Ten minutes after arriving on my first day at the office, the city-wide Committee On Transportation met, a group consisting of representatives from myriad city and non-profit groups interested in improving public and active transportation options in Nashville. They discussed the city transit budget decision, upcoming events, political alliances, funding, and organization strategies. Then, I was surprised to hear scooters come up.
Because of several recent electric scooter-related accidents, there’s been talk around Nashville of regulating, or even banning, electric scooters like Bird, JUMP, Lime, Lyft, and others. Since I’ve barely been out of the Architecture building at RISD to eat and sleep, I hadn’t been closely following the introduction of electric scooters on US streets. Though making space for small motorized and electric vehicles was a focus of my studio design project this past spring, I hadn’t expected them to be a focus of my work experience this summer. Sure, I’ve seen kids riding them down the street on my way home sometimes, and I’ve noticed them laying around Providence in a few unlikely places, but I hadn’t taken a moment to really consider how they might be subtly catalyzing an important shift in urban design. I hadn’t realized that the scooter industry might be just the extra pressure cities need to expand biking infrastructure.
In Nashville right now, scooters are the source of much controversy. With around 70 accidents and 1 death involving scooters since the beginning of 2018, many are calling for intervention and regulation. Because of our shared interest in biking and scooter lanes, Walk Bike Nashville has emerged as a natural ally to the scooter cause. Walk Bike staff have begun teaching scooter safety classes and including scooter helmet giveaways at some of their events. This week, WBN’s executive director, Nora Kern, appeared on National Fox News during my second week here, to represent the pro-scooter interest. She took the opportunity to point out that far greater numbers of people have been injured or killed in car-related accidents, including pedestrian-car incidents, in the period in which scooters have been in our streets, suggesting that cars may be the greater issue. She took the opportunity to make the case that moving to a more safely diverse (“multi-modal” as they say in the biz) transportation system is a better long-term solution than the banning of devices that might get people out of cars.
In the transit meeting on my first day at WBN, committee members expressed concern that the Mayor might ban scooters, and that the city council would not vote to fully fund city Transport. The next day the word came that basically all of these worst case scenarios–funding cuts to public transport and a temporary ban of scooters–had indeed taken place. What a way to start the summer!
I decided to take a scooter to work while I still could. When there wasn’t a bike lane to ride in, I felt pretty uncomfortable, and definitely got some looks from drivers. When I hopped on the greenway on the way home, I wasn’t sure whether I belonged there either, but it felt great to ride in the cool respite of the greenway on a 90+ degree Tennessee day. A few cyclists cheered for me as we passed each other; one mother held her child nervously to the side of the path though I slowed to a crawl as I passed them.
From regular community ride events around town to safety classes, kids education, fundraising, and tactical active transport interventions, Walk Bike Nashville is already doing so much, that including scooters in their advocacy and education efforts is a lot to take on. The general feeling around the office is, however, if we don’t advocate for the scooter option, who else will? Scooter representatives came to our fundraising party last Friday night and their sponsor logos are now all over the graphic materials I have been designing for various upcoming events.
All around, it’s been a great start to my time at Walk Bike Nashville. The first week even ended with a big fundraising party where I was able to meet many of the organization’s supporters, board members, volunteers, partners, and a few people that accidentally wandered in from the bar next door. Next I’m looking forward to helping more with event planning, and diving into discussions about my city design guide.
Okay, here we are at the end! I’m writing this post about a week after my last day at the Providence Department of Planning, looking back at what I would consider a successful fellowship!
So what did I accomplish?
My biggest professional accomplishment was definitely the traffic education campaign I made that details new traffic control devices (traffic signals and street markings) that are being introduced in Providence over the next couple of years.
Can you spot how I photoshopped the base image?
I’m proud of this project for a couple of reasons. I think I was able to find a happy medium between my personal aesthetic and the seriousness demanded by an official publication by a municipal department. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to design for a multi-lingual audience, the specifics of which I detailed in my last post. Finally, the posts using my graphics and language got quite a bit of exposure. I can’t take full credit – announcements of new developments are important and exciting in their own right – but I do think their strong visual presence helped to make them stick. Getting my work featured on the local news was a goal I didn’t even know I had!
