How I Became Blue Kayak

In 2015, I was working as a local authority town planner. The wages were perfectly reasonable; there was no out-of-hours working; my colleagues were friendly and funny. I was bored out of my tiny mind. Also, having gone into planning primarily for environmental reasons, I’d ended up being horribly disillusioned by the lack of regard given to environmental issues in the organisation for which I worked. I spent my days engaged in rapid-fire doggerel competitions with my friend in the next-door office. Sometimes we got bored with doggerel and started exchanging alliterative verse instead. It helped, but it didn’t stop me going home and literally crying with boredom and lack of self-esteem.

The opportunity for voluntary redundancy came up and I took it. I justified this to myself on the basis that I was going to re-train as a speech therapist. I might even have meant it. It seems silly to say it, really, because I had two masters’ degrees and two decades of work experience – but I’d stopped believing that I had any skills to offer.

A few weeks after I left, I was in the Cluny bar in Newcastle. A friend of ours introduced me to his friend Robin, who, as it happened, recognised me from a previous job.

“So what are you doing at the moment?” he asked.
“Oh, God, I don’t know,” I said, “I was working as a town planner. But then I packed it in. Bored out of my mind.. spent my days writing doggerel. Now I’m .. well, I dunno – arguing on Facebook and applying for jobs.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve got my own company now. If you want a job, you could always send me your CV.” And with that he disappeared into the crowd.

Without necessarily expecting very much of a result, I did as he suggested.

Just before Christmas last year I got an email from my partner in doggerel from the Council. It began:

“Hi Jo
You may not have been expecting this email..”

and went on to offer to pay me for writing the Durham Heritage Coast’s Business Plan.

I’d never done anything of the sort before. But what choice did I have? If someone thinks you can do something, you had better not disillusion them, if you can help it. Of course if he was asking me to repair his car, or cure his dog’s ailments, or even draw him a picture (I have difficulty in drawing curtains) I would probably have had to regretfully decline. But I thought I could find out about business planning and, as it happened, I could – well enough for my friend, anyway. He continues to throw challenges of a similar nature in my path.

“But you need to be a company for me to pay you,” he said.

Registering as a sole trader was an awful lot easier than I’d thought. But what should I call myself? I’ve often thought that one of the fun parts of being in a band must be thinking of a name for yourself. I didn’t want to be the business equivalent of the Josephine Ellis Trio – especially since I didn’t have a trio.

It was the doggerel that named me. A few years earlier, on holiday, I and my friends developed a marginal obsession with the legend of the Blue Men – sea-monsters who live in the Minch in between Skye and Harris. It is said that they will sink your ship unless you can beat them in a rhyming exchange – the Hebridean equivalent of battle rap. “That must make me a Blue Woman,” I said. “What’s “woman” in Gaelic?” The answer is “cailleach,” – pronounced, more or less, “kayak”.

So I became Blue Kayak. I made my husband – who is more artistically talented than me – draw a logo for me, and paid him in Fig Rolls. (I am told that he actually drew a canoe rather than a kayak, but neither of us knew the difference. Anyway, I like it as it is.)

Robin came up trumps, too. A few months later he asked me to write a funding bid for him. Since then, I’ve: managed and run a skills development course and community event; done retail needs analysis for a new shopping development; and represented objectors to proposed development. This week, I’ve been teaching undergraduates about electronic maps, and tomorrow I’m going to meet someone from the local Green Party to talk about developing a proposal for environmentally sound transport and social infrastructure. This one’s on a voluntary basis. It’s important enough for me.

As I write, I am fairly skint and not entirely sure where the next paid job’s coming from – but everything that I’ve got to do is so exciting and engaging that, as long as I’m not completely destitute, I don’t care. When things are difficult or slow for me, I whisper to myself, “I am the Blue Kayak and I am determined to float.”

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The Beliefs we Don’t Know we Have

I believe that the sky, on a sunny day, is blue.

Of course, in a way, that’s indisputable; the way that light behaves as it passes through the atmosphere causes the sky to appear to human eyes in a shade which, in English, we call “blue.”

But I also believe that the sea on a sunny day is blue – that it’s the same sort of colour as the sky. If you showed me pictures of the sea, the sky, and a glass of red wine, and asked me to choose the odd one out, I’d pick the wine (I often do.) So would you, probably, since you are reading this in English in the twenty-first century.

If you are a classicist, you’ll know where I’m going with this – Homer wouldn’t agree with me. He famously referred to “the wine-dark sea.” It’s an odd and striking phrase to us – did he set off at night? Was the sea red with blood? Or was Homer actually colour-blind?

According to Guy Deutscher’s fascinating book “Through the Language Glass”, the phrase made perfect sense to Homer because the form of Ancient Greek which he spoke had a poorer colour vocabulary than English, in which the principal distinction was between “light” and “dark”. Relatively speaking, the sea is dark, almost as dark as wine. The sky is light. They are nothing like one another.

