A most hopeful light

Nimbin light

We designed our bedroom to handle the light of the Australian sub-tropics. We used hundreds of CAD shade diagrams and tried to honour some basic feng shui principles. So a narrow window admits morning sun along the eastern wall. Just a glimpse, a shard of light. But in the winter (almost intentionally) the paler morning sun glances off the glass in the door opposite. It makes delicate pattens on the western wall.

I turn over to face it, greeted by sparkling. Awash with brilliance.

That light is so Australian.


But it’s not my favourite light.

Nimbin bedroom window 2013OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



Grey Vancouver

I grew up (if you could call it that) in a damp, foggy, grey place: Vancouver. My father called it “Canada’s Evergreen Playground”, an advertising term he’d heard on the radio, I think. I called it grey. Living in Norgate Park in the fifties was not what you’d call a totally pleasant experience. Vancouver was dreary. Some days there were terrible smells from the fish plant and it was always foggy.

We lived near the Inlet and I’d wake in the night to the foghorns’ mournful wail. I thought it was just a foggy place, but it was actually the smoke from the sawmills’ beehive burners. Most of the fog disappeared when the mills were torn down. But the weather was still awful.

 

hazy horizon

 

In Vancouver, it was never actually sunny. Just less grey.


We had a hundred names for rain like the Eskimos have for snow. “Just spitting” was one of those.

 

New Haven light

When I was twenty, I married (largely to escape my family, the fog and the rain) and moved to Connecticut. Different light altogether. The summers were steamy and unpleasant. And the winters: well, if your car would go, they were beautiful. Snow was always on our horizon. We had a 1952 Cadillac with all the windows stalled at half-mast.

In our first New Haven winter,   the AAA started the Green Dragon (aka the Sponge on Wheels) nineteen times. In March, they wrote to say that nineteen was enough, already. No more starts.

Winter snow was challenging in an old car.

 

But the light.

 

Oh, the light!

 

New Haven light.

 

I remember waking early on a Sunday morning and sensing that something magical had happened. The light from the kitchen window in our small apartment at 98 Edwards Street is what I remember most. Something bright, almost silver, seeping into the drab interior spaces and enlivening them.

It had snowed while I slept.

 

Bottom left: our kitchen window 50 years later

Bottom left: our New Haven kitchen window 50 years later



Children remember the silence of an overnight snowfall.

 

I remember the light.

 

Raffi’s light

Last February, I lived in Charlestown in Boston for three weeks. It was heaven. My cousin would have to be the most generous person alive: he made an entire apartment available to me, kitted out down to the napkin rings. It had everything.


I
had everything.

It was very snowy in Boston, which is one reason I had to move there.

 

I discovered, my first morning, when I wandered into Raffi’s kitchen, that it had the New Haven light: the silvery light I loved so much. I guess it’s actually New England light. But I had not seen it for nearly fifty years. To me, it’s blessed with sweet memories of hopefulness. I was twenty: my “escape” was accomplished and my new life was beginning. Nurtured by New Light.

 

Raffi's kitchen, February 2013

Raffi’s kitchen, February 2013

 

 



The unfamiliar/familiar light in Raffi’s Charlestown kitchen stopped me in my tracks. I had to sit down and consider it.

 

New Haven light.

 

The place I stayed the day before – in suburbia – had none of that light.

 

So I considered that Raffi’s light might be the product of something more: the sum of many sensations. Maybe the age of the building (1906), its design, the closeness and design of the neighbouring buildings, the shape of the window, the old glass, the old window frame, the blind, the orientation of the building, the architecture of the kitchen…

 

No matter: it was the New Haven light. I basked in it!   Sidling up to its pale luminescence, cradling my mug of tea, I felt comforted. Safe.

 

Hopeful.

Through Raffi's window

Through Raffi’s window



That got me thinking about place attachment. We’re such territorial animals, us humans. Hard-wired to love and protect our territories.