Personally, I think my greatest accomplishment was the concepts this fellowship helped me grasp. When I went into this fellowship, my biggest goal was to have a vague understanding of “how stuff happens” in cities. Even with that broadness, I have a much better understanding of the timeline behind city projects. I know more about the complex web of funding (federal grants, the city’s general fund, and corporate sponsorship to name just a few) and politics (the influence city council, the mayor, and department heads have on different aspects of projects) that can get a project of the ground, stop it at the gate, or change its course (I’m writing this from the airport, please excuse my plane puns).
Not necessarily relevant, but I really enjoyed this city government-specific magnetic poem set on the office fridge.
I think the most personally valuable outcome of this summer was a better understanding of when, where, and how I could have the biggest impact with a career in municipal government. While I am happy with the projects I got to work on this summer, the timescale of many projects in city government is long, spanning years and sometimes decades. Becuase of this, I think if I want to actively make our cities more equitable (and believe me, I do!!) I should be prepared for the long haul.
If I had to use one word to describe my summer, I would call it “enlightening.” When I am ready to settle down, mortgage a house, and iron out a morning routine, I know that municipal government is a place where I can make a difference. Until then, I have a lot of work to do and a lot still to learn.
Thanks for reading!
On August 15th, members of DARE’s Tenant and Homeowner Association, What Cheer? Brigade, and I staged a press conference/action and political theatre outside of Rhode Island Housing. The purpose of the action was to call attention to RI Housing’s handling of the Barbara Jordan II “redevelopment” project. RI Housing had hired Camiros Ltd, a Chicago consulting firm, to conduct community engagement on the “revitalization” of Barbara Jordan II (also known as Clowntown for its colorful appearance) a recently foreclosed, 74 unit low-income housing project in South Providence.
Roline Burgess, a DARE member, spoke about her experience working to help a former tenant of Barbara Jordan II find housing, when RI Housing couldn’t help her.
Me and Eli Nixon, prepping for the political theatre.
Me in the Camiros Camaro running over DARE members, representing the exclusion of DARE members from the redevelopment process.
For me, this protest has been an interesting point for me to reflect on my own design process and political stances. Specifically, I’m interested in thinking more about how community work and design can intersect in a meaningful way that values voices of community members.
Of the myriad of reasons for how RI Housing poorly handled the process of redeveloping Barbara Jordan II, I was particularly offended by the lack of due diligence RI Housing did in understanding the history of Barbara Jordan II and who picked up the pieces when they foreclosed on it. Their hiring of an outside consulting firm, rather than truly engaging with community members and organizers as the experts, speaks to their stance on whose voices are valued. DARE and other Providence organizations have been working on housing and helping tenants of Barbara Jordan II long before it foreclosed, and as Malchus Mills, a DARE board member put it, “we have data out the ears” when it comes to the housing needs of low-income Providence residents. It seems disingenuous and performative to hire an outside consulting firm and funnel RI money into other organizations, rather than back to our community.
There are also some thoughts that have been forming in my head around how, as someone who wants to live at the intersection of design and community work, to present oneself as being aware of the pitfalls of design and how design has historically served capitalist ends and not necessarily community needs. How do I describe the work I do to other designers, without playing the legitimation game and using design buzzwords like “leverage” and “stakeholders”?
To most people Greenland seems to be a place where life stands still in ancient traditions of whaling, sealing, and kayaking among the icebergs, but in fact Greenland is becoming increasingly modern and you’ll even find fresh tropical fruits in the supermarket that you won’t find in Providence markets (passion fruits, guava, star fruits, papaya). Nuuk is the largest city in Greenland and has a population of 18,000 people making it about a third of the country’s entire population. The settlements of Greenland are mostly on the western and southern coast (none exist inland due to the ice sheet), but due to difficult terrain it’s not feasible (or sensible) to have roads that connect the towns and villages, so all transportation is done by boat or plane. Who own’s Greenland? Greenland has a long history of colonialism and is still technically a part of Denmark, though in 2009 they were granted self-rule allowing the people of Greenland to establish their own government. This history of colonialism has had a myriad of effects on the citizens of Greenland and they are still figuring out how to navigate their own cultural identity.
