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Movement and Place – Taking a historical perspective

“Movement and place”: A simple concept that underpins many of the debates on this blog.

For those who have not heard of the “movement and place” concept before, let me briefly re-cap. “Movement” describes how cities need to accommodate flows of people and products. “Place”, on the other hand, describes how cities need to provide locations in which socio-economic activity can thrive.

In my mind, “movement and place” describe extreme ends of a mobility/accessibility spectrum, between which there are many nuanced variations. Train stations, for example, are “places” that facilitate “movement”, as is on-street car-parking. There is of course a need to distinguish between the functions of public and private “places”. Notwithstanding all these nuances, I think “movement and place” is a useful concept because it highlights a key trade-off that emerges within almost every urban transport planning project: How can we enable movement while sustaining place?

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Finding an optimal balance is rarely easy. The first reason is that movement and place are often competing for the same physical space. Think of bus lanes on Symonds Street. The second issue is that movement itself tends to generate negative effects, such as noise and air pollution, which undermine the quality of a place. Again, think of Symonds Street.

In this post I wanted to try and provide some historical perspective on “movement and place”. I have been pondering for a while now whether the optimal balance between movement and place is shifting over time and, if so, what the implications of such a shift might be. And when I say “over time” I don’t mean in the last few years. I’m actually talking about experiences of the last hundred years, as examined through the life of my grandmother.

Violet Donovan was born in West Ham, London in 1920 (shown below). Post-WWI Europe was not a particularly happy place, so her family soon migrated from to the U.S. They promptly settled in the booming industrial town of Buffalo. As a child Violet went to sleep listening to the echoes of gun shots resonating across Lake Erie, where the U.S. Navy was engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent bootleggers from spiriting moonshine into the U.S.

West Ham 1920s

They were hard times.

Like many “poor” children my grandmother was sent to summer camp. While there Violet befriended another young girl called Alice. Years later my grandmother discovered that Alice’s father had ended up in jail after he was caught stealing bread to feed his family. She also discovered that at the time social welfare assistance was not extended to the immediate families of criminals and that Alice had died of starvation.

As an adult Violet would later pen this poem about Alice, which was titled “Inside”:

 

You never met Alice, – I wish you had,

She is a very good friend of mine,

One I have known for a long, long time,

Her skin is black, and mine is white

And yet, I think we look alike

Inside, if you know what I mean.

 

You never met Alice, – I wish you had,

I called her Lily, – it sounded right,

She called me ‘Tiny’, – I wasn’t quite,

Each read the other like a book

Saw ourselves as we thought we’d look

Inside, if you know what I mean.

 

You’ll never meet Alice, – that’s too bad,

Alice went away, – she had to go

A ‘Lily’ doesn’t last long, you know

Now, it isn’t that she hides,

But rather that she always bides,

Inside, if you know what I mean.

 

Eventually the lingering Great Depression caused Violet’s father James – my great grandfather – to lose his job. With limited few opportunities in the U.S., Violet’s family promptly decided to migrate again, this time to New Zealand, where James had landed a job at the Devonport Naval Base. Violet celebrated her 16th birthday on the voyage to New Zealand.

Violet’s family arrived in Wellington after sunset and promptly boarded an overnight train bound for Auckland. Then, upon arriving in Auckland, the entire family finally boarded the ferry to Devonport (like the one shown below) – just as the sun was rising over Rangitoto. Apparently the spring sunlight lit the waters of the Waitemata in sparkling hues of blue that Violet would never forget, even as she grew old.

1930s

After the industrial drudgery of Buffalo and London Auckland must have seemed like a verdant oasis. Not that life in Auckland was necessarily easy: Violet would later raise three children on her own, at a time when women were paid approximately half a man’s wage for the same job. At one point she was working three jobs, seven days a week, just to get by. She never had sufficient time or money to learn to drive, let alone buy a vehicle;  Violet depended on public transport her entire life.

I suspect that few people today, myself including, can fully comprehend the degree to which my grandmother relied on public transport. For example, as a keen carpenter Violet would transport lengths of timber home from the hardware store by laying them down the aisle of the bus. And when in the 1980s Auckland’s bus services were cut in response to declining demand, the bus stop closest to Violet’s unit was no longer served. She immediately went out and purchased some roller skates, which she used to skate to the bus stop that was now closest to her hours.

Yes that’s correct – at the grand old age of 60 my grandmother invented “roll and ride” (R&R).

