The Flow of Life

The topic of Flow of Life started in my head as a thesis idea for my Urban Design Theory paper, but I realized how personally relevant it is, and I also missed writing on this blog. So here: BLOG POST!

I was writing a paper for Film Theory class about the importance of setting in film, and Arnheim writes about the “flow of life” that the street represents in film. Cinema is when film seems to capture humanity. Streets are a rich resource for cinema, as you’ll notice in many films including It’s a Wonderful Life and Cleo from 5 to 7.  It is the character’s public space, a stage for interaction with the rest of the world, just as the home is the stage for interaction with the nuclear family.


I remember at certain points in my childhood, on beautiful Saturday afternoons, when it felt like I was cut off from the rest of the world, like the town was empty because everyone was at the football game (kind of like U of M yesterday). There was plenty to do at my house, I’m certain. But nothing could be satisfying, because I felt isolated. My nuclear world wasn’t enough; I was needing mental stimulation. I remember wishing to be where everyone was.

This is a standard feeling of isolation. I still get it often. It feels like staying home alone on a Friday night, which is never desirable unless you’d had a long and stressful week and you need a moment’s peace. The film Pulse kind of captures this feeling. It’s a horror movie where pretty much everyone starts dying. (From seeing a ghost I think. It was J-horror.)

I’m starting to think we built a nation that structurally does not support a happy life. Extreme. But to think streets used to be a source of stimulation, social gathering, chance meetings, etc. when they are now a source of boredom-tears from being stuck in traffic jams, or a source of road rage towards other drivers who didn’t use a turn signal. We go to work (which has varying degrees of awfulness for everyone), then we drive home (which we have control over, and we decorate to our liking, and we maintain our closest relationships). Work and Family. Running into friends is not probable, and must be planned.

For me, this is a comforting pattern most of the time, as I have social anxiety. Boy, is it easier to drive, to stay home, to stay away from the downtown and the crowds of pedestrians.  To have control over who I see and when. But I pay for it in these feelings of isolation, in my lack of face-time with friends. I am not afraid to call new people to share a cup of coffee. I am afraid of having that actual cup of coffee with the new friend. It’s a new relationship and those have unknown paths. They may not work out. They are unpredictable. Just like the street. I want to burrow beneath my covers when I’m feeling anxious about this.

Facebook has become a complete replacement for the street as a source of the flow of life. Slowly, as we know, Facebook morphed from a stalker-ish profile collection for college students to a constantly-running feed of updates, photos, and links from people you know (and from businesses, musical artists, nonprofits, political figures, etc.). When we need stimulation, to catch up with friends, to feel a little less disconnected from the world, to talk about something from the news, we go to Facebook.  We can control this flow of life and which aspects of it we want to subscribe to. We can do it in our pajamas and type things we’d never say and stay safe. You can’t get hit by a car in your house. Usually.

I know this argument gets made, in some form, almost daily. That Facebook can’t replace face-to-face interaction and blah blah blah. It’s bigger than that. Facebook is a symptom of the major problem. That we don’t know how to be communities anymore, and that we have no daily connection to each other. That we literally don’t have the physical structure for this. That we need each other, collectively, publicly, anonymously; we need that place where anyone can show up, anything can happen, a flow of possibilities, opportunities to celebrate life quietly (or loudly) as a species.  We were robbed of this, and we should claim it back.

Woonerfs–Shared Streets

Firsly, the Grand Rapids Press had a big fat article on the front page on Wednesday about installing sidewalks on 28th Street. Is this not a direct response to my Letter to the Editor?  I’m going to say it is!!! YAY!

Also, I found this great webpage with tons of examples of “traffic calming” strategies, but most of them are actually encouraging towards bikes and pedestrians. From the Federal Highway Administration??! Fascinating!   My favorite new word is woonerf–a shared street found in Europe and Japan. Basically a street where people can walk and bike, and cars can mozy through, too, if need be.

Website for Michigan Complete Streets Program

Introducing the Michigan Complete Streets Program website, which features an effort to give Michigan residents transportation choices: bicycling, walking, transit, and driving.

This is the most exciting project in Michigan right now. Imagine being able to feasibly bike, walk, bus, AND drive anywhere. (Or as far as your legs/lungs can take you!)

Keep updated on this legislation, participate in the polls, spread the word, support this project!

Grand Rapids Renewal Efforts

In my bubble of Grand Rapids, I was subjected to the “creation, fall, redemption, renewal” equation throughout my Christian education. It didn’t help that my church held the same beliefs. I became wary and tired of having to write all my papers through this perspective, including an especially ridiculous one about water, probably the broadest topic in the entire universe. Except the universe.

The Christian Reformed theology stresses that the world will be renewed before Christ comes back, and it is our job to help the Holy Spirit renew it. I can theologize about this forever, but I really wanted to write about my new internship with Grand Valley Metropolitan Council and what they’re doing to renew parts of our city.

First there’s the “complete streets” program, based on the demand/belief that roads should be ways of travel for cyclists, pedestrians, and automobile drivers. There are bike lanes on parts of Wealthy street in East Grand Rapids, and GVMC is one of many groups trying to make a law for bike lanes on all streets within the city. This is a dream come true for me, and it may seem small because it would only eliminate the walkers and bikers from cars’ way, but for the biker and walker, it is a world of difference. It could mean my being able to bike to the grocery store. Or for those who take the bus, it would mean not having to walk through fields and commercial lots and driveways to stand at the bus stop.

Also, GVMC has gotten Brownfield money (money from the government specifically for assessing and redeveloping contaminated lots) for the Division gateway into the city. Division is getting a rapid bus system by 2012 for commuters as an alternative to US-131, and this means, for developers, that the street will be a more desirable spot for developers. Add that to the brownfield incentives, and you will see renewal on Division.

