Thoughts on Indigenous Planning

In certain contexts around the globe, at least for Canada which is what I am concerned with, planning is essentially a very colonialist concept and practice. Settlers settle, take, and configure policy, design, and public goods over top of Native land after extracting and exploiting all the resources it takes to do so. Yuck. When I finally and fully realized that, I felt gross to be a student studying it.

I feel like I always intrinsically understood this about planning, but finally putting the language to it is a slap in the face and a wake-up call. If planning is such a colonialist concept, what are planners across Canada doing to aid in the reconciliation efforts of Indigenous peoples? Yes, planners in some places across Canada are doing their due diligence. But this is not true for everywhere. Another thought: why am I figuring this out on my own instead of having it grilled in me at my program which is arguably the best undergrad for planning studies in the country? I felt betrayed by my own potential future profession and by professors who did and still do not make Indigenous consultation, knowledge, and wisdom a priority. Hell, I’ve only heard the land acknowledgement a couple times in all of the 25 classes I’ve taken thus far.

I want to work in a profession where ‘Indigenous planning’ is a common, meaningful term used to the same extent as, for example, ‘urban design.’

Additionally, I felt frustrated with myself. I had always known I was part Native, but I have only taken an interest in understanding what being “part Native” meant for me recently (as I’m entering my twenties and learning what pretty much everything means to me). Now that I’m undergoing that journey (which is a whole other story), I am regretting that I am only considering Indigenous issues now. Both my self identity exploration and Indigenous planning consideration stemmed from being exposed to urban Indigenous issues at my last job, but it is so internally frustrating that I am only concerning myself with Indigenous issues in planning now that I am understanding what it means to be me. Everyone should be concerned with Indigenous issues. We all play a part on the path to reconciliation. I think I should have known better to pay attention to this before. Thankfully I am so young in my career that I am still able to make a big difference in this dialogue; one that I think needs to be made.

What does ‘Indigenous planning’ even look like, though? To be honest, I can’t answer that. I can not answer that for Indigenous peoples. I feel like this is an answer that is up for them to give. It isn’t right to speak their words. Indigenous planning, as far as I can say, is giving Indigenous peoples themselves priority in the planning dialogue when matters concern their culture, community, and value system. It means giving them back their voices on what they want done to solve problems that concern them. This means letting them teach about the land, the medicines, and lead the dialogue. This, of course, is not only limited to resource allocation and land, but also public safety and public health. It’s their turn to speak on what needs to be done.

We can do better as planners to include the voices that were originally stomped on in order for planning to even exist in our country. It’s our duty as planners to do better, not only for the benefit of advancing reconciliation efforts, but also as decent human beings.


Note: This post will be followed up with a more thoughtfully researched and better articulated post that digs into what is currently being done re: Indigenous planning in Canada. I can see this post being the first of many on the topic.

What does urban planning look like through a feminist lens and why is feminism a crucial element in city building?

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I need to start this blog by clarifying a few things. Feminism is not a dirty word. Feminism is not a man-hating body of ideals, and feminism’s objective is not to push a matriarchal society where men are slaves. Feminism is also not a system that women make up for themselves to keep themselves oppressed (yes, I’ve heard that before, too). What feminism is is a diverse range of movements with the common goal of achieving equal rights, status, and opportunities for women.

You may wonder ‘how does this differ from egalitarianism?’ Feminism is a specific type of egalitarianism which focuses on the equality of women. You can be an egalitarian and you can be feminist. These two ideologies are not mutually exclusive. The same logic applies to the many different kinds of feminism: black feminism, religious feminism, liberal and conservative feminism, etc. I want to clarify that this blog post will be written with an intersectional feminist perspective, meaning my writing will come from a place that supports equal rights, status, and opportunities for women of all identities. Additionally, I want to add that feminism is not just for women. Feminism also aims to liberate men for the benefit of gender justice.

Now that we know, to an extent, what feminism is and what it generally aims to achieve, we can ask ourselves important questions like: how does this manifest itself in the context of urban planning? Why is it important that we achieve feminist goals while developing policies? What does a feminist city or community look like and how does all of this benefit me? Let’s start digging to find out.

