I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town

Growing up in a small-town cum suburb, the edges came in two forms. There was the amorphous and imperceptible line drawn on the map, that line between the town on the east and the town on the west. It was seemingly arbitrary - this was nothing like crossing the border between Oakland and San Leandro, Detroit and Grosse Point, New Orleans and St. Bernard's Parish. It might mean a different school, a different "downtown", some minor cultural or political difference, but it was all one valley.

The other line wasn't political as much as urban. Like much of the Bay Area, my town had edges that bled into foothills, protected open space and vestigal grazing land which gave you a sense of both the real and imagined past. Life and homes and land out here was different, but since we were only talking a distance of a few miles, and a handful of people, it was more quaint than anything - the outskirts of town would never be confused for the other side of the tracks.

I now inhabit another edge, not one one side of town, but on the outer banks of the grand archipelago that is the San Francisco Bay Area. Brentwood, CA, 94513, population 52,000 and change, a postmillenial hybrid of central valley farm town, bucolic suburb and struggling node of middle and working class diversity in the face of foreclosure. It is oddly beautiful, especially at dusk, when the central valley light bounces off the foothills of Mount Diablo and almost makes you forget that most of the people and families in the ubiquitous subdivisions are underwater (although this was once an inland sea, I mean they owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth).

This region is still technically part of the Bay Area, but there are moments when I forget where I am - tea party tablers are the major political force at the weekly farmers market; the suburban landscape quickly, and sometime haphazardly, gives way to orchards, grazing land and fields - not the preserved agriculture of my native Marin but the patchwork remnants of the most productive agricultural region in contemporary human history. The trucks are massive, and the car culture is unreal - more than once I have had to guess when to nod and laugh as people talked car with me, much as one does when trying to learn a new language in a foreign land. It is diverse, middle class, struggling, proud, beautiful and ugly at the same time, and undoubtedly a little swath of red state America on the edge of the bluest region of them all.

Or so it seems. On June 8th, Brentwood voters went to the polls to vote on Measure F, a classic example of California ballot box planning where citizens were being asked whether or not to expand the urban limit line to accommodate a 1,300 new homes. The "Yes on F" campaign had been intense - the measure was backed by four of the five city council members, the major local newspaper, a who's who of local politicians, and the developers and landowners who managed to outspend the opposition $279,972 to $5,992.

The rhetoric was brutal - letters to the editor attacked old friends and allies, lines in the sand were drawn, outside politicians, newspapers, interest groups and organizations weighed in. My doorbell rang with eager teenagers primed to get out the vote for F, and the literature around town, on my car and in my doorway was so overwhelmingly pro-F that it seemed impossible for it to lose.

But it did. By 17 points, more than 1,000 votes out of only 8,000 cast. In a town that had grown more than twelvefold in three decades, whose political economy and actual economy rested on turning farmland into subdivisions, residents changed their their tune. It was a poorly-conceived proposition at a terrible time, as the limits to rapid growth as political economic urbanization strategy are evident everywhere. But it caught me by surprise - a newcomer from the core, caught unaware, as times may be changing on the outskirts of the metropolis.

Invisible Infrastructure

In keeping with our collective exploration of The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles along with mammoth, this post will discuss the chapter by Ted Kane and Rick Miller - "Cell Structure: Mobile Phones".  The chapter's brief thought piece on the overlaid strata of technology and landscape is a densely packed rumination not only on mobile communications but on the network society at large and its urban implications.

A pervasive thread of the 'private corporation v. public/government control' debate appears throughout the writing, warning that telecommunications companies demonstrate a dangerous "corporate model of urban planning" in which the location and placement of cell phone towers are largely determined by market demand rather than regional planning control. This recognition of corporate authority in the development of urban communication infrastructure leads to a critique of the resultant provision of services and prominence of "dead zones" without cellular coverage in areas of more scattered and impoverished populations. Meanwhile, a cursory glance at the different incentives and accountability of public and private sector organisations provides an intriguing explanation for the resultant myopic perspective of private telecom companies.