As soon as new bike trails, buildings, sidewalks, and roads are built, they are simultaneously torn up, worn down, graffiti’d, and generally ruined. I’m not sure any place on earth will ever reach perfection, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from constantly growing, changing, and making mistakes.

GR Pride

The Green Gathering was great. It was a lot like the charrette I helped run in Chicago…voting by dots for each project, trying to figure out what the citizens would pay for. Some of the items were about improving walkability and safety–a city after my own heart <3. It was fantastic. I will be going to more of this stuff!DSC02142Charrette-style voting by dots: blue is what you personally support, red is what the City’s priority should be, and green is what you would pay for.

Some of the proposed projects:

  • Redeveloping Market 201 with taller buildings, corridors to the water, and extremely accessible transit access
  • Giving the rapids back to Grand Rapids by creating a white water rafting course using dams
  • Giving Grand Rapids (FINALLY! PLEASE!?) a permanent farmer’s market area
  • Making GR more bikeable–bike lanes downtown
  • Making it easier for citizens to create community gardens
  • Making GR a city where everyone lives a quarter mile away from a park.

Cool stuff. I’m proud of my city.

Green Gathering and Idea to Incubate

Tonight I am going to the Green Gathering in Downtown Grand Rapids.  It’s at Harrison Park Elementary School and they will be talking (and voting?) on what projects are our priority…white water rafting? Bike lanes? Farmer’s markets? I’ll let you know how it goes.

My idea to incubate (and what better place to incubate anything than a blog?) is starting a project where people sign up and commit to walking or biking to any destination that is under 1.5 miles away. It seems small (litttlllleeee) but depending on where you live, it can be a huge HUGE challenge. Our grocery store is 1.3 miles from home, but I would never think to walk there, mainly because there are no sidewalks on the entire stretch of 28th Street–the most direct route. However, if I take Alger, a residential street, the walk is much safer and more pleasant. Too bad that rerouting makes the trip 1.9 miles. But that’s a perfectly lovely bike ride. If you’re completely out of food and need about 12 bags of groceries, a car is perfectly acceptable because you can’t bike with that many groceries. All kinds of loopholes. In my hypothetical project, I’d leave it to the participant’s best judgment.

I walked to the post office today, and it was a mile away. It was great, except that I was lugging two boxes on the way there and on the way back, it was windy and rainy (good thing I had an umbrella). I’m still so glad that I did it. The point I want to come across is that we, as a city, want to walk and bike again. We want to be seen walking, we want it to be safe for us to walk, we don’t want to be ignored by cars and developers. We want sidewalks. If people start walking to their closer destinations, even though there may not be a sidewalk and they have to trek through a huge parking lot, it will add to the shift away from cars. Also, we could experience just a little bit what it’s like to not have the privilege of owning a car.

These kids know how to WALK
These kids know how to WALK

Starting Little for the Walkers

Walking is the best weight-loss plan on the planet.

It’s better than running because you can always speed-walk and you won’t risk knee or ankle injury. As your target heart-rate lowers with age, running is too strenuous.

When I moved to Chicago for three months, I lost 15 pounds. A guy I know who moved to Scotland lost 25 pounds. It’s because you must walk everywhere in these places–even though I took the bus and train almost everywhere, the walking was still more than in the suburbs. This is why all those weightloss advice columns say park far away from the store–they’re trying to replace what we lost when we made our nation suburban–natural exercise.

So I know I just conceded that suburbs can be a good thing in our future, and I still say so, but they have to be more walkable. Which starts with the citizens. Not with the sidewalks. Here are some tips for truly enjoying walking:

1. Walk with a partner.

2. Have a destination. As I mentioned before, the ice cream place near my house attracts many walkers. This is because you can’t drive up to it. The parking lot is in the back and there’s no back entrance. Every summer night, people swarm that place in large groups.

3. Take Group Walks! Group walks are incredibly fun. Conversation flows enormously better when walking–the backdrop is constantly changing.

4. Listen to some meditative music. If you’re walking alone, let it be meditative and spiritual. A walk can slow down your thoughts and change the course of a bad mood.

5. Walk in beautiful places. Enough said.

6. Walk for an hour or more. It feels really, really good when you’re done.

Maybe Suburbs Aren't So Bad

Well, I’m living in the suburbs again. Well, on the edge of suburbs. No more downtown-smalltown. I’m actually loving it. My area is really walkable–we live in a neighborhood of Grand Rapids called Alger Heights, with a main-street-esque area where you can enter the stores/restaurants from the front. There is a great ice cream place, too. The store owners on Eastern and Alger take care of their stores. It’s too bad the grocery store couldn’t stay afloat.

I just took a walk around the residential streets. I do this a lot–I run most days but I like to walk in the evenings. I actually avoid the Alger Heights main street when I walk. I don’t like taking walks in commercial areas. I like walking by houses and saying hello to other walkers, watching kids play. I also go through the cemetery and the nearby park sometimes. All these areas are preferable to a commercial district. Too many cars, I guess.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with not wanting to stroll through commercial areas. I think my preference is shared my many and is also telling. Suburbs aren’t a bad thing. But they’ve gone too far. When developments have all new houses, no trees, and no sidewalks, there’s a problem. Residential streets should be near commercial streets in a structured pattern, not going on forever and ever. Places lose identity this way. My neighborhood is Alger Heights because of the Eastern and Alger commercial district. If that weren’t there, we’d just be southeast Grand Rapids. Not a place where people want to be.

That’s what it’s about–creating places people want to be.