Biking Brooklyn, An Interview With Velo City

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By Morgan Powell

Velo City is an organization based in Brooklyn that was founded by three young women of color in 2010.  These urban planners and a landscape architect aim to increase diversity in allied professions and their own.  With the philosophy: Explore, Empower, Envision, they are active with a number of Brooklyn high schools, the YMCA, NYC Departments of  Health and Transportation, and Recycle-A-Bicycle.  We were privileged to interview one of their principals, landscape architect and urban planner Karyn Williams on the phone.  She discussed their origins and past programs while previewing possible new directions for her group.

Morgan Powell: I was very impressed by your group’s working studio at the former DeKalb Market by Long Island University.  Seeing Velo City in action made me think, “Where did you come from?”

Karyn Williams: The idea for Velo City came to us in the summer of 2010 after many conversation-filled bike rides.  Samelys, Naomi and I shared our experiences as women of color in the urban planning and design professions. ‘Cause of the need for greater diversity in our fields, we’ve set out to make this change by starting a nonprofit that brings awareness of planning and design [careers] to diverse communities through cycling.  The Vera Institute for Justice is our fiscal sponsor.

MP: How do you link kids with careers?

KW: We were aware that our career paths were little known – in fact, one of us discovered urban planning after beginning college – so we piloted a program called Bikesplorations that would teach the basics of urban planning and design.  Many teens have completed our hands-on programs.

MP: What are some of the key concepts you most want teens to grasp?

KW: Anyone can get involved in social change.  We demonstrate how that can be done.

MP: Okay, I’d love to hear more!

KW: Teens come out to program and even find their own questions and answers: “How does the city function?”  “What’s a safe way to ride?” is a common one.  “How do I get into that field?”

MP: Would you help us envision the Bikesplorations program?

Velo City volunteers, staff and young participants at the former DeKalb Market in downtown Brooklyn.  Landscape architect and urban planner Karyn Williams is shown in the lower left corner.
Velo City volunteers, staff and young participants at the former DeKalb Market in downtown Brooklyn. Landscape architect and urban planner Karyn Williams is shown in the lower left corner.

KW: We’ve been doing programming in Brooklyn for two years now; our first project was on the Lower East Side [in Manhattan], and we’ve got programs in the Bronx, too.  Bikesplorations is a free seven-week summer program for high school students who want to explore their community while cycling. By the end of the summer the students have learned how to actively work for improvements in their communities.   Our instructors–usually design professionals of color—show participants how to advocate for changes in their neighborhood’s public space and public services.  Professionals in urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture help students think about ways to work on public space in their careers.  This year, Brooklyn students concluded the program by designing and leading a bike tour for the general public as well as their friends and families.

MP: What rides-about-town do you enjoy?  Why is biking important to you?

KW: Wow! There are so many places I enjoy riding.  I like to ride along the water.  I like to ride from Prospect Park to Coney Island along Ocean Parkway.  I enjoy the feeling of freedom!  I love riding my bike and not having to worry about subway delays or being stuck on an overcrowded train or bus.  [I used to find] the subways really intimidating. Riding my bike around the city allowed me to get a better sense of the different neighborhoods and helped me to fall in love with [our] city.

MP: Would you speak to safety concerns?

KW: I’m more aware of safety than ever, especially taking teens on rides.  Many of them are beginners.  Rides can be made so much safer to pedestrians and bikers and cars just by behavior: knowing what and when to do things.  Dedicated bike lanes have helped a lot.

MP: Why is biking important to New York City?

KW: I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark a few months ago and it really changed my thinking.  Cities shouldn’t rely purely on automobiles.  Biking is affordable, it’s [environmentally] sustainable, and great exercise…but it’s got to be supported with infrastructure!

MP: What ahead for Velo City?

KW: We’re actually trying to focus more on our curriculum and will be relaunching soon.  We’ve presented papers at conferences and had peers tell us they want to launch similar initiatives in other states. Since we can’t be everywhere, we’re brainstorming ways to license what we do for other places, but we’re in the early stages.  We have a lot of research to do.  (Thanks and well-wishes concluded this conversation.   This interview was edited for brevity.  Learn more about Velo City on Facebook and at http://velocity-rides.org/.)

Furthermore: Conducting this interview provided a fun view into the work of a fellow design professional and outdoor educator.  Transcribing the above text found me remembering my tenure at the Urban Assembly School for the Urban Environment sandwiched between Marcy and Tompkins Houses in Bed-Stuy.  As Environmental Education Coordinator, I, like Karyn, worked to help young citizens cultivate a design perspective.  Aside from the conventional format of school work, there were hours of less formal thematic free form play and conversation.  Math puzzles and other learning aids marked my classroom as a place where young minds could only make discoveries, not mistakes.  “What do you see when you look around yourself?”  “What would you improve or remove?”  This was the language of my classroom filled with aromatic herbs like basil and rosemary.  “Now use your other senses, what feels and smells right, and not?” “Why,” I would constantly ask.  I now pose these questions to you the reader.  If you have answers to any of these questions–of course you do—you’ve got a design perspective.  There’s no wrong answer.  You have insight into the work of landscape architects, urban planners, civil engineers and architects. 

I recently used my design perspective while cycling from Von King Park to Fulton Park.  While photographing the Brooklyn Alliance for Safer Street’s Turkey Trot (1.5 mile run) on Thanksgiving Day, I noticed (for the first time) that there were no bike racks at Von King.  Arriving later at Fulton Park, where there are such stations for bikes made me wish both parks had them.  Join the national movement to increase African-American participation in biking with Red, Bike and Green.  Their website is: http://www.redbikeandgreen.com/

Morgan Powell is a horticulturist and landscape designer.  He has been writing for Our Time Press  since mid-October and also blogs for Outdoor Afro.

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