Why It’s Okay to Talk to Strangers on the Street

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Researchers have found that seemingly trivial encounters with the minor characters in our lives — the random person at the dog park or the barista at your coffee shop — can affect feelings of happiness and human connection on a typical day. https://n.pr/2YlOMZ0 Want To Feel Happier Today? Try Talking To A StrangerHappiness, says one researcher, is the sum of many positive moments throughout the day. Something as simple as a friendly chat in the elevator can boost your mood. So put down your phone and try it.npr.org2,81211:18 PM – Jul 27, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy878 people are talking about this

Research has shown that walking is good for your physical and mental health, and building cities and spaces that are connected and walkable provide increased opportunities for social interaction. Transportation expert Jeff Tumlin has a TEDx Talk on Sex, Neuroscience and the City pointing out how vital these links are.

NPR.com’s Paul Nicolaus explored current research on every day interaction on the street.  Elizabeth Dunn and Gillian Sandstrom from the University of British Columbia studied the impact of customers talking to staff in coffee shops, with half of the people asked to interact with staff, and half not to interact. They found that those that had limited interaction with the coffee shop staff  increased their general mood and increased happiness.

“The same researchers found that these seemingly trivial encounters with the minor characters in our lives — the random guy at the dog park or the barista at our local coffee shop — can affect feelings of happiness and human connection on a typical day.”

Studies also found that when walking brief eye contact “increased people’s sense of inclusion and belonging”,  and can trigger the neural release of the peptide hormone oxytocin, called the “cuddle chemical” in Jeff Tumlin’s TEDx talk.

No one likes feeling invisible when someone walks past. The Germans even have a term for it — wie Luft behandeln, which means “to be looked at as though air.” And while people may not necessarily want to talk to everyone they meet on the street or in the coffee shop,  psychologists have ascertained that even brief eye contact increases the sense of inclusion and belonging.

As University of Chicago’s behavioural scientist  Nicolas Epley describes it “The mood boost of talking to strangers may seem fleeting, but the research on well-being suggests that a happy life is made up of a high frequency of positive events, and even small positive experiences make a difference. Happiness seems a little bit like a leaky tire on a car. We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.”

You can take a look at Jeff Tumlin’s TEDx talk on the benefits of  social interaction on the street here.

Why We Need to Start Sharing the Road Now

Design editor Lloyd Alter of Tree Hugger sums up what is truly happening in the “sharing the road” adage that is so popular these days. As Lloyd recalls in this article in Mnn.com  “Everyone hates everyone”. That is a pretty true statement and we have to do a better job and get that done now.

 Lloyd Alter states “Unless we start planning now and figuring out how to share the space we have equitably, in 10 years it won’t be drivers hating pedestrians hating cyclists, It will be everybody hating old people. Because we will be everywhere.”

It really is not about a demographic time bomb of old people showing up on adult tricycles scooting along bike lanes. It is really about our discussion on why when talking about sharing space, we still pit pedestrians against cyclists, giving vehicular users a relatively free pass to the rest of the street without much discussion.

I wrote about the unfortunate bicycle crashthat happened with City of Vancouver’s Transportation manager (and all around nice guy) Dale Bracewell who suffered a shattered elbow when a vehicle literally debiked him.  Both Lloyd Alter and Dale quoted the just released study from Australia which suggests that many motorists don’t see cyclists as real people and vulnerable road users with as much right to the road space as they do. You can take a look at that study here.

If you have been a cyclist or a pedestrian in Australian cities you will know it is still a bit like the wild west, with vehicles having priority on streets, and state government at odds with the big cities who want to traffic calm on state run road networks and give pedestrians priority at signalized intersections.

Of course there are issues between cyclists and pedestrians as well.

Cyclists will often hop their bikes on a sidewalk for safety or convenience reasons. But the work done by Jan Garrard for Victoria Walks in Australiashows that seniors use walking as their major mode of transport, and require a higher standard of design and street maintenance to stay mobile and safe. Bikes, dogs and distractions  on sidewalks can result in seniors falling.  As Garrard notes:

 “Just as older adults can be more vulnerable to environmental hazards while walking,they also express high levels of concern about the behaviours of other road/path users. These concerns may be heightened for older adults because of their reduced ability to avoid a collision in the event of the sudden, unexpected movement of another road/path user,and increased likelihood that a collision (or the avoidance manoeuvre) will result in a fall and/or injury”.