The text held the most resonance for me in its contemplation of border zones and the ruptures of conflictual policy that occur in them.  This was made evident in the marketing strategies of telecommunications corporations in the region:
"Even as federal policy solidified the boundary of the United States against illegal Mexican immigration, an American corporation dematerialised the very same border to increase its appeal to a particular population that lived on both sides of that line . . .
Like cellular networks themselves, today's cities must form connections beyond their distinct geographic boundaries, carving new systems of interaction and collective space on a regional scale.  Only in a borderless, regionally scaled city plan organised by purpose rather than geographical boundaries, can the public realm hope to compete with the smooth surfaces of corporate control"
Perhaps it is within the elimination of illogical borders in scaling up that we can utilise the neutral technological advances in communication and transportation networks as positive tools of community building rather than privately controlled instruments of divisive planning.  How might corporate interests be invested in creating a more inclusive and integrated city and regional plan?  If the processes of corporate decision-making and their impacts on urban infrastructure were creatively mapped and demonstrated, could it influence a recalibration of such procedures? 

Credits: Image of cell phone tree from Kazys Varnelis.

Comparisons of Public Space

Over the next two months my posts will be kind of rough, as I have very slow and infrequent internet access, and none at home. This has prevented me from reading blogs lately, and even much news, both of which I really miss. Maybe it's worthless to blog while I'm so disconnected, but since I'm scheduled to post, I'll write about the way this time in Russia is changing my perspective on public parks in Moscow.

Vladimir, where I'm currently living, is a few hours east of Moscow by train, and much smaller, with a population of around 315,000. Although the ornate wooden houses and elaborate brick buildings in the center of town are worth devoting a lot more time to, I've been especially interested in the large apartment blocks outside the center city. These areas provide an interesting contrast with the neighborhood where I lived in Moscow last summer. The main difference is maintenance. Around Moscow State University, crews of workers clean the streets each day, while the microdistrict where I'm staying now is run down in the way of project buildings in the US (i.e., visible problems with litter, graffiti, and structural decay). However, it still looks like a lot of thought went into filling the space between buildings with greenery. There are all kinds of playgrounds, fields, courtyards, and sports facilities. I didn't have my camera while walking through them, but I'll post more photos as soon as possible. The ones in this post are of nearby neighborhoods, except for the one at the top, which is from the balcony in my room.

Public space is generally enclosed by buildings, creating varied environments and a comfortable feeling of protection from the streets; almost like being inside with a nice breeze and open ceiling. Besides maintenance, which is far worse than the only microdistrict I visited in Moscow, the buildings tend to be made of low-quality materials. These neighborhoods reinforce the vague impression I had that certain parts of Moscow draw resources away from the rest of the country, resulting in some incredibly beautiful settings in the midst of decreased public spending overall.

To kind of bring these thoughts together, I'm beginning to see more than ever the importance of maintenance, semi-enclosure, variety, and quality construction. These are all things that policymakers, designers, and all kinds of citizens can collaborate on. Focusing on them -- and not only in the wealthier neighborhoods of the wealthiest cities -- could really add to the quality of life in cities.

Credits: First four photos by Peter Sigrist. Last photo by Beth Sullivan.

‘After Neoliberalism: Cities and Systemic Chaos’

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In November 2008, the Modern Art Museum of Barcelona organized a seminar called After Neoliberalism: Cities and Systemic Chaos. This event gathered Neil Smith, The Metropolitan Observatory from Madrid, Raquel Rolnik, Andrew Ross and Mike Davis. On the occasion of this event, the texts of the seminar were published in the book with the same title (in Spanish).

This great book and texts can only be found in Spanish, but one can find similar articles in English by the same authors. This seminar happened to take place in the perfect moment, when Neoliberalism was beginning its collapse. Indeed, the ongoing economic crisis is a clear sign that neoliberalism has failed. Even self called neoliberal leaders have had to nationalize banks and large companies. The effects of more than 20 years of neoliberal domination worldwide has had its impact on most cities, which have become the space where coexist levels of opulence and unlimited power that had not been seen since France's Louis XIV, with the most extreme imaginable poverty and environmental destruction.

Change is not an option; it is a necessity for survival. The predominant individualist, greed-based society is realizing (perhaps too slowly) that it needs to change in order to survive, in order to avoid entering into a vicious cycle of systemic chaos predicted by Immanuel Wallerstein. Social and green entrepreneurship are quickly growing, also in the developing world. This situation reinforces the need to debate degrowth and the way we measure progress or prosperity.

