Learning from Participatory Advertising

As the manifesto of the bubble project begins,

"Our communal spaces are being overrun with ads. Train stations, streets, squares, buses, and subways now scream one message after another at us. Once considered "public" these spaces are increasingly being seized by corporations to propagate their messages . . . The Bubble Project instantly transforms these annoying corporate monologues into open public dialogues"

From Monologue to Dialogue
The strikingly simple idea behind the bubble project is to facilitate the expression of multiple voices in resistance to the singular authoritative voice. The equally simple and impressive execution of this idea lies in pasting empty speech bubble stickers on advertisements around the city, openly inviting anyone to transform a unilateral means of expression into an inclusive, bilateral dialogue. In this sense the urban environment is activated through the participation of citizens in countering the prevailing corporate culture.

From Advertising to Development
While ironically the bubble project has become its own money-making machine, arguably furthering the market-driven mechanisms to which it supposedly provides a counterpoint, it contains useful ideas to the fields of design and development. A parallel may be drawn in the development of cities, in which unequal and constantly shifting power relations are retraced through the transformative actions of under-represented citizens. While the profit motive and the desire to remain globally competitive in an economic sense often stands as a dominant driver of urban change, the struggle to make subaltern voices heard remains a highly relevant and uphill battle. The beauty of the "bubble" is that it makes evident the layering of tensions and conflicting viewpoints within cities. In addition, the various writings are not subjected to the filtering, control, or censorship of the dominant voice. They are unspoiled, immediate, and direct responses that begin to illustrate the extreme complexity inherent within the urban realm.

Development as Dialogue
Too often development occurs as a top-down process during which the developer may only consult a wide group of inhabitants as a token gesture - something that must be done along the way in achieving aspirations that are in direct conflict with those of local citizens. Sustainable urban development needs a catalyst, an opening through which the multiplicity of aspirations, values and resources inherent in the urban environment can be sufficiently mapped, understood, and used to confront and adequately challenge the over-represented and well-connected. Development practitioners and built environment professionals can actively serve as this "bubble" by not simply operating within the institutionalised methods of development, but by revealing the true interdependencies and inter-workings of those methods and working to transform them in designing a more just and responsive city.

How do you imagine your city, and what are your means for expressing that vision?




Credits: Image of "Talk Back" posters from the Talk Back Book website. Image of Joy Division's album cover to Unknown Pleasures from website. Image of Broken Social Scene's album cover to Broken Social Scene from website.

Jean Prouvé: Modern Craftsmanship

Photo of House for the Tropics
House for the Tropics, Niger and Congo, 1949

Jean Prouvé was born in Nancy, France, in 1901. His father was a painter and his mother a musician. Their community reflected the values of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which saw potential in craftsmanship for resolving social problems. Prouvé apprenticed as a blacksmith, working on a variety of architectural projects before setting up his own practice in 1924. Through his commissioned work, he used modern technology to experiment with materials, structure, and form. In 1930, he joined Le Corbusier in founding the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM), which was aimed at fostering connections between the arts and industrial production.

Photo of Jean Prouve and his wife MadeleineProuvé's structures tended to be light, flexible, and even mobile, combining traditional building materials with aluminum and steel. Prefabricated parts were designed and developed with care in his workshop. He and his wife (pictured at left) built a house on a challenging parcel of land overlooking Nancy, mostly out of leftover parts from professional projects. His range of work includes emergency accommodations for war victims, residences for the homeless, and sturdy, easily assembled buildings for French business and colonial interests in Africa (see House for the Tropics, above, and Saharan House, below). Although many of these designs were not widely adopted due to cost or incompatibilities with daily use, they have been preserved as historical landmarks for their striking designs.

Prouvé didn't believe in utopian master plans. He saw value in theory only when continuously tested and refined through practice. He skillfully combined modern technology with a traditional integration of art and daily life, applying his craft toward improving social conditions. While his designs weren't always practical, they have proven timeless. The Houses for the Tropics are a case in point. They could be viewed as examples of European arrogance, based on an incorrect assumption that modern technology (and aesthetics) held the answer to socially constructed underdevelopment in the colonies. However, with financing to adapt the structures based on experience and an understanding of local building traditions, they may have become more viable. They're now displayed by museums, far from the exigencies of daily use.