So, what does a feminist community look like? It can be pretty hard to describe what a city ‘looks like’ because a city is more of an entity that you experience, and depending on who you are you can experience it very differently from another. I’ll do my best to capture feminist urban planning decisions and structures in words that create images in your mind, in no particular order or organization:

  • A feminist city is well lit, allowing all to feel safe when they travel at dark times. These lights shouldn’t only prioritize streets where cars drive, but also sidewalks, parks, off-grid paths, parking lots, alleys, bus stops, and the like. A city that works to promote safety is a city where women, men, the elderly, and children all feel safe.
  • A feminist city is one that incorporates alternative transportation modes throughout its neighbourhoods and sectors, allowing the choice to travel how you want to work, home, daycare, the park, the recreation centre, and everywhere in between. It is feminist to include bike lanes (and adequate supplies of bike parking), side walks (which are promptly plowed in the winter), and an effective and affordable bus transportation system to accommodate and equate the opportunity to travel through all modes, because owning and maintaining a car is often too expensive for a lot of people.
  • A feminist city is one that optimizes land use for women and parents. This can be seen in a lot of ways — go out into your downtown or take a look at Google Maps. Are there day care facilities near office buildings? Are there men’s and women’s shelters with enough beds nearby essential services? Is there a women’s sexual health clinic where a woman feels safe and free from judgement walking to the doors? Is there a place where women can safely and legally sell sex work? Are all of these facilities/places nearby a bus stop and are these facilities physically accessible for all? Take a look at your city — what would you change to make services more accessible for women of all ages?
  • A feminist city is one that has diverse options for living accommodations in the city’s housing market, including an adequate amount of affordable housing units. These units should be close to essential city services (like the ones mentioned above), as well as places for shopping, leisure, and natural areas.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Because feminism is a global movement spanning different cultures and socio-political contexts, a city’s feminist structure may look different in Bangladesh than it does in my hometown of Belleville, Ontario. However, I think that a city with these structures in place accomplishes an acceptable minimum of a feminist ideology through urban planning and urban design. However, feminist urban planning should not limit itself to merely existing through structure; it is important to foster feminist policy when planning a city. Here is a (again, non-exhaustive) list on how that could be achieved:

  • Encouraging women to participate in urban planning information sessions by hosting them after work hours or on weekends in accessible-by-transit places;
  • Supporting a woman’s goal to open a local business with special programs and fostering a community of local small business owners that offer assistance, advice, and promote the business (potentially through a Business Improvement Area committee);
  • Developing focus-groups to gather the input from targeted groups on proposed developments – women, minorities, Indigenous peoples, and those experiencing poverty. Depending on the development, other groups should be consulted including the elderly, single parents, etc. These focus groups should be consulted via design charrettes to collaborate on alternatives means to achieve project goals;
  • Considering women’s and LGBTQ2IA+ rights issues when developing urban policy. How do you accomplish this? Consult, consult, consult. Planners may be the experts on how to achieve a result, but those with marginalized voices have stories to tell on what is needed to be achieved;
  • Supporting women and minorities running in municipal elections. Feminists in leadership roles is the best way to ensure feminist city building;
  • Protecting public spaces for the benefit of constructive protests. I say this after the Charlottesville, Virginia protests that featured disgusting acts of racism resulting in violence and death. Protests are meant to be a civil way of exercising free speech, and it is important that we protect public spaces to accomplish that goal while actively suppressing the expression of hate speech twisted as free speech. The public square is one of the most historically valuable and important places in cities around the world; marginalized voices especially can not afford to lose public spaces in their communities;
  • And on the topic of public spaces: planners must to their best to inhibit street harassment. Street harassment is a pervasive act that happens all too often in any (honestly, probably every) city that tears women down even in the most casual of acts – walking by while reading a book, pushing a stroller and child to the toy store, sitting on public transit, you name it. This is a difficult issue to tackle as a planner because it is almost impossible to stop someone from saying something destructive or abusive regardless of the environment they are in. Some cities and community groups are trying their best with poster campaigns, stressing loitering limits, building to enable informal social control (citizens looking out for other citizens), and employing on-duty police officers on downtown streets. It is important, first and foremost, that planners begin to recognize this is an issue that destroys the social quality of streets for women especially, and that planners begin to tackle reported problematic areas with solutions that work best for their city or for that specific neighbourhood.

Okay, now that we have some things in mind in how we can begin to achieve the ultimate feminist goal of gender and sexual equality in our cities and communities, let’s address why it is important that we foster feminist communities in the first place. To answer this, let’s remind ourselves that the definition of feminism is essentially the pursuing of the advancement of women from marginalized to equal through their rights, status, and opportunities in society.

