their interactions with each other, on streets. That doesn’t sound like the kind of activity that would make Mehta a controversial figure in the world of planning, but it is the source of one of his key criticisms about the movement towards Complete Streets, which envision streets as “designed for all ages, abilities, and modes of travel.”
“If we settle for the street as a place of mobility, even equitable mobility for all modes, we are settling for too little,” wrote Mehta in 2014. “Streets can serve many more functions, and we should expect no less.”
At his Friday morning talk, Mehta will go one step further, shining a light on how the current planning paradigm aims to remake streets as places, and what the shortcomings of that paradigm might be, including a dampening of diversity. Even our successes, says Mehta, may be “actually ignoring a whole lot of other things and flattening the ecology of public space.”
“All the ways that the street gets modified send out certain messages,” Mehta says, and by modifying a street we change “who it invites, and who it doesn’t.”
Portland, Oregon is normally cited as the ultimate in planning policy gone right, but Mehta points to a negative consequence of the city’s much lauded bike infrastructure, a case where a neighbourhood redesigned to be more bike friendly was completely gentrified as a result. “That one formula of complete streets threw a whole set of people out of that neighbourhood,” says Mehta.
Not that Mehta is a fan of the automobile and its effects on city life. “This talk is really about not trying to talk about ‘the street as a place and we should try and revive it.’ I’ll do a little bit of that, but you know, that movement has taken off at least quite a bit here in the U.S. and I’m sure in Canada as well. So the question then is what happens and what are the concerns that follow that?”
“Are we in a place where we can just take these things as knowledge and best practices? And will that give us all that we really are looking for, particularly in a space like a street which is so ubiquitous and it’s for everyone and it’s supposedly this last frontier of real open public space?”
Mehta sees a risk in the way planning seems to have settled on a formula to fix the transgressions of bygone eras, as if there is an idealized urban street that just needs to be repeated over and over.
“Many cities have obviously had a whole lot of success in doing that,” says Mehta, “but the point being that you’re getting this very flattened public life out of this.”
Mehta references the idea of “pacification by cappuccino” a term coined by sociologist Sharon Zukinan, intense critic of gentrification. “The idea that everybody is happy drinking coffee and drinking beer in the evening and that’s it. And that’s the end of our street life,” says Mehta. “We might be losing something even though we are coming back to convert streets to places where essentially people can hang out.”
So, what would Vikas Mehta think about, say, the recent re-design of Argyle Street, or the proposed bus lane on Gottingen?
He’s not about to lay down judgement on Argyle or Gottingen before setting foot in Halifax, but Mehta says we need to be asking, “how is the nature of that street changed after that has occurred? Those are the big questions. We might address a couple of things, but then we might be leaving out a whole lot of other actions that are really part of the street.”
You can hear Mehta, along with Katrina Johnson-Zimmerman on Friday morning at the Central Library, and Saturday afternoon at the Dalhousie School of Planning.