Biking, Walking & Blogging: An Interview with David Engwicht of Creative Communities International
Spontaneous Exchange: An interview with David Engwicht
Often hailed as the guru of traffic calming, David Engwicht advocates for solutions that are not based in design but in the cultural exchange that defines the best of cities.
From Joan Pasiuk, Bike Walk Twin Cities Program Director
BWTC: Looking out the window, what do you see on the street that many of us wouldn’t see?
David: The first thing I usually observe about this space is that it is completely mobility-focused. All of the exchanges are in a private space. We’re sitting in a wonderful exchange place here, with coffee, tables, chairs, cake, and people to look at. If we go outside, where do I have that kind of experience in that public realm? I can’t see a bench to sit on – if I had kids, where could the kids play or climb around on rocks or seats? The way that we view our streets and construct our streets is only for moving people through them. I call these types of streets the hallways of the city. But we don’t even make them up as nice as most people do their hallways. At least in a hallway in your house there might be flowers, tables and photographs. Also, the street looks like a linear corridor not a series of rooms. The irony is that most streets in America are easily wide enough to divide them up into a series of rooms. How do you know when you’ve gone into a new room? Usually there is a narrow passage, a door, and the door is the threshold that says you’re entering a new space. There is a sense of containment, there are windows that give you glimpses of other spaces, and the other side has a door that leads to another space. Outdoor rooms can be created through the simplest changes –it can be landscaping that creates a sense of entrance or it can be a grand entrance. If you look outside this café, for example, if those parked cars are taken away and you put a row of potted plants in their place, suddenly you’ve created a nook, a place that’s carved out. In the project I was doing in small town Australia, I divided the main street into three outside rooms. I called two of them utility rooms. These rooms are the garage where you park your car or you can take the cars out and have a party there instead. There was the civic lounge room in the middle and another utility room on the end. As the street was renovated, we came up with new ways to break up that space –for example, when you crossed into the civic lounge room, you crossed a little stone bridge. The cars would cross the stone bridge so you were clearly saying to the driver, you’re entering a different kind of space with different types of experiences. There are all sorts of creative ways to distinguish space– hanging flags gives enclosure, so do lights above the street. It’s about encouraging people to become creative homemakers. Most homemakers know how to make a room feel homey – on any budget.
BWTC: What is the core of your message?
David: Most of the problems we have in our cities are social or cultural problems. These problems need to be addressed at the cultural level and can’t be solved simply through design. We have a design-centric view of the world where we assume that every problem can be solved by changing the design of physical space. Our cities have moved from citizenship to entitlement. I’m passionate about design, but design is not what is going to fix the problems. We have to move back to the mind frame where citizens take responsibilities for fixing their own problems.
BWTC: When you talked last night, you mentioned your appreciation of spontaneous interactions versus planned interactions. Can you explain that concept in more detail?
David: I define cities as an invention to maximize exchange and minimize trouble. What the city does is take those exchange opportunities and bring them into a bounded area. The city was a giant step forward in the evolutionary process. It concentrated diversity, provided a mixing bowl for that diversity, and reduced the energy costs of those transactions. I argue that there are two ways that those exchanges can be transacted – the planned and the spontaneous exchange. Again from the evolutionary point of view, new life comes from the spontaneous exchange. You can only plan to interact with what you already know. A certain amount of chaos or spontaneity in the city is a core ingredient for the city to fullfil its basic mission. The spontaneous exchanges in the city are the core of the creativity of the city, the social justice of the city, and the core of the democratic life of the city. Often they are of much higher value than a planned exchange that may replace a spontaneous exchange. However, our city planning by definition focuses only on those planned exchanges. Whenever city planners and engineers say, “Oh, aren’t we doing well, the average number of trips that our residents are making have gone up from 12 to 14,” my response is, “Well, that’s probably an indication of a decline in quality of life. Those extra two trips are planned exchanges that people are making because they’ve lost four spontaneous exchanges. There is too much focus on mobility and trips. Spontaneous exchanges happen for free on the back of a planned trip. We should be focusing on the quality of the total number of exchanges, spontaneous and planned. So if you look at the big picture, a city can actually be going backwards while facilitating more trips for its residents. We currently have a mobility-centric view that focuses on planned exchanges instead of an exchange-centric view of the city.
BWTC: What prevents us from exercising your community empowerment model?
David: We’re stuck in a vicious cycle. The city has regulated what used to be citizen responsibility. There was a time when the people could build a building wherever they liked. This resulted in the classic French villas and Italian hill towns whose streets have an organic feel along with organic squares and spaces. The builders of those buildings had a civic responsibility to build in a manner that contributed to the vibrancy of the entire public realm. Now that civic responsibility has been taken away from the creator of the building and is instead regulated by the city. We rely on the intelligence of one or two public planners rather than the magic and creativity that each individual can bring to the public realm. It’s a total erosion of what used to be citizen responsibilities and has created what I’d call an entitlement attitude. Cities define their residents as customers and start creating a customer-merchant relationship. With that kind of set up, a resident can say, “I have my rights –you provide the roads, remove the rubbish and fix the conflicts I have with my neighbors. I pay the money, you give me the product.” At the same time, without realizing it, those residents are also saying, “I’m a disembodied citizen. I no longer belong to a vibrant community; I no longer have a connection to my neighbors.” The city has taken away their responsibilities, but they’ve also surrendered it. To solve problems, cities need to hand back that responsibility to the residents.