 

It might be difficult for planners to evaluate “love of light” as a place-attachment criterion. But I think it’s worth a shot.

 

For me, one beam of New England winter light is the light to have.

 

A most hopeful light.



 

 

 

An Expert Blind Spot: Fear of Falling

Back in the 1980s…

 

Back in the mid-1980s, my social planning firm did a roaring trade in ageing. Every Sydney developer fantasized about making a fortune in retirement housing. We were a small firm of social planners – trying variously to dissuade them or help them. Most were beyond help: so gripped by greed that they could not discuss matters as banal as gerontology. Blessedly, the fashion passed and we returned to homelessness and poverty (not ours – our subject matter).

Seating Design

Seating Design

 

The good thing was that we learned so much about the physical and psychological factors associated with ageing. Then in my forties, I could not imagine my own elderhood; it was a distant reality. My most brilliant employee, in her early twenties, was a young architecture graduate.


Together we trawled through volumes of research and crafted detailed site-planning and design guidelines for older people’s housing. Tromping around retirement villages, cursing their failings, we became experts in non-slip surfaces, sheltered seating, walking circuits, natural surveillance, ramp design, handrails… And, considering the older residents themselves: limited visual acuity and peripheral vision, susceptibility to glare, inability to hold a mental map, disorientation in space and, most emphatically, fear of falling.

 

Falling down

Recently, a dear friend of mine fell and broke her hip (she’s 79). She was squatting to inspect a cupboard when a mouse jumped out and startled her, causing her to fall backwards. She spent a month in the hospital and is recovering well. But now my feisty friend (who walked the width of England in her early seventies) emails to say she’s afraid of going out for a walk on crutches.

 

Afraid?

 

Once I might have found that hard to believe.

 

But now I understand.

 

Not paying attention

A few years ago, not paying attention (actually peering somewhat rudely at a building under construction), I slipped on roadside gravel and dislocated my shoulder. It hurt a lot. I was terrified of falling again; I began to feel fragile, old and crippled. A wise friend instructed me to return and walk confidently past the house. After I did that repeatedly, my fear abated. To combat my fear of knocking my shoulder, our compassionate local hospital nurse recommended a sling when I travelled by plane. Who would be mean enough to knock a nice old lady with her arm in a sling? It worked a treat. (As did the odd pre-booked wheelchair for long air journeys.)

Boston Sunday Globe storm_crop_small

The Blizzicane

Recently, I spent a month teaching at Harvard: the highlight of my career. And a shocking and salutary experience for a person turning seventy.

I feared my boots (from Myers department store in Adelaide) would not pass muster but my Boston host thought I might survive February.

How wrong she was!

A week into my visit, the fiercest blizzard in 57 years blanketed Boston.

Massive.

A Blizzicane. Nearly a metre of snow fell in a few hours.

 

Outside my friend's house

Outside my colleague’s house after the blizzard and before the snowplows arrived to bank the snow

After we dug ourselves out, I took my credit card to Eastern Mountain Sports in Harvard Square but fear had me in its grip. Now I had warm boots with good tread but I was absolutely terrified.   Terrified of the footpaths at night (our classes ended at 6 pm; taxis were out of the question).

 

Not surprisingly, every path on the campus of America’s premier university was plowed within seconds.

 

 

 

All clear at Harvard!

All clear at Harvard!

That wasn’t my problem.

My problem was low-density suburbia.

Despite Boston’s admirable transit network, suburban Boston is crap for pedestrians.   Everyone drives gigantic cars with snow tyres. There I was in my overpriced `showerproof’ down coat (bought in Melbourne in January) and new boots that weighed a ton. And a backpack full of books and a laptop.

My nightly walk home from the Harvard bus was six long blocks along poorly lit and partly plowed footpaths (and out into the street at the unshovelled patches). Sharing the carriageway with the cars – all of us skeetering between high snowbanks through rutted snow.

 

God!

All I could think of was my dislocated shoulder. And my fear of falling.

