Would free internet on public transport keep you happy?

On recent visits to European cities I’m now seeing far more of something than I did two or three years ago. That something is free internet on public transport, from wifi on buses in Copenhagen to wifi on the London underground. This is mainly a product of our increasingly digital lives and the desire to be ‘connected’ at all times. People want to be able to use their commute time to do business, email colleagues, connect with friends via social media, or just be entertained with videos, music and other media. But does this mean it should be free? Does the City have an obligation to provide this service for commuters? If so, why not just go all out and provide free public transport? (This seems a slightly absurd idea, but it’s actually something currently being trialed in Tallinn, Estonia). What does the City gain from a scheme like this?

Free bus internet, Copenhagen - Image courtesy of Billy Haworth
Free bus internet, Copenhagen – Image courtesy of Billy Haworth
There is probably an argument for the environment and climate change, with cities wanting to reduce the impact of auto-mobiles. But researching a little into the cities providing this service leads to the conclusion that the main drive behind free internet on public transport is customer satisfaction. Trials, surveys and pilot programs have been undertaken in a number of cities (E.g. Lisbon, Rome, Copenhagen, Dublin) with results all emphasizing the need to improve passenger’s travel perception. 
Scotland’s Transport Minister said of Scotland’s train wifi program:
“A major challenge for the transport industry is embracing new technologies to meet the demands of passengers and help them get on with their ever more busy lives while travelling. It is essential that people throughout Scotland have online access to enable our economy to thrive”.
Danish rail company DSB state that free internet allows the train driver to continuously monitor various aspects of the trains performance and passengers to log on using laptops and smart phones, but outline being able to provide passengers with up to date information as the most beneficial outcome:
“The state-owned rail operator decided to equip all metropolitan S-trains in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen with wireless internet after a study revealed that real-time traffic information was the number one request among its daily 220,000 passengers”. 
rom the City’s point of view it seems the main reason for free internet on public transport is to keep the citizens happy, and isn’t that the City’s main obligation? Perhaps with our modern digital lifestyle’s free internet should be provided by the City. I’m not willing to go as far as saying it’s their obligation, but I do think this trend will continue and more cities will be expected to offer free public transport wifi to keep their citizens ‘happy’. Although, it seems this isn’t what every citizen wants, and I’ll leave you now with a quote from an online-commenter on Scotland’s railway internet.
“Is there no escape. First it was idiots barking in brick-sized cellphjones in the 80s, then phones beep beeping all the time as TTTXXTTSS were snt 2 ol nd sndry ol t bldy tm, now we have computers being tap tapped, music played on them and always more noise. long haul flights used to be an oasis of calm but now they can use their phones and computers you might as well be at work. take a seat, look out the window, read the paper, chat to your fellow passengers, never mind Twitterbook, Face thingy or any of that antisocial netowrk rubbish, GET A LIFE”
This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.
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Something to be proud of: Menningarnótt, Reykjavík.

Harpa with Culture Night closing fireworks. Image - http://www.austurhofn.is
Harpa with Culture Night closing fireworks. Image – http://www.austurhofn.is

Menningarnótt or ‘culture night’ is an annual festival held in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík. Created by the Reykjavík city council in 1996, Culture Night is held every August and focuses on all things cultural, from music and arts to food and traditions. It is estimated that around 100,000 people attend the event each year, which is a staggering number when you consider the total population of the whole of Iceland is only just over 300,000. The day starts with the running of the annual marathon, and slowly the streets fill with people enjoying local delights. There are several outdoor stages with live music playing well into the night, craft and art making on offer, Icelandic food samples, longer opening hours for museums and bars, and an exciting fireworks display to end the evening. In addition to the main music stages there are musicians playing all over the city. When you wander down the main commercial strip in Reykjavík, Laugavegur, you are confronted with a blissful blend of sights, sounds and smells. Things are happening everywhere. As you walk along, just as the sound of one musician fades away, you can already hear another around the corner. And away from the main strip it continues. At Culture Night in 2011 I found a musician friend of mine, Myrra Rós, playing down to the street from the balcony of her townhouse. I then joined her has she proceeded to also play down at the harbour, in a café, and in a book store, all in one afternoon! The talent is great, and if you’re lucky you may even catch some of the stars of the future.

Inside Harpa, Culture Night 2011. Image - Billy Haworth
Inside Harpa, Culture Night 2011. Image – Billy Haworth

But what is this event actually for, and why is it so popular? Iceland already has a day to celebrate its national day, a hugely popular gay pride event, and a world-famous music festival each year, Iceland Airwaves. What could Menningarnóttin possibly be offering that these other successful events do not?

Of Monsters and Men, 2011. Image - Billy Haworth
Of Monsters and Men, 2011. Image – Billy Haworth

For me, the answer is city pride. Culture Night is not just a group or organisers running events. It is a whole city involved and embracing their unique culture. Obviously tourism is a factor and many businesses may benefit with increased profits, but the vast majority of the events and activities are free! It feels much more like a festival run for Icelanders by Icelanders. They are proud of their culture, both their heritage and traditions, and their modern way of living and creative lifestyles. This day allows them to ‘show off’ a bit. It encourages a sense of community, of togetherness and prosperity, and highlights the vast diversity of what is happening in the city each year. Icelanders are particularly proud people, and why shouldn’t they be? While relatively small in size, Reykjavík is a beautiful modern city rich in cultural diversity, and I think a day to feel good about that is more than appropriate. I think it’s a fantastic initiative by the Reykjavík City Council and one I hope continues long into the future. I’m sure there are other examples of similar events in cities around the world, but I found Menningarnóttin a really unique experience. I’d like to see cities offer more cultural events like this for their people, even if just to be proud. If you know of anything similar going on in your city let us know!