Garrard’s work also shows that for older seniors there is a high likelihood  that senior to be deceased within several months after a traumatic fall on a city sidewalk or street. There is a reason seniors fear falling.

As Lloyd Alter surmises  talking about seniors in the United States “In 10 years, when the oldest of 70 million boomers are in their 80s, the drivers are going to have a lot more to complain about — millions of old people who take too long to cross the street, many more crosswalks and traffic islands taking up space, wider sidewalks and wider bike lanes to handle an explosion in the numbers of e-bikes and mobility devices.”

The time to have the serious conversation on how we share the city street and road surface needs to happen now. It’s time to humanize the pedestrian and cyclist by applying the Safe  Road System~Vision Zero approach and nix the 85 percentile way of building road space solely for vehicular traffic. Better design, lower speeds and changing driver behaviour on city streets are mandatory.  We need good street infrastructure, delight, visual interest, benches and public washrooms for vulnerable road users. And we also need a new way of looking at road share.

As this article by the Brookings Institute observes its no longer good enough to measure street use by a level of service. New standards measuring “broader community goals around accessibility, economic development, sustainability and livability” need to be immediately instituted.
We are all going to be using those streets in the future, and moving sustainably by cycle and foot will not only be a necessity, but a way to keep an older population agile, connected and fit, making communities more cohesive. The health of the  population, our spaces and our streets depend upon that.


Images: Tasmaniagov & Pond5

“Shark on the Roof” Becomes Heritage Site in Oxford England



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Jim Waterson


Bill Heine, the man who in 1986 stuck a giant shark on the roof of his terraced house in Oxford, has died. He fought planning officers all the way to the top for the right to keep it. The government’s final ruling is thing of beauty. http://www.headington.org.uk/shark/ 

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An American named Bill Heine moved  to Oxford Great Britain and ran two cinemas. This gentleman had studied law before turning to running movie houses.

But in 1986 Mr. Heine had a Big Idea and commissioned a fibreglass shark which he craned to the top of his house. The timing of his installation of a headless shark on the roof of his 1860 British townhouse was the  “41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.” The piece was created by artist John Buckley.

The shark weighs 400 pounds and is 25 feet from its headless body to its tail.  As this web page on the Hedlington Shark attests  the placing of such a large object on the roof of a pretty ordinary residence sprung the local Oxford city council to action.

First city council said the shark had to go because it was a dangerous hazard. But when the shark installation was inspected, it was carefully installed and was safe. Then Council used Section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act that had no provision for the placement of large things like sharks on roofs within the municipality.

Mr. Heine went through the process of appealing the decision which in true civic fashion took years. The best part? The appeal was allowed, and the ruling in favour of the shark stated:

It is not in dispute that this is a large and prominent feature. That was the intention, but the intention of the appellant and the artist is not an issue as far as planning permission is concerned. The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to “utilitarianism”, in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting…. In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them…

And here is the best part. “The hearing decided that there would not be a proliferation of sharks on the roofs of Oxford houses.  “An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well-known, even well-loved in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called “Oxford shark”. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road.”

Mr. Heine subsequently wrote a book about the shark on its 25th anniversary of its installation. Today Mr. Heine’s son runs an Air Bnb at the “shark” house and you can stay there with twelve other guests. Mr. Heine has recently passed away, but his shark will remain and in fact is being listed as a significant monument.

You can take a look at the YouTube video below of the shark, local reaction, and  the planning permissions process that tried to deshark Mr. Heine’s installation.

Looking Back at Expo 67 Montreal~”Man and His World” and all that Walking




Fifty-two years ago this May Expo 67 opened on two man-made islands in Montreal. The 20th century was about World’s Fairs, and this fair with the theme “Man and His World” attracted fifty million visits in its six month run. At the time Canada’s population was only 20 million people.