The images in this post are from the book Jean Prouvé, by Nils Peters. It contains detailed descriptions and images of each project, with emphasis on materials, process, and historical significance. It clearly shows the many lessons to be learned from Prouvé's ideas.

Photo of School in VantouxSchool in Vantoux, 1950

Photo of Mame Printing WorksMame Printing Works, 1952

Photo of Saharan HouseSaharan House, 1958

Photo of EDF Power Station in Serre-PonconEDF Power Station in Serre-Poncon (Hautes-Alpes), 1959

Photo of Seynave Vacation House in BeauvallonSeynave Vacation House in Beauvallon, 1962

Photo of Seynave Vacation House in Beauvallon, detailSeynave Vacation House in Beauvallon, 1962

Drawing of Seynave Vacation House in Beauvallon, planSeynave Vacation House in Beauvallon, 1962

Photo of Youth Center in ErmontYouth Center in Ermont, 1967

Photo of Youth Center in Ermont, interiorYouth Center in Ermont, 1967

Photo of Youth Center in Ermont, interiorYouth Center in Ermont, 1967

Credits: Images scanned from Jean Prouvé, by Nils Peters.

Water and Sanitation in Ecuador


Water and sanitation has been recognized by all international development agencies as one of the main challenges in the developing world. Indeed, it is now explicitly assumed by all that the lack of adequate water and sanitation is a main contributor to the perpetuation of poverty. This problem affects directly one third of the world’s population. The lack of adequate water and sanitation has a deeply negative impact on human development in several ways. For instance, it is directly related to diarrheal diseases, the second main cause of infant mortality worldwide, only after malaria. It has also a deeply negative impact on women, as it typically causes burdening health and security problems. These impacts affect severely on social dignity and economic productivity, and keep hundreds of millions trapped in a poverty vicious circle.

This challenge was established as the target number 10 in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG), to be met by 2015. In this context, the UN, development banks, governments and bilateral development agencies have embarked in numerous programs in many countries aimed at achieving such MDG target.

Since three weeks ago, I am involved with UN-HABITAT in a Water and Sanitation Program in Ecuador. This program is funded by Spain’s international development agency (AECID) with U$ 5.8 Million, and it aims to support the country’s government in achieving this MDG target. The program is being implemented by a partnership of several UN agencies (UN-Habitat, UNDP, WHO, ILO, UNV), the ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MIDUVI), the recently created Water National Secretariat (SENAGUA) and local governments and the communities that the program will be supporting. This program is framed in the reform process started in the country with the new constitution, and a set of new laws that are on their way to being passed. One of such laws is aimed at regulating everything that is related to water, and it still is in the process of dialogue and negotiation. This is a particularly interesting context to work with, firstly because the recently voted constitution (one year old) stipulates that the use of water must follow an unusual order of priorities: human consumption, national food security, natural environment and economic production. Currently in Ecuador the bulk of water is used for export-oriented food plantations (Ecuador is the world’s main banana exporter), petroleum businesses and other polluting industries. Human consumption in towns and villages takes the small percentage that is left, which is largely unsafe water due to the lack of wastewater treatment, unmonitored industrial activities and large-scale plantations. We expect to support Ecuador in succeeding in ensuring that all citizens have equal access to adequate water and sanitation in the near future, which should in turn reduce the levels of poverty in the country.

Credits: Image of the assembly discussing at the present day the new Law on Water in Ecuador from http://www.senagua.gov.ec

Seizing the Right to the City in Pointe Saint-Charles, Montreal

Reflecting on the right to the city in theory and in practice in my last post, I mentioned some examples that come to mind when thinking about Lefebvre’s radical understanding of this term that challenges capitalist social and power relations driving the production of space in cities. One of mere dozens of examples that have emerged throughout Montreal is the Autonomous Social Centre in city’s southwest, in the borough of Pointe Saint-Charles.