Credits: Image from Uncyclopedia.

Mytown: Youth, Change and History in Boston

by Melissa García Lamarca

The Multicultural Youth Tour of What’s Now (Mytown) aspires to use the power of community and cultural history in Boston to inspire youth to be leaders for social change.
Mytown’s creator Karilyn Crockett founded the organisation in 1995 as a young African-American woman growing up in Boston and feeling disconnected from the city, only learning about mainstream history such as the ride of Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party, stories that never addressed the lives and struggles of so many people that have sought social justice in the city and broader American society for generations. Upon hearing about stories of community organisers creating the first African-American labour union in the country in 1925 (the Pullman porters, image above right) and struggles against urban renewal in the South End and Lower Roxbury, Karilyn began to understand the legacy of people that have struggled to positively transform the city and beyond over the past 350 years. She started to feel a sense of ownership and belonging to/in the city, feeling that Boston was indeed a city shaped by the experiences of her family and neighbours, a place that she could call “my town.”

A grant from the Echoing Green Foundation enabled Karilyn to realise her vision of a programme using the process of sharing local history to empower young people and build appreciation of urban neighbourhoods. Youth Guides, aged 14 to 18, research their local and personal history and then teach what they have learned to the public by developing and leading tours of various parts of Boston. Since the start of Mytown this work has led to the creation of more than 200 jobs for Boston teenagers who in turn have educated over 10,000 residents and visitors in neighbourhoods across the city.

History is almost always told through the eyes and by the experience of the ‘winners’, the richest and the most powerful in societies at all scales, from local to global. Mytown creates an amazing space where youth can take this back, an empowering process that inspires themselves and most definitely others about the legacy and potential of socially just and sustainable places and spaces in the city.

Credits: Photo of the Pullman Porters from discoverblackheritage.com. Photo of Mytown youth guides Jasmine, Joe and Katiana by Carolina Rovetta. Photo of Mytown youth guide t-shirt by Carolina Rovetta.

Looking for the Post-Postmodern City

Ed Soja's exploration of Los Angeles set forth a new agenda for the study of Postmodern urbanism at the dawn of the 20th century. How does Soja's interpretation of Los Angeles as a paradigmatic site reverberate today? Does the hyper-reality of LA apply to the hyper-growth of the metropolises of the Global South? Do social network technologies challenge the notion of control, incarceration and dislocation? Where and how do we start looking for the post-postmodern city?

Credits: Video of the Postmodern City from BBC's Open University in YouTube.

Featured Quote: Oran R. Young

“The villages of the Circumpolar North suffer from serious social problems. More often than not, individual communities appear to have lost control of their own destiny; many of them lack both the capability and the will to regain that control.”

Oran R. Young, from Arctic Politics: Conflict and Cooperation in the Circumpolar North, 1992

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo of Henningsvær from Ezioman.

Filming the Real California

Cannonball from California is a place. on Vimeo.

California is a place. As chronicled in an eponymous new blog, it's one where skateboarders reclaim abandoned pools in cities devastated by foreclosure. A filmmaker and photographer have teamed up to tell true stories from the Golden State by pairing mini-documentaries with raw images. One of four pieces up so far, "Cannonball" is the story of youth in a disillusioned age rebuilding - in their own way - on the graveyard of American Dream.

Credits: "Cannonball" video from California is a place.

World Cup Redux

Refait is a contemporary remake of the last 15 minutes of the 1982 World Cup match between Germany and France in Seville, Spain. The scenes were reenacted, shot-by-shot, in an urban setting and were shown along side the original footage. By putting the legendary 15 minutes of overtime into a new space, French artist collective Pied Le Biche has shifted football history into a temporary urban experiment.

Credits: Video of Refait by Pied Le Biche.

Of Human Billboards and Dignity of Work

User experience researcher Jan Chipchase writes of human hoardings or billboards in Sao Paulo carrying advertisements for jobs - which provoked me to consider a few things:

1. What function does the human vehicle play in the context of a high-density urban environment, in comparison to a regular billboard? Mobility, for one, to spread the message over a larger geography - but does the bearer then unwittingly become the ambassador or representative for the jobs and announcements advertised?

