Unlike U - Trainwriting in Berlin

Unlike U portrays four generations of sprayers in Berlin, of which the oldest of the hardcore artists is already over 40 years old, while the youngest is around 17. All protagonists have one thing in common. Each one has sprayed countless trains in their lives, some of them even over a 1000.

Through intensive interviews the film makers aim to understand the motives of sprayers, what drives them to commit a crime which has no recognition in the public domain and is according to official documentation an act of willful damaging of property, and furthermore, painted trains get taken out of service as quickly as possible.

Unlike U - Trainwriting in Berlin premieres on February 2nd at the Babylon cinema in Berlin-Mitte.

Credits: Video of Unlike U Trailer from Aggro.TV.

Five Days of Anger: Revolt in the Modern Metropolis, by Danya Al Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin

It is January 25th, 2011. An Egyptian organizer armed with nothing but his legs and a Twitter-enabled cellphone runs through downtown Cairo’s 19th-century Haussmannian system of boulevards, pavements and interlocking squares.

After being banished from downtown’s Midan Tahrir ("Liberation Square"), he flees to the 6th of October Bridge, joining a larger group that will eventually attempt to break riot police lines. Seemingly random waves of protests, each with their own organic, internal logic, march from Dokki, Shubra and Dar el-Salam, converging and dispersing fluidly as night approaches. As the government declares a halt on further protests, employing rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas to disperse the crowds, vast numbers organize in crowded Facebook forums to express solidarity with the movement and plan for tomorrow—January 26th.

We are inclined, as demonstrations unfold, to understand the city as merely a stage or backdrop. When turbulent events occur, we typically see the city as a stage, people and security forces as actors and social media as a new technology mysteriously working in a place-less cyberland, somewhere between the wings of an Egypt Air Boeing airplane and the heavens. With this model, pundits from both the Left and the Right can easily observe the present and predict the future, moving pieces of the game around an ossified map of Cairo.

But to properly situate the ongoing events in their due revolutionary context, we must ask a dialectical question that re-conceptualizes these factors. How has the city itself become a tool of rebellion?

Originally planned in the 1800s to monitor and limit such upheaval, the concentrically organized downtown modelled after the belle-epoque aesthetics of Paris imposed a sort of urban discipline that was to foster the creation of the "modern" and neatly "organized" Egyptian citizen. These same streets in the 2000s are bearing witness to revolutionary slogans such as, “Alshab Yureed Asqat Alnazam!” (“The People Want to Topple the System!”), embodying efforts to radically disorganize the current political, economic, and social system.

With this said, the city as a tool of rebellion is always in flux, contested by both the protesters and government security forces in both concrete and abstract spheres—all of which constantly articulate through one another to create the Cairo we are currently watching on Al-Jazeera.

Consider this: Midan Tahrir is based on a concentric overall plan that offers wide open spaces for thousands to gather.  If downtown were simply a grid system, the protesters could easily be dispersed with little hope of finding a similarly welcoming place to reassemble. But centers such as Talaat Harb and the 6th of October Bridge allow mass numbers to congregate and parade down boulevards greeted by giant metal statues of long-dead Egyptian revolutionaries. At the same time, the system that allows reassembly also denies it. The downtown streets, wide and spacious, can accommodate the easy passage of riot vans, large armored vehicles and water cannons, unlike other parts of Cairo.

Start video at 1:40.

Interview: Should We Worry About a Global Population Explosion?

Sometime this year, the global population will reach 7 billion, according to United Nations estimates. Twenty-one cities now hold more than 10 million people, and many more will join their ranks by mid-century. Robert Kunzig, senior environment editor of National Geographic, shares his views on the impacts of the explosion and whether alarmism is warranted.  His feature on the population boom, the beginning of a year-long series on our crowded planet, appeared in the magazine this month.
The demographic tools at our disposal have presumably matured since Leeuwenhoek's estimate based on cod milt. What are the best tools we have today to measure population growth and fertility rates, and how accurate are they?

Demographers still don't have a scientific theory that would allow them to predict in advance how many babies will be born and thus how population will grow. What they have is decades' worth of data on how population actually has grown in many countries. They use those observations of the past to project the future, country by country and for the planet as a whole. The UN's global projections have been pretty accurate lately, but the farther out you go, the more uncertainty there is. So we know we're going to hit 7 billion soon. Whether there'll be 9 or 8 or 10 billion in 2050 is less certain.

If leading demographers think that concern about a global population explosion is "passé", should we worry at all? Who should be the most concerned?

I'm glad you asked that. Those demographers aren't saying that population isn't a problem—that things wouldn't be easier with fewer people, especially in certain places. They're saying that the end of the global population explosion is in sight. That globally, fertility rates are already falling much faster than anyone would have thought possible a few decades ago. And that therefore there probably isn't much that could be done—and that one would feel ethically comfortable doing—to bring the global numbers down faster. None of the demographers I talked to were against the idea of making contraception more widely available to women who wanted it. And that would be an especially good thing to do in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East, where fertility rates are still very high and the population is still exploding.