 

Actually, that’s not true. My shoulder worries paled in comparison to Fear of the American Medical System! Even with travel insurance, I imagined myself chained to a hospital bed, held to ransom with a broken arm, leg, shoulder, hip . . . you name it . . . in a hospital charging a trillion dollars a day.

I’d taken an elderly Canadian friend to hospital in Honolulu five years ago and she’d barely escaped!

 

Meanwhile, my younger colleague completely discounted my fears. The same fears we’d researched decades earlier.

 

What’s your problem? The snow will melt. It’s only six blocks. You’ve got boots. You’re sorted.

Femme devant paper-board

 


Raffi to the Rescue

My Armenian cousin, a long-time Boston resident (and my age) was my saviour.  Before the snow melted, he took immediate action to avoid my melting down. Brooking no interference, he moved me – coat, books, boots, laptop and decaf tea bags – into his apartment in Charlestown (a dense inner city neighbourhood with well-lit streets, plowed and navigable). Close to the subway and with caf©s and pubs to die for.

 

Raffi's street in Charlestown


And there I stayed for several charmed weeks, happily travelling about Boston on public transit. Grateful for the blessings of his generous hospitality.


(Maybe blood is thicker than water?)


The take-home messages from my story?

 

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that this experience had a profoundly unsettling effect on me.

I cried a lot.

 

And then (finally), I got to thinking. What can I make of this?

What can I learn? What can we learn?

 


First, as our Baby Boomer generation ages, we need to understand mobility – and immobility. It’s not just physical; it’s also psychological.

 

Second, we’d better start talking openly about these matters and not be afraid or ashamed. (What’s there to be ashamed of, in any case?)

 

We're going to have learn how to ask for help

We’re going to have learn how to ask for help

Third, we’ll need supports. And we’d better get them in place before an emergency. We need to know how and where to ask for help.

My friend with the mending hip is well networked into her community where she’s lived since 1974. She’s having gourmet meals delivered and local people come to clean her house as part of a community program. She’ll be fine.



The age-friendly neighbourhoods initiative is a good way to start. South Austalia has made a good beginning:

https://www.sa.gov.au/upload/franchise/Seniors/Office%20for%20the%20Ageing%20-%20Publications/Publications/Age%20friendly%20local%20gov.pdf

 

Fourth, we must accept that some of our younger colleagues are firmly in denial about ageing – ours and theirs. You know the types: the cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, marathon runners, extreme athletes”¦ (Please pass the chocolate”¦)

 

As an example, take my younger colleague. She has a lot to learn.

 

Sad but true: ageing is an expert blind spot.

 

By speaking out about our fear and demonstrating our resourcefulness, we can teach her.

 

So that she can teach her students.

 

And we all can benefit.

 

I guess, in the end, that it’s all about care. (Didn’t I write a PhD thesis about that?)

 

care

Root Shock: Grieving for a Lost Home

wilting leaves

 

Several years ago, I was managing the community engagement processes for the first stages of a large community renewal project in an Australian capital city. The State Minister wanted something to announce before Christmas and he wanted to tell this community of about 3000 public tenants   (half of whom did not speak English and were mainly from refugee communities) that their neighborhood was going to be rebuilt. We sent four delegations to the Minister’s office, asking that the announcement be delayed until February. We failed and on 13 December, I faced a room full of over a hundred weeping tenants.

 

I will take that terrible experience to my grave.

 

And now I wish I’d defied protocol, taken myself to the Minster’s office and laid down the law. Within days, there were reports from the local chemist of a dramatic increase in prescriptions for anti-depressants and basically, everyone fell apart for weeks until we returned in mid-February and started all over again. From scratch. All the residents could remember from that first terrible meeting was that their lives were going to change irrevocably. Some (particularly those who had fled repressive regimes in Southeast Asia) expected to be made homeless immediately. Others did not trust the government in any form.

It took months to put right that one insensitive act.

