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Posts Tagged ‘Lancaster’

I can’t believe it – it’s over two months since that last post … What’s happened?

Well, we’ve wound down our ethnographic fieldwork in Lancaster. It’s far from finished, but we need to move on … to Worcester. We’re lucky with Lancaster – we both live here, so although over the next seven or eight months we’ll be making frequent trips away – to Worcester, Leicester and Leeds – we’ll also keep coming home, and home is our ‘field’. In fact, Griet will soon be moving into our Lancaster ethnographic neighbourhood, so will be even more fully in the field than she’s been already.

Up until Christmas, Griet continued to do the majority of the ethnographic work with our households in Fairfield and Abraham Heights, whilst I continued conducting go-alongs and household interviews across the broader Lancaster, Morecambe and Heysham district. We also started to do more ‘pure’ ethnographic observation. This arose out of a sense that really to understand walking and cycling (which is, after all, a key objective of our research project) we need to spend more time actually watching people engaged in the very doing of these practices.

So, for example, from cafe windows we have been watching how people on foot negotiate urban space. Yes, that’s a poncy way of saying ‘walking’, but simply saying ‘walking’ doesn’t quite capture what it is that people do. If you sit for an hour and watch a section of a pedestrianised city centre, as we have been doing in Lancaster, you start to understand the very different ways in which people move; how people walk alone, in groups, carefully, warily, briskly, boldly … You start to see how many different things people on foot do – talking, goofing around (the school kids, anyway!), texting, and how some people engage in the work of self-presentation as they move – checking their appearance through their reflections in shop windows. And you start to notice all the details which you might otherwise miss – the different ways in which people carry objects, and the range of objects they carry; the different kinds of clothes they wear, and what this might say about how they’ve arrived in the city centre (by car? by bus? by bike? on foot?); people’s footwear, and how this footwear seems to either help or hinder their movement; the different ways in which people deal with rain – using umbrellas, pulling up hoods, donning hats, or doing nothing …

We have also been positioning ourselves at junctions, in order to observe the flows and rhythms of different modes of mobility, as well as to talk to people moving on foot or by bike. We concentrated our ethnographic attention particularly on one junction, at Penny Street Bridge at the southern entry to Lancaster city centre. Under pressure from Cycling England arising from the District’s status as a Cycling Demonstration Town, this junction has recently been reconfigured in an attempt to make it better for people on bikes. Part of our mission was to try to understand how the changes have affected cycling, and – most particularly – whether there’s been any improvement in the experiences of people riding bikes through the junction.

It’s too complex to give any straightforward answer to that, so I’ll not try here (though obviously, I will try somewhere, at some point!), but will instead skip ahead …

Whilst we’ll keep coming back to Lancaster (and to that extent, it’s the roots of our qualitative inquiry), it’s time to move on, and we have … to Worcester. We’d already explored Worcester, and had some meetings with interested people there, last year. But our first ‘proper’ ethnographic foray, due for early January, got postponed by the snow. Griet’s plane back home from Christmas in Belgium was cancelled, as were trains between Lancaster and Birmingham, so we put our first entry into the field on, ermm, ice. We finally got going in Worcester a couple of weeks ago – spending a few days walking and cycling around, and particularly around our ethnographic neighbourhood in the south-west of the city, Lower Wick.

Don’ t worry, I’ve ordered a few more ‘Worcester – walking and cycling’ maps, as this one has now moved well beyond its last legs and into the recycling box.

Lower Wick was developed on an area of orchard land near where the Rivers Teme and Severn meet, at the end of the 1960s. The suburb has a parade of shops, along with a pub – The Maple Leaf – at its centre. (You might think that The Maple Leaf is a strange name for a pub, until you realise that all the street names in this part of Lower Wick have something to do with Canada.)

Starting from a position of almost complete ignorance, we’re very interested to see the mobility patterns among Lower Wick’s residents. Among my assumptions are that the local shops might service many people’s everyday needs, and that St John’s about a mile to the north, across from Worcester city centre on the west side of the River Severn, provides a few more options (such as a large and new Sainsburys), but that Worcester remains the main centre. That said, Lower Wick is located very close to the A4440, which runs around Worcester and provides good links to the M5, so for those with access to cars it’s relatively easy to get out and go elsewhere. And, if you want to go shopping but avoid potential congestion in Worcester city centre, and if you’ve got a car, you might chose to go about five miles south-west to Malvern. But they’re all assumptions, still to be tested. And also, although of course all modes of mobility are connected, we’re interested rather more in walking and cycling than we are in car travel.