2. For external observers outside of the cultural context of Sao Paulo, do jobs like the human billboard grate against some ethical compass of what constitutes dignity of work? Or perhaps we shouldn't be perturbed by this scenario altogether -- it is not unreasonable within the cultural circumstances and after all, the boon of having work and income is not to be taken lightly. How is the human billboard different from say, the traditional methodology of hiring someone to hand out flyers in high-density areas, and why would it inspire a sense of dehumanization among some groups of observers?

I recall touching down in the Bengaluru International Airport a couple of years ago and having a moment of ethical crisis when confronted with an airport staff member who offered to pick up my meager baggage from the conveyor belt for very few rupees -- baggage that any able-bodied traveler such as myself could move without much difficulty. Is the appropriate response then to deny a service, under the belief that we should be able to pick up after ourselves (and refute the realities of socioeconomic disparity), or to partake in the service because there is value and benefit in supporting such micro-enterprises?

3. Can we further innovate on the medium? In the case of the human billboard, if the bearers were given the responsibility to be mavens and experts for the various points of advertisement, or even curators of new happenings and going-ons, if may make the work more interesting and the service more helpful . Can just a little bit of innovation lift the perceived quality of an enterprise?

Credits: Image from janchipchase.com.

Featured Quote: John Holland

“Buildings are always changing, so that a city’s coherence is somehow imposed on a perpetual flux of people and structures. Like the standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream, a city is a pattern in time.”

John Holland, from Emergence, 2002

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Image of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover from Amazon.

Transitional Landscapes

Walking along the Arbat in Moscow, from Study in Hard Photography by Sergei Leontiev, 1990-1991 (source).

Sixth in a series on public parks in Moscow, this post focuses on the period of economic and political transition between 1985 and 2005. It offers a brief visual overview, bringing together a variety of processes that shape urban landscapes. As with the other posts, I plan to add to this as I gather more information.

Title unknown, painted by Sergej Basilev, 1983 (source).

Cities and Climate Change: The Case of Quito

by Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca

On the 28th, 29th and 30th of May took place in Bonn the first World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change, organized by ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives). ICLEI is an international association of local governments and national and regional local government organizations who have made a commitment to sustainable development. This congress responds to the fact that there has been a lot of talking about mitigation and comparatively little to adaptation, despite that Climate Change is already affecting most cities, mainly the urban poor. It is widely assumed that killer landslides, unpredictable floods and catastrophic hurricanes, among other climate-related disasters, are becoming more frequent and deadlier. Debating and taking measures to adapt to Climate Change is, in fact, a step beyond mitigation, as it enhances the sense of urgency in taking mitigation measures.

Quito, Ecuador. Photographer unknown. Source: Skyscraper City

This is what Quito has been doing since 2007 in a participatory manner, as a response to rapid city area growth with increased risk of landslides, extension of agriculture to high mountain ecosystems (locally known as paramo, which is the main natural source of the city's drinking water), increased virulence of rains and droughts, loss of biodiversity and retreat of the surrounding volcanoes' glaciers. Today Quito has a Climate Change Strategy, which combines mitigation and adaptation. This combination comes from the realization that many mitigation measures also strengthen the city's resilience to Climate Change. One easily understandable example is reforestation and forest protection in the city's borders, which contributes to reducing CO2 and, at the same time, it reduces the risks of floods and landslides. The strategy establishes the principles, criteria and guidelines to how Quito's citizens and all sector's organizations have to face Climate Change.

Quito at dusk, photographed by Andreas Kaiser. Source: TrekEarth

That is why Quito was chosen with other 3 cities to present their case in the ICLEI congress. Quito is the only city in Latin America that designed its strategy with a clear balace bewteen adaptation and mitigation (Mexico D.F. and Sao Paulo's strategies are essentially about mitigation). Quito's Climate Change Strategy has four strategic lines: information; technology and good practices (addressing both mitigation and adaptation); Climate Change-related communication, education and citizen participation; and institutional strengthening. One of the main tools in the strategy presented in the congress that I'd like to emphasize is a map combining the poorest city areas with the areas that are most vulnerable to climate disasters. This map has defined the priority action areas, in which the city will be implementing the four strategic lines.

Calling All Street Artists

Living Walls: The City Speaks, a grassroots urban colloquium that will take place in Atlanta on the weekend of August 13, has put out an international call for artists to submit posters, which will ultimately be wheat-pasted on public walls and in a gallery in Atlanta. This is part of an effort to engage the public via street art and connect Atlanta to urban citizens across the globe. Submissions are due July 13.

