the story of urban travel – my masters research
PTS walk and cycle path at the intersection of path, stream and railway lines.

PTS walk and cycle path at the intersection of path, stream and railway lines.

Paths in towns, cities and suburbs are dynamic and social places, running through urban centres and neighbourhoods, full of movement – of people, goods, other species and natural flows of water and ecosystems. The spaces we travel through are not just utilitarian (streets, roads, pathways, parks, squares and junctions). The spaces we travel through are the human environment, the city itself, with all its multiplicities.

Art is encroaching on spaces traditionally governed by the functionalism of engineers and planners (such as the decorated bridges for sense of place in the Auckland motorway network). Our urban ‘material culture’ (a term drawn from anthropology) is shaped by human decisions about both function and ornament, influenced by history, aspiration and everyday cultural expectations.

Assumptions about everyday travel needs, and cultural expectations of public space affect our efforts to improve urban transport. These assumptions arise from existing, yet often unspoken, narratives about urban travel and public space. Human needs and experiences associated with everyday urban journeys make travel through the urban realm a ‘living’ activity, both functional and potentially attractive in itself.
Critical urban design and planning for transport can learn from projects which take human habit and desires into account, as well as rational decision making.

Transport spaces can tell a story about the places we move through, how and why, and may contribute to transport choice and better, more integrated design of transport as part of public space and society.

RWC 2011 Fan Trail through Aotea Square

RWC 2011 Fan Trail through Aotea Square


My research looks at sense of journey as an additional layer to sense of place, and a tool for transport design. I propose a design method for drawing out the functional, social and cultural context for everyday urban journeys, as part of a dynamic experience of space. The outcome of the method is an urban travel narrative that is specific to the path, network, journey or traveller. This narrative approach may be useful in travel demand management, promoting positive and personal transport choice to individuals (or specific workplaces or neighbourhoods), as well as offering a common language with urban design and transport professions.

To illustrate some of the socio-cultural choices of design for travel I looked at four specific examples of pathways in Auckland which include ‘non-functional’ aspects of design (art and ornament):

  • The ornamental bridges over Auckland’s motorways,
  • The string of art and design along the train route from inner city to the urban centre of New Lynn (NZ’s first transit oriented development),
  • The use of community and local art to draw people to the pathways along water catchment corridors in Project Twin Streams,
  • And the temporary performance and design of travel along the fan trail.
  • There is little out there on critiquing the experience of urban travel space as part of urban design. Because of this, I found myself collating ideas on what makes everyday travel purposeful, satisfying and appealing. Establishing a useful, repeatable method of analysis that got to the heart of the travel experience became a key part of my research. A method I hope to share and develop with others involved in art and design for public spaces.

    The title of my thesis:

    Path Identity and Movement Culture: Art in movement space bringing meaning to everyday urban travel

    (re-edited 26 July 2012)


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