On View: In a Perfect World



In a Perfect World is a group show featuring 12 Chinese artists that are raised after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Their perspectives, access to resources and information - being different from their predecessors - are reflective in their work, materials, and media. With old China not in their view, these artists are "looking inward at themselves and outwards towards a new and better future".

In a Perfect World is curated by James Elaine, and will be on view until April 30th at Meulensteen.

Credits: Image of Zhou Yilun's Suddenly Cloud When Jubilation from ArtCat.com.

Hip Hop Revolution



I heard em say
The revolution won't be televised
Aljazeera proved em wrong
Twitter has him paralyzed 80 million strong
An ain't no longer gonna be terrorized
Organized - Mobilized - Vocalized
On the TRUTH
Um il-Duya's living proof
That it's a matter of time
before the chicken is home to roost
Bouazizi lit the. . .
and it slowly ignited the fire
whithin Arab people to fight it


These are the lyrics of #Jan25, one of the many hip hop songs that have been inspired by the ongoing situation in North Africa and the Middle East. This single (whose title reference to the first day of the protests in Egypt) was released at the turning point of the Egyptian revolution by several North American artists, including Serbin-American MC Omar Offendum and Iraqi-Canadian MC, The Narcicyst, as a form of solidarity and support to the Egyptian people. MC Omar Offendum describes this song as "a testament to the revolution’s effect on the hearts and minds of today’s youth, and the spirit of resistance it has come to symbolize for oppressed people worldwide."

In Egypt, Lybia, Algeria, Tunisia and across the Middle East, hip hop artists have adopted the rhythms and beats of American hip hop mixing them with their own cultural and political themes. The content of rap variations is more similar to the early stages of the genre in the 70's and 80's (Afrika Bombaataa, Grandmaster Flash, The Furious Five) which emerged in a climate of segregation, disenfranchisement and urban decay in American cities. The lyrics have in common themes of social injustice and economic hardship; they are a critiques of government and a call for freedom.




A few years ago, a group of Libyan exiles created a website called Khalas! (Enough!) as a protest the Gaddafi regime. In the midst of the protests, Khalas compiled 'Not Far', a mixtape composed of North African hip hop protest songs and made it free to download on their website. "'Not Far' refers to the sense of solidarity that these youth feel across borders, the similarities of their causes and the oppressors they face, their physical proximity and the sense that our ultimate goal is within sight" (inside cover of Khalas Mixtape). See interviews on WNYC and Public Radio International. The website is currently unavailable (apparently has been hacked) but you can download the music here.

Included in the mix is Tunisian hip hop artist, El General, who channeled the popular voice of the Tunisian revolt with his rap song 'Head of State'. The song was released around the same time of Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act of immolation and speaks also of the desperate situation around him.

Mr. President your people is dead
many people eat from garbage
and you see what is happening in the country
misery everywhere and people who have not found a place to sleep
I am speaking in name of the people who are under the feet



The song gained global awareness when El General was arrested by the state police soon after its release. It became the soundtrack of the revolution, inspiring the youth around other North African countries.

Much has been said about the role of Twitter and Facebook in these rapidly spreading protests in the Middle East. But "older" media also played a role, and hip hop has once again become a powerful tool for the youth. The songs are raw and easy to record and disseminate--both at a global scale and through a boom box in a crowd. In countries, like Iran, where it is considered illegal, hip hop easily thrives underground. Most importantly, as songs — and not rants, tweets or lectures — the message is catchy, memorable, and perhaps even immortal.



Credits: Image of We Want Change Now and Khalas mixtape cover from enoughgaddafi in flickr. Video of #Jan25 from youtube. Video of El General from youtube.

One-Minute Commentary: Fast Company vs. The New Yorker on Protest and Urban Planning