Several notable buildings were constructed including Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s geodesic dome for the United States pavilion, and Moshe Safdie’s iconic “Habitat” as an example of prefabricated concrete dwelling construction.


Visitors had “passports” and obtained stamps at various pavilions. People walked from pavilion to pavilion and used the “minirail” an elevated automated system that connected the various areas. In many ways this event put Canada on the international map.

The legacies of the Fair were classic 20th century achievements that included transportation infrastructure:  Montreal’s Decarie autoroute was built, as well as the Hippolyte-Lafontaine bridge and tunnel. But people also got used to walking to a train station that connected them to the two islands and the exhibits, and then used the elevated minirail service for shorter connections.

In many ways it was a fifty year old precursor to how to transport large populations of people in and out of cities in North America. And get those people to walk.

The Montreal Expo baseball team derived their name from the fair, and the former world’s fair site is now Jean-Drapeau Park, named after the mayor of Montreal at the time of the fair.

This YouTube video below highlights the opening of the fair. You may recognize a few of the faces in the video, and enjoy the classic 1960’s camp. There is also  attached a video from British Pathe that shows the built form and design of the buildings and the transportation (the mini-rail)  on the two islands.

People walking to Commercial Areas spend 40% More!


Of course it makes intuitive sense that active transportation users and bus commuters would frequent retail businesses more often than those constrained by  vehicles. But it is always better to have the hard facts on this data, and researchers in the City of London England have done just that.

Transport for London (TfL)  in Great Britain has released a new study  with some staggering statistics about what happens when street improvements are made to facilitate walking and cycling. Time spent on retail streets increased by 216% between shopping, patronizing local cafes and sitting on street benches. Retail space vacancies declined by 17%.  London’s Business Improvement Districts are 90% in favour of more street improvements to facilitate pedestrians, and 85% in favour of better facilities for cyclists.

But the best news, and this is also in line with research conducted in Toronto and in New York City “people walking, cycling and using public transport spend the most in their local shops, spending 40% more each month than car drivers”.

The study for TfL was conducted by a researcher at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning. Footfall and retail sales in unimproved areas were compared to shopping areas that had implemented improvements such as wider sidewalks, increased outdoor seating, public parks and pedestrian crossings.  Findings showed that retail rents  increased by 7% in improved areas, and office space rents increased by 4%, suggesting that the street improvements translated into much more desirable spaces. You can download the entire report, which also has some great business case references for retail areas  here.

Local business improvement districts in London are also understanding the benefits of increased pedestrian and cycling clientele, with 90% seeing the advantages of pedestrian improvements and 85% wanting more cycling facilities in their area.

Will Norman, London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, said: ‘With businesses across London really struggling to survive, we have to do everything we can to support them.‘The evidence is clear – adapting our streets to enable more people to walk and cycle makes them cleaner, healthier and more welcoming, which encourages more people to shop locally.‘The benefits of designing streets around pedestrians and cyclists and reducing car use can be enjoyed by everyone and will help ensure the future of our high streets.’

And of course, more pedestrians and more cyclists on separated facilities, improved street design and slower speeds make roads safer and encourage travel to retail businesses by active transport, and make retailers more money.  This BBC video below has been just released talking about Vision Zero and how to make the streets of London safer for everyone.

Where are the Public Washrooms in the City?


Walk Metro Vacouver has been pondering why this city does not have public washrooms associated with public transit, biking and walking routes.  There is a need for washrooms that are universally accessible, and some writers have described this need as a basic human right.

Even the Downtown Vancouver Business Association published a map of public toilets saying  “There’s no doubt that access to clean and safe washrooms is necessary, and especially so in an area frequented by tourists and locals.  While the City of Vancouver requires all city buildings to have accessible washrooms, there is no similar rule for public toilets on streets and in or near new plazas. Visiting a bathroom in a coffee shop or other business isn’t an option for many people on limited incomes, when many businesses restrict their washrooms to customers who have made a purchase.”

