Radical Urban Politics

by Natalia Echeverri

The documentary “Cities on Speed – Bogota Change” tells the story of how two anti-traditional politicians: Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa changed a city that was considered one of the worst ones in the world, due to corruption and insecurity.

In 1995, Mockus, a mathematician and philosopher became mayor of Bogota for a first term without having any political experience. Through radical urban ideas he turned Bogota into an “experiment in political theory.” By implementing drastic and eccentric political programs, like putting 420 mimes in the street to help enforce traffic rules and making news appearances dressed in spandex and a cape, he educated the citizens of Bogota, in a way that the city transformed itself.

Three years later, Peñalosa became mayor of Bogota and executed his own unorthodox political methods. He used urban design strategies to increase equality. By recovering sidewalks, creating new public space and improving public transit and schools the city was transformed not only physically but equitably since it affected a majority of its citizens.Italic
You can find the six-part documentary on YouTube. It's worth seeing.

Review of ‘City Building: Nine Planning Principles for the Twenty-First Century’

by Hector Fernando Burga

The 21st Century will be an urban century. This prophetic assertion underlines the moment, sometime at the end of 2009, when the balance of the global human population shifted from rural locations to urban centers. Far from the shrinking cities of the developed world, the stage for this transformative act has been the developing world, where an agglomeration of circumstances — the great migration to Chinese cities, the growing importance of African metropolises, the thriving economies of Latin American nations and India — underscore the veracity of this prediction. The 21st Century will be the century of cities driving the modernization of emerging nations.

City Building: Nine Planning Principles for the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) seizes this moment of urban transformation to propose a principle-driven prescription for sustainable urbanism. This highly readable, accessible and elegantly illustrated volume offers a collection of urban design best practices, arguing for both the universality and value of sustainable urbanism. With the goal of “creating cities that become mega-tools enabling millions of people to live in harmony with their environment,” the publication aims to capture the zeitgeist of millennial urbanity.

City Building is also a record of the impressive portfolio of multi-national design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). The firm’s projects, in their diverse scales and executions, mark an illustrious professional trajectory characterized by global recognition and reach. From Bahrain’s National Plan to London’s Canary Wharf, from DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue to Chicago’s Millennium Plaza, the emphasis on quality, diversity and scalability that has defined SOM’s global footprint over the past 40 years leaves a profound impression in the world and the reader’s imagination.

The book structures the argument for the principle-driven sustainable city around nine axioms: sustainability, accessibility, diversity, open space, compatibility, incentives, adaptability, density and identity. Each principle is exemplified through a selection of project types, ranging from mega-projects to design acupuncture, and illustrated with conceptual graphics and project renderings. SOM’s emblematic projects serve as case studies for the application of these principles. A collection of images, plates, renderings, vignettes and free-hand drawings offers some of the most compelling pages in the book, as text and figure combine to perform analysis and exposition. City Building becomes a handbook for representation as the reader bears witness to SOM’s signature representational clarity as a distinctive graphic language.

City Building is a useful contribution to best-practices literature on urban design and planning. Yet its particular approach invites critical interrogations not only for the vision of a twenty-first century urbanism but also for the genre it exemplifies: the professional monograph.

The book offers a cursory discussion regarding the potential of applying “best-practice” techniques in international contexts. The complex process of urbanization in emerging nations – through the intersections of policies, design, planning, and infrastructure - depends on a set of social, economic and political relations with deep place-based particularities. Instead, the book’s argument for a principle-driven sustainable urbanism bases its normative position on standard methods and technocratic dialogues produced in the studios of a multi-national firm aimed at packaging a product. City Building does deal with specificity, but in broad principles addressing identity through built form and natural environment. Thus, a discussion on the degree to which professional vernaculars may use, misuse or re-apply best practice based on local expediencies remains unexplored.

City Building also provokes reflection on the production of urban design knowledge and its branding. What is the legitimacy of the manual for practice when it also functions as a promotional monograph? In essence, City Building follows the same argumentative line (and similar emphasis on sustainability) as leading monographs in the discipline of urban design, which deploy professional techniques as prescriptive principle-oriented solutions. Like Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature, The Landscape Urbanism Reader and the Smart Growth Manual, this monograph claims the expertise of good city form not only in the name of the twenty-first century city but also in the name of the expert, its firm and its particular brand of place-making.

Such branding exercises cause the genre of the professional monograph – as the place-making best practice – to reach a point of exhaustion. No doubt international design firms play a powerful role as consulting experts around the world, but in the metropolises of emerging nations, experts may encounter “urbanisms” that conflict with the normative approaches of best practices. For example, how can the urban design “best practice” deal with the realities of informal settlements? What are the implications of governance, participatory politics and land tenure contestations within the “best practice” framework of urban morphology?

Certainly, the 21st century will be about the value of sustainable urbanism. Nevertheless, this impending reality may also suggest a new ethic of professional design practice. This ethic may not be about the application of principles or the pursuit of megaprojects but rather the recognition of everyday actions within office culture or street life as sources of information and inspiration. Such ethos may involve sustainable notions of equity and open source technologies or practices. Arguably, we are entering a time when sustainability is defined by provisional or flexible arrangements between clients and employees, between products and producers, between ideas of individual and collective ownership. How can the “best practice” be reshaped to address what lies beyond the image of the master plan and the normative authority of the expert to address contingent realities on the ground?

City Building articulates an argument for a principle-driven newer urbanism deftly and clearly. Yet with its record of exemplary projects, its lessons in graphic representation and its principles for sustainable urbanism, it also provokes a deeper observation: beyond the prescription of the best practice lies the possibility to rethink the professional values, goals and methods that will shape the twenty-first century city.