Paralleling urban development processes across the world, many of Montreal’s traditionally working class / industrial neighbourhoods are experiencing massive gentrification as old industrial buildings and vacant spaces are converted, through a closed, top-down and profit-driven process, into expensive condominiums. This process has risen to a boil in Pointe Saint-Charles, a neighbourhood situated south of Montreal's downtown core in Canada’s original industrial heartland, the site of the country’s first industrial slums. Located in the first multi-ethnic working-class enclave in Canada, the Pointe furthermore has a long and rich history of popular struggle: it is the site of the first community-run clinic and legal aid services in Quebec, and there is a strong tradition of successful struggles for improved public transport, daycares, social housing and the decontamination of soils, to name a few.

The area has undergone drastic change in the past fifty years, from holding the most important concentration of manufacturing industries in Canada to total deindustrialisation that has led to significant job and population losses. Physically much of the built environment has stood crumbling until the late 1990s, as abandoned factories rotted alongside the long-obsolete Lachine Canal that forms the northern border of the Pointe Saint-Charles.

In an effort to rejuvenate the area in the 1990s, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in significant infrastructure improvements for the Lachine Canal by federal, local and private sources. While the area around the Canal has dramatically improved in terms of an extensive cycling path that is heavily used and renewed use of the canal for recreational boating, infrastructural improvements have simultaneously opened the door for waves of private developers to convert abandoned factories into expensive, and thus exclusive, condominiums. Despite the fact that for the past 15 years community organisations of the southwest have tried to keep the canal accessible and open to people from the neighbourhood and surrounding area, almost all structures alongside it have been privatised as the City of Montreal has facilitated luxury condo projects along waterfront, cutting of the canal to people living in the area and in essence constructing a corridor of gentrification.

In direct response to this top-down production of space, denying the Pointe’s residents a say in their right to the city, over the past two years dozens of people have worked together to take back control over their living spaces, to organise and create a self-managed social, cultural and political space directly accountable to the community: the Autonomous Social Centre (ASC). Based on values of sharing and creative reclaiming of autonomy instead of competition and profits, the ASC envisaged the centre to house a variety of independent projects including an independent media centre, a bar, a show space, a collective kitchen run through food recovered from the dumpster and urban permaculture, a free bike workshop, socio-political workshops, a daycare centre, a housing project and a mobile cinema.

By the end of May 2009 signatures from over 500 people and 74 social, community and political organisations had been gathered for a public declaration supporting the ASC. Due to the lack adequate and accessible spaces and infrastructure for alternative and autonomous cultural projects, the ASC’s two years of organising were ready to grow roots through an action to occupy one of the last available structures along the Lachine Canal, in Pointe Saint-Charles.

With over 100 people present, in a child-friendly atmosphere including music and dancing, 60 people entered, fixed up the building's broken windows, and set up a kitchen and cinema. Yet less than 24 hours later, Montreal riot police evicted the Autonomous Social Centre; reports from different sources give different accounts of the process, with people inside claiming the police projecting pepper spray through the windows and the police denying allegations. After attempts to defend the squat, everyone inside exited and joined a support demonstration; a few hundred people strong, it took to the streets.

What does the ASC's experience say about the right to the city and the production of space in our urban environments? It is clear that capital and private interests dictate, with existing municipal tools such as the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities – mentioned by UNESCO as one of several initiatives towards “promoting a rights-based approach and ensuring the 'Right to the City' for all urban dwellers” – in reality speaking only of rights for people to participate in city-sanctioned projects and participation processes. It clearly functions within existing capitalist social and power relations, nestled within the status quo, and is thus far from Lefebvre’s radical call to change existing social, political and economic systems.


What would happen if activities such as the ASC, challenging private property as one of the foundations of capitalism, with two years of organising and significant community support, flourished? What would the city look like if we followed David Harvey’s words, if we understood the right to the city not merely a right of access to what already exists but as a right to change it after our heart’s desire, the right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality?

The response from the Autonomous Social Centre, after its eviction from the occupied building, is true to Lefebvre’s vision: to continue the struggle for the right to the city, to continue challenging and creating alternatives to the capitalist-driven production of space.