You make the critical points that while population matters, the way we use the Earth's resources matters even more, and there is hope in human ingenuity. What ideas or initiatives to you see as most promising in addressing the problems associated with rapid population growth and climate change?

We're talking about a decades-long project that's going to take a million ideas. Right now the global economy is based on using up fossil fuels to power our machines and make our stuff, and using up topsoil and groundwater and the fish in the sea to feed ourselves. Having more people accelerates all those processes, but the fundamental problem is finding ways to convert from an extractive economy to a renewable one.  I like to hope that what's really happening in this period is not that we're simply burning through our natural capital, but that we're slowly, haltingly, but surely investing it in the new way of doing things. If I were king, I'd help the process along by phasing in a big tax on carbon.

You write that in the world's growing slums, "the problem that needs solving is poverty and lack of infrastructure, not overpopulation." Are there such things as overpopulated cities, or only unplanned cities?

There are certainly cities that don't have the resources to support the population they have. But people choose go to cities because that seems the best option to them, maybe the best of some very bad options—which means they'd have a resource problem if they hadn't migrated to the city. So yes, speaking very broadly, I think the problems of the cities have more to do with lack of planning than with overpopulation per se.

Do you have a sense of how population change will influence immigration between countries?

Globally, it will create a strong pressure toward increased immigration—from poor countries with lots of young people looking for work, to rich countries with lots of old people.

Will the exigencies of population pressure on food production and natural resources encourage more autocratic regimes?

Food shortages, whether caused by overpopulation or not, can create crises that lead to regime change. But the new regime doesn't necessarily have to be more autocratic. Here's the real answer though: I don't know.

China and India have at times deployed coercive population control measures, as you describe. Do you know of examples of effective and humane family planning initiatives?

China and India have also had humane and effective family planning—in the Indian state of Kerala for instance. There have been lots of humane family planning initiatives. Giving women and men access to contraceptives as part of generally improved health care is a good idea and I'm all for it.  

Credits: Photo of India by Randy Olson for National Geographic.  Photo of Robert Kunzig from The Aspen Institute.

How Similar are Cities?

Images of streets in Dhaka, Bangladesh (top image) and Nablus, West Bank (lower image). Do the same scientific laws apply to both cities?

Nairobi is not a city that feels like it could be governed by laws of science. More than that, as I travel over the next three weeks from Bucharest, to Nairobi, to Kampala, it is hard to imagine that all three cities – as well as every city in the world – could be ruled by the same laws. But this is the goal of Geoffrey West’s work, as described in Jonah Lehrer's New York Times Magazine article last month. He has derived some interesting correlations – whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity increases by approximately 15% per capita. His team began by studying economic productivity of American cities, and this increase held true for all economic productivity measures from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits. Unfortunately, and interestingly, this increase of 15% per capita also held true for negative aspects of city life, such as traffic, AIDS and crime. They have analyzed data for the past two years, and claim to have developed equations for laws that apply to any city, anywhere in the world. West argues: “We found are the constants that describe every city. I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it.”

At this point, their work has mainly found interesting correlations and patterns, rather than absolute principles for all cities, but one of the most exciting aspects of their work is the potential it could have on cities and urban development. Anyone who has spent time in cities can identify a plethora of interconnected and independent problems. High levels of urbanism over the past few decades – this is the first time in history that there are more people living in urban areas than rural areas - have resulted in rapidly growing cities, with accompanying challenges. In Africa, for example, more than half of city residents now live in slums. But if we could truly understand our cities and how they work we could then develop effective solutions to address these critical and large-scale problems. We could develop cross-cutting solutions that are international in scope, even if tailored and adapted for each situation. While I do not think that cities can be governed or explained by science, rather than social science, approaching cities in different ways that are grounded in data and scientific analysis may also result in different approaches for solutions and how we measure the impact of solutions.  

Credits: Image 1 (of Dhaka, Bangladesh) and image 2 (of Nablus, West Bank) by Anna Fogel.

Featured Quote: Matthew Carmona et al.

"[Problems associated with the traditional, state-centered model of public space management include] clear separation of policy conception and service delivery leading to a fragmentation of the different components of public space management; rigidity in dealing with varying contexts, including the ability to deliver fine-tuned variation of basic services; a disjuncture between people's perception of issues and those of specialised service deliverers; issues of costs and cut-backs; and a lack of responsiveness to changing needs and demands. It was precisely the growing realisation of those negative consequences of the traditional model of public space management that raised the need to re-think management systems.

However, this model can encompass attempts to tackle these negative aspects of traditional practice in ways that still retain the positive elements of state-controlled public service delivery with its public-service ethos and democratically accountable system. Indeed, the main strength of this model is that it is based on visible and widely acceptable lines of accountability, as service planning and delivery are directly subject to established mechanisms of elected local democracy. Moreover, it maintains clear lines of demarcation between the public and private spheres and therefore sets a clear, easily understood framework of responsibilities, of property rights, ownership, and of public rights and duties."

