[Caveat: this is just my opinion as a writer on the site. I am not speaking for the board, where I am also a member.]
Over the last few weeks, there’s been an interesting conversation on this website about increasing the diversity of writers and (by extension) topics. For example, a group of (old and new) writers met up last month to discuss this very issue. Sadly, I wasn’t at the meeting, but I’ve head it went well and fostered a host of good ideas. (I also hear there will be more to come.) One of the attendees kindly wrote up a description of the event, and her post generated a rich conversation on- and off-line, in the comment threads and message boards.
At its root, the main question is this: Why are the people participating in online urban planning discussions disproportionately younger white men?
Speaking as a member of this group, it can be difficult to understand this problem. Our streets belong to everyone, and everyone has a stake in how they’re designed. And in my perambulations about the city, you need only mention to strangers that you work on urban planning issues and you’ll quickly discover strong opinions about street design. This is not an area where only “experts” can weigh in. To the contrary, almost everyone has something compelling to say about the street in front of their home, their commute to work, or their recent experience walking through downtown.
And on top of the rich variety of street opinions, people “speak with their feet” every day. Planners, engineers, designers, artists, and architects are well served by paying close attention to the patterns and rhythms of everyday life, the way that people park their bikes, drive their cars, or cross the street. So with all this potential energy and conversation around our streets, our most important shared public spaces, why is only a narrow sliver of our society participating in the conversation?
I research bicycle planning, and this same kind of problem has plagued bicycling communities across North America for a century. For example, everywhere in the US, women ride bicycles at far lower rates than men.
In my research on bicycling in the Twin Cities, I went out of my way to interview bicyclists who were “newer riders,” and who represented age, gender, race, and class groups that are less likely to be found riding bicycles. There are many reasons that someone will choose not to ride a bicycle, but the one common thread between all these groups of people was a concern over riding in the street. Even if they might want to ride a bike, if people don’t enjoy it, they won’t do it.
As Walker has thoroughly pointed out on this very site, throughout much of the 20th century, the dominant approach to bicycle planning has been the “vehicular cycling” doctrine. According to this approach, the best way to ride a bicycle in a city is to “act like a vehicle.” One rides in the middle of the lane, signals all one’s moves dramatically, dons highly visible equipment, and waits patiently in the middle of car queues at intersections. This, we are told, is the safest, most effective way to ride a bike in the city.
These days, vehicular cycling is old news. I don’t even want to talk much about its pros and cons, only to say that if that’s your thing, go for it. Rather, to me the interesting thing about vehicular cycling is how people who adopt this mantra have difficulty understanding why everyone doesn’t ride their bike in a similar way. Many vehicular cyclists that I’ve talked to seem unable to comprehend why everyone doesn’t ride around cities like this every day.
“What’s the problem?” the vehicular cyclist wonders. “All you have to do is be aggressive and take the lane.”
Only it’s not so simple. Many people don’t want to assume the position of having to fight with traffic. By forcing bicyclists to act a certain way, our streets limit the number and types of people who will ride bicycles. In other words, if everyone has to adopt a “vehicular” attitude, the vast majority of bicyclists will be fit, wealthier, white men.
“What’s the problem?” the urban planning blogger wonders. “All you have to do is be assertive and write a post.”
In other words, just as there’s nothing stopping anyone from riding their bike down Hennepin Avenue, there’s nothing stopping anyone from writing a post about Hennepin Avenue. As a platform, streets.mn is open to all. Nobody is screening out women, people of color, older folks, or exurbanites from writing. In theory, we should have a diverse conversation.
Only it’s not so simple. Just as many people don’t want to fight with traffic, I suspect that many people feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in dialogues where they have to fight with aggressive attitudes. As one commenter put it, there is the perception of a “culture of jargony condescension” that makes many people feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on this site. That’s just one example of one type of discomfort … I suspect there are others.
This is why it’s very important to treat others with respect in conversations about cities. Creating a “comfortable space” for many different writers, different opinions, and different ways of speaking is very similar to creating a comfortable space for many different kinds of users on the street. It takes work. Just as we have to create complete streets for diverse people, we have to create complete online spaces for diverse writers.
A Website is like a City Street
Granted, I think everything is like a city street, but I think of every online project (like streets.mn) as being a “space.” Just as a city street has rules, rhythms, and expectations, streets.mn has implicit and explicit patterns, behaviors, and ways of speaking and listening.
We won’t create a truly rich conversation by taking our “collective space” for granted. Doing so will simply limit participation in ways that remind me of how narrow bike lanes and shoddy sharrows limit bicycling. Instead we need to be attentive to creating a welcoming space for online dialogue. We need to reach out to new voices and new writers, and be sure to listen to them when they do speak. It takes work, and speaking for myself, I’m looking forward to it.