Credits: Image of the City Building cover from Princeton Architectural Press.

Departures, Supermarkets and Public Toilets

One of the pleasures of traveling lies in observing how urban cultures other than your own tackle common problems of the daily minutiae. With just a dash of inclination for thoughtful design, commonplace objects in city life can be tweaked to solve for local circumstances.

At the TGV station connected to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, the announcement boards are arched and displayed at an angle for ease of reading - anxious travelers standing before the long list of departures don't have to strain their necks quite as much, and departure information in a high-traffic port-of-call can be more densely communicated in vertical format whilst preserving floorspace:

Those of us who live in the supermarket bi-culture of carried baskets vs. unwieldy pushcarts can celebrate the delightful ingenuity that marries the compact benefits of the basket with the convenience and degrees of freedom of the pushcart. At the small local supermarkets in Copenhagen, this hybrid model may seem like a no-brainer; it is nonetheless not a ubiquitously adopted concept in many other cities around the world:

On the streets of Paris, public restroom terminals that cycle through automated states make for a cleaner and more comfortable experience. A visitor would approach the terminal, glance at the the state-panel by the side of the restroom to find out if a restroom is available, press a button to open the sliding door, enter to use the facilities, choose a flush strength to conserve water, and exit the restroom. The restroom will then go into a cleaning state before indicating on the state-panel that it is ready and available for use.

This end-to-end experience minimized unnecessary hand contact with surfaces (hence more sanitary), and allowed for such structures to be built across Paris without the city municipality worrying about mobilizing an army of support staff to clean the restrooms regularly.

And of course, one can never underestimate the value of clear, universally comprehensible infographics in public spaces, especially in anticipating situations of crisis. The following, as seen in an elevator in Marseille, is a nice example:

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Guns in the City

by Alex Schafran

The men with cowboy hats and guns on their hips are not in a bar in Texas, but in a Starbucks in Pinole, California, 22 miles from San Francisco. They are members of East Bay Open Carry, one of a number of intertwined grassroots groups which have popped up in California to promote the currently existing right of citizens to carry unloaded firearms in public.

Unlike previous iterations of America's long standing fight over guns - think Bowling for Columbine meets Charleston Heston's "cold, dead hands" - this one is particularly urban. It is not about owning guns or shooting guns, but about carrying them where everyone can see them. And about getting together with your fellow advocates to make a political point in a public - often at a Starbucks, that potent symbol of blue state urbanism reconstituted for suburban consumption.

While their agenda spans gun-related issues across the board, their "movement" comes at the time when the US Supreme court has been actively striking down city-sponsored laws aimed at curbing handgun use in cities - first Washington, D.C, and more recently, Chicago. At a time when cities like my Oakland struggle with an epidemic of gun violence, their argument is that carrying guns out in public helps deter violence.

The sad irony is that the Open Carry movement was born in the wake of a 1967 reform of the California gun laws which outlawed the carrying of loaded weapons in public, but left the door open for the carrying unloaded weapons. The reform came not at the urging of the anti-gun lobby, but from the pen of then-Governor Ronald Reagan, in response to the armed march on Sacramento by the Black Panthers. The Panthers had armed themselves in response to violence in Oakland - at the hands of the Oakland Police.

If the historical irony seems lost on many of the organizers, the potent symbol of urban and suburban displays of guns is not. But it is not their love of firearms which scares me, nor their theories of crime prevention. What frightens me as an urbanite and a progressive is their explicit links to the populist right in America, both its current incarnation in the Tea Parties and the older versions like the John Birch Society. As I sat quietly in the back of a Tea Party meeting this evening, listening to the Open Carry advocates make their case for an hour, it was hard to ignore the potent anti-Obama rhetoric, the language of conspiracy and anti-liberal foment, the anti-immigrant sentiment and the fetishization of Arizona. (In between calls to move to Arizona was one to boycott pro-immigrant and anti-gun San Francisco)

Joe Bageant, who grew up in the West Virginia hills where one would expect pro-gun politics, argues that we need to leave folks their guns so we can focus on more important issues like healthcare and social justice. Even though the logic seems a good one, it becomes hard to implement when you sense that the guy next to you in line at the Starbucks with a holstered Glock might also think your president is not an American, national health care is a conspiracy, and Arizona is a model of democracy.

Credits: Photo of men with guns from the East Bay Open Carry page on Facebook. Photo of the Black Panthers from Marginal Revolution. Photo of the East Contra Costa Tea Party sign by Alex Schafran.

A Cycling Revolution

by Andrew Wade

Two new initiatives aimed at furthering an alternative and ecologically minded means of transportation — bicycling — are set to transform daily commutes and short journeys within London.  On July 30, a cycle hire scheme consisting of 6,000 bicycles for public use at 400 docking stations aims at building on the successful Vélib' Parisian model.  In addition a new "Cycle Superhighway" has already established two wide cycle lanes stretching from the fringes of London to the centre, and will establish 10 additional routes by 2015.  While the Superhighway is aimed at easing the daily commute for those already owning bicycles, the cycle hire scheme attracts those without bicycles to rent them for short journeys from one docking station to another, easing congestion on other means of transport.

A new cycle docking station on Bishopsgate — one of 400 completed recently in Central London.

While it will be interesting to judge the success of the cycle hire scheme several months after its implementation, there is recent speculation that it may not live up to its precedents.  This kind of analysis fits into a wider framework of noting the elements that global cities share in common, as well as articulating the specifics of what they do not.  While lessons in transportation and urban development can certainly be circulated between different cities and urban contexts, putting a finger on the unique cultural habits, patterns of movement, and motivations in your city is what defines a truly appropriate project.  How does an intangible idea become adapted to tangible form in a new context?