The organizers of Living Walls have also put out a call for speakers. They are attempting to provide a platform for local people to discuss their neighborhoods and the use of public space.

Living Walls is striving to be a counterpoint to the Congress for New Urbanism, a large annual conference that took place in Atlanta in May and charged a $200-a-day entry fee.

Credits: Image of street art by Miso from Living Walls.

Politics and Consultation in the Reform of Barcelona’s Diagonal

by Melissa García Lamarca

Avinguda Diagonal as it is officially known in Catalan – Diagonal Avenue – has been at the centre of much debate in Barcelona in recent months. The 11 kilometre long, principle avenue of the city that cuts the Exiample, as designed by Illdefons Cerdà in the mid 19th century, has stayed largely the same for the past 100 years despite the fact that transportation needs have changed dramatically. Now there is so much traffic congestion of all sorts and public transport is so battered that riding one of the many buses traversing the Diagonal takes (in record time) one and a quarter hours to cover 8 kilometres. Considering that mobility studies have shown that 46% of movements within Barcelona are by foot or by bicycle, 35% by public transportation and 19% by car, in recent years it has been recognised that reforming the Diagonal would benefit the majority of the city’s population.

In February 2009 a city-driven citizen information and communication phase began around transforming the Diagonal, where, according to the Barcelona City Council website, from June to September 2009 sectoral round tables, neighbourhood round tables, and debate workshops in schools were held, with 30,000 people participating providing 175,000 contributions. Such inputs were used to prepare the March 2010 launch of two proposals for the reform of the Diagonal: option A (image above) with lateral boulevards, a tram in the middle and one way lanes for cars on each side and option B (image below) with a central promenade, trams on the sides and two lanes for cars in each direction (here is a video illustrating both the designs in more detail). Both proposals give preference to public transportation, pedestrians and cyclists, relegating the car to second priority. 70,000 more journeys per day would be permitted with these new plans, up from the current 400,000. Total reubanisation costs for both options, a total of 260,000 square metres, would be around 70 million Euros, where the tram infrastructure adds another 54.5 million Euros in option A and 65.5 million for option B.

Yet the final phase of public consultations culminating in a vote on options A, B and C (that the Diagonal stays as it is) recently held from 10 to 16 May have been judged by many to be a failure: option C was selected by 80% of the 172,161 people who voted – just 12% of residents registered with the municipality as of 1 January 2010, 16 years or older. An outcome foreseen through surveys in September 2009 as well as March of this year, where the 65% and 86% respectively felt that the Diagonal should be left as is, it has sparked a political crisis with the socialist mayor Jordi Hereu firing the deputy mayor and in recent days many asking for Hereu’s resignation.

A serious concern for many residents of Barcelona is the cost of such a project when Spain is in the midst of a major economic crisis, as well as, according to Joshua Silva from Ecomovilidad, the political motivation behind such a project with elections coming up in Spring 2011. Most of the 15% unemployed workers in Barcelona are in the construction sector, and clearly such a project would stimulate and generate work in this area of the economy. Furthermore the project kept moving forward and over 2 million Euros were spent on the consultations when various surveys months before the official vote illustrated that most people want the Diagonal to stay as is – or that they perhaps want the development of an alternative transformation project?

According to Greenpeace Spain, there was an important deficit in communication about the project that meant that residents of Barcelona were not well informed, with focus placed on costs, how long construction would last or how traffic would be re-routed rather than key issues such as the capacity of the new public transportation system, how non-motorised transportation would absorb a significant amount of actual demand or how the proposed options would reduce pollution, carbon emissions contributing to climate change, accidents and noise. At least for now, it looks like the Diagonal is staying as Cerdà planned.

Credits: Photographs of the Diagonal then and now from Fotos de Barcelona.com. Images of Option A for the reform of the Diagonal from Plataforma Diagonal per a Tothom. Images of Option B for the reform of the Diagonal from Plataforma Diagonal per a Tothom.