It’s my belief that change begins within communities, then reverberates up and out into bigger and better changes that have larger impacts on greater populations. So I think it’s essential that, in order to achieve feminist goals as a global society, we must initiate and foster feminist change within our homes and communities as a preliminary building block. Promoting feminist interests through planning policy and urban design are only the start to making the world a better place that protects the rights, status, and opportunities for women at a pace that already exists for men. Also, we all want to feel safe, included and engaged in our city, right?! So let’s adopt feminist policies! Let’s empower marginalized voices to make a better, safer, and more inclusive city for all to live, work, and play in.

Do you think your city looks like what is described in this post? Do you think your city is missing something that you need to make you feel safer, more included, and lifted up? Write to your councilors! Express your concerns! You are a citizen, regardless of your race or gender or sex or identity, and you deserve to be heard.

Here are some interesting links to take a look at:

Project for Public Spaces – What Role can Design Play in Making Safer Parks?

The Establishment – The Shocking Connection between Street Harassment and Street Lighting

Safety, dignity, and urban policy: “Safe Access Zones” in Australia

Crime Prevention through Urban Design (or CPTED): What is it and how does it operate?

Hello again!

Whew! It’s been a while. I took somewhat of a blog-hiatus this summer to let my thoughts brew a bit on what to next contribute to this blog. While offline, I spent the summer in Ottawa working at Employment and Social Development Canada’s Innovation Lab as a communications assistant. After internalizing a bit of what I learned, I’m prepared to connect it to the urban planning realm here along with some other topics, which you may find lean a bit more on the social aspects of planning.

Here’s a list of topics you can expect to see me explore here in the next couple months:

Innovation and Urban Planning – what is ‘design thinking’ and how can we use it?

What does urban planning look like through a feminist lens and why is feminism a crucial element in city building?

Why and how should planners emphasize Indigenous participation?

I’ll get my next (actual) blog post out this Friday.

Pedestrians First on Sparks Street, Ottawa

Normally this term I wouldn’t be writing a blog post on a Monday afternoon, but due to the flooding situation in the region, my office building was closed for the day. I had already spent the whole weekend in my house due to the rainy weather, so today I decided I wanted to make use of this opportunity at another day off to go out and explore. Thankfully the weather was somewhat cooperative: it was slightly snowing and a bit chilly, but this was better than cold, constant rain.

Naturally the tourist in me wanted to visit the Byward Market area first. I explored around there for a while – I’m not really the kind of person to visit the shops so much as the kind of person to just admire the buildings and enjoy being around people on the street – even if the weather is not as friendly as they are!

Additionally, I enjoy leaving my phone in my pocket on these sorts of walks. I am a rather stubborn person, and I like checking the map app only when I think I really have to (this is mostly to strengthen my very poor sense of direction). I managed to find my way down Wellington Street (heading West), and remembered from past visits to Ottawa many months ago that Sparks Street is close by, which features a pedestrian promenade called the ‘Sparks Street Mall.’

Where I grew up in Belleville, there is no such thing as this type of grand pedestrian infrastructure. Pedestrian infrastructure is often limited, as it is in many cities and neighbourhoods across the globe, to sidewalks and trails only. The system we have built dictates pedestrians are the ones who must wait to cross a street after clicking a button, and after they are given clearance to go there is a measly 20 or 30 second limit to walking to the other side. Had one not pressed this button, cars would be free to cross the intersection as long as they would like – it is often only when a pedestrian comes does the light change. This tells me that the system is built for automatic transportation first and pedestrians second – there is a hierarchy built into the system which favours those in big metal boxes with wheels.

Of course I am not saying that this system is 100% bad. It does often make sense at many intersections to have traffic stop for pedestrians only when it needs to, perhaps because there are only so many pedestrians desiring to cross the road and otherwise traffic would be heavily interrupted causing jams throughout the network. However, this system is simply not completely optimized for both very valid forms of transportation – active and passive. Rather than creating a hierarchy – which, in turn, gives rise to poor attitudes about who ‘owns the road’ – streets and roads should be optimized and engineered to create a level playing field if you will so that everyone can easily and efficiently access their destination, whether or not they are on their feet, on two wheels, in a bus or in a private car.