I often talk about when kids used to play in the streets; it was their first lesson sin citizenship. You didn’t choose who lived on your street, or what their interests were. Those kids had to learn to accommodate the cranky man on the corner. It was a lesson in negotiation –that’s what living in a city is all about. We no longer let kids play in the street; we take them to an organized sports center where the rules are set down by an authority figure. We’re training them for this disempowered type of citizenship which is citizenship in name but not in practice.
BWTC: I’ve heard you talk about humor and intrigue – is there a way to convey the essence of how people can have fun and enter these spaces with a sense of whimsy?
David: People go into the public realm with different frames of mind. A motorist is a different frame of mind than a tourist. A tourist will walk through a space and not worry about how far it is to walk because the walk is part of the experience – they are in a timeless world. One of the tricks is to trigger that sense of timelessness in the motorist persona. Humor is one way of doing that – intrigue is another way. Once, I put red devils’ horns on my bike helmet. I didn’t do it with any mission in mind; I just thought it would be fun. Often the responses would catch me by surprise. Kids would have cheesy grins on their faces or someone would pull up behind me and start chatting with me. Suddenly I realized that humor re-humanizes environments that have become dehumanized. That person relates to you as a human instead of an anonymous cyclist. Hans Monderman said that he had to turn motorists back into humans again. His goal was to get eye contact between motorists and others in space. The most transformative things you can do are to put a stuffed chicken on your dashboard or a Mr. Bean peering out of your back window or something silly on the back of your bike. I rode around with those horns on my bike helmet and I’d think, “How many people have I sent to work happier than they otherwise would have been?” I might have sent 10,00 people to work happier. I made that investment and had the willingness to look a bit silly. I have another story about an elderly woman with red hair in a café in London. She was reading a book and I looked across at her and wished I had the guts to do something like that. I came back to Australia and about a year later, I ended up dying my hair purple. When I dyed my hair, I felt that my creativity went through the roof because creativity is tied to risk taking. I had purple hair and I would get dozens of people talking to me and I would tell them the story. We underestimate the power of those small things that may be considered eccentric or kooky --they are the things that re-humanize us and give gifts to other people.
BWTC: We’re working to encourage biking and walking – part of that is creating safe spaces and reducing driving. If you had 30 million dollars, how would you advise spending it?
David: The first thing I’d do is have a workshop thinking session with everyone involved. I’d say to them, here’s the outcome we want – lets paint a picture of that. So if you want to be the first city to reduce car traffic by 50%, then how do you get there? If you don’t have a story, you don’t have a strategy. If you don’t have a story about how you’re going to reach that vision for the future, then all you’re doing is throwing hope out. I find most community groups do this – they’ll go into battle and do all the usual tactics like letter writing and petitions, but there is no story for how those things produce the end result. $30 million is almost too much money – you’re going to throw a little bit here, a little bit there. At the end, you’ll say “Oh – wonder if it worked?” Scarcity of resources makes you more creative. It’s highly likely that 3,000 of what you spent will be more effective than the 29 million else. Maybe one small thing you do really sets off a cultural revolution. The challenge I’d throw out to the group would be –if you only had 30,000 to work with, how would you start the revolution? How would you get the cultural change you’re working for? That way you ensure that you come up with the idea that is most likely to accomplish your goals. Doesn’t mean you can’t spend the whole $30 mil, but it focuses your attention. My other piece of advice is that this is a culture problem not an infrastructure problem. I’m not saying design and infrastructure shouldn’t be integrated in to the package, but design should be the back of the train not the engine. In our culture, we always put it as the engine – design is important, but it shouldn’t drive everything. I often use the illustration of people who win the lottery. We know they fritter the money away in a few years –the reason they do that is because they don’t see themselves as a millionaire, they see a poor person with an extra million dollar. We have to take into account the story that people are telling themselves. Traffic is a manifestation of the story that communities are telling themselves about themselves. I’d also invest in an outbreak of civility. Specifically, I’d be producing self-help kits for neighborhoods that have a traffic problem. I’d do a deal with the city that they wont respond to traffic complaints by sending an engineer out to measure traffic but instead give the neighborhood the self-help kit. The instructions are “Go and try this, and if it doesn’t work, come back and see us.” The kit would explain that the degree of traffic is related to their civic responsibility and the fastest way to slow traffic is for them to reclaim their street. I would give them the practical tools to help them save money, like a trip organizer to help them condense trips, to notice where the inefficiencies are and rationalize their use of vehicles. You move the focus away from managing movement to building the opportunities for spontaneous exchanges. If cities invested money in neighborhood barbeques, swings, etc, instead of traffic calming, they’d get a double impact. They’d be reducing the need for people to travel and building neighborhood life that will slow the traffic down.
BWTC: Anything else you’d like to say?
David: The huge challenge that Transit for Livable Communities and Bike Walk Twin Cities face is the challenge to move away from a transportation focus to an exchange focus. I’m not critical of the groups that already exist like Walk America or Feet First in Seattle, but you can rattle off those grassroots organizations across the country and they all have a mobility focus in their title. I don’t know of any orgs called Sitable Communities. America walks, but why not America Sits? All of these programs don’t understand the connection between getting back to the original purpose of the city – to focus on the efficiency to encourage transactions. Your job is to give every person who takes public transit the maximum number of interactions per ride, not to increase transit ridership. When a cyclist goes through a suburban shopping center, the question should be what are the exchange opportunities for that site? How can that person move through the space in a way that opens up opportunities for exchange?