One interesting feature of Lower Wick are two particularly long alleyways running through the area. These provide pretty direct walking corridors out of the neighbourhood, towards St John’s. But how do people use and experience them? We’ll be finding out, in the weeks to come.

We saw relatively few people moving around by bike in our three days exploring the area. But currently under construction, and due to be completed this summer, is a walking and cycling bridge over the River Severn at Diglis Bridge, a short distance to the east of Lower Wick. The soon-to-be-completed bridge also forms part of an expanding network of off-road cycling routes, connecting Lower Wick not only to Worcester city centre, but to other parts of the district too. So we’re also interested in the extent to which this improving local walking and cycling infrastructure might impact on people’s everyday mobilities.

So we’re back in Worcester again tomorrow, for another three days of fieldwork. With a video camera this time, so watch out!

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Whilst Griet and I have both got our teeth firmly stuck into the Lancaster stint of our year’s fieldwork, I’m also very conscious that some people might be wondering why they’ve not heard from us, or wondering when we’ll be in touch again, or perhaps even be wondering if we’ve just completely disappeared off the face of Lancaster, if not the planet … One of the difficulties of doing research with all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways, in four different places is that – to be honest – it’s hard to keep in as regular contact with people as we’d like. Speaking frankly, it’s one of things I like least about what we’re doing … although maybe it’s only my perception, and most people probably aren’t actually too bothered, I do sometimes feel like I’m becoming the kind of professional worker I’d really rather not – the kind of person who only gets in touch with people when he needs them.  Try though I do, I think there is a danger of that, and I don’t like it, and I apologise completely and unreservedly to anyone who experiences my/our ‘neglect’ in that way …

November continues to be mainly wet, windy and generally very grey. I fell off my bike (on the ice, late at night, whilst riding in the Yorkshire Dales – that’ll teach me for doing daft things …) at the beginning of the month, and have been nursing a cracked rib ever since … I’m still able to move around by bike and on foot; it’s mainly laughing which is a problem – wow it hurts! So not only has November been a bit grey, but I’ve also had to try hard to be serious, which I find rather difficult at the best of times …  Hmmm …

Griet’s shouldering more of the ethnographic fieldwork at the moment, whilst I’m doing more of the household interviews and accompanied journeys, or go-alongs. We’re going days at a time without seeing one another, and then when we catch up we sort of splurge out our rapidly accumulating experiences … our meetings with very many very different people, all the stories of moving around Lancaster, Morecambe, Heysham and further afield which we’re so privileged to be being privvy to …

Christmas feels like it’s just around the corner, and we’ve a lot more fieldwork to do before then, as well as dealing with all the other aspects of our work … meetings, writing, developing ideas .. rather unfortunately ‘going into the field’ doesn’t spell the end of the rest of life, so that fieldwork sometimes feels like just one more (admittedly very big, in fact the biggest, by some margin) ball to juggle … We’re running a workshop here at Lancaster Environment Centre on the 16th December, ‘Ethnographies of Cycling’, and have to prepare for that, for example .. But hopefully, if you’re wondering where we are, you’ll hear from us soon. But if you don’t hear from us, and you are really wondering where we are, then please, do drop us a line or give us a ring … it’d be great to hear from you.

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When transport professionals talk about “barriers to walking and cycling” they can be referring to many different things. Some of the more obvious “barriers” include fear of motorised traffic, poor (or even non-existent) walking and cycling infrastructure, lack of political and other institutional support, and a whole host of other ‘difficult to tackle’ issues such as hills, rain and distance. But when Griet and I did a walking tour of our ethnographic neighbourhood in Lancaster recently, we came across a very major barrier to walking and cycling which I’d not really thought much about before – private land.

We transport types sometimes talk about ‘severances’ to walking and cycling. But by this we’re almost always referring, in my experience, to the ways in which railways, major roads (especially urban dual carriageways and motorways), and big retail developments can block routes which people travelling on foot or by bike might otherwise take. I already knew of this issue in the areas of west Lancaster on which we’re focusing our ethnographic attention, Fairfield and Abraham Heights. The west coast main railway line runs north-south along the eastern side of the neighbourhood, and this really reduces the permeability between it and Lancaster city centre. You can see this very well on a satellite view of the area, which you can look at via Google Map – just type in “Meeting House Lane, Lancaster”, and you’ll get to a view of the general area, and be able to see how there’s no crossing of the railway south of Meeting House Lane until you get to Carr House Lane (and this route is only available to pedestrians and cyclists, which is one of the reasons this neighbourhood is very interesting to us – in many ways it’s more accessible by bike and on foot than it is by car).