One way that Ottawa is accomplishing this is with the Sparks Street Mall (along with, for example, bike lanes which are highlighted and sometimes even divided from car traffic on some streets). The Sparks Street Mall runs as a pedestrian-only street for 5 blocks from Elgin Street to Lyon Street, and is lined with many boutiques, delis, coffee-shops, and more. Though Sparks Street has existed throughout much of Ottawa’s history, part of it was dedicated for pedestrians only in 1967. This was done in an effort to revitalize the commercial activity of that section. From my walk today and from previous walks, it seems to have been an excellent planning decision if you ask me.


Here is a section of the Sparks Street Mall looking West. I mentioned I think it was an excellent planning decision to boost commercial activity by making this a pedestrian avenue – look at the amount of people using it! If you’re not convinced, consider if every person were in their own personal vehicle. Now all I see in my head is traffic congestion. Opening this up to people and people alone allows for a social bounce-back against personal vehicle traffic and congestion, which enables a free movement of people following wherever they want to go without being stuck if they were in a car or limited to the sidewalk and crosswalks if they were on a street alongside cars.

Additionally – look at how pretty it is! It doesn’t sound very academic, but it is true; this is a gorgeous street (even during that rainy day). All along Sparks Street Mall there are flower planters, antique-looking light posts, aesthetically pleasing and kinetically engaging brick paving stones, benches, public art at intersections, and many beautiful architectural facades facing the street housing interesting shops, restaurants, and offices.


Look at how many people there are in this image. If they were in cars, you can imagine how congested the street would be, limiting the availability of destinations. It is important, then, to equally accommodate all modes of transportation not just to achieve a social equality within a municipality, but to also allow for smooth traffic flow and to avoid unnecessary heightened stresses on our civic infrastructure.

Ultimately what the Sparks Street Mall contributes to (with respect to the focus of my blog, of course) is what is called a ‘complete community.’ A complete community is one that enables accessible transportation routes for both active and passive transportation users – cyclists and pedestrians, and private cars and public transit in whatever organizational or structural way that makes sense for that city. Because of Sparks Street Mall’s existence, there is increased pedestrian inclusion within those surrounding blocks for those who do not desire to use private cars or public transit for whatever reason.

Cities should strive to prioritize these complete communities for the benefit of all citizens. Speaking as someone who lives in an area surrounding by highways, it is difficult and rather frustrating to not be able to access anywhere truly meaningful to my daily life without using a private car or public transit. At least, it is possible to access these places, but only after forfeiting my safety, and that is not okay. Municipalities that equate all forms of transportation rather than prioritize certain kinds are setting themselves up for accessibility failures that unfortunately leave some citizens alienated without the proper and accepted forms of transportation in that area.

Of course, while addressing this problem, it is always important to consider those with accessibility issues as well. For example, Sparks Street Mall is not without faults – the brick paving that I deemed aesthetically pleasing may not be the best for those with mobility issues, where it can actually be considered detrimental to accessibility.

So, while you go out on your next walk or drive, consider how those using other forms of transportation would get from a similar starting point as yours to a similar destination as yours. How would their mobility and accessibility be impacted? What mode of transportation is considerably prioritized along your route? Would another mode of transportation be faster or slower, and why? What barriers exist to those with mobility issues? Keep an open mind about these things. You might be surprised by what you observe.

Below are some more pictures from my walk today:

Katie in… the National Capital Region!

I haven’t written in a couple of weeks and I figured it’s time to at least provide an update even though I have not yet found the time to dedicate to a legitimate post that will get me back on track.


I have moved! Because of my program’s co-op component, I will be spending the next four months in Ottawa-Gatineau working at Employment and Social Development Canada’s Innovation Lab, where I started on May 1st. The lab is actually located in Gatineau (Hull, to be specific), while I am residing in Ottawa. I think this set-up should make for some interesting location-specific blog posts over the next few months while I commute and explore both cities. Something specific stirring up in my mind is a post about the building where I work, and how it’s arguable that its complex reflects an actual city – but that is for later!

Anyway, this post was just an update. I’m looking forward to some exploring this weekend so I can grab more pictures and experience to write about on here.

— Katie

Personal Creed 2017

For some time, I’ve been mulling over what I want to do with my life. That’s what 20-year-olds are supposed to do, right? When I was 19 it seemed like I could just ponder different paths and avenues. While I can definitely still do that, it feels like there is more pressure to just get on with it already. I’ve hit a whole new decade of demands and desires, and it’s time to jump on in.