Furthermore, I am eager to see the parallel growth, and potential conflict, of cycling cultures in London. The recent rise of cycling cafés in vibrant and creative neighbourhoods is part of an emergent cycling revolution that ties into an embedded and associated culture of music, art, and food. While such bars and cafés were made possible by a critical mass of people within this subculture, the cycle hire scheme represents a top-down intervention that hopes to adjust the transportation habits of the general urban population. Unfortunately, the only current cultural association with this scheme is the large name of the sponsor, Barclays, written over the rear wheel. Will it be able to generate, through widespread use and social integration, its own identity and culture as a London institution?

Credits: Photos by Andrew Wade. 

Cities and Permaculture

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies. Permaculture is one of the activities that UN-HABITAT’s Cities and Climate Change Initiative is implementing in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, with support from Cuba’s Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity. Through a pilot permaculture project, the programme is promoting resilient communities in the face of highly probable future food and energy crises and the collapse of water and sanitation services due to Climate Change in the city of Esmeraldas. The project tries to mimic Nature and its ecological cycle with the following components: urban agriculture and healthy food, rainwater harvesting, water recycling, solid waste recycling, and dry toilets.

One if the most interesting features of the permaculture project is its pilot character, which aims at generating a new culture through long-term practice and self-built demonstrations. The first activities of this project were on urban agriculture, through which people from a poor neighbourhood learned to produce their own food in an organic manner and using only local seeds (avoiding dependency from large seed companies).

Now that people had their own well developed orchard, some months later, the project is helping those who volunteer to build their own dry toilet, which will be the source of natural fertilizers for their orchards. The first step in this task has been ensuring that people understand and are motivated with the permaculture cycle and the specific benefits of having a dry toilet instead of a flush toilet. One benefit, for instance, is that they will not be dependent on the city’s water services, which are already deficient and highly vulnerable to climate events. The project helps (purchasing material and providing technical assistance) only those who demonstrate enough motivation, and the toilet construction is done by the person with help from her/his neighbours.

Once the toilet is functioning, it will take about a year before seeing results, which is the time it takes for the storage and decomposition of the faeces. Urine, which is collected separately, will be used to balance the chemicals in the production of manure (either vegetal or faecal). Then comes the public event in which the family opens the toilet chamber and collects the manure, demonstrating in front of their neighbours that it is safe and odourless. Then the project offers more help to those motivated by the event.

It is very important that dry toilets are built through such slow process and integrated into the permaculture cycle. In too many cases, NGOs and development agencies build all dry toilets at once because they want to show quick project results. Almost all of those toilets built in this manner become storage spaces or are simply abandoned, because of the lack of motivation and knowledge about its adequate use.

Dry toilets and permaculture can also be integrated into multi-story buildings, with examples in diverse places such as Germany and Ethiopia. Orchards can be placed on rooftops and backyards, and faeces and urine can be collected in centralized devices for decomposition and recycling. You can find interesting articles and presentations of experiences in different countries in the Dry Toilet 2009 Conference organized by Global Dry Toilet Association of Finland.

Credits: Images of organic orchards, seeds barter and dry toilets from Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity.

Gender and Water, Part Three

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

The water and sanitation (watsan) sector is traditionally seen as an engineering issue. Due to this narrow approach, projects too often do not meet the specific needs of the population or collapse shortly after they begin to operate. In many cases poor communities are simply excluded from watsan investments. The reasons for not meeting such needs, collapsing or being excluded is that infrastructure projects are planned, designed and constructed without an adequate participation of stakeholders, and governments and watsan operators are far from being capable of guaranteeing an adequate service provision. In short, investments are most likely to fail if the governance of the sector is not adequately addressed.

A local facilitator speaks with members of her community. Source: Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

An intrinsic challenge to this approach is that governance of the watsan sector does not end at the community level. Poor communities and households are themselves weak in their governance: a few male usually dominate, imposing unfair roles and burdens to their household and community. The result of this, also due to the common understanding that engineering is a men’s discipline, is that women and children are not considered in decision making processes, from the household and the community to the professional and institutional levels. This situation demands a watsan approach that is intrinsically and explicitly gender sensitive. Indeed, there cannot be democratic governance and institutional strengthening without challenging unequal gender relations. This is particularly important in the watsan sector, but the approach can be extrapolated to any sector.

In order to mainstream gender in the watsan programme I am working in, we have selected sixteen women from the provinces and six national government staff who will participate in a capacity building workshop at the beginning of august.

You can find out more about these women and the programme’s gender strategy in CoLab Radio.

Pamphlet Architecture 32

by Peter Sigrist

The last day to submit proposals for Pamphlet Architecture 32 is coming soon. Pamphlet Architecture is an architectural writing competition that allows people to share their ideas, designs and theories in simple booklets for the chance of publication by Princeton Architectural Press. It has become famous, in part, for featuring early writing by Stephen Holl, Lebbeus Woods, and Zaha Hadid. This year's theme is resilience. As explained on the Pamphlet Architecture website:
By addressing the capacity to cope, the ability to bounce back, and the mitigation and management of risk, proposals are welcome that showcase a fresh understanding of the possibilities and opportunities of resilience in architecture, from the large to the small scale.
The registration deadline is August 2nd. The cost is $50, or $25 for students. There's a great collection of past pamphlet covers on flickr. I like the way there's almost no barrier to entry. It gives people a chance to reach a wider audience through a respected publisher and invigorate the field of architectural writing.

