Public Places as “Great Equalizers” and the Critical Role of Women
What a start. Suja Lowenthal, vice mayor for the City of Long Beach, kicked off the Pro Walk Pro Bike: Pro Place conference this morning with an inspiring speech recognizing the vital role of women in the movement and the potential for “placemaking” to advance social equity.
An urban planner, city councilmember and one of the key architects of Long Beach’s push to become the nation’s most bicycle-friendly community, Lowenthal (pictured) posed a question that she’s often asked herself, a question that, in her city, has an evolving answer: To whom do these streets belong?
“Are these your streets? Mine? Ours equally?… Six years ago we would have answered that question very differently than we do today. Six years ago, streets were exclusively for cars, for the purpose of moving vehicles from here to there. Six years ago, these streets were not mine equally. But Long Beach has undergone a transformation.”
Thanks to leaders like Lowenthal, Long Beach brought in great minds like Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who helped city staff create bike/ped-oriented policies and projects. They recognized that, in one of the nation’s most diverse cities, they had the opportunity to use their resources to bring people together — on equal footing.
“Public plazas are great equalizers of the rich and the poor,” Lowenthal said. “Growing up in India, our family was not well-endowed. There were a lot of homeless people around, but one amazing memory I always call up is the great public plaza. That was a public space that ensured that I was no different than everyone else around me. It was the great equalizer. This is what Mayor Penalosa inspired us to do. When we are shoulder to shoulder on two wheels or on two legs, there’s no distinction between you and me.”
And women are playing a central role in that effort. “I’m not one of the 100-mile-per-week riders, like our mayor, but I want to be able to ride a few miles a week,” she said. “That’s the true test if we’re succeeding: the number of average riders, like me, getting out on the streets… I want a city where I don’t have to change clothes, where I can ride in my heels, just as I am. What’s even more telling is whether mothers and daughters are using our infrastructure. That is the sign of success here. Look at any city experiencing real change in health and wellbeing of the community and what you’ll find behind that change is women: mothers, daughters and wives… When moms are riding the streets, their children are soon to follow. So how do we get our mothers and daughters comfortable in navigating our streets?”
One answer, she said, is Women on Bikes SoCal, which has set the ambitious goal of doubling the number of women and girls riding bikes in southern California in just the next few years. Lowenthal has been a key supporter and spokeswoman for the effort, and I couldn’t be more excited tobe working with Melissa Balmer, the group’s founder, on the National Women’s Bicycling Summit taking place this Thursday. If you want to join us, we have fewer than 10 spots remaining, so sign up today.
And stay tuned for more posts from PWPB!