Up until recently, I’ve always considered myself to be someone who doesn’t finish things. I definitely started a lot of things; when I was younger I started colouring in a colouring book, in my mid-teens I started learning sign language, I started diary entries and finished them early, and also never finished the book with entries that were left like mould in my head. I picked up a guitar and that lasted for a good chunk of five years, but now it’s collecting dust. What happened? I consider myself a motivated and passionate person, but I still end up thinking back to all of this guilt that comes with leaving a project behind.

It was only recently that I learned that all of this was okay, and that I was only doing this in an attempt to find something I was purely interested in and committed to. I didn’t realize it for a couple of years, but there are some passions in my life that had remained constant and I look forward to those passions outlining prominent goals in my future. I’ve learned to forgive myself for these unfinished things because I was searching for a sense of direction. I’m very happy I tried a lot of things because, by a process of elimination, I feel like I for sure know what it is I want to do. I want to make the world a better place.

It’s ambiguous. It’s hippie-sounding. It’s bold. Although it also sounds too dreamy, I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly. I came to it rather seriously, because making the world a better place should require a sincere amount of commitment. Frankly, at this point, it should take everything we’ve got. Like I said, I didn’t come to this lightly; after just a couple years of studying planning, I’ve developed a vague plan in my head for how I personally want to make my mark in my society. This plan has been one of my constant passions; one which I have not even once considered abandoning. I want to work in the public sector. I have to. I feel like it’s a life calling. You can consider me closed minded, to which I will note that I have experienced private sector work as it relates to landscape architecture, and I don’t see that work as part of my long-term goals. I want to work for government; I want to be the voice for the people. I need to do this.

If you look at my Twitter account today, you will see that I am actively politically engaged. This is only a response to my interest of what I want to become. This engagement in social issues surrounding situations like poverty, climate change, and accessibility did not just happen like the flick of a wrist. In my early high school days, I took a civics course as every Ontarian student does. I was instructed to find an issue that my city’s governance was attempting to solve. In addition to outlining the issue and the councilors’ suggestions to solving it, I was to also provide a suggestion about how to solve this issue. This was, I think, my first formal introduction to planning; my first formal attempt at making my community a better place.

Like I said before, my passions only recently hit me as a constant interest that I had not yet abandoned. This happened in a way that made me realize that these passions had creeped up on me over the years after that civics course as that constant interest. In grade 10, I participated in a walk through the downtown core of Belleville, my home town. During this walk, we discussed how the downtown could benefit from artistic changes or additions to the built environment. I and my class were bubbling with ideas – murals on that brick wall! A water fountain in this cement block! – and it was only a couple months after that day that I realized I wanted to learn about what seemed to be my current interest – how to develop communities.

I experience this interest as an addictive yearning to solve problems for the betterment of society. I frequent social media to find, for example, where pedestrian accessibility is impacted, and sit for a minute and just think about that situation in its entirety. I love developing my opinions of what cities are doing right and what they are doing wrong, and pondering what I would do to organize a solution to this issue. Over the years this has developed into something I am now determined to continue: making the world a better place by influencing community change as a public servant.


In the City’s Image: City Slogans and Mottos

To help guide my blog for the next month or so while I gear up for exam season, I’ve decided to start a little series of smaller blog posts which will discuss the images of cities around the world. Lots of pieces fit together like a puzzle to create a city’s image, and I want to examine certain aspects of this kind of puzzle and comment on some examples from around the world. This time I will be discussing city mottos; be ready to read about city flags, demonyms, and landmarks later on, too.

I want to start this one off by asking a question. What do you think of something when it is described as ‘technically beautiful?’ Something that would come to my mind is maybe a piece of art that is technically done very well in its composition and creation, but it just doesn’t sit with me very well. So, it could be argued as technically beautiful, but the personal connection to it just isn’t there for me. Something that you may not think of when you hear this term is Ottawa, Ontario; I bring that up because ‘technically beautiful’ was actually Ottawa’s slogan in 2001, believe it or not. If you cringed at that, then you would agree that slogans have an impact on the creation (or ruin) of a city’s image.

In order for a slogan or motto to effectively market a city, the use of language must be perfectly accurate. (Keep in mind that typically a motto is an historically created name, thus usually isn’t there to market the city but provide a small description of it. Slogans are much more of the marketing material.) Obviously, the word ‘technically’ was not the best choice for Ottawa. Though it may have been somewhat true to a lot of people that Ottawa is technical beautiful, the word ‘technically’ has widely understood connotations which change its meaning to something more sarcastic. A more definite word choice would have possibly been ‘absolutely beautiful’ or ‘almighty beautiful’ where there is no (or at least very little) room for interpretation.

