Intersections: Creating Culturally Complete Streets

Posted by Heather Haylett on April 19, 2018 in Advocacy

Oliver, Campaign Assistant, recaps Intersections: Creating Culturally Complete Streets

Oliver, Bike Easy’s Complete Streets Campaign Assistant, checking in! Earlier this April I attended the Intersections Conference put on by Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition. A couple hundred planners, policymakers, engineers, architects, public health workers, grassroots advocates, artists, and everyone in between convened in the Music City Center in downtown Nashville for two days worth of fascinating presentations and lively discussions.

These discussions focused on how to create equitable and culturally complete streets that are safe and accessible for all users regardless of age, ability or mode of transportation. Bike Easy’s advocacy campaigns in both New Orleans and Jefferson Parish are working towards either updating or passing a Complete Streets policy, so it was great to be surrounded by people who have a depth of experience and enthusiasm about this idea.

I spoke with folks from all across the country about how equity fits into this work to build better and safer streets that are truly for everyone. A main focus was how to weave art and activism together to achieve equitable and culturally complete streets. Places that reflect the people that use and live in them and the history that has brought us to where we are now. It was refreshing that many of the breakouts and keynotes weaved together philosophical ideas on what culturally complete streets mean with examples of projects that have taken actionable steps to achieve those ideals. The keynote speaker on the last day, Peter Svarzbein, spoke of his project in El Paso that weaved these together beautifully.

In graduate school, Svarzbein began an art project in the form of a “love letter” to his hometown of El Paso, Texas. El Paso sits across the border from Juarez, Mexico and the cities share a cultural connection as well as physical. In the 50s people and traffic could navigate the border between El Paso and Juarez with the “El Paso Transnational Trolley”. When it was in use, the trolley helped the two cities share their cultures with people passing from city to city to visit family, friends, and favorite places with ease. In the ensuing decades increased border security and physical fences forced the two cities to separate and the trolley line to be shut down.

Svarzbein’s created a fictional advertisement campaign focused on the fictional return of “El Paso Transnational Trolley” and the cultural relationship these two cities once shared. He wheat-pasted ad posters all over El Paso and did a series of photographs with a conductor in the decommissioned trolleys that had been preserved in the arid El Paso desert. People started taking notice and wondered whether the trolley line was actually returning, forcing public officials to comment on the project and dispel the rumors. I’m not sure if Svarzbein’s initial intent was to bring focus to the injustices around the border and the separation of space and people it ensures or to actually bring the trolley back in some form, but he achieved both.

Today Svarzbein is a member of the El Paso City Council and is working to bring back the trolley. Svarzbeing saw success a couple weeks prior to his presentation at the conference in Nashville when the first refurbished trolley was delivered to El Paso, ready to take its first passengers. While the “Transnational Trolley” that Svarzbein worked to bring back, both as an artist and a policymaker, does not cross the border as it once did, its return marks a commitment to preserving culture and creating spaces that reflect the true history of a space. But don’t take my word for it, read more about the project on their facebook page or website.

The El Paso Transnational Trolley highlights the importance of keeping people and culture in mind when working on improving the built environment around us. Doing so helps create a mindset that prioritizes how people actually use public spaces, streets, and sidewalks, and that is good for people who bike, walk, take transit or any other mode of transportation. New Orleans and Jefferson Parish have started to work within this mindset in some aspects, but we want to keep pushing them to do so. It was refreshing and invigorating to be at this conference with people from all over the country that are working towards similar goals, and Svarzbein’s project was one of many amazing ventures that were highlighted. I’m excited to bring what I learned from these folks back to Bike Easy’s work across the Greater New Orleans region, and help build streets that are safe and accessible for all!

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