Yemen Women Create Safer Streets with Technology
Last May, I read about a woman from Yemen named Ghaidaa al Absi, whose organization Kefaiaa was training over 200 women to become cyber-activists and work with other cyber-activist to fight against street harassment in their country. Street harassment is a serious problem in Yemen and the country does not have any legislation protecting women from sexual harassment. While police had indicated they would step up efforts to stop harassment, those charged for harassment have received little to no punishment for their crimes.
A challenge many Yemen women face in becoming cyber-activists is access to mobile devices and inconsistent internet connection in their neighborhoods. Tactical Technology Collective, an online resource which provides open source toolkits and resources to cyber-activists gave Absi’s group a micro-grant to develop the Safe Streets website which allows women to report real-time incidences of street harassment. Absi’s organization continues to grow and expand and she recently launched an art exhibition which addressed the issue of street harassment in Yemen (check out the some of the artwork below).
For many countries across the world (and certainly for neighborhoods, and regions here in the US), lacking access to technology can be an incredible deterrent to connecting with online tools that help connect you to basic services and give you a voice. Companies like Tactical Technology Collective can help make an incredible difference in erasing these barriers and giving representation to those who most often need it the most.
Promoting Cycling for Everyone in Baltimore
Last month, Chris Merriam of Bikemore Inc., received a $60,000 grant from the Open Society Institute to promote biking in Baltimore, Maryland.
Bicycle advocacy groups exist across the country but what makes Bikemore special is their mission to help contribute to a more livable, healthy, accessible Baltimore by increasing the overall number of residents who ride a bike, advocating for the rights and safety of all communities in Baltimore and commitment to hold public officials accountable for improving the safety of riders across the city.
In my master’s thesis on deterrents to bicycling for women in New York City, I formed criticisms of certain bicycle advocacy organizations who have become self-congratulatory about their role in improving the conditions for bicyclists while, at the same time, failing to be inclusive of more diverse groups in their outreach, planning, organizing and data gathering processes. It made me wonder: do these groups want to improve bicycling conditions for those who are already avid bicyclists or do they want to increase the total number of people using bicycles overall? And if it’s the latter, what strategic steps are they taking to accomplish that goal?
In some cities across the country, bicycling and bicycle infrastructure (bicycle lanes, bicycle racks, etc) have become synonymous with gentrification and I think that’s because the communities where the new infrastructure is being laid down feel imposed upon and as though they were not a part of the planning process. Additionally, bicycling (which is often touted as being a universally inexpensive and convenient form of transportation) is sometimes perceived as a sport for the most privileged amongst us. We must ask ourselves, who are our bicycling ambassadors (sport bicyclists, commuter bicyclists, bicycle messengers, cycle chic riders?) and is there diverse representation?
Bikemore wants to work to reach out to every neighborhood in Baltimore. They want all residents “across diverse cultures, races, income levels, genders, sexual orientations, political affiliations, and backgrounds– [to] feel they can cycle safely and confidently in every part of Baltimore, and that they have an important role in Bikemore.”
Bikemore’s mission statement appears to be rooted in inclusivity and I look forward to following their endeavors and learning more about their strategies for achieving this goal.
Would You Pay to Sit?
One of the reasons a public spaces becomes successful (meaning well-used) is because it is customizable and an important part of being able to customize your space is being able to have many different seating options. Individual, light-weight chairs which are not bolted into the ground, allow you to customize your experience by siting alone, siting in groups, moving in to the shade or moving in to the sun.
Some municipalities and businesses are weary of incorporating these types of chairs in our public spaces because they are understandably afraid these chairs will be stolen. It’s not easy to be secretive about stealing brightly colored chairs in the bustling pedestrian plazas of Manhattan, but for lesser populated areas, stealing street furniture (chairs, tables, umbrellas, trash cans, etc) can be an issue.
Artist Vincent Wittenberg asked the municipality of Bat Yam in Israel if he could research the behavior of individuals who were given the option of paying to sit in a public space and he wondered how many people would pay to customize the space for their own use. Mr. Wittenberg’s work explores the “border points” of public, private and collective spaces and says that he and his researchers “found out that the borders between those spaces are not strict and even flexible. Although ownership of space is important, many residents do cross the border by claiming public or common space for their own private use. This behaviour seems to be peacefully tolerated by the authorities and other residents.”
Mr. Wittenberg proposed that Bat Yam install benches which could also be converted in to individual seats. These seats will only be released once a five Shekel coin has been deposited but once the seat is returned, so is the coin.
Artist Fabian Brunsing tackled similar themes with a piece which criticizes the privatization of our public spaces. His “Pay & Sit” bench installation allows users to pay to sit comfortably on an otherwise spiked bench – but only for a short period of time. Thankfully, a loud warning signal alerts you to the need to get up quickly, before the metal spikes return.
Street furniture being stolen is an important issue but should this issue (and others concerns such as street furniture encouraging negative activity, graffiti, homeless individuals sleeping, etc) deter us from providing furniture at all? Successful public spaces are also those that are comfortable to a diverse audience (with a wide spectrum of physical abilities, those carrying heavy loads, those with children or elderly companions, etc) and therefore they are important to public spaces. These artists explore and exploit our desire for more successful public spaces.
Hurricane Sandy Brings Environmental Concerns to Light
After Hurricane Sandy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted information on its website about taking safety precautions when cleaning up after floods but many community advocates in New York and New Jersey are increasingly concerned about the levels of contamination caused by Sandy and their impact on clean up efforts as well as the environmental threat of future storm surges and rising seal levels near current and former industrial waterfront areas.
In Brooklyn, New York, two Superfund (hazardous waste) sites, the Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal breached their banks and flowed in to nearby city streets. In New Jersey, the Raritan Bay Slag Superfund Site (containing large amounts of lead, arsenic and copper) flooded an adjacent public playground and beach and in the Arthur Kill (a channel between New Jersey and Staten Island), clean up crews working in cooperation with the Coast Guard had to use oil skimmers, vacuum trucks and a contamination boom to remove 378,000 gallons of fuel released from the Motiva oil tank during the storm.
Environmental justice (advocating for communities unfairly burdened by environmental pollution and contamination) advocates are requesting to meet with local city officials and waterfront businesses to inventory existing chemicals and help keep businesses up to date on floodproofing their chemical storage facilities. Kate Zidar, Executive Director of the Newtown Creek Alliance says “Learning from Sandy, we need environmental health and safety information for flooding that is specific for Superfund and relevant to the industrial business community,” and suggests potential efforts that could help prevent further contamination in the future like installing tide gates and shoreline bulkheads and the restoration of our wetland areas.
Communities who live near businesses like chemical plants, paper mills, and ports or infrastructure like highways are unfairly burdened by negative health outcomes and advocating for regulation of these facilities, progressive environmental planning and affordable housing in healthier communities are key to saving millions of our fellow citizens from undue suffering.