Interview – Rachel Smith talks Dynamic Connections

The Lab Team in Berlin will have an overarching theme of making and doing—empowering everyday citizens to create and improve their own cities. Within this theme, Lab Team members have each chosen a special focus based on their skill sets and backgrounds.

Sustainable and active transportation planner Rachel Smith will focus on Dynamic Connections—how active transportation, place-making, and community-based interventions can improve all aspects of the city system.

This is the last in a series of four interviews with Lab Team members to provide a sneak peek of what we can expect from their programming in Berlin. Be sure to check out my previous interviews with co-curator Maria Nicanor about the overall programming structure in Berlin, and Lab Team members José Gómez-Márquez, Corinne Rose, and Carlo Ratti.

Let’s first talk about your main topic, Dynamic Connections. What does this mean, exactly and how do you hope to explore it at the Lab?

Dynamic Connections is about sustainable transportation: mostly walking and cycling, and also place making. It’s looking at community creative self-solving and behavior change in urban places, how mobility and place making can effect our lifestyles, and how self-solving and behavior-change interventions can be used to change our urban spaces and urban lifestyles.…

I took my inspiration from the natural disasters that we have had in Australia, starting with the bushfires in Melbourne two years ago; and then the Brisbane floods, which is where I live, that happened in January and affected everyone that lives in the city in one way or another; and also the cyclone that happened in Cairns about a week after the floods.

The flooding was a great example of how a natural disaster was occurring and the community got together and self-solved the problems, or the cleanup and the recovery, themselves.… It just shows that people are really good at self-solving but that we don’t give ourselves the opportunity very often to self-solve our own problems.

How do Dynamic Connections fit in with the notion of confronting comfort?

From the cycling side of things it’s looking at how can we make walking and cycling more comfortable and safer for everyone. In terms of place making and self-solving, it’s getting people to think about what kinds of things are less comfortable now, and what we think comfort looks like. What one community thinks comfort looks like might be different to another, so how do we solve our own discomfort? So when you might have a natural disaster or high unemployment, how can we make the urban space more comfortable not just for ourselves, but for everyone else as well?

Compared to the other team members, you work on a very large, infrastructural scale in the city. How will this fit in with the focus of the other Lab Team members?

I guess looking at walking and cycling would be citywide, but it all kind of interlinks. So we might have, say, a program on hacking your bike, and it all kind of links in together really nicely actually, looking at that macro and micro scale. You have to look at the whole as well as the smaller parts. So you might live in a neighborhood, but the things that are controlled by the city, or initiatives that are across the whole of Berlin, also affect your neighborhood as well.

How does the DIY focus of the Lab Team in Berlin work when we’re talking transportation? Where does the individual come in?

Across the four of us we have the theme that we make and do, not just talk. So I guess take something like cycling. Just as an example, we might have a workshop where we take the planners from different districts from Berlin and involve them in planning new infrastructure or better cycling facilities. But then we might also work with communities and individuals to empower them in a workshop to create bicycle businesses or mobile businesses. So I guess there’s that kind of higher level, and then there are the things that individuals can do as well, and linking the two.

People only change their behavior when they see a value in it for themselves. Somewhere like Berlin has quite a high bicycle mode share, but there’s an aspiration that they’d like to be the Copenhagen of Germany. If people are engaged and they’ve helped plan what their city looks like, then they’ve got more ownership and they’re empowered to not just change their own behavior but to encourage other people to change their behavior as well.

Can you describe how you hope to interact with the public at the Lab? What do you see their role as?

We want people to come and learn, and to make and to do, and to also get involved in fun events. The fun events are good ways for people to spread the word to others. And with the talks, when we hear about what other people are doing then we get excited and enthused about it and we want to imitate that behavior. We’re more likely to have conversations with other people, and those people then are the messengers in the community helping to make the change that people aspire to see.

We learn by doing things. As you do something with other people you’re learning, and then the change will be easy because you’ve done it with other people, so you’ve got the confidence to say to someone, “Oh, well you can go and do this.” So it’s kind of engaging the people at the core of the issue.

Can you think of three words to describe the process of working on this project so far?

Amazing. I’ve never ever worked on a project where we’ve been given free rein to do whatever we want, and that is an honor, to be able to be involved with something like that. I work for a consultancy, so every project has limitations and constraints and boundaries and barriers, and a list of things you can’t do. So to work on a project where you can just do whatever you want is amazing. Sorry, I’ve given you about thirty words. Maybe you can try to find three words to describe that!