In the winter, I walk. In the summer, I roll, usually on a bike. But this week I got the keys to my new longboard.
Boards by Buddies
Way back when, I wrote about my day job helping first-time entrepreneurs launch their businesses. I refer to it as the human side of city-building - the people that fill the streets and storefronts we work so hard to design well.
One of the businesses going through our program this year is called Limbic. They're a couple of mechanical engineering undergrads who spent last summer living the dream with work placements at respected engineering firms in Germany. But longtime friends Alex and Andre came back contemplating the work that made them happiest: handcrafting longboards for their friends and experimenting in the shop.
This summer they are trialling Limbic as a business, not a hobby. I've followed them with my camera into the dirt roads of New Brunswick to get the maple plywood that makes their boards (and that of top-notch skateboard manufacturers across North America, I was shocked to find out). We've been filming in the shop as they glue, press, cut, sand, and finish the boards. We've been on the streets grabbing action shots and talking to strangers. We've been through many deep conversations about purpose and ambition.
They once said, off the cuff, that nearly all their customers have never longboarded before. Initially it was friends, buying their first and only board. Now there are people like me and a growing list of other unlikely characters giving it a shot. Alex and Andre don't want longboarding to be an exclusive extreme sport for a few fearless guys and gals ripping down a mountain. It's too fun to be exclusive. Even though the two of them can handle more speed and tricks than I'll ever aspire to, they don't push that on their customers. The Limbic boards are about getting outside, zipping around town, and feeling the wind in your hair. Most importantly, Alex and Andre are kind and patient teachers to first time boarders. They're good people and show no judgement or wryness when someone of my age and tackiness wobbles around on a board.
And that's how I found myself owning a longboard. On a hot day, this is already a competitive alternative to walking and I barely know how to use it. You cruise just quick enough to avoid that slow spread of sweat distinctive to walking on baked asphalt.
Where does one longboard? It's not ideal (probably not even legal) on the sidewalk because you don't want to frighten people or whiz past too fast. It's great on open road (probably also illegal), but you're even more exposed than a bike so it'll take a long time before I feel comfortable near traffic.
This longboard has been far more thought-provoking than expected. Once I'm competent enough to venture beyond my quiet street, where will I go? How do people use the streets and sidewalks when they are not on foot, bike, or driving?
We consider shared space often at Strong Towns, and I nod along and agree. To me, it was the holy grail of street design that we may never achieve. Until that point, I used to think, let's work on wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes. That served me just fine because I only moved by foot, bike, and occasionally car.
But wait a second! What if we find new and different ways of getting around that are pleasant, safe, environmentally and human-friendly? What are we doing pouring all these resources into another temporary situation? Can we really expect our cities to always be car-bike-walk?
Now that I've hopped on a longboard, I have a new awareness for all the people I see on "alternative transportation." I see the unicyclists, scooters, electric bikes, wagons, tricycles, skateboards, wheelchairs, and tiny vehicles in a new light. I imagine the kind of city that would welcome people moving in myriad ways.
What if shared space is the only way forward in our urban streets? I love the image: a circus in the streets at every intersection, on one or more wheels or no wheels at all, with dogs and bells and nods in every direction. It is the very image of chaotic but smart where we are forced to look each other in the eye with acknowledgement and go on our merry way. Who knows how we'll be getting around in the future? One street to rule them all.
GRACEN JOHNSON works as an urban strategist and communications professional in The Maritimes. Despite finishing her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats exploring that herself, including as the creator and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.
This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.