Bychance urbanism, Traffic Tranny and respecting organic human interaction

Attention conservation notice: People figure out what they need. Providing them with a cool environment/arena for liberty, choice, and self-expression can enable people to solve problems.

Can you design for spontaneity? Designers say yes, but then, they believe in design or else they wouldn’t be designers. My suspicion, not entirely informed, is that you can design to make interaction difficult, so that design that fosters interaction–rather than making anything happen, per se– is really a matter of removing barriers, putting out some chairs and some shade, and then–very contrary to American’s tendency to try to control everything–letting people do what they want. Some grouchy old misanthropes like me won’t interact. Others, like my jovial husband, will create a social space out of whatever is there. Beauty and interest would be a good idea because they feed the human soul, even if nobody stops driving or saves the planet as a result of a nice place.

My wonderful student Liana Elliot got me thinking about these issues with a story she sent me about New Orleans:

I have been enjoying time off New Orleans this summer and observed something yesterday I thought would amuse you. In class we talk a lot about what makes a community, how neighborhood characters are essential, and innovative solutions to problems are often the best route. This story seems like such a perfect illustration of this I thought it should pass it along.

The Hash House Harriers throw an event every year called the Red Dress Run to raise money for local non-profits. The event itself is more bar crawl than ‘run’ per se, but it has become such a success most people don’t even participate in the actual ‘run’ but just head to the quarter wearing a red dress to get in on the fun.

This year, I tagged along with a friend of mine, who is a veritable social butterfly among Lower Bourbon (a robust gay community). From the balconies of these Bourbon St. institutions, I witnessed a brief series of events which I think illustrates (perhaps demonstrates?) the intersection of community, urban planning and the place-making innovation that makes nice places to live.

Earlier in the day took a picture of the enormous crowd on ‘upper Bourbon’ which looked like a sea of red dresses in a hazy drunken afternoon stupor. Then I noticed in my picture there was a fire engine attempting to make it’s way through the crowd. During the day, none of these streets are closed to traffic, and it can be impossible to even cross Bourbon, let alone navigate an entire fire engine through a herd of people.

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Later in the day, I was lucky enough to witness a local character known as Traffic Tranny in action. She mysteriously appeared in the intersection, donning a red dress (of course), bright orange nail polish, and well worn sensible pumps. With nothing more than a coaches whistle, Traffic Tranny began directing and orchestrating the flow of pedestrians, traffic, push carts, etc. The drunks are safe, cars can pass, and traffic actually flows across Bourbon.

No one pays Traffic Tranny. I’m not sure if she was ‘summoned’ to deal with the crowd or if there is a time of day or critical mass needed to engage her services. NOPD are deferent to her authority. She’s extraordinarily effective, everyone respects her hand gestures and screeching whistle. She will patiently pose for a photo, but has been known to bang on a hood or two if a driver challenges her directions (or stand on the roof of their car, I’ve heard). Hours later, the fire engine finally passed by us from wherever it had been parked all day.

I noticed the storyline while flipping through my pictures of the day and it immediately reminded me of class. What a perfect solution to a potentially dangerous intersection! She is the ‘eyes on the street,’ the character, part safety officer and part entertainer, the personality incarnate that makes us all love New Orleans so much.

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That night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and ran into my old boss who is now a member of the City Council (not only is the Quarter in her jurisdiction, but she’s also been central to an attempt to clean up the taxicab business, and has been met with vitriolic animosity from the cab companies. So she’s been heavily involved in the foot traffic vs. car traffic debate which has been raging for awhile).

It dawned on my that my little anecdote sort of reinforced why I’m in school, away from home, incurring all this debt and dual degrees – because you can’t prescribe Traffic Tranny. There’s no public policy in the world that would be able to create this scene – it happened completely organically out of necessity (mother of invention).

This is one of those examples where policy can only support or surpress her, and urban planning could never have created this situation through design. From the perspective of a councilwoman (such as my boss), what would I do? Is there a legislative mechanism to support these characters without necessitating a special ‘zone’ with strict definitions and boundaries? How can we let de facto community rules operate without sacrificing public safety or resources?

Shortly after taking office, my boss was also central to a majorly controversial sudden-enforcement of a ban on live street music (outside of established music venues with permits), effectively shutting down beloved corner brass bands. The ordinance was seen as a racial matter (not unjustly), as the brass bands were typically young black men, and bar owners are usually white. Using the law to make a New Orleans cultural tradition illegal to protect business interests seemed insane.

Sure there’s a legitimate argument that can be made for enforcing the law and complying with noise ordinances and use of public space, but this seemed like an inappropriate use of a blanket-law which directly contrasted with the de facto ‘scene’ embraced by everyone but the few business owners and residents in the quarter. In the end, ‘exception’ zones were written into the ordinance so bands could play in popular spots. But they don’t really anymore, not like they used to, because brass bands are usually all young black men, and won’t play for fear of being harassed by police. This seems so contrary to what our entire city stands for – chiefly improvisational celebration, it made me wonder where policy fits into culture. If you can’t legislate Traffic Tranny, how do you support her?

That’s the point, isn’t it? What we do (or what I want to do), is find that delicate balance between regulation and freedom, where there is room and flexibility to let creative solutions be discovered, supporting those which work, and regulating just enough to maintain public safety.

This seemed like such a poignant illustration of what we are chasing after – the ‘American Dream’ of planners and policymakers – communities with soul, identity, creativity and ownership; where citizens mostly govern themselves, leaving cops to attend to less monitored corners or chase actual criminals, not harass the kids who stay out of trouble by learning to play the tuba.

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