A User Generation

The co-founding URBZ duo and the authors of the airoots/eiroot blog, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, have recently introduced a new notion of the “neighbourhood in-formation”; an analogy that questions the widely used settlement classifications and urban typologies that are presented most commonly as ‘slums’ and ‘informal settlements’. As readers soon discover, what is being presented is not really an alternative classification of a particular urban typology, but rather an alternative way in which we understand our cities.

A relatively simplified analogy suggests that, as urbanists, our fixation on ‘classification’ and the words and images that inevitably become posters for urban typologies often overwrite and distort the truths of the places and spaces that we are referring to. In a sense, as urbanists, our perceived dominance in the realm of commentary on urban systems places an element of “class” in “classification. Srivastava and Echanove suggest that the, “’tales of two cities’ have for too long dominated narratives of urban development in emerging countries. There isn’t some “other”, “informal” space. Instead, there are multiple urban histories and trajectories that must be recognized and respected.”

In a recent post on the URBZ website we showcased a number of conversations with the street vendors of Mumbai. This particular cross-section of the local business community represents one part of the neighbourhood “in-formation”; some undefined, some unlicensed, and many unrecognized as an integral part of the city’s day-to-day operation. These small-scale, mobile businessmen and women that are unregistered, referred to as “hawkers”, often fall prey to the stronger, so-called ‘formal’ forces at play within the urban apparatus. The aforementioned “formal” forces (local municipal authorities, law-enforcement, etc.) form an additional cross-section of the city’s fabric. And yet, both participate in equally important activities; they each supply a particular product or service to the city, and both of the so-called “formal” and “informal” actors depend on one another for these products and services.

For example, a vegetable vendor who is dependent on a local police officer for his sense of neighbourhood security may also find that the police officer is dependant on his so-called “informal” status as a provider of cheap and affordable produce.

If we look at it in this way, perhaps the informal and formal citizens of the city are simply that; citizens, “users”, of the city. In one-way or another, each one has their part to play in the greater picture. Cities should be aspiring to create a "user generation". Our obsession with classifying and segregating these individuals, families, settlement types, and economic transactions has shown to give little in the way of advancement to any form of urban or social ‘development’.

Credits: Image of Hawkers at Sion from George Carothers.
Image of Night Market from Desoumal.

World Bank Democratizes Development Data


A. In which six countries does the entire population live in urban areas?
B. Which three countries received the most net official development assistance in 2008?
C. In which country have only 13% of primary school teachers received the minimum required training for teachers?

Besides appearing at the end of this post, answers to such questions are now easily retrievable through a newly released online data bank of global development indicators. A few months ago, the World Bank launched Open Data, democratizing access to statistics previously limited to those who could afford expensive subscription rates. The catalog gives free access to over 2,000 indicators for more than 200 countries. This is the same information that the Bank uses to plan development aid strategies, from datasets like the Millennium Development Indicators, Global Economic Monitor and Worldwide Governance Indicators.

There's even an iPhone app for those burning development questions. The Bank is also holding a competition for developers to create additional tools, apps and mashups using the data.

Despite the wealth of indicators, the scope of urban data leaves much to be desired. Besides information on sanitation access, it is basically limited to population and vehicle statistics (disproportionally focused on cars and fuel, it seems).

Widening access to information empowers more people to participate in debate and planning. However, there is also an amplified danger of regurgitating and thereby legitimizing statistics that are not always reliable. There are gaps within the data, depending on which indicators were followed in which countries throughout which years. Much of the data is based on official statistics reported by countries themselves, so reliability varies.

More importantly, as Aid Watch put it, we "can't forget to keep asking the tough questions about where the data comes from, how it is collected, and where more and better data is urgently needed." Hopefully this move will stimulate debate about what information is deemed important to track and how it is gathered.

A. Bermuda, Monaco, Macao, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cayman Islands
B. Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia (in that order)
C. Lebanon

 (All statistics from 2008).

Credits: Image from UNODC.

My (public) Space

My (public) Space is a documentary film by Pilar Damato on the work and mission behind the non-profit art activism group Public Ad Campaign. Led by NYC artist Jordan Seiler, Public Ad Campaign challenges the legitimacy in outdoor advertising and its invasion of public space through artistic interventions. Through the physical act of taking over ad spaces, the group hopes the public will become more aware of their relationship with public spaces and in turn regain control of the space they occupy.

Credits: Video of My (public) Space from Pilar Damato's vimeo channel. Via Vandalog.