A slogan isn’t just a marketing tactic that appeals to a city’s beauty, though. While beauty is an excellent thing to market (because no one wants to travel to a city that is ugly), a lot of cities incorporate their main industries and histories in their slogans. For example, Kitchener’s motto is ‘prosperity through industry,’ reflecting on the industrious heritage that has contributed to its growth.

Regardless of what city’s merits contribute to its motto or slogan, a city’s slogan has a big effect on its tourism and image as far as it is marketed. Below I’ve included links if you’re curious to read some silly, odd, or brilliant city mottos:

National Post – Canada’s Best, Worst, and Most Confusing City Slogans

City Lab – [American] City Slogans

Wikipedia List of City Mottos

Some favourites from the Wikipedia list:
Karawang, Indonesia: ‘Struggle starting point.’ At least they’re honest.
Valletta, Malta: ‘The most humble city.’ Well, not really now.
Falkirk, Scotland: ‘Strike one, strike all – easier fight with the devil than the children of Falkirk.’ 100% badass motto.

Katie on, ugh, snow removal.

Weeks away from turning twenty years old, I still don’t drive a car. I’ll learn the skill somewhat soon, but as of right now and in the foreseeable future I am 100% a pedestrian and public transit user. I really like it this way – while I may be bound by weather and transit timetables (and the rare occurrence of a possible GRT strike next Monday), I like the cost effectiveness of my way of travel and how it forces me to be outside in more social environments than when I would otherwise be alone in a car. Also, I’m an environmentalist, and that argument speaks for itself.

I enjoy my transportation lifestyle, but of course there are things that irk me; drivers who think they have the right of way when they don’t, late (or worse, early) bus arrivals and departures, and snow. I will admit that my opinion of snow is that it’s problematic in cities. It is only this way, though, because cities seem to make it so. That is to say that if there were better organization of snow removal, a minor blizzard wouldn’t be that disruptive of an event. Other technologies such as heated sidewalks are an option, too. However, these things can’t happen by the snap of someone’s fingers. This technology is expensive.

What I will focus on in this blog is the relationship between snow and the bus system. However, I won’t really be focusing on the mobility side of things, but rather the accessibility of the situation that snow creates (or, rather, the lack thereof). Everyone knows that snow throws off bus schedules by a little bit due to poor visibility and often dangerous road conditions, so there’s no point talking about that. There’s something else that has really bothered me over the course of these winter months: the lack of snow removal or salting at bus stops. To get you more engaged in the topic, here are some pictures I collected on a recent walk home after the bus:

You can see how difficult it would be to enter and exit the bus at stops like this, especially if you had a stroller with you or mobility issues. Take note that these pictures were taken days after the last snowfall after the snow had frozen over due to low temperatures. The terrain would be just as frustrating to cross in fresh snow, pure ice, and even thick slush.

There is a solution to this that the City of Waterloo doesn’t seem to care for (except at extremely popular stops which look plowed). When sidewalk plows do their sidewalk work, it should not take more than an extra minute to plow over the majority of the snow that currently inhibits the accessibility of passengers entering and exiting buses at those stops. In addition to this, to ensure that street plows don’t negate the work sidewalk plows have done (which happens way too often, unfortunately) better time organization and scheduling would ensure that roads are plowed prior to when sidewalks and bus stops are plowed to keep all snow out of the way. Also, where is the salt? The bus stops I frequent are not salted, making the snow and ice trek all that more dangerous.

You could say in response to this blog post that I shouldn’t be complaining about the snow because I choose to live in Canada, etc, etc. While that’s somewhat of a valid point to make (it’s a little expensive to move to a whole other region at my age, but sure, technically I could move away) I would argue that it’s important for cities to accommodate transit riders and ensure more safe and comfortable areas for people to enter and exit the bus. This should be true regardless of the weather-related situations these cities are forced to be in. However, these winter accessibility issues aren’t the fault of the bus service. It should be the responsibility of both the bus service and the city to provide safe accessibility for transit riders. According to Grand River Transit and the City of Waterloo, they are both committed to high accessibility standards, yet they need to work together on this issue to resolve it.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Katie on the Relationship between Cities and Loneliness

cropped-img_20160717_082352.jpg The Rideau Canal, Ottawa, taken by me on a solitary walk on a July morning, 2016.