Credits: Image of Centre Social Autogéré banner on fence from No One is Illegal. Map of Montreal from Google Earth. Image of old factories along Lachine Canal from buildings.ca Image of cyclists and converted factory along Lachine Canal by C. DeWolf from Spacing Montreal. Image of ASC banner on building from ASC website. Image of ASC building occupation by A. Heffez from Spacing Montreal. Image of downtown Montreal from inside abandoned factory in Pointe St-Charles from City Noise.

Hi Tech Soul: Detroit and its Techno Rebels

I've recently re-watched the compelling documentary Hi Tech Soul directed by Gary Bredow. The film chronicles the birth and rise of Detroit techno, as seen through the eyes of pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson (aka the Belleville Three) as well as second generation contributors like Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin.

To me, the most interesting part of the film was how it illustrated the relationship between the techno sound and the unique qualities of urban Detriot in the 1980s. From robotics in car manufacturing plants, to the industrial remnants of a city transitioning into automation, techno and its exponents are building upon a collective vision where souls could be found in the hearts of machines, and underground dance music could move people across economical and geographic divides.

The whole movie can be viewed on youtube. I've included the first segment below:





Credits: Video from exiledlarky's Youtube channel.

Levee-town (Super!)

Patent from 1933 describing a variation on the typical levee construction technique.

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was liable for damages caused by levee failures in the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina. Although a provision in the Flood Control Act of 1928 (which initiated large scale public works along the Mississippi River) absolves the U.S. government of liability from the failure of flood control works, the levees in question are officially parts of a navigation channel and therefore not protected under this provision. The ruling in particular blames not the construction or design of the levee itself, but rather the lack of proper maintenance and "insouciant" attitude towards long-known and reparable flaws.

Levee breaches and resultant floods mapped in New Orleans over the course of 90 minutes

But levee failure is inherent to levee construction--levees constantly, gradually fail: their bulk is subject to decomposition and settling; their tops are eroded and their foundations are undermined and underseeped; their bases subside from lack of sediment, the contained rivers rise against them from too much of it. It would seem that to build a levee is to plant the seeds for its own destruction.
And yet levees and flood-protection works are inescapable. Many cities, including New Orleans, Amsterdam, and Venice would not exist without them. And as sea-levels rise, cities with infrastructure and populations concentrated at the water's edge will inevitably turn to walls and barriers to keep out the water. Although the world most often turns to experts from the Netherlands when planning for this wet future, Japan has been quietly building a robust flood-protection system that might provide equally sophisticated lessons. Most interestingly, Japanese engineers have been experimenting with a fail-proof, low-maintenance levee for the protection of urban areas in flood-prone cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

Cross section through a super-levee in Osaka

These so-called "super-levees" improve on the typical levee by widening its footprint and reducing the backslope to a low grade. The result is a flood-protection zone instead of a mere barrier. These super-levees minimize the risk of breach and underseepage that threaten thinner levees. Water that does overtop a super-levee is slowed as it flows down the long backslope; water overtopping a normal levee cascades down the back, quickly eroding and compromising the integrity of the structure. With their broad bases, the super levees are also less likely to fail during earthquakes. The super-levee offers advantages beside the structural and fluvial. The stabilized and strengthened sides can be developed, extending the urban fabric right up to the top of the levee and allowing easier visual and physical access to the water. In Japan, these developments are tall, raised on piloti, and interwoven with parks and open spaces that are scarce through much of the city.


The super-levees are not free from problems. For one, their extreme width means that a swath of land one block wide along the river or bay front needs to be free and available. Since most of this land is occupied, the majority of new super levees have been built on vacant or post-industrial land (where it serves as a convenient contamination cap). The super bulk of a super-levee also demands problematically large amounts of fill material. Some of the fill can be offset by including parking and service structures in the body of the levee. And, finally, although bomb-proof, the levees are not a complete solution. In Japan, they exist as part of a larger strategy of public works that include flood gates, retarding basins, satellite and radar monitoring, and instant communication alerts (as shown in this cute diagram).