I'd like to write about web-based architectural exchange — possibly a repository for urban development proposals that includes design collaboration, fund raising and political mobilization. This could help connect designers with local communities and provide a way of raising money and support. If anyone is interested in working on something like that, please contact me any time (first and last name at gmail).

Credits: Image of Robert McCarter's winning pamphlet, Building Machines (1987), from Pamphlet Architecture on flickr.

Creating Hope: South Africa After the World Cup

by Anna Fogel

What promotes economic development in a city, or even a country? Can a soccer stadium revitalize a neighborhood? Can a soccer tournament help a city grow? What impact will the World Cup have on the growth of South Africa?

Most people agree that it is too soon to tell. There have been reports on the impact of preparing for the World Cup – since preparations began four years ago, they have contributed .5% and 2.2% to South African GDP and has created more than 300,000 jobs (2.7% contribution to employment, and some estimate job creation numbers as high as 700,000). There were articles about the economic impact on the GDP and the opportunities for small business owners and entrepreneurs, throughout the 9 host cities, in newspapers around the world. South Africa, and the 9 host cities, will benefit from the infrastructure projects such as improved highways and high-speed trains and foreign investment has increased. The social impact has been striking; as Thabo Mbeki said a few weeks ago, “This successful World Cup is a statement to ourselves that we have the capacity to change.” The 2010 World Cup involved 32 nations in 64 games and 10 new or renovated stadiums. There were many concerns leading up to the games, but South Africa successfully hosted the tournament with virtually no off-the-field issues (other than the debate over the vuvuzelas). While it won’t be clear for a while what the long-term impact of the World Cup is for South Africa and its cities, most agree that it had a strong social impact, bringing together a nation that has been divided for much of its history. As Mandela said in 1996, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

However, the country faces many challenges, including widespread poverty, high unemployment, which was more than 25% in 2010, and government debt now accounts for approximately 30% of GDP. High rates of crime and HIV/AIDS threaten the social stability of the country. Many raised objections to the cost of the tournament, and questioned whether the country could have spent the money more effectively on its people. Examples from around the world have shown that stadiums do not promote development in their surrounding neighborhoods. Rob Hughes, in the New York Times, asked the questions: Did crime just take a month long vacation? Or was reporting of it just less prevalent? And will the country be better off, worse off or just the same after the circus moves out?”

Credits: Image 1 of Children pursue the ball during a soccer game on June 23, 2009 in Erasmia, South Africa. from (Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images), available at lolliptop.com. Image 2 of Soccer City.

Iconic Architecture, Ethics and Politics in Mallorca

by Melissa García Lamarca

Just before elections in Spring 2007, Jaume Matas, the the right-wing Popular Party's ex-president of the Balearic Islands Government, announced that the Valencian stararchitect Santiago Calatrava would build a new Opera Palace in Palma worth one hundred million euros. With claims that the ‘emblematic’ Opera Palace would ‘de-seasonalise’ tourism on the island, Calatrava was paid 1.2 million euros for the pre-project presentation design – money paid out of taxpayers’ pockets, where the hidden agenda of gaining votes was lost on few.

While some criticism was made at the time, it exploded a few weeks ago when it emerged that Calatrava designed the project in 1989 for Zurich, to be built on Lake Lucerne, as a submission for a competition to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation. Judging by the models of the two projects – the Swiss and the Mallorcan – the only difference is in functionality and an extra: in Zurich, the building was imagined to float on the lake and its use would be versatile, while in Palma the structure was envisaged to emerge from the ocean, would house an opera and had an additional commercial and recreational zone.

While I have no problem with reusing existing architectural concepts and designs, which is the reality of many projects around the world, my concern is with the (lack of) ethics in this situation. In June 2007, Calatrava stated that the Opera House ‘is a gift for citizens’ and said that the ‘only driving force’ that led him to design the structure was his ‘profound affection and great respect’ for Palma. Yet in an issue dedicated to Calatrava in 1992 reviewing his main designs to date, the prestigious international architecture magazine El Croquis noted of Zurich’s concrete pavilion, in what appears to be Calatrava’s words: ‘our intention was to establish a dialogue between a fine harmonic form made of modern materials and the most beautiful mountain and lake landscapes in the centre of Switzerland’. Landscapes very different to the hot and humid Mediterranean of Mallorca. Apart from not recognising the real genesis of the project, the Valencian architect made off with 1.2 million euros for a three-minute video and a model of the proposed iconic Opera House (the latter with its own 80,000 euro price tag). No plans were presented – and none actually exist.

Yet both sides are at fault here. Although it was unclear who determined the price tag and deliverables, it was both paid and accepted. Matas and those governing with him were clearly lured in by the appeal of a stararchitect and an iconic structure in an attempt to bring some flash and awe to bolster their party’s position in the upcoming elections. As Matas is currently charged with twelve (yes, 12) offenses related to corruption – six of which are embezzlement of public funds – the judge trying his case is now also looking for possible irregularities in the payment to Calatrava. But this is all taken in stride here, where scandals around urban development are nothing new, as I will discuss in my next post.

Credits: Photo of the Opera House model from DiariodeMallorca.es.

Slowly Dissolving the Relevance of Planning in the U.K.

by George Carothers

A review of recent international headlines has shown that certain governments have accompanied enormous bank bailouts with lengthily lists of public spending cuts. The recurring days and months of economic catastrophe have been followed by the era of frantic recovery. Governments around the world have approached the path to fiscal rehabilitation differently, employing alternative methodologies and strategies with the common goal of stabilizing both local and international economies.