 It’s been a while since I’ve last written a blog post. In the meantime, my classes and the search for a summer job have both been demanding yet rewarding. Since my last blog post, I’ve come across a podcast called ‘The Lonely Hour,’ with which I’ve explored the feeling of loneliness through multiple avenues. Some I’ve identified with, and some not; mental illness, motherhood, travelling, writing, and even dining alone are some of the topics  it explores. In one episode, there was talk of how cities can make you feel lonely. This is the relationship I attempt to explore in this blog post.

   In ‘The Lonely Hour’ episode 10, traveller Matt Gross recites his essay, ‘I’m Never Alone Anymore, and I Miss It.’ While answering some questions afterwards, the relationship between cities and loneliness was brought up, which inspired this blog post. I’ve included it below:

   ‘Do you find that some cities are more lonely-making than others? And if so, how so?’

   ‘Cities can be very lonely making because they’re cities – they’re places where lots of people go to be anonymous, to live choc-a-bloc with their neighbours, yet not know them. People in some ways go there to be alone, to be lonely, but also be in a position where their solitude makes it possible to meet people. So, I’m not sure if there are particular cities that do that more than others – the bigger they are, the messier they are, sure. It has to do more, though, with the particular culture of the country: whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing. Certain cities like Buenos Ares and Ho Chi Minh City are great for being alone! Everybody wants to talk to you, it’s wonderful! It’s hard to be lonely just sitting on a bench drinking a beer or fresh coconut juice there. But other cities, I don’t know, Chongqing in Southwestern China, that’s not a great place to be alone. Nobody will talk to you, nobody will pay attention to you. There’s too many millions of people, too many billions of activities going on for anyone to notice that you’re there. It can be a pretty lonely place.’

What is loneliness?

   In order to accurately assess the relationship between loneliness and cities, there is one very important word that should be defined: loneliness. I think loneliness is different to everyone, in terms of what it is connected to, what evokes it, and how to overcome it (if at all). To me, and from what I know, loneliness is the personal experience had when there is too much silence and too little engagement going on for too long of a time. It’s up to the person to define how and where those lines are drawn – I think everyone has a different threshold for accepting independence and solitude before it becomes lonely, as everyone leads a different social life under different circumstances.

   Everyone deals with loneliness differently, and it can be equally understood as a negative, positive, or neutral emotion. It definitely has stronger negative connotations, for example, in the thesaurus you can find ‘loneliness’ is apparently synonymous with ‘heartache,’ ‘desolation,’ and even ‘friendlessness.’ However, loneliness can be a freeing lesson that can teach one how to live alone, which is something I’m learning right now. Ultimately, it’s an emotion that is just as valid as happiness or anger, and should be given the same amount of attention.

   It seems ironic that cities are hot spots for loneliness, because there are so many people living there compared to rural communities. It’s quick for people to assume that where there are more people, there is a bigger opportunity for conversation and connection. Mathematically, of course, this makes sense. However, behaviourally, this isn’t so. At least, this isn’t true for every city on the map. This brings me to the question: why? How do cities affect how people interact with each other, and why do they have the affect that they do? Whether cities have a positive, negative, or neutral affect on human interaction, this seems to be due to a mix of reasons which all interact with each other as mechanisms driving human behaviour and influencing human emotive response.

   From my own observations, I’ve noticed that whether or not I feel connected to people in my community is a result of how the community is built, the culture of the community, to what extent I can be engaged in the community, and to what extent I actively engage myself.

Loneliness and the Built Environment

   I’ll start with commenting on my first noted element affecting human emotion: the built environment. I’ll specify and say that by this I mean how the community is organized physically, what physical amenities are offered, and where all of the elements of the community are placed with respect to each other.

   In my planning classes, I have learned again and again how the built environment can influence social isolation in a community. The example used time and time again that speaks to this sentiment is suburban built form. It is argued that suburbs influence social isolation (which can be exacerbated to loneliness) because of multiple reasons: they are homogenous and uninteresting; they offer no connections to meaningful destinations if you are not driving a car; the layout of the community demands a car for travel which isolates people from each other; and they are physically isolated from other parts of the city which offer an opportunity for community engagement and human interaction. I’ve included a visual below to help you understand why:

   Perhaps now you see what I mean about the lack of connections accessible to the individual when you stray from the urban form of the core of the city, which is often built in either gridiron form or some form offering a similar amount of connection opportunities (which I define as intersections). It is easy to see how the Warped Parallel, Loops and Lollipops, and Lollipops on a Stick forms don’t do a lot of justice for human interaction – these forms do not support a mix of land uses (residential right beside community stores, for example) resulting in a homogenous society where everyone only eats and sleeps in the community between travelling to and from work. Here, there is very little opportunity for community engagement such as neighbourly chitchat, except when you and your neighbour travel from your front doors to your cars in the driveway every morning.