Cultural context aside, my original intention for traveling to Greenland was part of a collaborative study with scientists at CU–Boulder and University of Copenhagen looking at the potential extraction of glacial sediment deposition as a new economic opportunity for Greenland. As populations grow, developing countries increase construction rates, climate change threatens coastal infrastructure, and a global sand shortage approaches (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970)… we could really use any sand we can get our hands on. When the glaciers retreat from the fjords the sand and rocks trapped in the many layers of ice melts and falls to the sea bed floor. The ice sheet will inevitably melt regardless of climate change meaning that for the foreseeable future (a couple thousand years) sand will be deposited into these fjords. Harvesting the sand is a win-win-win: 1. Removing the sediment maintains the nutrient levels in the fragile ecosystem 2: It assures boats can navigate harbors to deliver goods and 3. It allows for Greenlanders to be in charge of their economy in pursuit of become a fully sovereign nation. Currently Greenland’s lack of economy and incredibly high cost of building and maintaining infrastructure ends up meaning that about two-thirds of their GDP comes from Danish subsidies about $650M. For this reason Greenland has been exploring potential economic opportunities that are becoming easier and more accessible as climate change makes things more accessible. One controversial path that has been considered is the mining of rare earth metals such as uranium. This research instead invites Greenland to put climate change to work for their economy and for the global resource needs.
During my stay in Nuuk I was able to have many conversations with people doing all sorts of different work and hailing from all parts of the world. I was able to talk with an ex-vice mayor about the new development patterns and urbanization of Greenland, a flight attendant about transportation infrastructure and the high cost of traveling, an architect about the challenges of building in remote and difficult terrain, a photographer about the seasonal differences, a chef about the import of ingredients and cost of food, a hunter about the decreasing population of musk ox, and a native student who had live in all four corners of Greenland. Each has their own unique story about how they found themself in Nuuk, but often the sublime nature and endless inspiring landscape were a major allure for most. Those looking to understand Greenland and the complex issues its facing I recommend traveling to not just Nuuk but also the more tourist locations like Ilulissat and especially the small settlements where the lifestyle of subsistence hunting is still quite common. Go soon though as climate change is rapidly changing how connected settlements are to trade of goods which will inevitably threaten the older ways of life. More next time on life in the office and the progress of the maps with JONAA.
This is the third of four blog posts for this fellowship, which is pretty shocking for me because it represents the beginning of the end for my summer at the Department of Planning. Time certainly flies when you’re having fun, and this summer has been a whole lot of that!
From a project standpoint, the most exciting news I have for you is that I’ve finally finished the web presence for the traffic education campaign I’ve been working on all summer. You can find the web page on the Department of Planning’s page here.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite part of this project has been the opportunity to do bilingual graphic design. An important aspect of this to me is not making the translation secondary in the design, which I’ve worked towards by using animation to embed the translation directly into the content. I’ve always thought that the visual presence of two identical designs, one in English and one in Spanish, is a little odd. Where space allows, I prefer to include both languages in a single piece. I think this is stronger visually and sends a more direct message of inclusion (rather than just checking the box of having both languages present).
So far, the first of these graphics has been posted on Facebook, which you can see here. The response has honestly been bigger than I ever could have expected, even getting an article in the local news! I really appreciate the opportunity to have an impact on how sustainable transportation infrastructure is presented on such a public stage.
Another project that has recently come to completion was my bike parking fieldwork, which I mentioned in the previous post. To complete this project, I got the opportunity to enter the data I collected into ArcMap, an industry-standard geographical information system (GIS) and mapping tool.
Here you can see an example of the interface and capabilities of ArcMap. It’s an incredibly robust tool for data mapping and spatial analysis. Like any program worth its salt, it does require some technical knowledge – such as the Select Attribute panel pictured to the right, which uses text-based logic syntax to make complicated and specific selections.
As a designer, my experience with programs are from an entirely creative perspective. It was really cool to try my hand with a more technical tool. I’m definitely hoping to build on my GIS education in the future and move my skill-set beyond the creative!
A fun piece of news is that recently Providence has fallen prey to the recent trend of dockless electric scooter share. I have really mixed feelings about them. On one hand, they fill a key gap in sustainable urban mobility, and are shockingly good at solving the last-mile problem. On the other hand, Bird (the scooter company in question) often operates by asking forgiveness rather than permission from city governments. Here is a really excellent article that sums up my apprehensions. For instance, the Providence deployment was poorly timed, coming one day after the city’s press announcement for its new dockless e-bike share initiative with JUMP bikes. This type of “move fast and break things” behavior creates an environment of combativeness between the city and the company, which is regressive to the common goal of creating equitable sustainable transportation options in cities.