In a recent Polis blogpost, two guest bloggers opining on the Egyptian protests and role of the city in rebellion noted that "[t]he past few days have not been determined solely by the Army and the Police, Hosni Mubarak or the Protests, Media or Rumors, Pamphlets or Twitter, Facebook or SMS, but instead by the meeting of feet with boulevards, the intersection of Internet access and privilege and the fusion of history with rubber-coated steel bullets." Reflecting on the monumental meeting of feet with boulevards in Cairo's Tahrir Square a few weeks later, reportage on Fast Company and The New Yorker offer their respective viewpoints, in unwitting counter-dialog with each other. The article in Fast Company contends:
Urban planners can help promote a healthier democracy by designing spaces that allow for equal public access, including for journalists. Less pressing is the need to make them beautiful.
"As the recent events in Cairo suggest, a protest space doesn't have to be nice or well-designed," [architect] Hatuka says. "A large-scale protest like this has shown that people will just hijack the streets and the roads."
In comparison, The New Yorker's Wendell Steavenson writes:
I saw one man carrying a black garbage bag with a sign across his chest: “Yesterday I was a demonstrator. Today I build Egypt.” I met a couple of young students from the American University in Cairo, carrying brooms. One said that she had been discussing this new community spirit with her father. “We thought people didn’t care,” she said, “and just threw their garbage on the street, but now we see that they just thought it was hopeless—why bother when it’s so dirty. Why not be corrupt when everything is corrupted. But now things have changed, and it’s a different mood overtaking. Even I can’t stop smiling myself.”
Fast Company and Hatuka seem to have missed the point in their interpretation of the monumental events that took place in Tahrir Square. Far from showing that urban spaces don't need to be beautiful or "nice" for displays of democracy to flourish, the state of Tahrir Square in its erstwhile squalor and disrepair is really a result of the populace's eroding faith in the system. It is the product of the lack of democracy in the first place -- and thus a growing sense of apathy and hopelessness among the people.

If what designers take away from the story of Tahrir Square is that "a protest space doesn't need to be nice or well-designed", then they would be no better than the misguided powers-that-be who couldn't care less about the well being of the populace. Perhaps a truer observation is this: the way in which a community interacts with its immediate environs is a barometer of its social, economic, and political health. Public spaces in a persistent state of filth and neglect point to a systemic breakdown in public services (and with that potentially incompetence, corruption, and/or a lack of resources), a populace's ambivalence -- or worst, its chronic state of unhappiness. ("Why not be corrupt when everything is corrupted?"). 

Credits: Photo by Danya Al-Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin from their Polis guest blogpost.

Production and Protest

"Now we're from America, but this isn't New York City, or the Windy City, or Sin City, and we're certainly noone's Emerald City. We're the Motor City." - Chrysler

In the moments after Green Bay - the only publicly owned sports franchise in major US sports - won the Superbowl a few weeks back, my friend and Detroit native Dr. Juni texted me. Her message had nothing to do with the game, but with a car commercial that was the center of post-Superbowl ad buzz - Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" commercial, featuring Eminem, a gospel choir, and a deep-voiced narrator pontificating not about the virtues of their cars but about the virtues of the city that produced it.



I am not a car person in the least, but the defiance and production values, combined with a dig at the writers who use Detroit as a punching bag ("it's probably not the [story] you've read in the papers, by folks who've never even been here"), struck a nerve. Even if the ad never acknowledges how Detroit's struggles are linked directly to the Big Three auto companies' - Chrysler, GM and Ford - failure to adapt and change, and the entire region's overreliance on one industry, or the role of the car and the automobile in producing a wholly unsustainable and woefully unequal settlement pattern in the United States, the fierceness is welcome, even if it comes from a car company.


If you look closely at the ad, you will see another image buried in the jumpcuts, a brief glimpse of Diego Rivera's legendary Detroit Industry murals from 1932-33. The murals, commissioned by Ford and the Detroit Institute of Art, were controversial from the moment they were unveiled, for everything from the nudes ("pornographic") to the depiction of a multi-racial workforce, from Rivera's Mexicanness to his leftist politics. But it is not the controversy which I care about, but the images of workers during a critical moment in US history. Just two years after Rivera left Detroit, the United Auto Workers was founded after a struggle within the American Federation of Labor. A series of 1936 strikes, and an intervention by Michigan governor Frank Murphy, helped push General Motors to the bargaining tables and GM unionized in 1937, followed quickly by Chrysler. Ford, despite its love of radical Mexican muralists, fought bitterly against the UAW, using intimidation, espionage and violence to put down the unionization efforts. It wasn't until 1941 that Ford would agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW.


We seem to have reached another watershed moment in the struggle for workers rights and the collective dream of middle class security in the United States. Right-wing Republican governors across the US, led by Scott Walker in Wisconsin, are aiming not only to balance their budgets by reducing public employee salaries and benefits - some of which are needed or justified - while simultaneously reducing corporate taxes in the name of "job creation", they are attacking the very institution of collective bargaining. This attack has fractured the state of Wisconsin, and seen an unprecedented outpouring of anger and support for worker rights on the streets of Madison, Columbus and other midwestern capitals. Walker is the antithesis of former Michigan Governor Murphy - rather than work to bring workers and management to the table, Walker is keen on throwing the table out of the window.