The railway is a major severance to walking and cycling in the area. Of course, on a smaller scale, every road is also (rather ironically) a severance to mobility, especially the mobility of certain groups of people, and perhaps most obviously the oldest and youngest members of our communities (who, arguably, may be precisely the groups which need ‘community’ the most). My son Bobby is 8, and we’re currently going through a process of allowing him a growing amount of independence in mobility. This makes us very conscious of roads, and how difficult and dangerous different roads might be for him to cross. But we’re all affected by roads. In his landmark study of residential streets in San Francisco, published in the book Livable Streets (1981, University of California Press, Berkeley), Don Appleyard demonstrated how motorised traffic kills community. Appleyard found, for example, that residents of streets with light traffic had, on average, three more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people on streets with heavy traffic, and that, as the amount of traffic increases, the space people consider to be their “territory” shrinks.

But I’m digressing … as Griet and I walked around the area, we became much more aware of the very real barrier to walking and cycling through and around our neighbourhood which is created by a block of privatised land separating the two distinct areas of it – Abraham Heights to the west, Fairfield to the east. Go to Google Map and you can see it extraordinarily clearly. From Towneley Close, there are two clear, obvious routes which could link Abraham Heights to Fairfield, but which don’t …

One route goes east out of Towneley Close, via the community orchard and past the allotments to the walking and cycling route which runs north-south through Fairfield; this links to the Millennium Bridge (and so much of the rest of the district) to the north, and Carr House Lane and then the canal (and so also to much of the rest of the district) to the south. Apparently this route was blocked without warning by a landowner a few years ago, but after much local effort it is shortly to be re-opened.

The second route is actually a road. But it’s a private road, patrolled by big and ugly gates. It would make an excellent route from Abraham Heights to the town centre, one which avoids having to use Westbourne Lane. But with this route blocked, and the other not yet re-opened, people must use Westbourne Lane. Westbourne Lane is a relatively pleasant road, full of trees, lined with large properties, almost rural in its feel. But for some of its length there’s a pavement along only one side, and that pavement is skinny and often slippy, so that people often walk in the road. The road also goes up and down a hill, which – when combined with the motorised traffic which can travel very fast and close – means it’s uncomfortable for people who aren’t very confident riding a bike, which includes most kids (and perhaps especially the people who care for those kids).

So from Abraham Heights there is currently no option, when travelling east towards Lancaster city centre, but to use Westbourne Road. Westbourne Road is a very poor route for walking and cycling. There are two alternative routes for walking and cycling, both far superior to the current option. One will shortly, hopefully, be re-opened. The other, to the best of my knowledge, is not even on people’s radars as a route which might potentially be opened up – though it would provide another great route because it is reasonably well surfaced, and so walk-able and cycle-able whatever the weather. But, for reasons I do not profess to understand, it is blocked by big, impenetrable gates. Behind those gates are some very big houses. As Griet and I walked around, trespassing, finding our way blocked, being made to feel very clearly that we oughtn’t to be there, I felt very angry. A stranger in my own community. Treading on land which ought to provide many children with safe, pleasant routes to school; trespassing on land which ought to give the people of Abraham Heights an attractive way of reaching the rest of their district.

To me, anyway, it seems a crime.

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Rain

Drying out and warming up in the office, after this morning’s cycling go-along. Yesterday I did two cycling go-alongs, as well as my own cycle commute; today it’s only the one, so I’m warm and dry, until home-time at least.

If you hadn’t noticed, it’s been raining, a lot! Some people might say ‘well what do you expect? It’s Lancaster!’. But Lancaster can be, is often, dry. But not recently. A wonderfully dry October (from a cycling perspective) has given way to a wet November. Actually, given how much it’s been raining, I can’t complain. Sure, I’ve got a bit damp, but not absolutely drenched. I’ve been wearing my waterproof over-trousers and jacket, which together keep the worst of the wet at bay. But all the surface water on the roads, mixed with the recently fallen leaves, mean that it’s currently a bit slippery out there. My back wheel slid under hard braking a couple of times yesterday, and today I’ve been taking more-than-usual care to avoid drain covers, which are always a potential danger to cyclists, especially as they so often seem to be in our natural paths.