Matthew Carmona, Claudio de Magalhães, and Leo Hammond in Public Space: The Management Dimension, 2008.

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. Please feel welcome to add others.

Credits: Photo of the statue of Lenin across from Pushkin Park in Vladimir, Russia, by Peter Sigrist.

The City as Symbol

If you want to read the most cogent piece of urban writing we are likely to see in the English language in 2011, just read "The Wire" creator David Simon's response to a comment by the current Baltimore Police Chief Frederick H. Bealefeld III that his show and its depiction of Baltimore were a "smear on this city that will take decades to overcome." Simon's letter is unflinching, direct, brutally efficient and unrelenting in arguing that he was calling it like he saw it, and that it was the police department and the political establishment which must take responsibility for a long history of obfuscation and false representation when it comes to crime and decay in Baltimore.

This debate about Baltimore, its image, and the role of both leaders and writers in producing and promoting that image is one that hits home for many cities around he world. I have had a bit of a lucky streak of late, as life, love and weddings have spirited me away to some of the most interesting and infamous cities on this side of the Urals - Beirut, Detroit, New Orleans. Dynamic cities all, rich in history, culture, immigrants, gastronomic delights, street art, architectural marvels, grassroots politics, complexities, miseries and quandaries. Yet try as we might, it is often hard to see through the blunt symbolism that disaster has foisted upon all three - add in Baghdad and perhaps now Juarez and you have a Mt. Rushmore of cities whose names evoke an image of crisis.

Beirut, for all of its urban dynamism, obscene property values and downtown redevelopment, still conjures up images of the civil war and the Green Line, even if the space of the Green Line is now the heart of upscale, gulf-oil-money driven redevelopment and it' name part of a new branding campaign. Our image of Beirut as urban war zone - aided by the current troubles and the 2006 bombings by Israel - also serve to mask the intense poverty of the former Palestinian refugee camps like Sabra and Shatilla, which are now classic informal settlements woven into the dense urban fabric of the southern suburbs, or the more mundane issues of traffic, lack of public space and an almost non-existent public transit program. Beirut as war zone masks the reality of the fact that the poor in Lebanon, as my Beiruti friend Hanna says, "are fucked."

It is a similar story in Detroit and New Orleans. Detroit suffers from being both symbol of despair and symbol of hope, torn between overly rosy dreams and overly bleak depictions of horror, missing the mundane stories of black middle class families, Bangladeshi shopkeepers or mildly successful redevelopment. In New Orleans, Katrina can mask the inequities that produced Katrina - "rebuilding" forgets that it was the dramatic inequalities and brutal contradictions that made the city so vulnerable to a "natural disaster" in the first place.

If we can see past the city as symbol, we will notice those little moments which show the paradoxes which make cities real. On a warm fall day in November, I was in Treme, the New Orleans neighborhood famed for its music and the subject of Simon's current urban portraiture. While walking in a jazz funeral for local legend Walter Payton Jr., a classic and beautifully New Orleans celebration of a live well lived, we passed by a church, limousines parked quietly out front, where another funeral was being held, in this case for a young black man killed by gun violence the week before.

This moment in Treme also makes you realize the true mistake that the Chief made when describing Simon - "The Wire" is so popular and such a brilliant pedagogical tour because it is not all sturm und drang or rosy imagery, it does not treat Baltimore as a symbol but rather captures the bitter and the sweet and the bittersweet in 66 hours of brilliance. Other cities should be so lucky.

Credits: Images of Detroit, Beirut and New Orleans by Alex Schafran. Video of Walter Payton's jazz funeral by aigesscott from the Youtube.

Tracing Lines of Production

Jennifer Baichwal's film Manufactured Landscapes documents the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, as he captures the coexisting beauty and horror of modern industrialisation. In doing so he highlights the intrinsic connections between the products and energy we consume everyday and their formative economic and ecological undercurrents. With the global population - and the demand for products that sustain a post-industrial, 'developed' way of life - higher than ever before, entire cities and regions have become factories of mass-production. Is it possible that we are now reaching an era of served and servant cities? Are global market mechanisms widening this urban division between productive, rising cities and consuming, declining cities? Perhaps the spatial nature of productive manufacturing infrastructure makes this divide readable in the urban landscape.

The results of the ever-strengthening loop of global production and consumption are designed landscapes, at a scale and speed of which we have never witnessed before. These are landscapes where form truly does follow function - terrain moulded to extract and assemble needed resources from the Earth in the most efficient way known. Such landscapes are designed to maximise profit and minimise cost, and in doing so become the engine rooms that support the hyper-industrialisation that constitutes a predominant view of development. These designs and mega-interventions are without pretence or marketing strategies, instead they sacrifice local regions for the sake of their intended benefits further afield. The sheer magnitude of factories and engineering projects captured so vividly by Burtynsky's camera lends comparison to natural ecological formations, and yet they are not at all natural. Human intervention into environmental systems has reached such a scale that it seems to be itself a force of nature - production and manufacturing that is driven by individuals around the world but with an unalterable collective power and momentum.