At a time when the world is rightly transfixed by the sea of protest filling streets and squares and plazas of the middle east, we are apt to ignore or forget the tens of thousands marching in sub-freezing temperatures in Wisconsin. But one wise marcher in Egypt has noticed, and recognized the link between the two. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were not just about democracy and free speech, but about the economic misery imposed by corrupt, autocratic and oligarchic regimes on the middle and working classes. As we watch events unfold in the Middle East and the Midwest, it is critical that we remember how critical cities are as sites of protest and not merely production, and how these two things are linked. The Detroit miracle of the Big Three would never have happened without the struggles in the streets of the UAW and other unions to establish a social compact that guaranteed a more equitable share of the spoils of growth (at least if you were white). It is this compact that has come undone, and without it, there will be neither production nor peace in the Motor City, the Windy City, The City of a Thousand Minarets or any other metropolis.

Credits: Image of Diego Rivera mural cribbed from marxist.org. Image of Wisconsin protest from politico.com. Image of an awesome Egyptian from zackfarley's Twitpic (where else?). Chrysler video is an advert on the tele and the youtube.

Slum for Sale


Director Lutz Konermann has created a documentary on the ongoing contested redevelopment proposal for Dharavi, Mumbai, an informal settlement that is unique in its paced evolution and current dynamic capacities of adaptation and production.  Its foremost quality attracting attention, however, is its prime positioning in the heart of Mumbai, causing land value and the potential for the generation of capital to overwhelm the complexities of livelihood and industry.  The film gains incredibly valuable access to key players in the case, and through skilled editing and composition, brings forth the impression that Mumbai is a city tearing at the seams, with extremes of a wealthy 'global city' continually at odds with the majority of the population living in informal settlements and aspiring to better services, upgraded housing and secure businesses.


The extreme disconnect between US-trained developer Mukesh Mehta's Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) and the reality on the ground in Dharavi is carefully illustrated and placed in front of the viewer without falling into an overly simplistic binary of top-down v. bottom-up ideologies.  The film perhaps shines brightest in its depiction of the shades of grey and unexpected critiques of the DRP, especially from the nuanced views of businessman and CEO Cyrus Guzde, who speculates on the possibility that Dharavi be addressed as an "unauthorised, unlicensed industrial estate" rather than a homogenous residential slum.  While different levels of resistance, including of course bottom-up opposition led by Jockin Arputham, founder of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) are paramount to providing checks and balances on the DRP, critiques from socially engaged businessmen such as Mr. Guzde often have a unique capacity to sway the Government in its final actions and agenda.


While the pointed debates of various key players add an essential information base to the film, the emotional narrative and human significance is delivered mainly by tracing the life of tailor Rais Khan and his two children through their lives in Dharavi.  It is only at this personal scale that the essential details and ramifications of redevelopment become tangible.  As a renter of a one room apartment, he and his family are not eligible for inclusion in the proposed redevelopment plans.  The rising rents in Dharavi due to the impending proposals have priced the apartment that he rents above his means, and the film follows him through eviction and the struggle to house his two children in his small shop, while he is forced to sleep on a cart in the street.

Though Dharavi is introduced early on as a "playground for ambitious urban planners", it systematically diagnoses the contested nature of this urban space while reeling in the notion of redevelopment from rhetoric about new roads, hospitals and houses to the everyday struggles, triumphs and inherent knowledge of the citizens of Dharavi, most of whom have meticulously built extremely productive and vibrant lives for themselves over the course of several generations.  As a fifth generation resident of the potters community (Kumbharwada) states, "If you ask who made Dharavi, I would say: my forefathers did".  Hopefully giving such a poignant platform of expression to the residents of Dharavi will result in urban planners abandoning the view of Dharavi as a "playground" for their professional aspirations and instead embracing the responsibility and challenge of imagining a socially just and anthropocentric process of development that questions the traditional outcomes of a capital-driven planning agenda.  



Credits: First image from Andrew Wade. Second image from Mike Chan. Third image from Xiaolu Li. Trailer of 'Dharavi: Slum for Sale' from YouTube.

Democracy in Action in Middle Eastern Cities

Rabat, Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Benghazi, Alexandria, Cairo, Sana'a, Baghdad and Manama; these cities are leading what perhaps is the most important democratic revolution in several decades. Dictatorships and fake democracies are being dismantled by popular movements without the need of political parties or religion. Some of these cities are on-the-ground, massive and successful experiments of a new era of horizontal participatory democracy, powered by modern communication technologies.