Move fast and break things is a problematic business model in urban transportation. comic via the always excellent xkcd
Finally, to finish out the summer I will be working on signage for the Providence City Walk. Signage for wayfinding is something that I’ve been getting increasingly excited about. I see it as a perfect case of the importance of graphic design in civic projects. Pat Weaver in “Wayfinding for Bicycle Routes” writes that “An easy-to-understand wayfinding system helps users understand the bicycle network, and may be particularly helpful to new or infrequent bicyclists.”
This couldn’t be more true. A good wayfinding system can make bike infrastructure accessible, visible, and safe to people who are just starting to bike. As such, it is a crucial part of transitioning people out of their cars and into the public realm.
This map will (hopefully) exist on some of the larger sign types being installed. In addition to making the map clear and accessible, I’m also hoping to use it as a way to highlight some of the cultural landmarks that are important parts of the South Side’s history.
Thanks for reading, until next time!
// micah epstein //
Hello friends, I have settled into the small coastal city of Reykjavik (ray-k-ya-vik) in the southwest of Iceland. I have ventured to this small Northern country to work with JONAA (https://jonaa.org/) furthering cross-disciplinary collaboration surrounding the Arctic and North Atlantic environments and cultures. I’m interested in the various ways that our northern landscapes are currently being altered by new climate regimes and how culture will adapt or respond to new normals. This includes exploring the various ways tourism has affected Iceland or how new industrial activities may begin in Greenland, or mapping the various stakeholders who contribute to JONAA’s news platform, as well as many other areas of Arctic research.
The first things you notice in the “summer” here is the extra long days which do a number on your perception of time. My flight from Boston to Iceland was a redeye, but since I was flying East the sun was in a state of perpetual sunrise as I approached morning in the Iceland. My first night in town I explored this phenomenon walking along the harbor. According to the weather app the last light of the night was set to disappear at 00:00 (midnight, military time is standard over here) and the first light would arise at 00:04. You might think this means 4 minutes of darkness, but in actuality it is still quite bright and kind of feels more like early evening until it suddenly becomes early morning. This definitely took some adjusting to, fortunately each night the length of darkness increases though I have yet to see a fully dark night.
My first meeting with the folks at JONAA was very nice Audur, Hlin, and Vilborg are the three women who operate the company in Reykjavik. The rest of the JONAA’S authors, contributors, and members are spread out throughout Northern Europe, Canada, Greenland, and the USA (Maine and Alaska). This nomadic organization of contributors defines their scope and attitude towards the Arctic as region deeply connected to the rest of the world. It was a pleasant meeting as we had a lot of interests in common and had similar thoughts about how to improve the website’s offerings. My primary interest in JONAA from the start was the way they defined what was the “Arctic”. JONAA (Journal of the North Atlantic and Arctic) broadens their scope of the region to include nations and cultures that may lie outside of Arctic Circle but still influence and are influenced by the Arctic. I thought the most interesting way to show this would be to create an interactive map locating where all of the 65 or so articles take place (some are regional and some are site specific). They were fully on board for this. My task was then to compile a database that listed all of the articles that have been published so far and link those to longitudes and latitudes. The idea for the map will allow for on the ground visuals to be paired with a location on the globe and the article which describes more in depths the issues. The next steps after the completion of the database will be to figure out how to translate this into a web friendly map that can easily be embedded into JONAA’s website and updated as new articles are published.
Aside from work with JONAA I have been able to explore some really beautiful nature areas such as Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet (this is the only place in the world where this rift happens above sea level. I also was able to go on a long drive up the east coast on the Ring Road to see the Jökulsárlón Glacier which is the largest in Europe. Here the receding glacier deposits house sized icebergs into a large lagoon where they float around in their ghostly and luminous blue tones until they eventually melt or are carried out to sea. It has surely been a wildly new place to explore and there is something about Iceland that makes you so aware of time at both geologic scales as well as the everyday human scale. Look forward to sharing more soon 🙂 GZ
This project has been a balancing act for sure. Everything is dependent on me and getting as many things done as possible, as quickly as possible just to make this happen on time. For example I just hired a graphic design graduate from my class, Mei Lenehan, to design the posters for the event. I had to have all the information solidified before she could even start working. But to have all the info just 1 month after I started is very difficult! This problem comes with added stress since one of the artists on the panel also is VERY eager to send out the poster for her email news letter. Poster now underway, venue tentative, but still shopping around.