Burtynsky effectively nurtures the true power of his photographs by not simply showing what is happening to the Earth, but by showing what is happening to the people reliant upon these mechanisms of production for their livelihoods. Individual aspirations are subsumed and overwhelmed by the lure of employment in constructing and deconstructing the infrastructure essential to support the growing energy demands of the planet. Meanwhile the older generations have witnessed such extreme change over the course of their lifetimes that their negotiated adaptations as well as resistances become symbols of a wider struggle of 6.9 billion people, most of whom live in cities, to dwell with the greatest possible amount of security, empowerment and grace.

Credits: Image of "Three Gorges Dam Project, Feg Jie #5" and "Nickel Tailings #34" by Edward Burtynsky. The film may be purchased here.

Indigenous Peoples in Cities (Part II)

A commentator in a previous post about indigenous peoples in cities shared a very interesting video about aborignal poeple in Vancouver. The video shows how hard it is for most indigenous people to live in cities, specially when they do not have a foundation of the identity of where they come from. This makes it easy for young indigenous poeple to slip through cracks, such as alcohol. The video explains how the city puts a spiritual filter on them, making it hard for them to connect spiritually to their land, which is closely linked to the tradition and spiritual practices that make their lives meaningful. In order to overcome this situation, some gather to realize that they are not the only ones feeling the void that the city creates within them. Then they organize and perform cultural activities, which helps them be more satisfied with who we are.

This particular difficulty starts when indigenous lands are colonized and populations silenced, abused and/or discriminated, something that still continues to happen in numerous countries. They face difficulties to keep their languages alive and communicate in the ways they traditionally did through their gathering spaces. In many cases indigenus peoples are forcedly displaced in order to extract their land's rich natural resources, marginalizing them in isolated reserves and villages. Under these circumstances, families normally move to cities looking for services they do not have in their reserves and villages, such as education and medical care. In developing countries, indigenous poeples typically end up in slums deprived of the most basic rights, including the right to housing.

This critical issue was initially looked upon by the United Nations with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and later in 1966 with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In 2007 UN-HABITAT developed a practical guide book on "Housing Indigenous Peoples in Cities". This guide defines the general housing conditions that need to be considered: security of tenure; affordability (subsidies); habitability; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; accessibility for disadvantaged people; adequate location; and cultural adequacy. These conditions apply to all citizens and the last condition is particularly important in the case of indigenous peoples. At the end, the guide proposes a set of steps that governments should take. At the national level, it proposes governments to ratify international treaties and to incoporate them into national laws, to implement international human rights instruments adapted to indigenous people's particularities, to ensure that enforcement is accessible and affordable to indigenous poeples, and to protect the specific housing rights of all women. At the local level, it proposes governments to ensure that adequate funding is available, to develop indigenous expertise for housing design, delivery and management, to adapt rental accommodation to specific indigenous needs, and to support indigenous youth in urban areas.

Credits: Image of a groups of indigenous women in a Mexican city from Live Journal. Image of a group of indigenous women in an Ecuadorian city from Live Journal.

Collaborative Research and Development Online, by Neema Kudva

In conversations with students, I've found that they often face significant time and budgetary limitations to their field-work, especially when it involves domestic or international travel. So when I came across the Thesis Chronicles initiative on CoLab Radio and Polis, I thought it could be a great opportunity for students to collaborate and expand upon the options available when working alone. Peter Sigrist and I spoke about this and decided to write this post.

Students can share information about their work on blogs through series or brief synopses, making it accessible to people working on similar projects. They might collaborate on research methodology, sharing contacts, locating necessary resources, and even analysis. We imagined a collaboration in which one student (John) lives in the place where another student (Kayeesha) wishes to do field-work on the effectiveness of a particular housing program. John wishes to work on the same project, and they decide to work together. John does most of the interviewing, data collection, and coding, while Kayeesha takes on building a database, creating maps for spatial analysis, and doing initial rounds of analysis. John and Kayeesha are each responsible for their own thesis to fulfill their degree requirements. They might eventually collaborate on writing articles and disseminating their work. This could extend to bringing in people they worked with. The process isn't always easy, but it expands individual capabilities and prepares students to skillfully manage collaborative work in the future.

This is one of many ways that initiatives like Thesis Chronicles can help promote sound planning and development. And this doesn't have to be limited to academia. Anyone working on a local project can benefit from connecting with potential collaborators online. Organizations such as Ioby (In Our Backyard), Kickstarter, Meetup, Open Architecture Network, OpenPlans, and SeeClickFix have set up innovative web platforms to facilitate collaboration on grassroots development. Global Action Research Center has been building a sustainability solutions database. It would be interesting if such initiatives could somehow align, allowing concerned citizens of all kinds to share and coordinate their work with others.