An article by Ken MacQueen in the Vancouver Sun 18 years ago noted that in 1896 Vancouver began installing public toilets, but at the start most of these facilities were for men~they were urinals. By the  1920’s women also had the use of underground toilets that were installed at busy intersections including the south side of the Granville Bridge, Kingsway and Broadway, and the only underground facilities still remaining, outside Carnegie Community centre at Hastings and Main.

These used to be pristine, run rather like clockwork by a couple who took pride in making sure the facilities were clean and safe and useable. But something is amiss at the last underground public washrooms~School Board Trustee and former Park Commissioner Christopher Richardson posted publicly on Facebook that “The Downtown Eastside~to some home,  to some ‘their neighbourhood’, to some ‘the Heart of the City’  has had a change in the maintenance of the underground washrooms. Where before Christopher would refer tourists and family there, he has lately found the washrooms unkempt, and in one visit saw that  several of the toilets were out of service.

But what has happened? Judy Graves a well-respected former City of Vancouver staff person observed that these washrooms used to be pristine and were very well-managed by City of Vancouver Engineering Department. The City does have policy encouraging the use of public toilets in the downtown eastside, and was addressing the need for safe, clean washrooms at night.

Other locals have worked vociferously to advocate for public washrooms accessible to all residents. What can be done to ensure that everyone has access to these existing washroom facilities? And what can be done to ensure that existing facilities are well maintained and safe for all members of the public?

Here is a Youtube Video published by the Vancouver Sun on some of the issues with  public washrooms in Vancouver and other cities.


How Did the North American Back Yard Start? Hint~It’s Not as Old as You Think

There is an exhibition currently touring from the Smithsonian titled “Patios, Pools and the Invention of the Backyard”.  Jak King has been circulating  a write-up by the Smithsonian insider which not only describes how North American culture turned from a front porch to  a “back yard” life, but also points out that this love of lawn and yard is a recent post-war development.  Noted Vancouver  artist and author Michael Klucknerobserves that this exhibition adds another dimension on how conformity and consumerism were sold to a postwar society that had been under tremendous stress in the previous generation.

There were several  post-war factors that contributed to back yard culture: instead of army life, there was a growth in white-collar jobs that were limited to 40 hours a week. There was an increase in disposable income, allowing people to personalize these innovative back yards as part of post-war suburban housing tracts. Materials that would have been used in wartime were also available, allowing home owners to personalize their backyards with swing sets and pools.


The Smithsonian exhibit describes the repurposing of aluminum, concrete and fabrics from war production to new post war uses. In David Suzuki’s Book “The Sacred Balance” he also describes how consumerism and home making became the new focus of war-time industries that needed to reboot for peaceful times. And the suburbs were perfect for in ground and above ground pools, using materials that would have been prohibitively expensive and scarce during the war.

Even suburban houses spoke to the birth of the back yard. Where previously a front porch or stoop graced the facade, new architecture stripped the facade of that adornment, meaning that socialization now happened by invitation in the private back yard, which formerly would have just had a vegetable garden and a garbage tip.


Images: Smithsonian

Industries quickly responded to the commercialization of house and yard, creating lawn grasses which of course needed to be nurtured with pesticides and herbicides, and demanded to be individually maintained with lawn mowers and garden tools. A whole new way of life morphed wartime businesses into servicing the new subdivisions and the invention of grassed back yards. Who you were was reflected in your yard maintenance~“A pristine lawn and patio showed that you had both free time and extra money to make that open space behind your house a private oasis.”

From YouTube, here’s a 1950’s barbecue in one of those prized back yards, “where the family circle invites a few special friends for a barbecue, that holds a charm like few others in the world”.


Pedestrian Priority and Australia, Where the Car is Still King

IMG_5764Image Sandy James

If you think the car is king in Metro Vancouver and in Canada generally, you need to have a visit to Australia where both the law and the pedestrian crossing times solidly put the pedestrian as a second class citizen to vehicular traffic.