Canada has tactically aimed major stimulus packages at public recreation and infrastructure improvement projects, and boosted higher education research funding to some of the highest levels ever recorded, attracting some of the world’s foremost researchers in the sciences and technology. This has come at the expense of other services, such as healthcare and a scandalous overhaul of the national census.

While many countries continue to struggle with the volatility of EU markets, European governments have been forced to make some of the toughest decisions, which ultimately aim to salvage what’s left of a crumbling Euro in an increasingly unstable region. The sirens have started to go off in the UK as the new Coalition Government has launched a national assault on spending, canceling the national census, slashing research funding for universities while paving the way for fee increases, cutting education funding, decommissioning and disbanding regional agencies, and cutting out the “fluff” of the National Health System. One of the hardest hit areas, an industry that is generally charged with facilitating economic growth, improving regional stability and living standards, is the public side of the development sector.

Shortly after the delivery of the first budget in June 2010, Ann Skippers, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), issued an emergency statement to its members, condemning the cuts that would see 25% of the funding for government departments responsible for planning and infrastructure provisions wiped off the national funding slate. Agencies such as Communities and Local Government, Environment, Energy and Climate Change and Transport each face a 25% cut in funding, while the Housing and Planning Delivery Grant system is to be completely abandoned.

The budget also announced go-ahead plans to abolish Regional Development Agencies, those that are responsible for overseeing planning and development at the regional level, and stated that Local Enterprise Partnerships would replace these agencies, primarily within English cities. This comes as a jab to many of the ‘have-not’ regions of the UK, many of which are situated outside of England.

Although budget cuts may be necessary in times such at these, the RTPI questions a strategy that dissolves the very institutions that are regularly responsible for working through many of the challenges that the UK is currently facing. For the first time since the Thatcher era, clouds indisputably cover the future of Planning in the UK.

Credits: Images of London from J.A. Alcaide. Image of Canadian Science Leadership Exhibition from cstmweb.

Public Art

by Katia Savchuk

This past weekend, six San Francisco museums welcomed visitors free of charge courtesy of Target.  At the Museum of Modern Art, the open-door policy transformed the galleries' typical contemplative stillness to an informal, even irreverent experience. There was no shushing, and the guards had their hands full convincing parents that white stacked cubes were not a jungle gym. A life-sized gold statue of Michael Jackson with a monkey drew more attention than the museum's centerpiece Matisse.  Purists may have been miffed, but the open flow from street to museum made the collections accessible not only by removing fees but by allowing a light, quotidian experience of art.

Credits: Photos by Katia Savchuk.

Free Repair

by Vivien Park

For two years, artist Roland Roos has been travelling around Europe and making repairs on displaced or damaged things in public spaces. These unsolicited repairs ranged from replacing small details to structural reconstruction. To cover the cost of materials and labor, Roos took before and after pictures (which he calls unicums) and sells the prints at the average cost of repair. A functional but poetic public art project, some of these unicums are quite beautiful as well. Free Repair officially ended in April 2010.

Credits: Image of unicums from RolandRoos.net.

Becoming a Transportation Planner

by Alex Schafran

In the halls of planning academe, there are few divides as potent as that between the transport folks and everyone else. This is not to say that there is a big love fest between designers, housers, enviros, GIS junkies, economistas, ad nauseum; simply that the gulf between the transport world and everyone else is a tad larger. Perhaps it is their superior numbers - there is still money in transport research, and they have more students - or that the engineering emphasis creates a cultural and methodological divide. UC Berkeley offers an introductory undergrad class in transport - but not in housing, or land use, or community development. Always one to enjoy a good jab, I have never shied away from discussing the divide with friends in the mode choice world - never could I imagine that I would one day become one.

Life in the exurbs has changed all that. It is impossible to either live in or write about eastern Contra Costa County without becoming an amateur transportation planner. If the default conversation in many places is the weather, in East County, it is traffic. Or more accurately, the various transport projects designed to hopefully dig this metropolitan cul-de-sac, home to a quarter of a million souls, out of some of the worst traffic this side of Bangkok.

In classic American style, we allowed the communities of East County to grow exponentially over the course of the past three decades - with the city of Brentwood taking the cake as the fastest growing city in California for a few years back in the boom times of the 1990's - without the transportation infrastructure needed to connect its residents to the job- and education-rich areas on the other side of the hill. They have no BART train, the region's primary attempt at intraregional rail, or even that birthright of the American suburb, a piece of the vaunted Eisenhower interstate highway system.

How this happened is a book-length rather than a blog-length story, but the blame surely spreads far and wide, from the halls of Washington and Sacramento to the growth- and massive-truck-loving residents and politicians of the local cities and towns, from regional transportation agencies to Contra Costa power brokers, from exclusionary inner-ring suburbs to greedy developers. It was also not created overnight - the gridlock and isolation of this mini-region wedged between the Bay Area, the Central Valley and the Sacramento delta took two generations to create.

Out of this quagmire comes a billion dollar multimodal two-step, a simultaneous freeway widening and BART extension that will double the width of State Route 4 to 8 lanes and add train service down the median strip. At the recent groundbreaking for the Route 4 portion of the project, the only point of contention was whether the project was 30 years too late or 50 years too late.

Despite the promise of new trains and less traffic, local residents have not yet broken out the confetti, and not simply because the local economy is so bad that nobody can afford it. There is widespread skepticism that either project will be completed, or completed on time - the current estimates are 2015 for both projects. There is a deep history here - initial BART extension planning called for trains all the way to Brentwood, but the extension fell apart after Union Pacific broke off negotiations, leaving residents with a 10-mile extension that leaves out almost half of the population of the region. Conventional BART (what residents call "real" BART) was deemed too expensive, so rather than the wide gauge electric trains the system is famous for, BART is building eBART, a diesel extension that will require a transfer before getting to the current endpoint of the system at Pittsburg/Bay Point.