What I’ve been really impressed by,  yesterday and today, is how the people with whom I’ve been privileged enough to ride deal with the rain. It’s November, it’s turned colder, the leaves are everywhere, the night’s have drawn in and we’re now much more likely to be riding in the dark, and at rush-hour the darkness can compound the threats which come from motorised traffic. But the people with whom I’ve ridden are simply not deterred. They don waterproofs, they get out there, and they deal with it. No messing. Very matter-of-fact. I know that these three people are probably not at all representative of the British population – they cycle, for a start! – but they’ve made me realise that we’re not necessarily ‘a nation of softies’, as is sometimes said, and that rain simply needn’t be a barrier to cycling, which is another thing that’s often said. Come to think of it, so much of ‘what’s often said’ is just a pile of tosh, eh? But you probably need to get out there, meet people, talk to them, watch them, to realise that …

Which is what we’re doing … This morning, though, I made the  mistake of conducting the first part of the go-along without my gloves on. That’s because I’m holding a digital audio recorder as I cycle. This is not just because it makes me look like a proper researcher, but because I talk into it, and at the times when it seems safe to do so, ride alongside the person whose journey I’m going-along-with, asking them questions and (hopefully) recording their responses. It’s easier to hold and to operate the recorder with bare hands. But by the time we got to our destination (a shop out towards Morecambe), I couldn’t feel my fingers. Lots of blowing warm air onto them, and then it was definitely gloves on for the return journey.

And now they’re beside me, on top of the office radiator, drying out, and reminding me of this morning’s adventures and making me feel very thankful that I ride a bike, and that many other people – including people you might not think – do too …

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Punctured!

Twice, this morning. Cycling along the Heysham bypass, on my way to do a go-along, I got that dreadful feeling which I still get every time (though it’s not often, thankfully) I get a puncture. It starts with a vague unease, there’s something not right. That unease grows as the feeling that there’s something wrong with the bike doesn’t go away. For a moment I think, ‘pretend I’ve not got a puncture and maybe it will go away’, but you can’t wish punctures away, and so steadily the realisation that ‘yes, I do have a puncture’, and that it’s going to need fixing, grows, until it brings me and my bike to a halt … alongside the Heysham bypass, which was quite loud whilst I was cycling, but got a notch louder as soon as I was stopped by the roadside, bike turned upside down, intent on getting back on the road as quickly as possible … after all, I’d an appointment to get to … someone else’s commute, starting at 8:00am.

I put in my spare inner-tube, which I’ve been carrying around with me for yonks, and which – after I pumped it up and rode another mile or so – I now realise also had a puncture. That’ll teach me for not keeping on top of my inner-tube situation! There are times in my life when I find myself shouting out loud, like a mad man, which maybe I am, though I try to do it when no one is listening … or, on the Heysham bypass, no one has a hope of hearing, because those lorries are just too thunderous. Well, I shouted loudly this morning, then stopped, whipped out the inner-tube, stuck a quick-fix patch on the hole which I didn’t know it had, then crossed my fingers (metaphorically of course; after all, I had a bike to ride) that it’d hold, and let me get to where I was meant to be …

… it all worked out fine in the end (though the amount of oil I got on myself means that I am now sitting at my desk looking rather more like a garage mechanic than a sociologist – is that what they mean by ‘getting your  hands dirty’?). Partly because the woman with whom I was ‘going along’ was so understanding about my morning’s bad start, and so relaxed and cheerful as I accompanied her as she walked her children to the childminder’s house and to school, before getting on her bike and riding to Lancaster (me stopping intermittently to find a good place to rest my audio recorder and keep asking her for details of her journey as I pumped my slowly-but-continuously-deflating tyre back up). And partly because her morning’s routine – juggling kids, getting them happily to where they needed to go, then continuing to her workplace – was just so very inspiring. What a fantastic role model for sustainable transport, I kept thinking, whilst also trying hard to make sure I asked more questions, and not just gaze on in admiration …