I keep reminding myself event planners and curators need practice too!
Had a FaceTime with the third artist on the panel that I decided on; Kay Healy. SHES SO COOL and right now in Sweden for a residency! She gave me really good advice also for where to look for future funding as an artist in Philly. this is her:
She’s in front of her work… isn’t she adorable?! ❤
Alright! I’ve officially settled into this fellowship for the summer. I would say that the “honeymoon phase” of the summer has finished, which comes with some perks, a couple learning lessons, and, as always, some shiny examples of my latest projects!
I feel like this period is defined by consistency. I’ve established a consistent schedule, and become comfortable enough with my supervisors and coworkers to tweak what times I can come in and leave the office. I’m really thankful that this type of flexible scheduling exists at the city level, and speaks a lot to the progressive nature of this department.
Part of this flexibility has come out of my most recent project – fieldwork in the major commercial corridors of the city, identifying possible locations for bike racks.
Feeling very official with my city-provided clipboard. The second map shows all the places I have gotten to survey. Doing this all by bike has been a really good workout and a really good way to explore the city.
This project has taken me all over Providence, allowing me to see wards, streets, and communities that I never knew existed! RISD is a prestigious and innovative institution, but this often times mean its community can be a bubble. Because of this, I’m really thankful that I have gotten the opportunity to explore Providence in this way, at this stage of the fellowship, to build a broader mental map of the city I am designing for.
I personally believe that experiencing the breadth of your city firsthand is fundamental to good urbanism, for civic professionals and citizens alike. I also believe that cars are actively detrimental to those experiences; Making neighborhoods blend together to the drivers while compromising the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists who seek those experiences. One of my biggest takeaways from this project has been the awful impact that automobility has on our cities. Cars blow past me, honking at me for inconveniencing them from reaching speeds that can kill. But by no means is this the driver’s fault! Vital businesses like clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, and discount stores are far away from where people live and work, yet often grouped together, two or three to the same block.
I’ve gotten into the habit of taking pictures on my phone during this project. Cities designed around cars have a lot of places that no one would choose to go. However, I wanted to highlight places that I thought had interesting colors or configurations that with some small interventions might be more inviting and useful to humans.
My last and longest term project has been the traffic education campaign that I mentioned in the last post. I am now just putting on the final touches and integrating the Spanish translations, and then we will be getting ready to build a landing page on the Providence site and begin sharing on social media.
I’m really happy with how these turned out. I think the visual language is both eye-catching and referential to traffic signs / signals, and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about multilingual design (something that’s really important for city-distributed resources like these!)
I think I’m still struggling to think about how to distribute these beyond the social media follower base of the city. The difficulty here is a lack of budget for the project, meaning I have to stay digital with it (printing can get expensive fast!). Let me know in the comments below if you have any ideas for further reaching digital distribution!
That’s all the project news I’ve got for you. On a personal note though, today is my 21st birthday! It’s a perfect day for it. Friday the 13th is actually an auspicious day for lots of Pagan belief systems (its unlucky connotations are patriarchal and Christian dogma). Not only that but its also just a Friday! Definitely lucky that my first foray into drinking culture falls on a day where I don’t work tomorrow 😉
I’ll post pics from tonight when I have them!
Thanks for reading! Until next time.
// micah epstein //
Every Monday and Wednesday I teach at the Davey Lopes Recreation Complex along with the help from two youth staff. This past Wednesday I sent one of our youth staff, Andre outside to grab around six local plant specimens that we could use for an observation activity with the kids. Ten minutes later he came back with these! I was like, “where did you even find these?! this is practically the most beautiful arrangement of plants I’ve ever seen!” Not to mention the extremely broad range of color, texture and form that he composed. I asked him if anyone has ever told him he’s an artist. He replied,
I laughed, of course.
One of my favorite parts about working with the youth staff after a few weeks is having discovered each of their strengths and being able to put them to use. It would be amazing to be able to work with them for a year in order to really be able to take advantage of what each individual has to offer. For now, it’s been really fun for me just getting to know them.