By Katrina Dodson
Is riding a bicycle a creative act? For San Francisco architect and urban designer Tim Hurley, it can and should be. While cycling may not be synonymous with art, the constant adaptability and attentiveness to one’s surroundings that cycling requires, especially in the city, can lead to surprising detours and new ways of seeing the world.
Hurley’s own inventive detour from a 20-year career in urban design is the Wheel Kids Bicycle Club, a new S.F. bicycle summer camp for children ages 6 to 13. The endeavor also arose as a practical solution to his desire to make a living from cycling while also being able to spend more time with his two young daughters.
“One of my pet peeves, I think, is that people feel that creativity is the realm of the so-called ‘creative class,’” Hurley told me recently during an afternoon snack at the newly opened Crissy Field Center overlooking a windy postcard view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. “I think that all thinking is creative, or can be. How you perceive of what you’re doing can be very creative.”
With this philosophy in mind, Hurley has formed a summer camp that emphasizes what he calls “the mantra of adventure and exploration” and strikes a balance between using bicycles as a means to a destination and riding for the sake of recreation. Each day during the 10 weeklong sessions, from June through August, groups of 7 riders will set out with a coach from the base camp at Little Marina Green, a daisy-covered field tucked in among the parking lots just east of the big Marina Green.
What was originally meant to be more of an urban cycling and skill-building camp similar to what the Presidio Community YMCA offers, has since evolved into a kind of country-in-the-city experience, arising partly from the need to keep on bike paths and low-traffic routes in order to appease insurance company anxieties about the mixing of kids, bikes, and liability. The diligently researched itinerary for the distinctly themed weekly sessions includes bike skills workshops and educational activities that will punctuate rides roaming through the Presidio and along the waterfront to the Embarcadero and field trips to Angel Island, the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands, along the Bay Trail, and down to the Hellyer Velodrome in San Jose.
Hurley recognizes the need for structure and to set campers’ expectations each morning, yet his serious, analytical demeanor belies a certain gentle anarchy that remains open to improvisation. To give an example of this flexible mentality, he tells a story of an after-school ride he set out on with his children, now 6 and 8. They had meant to roll along the Marina Green toward the end of Crissy Field but “all of a sudden we saw these pelicans diving into the yacht harbor.” And the pelicans led them to notice some seals, which in turn drew their attention to the different boats in the marina and the people onboard maintaining some of them, “and we just got into this big conversation about where we were, and all these different systems that we could see within a really narrow cone of vision: the natural world and the man-made world.” Caught between pursuing their original plan and wanting to stay and watch the scene, the three compromised by continuing to ride but going to explore the other side of the yacht harbor.
“So as a model for the camp, I think that’s what it’s all about,” Hurley explains. “It’s a real intimate understanding of place, and I think that’s coming from my architecture and urban design background, that there really is no tabula rasa. Everything has some sort of context associated with it and it’s our job as creative people to understand that and to understand what it means to be in that context. And kids can do that just as well as trained designers.”
To combine this kind of larger understanding with the practice of being on a bike, Hurley has invited guest speakers to get kids thinking about different lifestyles associated with bicycles, including a women’s professional cycling team, a transportation planner, frame builder, bike messengers, bike polo players, and bike police. The day of sketching and touring the Embarcadero with local architect David Baker is more of a nod to the camp director’s former career.
Hurley recognizes that he can’t exactly recreate his own experience while growing up in San Luis Obispo of being able to get nearly everywhere on bike, but he does want to get city kids used to riding their bikes on a daily basis. He explains, “I don’t expect the week after kids have been in camp, they’re going to ride everywhere, but if over time, they begin to realize that they can, then that’s great, and I’ll feel like we’ve succeeded.”
As for summer-camp-as-propaganda, he admits, “If there’s an underlying theme, or underlying goal, somewhat surreptitious, it’s to create the next generation of bicycle users and bicycle advocates. You know, the city and the Bike Coalition are doing really phenomenal things right now to create the supply of bicycling facilities, but what we also need is a long-term commitment to bicycling demand.”