From our birth, we learn how to see the world; and we learn what to think about it, too. And, just as our perception of the colour of the sea seems indisputable, it’s the assumptions about culture that we don’t know we’re making that can sometimes have the deepest roots, because we don’t know they can be questioned. When we observe other cultures, we are more likely to notice the attitudes and behaviours which we do not share.

Perhaps that’s why, lately, it’s seemed to me that every film from the USA that I’ve seen ends with an endorsement of the American Dream and, in particular, the version of it which ends with a hard-working man getting his just deserts in the form of a country farmstead that he can pass on to his children. This even applies to narratives which entail an explicit or implicit criticism of mainstream lifestyles and attitudes, and encourage us to sympathise with those who challenge them.

In Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic”, the titular character has brought up his children off-grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They learn self-sufficiency and political theory, celebrate “Uncle Noam” Chomsky’s birthday in lieu of Christmas, and despise wealth. However, when a crisis forces them to re-engage with the outside world, the patriarch comes to question the rigidity of his position. The compromise reached at the end of the firm is that the family settle down in a sunlit smallholding. The eldest boy joins the Ivy League and his siblings go to school.

In David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water”, two bickering brothers rob banks, pursued across the dusty and dilapidated Texas landscape by two bickering cops. The picaresque tale takes a nasty turn when a heist goes wrong. People are killed – including one of the cops and one of the robbers – and it looks as if the game is up.

But there’s a twist. The surviving brother’s motivation for his crime spree is to pay off the mortgage on his family ranch with the money he’s just stolen from the lender. Having done so, he’s able to install his sons and ex-wife, and the discovery of oil beneath the land further ensures their prosperity. The surviving cop works out the full story, but takes pity on the survivor and allows him to escape.

Both films are excellent. They are funny, nuanced, insightful, and deftly evoke a spirit of place. But in both cases, the ostensibly bohemian protagonists end up living the American Dream in its most fully realised form. The patriarch of “Captain Fantastic” has taught his children libertarian socialism, but nothing in either his original isolated establishment, nor his more sedate farmstead, indicates co-operation or redistribution involving anyone apart from his own progeny. The ending of “Hell or High Water” at least seems to imply that if you are working hard for your family’s benefit, then it is only right that you should become rich – even if becoming rich involves robbing banks. (The surviving robber rails against the bank’s extortionate practices, but his eventual solution is not really to challenge them, but to work within them.)

Why does this matter? There is a lot that is good about the American Dream. A belief in potential, in equality of opportunity, and in working towards desired goals, are all good things.

Well, firstly, a philosophy that believes too firmly that the relationship between effort and destiny is predictable – that people create their own destiny by how hard they work – and that any right-thinking person’s desired destiny must entail the accumulation of wealth, is likely to end up socially stratified. Those who are not born to money, and aren’t fortunate enough to make it, will be left behind by a society that doesn’t feel it has to cater for them – and then despised as people who obviously haven’t made the effort.The belief that the individual’s primary responsibility is to his or her own household doesn’t lend itself to helping those who are outside it

But I think an even more significant problem, in this age of climate change, may be the American Dream’s impact upon efforts to bring about a more sustainable society.

Individualism is a poor philosophical framework for dealing with shared assets. Without a sense of collective possession and responsibility, the “tragedy of the commons” results – that which is available to everyone (land, fish stocks, the atmosphere) becomes used to excess so that it is less useful to everyone. In “Hell or High Water” the surviving robber will become rich due to his oil reserves. That’s wonderful for him. But, even in the sweaty, arid Texan setting, the idea that burning his oil might have undesirable impacts is never mentioned. Too much of a belief in individual liberties doesn’t sit comfortably with environmental protection, which requires regulation of resource consumption and waste disposal.

The belief that a family ought to aspire to a ranch, or, at least, a large house with grounds, isn’t compatible with sustainable patterns of development. Lower-density development – many detached houses set apart from one another in mass-produced individualism – is greedy of land. First World cities sprawl across the landscape, replacing habitats, farmland and carbon sinks. It is hard or impossible to serve low-density suburbs with public transport, and walking routes are often absent; the distances involved are too great. So everyone drives, wherever they go, with consequences in terms of carbon emissions and land-take for roads and parking.

It might be seen as foolish or arrogant of me to criticise a culture other than my own as particularly socially and environmentally damaging. However, we are talking about global threats here, and the culture of the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2 can’t be ignored.

Furthermore, the culture of the UK interacts with that of the US – and always has done. I think it would be stretching a point to argue that there is an English Dream which is entirely like the American one, but we still believe in the figure of the “local boy made good” and one of the signs of his having made good is the house in the country. The higher prices developers can command for detached houses – even if their detachment is achieved only by inserting a narrow and functionless gully in between each house and its neighbour – shows that this country, too, puts a high value on individualism. So does our appetite for narratives berating “benefit scroungers” and our recent decision not to co-operate with Europe.

