“Networks are permeable and open spatial and social structures that facilitate flows of people, ideas, products, information and capital.”
Kim Dovey, Networks Cities (draft)
Today I was riding my bike home from Fairfield for the first time. I checked out my route first on google maps, and was pleased to note that 80% or more of the ride was along an off-road bike trail along the Yarra River (the Capital City bike trail) which goes all the way into the city. All I had to do was roll down the hill from the shopping strip in Fairfield and after a few moments I’d be on the trail which would take me most of the way home.
As I left Fairfield shops and rode along the merrily south along the on-road bike lane approaching a major intersection when the bike lane just... disappeared.
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After a bit of illegal and potentially dangerous manoeuvring I managed to make it to the off-road trail. But the experience made me think about networks, and how important holistic thinking is for thinking about ways to make my neighbourhood more sustainable
In a way, holistic thinking, or thinking about the ways in which elements inter-relate to each other, is central to sustainable design.
At the risk of gross overgeneralisation; traditional design processes tend to focus on discrete objects or design elements, rather than the relationships or dynamics between elements and objects.
So, in this example, I imagine that council would have a range of design professionals who contribute to the location of bike paths: A landscape architect (or open-space/recreation person) probably designed a cycling master plan, linking as many existing bike tracks together as possible. As part of this hypothetical master plan, an on-road bike path was recommended to link the shops & train station with the Yarra River and the off-road trail. I know it once existed, because you can still see the faint marking of it carrying through the intersection.
At a later date, let’s speculate, a traffic engineer has come along. This persons job is to try to speed up the traffic and reduce the likelihood of car crashes, in other words – their job is to think about the network that services cars. They don’t have to worry about bikes, or transport in general, or carbon in the atmosphere – they just have to think about cars, that one intersection and the immediate surrounding area of traffic.
So, it’s a no brainer: Take out the bike path, and the intersection is safer, and more efficient. That is to say; it’s safer, and more efficient for cars. It’s certainly not safer or more efficient for bicycles.
Of course; I’m just guessing here, perhaps the traffic engineers and the open space planners and the landscape architects got together and workshopped all the different variables and needs of different stakeholders and this was the best solution. But I’ve got to say – I doubt it.
If we want to see more sustainable design outcomes, the first step is to change our design processes. Our design professionals, that is to say; our engineers, planners, landscape architects, resource managers, architects and urban designers have to find ways to collaborate, early and often on design projects. And as designers we also need to find more holistic ways to approach design within our own areas of expertise. We need to think and design more rhizomatically, we need to do more network thinking, we need to consider whole systems rather than focus on discrete elements.
The reason cars dominate our cities and neighbourhoods so much, or rather, the means by which they are able to do so is because they make use of a strong and unbroken network. A good way to make our cities more sustainable is to create strong unbroken networks which will allow the flow of alternative means of transportation, energy and ideas.