More importantly, East County residents have been paying property taxes for BART ever since Bay Area residents voted to tax themselves to build it - in 1962. For 47 years, they have waited, as growth turned small industrial towns and even smaller farm towns into an ocean of suburbia for the region's middle and working classes. As the foreclosure crisis and catastrophic declines in property values leave families underwater and cities like Antioch poised on the brink of bankruptcy, the possibility of new transportation infrastructure represents an important beacon of hope. Yet current proposals from BART call for trains which leave too late to get commuters to work and stop too early to integrate residents into the cultural and political life of the region, and which are set to cost more than $2.00 just to get from one end of the extension to the beginning of the regular system. It is unclear whether the current anger is enough to push BART towards better hours and fares, or even whether the decades late and many dollars short investments will be enough to make true mobility possible in East County; but it is certainly enough to turn one curmudgeonly urbanist into a transport guy.

Credits: Image of traffic from team pittsburg, image of truck Alex Schafran. Map of eBART from sf.streetsblog.org. Video of eBART from BART on YouTube.

The Red Sun Pavilion

by Andrew Wade

This evening architect Jean Nouvel introduced his first completed building in the UK, the 2010 Serpentine Pavilion.  Each summer the Serpentine Gallery commissions a prominent architect to design and build a temporary structure in Hyde Park in just six months.  The immediacy, transience and accessibility of the project make it a playground of experimentation and a powerful means of activating this quiet green space in London.  Nouvel's concept of playfulness caused him to introduce ping pong tables, a cinema screen, and tables for chess and backgammon as well as screens and fabrics used as light filters and shelter - all in the same shade of deep red.  Can similar guidelines of immediacy, transience and accessibility be applied in other contexts as a way of catalysing transformation of the urban realm?

Credits: Images of the 2010 Serpentine Pavilion from Andrew Wade.

Studio Mumbai’s In-Between Architecture

by Andrew Wade

This summer the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is hosting an exhibition - Architects Build Small Spaces, which showcases built works by architects at full scale within the museum space.  Especially provocative is Studio Mumbai's installation - In-between Architecture, which they describe here:
This project examines the unauthorised architecture of Mumbai.  Precisely modelled on dwellings crammed into a narrow urban corridor behind the Studio Mumbai offices, it presents an architectural 'cast' or a sliver of space that is home to a family of eight.
These unauthorised settlements constitute more than half the city's built landscape, yet they are ignored in the official surveys of the urban footprint.  Though seen as parasitic, they offer intelligent design solutions in a city where space is scarce and land values are escalating.  As well as shelter, they provide spaces for refuge, contemplation and worship.
The Studio Mumbai structure does not seek to replicate these dwellings in a literal manner.  Instead, it proposes to distil the poetic qualities of these agile living spaces, their order, calm and dignity.
The installation was designed and built outside the Studio Mumbai offices before being disassembled, shipped to London, and reassembled in the V&A Museum, where it will remain through the end of August.  The video below documents some of the initial construction in Mumbai.

Perhaps this is representative of a larger shift in architectural knowledge production.  First, it questions the correlation between legal planning authorisation and positive design solutions.  Even though the work models an unauthorised, tight space that houses a family of eight, it does so in a way that doesn't condemn this informal way of building but rather praises its positive qualities and ingenuity.  Whether this type of building is legal or not has no bearing on its capacity to meet the needs of its residents.  Is it possible to recalibrate planning authorities to promote resource-driven architecture?

Secondly, it reverses the traditional direction of architectural information, bringing Mumbai's informal housing to London not as an object of a remote and enticing culture but as a lesson on the efficient and elegant use of space.  The methods of design and building in Mumbai are being communicated and valued in the developed world.

Finally, it uses the architectural product as a means to critique the legal, official and planned way of building in Mumbai.  Why does the institutionalised process of planning omit over half of the city's built environment?  How can the informal and illegal be in the majority without being able to rewrite issues of land use, planning and design to address their needs and aspirations?

Credits: Images of "In-between Architecture" installation from Andrew Wade. Video of off-site construction from Vimeo.

Gender and Water, Part Two

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

I’m currently working in an international development programme called “Governance of the Water and Sanitation Sector in Ecuador within the Framework of the MDG.” In the coming months I'll be focusing my work in mainstreaming gender in the programme, with the aim of institutionalizing the impacts achieved in that respect.

In my first post on this issue I described the relationship between gender and water and sanitation, and how important is dealing with gender relations when trying to sort out water and sanitation deficiencies. For those interested, I'll be writing in both Polis and MIT’s CoLab Radio about this experience, which I believe will be quite interesting and innovative.

Just to give you an introduction, we started the process of mainstreaming gender with the identification of women in the four provinces we are working in who are committed and active in their localities in promoting equal gender relations. We intend to make them key allies in the programme's implementation.

In my next post I’ll be describing some of the women that will be helping us in mainstreaming gender in the programme, and how I expect them to make a difference in the water and sanitation sector through the programme.

You can find out more about gender and water in the following links:

UN Water
UN Water For Life Decade
Gender and Water Alliance

Credits: Image from the United Nations.