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

Laugavegur, Culture Night 2011. Image - Billy Haworth
Laugavegur, Culture Night 2011. Image – Billy Haworth

High street shopping: a globalised landscape

Riding the bus through central London recently it struck me how repetitive many of the commercial streets are. A product of globalisation, much of the shops you see are identical to those you saw two streets over; big stores and big brands. But what about the small shops and local businesses that once lined these streets? Has the (relatively) recent emergence of malls had an impact on the culture of traditional high street shopping in London?

High street shopping, London – image: http://www.standard.co.uk

Malls grew out of shopping arcades and by the 1960s the first 100+ store ‘mega malls’ were beginning to open in places like North America. Today malls are even bigger, with the West Edmonton mall in Canada housing some 800+ stores, and even bigger malls planned for Dubai and parts of SE Asia. But why the mall? They offer convenience and a ‘one-stop-shop’ atmosphere. They have a variety of different stores and items all in one place, often with much better mobility and parking facilities than high streets can provide. They often include entertainment elements such as cinemas, bowling alleys, and prize giveaways, and the food courts also provide a place to fuel up. In suburbia they can be a kind of town-centre for places without a town-centre. Perhaps we like to escape to the comfort of a climate-less, place-less space that we know will be almost identical wherever we are?

In London two large scale malls have opened in the late 2000s under the Westfield brand; one in White City, and one in Stratford East. In London terms these areas are practically binary opposites. One is west; one is east. One is rich; one is (historically) poorer. One has a more international population, and one contains more Londoners. And yet, when you step inside the Westfield mall you would almost be unable to tell which one you were in, and perhaps even unable to recognise yourself as being in London. The same aesthetic meets your eye, the same sounds and smells meet your ears and nose, and the same shops and products are on offer. And that is their appeal. They are identifiably and comfortably essentially the same.

I think this influence in shopping culture is partly to blame for the change in London high streets. This idea of the convenience of the ‘same’ being accessible on every street has allowed the big stores and big brands to dominate.  But I see a fight-back coming. I think this globalised mall-type shopping is bland and artificial. I think people like the diversity of shops, they like supporting small business, and perhaps even prefer wandering around the long high streets to the ‘convenience’ of the shopping centre (which can also involve lots of walking anyway!). High streets are more intimate, more local, and more ‘authentic’, and particularly fitting for a city as diverse as London.  The recent closing down of HMV stores in England is a sign of things changing.  Perhaps a move away from globalised shopping is coming, and a more localised landscape is set to return. Perhaps in the modern city a hybrid of the two is the kind of shopping environment we can expect; something ‘glocalised,’ if you will. I hope London’s high streets don’t lose their soul, and I think this is definitely a trend worth watching.

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

Multi-purpose design: Oslo Opera House

Winning several contemporary architecture awards, the Oslo Opera House is a fantastic piece of modern urban design. It combines style and functionality to perfection and is one of the most interesting and enjoyable buildings I’ve visited anywhere in the world.
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Not only the home of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, the building itself is a city attraction in it’s own right. Aesthetically it mimics the icy Norwegian landscape wonderfully, but what I found most appealing was the interactivity it offers. The design is such that the public can freely walk all over it’s surface, all the way up to the top of the roof, giving marvellous panoramic views of Oslo. There is actually a real sense of ‘fun’ when you climb all over a building such as this, and the views are stunning. It’s also a very relaxing and peaceful place by the water away from much of the city noise. The roof has also been designed with angles and paving materials conducive to skateboarding. That’s right, skateboarding is encouraged on top of the Opera House! The interior comprises exquisite shapes and acoustics, and exhibits a number of contemporary artworks. The most famous piece of artwork at the site, She Lies, is a glass sculpture which floats permanently in the adjacent fjord.

Combining style, functionality, interactivity, atmosphere, and panoramic views like no other, Tarald Lundevall’s Oslo Opera House is a fine example of modern urban architecture. Perhaps this kind of multi-purpose design is something we will see more of in cities of the future.

The entrance to Oslo Opera House
The entrance to Oslo Opera House
She Lies - Monica Bonvicini
She Lies – Monica Bonvicini

Images courtesy of Billy Haworth.

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

Mapping Local Food Growing in London

More and more people in cities are seeking ways to acquire good quality, sustainably sourced food without breaking the bank.  In recent years a popular alternative in London to relying on supermarket food has been urban agriculture, or ‘food gardening’. A few years ago Mikey Tomkins, researcher on food growing, was inspired by the local food growing that was already happening in his local borough, as well as the potential space he saw for even more food growth, to produce the ‘Edible Map’ of Hackney. The map highlights everything from urban space for short and long session veg and fruit trees to compost and worm farms. Mushrooms are even grown in garages and bees kept for honey on rooftops.

The Edible Map isn’t just a list of place markers, it tells stories of the local community, it allows residents to assess their own local food growth, and it encourages others to join in. One of the most encouraging things about this initiative is that the maps are infinitely changing and growing, and the potential for transfer to other areas is great. And in fact it’s already spreading. Mikey ran tours through Hackney with his Edible Map, educating people of the importance and potential for local food growth. Today Edible Maps are also available for Surrey Street in Croyden, and Elephant & Castle in south London. The Royal Geographical Society in London has also collaborated with Tomkins to add a walk through Hackney using the Edible Map to their Discovering Britain walks series, available to anyone for free via their website. The maps are interactive, fun, and informative, and a positive step for food sustainability, quality and affordability in our cities.

The interactive Edible Map is here.

The Royal Geographical Society walk is here.

This post originally appeared on urban culture and trends blog Trending City.

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