Violet so loved Auckland that – once settled here – she rarely left, except perhaps for the occasional day trip to Waiheke or Waiuku to visit her increasingly spoilt and precocious grandchildren.

I think Violet’s life is remarkable not just for what she endured; indeed hardship was not uncommon to the generation born immediately after WWI. The causes of socio-economic troubles were many and varied, such as the global influenza epidemic, the Great Depression, WWII, and finally the Cold War, among a number of other trials and tribulations. Instead I think Violet’s life is remarkable because of the historical perspective it provides on the relative importance of movement and place. The reasons why people really need to be able to move and what they do when they eventually find somewhere that they life.

International travel was a life-raft that enabled Violet’s family to escape first from the U.K. to the U.S. and then again from the U.S. to N.Z. It was the ability to travel that enabled Violet’s family to access a better life in N.Z. While the waves of international migration that dominated our early European history have gradually receded, we are now in the grip of other, more local, migratory trends – such as rural to urban drift. Here the role of push and pull factors, plus transport’s enabling function, seems to be very much the same as it was in Violet’s day. Transport enables people to access opportunities that don’t exist where they currently live.

We now live, however, in a vastly different global environment. From what I can tell much of the world has got its act together. New Zealand, in general, and Auckland, in particular, no longer has the inherent competitive advantages we once had as an affluent safe-haven in a war-ravaged and uncertain world. Global competition for labour is more intense, while the real costs of long-distance travel have declined – making it easy for people to come here, but also making it easier for people to leave – both locals and immigrants – when they don’t find what they are looking for.

I think this post is already long enough so I’m now going to just say what I think, even if I’m the first to admit that the supporting arguments are not fully formed: I think New Zealand’s urban areas need to place a greater emphasis on place. I can understand New Zealand’s historical emphasis on movement, because there were a lot of people moving around. But the benefits of movement seem to be diminishing by the day, whereas the benefits of place, insofar as it provides us with a competitive advantage in the great global competition for skilled talent, seems to be increasing.

New Zealand truly needs, but doesn’t yet have, cities and towns in which people can live, work, and play – all without the need to travel very far. We need to start making places that provide joy and intrigue to our urban areas.

I want to wrap up by listing a few final questions for you good people to chew over:

  1. As New Zealand’s cities and towns become more settled, would you not expect the relative importance of “place” to increase?
  2. If so are similar trends emerging in countries overseas? Is there evidence to suggest countries with similar histories, such as Australia, are experiencing a similar shift, i.e. away from movement and towards place?
  3. If there has been an increased emphasis on place, what are the different ways in which it surfaces ? For example, are we now more willing to pay for quality public spaces?
  4. Does an increased emphasis on place need to be reflected in our political institutions and governance arrangements? Should we consider:
    • Develop a new place-based agency, e.g. the “New Zealand Place-making Agency” (NZPA) to sit within the MfE as a counter-balance to movement-based agencies, such as the MoT and NZTA? Or
    • Delegate the place-making function to local councils, albeit empowered with a new mandate to reinvigorate “life between buildings”?

These are the sorts of (complex) questions that arise when one takes a historical perspective on “movement and place”; I’d appreciate your help in answering them!

*** This post is dedicated to the loving memory of Violet Donovan. May your words, cheekiness, and spirit live on. ***

Violet

33 comments to Movement and Place – Taking a historical perspective

  • AC

    What a lovely post :)
    Auckland without a shadow of a doubt needs a far greater emphasis on place making. I still get a bit embarrassed here when tourists on their way to NZ tell me that they plan to only be in Auckland for a day or 2, as other Kiwis have told them there’s very little point staying there. Not every city can be a tourist Mecca, but, you’d expect people to stay in our only international sized city for more than a day.

    • Rharris

      Yes I hope the unitary plan helps aid this placemaking and makes a walkable city.

      Don’t know if anyone watched grand designs last night but had a similar theme. Kevin was trying to create his own happy affordable sustainable walkable terraced housing development. Interesting tie in to the unitary plan of previous dull uk developments.

    • Nick R

      I’ve heard recently that the image of Auckland among tourists is shifting, apparently a visit to Wynyard and the waterfront is now a must see, while a trip on a ferry to anywhere is recommended. So rather than “avoid Auckland” it’s shifted to something like “a day or two in Auckland is all you need”. Over time I’d hope that becomes “allow several days to see all Auckland has to offer, but be warned you may never want to leave”.

      I really think that if the city can simply implement the Unitary Plan, the Regional Public Transport Plan, and maybe half the good ideas in the City Centre Masterplan, we will have a truely amazing city.

