I know it’s more romantic to say I like long walks on the beach or a rugged mountain hike, and I do enjoy both of those pastimes, but my true love is a good long urban amble. I’ve delightedly pounded pavement, traversed plazas and navigated parks from Berlin to Bangkok; the last time I was in New York, some friends and I spent a lazy afternoon walking from Central Park to Greenwich Village.
Not all urban infrastructure was created equal, though, and you can find yourself in some tricky spots. For me and my wife, half the sport is in exploring territory hostile to pedestrians, counting the errors and careless afterthoughts. It amounts to a kind of urban planning geek’s feast of Schadenfreude, hunting for all the ways in which the landscape encourages the use of the automobile.
Behavioral economists call this “choice architecture,” and in the modern North American city, the choice architecture is a monument to the primacy of cars.
A case in point: last weekend, my wife and I went on a hike through Nose Hill Park here in Calgary — a vast oasis of wild prairie on the edge of our hometown, more than three times the size of Central Park — with the intention of traversing the adjoining residential neighborhood to arrive at a shopping plaza boasting one of the city’s better pretend-Irish pubs. There’s also an LRT station nearby.
So then: we were hiking from the city’s biggest green space to the nearest transit hub. We left the park via the only trail in the southern half of the park that doesn’t terminate in a parking lot. We arrived immediately at a major intersection between two midsized six-lane commuter arteries. On the median as we crossed, we discovered an absolute gem of indifferent urban design:
In case it’s not clear, that’s a button to activate the pedestrian crossing signal; you have to cross a turn lane to get to it, and there is no sidewalk.
There’s something so subtly sublime about this scene it’d be easy to miss it as you hustled across the six lanes in the too-short time alloted by the signals. I mean, dig that: an engineer at city hall had to allocate the resources to install the signal request button; a crew had to come out, install it, test it to make sure it was working; I bet it even needs routine maintenance from time to time. But at no point has it occurred to anyone involved that a bigger problem might be the complete absence of sidewalks and crosswalks at a major urban intersection abutting the city’s largest park — a place used exclusively by people on foot or on bikes.
We continued on into the adjacent residential community, and we soon found another marvelous piece of afterthought pedestrian infrastructure:
Again, the accidental genius is in the fine detail. There would’ve been drawings, planning blueprints, survey markings, a cement truck and professional road-building crew. And yet no one paused long enough to note that they were building a residential neighborhood’s sidewalks so thin that two grown adults couldn’t walk side by side down them.
My wife and I have a catchphrase for this kind of thing, a shorthand way of telling each other what we’ve discovered. The phenomenon the phrase describes is not the same as actual contempt or carelessness. After all, there are many suburban streets with no sidewalks at all, many car-centered intersections with no signals whatsoever for pedestrians, let alone fancy-schmancy electronic request buttons. No, this is a phrase to describe a certain kind of contemptible indifference, wherein it is clear the orchestrator of the scene knew enough to understand that something was needed but didn’t care enough to think it all the way through, to figure out what was needed.
I’m introducing this phrase here because I’ll come back to it from time to time to describe this indifference. Say it with me: SOME KIND OF VEGETABLE.
Of course, I need to explain the origin.
Back in 1999, my wife was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in northern India, and I was a freeloading writer following along. One of her primary roles was to work with Indian Rotary Clubs on worthy projects and help them find Canadian Rotary partners for those projects. We met some wonderful, generous, thoughtful Rotarians this way — folks in Ambala and Delhi and Amritsar and Lahore, Pakistan, doing excellent things for their communities — but we met precious few of them in our host club in the picturesque old hill station of Shimla.
For whatever reasons, the Shimla Rotary Club was a magnet for the worst kind of venal, preening, myopic, self-involved, opportunist local business people. It might summarize the general vibe to simply note that we once witnessed a half-dozen of them — grown men in business suits — racing each other across the main square at something verging on a sprint to be the first to shake a regional political bigwig’s hand, elbowing each other out of the way like schoolchildren in the lunch line once they got close to the big boy.
Anyway, so the Shimla Rotarians decide to organize a charitable event for one holiday or other — it may have been Indian Independence Day — and we attended the meeting at which the plan was announced. The club president, who possessed the kind of florid English accent reserved for elephants in Kipling cartoons, rose to outline the goodness of the deed and congratulate himself and all others in attendance for their generosity. The Shimla Rotary Club, he declared, would gather on the Mall (the main pedestrian thoroughfare) on the morning of the august holiday, and they would distribute bags of food to the local lepers, who would be notified by the appropriate channels to gather at the appointed time to receive this gracious gift.
Someone asked — rather discourteously, really — what sort of food would be in the bags.
The club president gave his hand a dismissive wave, slowly up and out, as if shooing a fly. In a quiet tone like a stage yawn, he said, “Oh, some kind of vegetable.”
The point, you see, wasn’t what kind of food the lepers might want or need. The point wasn’t even to consider what was in the bags. The point was for the club president and his peers to be seen in public (and in a seemingly endless series of cringeingly awkward photos, as it happened) handing food to lepers. Because they cared — about committing an act of charity, not about whether it was a useful act of charity.
A pedestrian crossing signal and its request button in the absence of a sidewalk, a sidewalk essentially too narrow to enjoy walking down with one’s lady friend — this is a some kind of vegetable approach to urban design. Oh, yes, the lepers — sorry, pedestrians — deserve something if they make the effort to show up on the streets. Give them a button to press, an overwide curb to balance on. But let’s not tarry long here, gents. Let’s get on with planning ring roads and big-box parking lots, shall we?
In Shimla and on the rim of Nose Hill Park in Calgary, there was a certain frivolity to some kind of vegetable design. It’s comical in its ineptitude, ridiculous in its self-absorption. In my next post, though, I’ll discuss a recent case where some kind of vegetable carelessness turned lethal.
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