The lesson from Japan is to consider flood-protection not as the isolated endeavor of a single agency, but as part of a larger body of work that is intertwined with urban re-development, open-space planning, land rehabilitation, and habitat generation. Most importantly, the Japanese model proves that protecting our cities from floods does not mean shutting them off from the water. With many of levees around the country protecting our crops rather than our lives, sophisticated levee solutions will also have a rural application. Although no one in the U.S. has yet embraced Japan's example, the inadequacy of our current flood protection models is being increasingly exposed.

super-levee on the Edogawa in Tokyo

Credits: Flood maps of New Orleans part of US District Court case evidence and found here. Drawing of levee dredge by C. F. Wait and the U.S. Patent Office as accessed through Google Patents here. Cross-section of super-levee by Ivan Valin. Diagrams of levee vs. super levee by Bianca Stalenberg and found here. Photo of super-levee by William Veerbeek and found here.

Evicted Poor Rebuild on Same Land, 3 Years After Operation "Drive Out Trash"


I recently posted about the Zimbabwean government's "Drive out Trash" campaign, unleashed in Harare in 2005. The mass eviction targeted informal dwellings and destroyed around 700,000 homes and businesses. One-fifth of Zimbabwe's population was affected in one way or another.

This week, a photographer followed 26-year-old Malvern Muhlanga and his family as they try to resettle in the same spot years later. They're back to square one, and this time have no water, electricity or toilets. Still, they choose to rebuild. There's no going back to villages. Case in point: there's no stopping urbanization.

Credits: Image from AfricaNews.

Featured Artist: Bernar Venet

I'd like to start a series dedicated to artists who have had, or could have, a great effect on urban environments (I also welcome everyone to add others). Here is a public sculpture by Bernar Venet, at 411 Michigan Avenue in Chicago. There are many more examples of his work at bernarvenet.com, and in cities around the world.

Credits: Photo from bernarvenet.com. BK4HK3N7FS99

A Closer Look at Suburbs

In 1968, Bill Owens took a job as photographer for the Independent in Livermore, CA. He collected pictures of the people he met, which were published along with interesting quotes in a now classic book called Suburbia. While not completely free of stereotypes about suburban living, the pictures reveal the many unique qualities beneath the stereotypes in a fun and intimate way.

There is often a kind of anti-suburban bias in urban studies, which can blind us to the reasons for the popularity of suburbs. Some of these may be troubling, others inspiring, and all have the potential to usefully inform city planning. Owens brings them to life in his pictures and quotes. They are also a reminder of the ways we transform nature in efforts to improve our lives, resulting in houses, pools, streets, lawn turf, cars, hair rollers, gardens, and tv sets.

I've scanned some photos from the book and placed them along with their quotes. There are so many more I would have liked to add. Here is an online gallery of photos from Suburbia. I hope to have a chance to see them live some day.

"The best way to help your city government and have fun is to come out on a Saturday morning and pull weeds in a median strip."

"This isn't what we really want -- the tract house, the super car, etc. ... But as long as we are wound up in this high speed environment, we will probably never get out of it! We don't need the super car to be happy; we really want a small place in the country where you can breathe the air."

"My dad thinks it's a good idea to take all the leaves off the tree and rake up the yard. I think he's crazy."



"I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs ... You assume a mask of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no one knows what you really do."

"I put my hair up once or twice a week. It's the only way I can get curls in it. When it's combed out, I'm willing to be seen in public."

"It's hard to hunt because you're always trespassing all the housing developments which are taking over the open fields. Since there are more people and more houses, the game is moving further out."

"Our house is built with the living room in the back, so in the evenings we sit out front of the garage and watch the traffic go by."

"It's fun to break up the glass. We're doing our thing for ecology and the Boy Scouts will give us a badge for working here."

"I bought the Doughboy pool for David and the kids and now no one wants to take the responsibility for cleaning it."

"By having a garage sale you can get rid of a lot of junk you don't want. One man's junk is another man's treasure. It's really true."

"We have to move. My husband's been transferred to Southern California."



Credits: All photos taken by Bill Owens and scanned from his book, Suburbia.