We encourage students to get started right away. In addition to reaching potential collaborators, it keeps your work on track, hones your ability to build research networks, and showcases your process for future employers. It helps you benefit from the suggestions of others as your work becomes more accessible and well known. These benefits are very much worth the effort.

To share your research on Polis or CoLab Radio and begin connecting with like-minded researchers, we welcome you to contact us at info@thepolisblog.org or colabradio@mit.edu.

Neema Kudva is a professor in the Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning. Her research focuses on the effects of international urbanization at local and regional scales, as well as institutional structures for equitable planning and development.

Credits: The opening photo is from the MIT CoLab photostream.

CHIOŞC: Making Space in Chişinău

CHIOSC – lansare / launch of KIOSK project from Oberliht on Vimeo.

Living in a city with few public meeting places and hardly any spaces for contemporary art, performances, public talks, or independent film projections, two curators from Moldova and Croatia decided to take the matter in their own hands and change the situation. They selected a small public square occupied by parked cars in central Chişinău, aiming to create an “autonomous space for the dissemination of cultural information”.

In the fall of 2009, the two initiators, Vladimir Us, founder of Oberliht (Young Artists Association of Moldova) and his collaborator Nataša Bodrožić (based in Zagreb) launched the CHIOŞC project. The venue they had imagined had now taken the shape of a concrete construction, built as a functional replica of an apartment with the basic components of a typical socialist habitat: the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room and the balcony.
FLAT SPACE, as the structure was named, was designed by Moldovan visual artist Ştefan Rusu. His point of departure was an interest in the private space limited by socialist society standards, which still represents a strong visual element of the contemporary urban and social landscape of Chişinău. Regarding this, the transparency was an important feature–the FLAT SPACE apartment had no external walls.

Today CHIOŞC is an interdisciplinary platform for a wide range of renowned, but also marginalized initiatives from the local to the international level, for manifestation, meeting, sharing and exchange. It offers visibility to artists, curators and cultural workers operating within the public domain.

Volunteers regularly print the various postings and tape them to the concrete wall, making the venue also a billboard for cultural events. Recent exhibitions, workshops and film screenings have targeted issues as the Moldovan recycling industry, post-socialist utopias as Havana and Miskolc, Hungarian video art and the playgrounds of Bucharest.

Credits: Video from Oberliht.
Floor plan and model from Stefan Rusu. Image of FLAT SPACE from Mohamed El Abed.

Learning to "Read" the City

How does one effectively ‘read’ a city? What are the methodologies we can use to understand urban transformations with all our senses, through and across different disciplinary boundaries? And what can a comparative study of cities across the world teach us in terms of effective action towards influencing and transforming forces towards creating more socially just, sustainable urban environments?

These are just a few of the questions pouring through my mind as I am in New York City, preparing with a team to embark on a four month adventure as traveling faculty with the International Honors Program's Cities in the 21st Century course. IHP Cities is a thematic, comparative study abroad programme where third year university students collectively examine, analyse and reflect on people, planning, and politics in cities in the US and across three other continents. Beginning here next week, as of February we will spend five weeks immersed in Delhi, Dakar and Buenos Aires respectively, finishing the course at the end of May.

IHP Cities aspires, in essence, to urban immersion, teaching students how to read a city through engaged, experiential learning. This is rooted in the day-to-day from homestays, interacting with urban dwellers and figuring out how to take public transport to various parts of the city, to various programmatic academic elements such as guest speakers, site visits, neighbourhood days, field exercises and case studies. As students are strongly encouraged to leave their computers at home, all learning aims towards understanding the systems and rhythms of urban life in that particular place. The city thus becomes the classroom.

The Community Spirit of Black Rock City, by Noah Flower

“At Burning Man, participants create the city they want … People realize that they can do things — maybe small things — that improve how they experience and interact with their fellow citizens.” Nate Berg’s introduction to that yearly festival of urban creation and destruction was poetically stated, and those lines of his conclusion resonated with me. He spoke to part of the reason why visiting the Black Rock Desert with 45,000 strangers is, for me, a chance at personal renewal of the way that I experience my urban environment and personal community for the rest of the year. I think his point hints at what I think is the deeper implication hidden in Burning Man’s very existence for the way we conceive of modern urban life.

Burning Man is not only a place where creativity and participation happens. Beyond the bare essentials provided by the setup and cleanup crews, it is created entirely by the participation of the people who come. It is a place where the public transit, nightclubs, amusements, performances, bars, and other activities are mostly provided by what we would typically refer to as “hobbyists,” amateurs who have day jobs and offer these things to others of like mind simply because they’re fun to do and it feels good to provide them. There is a massive brigade of people who volunteer, as part of their rather expensive vacation, to walk around for hours in odd-looking outfits silently lighting the hundreds upon hundreds of oil lanterns that light the night-time streets. It is a veritable orgy of community spirit.