Three Questions: Dawn Biehler on Pests and Public Health

by Peter Sigrist

As part of the Polis Three Questions series, we present a conversation with Dr. Dawn Biehler of the UMBC Department of Geography and Environmental Systems. Her research covers intersections between public health, environmental justice, historical geography, housing, interspecies interaction, and political ecology in urban environments. Dawn worked with William Cronon on her doctoral studies, focusing on the political and ecological history of pests in cities. More information on her work can be found here.

Thank you for speaking with us, Dawn. Your work shows a very original perspective on public health and environmental justice in cities. How did you become interested in urban health issues?

I grew up on a farm and became passionate about wildlife conservation at a young age, so it took some powerful people and experiences to wrest my attention away from rural and wilderness concerns. Not that I don't care about these any more, but I'm now very much focused on urban environments. The most powerful person was definitely Dr. Craig Wilder, an urban history professor whom I met as an undergrad. Dr. Wilder often made the point in his classes that for decades affluent do-gooders had been trying to help city kids escape to farms, suburbs and nature parks during the summer, but few of those do-gooders ever tried to empower urban communities to improve the environments they lived in every day.

This struck a chord with me — perhaps because I was inclined to become that kind of do-gooder — and led me to a couple of powerful experiences: after college I worked for two small community organizations dedication to urban food and housing. I met city residents who were struggling to make their neighborhoods and homes healthy places to live. Yet, all too often, I saw that those communities were blamed for poor health. I resolved to learn the stories of city-dwellers and lay health activists, how they were treated by the state, businesses, health professionals, and the like.

What led you to focus on domestic pests and other interspecies interactions?

This is where my farm upbringing stuck with me. I was always fascinated by the fact that my parents lovingly nurtured some animals — our pets and livestock, and the many injured wild birds that my dad brought home to nurse back to health — but cursed and even killed others that were detrimental to our crops. I realized later that farms and cities are not all that different from one another when it comes to animals. Namely, landscapes that are dramatically transformed by humans tend to encourage other species to flourish as well — the creatures we call pests. These creatures are then detrimental to the very reasons for those landscapes to exist — to produce crops or to sustain healthy communities. Of course, it's not the animals' fault; it just so happens that they have adapted to the niches we create.

“Pests connect us with our neighbors through their transgressions of spatial boundaries. Pest populations do not respect property lines in some situations, they don't even respect walls, sometimes not even our bodies. Therefore they can help us recognize that the home is not merely an isolated, modern, private space, but deeply linked with nature and the rest of the city.”

In cities, our garbage, the vegetation we plant, our buildings, all of these features that we create stimulate particular ecological responses in the animal populations we live with. The animals in turn elicit particular responses among residents, activists, the state, businesses. They are fleshy manifestations of urban social inequality: the neglect of garbage and housing in some neighborhoods versus others that are well-served by garbage collection and housing investment, this is one important factor in pest distribution and ecology. Furthermore, pests connect us with our neighbors through their transgressions of spatial boundaries. Pest populations do not respect property lines — in some situations, they don't even respect walls, sometimes not even our bodies. Therefore they can help us recognize that the home is not merely an isolated, modern, private space, but deeply linked with nature and the rest of the city. They are often the routes by which poor environmental conditions become embodied — for example, studies have connected poor housing conditions with severe German cockroach infestation, and severe infestation with asthma problems in children. This all is not to say, of course, that pests are good things and we should like them; rather, their existence and distribution tells us something about our society, if we are willing to think about them.

“This all is not to say, of course, that pests are good things and we should like them; rather, their existence and distribution tells us something about our society, if we are willing to think about them.”

Through your research, have you come across any groups doing promising work to bring about healthy and socially just urban environments?

There are a lot of groups that say, we have to educate the public, especially poor communities, about the environment so that they can make good decisions about their health. But too many organizations stop there, and I find that to be a half-measure and really disrespectful to communities. My historical research has turned up a lot of urban environmental campaigns that focus on education without making fundamental changes to the way the state or businesses operate in those communities. That puts all of the burden upon regular folks to change themselves, and such projects have rarely been sustainable.

The organizations that have truly impressed me are those that either arose through grassroots citizen action, or else involve the community at the most basic levels of program development and implementation. This way, the community's knowledge about environmental health problems gets incorporated into everything the group does. These groups tend to work for systemic change while also reaching out to residents. One group that has impressed me very positively is Environmental Health Watch in Cleveland. Healthy housing is one of their main campaigns, and at the same time as they alert residents to hazards like mold, lead, and pests and pesticides in their homes, they are also working to hold local government and businesses accountable. They are also helping make physicians into advocates for healthy homes and urban environments by showing them that many health conditions are related to the environment, and that the environment needs to be part of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

“This way, the community's knowledge about environmental health problems gets incorporated into everything the group does. These groups tend to work for systemic change while also reaching out to residents.”

I'll just mention a couple more groups that I find really exciting, both of them in New York. West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) works on environmental justice issues at many scales. They have convened a Climate Justice conference but, when I last talked with someone from that group, they were also working on a very narrowly-targeted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) pilot project on a couple of blocks where businesses were disposing of their garbage improperly, leading to serious problems with rats, mice, roaches, and the like. IPM is a pest control approach that stresses systemic environmental change and either no pesticides or very low-toxicity pesticides. Residents were very involved, sharing their knowledge about problem areas with garbage and pests. WE ACT has also been involved in a lawsuit against EPA that charged the agency had done too little to protect children from rodenticides and other pesticides. WE ACT's leader, Peggy Shepard, also helped show that it took a long time for banned pesticides to be removed from convenience store shelves in the neighborhood.

