Mobility, Space and Access in the Urban Sustainability Revolution

I have been riding my bike to school or work since my undergraduate days. Before that, I lived in ex-urban Southern California where a bicycle as transportation was not feasible. Living in the East Bay, my current commute to USF is by bike-BART-bike or bike-bus-bike. I’ve been doing this for 12 years. It’s a joyful part of my day. I often extend my ride, even though with direct connections it can be as few as four miles each way, simply to spend more time outside spinning my pedals.

Over the years, I began to witness the extraordinary rates of growth in people using bicycles as transportation, a trend happening in cities around the U.S. It occurred to me that this everyday part of my life could inform my research. In particular, I’m interested in the way that the bicycle as a mobility choice begins to reveal some of the spatial inequalities that produce broader social inequalities.

SFMTA installed a bicycle counter on Market St. in 2013 (Photo Credit: Aaron Bialick, Streetsblog SF)

At first glance this seems like a departure from my previous work. But it turns out that urban sustainability strategies, such as building of infrastructure to support bicycle transportation or zoning reform to support urban agriculture, are also promoted for their health or other purported benefits. Because of the ways that urban inequality is invoked by these strategies, we see convergence of a diverse range of stakeholders–public health officials and urban planners, food security and local food activists, transportation justice organizations and affordable housing advocates, and traditional  environmental organizations.

Another important aspect of this work is how the broad and interrelated trends of urban growth and renewal, the sharing economy, declines in car ownership, and growth in local food production seem to be shaping the urban sustainability revolution without the explicit, or exclusive, driving forces of environmentalism or the ecological identities and environmental attitudes that go along with environmentalism. In other words, we may be seeing a transition to more sustainable cities that has less to do with explicitly environmental objectives than with generational, cultural and other social shifts.

In this light, the new direction for my work is an integration and culmination of my previous work. It actually brings me back to my interest in identities, only this time exploring how urban identities and not environmental attitudes are shaping less environmentally harmful lifestyles. At the same time, by continuing to focus on how the public engages in debates–this time about the shape of our cities rather than the etiology of disease–my work contributes to understanding of public involvement in democratic processes. Finally, this new direction is clearly an outgrowth of my work on health social movements, only this time with an eye towards movements that make demands for transformations in the built environment that can make urban dwellers safer, healthier and happier.

The first publication that captures this new direction is based in part on a talk I was invited to give at a workshop on “Patient Organizations, Health Movements and Medical Research: Varieties, Effects and Future of Civil Society Engagement in Science, Technology Development and Research Policies,” in Augsburg, Germany in 2012. My talk explored the potential linkages between those mobilizing around the obesity epidemic (e.g., public health officials), urban planners interested in designing cities according to new “active living” and “complete streets” paradigms, and environmentalists who see the trend towards more walkable and bikeable streets as an opportunity to build more sustainable urban transportation systems. Mercedes had been examining the food movement and the race and equity undertones when certain activists talk about “good” food choices and food deserts. We joined forces to write the forthcoming  “Obesity, the Alternative Food Movement and Complete Streets: New Forms of ‘Patient’ Activism” which will appear in The Public Shaping of Medical Research: Patient Associations, Health Movements and Biomedicine due out later this year. This publication is representative of my aspirations to introduce new ways of thinking about health social movements, the built environment, and the future of sustainable cities.

Inc Streets thumbnailThis is precisely the kind of thinking that Julian Agyeman and I do in Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices and Possibilities. This book emerged out of a conversation I had with Julian when he visited USF as part of the 2012 Dean’s Lecture Series on “Sustainability and Social Justice.” Our original concept was to begin questioning the assumptions shaping sustainability initiatives happening in cities around the world. The assumption is that sustainability is good and therefore if a project is deemed to enhance sustainability it must be good. We quickly put together a proposal for a book series and Routledge was very enthusiastic based on the reviews of our prospectus. After signing the contract for the book series, we fleshed out the concept for Incomplete Streets. The book integrates the work of urban planners, geographers, sociologists, historians, architects and anthropologists.

Julian and I also launched InvisibleCyclist.com, a blog dedicated to the particular issue of bicycle advocacy and construction of infrastructure to support bicycling that focuses on certain types of bicyclists and overlooks people of color, poor people, and others who bicycle not by choice but out of necessity.

 

Annotated list of representative work:

Zavestoski, Stephen and Julian Agyeman (eds.). 2014. Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices and Possibilities. New York: Routledge.

Lyson, Mercedes and Stephen Zavestoski. Forthcoming. “Obesity, the Alternative Food Movement and Complete Streets: New Forms of ‘Patient’ Activism.” In The Public Shaping of Medical Research: Patient Associations, Health Movements and Biomedicine, edited by Peter Wehling and Willy Viehöver. Routledge.

Zavestoski, Stephen (with Julian Agyeman). “Origins of ‘The Invisible Cyclist’ Blog.” Invisible Cyclist. Feb 7, 2012. Re-blogged on Network Dispatches as “The Invisible Cyclist: Transportation Justice

Zavestoski, Stephen (with Julian Agyeman). “Invisible Cyclist Rides Again.” Invisible Cyclist. Oct 31, 2013

Zavestoski, Stephen (with Julian Agyeman). “Lessons from the Green Lanes? Listen to Communities of Color.” Invisible Cyclist. Jun 5, 2014

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