It’s a funny business, this going-along. I’m commuting to take part in someone else’s commute, riding and/or walking their commute with them, then doing another commute, into the office, where I can sit and pontificate about the weirdness of it all, and write about punctures … important stuff like that … By the time I get to the office, at least 3 commutes done, it really feels like it should be time to go home .. which, actually, it almost is, because this afternoon, for example, I’m doing the whole 3 commute thing all over again, riding through Lancaster and out the other side to meet up with a chap who’ll then ride back through Lancaster and out the other side, me close on his wheel, to his house, before I say ‘farewell’ and, you guessed it, ride back through Lancaster and out the other side, to my house … it’s a good way of ‘getting the miles in’, as we cycling-types like to say, anyway …

This is all rather a long-winded (sociologists, bless ’em …) way of saying, we’ve really got our teeth stuck into the Lancaster stage of our fieldwork, now. Griet and I are busy juggling three different methodologies at once – visiting some people’s homes to chat about how they move around, actually moving around by bike or on foot with other people, and then doing a mix of stuff with those households with whom we’re working most ethnographically – that is, in most depth. Between us, we’re generating an immense amount of data, which is about equally satisfying (“oooh, look how busy we’re being!”) and disturbing (“what on earth are we going to do with, and make of, all this?!”).

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… So we’re now what ethnographers call ‘firmly in the field’. That’s the Lancaster field, which isn’t a field at all, although the part of the city in which we’re working most intensively includes Fairfield, which at least sounds like it should be a field, even if it isn’t …. Oh dear, my first post wasn’t meant to start like this!

Following some pilot work earlier this year, the qualitative phase of our three year project is now underway in earnest. By ‘qualitative’ I mean the methods we’re using which give us stories, rather than statistics. So what social scientists call ‘an interview’, which is really a chat designed to produce a detailed, nuanced understanding of particular issues from a person’s perspective, is one qualitative method. Whereas a questionnaire survey, and 15,000 of those have recently gone out across our four research sites (that’s the cities of Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester), is a quantitative method … Here endeth the (unintended, but that’ll teach me for using jargon!) lesson.

We are starting out on our home ground. Between now and Christmas we’ll be moving around the streets of Lancaster, and to some extent Morecambe, in search of data to throw light on some of our central research questions.

We’re working with 20 households from across the Lancaster and Morecambe district. With 10 of these households, we’ll be doing what we sometimes call ‘go-alongs’, sometimes ‘accompanied journeys’. (In the office, which Griet and I share with our project administrator Sheila Constantine, we’re currently undecided as which sounds better, and/or makes more sense – any opinions, please let us know!) Anyway, whatever you want to call it, this qualitative method is designed to provide us with lots of detail about how people actually move around, and how they experience their moving around. We’re aiming to accompany five people, or groups of people, as they move from one place to another by bike, and another five people, or groups of people, as they travel on foot. We’ve started recruiting willing (and thank you so much for being willing!) participants for these accompanied journeys, and will post more details (whilst of course respecting confidentiality) here as we go, along …

We’re also busy recruiting another 10 households for interviews. We plan to interview people from these households (how many people from each household participate is up to them, but from our perspective it’s ‘the more the merrier’) twice, once fairly soon, and then again as we get close to Christmas.

In addition to these two qualitative methods, we’re also working ethnographically with a number of families. This part of our research is more geographically focussed. We’ve selected part of west Lancaster, specifically Fairfield and Abraham Heights, for the household ethnographies.

In this part of the city, we’re busy trying to get a really deep and rich understanding of the neighbourhoods, and of how people – and specifically people from the participating households – move around. I probably have a head start over Griet here, as I live in the area, and have done for the last four years, pretty much since my son, Bobby, started school at Dallas Road (he’s now in year 4, whilst my daughter, Flo, is in year 2). That said, it’s also the case that sometimes ‘the outsider’ can see things more clearly. I possibly take a lot for granted, and have stopped (if indeed I ever started!) asking questions about why things are this way, rather than another way.

We’re very lucky, and appreciative, that a lot of people have expressed interest in our research, and a willingness to become involved with it. Thank you to all of you. We’ve also been mentioning our work to a lot of people with whom we’ve not yet got around to following up – so my apologies if you’re wondering what’s happening … I’ll try to get on the case!

For now, if you see me moseying (or should that be nosing?) around your neighbourhood, please don’t call the police! (Well, I suppose you could if you wanted – to the ethnographer everything’s pretty interesting, and it’d sure make a good story, and data!) Me, that strange fellow acting slightly suspiciously, is just your friendly (yes, really!) neighbourhood ethnographer, engaged in the odd business of understanding how we Lancastrians move ourselves around these days …

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