The other New York group, Little Sisters of the Assumption, provides health services in East Harlem. One staffer there, Ray Lopez, has been recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with a Community Health Leader Award. He got a lot of media attention in New York for his work helping families manage bedbug problems with IPM, but he works on a range of healthy housing issues. He visits families' homes to help them learn how to manage pests and other health hazards, and at the same time has been very effective in pressuring landlords, housing staff, inspectors, contractors, and the like to improve the housing environment. I think families realized that he was genuinely listening to them when they described their problems — say, no one will come fix that pipe and it is attracting roaches, or the garbage collector has been skipping our building — and was using that information to demand real changes from more powerful stakeholders. Why should a family invest time in the rather laborious tasks of IPM if something else beyond their control will continue to attract pests anyway? But when they see that someone is listening and making sure they have a voice in how housing is managed, then they have every reason to do their part.

Thank you for answering our questions. We wish you the very best with your work.

Credits: Photo of project buildings from Hip Hop Beats 800. Drawing of rats from NPR. Photo of Deepti KC from WE ACT.

Fortress Cities as the World’s Powerful Come to Town

by Melissa García Lamarca

As large-scale protests have become the norm during summits where the world’s most powerful gather, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), G8/G20, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and so forth, it is becoming commonplace to see the cities where such events are hosted retrofitted into fortified bastions, in theory to protect delegates and ensure meetings are ‘unaffected’ by dissenters left outside. This went to serious extremes during the recent G20 meeting in what many dubbed ‘Fortress Toronto’, where over $1 billion was spent on a security makeover for the city, marking the most expensive three days in Canada’s history.

A six plus kilometre long, three metre high ‘security’ fence was built around most of downtown Toronto and large swaths of the city’s core looked like a police state, with an estimated deployment of over 19,000 security personnel, nearly five times the number at the G20 in Pittsburgh last year, according to Democracy Now. And ironically enough, SNC-Lavalin – Canada’s largest engineering company and one of the world’s biggest engineering, construction and infrastructure management firms, known to supply bullets to the US military and as a significant private contractor in Afghanistan – was awarded the contract for the conceptualisation and construction of the security infrastructure throughout downtown Toronto.

The parallels between citadel-like / hyper-securitised city and the exclusive, elite participation inside the barriers during such summits is lost on no one. While the countries in the G20 make up 85% of global gross domestic product (GDP), generate 85% of world’s climate change-related emissions and hold two-thirds of the world’s population, the elite of these places call the shots through a completely non-transparent, non-participatory process, while the other 170 nations of the world have no place at the table. As long as this unjust, inequitable and unsustainable system continues as is, dissent will rage on and the elite will no doubt continue to fortify the city when the powerful come to town.

Credits: June 2010 Toronto Resist G8/G20 poster from the Toronto Community Mobilization Network. Video from AlJazeera English as posted on YouTube 24 June, 2010. Map of Fortress Toronto from the National Post.

‘Doing Business with the Poor’

by Katia Savchuk

Last month, CIVICUS highlighted a notable UNDP report that profiled 50 examples of business models that successfully integrated the poor. “Creating Value For All: Strategies for Doing Business with the Poor” looked at businesses across the globe that constructively involved poor people as clients, customers, producers, employees or business owners. “Successful” models were those that could be profitable for poor people and that promoted human development.

The report ran through a typical list of challenges to the economic inclusion of low-income populations – much of what keeps people poor in the first place (limited market information; ineffective regulatory environments; inadequate physical infrastructure; missing knowledge and skills; restricted access to financial products and services).

More interestingly, the report took the case studies and distilled strategies that successful business models used to get past the constraints:

    •    Adapting products and processes (e.g., developing intuitive software for computer-illiterate Chinese farmers)

    •    Investing in removing constraints (e.g., investing in dairy facilities for Mauritanian herders to address inadequate infrastructure)

    •    Leveraging strengths (e.g., tapping social networks for micro-credit schemes)

    •    Combining capabilities and resources with other organizations (e.g. CEMEX in Mexico partnering with Mexican consulates in U.S. cities to do market research)

    •    Engaging in policy dialogue with governments (e.g. Filipino entrepreneur convincing the government to study possible uses for discarded coconut husks)

These case studies seem like win-win situations, and it is refreshing to see examples of models that are working rather than focusing on seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The report is based on this principle: “The value of including in functioning markets the billions of people that are now shut out of them can hardly be overestimated. Such value will accrue to business, to the poor and to society at large.”

Does this economic ideal hold up? Do the poor really end up as winners in all of these models? Can the poor win by being integrated into existing markets? How can they avoid being co-opted? 

Credits: Images from the UNDP.

2010 Public Art Year in Review

by Vivien Park

Americans for the Arts has just announced their 2010 Public Art Year in Review, which recognizes and honors a selection of the year's best public art works. Curators Helen Lessick and Fred Wilson has chosen 40 public art pieces (pdf), representing projects from 29 cities and 15 states in the United States and Canada, from over 300 entries. Steve Power's Love Letters, Maya Lin's What is Missing, the collaborative research and residency Waterways, and Matthew Farley's Frozen Assets are standouts amongst this year's winners.

Credits: Image of Matthew Farley's Frozen Assets from University of Kansas News.

David Byrne on the Perfect City

"The perfect city isn't static. It's evolving and ever changing, and its laws and structure allow that to happen. Neighborhoods change, clubs close and others open, yuppies move in and move out—as long as there is a mix of some sort, then business districts and neighborhoods stay healthy even if they're not what they once were. My perfect city isn't fixed, it doesn't actually exist, and I like it that way."

David Byrne, from "A Talking Head Dreams of a Perfect City," in the Wall Street Journal, 2009

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 New Orleans from National Geographic, via WSJ.