Recreation versus utility in urban issues
Few things devised by man really ever go away. Plenty, however, go out of use and become exotic or quaint — no longer of practical utility. But sometimes the utility of something can persist and even grow again, and yet this may be difficult to see through all the recreational use.
What the hell am I talking about? Tourist trains, for one. Trains have gone away as transportation in most of North America, but tourist trains abound. When looking up Port Stanley as a possible place to visit a few months ago, I found that there was a tourist train between Port Stanley and St. Thomas along the old London & Port Stanley line. Note that St. Thomas is pretty close to the 401 highway, while Port Stanley is much further south, on Lake Erie. I thought it would be pretty neat — drive to St. Thomas and take the train to Port Stanley and back. Unfortunately, this tourist railway deliberately prevents usefulness, since the only boarding is done at Port Stanley. (In fairness, the Waterloo Central Railway between Waterloo and St. Jacobs does allow one-way trips.)
The bicycle hasn’t been a major mode of transportation in North America for the better part of a century. At the same time that driving has become the predominant way to travel, bicycling has stayed around as child’s play and recreation. Go to any Wal-Mart and you will find a wide selection of mountain bikes with 20+ gears and fancy shocks. At the specialized bike shops you’ll also find ultra-light road bicycles for the spandex-wearers. At neither place are you likely to find many comfortable utility bikes, with fenders, baskets, skirt guards, and lights. And neither mountain bikes nor road bikes are well-suited to being used for utility cycling. Yet when I look at what people use to get around town here in Kitchener-Waterloo, it’s almost always the ubiquitous recreational bicycles.
Walking is no longer considered a serious mode of transportation. Parks, however, abound with all kinds of recreational trails; often you’re supposed to drive to the park so that you can go for a stroll. These paths tend to be under the oversight of parks departments and feature signs saying they are closed at night. And being recreational trails, why would anyone want to use them in foul weather? Presumably this is why the path through Waterloo Park is not paved, despite being extensively used as transportation.
The Iron Horse Trail has its share of irony. It’s a rails-to-trails on the old Grand River Railway right-of-way. Though it is paved and even plowed, it isn’t lit and is “closed” at night. What used to be a passenger railroad was converted into a recreational trail, which incidentally is now used as transportation by many people.
I would suggest that the focus should be more on recreation as an adjoint to utility, not just recreation for its own sake (perhaps with utility as an afterthought). When your regular travel take you through a park, that enriches each trip — as opposed to the few times a year you might get to an out-of-the-way park. Focusing on making a recreational space useful can end up adding more to the quality of life for many more people.
Similarly, downtowns also should be about utility and not just recreation. As Jane Jacobs wrote, “You can’t rely on bringing people downtown; you have to put them there.” After the post-war suburban sprawl took hold, downtowns suffered. Some tried to convince people to come back through demolishing buildings and providing plentiful free parking to compete with the suburbs, to little effect. Others, like Waterloo and Kitchener, built downtown malls in the failed hopes that people would come downtown for them (instead of the suburban ones). Unless your downtown is an amazing tourist spot, it just cannot be sustained as an occasional destination. Downtowns need to be places that are used in a variety of ways on a daily basis — for utility, not just recreation.