Advancing Our Understanding of the Street: Dharavi’s Vendors

In a recent post on the URBZ site we presented a series of conversations with the street vending community of Bombay. A follow-up workshop to this exercise, The Dukaan Workshop, has been announced for the 13th of June, 2010.

In the spirit of the ‘user-generated city’, this activity pointed towards a particular user of the urban system. The ‘citizen’s city’ is one that exists within the simplest of thoughts and actions; ideas that were advanced less by distinguished intellectuals and theoreticians, and more by practicing urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, and ultimately the everyday urban-dweller.

This ideology is therefore translated into alternative methodologies that can lead to deeper, less exclusive understandings of cities and the people within them.

As URBZ has confirmed through its conversations with local vendors and through many other participatory exercises, there is a better way to go about understanding a practice or phenomenon that is taking place in the city. Rather than consulting a textbook or hiring a so-called ‘expert’ in the field, in many cases, the greatest contextual experts are found in their true element; on the street.

Credits: Image of Dharavi Vendors from George Carothers.

What Does it Mean to be a Radical Urbanist?

A distinguished panel of scholars explore the concept of radical urbanism in
contemporary times. A number of issues arise, the contingency brought on
by the housing bubble, capitalism and the role of the Right to the City as a way
to re-imagine practice and activism in the 21st century city.

Credits: Video of Radical Urbanism, The Right to the City Concluding Panel Radical Urbanism Conference
CUNY from Youtube.

Post-Soviet Urbanism in Mongolia, by Sarah Bassett

Located in Northern Asia between Russia and China, Mongolia is still transitioning from its days of being a part of the former Soviet Union. Becoming a democratic nation in 1990, the country has a current population of three million, with forty percent living a pastoral lifestyle. Amongst economic crisis, one of the major issues the country faces are its nomadic populations being forced to move into urban centers in ger (or yurt) districts, particularly Ulaanbaatar its capital city. As a reaction to nomadic traditions, a decrease in livestock, and adverse economic and weather conditions in rural areas, the capital has been unable to cope in terms of city planning, provision of services, and protection of the environment.

Ger districts surrounding Ulaanbaatar, 2009.

During Soviet occupation, the first master plan for Ulaanbaatar was developed and began its implementation in the 1950s, following with revisions in urbanization policy guaranteeing the planting of gardens and trees and provision of municipal services. By the 1980s, Ulaanbaatar was a vibrant city flush with park space, community friendly courtyards, functioning roadways, and infrastructure maintenance. It has been during the past twenty years that a massive change in the conditions of the city has occurred. From deteriorating buildings, streets, and infrastructure to the green and public spaces that once existed being mysteriously sold to be replaced by buildings, Ulaanbaatar is not the same city it was thirty years ago. The planning that was implemented by the Russians insured suitable living conditions and in particular, a vast amount of community space to be enjoyed by all. This is a good music video that shows what Ulaanbaatar used to look like:

Example of one of the courtyards, 2010.

The urban plans developed in the 1970s and 1980s specified a green corridor to extend from the far west of town to the far east, with a large pedestrian-only park centrally located on the North-South axis of the city.

Urban Plan 1975 showing green corridor in central Ulaanbaatar. Ulaanbaatar National Archives.

Urban Plan 1980s. Ulaanbaatar National Archives.

One of the greatest loses in modern times has been the large “Children's Park” (the only remnants of the should-be pedestrian park) which was secretively walled off and construction started two years ago to “upgrade” the park. Here are before and after pictures.

The Children's Park in 1980. Ulaanbaatar National Archives.

There have been measures taken to re-instate other parks throughout the city with the help of foreign aid organizations as well as the Ministry of Urban Planning and Development. Upgrading of some of the courtyards as well as the development of a new park located centrally in the city have already begun this Spring of 2010.

Park/boulevard near the Buddhist Monastery, 2010.

An American architect and urbanist, Sarah has spent the past year in Ulaanbaatar on a Fulbright Fellowship, studying the uncontrolled settlements of migrants in the semi-urban ger districts. She is interested in both the historical and future development of the city, with a focus on the urbanization of nomadic culture. For more information, Sarah can be reached by way of gmail (sarahmbassett).

Credits: All photos by Sarah Bassett, unless otherwise noted in the caption.