Compare this to how our communities function at home. Optimizing for scale, efficiency, economic growth, and individual choice, we tend to live lives that are relatively disconnected from those around us. Many of us, if not most, went to high school with one group of people but then went to college elsewhere and lived in another city after that. We live in neighborhoods that may or may not contain friends but don’t typically know our neighbors, and rarely know them well. We have places in cities that we frequent—coffee shops, bars, restaurants, parks, shops—but if we see someone there that we know, it’s a surprise, and it’s not often that we take any deep sense of ownership over those spaces. The tribes we stay connected with are dispersed across neighborhoods, adjacent cities, neighboring states, and (increasingly) the world. There is very little reason to be involved in any particular place. And, I would argue, it is largely for this reason that we see declining levels of participation in politics at every level, and a steadily degrading level of sophistication in the national discourse. There can be no simple reasons for these things, of course, but I do think that we would see greater engagement if people felt bonded to their place and the people who live there.

I think one lesson we can learn from what happens at Burning Man is how possible it is for people to bond deeply with a place even if they inhabit it only for a short period of time. Everyone who buys a ticket is encouraged to participate in whatever constructive way most taps their passion, and the result every year is a city that stands as a living monument to the energies that drive its inhabitants. That creative expression is easy to see as an explosion of ego, a geyser of self-centeredness that bursts forth from a group of people who spend most of their year feeling stifled by the fact that their workplaces frown on their innate desire to wear fake fur and walk around painted red without any clothes. But the greatest works at Burning Man are carefully crafted to tickle the fancies, palates, eardrums, and eyeballs of the people who come. They are given, and like all gifts, thoughtfully shaped to please the receiver. We have words for that kind of giving, where the recipient is the group of others around you: community service, civic engagement, or public spirit.

Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten the importance of that feeling. We’ve let it slip through our fingers as we chased geopolitical dominance, free trade, and the growth of our mom and pop shops into titans of the global marketplace. It was the first chance we had at those goals and we understandably shot for the moon. But now we’re left with a society where enough people feel that loss for 45,000 of them to pick up stakes, drive or fly to the middle of nowhere in Nevada, and throw a yearly orgy of giving, just to give themselves enough fuel to run on for the rest of the year or two before they have to come back for more.

A similar spirit is in evidence after a major disaster, as the San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit describes in great length in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She argues persuasively that we can and should bring more of that spirit into the structure of our urban lives, and I think the same is true of Burning Man. Stories abound of the ways that people have channeled that spirit of giving in their own lives after attending, in small ways and large. One of the most notable is the group Burners Without Borders who organized to help out New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and continue to provide aid around the world. But we can tap that spirit of participation and giving in many more than just the Burners if we get creative about how to provide opportunities for it in our cities at large. As Solnit notes repeatedly, the desire and ability to identify with a community and provide something for that group is resident in all of us. The temporary utopia that happens in disasters and at Burning Man is just a hint of what could be released.

I don’t have anywhere close to all of the answers, but a few somewhat-related examples come to mind. One is the description of the political culture in Portland that I found in Robert Putnam’s Better Together: a city where there are associations for every small neighborhood and every political concern, and where the machinery of the city government is designed to require listening to those voices. Both identity with place and participation in the process are strong. Another is the many murals of San Francisco’s Mission District, all of which are created by local artists and/or schoolchildren. They are rarely defaced in a neighborhood otherwise covered with graffiti scrawl. Another is Front Porch Forum, a Craigslist-style site where you see only what your neighbors put up, which has had tremendous success rebuilding social capital in the places where it has become available. And finally, the rapid growth of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies is evidence that many entrepreneurs are seeing their small businesses as a way to tie together their communities rather than pull them apart. There are many ways to give people a sense of ownership over a place, connection with the people nearby, and the opportunity to contribute something meaningful. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to go to the desert to do it.

Noah Flower does research on innovative methods of achieving social change for foundations and nonprofits at the Monitor Institute, where he also edits the blog Working Wikily. He first began attending Burning Man in 2003.

Credits: Each image is linked to its source.

Assorted Links #25

Credits: Image of Burning Man installation from Places.

SHIFT: Infrastructure and Process, by Tipton Fowlkes

The inaugural issue of SHIFT: infrastructure suggests that the integration of natural systems into the built environment provides for a more sustainable model of landscape architecture in infrastructure design. However, the skillful employment of ecological principles does not necessarily ensure a culturally sensitive design. In the 21st century, Landscape Architecture faces the challenge of not only creating ecologically regenerative designs, but doing so in a way that engages the public through education, community mobilization, and inspiration. This is important not only for the long-term viability of the design, but also for its economic success.

How can we as students re-imagine the design process that engages modern culture (such as changes in media, communication technology, and social networking)? This new process should holistically integrate the designer, the users, and ecology in the process of design. What does this process look like? Where does it take place? How do these processes improve on current techniques?

SHIFT: process calls for submissions from current students from any discipline, or student work from graduates within the past 2 years. We are looking for work that encourages debate and discussion of this important topic through informed and academically rigorous creative thinking. Each submission will be reviewed by an independent jury, which is composed of nationally recognized leaders in Landscape Architecture.