      • AC

        It seems Auckland is at least trying to head in the right direction :)
        ”Joy and intrigue in our urban areas”
        If only!

      • Stu Donovan

        Sounds about right. I’d send my visitors to Waiheke/Wynyard and then pack them off to greener pastures elsewhere in the country …

      • S

        Funnily enough, this happened to be exactly what happened when some friends of mine visited recently: lunch at Wynyard and a recommendation to go to Waiheke Island or Devonport…

    • Stu Donovan

      Thanks AC. Me too – Auckland is not a good place to bring visitors. You don’t feel like you can leave them to explore and have fun. There’s few places that provide a sense of joy and intrigue and encourage you to … just … keep … walking.

      In saying that, 1) Auckland is home; 2) I’m proud of it; and 3) I want it to be better.

  • Owen Thompson

    A loving tribute to your Nana.

  • Gian

    Lovely post. Being a migrant myself reading Violet’s story was moving, as I know how hard it is. It must have been hard expecially for her parents.
    I agree that Auckland needs more spaces where to feel good. I recently went to Wellington for the first time in my life after living in Nz for four years. That’s where I realized New Zealand can actually build a nice city with good public spaces, and there was a certain vibe in the people that I don’t find in the corporate Auckland city.
    As for the need for better spaces I have the example of many European friends that lived here for a certain number of years, enjoyed the job, the nature, the lifestyle but in the end went back (or are going back soon) expecially because of the lack of “community spirit” or belonging to Auckland, the insane cost of housing compared to the quality of it, and the poor transport system. And I am talking about the kind of immigrants that NZ immigration wants, the very high skilled no tubercolosys type that can choose to live pretty much anywhere in the world. One of them was actually working as an urban planner for Auckland Council, the irony…

    • Stu Donovan

      Thanks Gian. May I ask where you emigrated from? Yes, I can’t even imagine what her parents went through. I think you and I may share the same European friends. My Socialist Dictator (i.e. Norwegian girlfriend) and I were discussing just this fact the other day. The “community spirit” you mention is emerging in Auckland, I think, but slowly and in pockets. Much of the city is dominated by people whose corporate values run black through their veins, even outside of work hours.

      The types of immigrants Auckland wants are place-based immigrants: People who come here for the community, the values, and the sheer joy of living in a wonderful city one of the world’s most fortunate countries. IMO. :).

  • Great post Stu. What a wonderful woman. And a very good point. The rise of the ‘walkability’ movement in North America springs to mind as evidence to support your thesis.

    My view is that we should work towards both a rise in accessibility between urban centres (within Auckland, within NZ) and a rise in local place quality and amenity. This of course means shifting towards movement systems with lower negative impacts on place.

    • …and simply slowing movement, or containing it to specific corridors and not others, or just reducing it, or even improve the place making aspects of movement.

      • Stu Donovan

        good point – we need to pick winners when it comes to movement and place functions. Right now almost every street in Auckland is dominated by movement. The great triumph of the share spaces is that they show the positive socio-economic impacts that can follow from a more place-based focus.

    • Stu Donovan

      thanks and yes she was. I’ve also been watching the emergence of similar trends in our fellow neo-colonies, such as Canada and the U.S.

      In terms of what it means for what we do, I think it just means spending less rates money on cars. I’m sorry to all who are offended by such a suggestion (e.g. Stephen Selwood), but I simply don’t see any pay-off from subsidising cars more through rates than they already receive in other ways.

      Instead I’d suggest that all local road funds, aside from maintenance and renewals, are re-directed into place-making activities. Some of which may involve upgrading streets.

  • PBY

    What a fantastic post Stu, reminded me of my own grandparents who now in their 90′s have seen similar trials and changes during their life. I need to spend more time with them…

    I also agree with the key point at the end of your post… benefits of moving are diminishing by the day and place making should be a higher priority. Personally I think that as we develop Auckland into a better city where people want to spend time with (better urban spaces) then Auckland will start to gain a bit of an economic advantage.

    • Stu Donovan

      I agree – funny thing is that I already really like Auckland, despite it’s desperately poor quality urban places and preponderance of clumsy and ineffective movement-based infrastructure.

      Agree that if Auckland get’s it “place” act together then it will gain an enormous competitive advantage. We might even become the “world’s most livable city”.

  • SteveC

    I think the essence is that in our grandparent’s time, the place function was dominant over movement because people were more or less dependant on walking for transport. Greater access to cars enabled suburbs to grow, decoupling home and work so making movement dominant over place.