 

And for what? A Minister’s career? He was sacked shortly afterwards. There have been perhaps nine Ministers of Housing in that State since that time.

 

What we know from evidence-based research (and this applies specially to low-income people and marginalised people with multiple disadvantages) is that people cannot quickly reconcile themselves to the loss of familiar attachments when told that it’s for the “common good”. It takes time – more time than planners ever allocate – for people to come to grips with such shocking information. They were in root shock: grieving for a lost home.

 

It’s been called “Root Shock”. Plants die of it and so do people.

 

The intense grief and sense of loss caused by such a major disruption to social and family ties may never heal. The grief may persist for decades.

 

I spent February living in Boston, teaching planning at Harvard. One weekend, my cousin took me on a long walk to the “50 acres of emptiness” that is now the West End to visit the West End Museum so I could see “Boston’s shame” for myself. See: https://thewestendmuseum.org/

 

Psychologist Marc Fried spent several years in the 1950s with West Enders researching the psychological effects of the forced dislocation of the whole of the West End’s multi-ethnic population as part of “urban renewal” from 1958 to 1960. In Boston, one of the country’s oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished-including the historic West End to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings.

This came to be seen as a tragedy by many residents and urban planners. Me included. We studied it when I was a planning student. Now, not even the road pattern remains; it was completely reconfigured, as though the planners sought to wipe the memory of the West End from the map.


Only one original building is standing there.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



More than 90 percent of those residents showed symptoms of depression. Fried concluded that cohesive neighborhoods provide residents with a feeling of rootedness that is essential in maintaining a sense of identity and purpose. The study also helped establish the notion that people can grieve for the loss of something other than a loved person.



As I shivered in the cold air outside the Museum, I struggled to breathe. I could hear the voices of the women – still crying. I could see them with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking, keening”¦ Still grieving”¦

 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Half a century later”¦   I found it cold, windswept, drab, bare and I felt much, much more shock than I had expected – having read about this terrifying acts of violence as a planning student at Adelaide University in the early 1970s.   Since physically it’s gone, for the displaced residents who are still living, the old West End is now only a “neighborhood of the mind”: a landscape of memory.

 

And inside the Museum, I was reduced to tears. What a tragedy!

 

 

*     *     *

I’m sitting at my desk watching a mother wallaby and tiny, hesitant small joey eating grass and resting in the last rays of the fading afternoon sun. In a moment, the kookaburras will start laughing in that tree across the valley. A distant brushcutter whines. Clouds are scudding in from the east, presaging rain. I’ll need a cardigan as soon as the sun slips behind the trees in the woodlot.

 

How would I feel?   To be told that I would have to be torn from the core territory of my home – and all that it represents to me. I’m an animal, like the wallaby and her joey, who know where their territory is. I AM an animal and I’m hard-wired to protect my territory.

 

And believe me, it doesn’t matter if your name is not on the title. Tenants have “place attachment” too. I have felt as strongly about rental properties as I do about this one. My hopes and dreams live here with me. And the hopes and dreams of the residents of that small public housing estate lived there with them.

 

I hope that — as planning consultants — we did well – in the end – listening and responding to those precious dreams – and all that grief – and helping those gracious and fine people move into a new life.

 

But I wonder”¦ I wonder”¦ wonder I do”¦

Reflecting as a CPTED Practitioner on Harvard and Yale

 

Harvard Yard February 2013

 

 

Spending February teaching at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard sparked all sorts of thoughts in me about pedestrian safety.

 

And a day at Yale and in New Haven, Connecticut confirmed that I did not feel safe there as a female pedestrian. Reflecting as a CPTED Practitioner policing and street safety at on Harvard and Yale really made me question the wisdom of intensive policing.

 



See my guest blog for Greg Saville’s SafeGrowth Blogspot:

 

https://safe-growth.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/boston-terror-reality-of-street-life.html

 

Many thanks to Greg, my colleague and friend of nearly 20 years.