Submissions may be: academic essays (up to 3,000 words), narratives, project graphics including mixed media, or anything one considers key in communicating their ideas. We strongly encourage graphics, photography, diagrams, flash animation, stop motion animation, models, social networking tools, games, community building art forms, puzzles, interactive media of any kind, and...you get the idea. Each submissions must include a concise written abstract with bibliography.

Please make your submissions by February 15th, 2011.

Questions? Please contact mnevans@ncsu.edu.

Credits: Photo of pedestrian infrastructure in Mumbai found via FastCompany.

Featured Quote: Ananya Roy

"The current common sense on informality is that it is synonymous with poverty. Davis (2006) sees the ‘slum’ as the global prototype of a warehousing of the rural-urban poor, marginalized by structural adjustment and deindustrialization. De Soto (1989, 2000) sees informality as a revolution from below, the entrepreneurial strategy or tactical operations of the poor marginalized by bureaucracy and state capitalism. Neither approach is able to pinpoint the ways in which informality is also associated with forms of wealth and power. The splintering of urbanism does not take place at the fissure between formality and informality but rather, in fractal fashion, within the informalized production of space."

Roy, A. (2009). Why India Cannot Plan its Cities: Informality, Insurgence and the Idiom of Urbanization. Planning Theory, 8(1), 76-87.

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. Please feel welcome to add others. 

Credits: Image of Rio from World Resources Institute.

Book Review: Pamphlet Architecture 31 - New Haiti Villages

I still turn to the Pamphlet Architecture series (PA) for solace. On my greatest hits bookshelf, two iconic issues stand anachronistically side by side, Pamphlet Architecture # 5 “The Alphabetical City” and Pamphlet Architecture # 9 “Rural and Urban Housing Types”. True to the design debates of their time, both showcase the value of typologies in the practices of architecture and urban design.

The Pamphlet Architecture series, however, represent more than a nostalgic reference. Published consecutively under the purview of renowned architect Steven Holl over the past 30 years, they comprise an index of provocative proposals ranging between the theory and practice of design, buildings and cities. Within the cacophony of debates swaying the environmental design professions, PA sets a minimalist yet anchoring tone that distills a subtle combination making it a valuable resource for practitioners and students alike: a practical manifesto in the form of a radical monograph.

Pamphlet Architecture 31 – New Haiti Villages (PA 31), is an appropriate contribution to this tradition. It exemplifies PA’s legacy of contingent architectural and urban design discourse. But this issue also stands out from the rest. It is an expedient attempt to support the case for a design proposal by Holl in post earthquake-reconstruction Haiti. This purpose gives PA 31 a concrete relevance and opens a deeper interpretation for its proposal. A year and a day after the earthquake that changed the lives of millions of Haitian citizens, what does it tell us about how architecture may aid in the reconstruction of Haiti?

The issue starts with an introduction by Holl where he explains the application of the Dense-Pack Villages in Haiti. He states: “I was struck by the similarities between the terrain in Haiti and that for an un-built project we had developed on a hillside in Turkey”. The similarities Holl alludes to are not evidenced and neither is the process of transferring the vision from one place to another; instead he emphasizes the need for an “off the grid” housing experiment embracing multi-disciplinary collaborations and sustainable techniques. Holl also stipulates the issue’s goal of acquiring funding and sponsorship based on a cost estimate for the conceived infrastructure. Indeed, the circulation of capital is another factor that make this issue unique. On the back cover, the curious reader is guided to a website and informed that “All profits from the sale of New Haiti Villages go to rebuilding efforts in Haiti”.

The Use of Old Buildings, 50 Years Later

Jane Jacobs's iconic Death & Life of Great American Cities remains one of the most read and influential texts in urban studies, now 50 years after publication. Surely this year will see numerous celebrations in honor of its 50th birthday, with tributes galore as to how the book helped turn around the seat tide of high modernism, urban renewal and other anti-urban activities that threatened to turn entire cities into the "great blight of dullness" which Jacobs so deplored.

Unfortunately, one of the many legacies of the book has been to overemphasize her famous "sidewalk ballet", the iconic story of her beloved Hudson Street in Manhattan. Marshall Berman criticized the lack of attention to the racial inequalities missing on Hudson Street yet embedded in the city; others have bemoaned the gender roles, the nostalgia, or the way in which her vision of public space became so central in movements like New Urbanism, again at the expense of ecological and equity concerns.

Yet the real tragedy is not that we fetishize the street, but that we ignore some of the more critical insights in the book, insights which are just as relevant today as when they we first penned. Some of these lesser known ideas are grappled with smartly in Lynne Elizabeth and Stephen Goldsmith's What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, an edited collection of essays published last year with contributions from a diverse range of thinkers, policymakers and urban activists.