The Guardian disclosed that “Pedestrians across Australia are pressing the button at traffic lights for no reason, most days of the week..In Sydney, pedestrian crossings in the CBD have been automated since 1994, leaving millions of commuters to futilely press placebo buttons for nearly 25 years…”

And if you are standing at an intersection in downtown Sydney, you feel like you are standing there for an inordinate amount of time waiting for a light to change.

There are a lot of walkers~there are 1.27  million trips a day in the downtown, with 1.06 million by foot.  The State Department in charge of the wait times have thankfully shortened  the automated wait times from 110 seconds to 90 seconds, but here is what is strange~an official from the State said “when traffic volume is lower the pedestrian wait time is less than 90 seconds. There are also many locations in the CBD where traffic signals operate with a double cycle, meaning pedestrians only wait 45 seconds to cross the road.”

But no one is talking about the fact that Sydney’s CBD is full of walkers and quite congested at the intersections at peak times. Shouldn’t pedestrians have more green time when foot traffic volume is higher? And shouldn’t pedestrians’ time be counted as valuable if not more so than vehicular traffic?

Darren Davis with Auckland’s Transport Council has crunched the numbers of the economic viability of walking. His work shows that eight billion dollars of New Zealand’s  gross domestic product is generated within a few city blocks, and it is “walkability  of a city centre directly impacts its economic viability and economic prosperity.”

That is part of what London is doing in the Mayor’s new Transport Strategy as reported in Price Tags. Aiming for an 80 per cent modal split for walking,cycling and public transport by 2041,  London is becoming more conducive for walking by making wait times at intersections as low as 40 seconds.

Cities with walkable downtowns are attractive for businesses to locate, and pedestrians are the economic driver to make those areas thrive. It is time to cost the pedestrian experience for comfort, convenience and safety in the downtown as paramount to that of the vehicle, signalling a shift in accountability and livability of the downtown core. The chart below illustrates the pedestrian wait times in cities in Australia and elsewhere.


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Paris Bus Driver Accessibility Hero


You find heroes in the most unlikely places. The Evening Standard  reports on the plight of Francois Le Berre who was waiting in his wheelchair to get on a bus in the suburbs of Paris. Mr. Le Berre has multiple sclerosis and needed the front area of the bus to be cleared off in order to board the bus. Unfortunately no passenger would move from the front area to allow Mr. Le Berre to safely board.

Seeing the situation, the bus driver announced that the route was terminating at the bus stop and demanded that all passengers leave the bus. He then assisted Mr. Le Berre to board in his wheelchair and drove off with just Mr. Le Berre as a passenger. And surprise! Under the  twitter name “Accessible POUR TOUS” the story has been liked over 12,000 times. And while many of the comments are congratulatory to the bus driver, that ever so gallic  point of view also snuck in with one bus rider stating “If you had been on that bus you would not have moved either”.


New York City and the Dog Parker



Imagine that you are walking downtown with your dog and decide to go to a restaurant, or shop. It is clear that your dog should not be accompanying you. As the New York Times contributor Jonathan Wolfe writes someone has thought about this dilemma and has come up with a solution in the form of pink and white kennels on commercial streets that you can rent for your dog.


Called the Dog Parker, these temperature controlled kennels have webcams inside, temperature controlled, and cost 20 cents a minute to use.
You register for the service, get a fob that allows you access to the kennels, and  you can use the 45 Dog Parker “houses” in Brooklyn,  or the new “houses” to be installed in other New York City locations in December. Dog Parker customer service maintains a 24 hour presence, and  can remotely unlock the kennel if the dog owner loses the fob. The intent of these kennels is to provide  “an alternative to leaving a dog at home or tying them up to a pole as one shops.” 

Not surprisingly reaction to this innovation has been mixed. As one dog owner observed “I think it’s the worst idea in the world. I would never take my dog anywhere where I would have to leave them in a box or tied up.” Other dog owner interviewed suggested that instead of a lock box for a dog outside a store, regulation needed to be updated to allow people to access shops and services with their animals.

The Dog Parker company has been in business since last year and is actively soliciting businesses to install the kennels outside their businesses to become a “dog-friendly” establishment, capturing customers with dogs, and minimizing liability by having the dogs inside their establishments. Only in New York City so far.