Are we sure?

I wanted to put grab this issue for a long time. The blog of the Spanish athlete Sonia Bejarano hinted some questions to me in yesterday’s newspaper. As everything sparks via twitter, I soon came to this end: the never-ending request from runners. ‘Dear local planners, urban theorists, architects, land developers and politicians’ we put it, ‘I wish I had a good and sizeable park in my city to exert myself to death and train hard’.

In some left wing approaches, I have been used to read such as ‘we are concerned that building the city makes volumes to grow larger and capitalism cares very little about open spaces and large green areas where you can play sports, or being a recreational area.” Well, it is a poisoned candy. Left and right…

It’s true that the city usually follows a need for expansion requirement (more housing) that is transformed and topped by economic-use tools. No choice, it is the indisputable sign of urban economics. But is is frequently built without thinking about collisions of use for particular groups. Even less, thinking of a process of open public participation.

But it is also true that free space lovers take it somehow wrong. Oh, me, poor urbanite, I must drive to my dearest forest to be able to train. Oh, I have to plod 3km along sidewalks to roll up to my big park. Oh, I shall load my mountain bike up because every trail is at the farthers surroundings. How can I jog my 60 minu training at my hood, round the cornershops? How the heck do I train along my marathon pace 5 miler on a 400yd-round park?

Is city planning gone against us the runners and bikers? And my rights as groovy snaffy sportperson? I am fighting for a sustainable activity and I’d cooperate to build a better societety blah blah.. Because I am, am I?

But what about the others? Are we sure that our requests are such sustainable?

I read how real passion drives sustainability-defenders to mentioned that open spaces and sports facilities should ‘serve the purpose and causality of why and how  they be built’. A sizeable park and a sound sports complex have a clear role but also externalities. In the case of a large park, the function must serve us runners, innit? Size matters.

Size kills. First we must address the effects on other citizens. In his classic book (Life and Death of Great American Cities), the great Jane Jacobs, urban ecologist and economist, warned of the adverse effects of large parks. As a heritage from Le Corbusier sprit we have zonification. Large green areas. Loveable running circuits. But please think in terms of sustainability -and think twice: speculators and city brokers have loved separation of zones, whereas citizens find them edges and guettos.

Not only large parks but large-everything. Large malls, large housing areas, large motorways. Even our dream of a 10 acre sport complex. That ideal lawn that enables us to do interval training, hill sessions and even a 10 miler. For daily city use, these have turned into unsafe barriers, gaps for many hours a day and ghettos on their own.

It is essential to speak in terms of the uses of the city. A particular rationalism that we inherited in the design of the cities threw us to that separation of such uses. No mixing, or densification or combination of them. These policies have destroyed entire communities, the lives of housing hoods and their economies by creating unnatural, isolated areas. As J. Jacobs puts it:

“Conventionally, neighbourhood parks or parklike open spaces are considered boons conferred on the deprived populations of cities. Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred upon them. This is more nearly in accord with reality, for people do confer use on parks and make them successes – or else withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure.”

Is there any hope for runners? Did we get into a spiral of doom parks? Oh my, am I defending blurry crime areas?

Just kidding. But please read Putnan & Quinn (2007, Journal of Urban Health) approach to healht and cities: green space often is hailed for its positive health effects but. in Jacobs’ conception, the possible effects are more nuanced; although parks can function as community centers when properly integrated, misallocated green space can negatively impact neighborhoods. When located in a low-traffic area such as at the residential edge of a neighborhood, parks may become havens for transient populations or criminal activity. Greenery does not automatically lead to physical activity or positive psychosocial health, and the positioning of parkland can be a driving factor in how green space is used and perceived.

What do we do then? [irony mode on] Gosh. I cannot give up, I am saving the planet on my running shoes! [irony mode off]

Is city planning against cities? Probably so. Are we runners turning against cities? That hurts…

I shall search inside myself for some answers.

Maybe we runners belong to a cursed subspecies. Maybe a 200yd square or park is enough to avoid bottlenecks as a marginal urban edge, although we’d get mad if running it around. Perhaps a Hyde Park or a Bois de Boulogne or a Central Park are too large for the cities hosting them. Perhaps cities themselves would prefer a thousand of cosy liveable squares.
Maybe if we understand that running is part of cities’ health, we should look to those who jog 20 minutes and care about them. Sure they do not want to be molested or sexually harassed.

Perhaps the 20% of us runners train a lot of miles and we are fast and furious and, probably, the engine of the marathon and road running phenomenon. Let’s face it, we are.

Maybe that is what we are. Just a 20%.

What do you think?

With love to all running mates that sparked the debate, Pablo and Sonia.