But it is recent article in the New York Times' real estate section about an innovation hub on the edge of downtown Brooklyn which illustrates the profound truth behind a little idea buried in Chapter 10 of Death and Life, the "Need for Aged Buildings". Jacobs makes a simple argument - that new commercial buildings have a lot of debt, and thereby must command the highest rents that the market can bear, and thereby limit the type of businesses that can occupy them. Yet start-ups and entrepreneurs can not afford high rents, and since they are the key to regional economic growth - an argument she would make in depth in Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, long before Richard Florida and the neo-Schumpeterian wave - we must preserve old buildings simple because they are more likely to be paid off. New businesses can rent them for cheap, have the time and space to grow and succeed, and eventually move into newer space - to be replaced by a new wave of new business.

This is an argument against redevelopment not rooted in aesthetics or an idea of the good city, which can always be reduced to a question of taste, but of simple economics. New = debt = unaffordability = loss of creativity and innovation. Al Attara's fantastic Metropolitan Exchange Building - the "House of Ideas" - on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn is the proof in this urban pudding. Bought for $250,000 almost 40 years ago, Attara has recently turned it into a shared office space for designers, artists, engineers, TV producers and even beiotechnologists. None of this would have been possible in the brand new 45 story tower that developers had proposed to build on the site - the debt load would have prevented it, even if the will had been present.

As cities around the world look to revitalize and compete, many have tried to build nostalgic streetscapes and expensive renovations of historic buildings in order to capture some of the magic that Jacobs described. Even more are ignoring Jacobs completely and pursing multi-billion dollar neo-modernist megaprojects in the hope of luring the innovative and the creative. Better to follow the lead of Al Attara and others who recognize the importance of the use of old buildings - collaboration, innovation and creation all like one thing, cheap space.

Credits: Image of MEx from Benjamin Norman/New York Times, image of Jane Jacobs at the White Horse by Cervin Robinson courtesy of Jane' Walks.

Urban Canadian: Toronto

Cities are exciting. They allow us to imagine, hope, dream, and realize. They also present us with oppression, struggle and complexity, but tend to provide those of us who are lucky with countless opportunities. In my travels to cities around the world I’ve always managed to keep one particular place in my heart that exemplifies all of these things: my birthplace, Toronto.

Toronto shares many attributes with other North American cities - its scale and layout resemble similar urban fabrics of postwar-maturing cities around the continent. And yet Toronto holds a distinct identity of its own, playing host to a particular aura of Canadiana that is difficult to define, and yet noticeably present. There is an unavoidable sense of politeness and solidarity mixed in with a flavour of multicultural fusion and a family of chique high streets. The city hosts a flourishing artisan community with a distinct love for music. For those of us who have lived in larger, more anonymous cities like London, Tokyo or New York, you can’t help but feel as though Toronto is just big enough to give you access to what you want, all the while being small enough to maintain its strong sense of community.

Among other prominent scholars and public icons, the city was the home to many of the world’s greatest urbanists, such as the late Jane Jacobs and former Mayor of Toronto John Sewell. It hosts several of Canada’s prestigious universities, one of which, the University of Toronto, houses the internationally renowned Centre for Urban and Community Studies, later the Cities Centre.

December in Toronto from Millefiore Clarkes on Vimeo.

I stumbled across this video by Millefiore Clarkes, a filmmaker from the small Eastern Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, entitled “December in Toronto”. The six-minute film attempts to document a six-day visit to Toronto, and exhibits arguably the most iconic activities that one could take part in while visiting the city. Toronto is a city of family, friends, international culture and cuisine, arts, parties, festivals, and ultimately, fun. 

Credits: Image of Dundas Square from Sam Javanrou. Images of Cabbagetown from Pay No Mind. Video of 'December in Toronto' from Millefiore Clarkes.

Featured Quote: Rudolf Kjellén

"Geopolitics sees a nation as a geographical organism or as a spatial occurrence; in other words, a nation as land, territory, area or, perhaps most emblematically, as empire"

Rudolf Kjellén, Der staat als Lebensform [State as a Living Form], (Berlin-Grunewald; K. Vowinckel, 1924), p 45 - found via Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics, (New Haven and London; Yale University Press, 2009), p 203.

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. Please feel welcome to add others.

Credits: Map of British Empire (1926) from Sterling Times.

Featured Artist: Robert Polidori

The work of this Canadian photographer is perhaps the best image representation of today's urban world. He converts disturbing and chaotic urban scenes into beautiful still images, masterly turning extreme contrasts and paradoxes into harmony. The absence of humans and the desolation of the man-made spaces depicted are profoundly disquieting. The emotions that his pictures provoke are accentuated by the intimate detail captured by his large format custom-designed Kipp Wettstein camera.

Most of his photographs depict controversial urban situations, such as Shanghai's radical transformation, slums, abandoned spectacular indoor spaces, Chernobyl and New Orleans after Katrina. His last book, "Some Points in Between...Up Till Now", contains each of his major photographic series.

Credits: Polidori's photograph of New Orleans after Katrina from Dissent. Polidori's cover photograph of his book La Havana. Polidori's cover photograph of Shanghai in his book Metropolis. Polidori's cover photograph of Rio de Janeiro's slums in his book Some Points in Between...Up Till Now.