What walking the city streets might tell us about spatial justice and democracy

By Elaine Stratford, University of Tasmania

In cities around the world, on any day or night, billions of us walk the streets where we live: some willingly, some without choice; some easily, some with great effort. These walks happen for a variety of reasons, from the mundane trip to the shops, to the large protests that have been so common around the world over the last few years, where walking the streets has become a key way to uphold citizen and majority rule, fair and free elections, cooperative conduct, and individual and minority rights. Little wonder then that for many the walkability of our cities has been considered a fundamental human right, crucial to democracy, governing, and planning.

Geographers such as us write a lot about what connects walking, streets, and democracy. Making space for walking is, we think, a democratic responsibility. Yet that democracy is fragile and therefore needs to be reinvented every day in small acts as well as grand. The American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) for instance argues that democracy is boosted by the “transactions” we all seem to employ as we navigate our lives, and which enable us to act in relation to things that affect us directly (like a walk to the shops or to work), and those that don’t (think of protest marches for distant causes).

Our recent paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers takes up these themes to consider walking transactions on city streets, particularly in terms of how they invite us to think about how spatial quality and spatial justice enrich two democratizing qualities: liveability and walkability (Bridge, 2013; Dewey & Bentley, 1946, 1949). Liveability is a feature of city life relating to such things as the quality of infrastructure or government, and the vibrancy of democratic processes. Walkability is seen as a subset of liveability and includes such things as space per pedestrian, all-ages accessibility, connectivity, comfort, environmental integrity, economic viability, design competence, and safety.

More specifically, we consider these issues in Wollongong, a small city 80 km south of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. Its municipal government has made a commitment to city centre revitalization, emphasizing walking, and creating pedestrian-friendly environs. In 2014, Council commissioned the Danish company Gehl Architects to conduct a trademark public spaces and public life study which showed that pedestrian mobility in the city centre is largely restricted to daylight hours and concentrated in and around central retail streets and a pedestrian mall, and an area called the Blue Mile foreshore along the Pacific coast (Wollongong City Council, 2015).

In framing our engagement with these issues and place then, we draw on two key ideas. First, the idea of “micro-democratic impulses”: instances where people use “foundational democratic skills to act in new ways and in new places … [and foster] democratic action” (The Right Question Institute, 2018). Such skills—walking included—require the capacity to act; empathy or understanding, and confidence, commitment, and competence in both individual and collective acts—all hallmarks of democracy.

Second, we see Dewey’s pragmatism as crucial for geographical thinking in this way, both because it is fundamentally associated with democracy as a way to live and to govern, and because cities are places in which democratic processes and impulses, streets, and walking are strongly connected. In The Public and Its Problems, for example, Dewey (1927/2012) argues that democratic life is about learning how to respectfully challenge oneself and others to improve the common good by balancing individual and collective interests.

Yet, making direct reference to municipal politics, Dewey cautions that our intense interest in controversy is usually followed by periods of indifference. There is just too little to hold different groups together for long periods. Hence the importance of other, micro-democratic acts such as walking. When there are no “big issues” to galvanize action, walking itself can be a powerful way for people to commit to civic conduct and communal life as they move through the world and engage with others every day on city streets.

Walking in Wollongong

Our research with Wollongong City Council spanned 2014–16. One part of the work started with a mail-out survey to 5,000 households that returned 250 responses (5%). Fifteen women and ten men who completed the survey then consented to work more closely with us (10%). All lived in Wollongong, and habitually walked alone or with others in the city centre. We asked them to map and talk about experiences of walking along at least two routes. During analysis of interviews, we asked is it possible to discern from interviews their tendencies to strive for self-efficacy, empathy, and democratic transactions while walking?

Composite map showing all participants’ regular routes through Wollongong.
Source: David Clifton and Theresa Harada

Take self-efficacy. In deciding to walk, in walking itself, and in creating habits and then changing them, participants experienced the world as a series of difficult and delightful transactions that invited them to think, feel, and be alive to possibility. They spoke a lot about using their senses to engage with the world and with others, and about how engagement helped them feel connected and valued. Here, we think, is one antidote to the idea Dewey had about indifference to democratic life in action that seems to foster among participants  empathy in relation to others when walking. Yet on their walks participants were often put off by the behaviours exhibited by those living in precarity or affected by addiction and associated challenges.

At the same time, participants were able to reflect on their awkwardness or embarrassment. Their concerns for themselves and for others affected by anti-social conduct, as well as for those behaving in anti-social ways but trapped in hurt lives and habits, generated specific recommendations given to us. Some participants wanted those in government to rethink the location of facilities such as the council’s methadone clinic. Some wanted different design solutions that softened and revitalized degraded precincts. Others connected street life to larger challenges such as un- and under-employment. All were willing to allow that everyone has a right to the city (Middleton, 2018; Purcell, 2013), and that the streets are where generalized trust grows and democratic outcomes are valued.

By immersing ourselves in the narratives that participants shared with us, and by thinking with a pragmatist lens, we learned that they have a common desire to live well—to flourish—and in ways that support such outcomes for others. They feel ethical and moral obligations to the most marginalized in their community and question the visceral discomfort they feel when “confronted” by those very same people. Bad days and petty moments aside, our participants seemed to want to be in the world in ways that were inclusive, fair, and would produce more just and more amenable spaces in which to live and move.

Life in Wollongong is not perfect, but each day that people walk self-efficacy, empathy, and democratic engagement into existence, they keep the alternative at bay.

About the author: Professor Elaine Stratford works at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania. Her research involves  trying to understand the conditions in which people flourish in place, in their movements, in daily life, and over the life-course.

This article is based on research published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers:

Stratford, E., Waitt, G., & Harada, T. (2019). Walking city streets: Spatial qualities, spatial justice, and democratising impulses. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12337

Full text can be accessed here: https://rdcu.be/bRiRt

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The research reported here was funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant LP140100088. We thank Ian Buchanan, the ARC, the Wollongong City Council, research assistants, and three considered reviewers of our paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12337.

REFERENCES

Bridge, G. (2013). A transactional perspective on space. International Planning Studies, 18(3-4), 304–320.

Dewey, J. (1927 [2012]). The Public and its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. Edited and with an introduction by Melvin L. Rogers. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Dewey, J. & Bentley, A.F. (1946). Interaction and transaction. The Journal of Philosophy, 43(19), 505–517.

Dewey, J. & Bentley, A.F. (1949) Knowing and the Known. Boston, Beacon Press.

Middleton, J. (2018). The socialities of everyday urban walking and the ‘right to the city’. Urban studies, 55(2), 296–315.

Purcell, M. (2013). The right to the city: the struggle for democracy in the urban public realm. Policy & Politics, 41(3), 311–327.

The Right Question Institute. (2018). Micro-democracy. Retrieved from http://rightquestion.org/microdemocracy/.

Walk21. (2006). International Charter for Walking. Retrieved from http://www.pedestrians-int.org/images/IFP/pdf/key_doc/charter_EN.pdf.

Wollongong City Council. (2015). A City for People. Wollongong Public Spaces Public Life. Wollongong: Wollongong City Council.

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