Bringing about behavioural, institutional, and political change, which is required for carbon emissions to be reduced, requires attitudinal change. When a set of beliefs inimical to environmental protection run so deep within a culture that even such adept film-makers as Ross, Mackenzie and Sheridan don’t notice them, and attribute them even to their counter-cultural characters, it seems to me that we have got a long way to go.

Parks or Streets? On the Compatibility of Doctrines

I’m a person whose heart beats a little faster in an unknown city, and who feels for streets something akin to love. Big, messy, dense cities throw people together and force them to coexist across barriers of class, age and origin. In my romantic vision, they generate the sort of multi-faceted, companionable, environment, laden with opportunity and possibility, that the young hanker after and the old say doesn’t exist any more. They are Paris in the 1890s, Greenwich Village in the 1950s, or Manchester in the 1980s.

So I’ve always been drawn to the New Urbanism – the urban design philosophy which celebrates these qualities in cities. New Urbanism planning promotes higher densities, mixed-use development, life at street level, and interconnectivity. In the ideal New Urbanist development, it is a short walk to everything; people have less of a need to drive, so they are healthier and greener; there is enough of a critical mass of population for local businesses to survive and public transport systems to work efficiently.

(Low-density development, conversely, is urban sprawl, eating up the countryside with forlorn semis set anti-socially along broad surfaces of tarmac. It’s been called “prairie planning” – where even the houses themselves are lonesome.)

Ten or fifteen years ago, when the Government viewed planning as something more than an exercise in making the rich richer, it was keen on New Urbanism. Many local authorities set minimum density levels, typically of about 30-35 dwellings per hectare (dph).

At the same time, there was a growing interest in the notion of Green Infrastructure (GI) – the idea that, as well as being somewhere to play, green spaces in cities provide habitats for wildlife, clear the air, soak up flood waters and improve the appearance of towns. They give us shared spaces, common ground on which all can meet. They make people happier and healthier. Who could fail to love public parks?

So, many local authorities set standards for open space. Many of them adopted the Fields in Trust (formerly National Playing Fields Association) standard of 2.4 ha per 1000 people, but some went one better – proposing up to 5.4 ha per 1000.

“But,” I thought, “surely you can’t have both?” That is, if you have to have 35 dwellings on every hectare of land – which might accommodate 80- 100 people – surely that’s going to make it hard to fit in large amounts of open space, as well?

Existing development in Newcastle seems to back up that view. Most of the city (not counting the centre) has a density of less than 25 dph.

newcastle-density-map

 

The areas that do have higher densities tend to be low on open space. This area has a density of 34 dph. It’s entirely occupied by houses with gardens, and contains a school with a large playing field, so you could argue that it has quite a lot of greenspace. But it has almost no public open space at all.  There are 1788 residents, so, to meet the FIT standard, it should have 4.29 ha of open space.

netherby

This area, very near to where I live, almost fulfils both criteria. It’s fairly dense (26 dph, but not all of the built-up area is residential) and contains large amounts of open space – to meet the FIT standard, it should have 7.18 ha of open space, and the area in the centre alone measures about 8.3 ha. The terraces that you can see in the left of the area are legible and navigable, with short walking distances to shopping streets and public transport routes.

nuns

However, this hasn’t yielded either a perfect living environment or a perfect complement of open space. The terraced area contains a lot of dwellings but it doesn’t include very much else. There are no gardens, not even little front yards; doors open straight onto the street. The open space, meanwhile, is accessible and visible, but it’s almost devoid of features. It’s predominantly used by young men playing team games – which is fine, of course, but it does mean that it’s not catering for anyone else.

Is it possible to reach a compromise position? There are several points to be made on this.

The first is that setting open space standards doesn’t necessarily mean that each individual area should contain exactly the right amount of open space. The important calculation, if calculations are to be made, is whether people within the city as a whole have access to sufficient open space. Newcastle has some very large areas of open space which cater for people in dense and less-dense areas of the city alike.

The second is that, just because creating a dense urban environment with a good complement of quality open space isn’t necessarily easy doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. It could look a bit like this bit of Edinburgh, with medium-rise blocks and shared open spaces:

comely-bank

The third point is that there is, in fact, a potential conflict between increasing density and incorporating more open space. We have a pressing need to build more housing at present, and an imperative to reduce the environmental impact of development. We know that these aims are better met by densifying development, and therefore we can’t allow area-based standards for green infrastructure to dictate low densities. We need to be clearer about why we want to create green infrastructure – what we want it to do for us – and tailor it accordingly. As touched on above, it isn’t enough to say that because a large amount of green space is available, that all the functions of GI are adequately fulfilled. Different functions have different requirements in terms of level of maintenance, landscaping, and access, for example – few of which are met by a featureless expanse of grass.

GI needs to be a positive thing: the standards we need to set are not necessarily, or not only, those of quantity, but those of quality.