Sunday, 29 August 2010

Skyride: Great fun but now what?

I had a great time taking my daughter twice round the Leicester Skyride circuit today in her newly installed front child seat.

Despite inspiring me to dust off my bike, I was left slightly wondering what the whole event was about. Having registered a few days ago and despite a lot of publicity from Leicester officialdom it felt slightly unclear where we should go and what we were supposed to actually do. Just turn up and start peddling seemed to be about it.

On the day we happily meandered between the various stopping off points via various barricaded and marshalled routes (some better showcases of the city than others).

Having only recently realised that the 'Sky' in Skyride is none other than everybody's favourite satellite TV broadcaster I was anticipating a bit of 'corporate' gloss on the event. I've got no problem with sponsorship of good causes though in actual fact there was precious little visibilty of the company other than their brand name (which seemed strangely neutered within the 'Skyride' brand).

When companies do this sort of PR it usually means they are attempting to change perceptions rather than drive immediate sales. I would guess that Sky wish to appeal to the cycling types who are probably a bit more middle class than their traditional customers. A bit of digging revealed the actual brief (page 4) from Sky's PR firm RPM: "To drive perception and awareness of Sky’s sponsorship of British Cycling, whilst encouraging 1 million more Brits to start cycling by 2013." Again I don't have a problem with this provided we the punters get something measurable in return.

My gut impression though was a deal along the lines of "Let's let Sky use our city for a mass PR stunt and hope that it encourages more people to cycle more regularly".

What I would like to see are more measurable results (i.e. what is the true legacy of Skyride on cycling numbers? How many less cars are on the road as a result? etc, etc). All that RPM's document could tell us was that for the London event "37% said they would cycle more regularly" - a statistic which is probably more exciting to a PR firm client than an urban transport planner!

I'd also like to see Leicester capitalise on this event better. The city should be able to get access to the Skyride registrations database and do some serious follow-up marketing to all the people who took part. It should also be measuring cycle usage before and after the event to see if it has any lasting effect.

As one of the original Skyride cities I'd also like to see if Leicester has the guts to be the first to run this on a busier day such as a Saturday. It's a big leap from a fenced-off course on a Sunday to a full-on weekday rush hour but we have to head in that direction if we're to achieve the critical mass of cyclists which will start to really affect traffic and exercise levels. Research I've read seems to suggest it only takes a small percentage reduction in car usage to substantially unclog roads - something which benefits cyclists and car drivers alike.

Finally, here is a thought-provoking little clip of what is possible (though read this and weep!):-

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Tidying up: A cheaper form of regeneration

Much is made of Leicester's 'trophy' regeneration successes such as Highcross and St Georges. Great those these are (and I visit both a lot), the sheer contrast with some of the more shabby parts of the city it stark.

As a city, we turn up to the interview in jeans and a t-shirt. The thinking seems to be that if we wear a nice tie that the rest of the outfit will be ignored.

Now that the big money has evaporated, isn't it time for a proper clean-up? I don't mean just a temporary scattering of banners and petunias. Putting up banners on a shabby street doesn't smarten it up - it just draws even more attention to the shabbiness.

I'm talking about a long-term sustained city-wide effort to reduce the levels of grime, graffiti, dereliction, litter, street clutter, etc - the things that everyone rightly moans about and which harm civic pride. I don't just mean city council controlled spaces either. A sharper stick needs to be used to prod private land owners to tidy up derelict areas, maintain heritage buildings, prevent fly tipping and remove rubbish. There are legal instruments such as Urgent Works Notices, Amenity Notices and even ASBOs at the council's disposal if they have the nerve to use them. There are also more gentle approaches such as community litter-picks and community reporting of issues.

Reading the city council's One Clean Leicester scheme I remain hopeful that we might see more than just a few cosmetic improvements. To quote this page: "A new website will launch later this year so you can post photographs and details of environmental blights in your area. It'll also include live progress reports as our teams respond and tackle problems". When will this materialise? Wouldn't it be more economical and effective to use the existing independent Fix My Street site instead?

Yes this would all cost money, but it would still be the cheapest bit of regeneration we could ever do. Crucially, it would also involve and benefit Leicester residents as well as potential investors & developers. Waiting for white knight developers to revitalise everywhere is not realistic in the current climate and developers don't always have our best interests at heart anyway.

Update 30/06/2011: One Clean Leicester was launched earlier in the year with smartphone apps to allow citizens to report problems

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Making Leicester a Food Destination

Leicestershire has strong reputation for producing food including EU 'Protected Geographical Status' items like Stilton and Pork Pies as well having all sorts of farm shops, organic food, vineyards, microbreweries, food festivals, etc. How come the county town Leicester is now rarely recommended for anything other than curry?

Business leaders are complaining that there is a "lack of quality restaurants" in the city and the forthcoming Leicester & Leicestershire Food Fortnight features very few city events. For a historic county town with such huge ethnic diversity surrounded by a foodie county, how come we're not capitalising on food as an attraction? Shouldn't Leicester be the focal point for regional food fortnights, food festivals and farmers markets? We manage a decent food festival at the market once in a while plus and the travelling Continental Market (which always seems a bit too expensive and uninspiring to be honest).

Melting pot cities like Leicester are where new dishes and even entirely new styles of cooking pop-up. If we can find innovative ways to combine the city's diversity with the county's tradition and quality then there is great potential. I'm not sure expensive restaurants are actually the place to start - Leicester isn't a particularly affluent place and I think value and diversity of choice are more important to most people here. Here are some suggestions:-
  • Uncover all the amazing multicultural home cooking happening behind closed doors (does any one fancy crowd-sourcing recipes for a Leicester Recipe Book? I bet there are loads of great fusion cuisine recipes out there as well as traditional ones)
  • Hold more food festivals and try to bring in the county audience (could we try to bag a regional event?). 
  • Diversify the offering at Leicester Market (it's crying out for a revamp)
  • Do more to develop and promote the city as a centre for world cuisine rather than just curry.
  • Open a multicultural food court in the city (sorry to keen banging on about it!)
My final thought is for my wife who once dreamt that she saw a Malaysian restaurant on the Aylestone Road. And why shouldn't there be one?!