Social shared spaces are more important than ever

May 04, 2020
Social shared spaces are more important than ever

Bike Auckland

These days, we’re all thinking about public space and breathing room on our paths through pandemic lenses. Way back in August 2019, Ben Mansfield asked for your feedback on the social aspects of the Waterview Shared Path for his honours dissertation. Now, in the time of COVID-19 and physical distancing, he reflects on what the results say about shared spaces.

My dissertation was shaped by a strong background in environmental science, specifically urban water issues, and an increased interest in how these relate to people and society. Although I was originally considering the Waterview Path as a section of water sensitive urban design, after considering it a bit more, I realised the social dynamics in the space much outweighed any environmental ones, and shifted my focus towards the path’s creation and potential conflict of social values.

While the benefits of greenways have been well touted – combatting extractive growth models, increasing social capital and providing local economic boost – and most Local Board areas in Auckland have (or are working on) ‘greenways plans’, the social dynamics of greenways and other transport infrastructures have rarely been studied in New Zealand.

A family, learning to ride and scoot, on a section of the Waterview Shared Path near the Te Whitinga overbridge.

In my project, I set out to hear how different stakeholders in the area perceived the space, be they local residents, lycra’d-up cyclists, or a family on scooters, bikes and skateboards. Was this piece of transport infrastructure being valued primarily as a connection between the Northwestern Cycleway and the Southern Shared Path, or was it also a gathering place for families and friends to play, wander and sit?

A sunset commuter on the path in summer.

The results, unsurprisingly, showed “all of the above”, but the scale at which people saw the pathway as a ‘place’ in its own right surprised me.

It’s great to see people using the space next to the path, as well as the path. It’s great to see how busy the path is at a lot of different times of the day – it seems like it serves a very wide range of purposes – exercise, commuting, socialising, etc’ 

• non-local commuter cyclist

Largely thanks to the Bike Auckland community, I received nearly 250 responses to my questionnaire, broadly reflecting the various modes I observed using the path. Overall, 60% of respondents valued the path as a destination in itself –  only marginally fewer than the 78% who valued it as a space to move through. That’s a rather large vote for place-value, in a slice of transport infrastructure linked to a major cycle arterial.

‘I love the WSP. So much to see and do… an awesome green space.

• resident for over 5 years, commuter & leisure pedestrian / cyclist

The pou near Harbutt Reserve, at sunset on the Waterview Shared Path.

Respondents made it clear that it wasn’t simply the green space or playgrounds that made the path feel this way: over two-thirds said that the path connected them to the local and wider community and facilitated a sense of community. Although these perspectives varied significantly among different user groups, a connection to the communities they were moving through was felt by locals, non-locals, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

I like the friendly recognition of fellow cyclists and pedestrians who use the pathway.’

• local leisure cyclist

‘…although I don’t live locally there are people I see on the path most days and I feel connected enough to them to wave and say hello’

• non-local commuter cyclist

Side paths create easy access from local neighbourhoods, while longer-distance travellers pass through.

While these results might make shared path advocates (are there any of those left?) feel great about putting all modes together, my project is most definitely not making that jump. The Waterview Shared Path is special in its design: it’s winding, undulating, connects pre-existing reserves and playgrounds, and was designed specifically to link into and reconnect local communities.

It’s not the model for much-needed arterial routes to let people bike and scoot to and through places to work, shop, and gather. But as a piece of community infrastructure to bring people together, it does a fantastic job.

Just one of many charismatic trees along the path.

[The] WSP is great in giving me access and appreciation of parts of Auckland I previously felt were “not mine”’

• non-local commuter & leisure cyclist

‘…such a great way to see our little community. I have seen streets and parks I never knew existed…’

• local commute & leisure cyclist / pedestrian

A parent and child on the path in the afternoon: the leisurely homeward run from school (back when school was a thing!)

In the time of COVID-19, it’s especially important that we remember what joy and social connections these spaces can bring. As New Zealand slowed down, people took to their local streets, parks, reserves and paths in an unhurried way. People who would have sped along a cycleway are for the most part now slowly riding by, enjoying their ride in terms of its experience, not the destination. Cycleways typically considered ‘arterials’ became noisier as the twice-daily bursts of fast-moving commuters faded away, and families with laughing, swerving children rolled their way along at any hour of the day. Freshly quiet local streets felt like mini-Ciclovías, as neighbours walked, jogged, scooted, skated, and rolled for the joy of it.

For a while, Auckland, it seemed, was taken over by all the wonderful situations you can expect when you remove cars. and take away any reason for people to move quickly.

‘I cycle. I breathe. I feel happier. I am a little fitter. I talk to people on the path…’

• non-local leisure cyclist

Now Auckland Transport is rolling out tactical urbanism, in the form of pop-up bike lanes and emergency footpath-widening, to provide for alternatives to public transport, safe access to local shops, and so we give each other a safe wide berth as we pass each other on foot and wheels. These are designed to be interim, although as yet we don’t know quite how long they’ll be in place, nor what the plan might be for more robust versions.

For now, let’s remember that the value of these tactical spaces does not lie exclusively in their ability to move more people from A to B, but also also in accommodating these new, more leisurely connections with place. As we move into Level 3, with our lives and no doubt our roads getting busier again, like the Waterview Shared Path, these new spaces will help us to engage with local environments, communities and neighbours, allowing us to feel alive and connected while still keeping our distance.

— Ben Mansfield

Ben is now out of uni and is working to turn the tide on social urban mobility. You can contact him on twitter @cyclingsocially or read his full dissertation here.

A scene from more sociable days on the Waterview Shared Path.

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