   Of course, built form isn’t directly nor is it solely correlated with loneliness – that is to say, just because you live in the suburbs, does not necessarily mean you are feeling lonely all of the time. It is arguable, however, that you are greater subject to loneliness than people who live in city centres which boast the opportunity for multiple activities at all times of the day. Even still, the built environment is definitely not the only mechanism at play in affecting people’s emotions or solitude. Here I argue that the culture of the community (or region, or even country in general) has a very large impact on a person’s solitude and, hence, loneliness.

Loneliness and Culture

   In his interview on The Lonely Hour, Matt Gross mentions ‘whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing’ is a playing factor in determining whether a city is lonely-making. For the purposes of this blog post, I argue that rather than the culture of the country, it’s more the culture of the community that plays this role. (However, I say that as a Canadian in an ultimately multicultural national community – in a much smaller country such as Liechtenstein, for example, the culture of the country may be spread nationally. But this is just arguing semantics.)

   This is interesting to consider, and it’s different for every place. In your city, are people welcoming? Do you say hello to people passing by the street, or is it at the very least not too weird to smile to them? Are there lots of different ethnic cultures in your community, and are they culturally accepted by your neighbours? Are there events that you can participate in around your community which you feel wholly welcome to join? If you are actually playing along and answered these questions negatively, perhaps your community is subject to being more lonely-making than other communities which are more welcoming, accepting, and engaging.

Loneliness and You

   Even after the considerations this post makes, the biggest lonely-making factor is yourself (at least, this is what I’m arguing). A city or community could offer so many social connection points, social activities, parks and green spaces, a welcoming atmosphere, and it would still be you who is in the driving seat making the decisions of where and how to participate in your community, if at all.

   An example to illustrate this which I’m very familiar with is myself. I go to an engaging university through which I participate in some volunteering, I go outside a fair amount and take the bus at least twice a weekday, and I go out some nights with friends. I have a lot of friends in my program and in many faculties while also maintaining lots of long-distance friendships. I’m confident with myself and can easily chat with strangers, and the communities I’m a part of are what I would consider welcoming, interesting, and friendly. Even with all of this that my city offers and which I engage in, I still find myself experiencing loneliness at times when I didn’t even know it had creeped up on me. Is this the city’s fault? I doubt it – Kitchener-Waterloo is definitely a place with an engaging atmosphere, offering so many things to do and places to visit. Rather, my loneliness might be a result of some personal decisions of which the built environment and culture of the community were seperate. My emotions might be influenced by the built environment and culture of my community, however, these are not the decisive factors; I am seperate from the place in which I live.

   The idea for this blog post sparked after listening to that podcast episode, but it really came into fruition as a university student who is experiencing living in a relatively unfamiliar city on my own. Then again, I will be living in another relatively unfamiliar city when I move for my co-op job in the summer, then I will be back here in Kitchener-Waterloo for another four months, then off to who knows where for another four months for co-op, and so on. I anticipate the University of Waterloo’s co-op stream to be very lonely-making as I experience living in a new place every four months after this summer, testing relationships with all of my friends. I wanted to explore how cities influence our emotions because I’ll be exploring new cities every other four months for the next three years, and I think it’s good to prepare myself for the loneliness which that may cause.

 With that said, I hope you learned something new about how you are emotionally connected to your community, and perhaps how your city’s built form or culture has affected your mental health, if at all. To learn more about how people are approaching loneliness in cities around the world, check out the links below:

The Lonely Hour Podcast – Matt Gross’ Essay (text)

Talk To Me London – an initiative to curb London’s norm of ignoring passers-by

Edmonton has a Mental Health Action Plan – does your city have one?

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Liang (review) – now on my reading list.

   I take a lot of time coming up developing blog post ideas because I really like to put a lot of thought and research into them. I hope to have another one up before April, but March is a very heavy month in terms of class work, so we will see about that…