    A resurgence of the place function indicates that putting all our eggs in the suburban basket doesn’t meet the needs of all the community. The Auckland Plan wisely accommodates a variety of living styles allowing for a re-establishment of place orientated community.

    The community orientation of Kevin’s grand design was a strength and it will be interesting to see how it works out next week.

    • Stu Donovan

      Hi Steve, let me suggest an alternative historical narrative: Industrial new-world cities were, in Violet’s day, not particularly nice places – due to a lack of basic infrastructure, polluting industries, and threatening external circumstances (war, disease etc).

      While these issues no longer hold, in the intervening 50-75 years since that time become trapped in a car-dominated world that prioritizes movement over place. We can now see the issues this creates, all we need to do is step back from the brink and focus on creating a more balanced place-based economy.

      This which in turn should deliver lower transport costs and higher quality of life.

  • John M

    A lovely post. Indeed, with an (re-?)emphasis on place-making and better places, we’ll all likely need less movement. Love the idea of a NZPA balance to NZTA! Or, better yet, incorporated strongly into the work of existing agencies like NZTA so that public funding is truly invested with a far better long-term community yield.

    On another note, as someone who is far less grumpy when biking or walking (or walking/taking transport) somewhere, I’m unfortunately very positively biased toward the phrase “movement.” To me, it implies more about feeling, tasting, experiencing a place from outside the metal box and not just patching together dizzying infrastructure for the efficient (or not so) movement of people and goods. A place-making approach is clearly the way to go– and even has ancillary benefits in redefining “movement” on a smaller, more sustainable and– perhaps most important– more human-scale at the same time.

  • Great post and something I really agree with. Creating nice places is much more difficult but important than just creating a system that allows everyone to move everywhere.

    It also slots in nicely with the mobility vs accessibility balance that has been discussed in other posts.

    If we concentrate the city on movement, we need to devote huge amounts of space to the roads to enable mobility. This means being able to go anywhere at any time at the maximum speed possible.

    If we concentrate on place, our emphasis changes to making those places accessible. As a place they are fixed and therefore become perfect for public transport on its own ROW as flexibility and mobility become irrelevant. How many times has London moved Leicester Square, New York moved Times Square or Paris moved the Basilique du Sacré Coeur? It also allows us to create more places along those PT ROWs as we have freed up space from the lack of movement when we turn space for cars into public pedestrian space.

    I look forward to a more place oriented Auckland for my children.

    • Stu Donovan

      Yes, I like to think of it this way: We want a spatial economy that enables people to seek out what they need from their immediate surroundings without having to travel very far, while facilitating movement for those people that really need it. It’s kind of a place-based economy with an optional equitable/efficient movement dimension.

  • Molly Woppy

    Thank you sharing Violet’s story. She was clearly a remarkable woman.

    • Stu Donovan

      My pleasure. And Violet was a remarkable woman; as were many of her generation – if only for the huge challenges they had to confront and overcome if they were to survive and prosper. To those of you who are still young enough to have grandparents: Put down the computer games for a second and take time out to them about their life. I’m fairly confident that most of them would enjoy it greatly – and I’m similarly confident that you will not regret it when you get older.

  • And here’s the big issue for this century as outlined by those radicals at the Harvard Business School:

    Take cars. Auto emissions — their manufacture and tailpipe emissions, together with the emissions created by the infrastructure, land use and businesses designed to support their use — make up the largest single source of greenhouse gasses in the U.S.

    But the solution to the problem of car emissions will not be found under the hood: even the best cars we can imagine would be unsustainable in an unchanged context of auto-dependent sprawl.That context, though, can change. Indeed, it already is changing, and rapidly.

    Compact, walkable neighborhoods are in high demand now, and it’s probably the best-proven finding in urban planning that dense communities use less energy on transportation and require fewer cars and less infrastructure to meet the needs of their residents. New housing growth that fills out existing communities, instead of creating more exurban sprawl; investments in walkability; improvements to mass transit; all of these not only dramatically shift driving needs, they improve quality of life. Rebuilding cities will cut auto emissions much faster than technological innovation in the auto industry. And we’re entering a city-building boom, both in the U.S. and internationally. Climate, energy and resource issues guarantee that those cities will not work as they do today.

    http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/04/the_21st_century_economy_will.html

  • Frank E

    Stu you might want to check up on your geography. Buffalo is nowhere near Lake Michigan (& would also be a highly illogical route for bootleggers to take). Lake Erie’s what you’re thinking of.

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