Griet and I are currently doing the Leeds phase of fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. We’re working in Little London, a residential area adjacent to Leeds city centre.
Since the last post we’ve finished our fieldwork in Worcester, and more or less finished fieldwork in Leicester. I’ll write more about our experiences in both those cities over the coming months, as I find more time for thinking and for writing … This past year has been really hectic – lots of travelling and too many nights spent in anonymous hotel rooms as we’ve tried to meet and talk with as many people, and as many different people, as we can – all in order to understand much more about walking and cycling in contemporary Britain.
Another month or so of research in Leeds and we’ll almost be done, and whilst the last year has been an enormous privilege and often a real pleasure, I’m really looking forward to finally sitting down, taking stock, and gradually – I hope – starting to make some sense of it all. And we have an enormous amount of data out of which to make some sense …
It feels like we’ve been on quite a journey to get to here; from the relatively middle-class and on the whole suburban lives of people living in Lancaster and Worcester, via the dense urban conditions of the south Asian communities living in the Belgrave area of Leicester, and now, to the high-rise tower blocks and intense multi-culturalism of Little London.
One of the benefits of blogging over writing academic articles is that it’s much easier to generalise, so here goes – we’ve gone from ‘the rich’ to ‘the poor’, and in the process we’ve gone through very different orientations to the various modes of mobility which people more or less use, and/or variously have to tolerate. Most of the households we worked with in Lancaster and Worcester own and use one or more cars, yet the people within these households live lives relatively oblivious to the negative effects of cars (I must stress the ‘relatively’ here, because no one in Britain today lives a life which is fully free from the negative effects of cars); these people also recognise the value and the virtues of walking and cycling, modes of mobility which they try to incorporate into their relatively car-centred lives. Meanwhile in Leicester, the car is still being incorporated into the lives of members of south Asian households, but the car has also become a vehicle which every adult should have. Amidst the high-density, proximate living of Belgrave, many people drive cars for remarkably short journeys, but many people also walk without really noticing that they walk. If you do stop to ask them about walking, and so turn it from an ‘unreflexive’ practice into a topic for discussion, it quickly gets constructed in a quite specific way – those discourses promoting walking (and also, though to a much lesser extent, cycling) which have a disciplinary effect on south Asian British bodies are those concerned with health and fitness; it’s ‘good to walk’, especially, because walking is good for you. Yet the places through which most people who live in and around Belgrave do walk are dominated by cars – their own and others’, moving and stationary.
And so to Leeds, a city re-made around the car, and Little London, a ‘deprived’ community through which other people’s cars continuously and noisily speed. Most of the people we’ve been speaking with so far in Little London don’t have cars: you could say, living where they live, they don’t really need one – one woman yesterday told us that she can walk to the city centre from where she lives in seven minutes; but you could also say that living without a car traps people into their inner-city location. Meanwhile, other people come and park their cars on their streets, drive their cars through their neighbourhoods so fast that one mother told me she won’t let her child play out in the cul-de-sac (that’s a ‘dead-end’ street) on which they live, and the urban motorway which separates Little London’s residents from the city centre can be heard and seen from almost everywhere. Most of the women we’ve spoken to so far walk pretty much everywhere, much less because they’re being encouraged to walk, much more because it’s something they simply do, in daylight hours at least, and/or because they have no choice. These women feel the spaces through which they walk to be potentially highly problematic, but nevertheless walk they do. Unlike some of the people we have met in Lancaster and Worcester, and also in Leicester, they are not I think disciplined by governmental injunctions to act sustainably, healthily or whatever; nor I think are they disciplined entirely by poverty. I think many of these women walk because it makes sense to walk, they like to walk, they want a world in which walking is possible, and many of them are engaged in the very beautiful (and political) act of re-making urban space in convivial, multi-cultural, inclusive ways, ways which re-inhabit and revitalise that space ready for the children they are bringing up there.
In case I’m making Little London sound like the kind of place you wouldn’t want to go unless you were a qualitative researcher interested in understanding others’ lives – which is not at all my intention – let me say for the record, here and now, that it has so far been easier to meet people in Little London than in the other three neighbourhoods in which we’ve conducted ethnographic research (although that’s to some extent a result of the different community mechanisms in the four different places – Little London has a community centre and community workers, who have helped enormously), that people have been helpful and friendly, and amongst the people we’ve spoken to and also – more abstractly – the feeling ‘in the air’, is that Little London is a dynamic, friendly and ‘on-the-up’ place in which to live.
When it comes to cycling, my passion and my raison d’être in academia, the story however is so far a rather sobering one. We’ve yet to meet someone from Little London who uses a bike in the ways which ‘the authorities’ would like. I chatted to one lad who uses his bike a lot, like many kids simply to ride around the place; he’d had one bike – a mountain bike – stolen from him by a group of older youths a few months back, but he’d now got another one, a BMX. He didn’t have a lock for it; like other kids I’ve spoken to, the concept of leaving your bike somewhere seems to be an alien one. This lack of (familiarity with the concept of) a lock is one reason why kids don’t ride bikes to school (whereas I spoke to one lad who skateboarded to school, partly because he could carry his skateboard into school with him). A couple of weeks ago one youngish woman told us that she wouldn’t ride a bike because people would laugh at her; she’s too old for that – cycling is something only kids do. Someone else told us that the men riding around the area are likely to be drug-dealers – they ride on the pavements, whilst the fluorescent commuters who zip through Little London on their way between home and city centre of course ride on the roads. It might make sense for those passing through, but in Little London itself, Cycling England‘s mantra of ‘more cycling, more safely, more often’ seems almost absurd.
Of course, many of the people we’ve spoken with so far in Little London have more pressing things to think about than how they move around. Some of the African women I spoke with yesterday described for me how they were living with young children in flats or houses with severe damp, inadequate heating and broken windows. What’s more important – that they get their grossly substandard housing improved, or that they ‘do their bit’ by ‘hopping onto bikes’?! Still, because it’s my job and because it’s my passion, I want to find out how – and in what ways – cycling might connect (with) these women’s lives, and I don’t apologise for that. So at one point I asked what they would do, were they to be given a free bike, which was waiting for them to ride away outside. Most of them just laughed. I’m guessing that the idea of their leading the lives they lead by bike just makes no sense at all …
As I say, these are blunt generalisations; the detail and the nuance will come later. What’s great for me is finally, now, to be peering my head up over the fieldwork parapet, and realising there just might be quite a lot to say about all this research which we’ve spent the past year of our lives undertaking ….