Some media and politicians have been concerned that these revolts might give radical islamists a chance for taking over governments in the region. As locals have made clear, these revolts are not influenced by Islamic movements, but by the civil society, moved by unsatisfied basic needs and spontaneously organized through mobile phones and internet (see Sami Naïr's analysis in French and Spanish). These concerns have been the main excuse for western countries' long-term support to dictatorial regimes as part of their policy of stability at the expense of democracy and human rights. Moreover, western support to dictators has in many instances made it easier for radical islamists to build up their constituencies. The history of Iran's Shah, wonderfully explained in Ryszard Kapuscinski's "Shah of Shahs" and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," is perhaps the most notorious example of how deeply unjust and counterproductive client-dictators can become.

The revolts and changes that are taking place are real expressions of deep democracy, while the approach that have been using Western powers towards the Middle East and other capitalist countries ruled by dictators have been profoundly undemocratic and hypocritical.
 

Credits: Image of revolts in Tunis from The Guardian.

Featured Artist: Ruth Asawa



Ruth Asawa has contributed to the quality of life in cities for many years, through brilliant artwork and a strong commitment to arts education. She continues to help create a better society than the one she faced in her youth.

Ruth's parents emigrated from Japan to Norwalk, California, where she was born in 1926. They worked as truck farmers to support seven children, surviving the Great Depression only to be transferred to internment camps during World War II. Ruth studied drawing and painting with professional artists who shared her family's plight. Upon release, she moved to Milwaukee to pursue a degree in art education. She was denied practice-teaching positions because of her ethnicity, making it impossible to graduate. This prompted a fortuitous move to North Carolina, where she studied art at Black Mountain College.

Intensive classes with Josef Albers, Merce Cunningham, and Buckminster Fuller helped Ruth develop the experience and confidence she would draw upon as a working artist. She learned techniques of basket crochet in Mexico, which she drew upon in creating the wire sculptures pictured above. In 1949 she married Albert Lanier, a fellow student at Black Mountain. They moved to San Francisco, where they raised six children. Albert worked as an architect while Ruth stayed with the children and continued her artwork. This period is touchingly described in her online biography:
She and Albert struggle to make ends meet financially. They begin a life-long friendship with the photographer Imogen Cunningham. They try their hand at designing for industry, but are offended at the business practices. Ruth works at home in her studio, often at night and in the early morning while her children sleep.

Space and State Power in Delhi

There is no doubting that architecture and urban space inherently reflect power relations, and shape power dynamics, in the city. While movement in and access to city spaces is increasingly controlled by the private sector, one of countless places in the world where state power is explicitly ingrained in the urban fabric is in Lutyens’s Delhi. Named after the British architect who laid out the central administrative section of the city under British Imperialism, it was built in 1911 when the British moved the country’s capital from Kolkata to Delhi.


India Gate, looking West towards the Presidential Palace

Lutyens’s plan consciously sought a clean break from the historical places of power in the city, specifically Shahjahanabad – also known as Old Delhi, a quarter circle area of whose focal point is the Red Fort – which was founded in the 1600 by the Mughals, built on top of far older remnants of urban development. As the new symbolic heart of the city, Lutyens’s Delhi clearly divided the colonisers from the ‘colonised’. This power ‘over’ the city and the country, first under British rule, and since India’s independence in 1947 with a national democratic face, is blatantly illustrated through the spatial configuration of this part of the city.


Rajpath, formerly known as King’s Way, walking West

The Doors of Zanzibar

I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in Zanzibar and, like many, was struck by the architecture of Stone Town, and in particular, the ornate wooden doors. These wooden doors reflect the mixture of architectural influences on Stone Town with doors designed with ornate rosettes of Indian influence, Koranic verses in Arabic, or designs reflecting an East African heritage. The doors are visually distinct from the buildings, which are mainly plain walls with little color or decoration, and have become a visual symbol for Stone Town and Zanzibar.




Credits: Images of doors in Stone Town by Anna Fogel.

Jugaad: Good or Bad?



In lieu of the recent publicity of the Jugaad Urbanism exhibition it is hard for those of us who frequent South Asia not to chuckle at the incredible ingenuity that every visitor observes in the households, businesses and corners of cities and villages across the subcontinent. ‘Jugaad’, which is a Hindi word referring to an ‘innovative fix’, can be seen throughout Indian streetscapes in various capacities, from shanty houses held together with large Bollywood billboard posters to creatively rigged vehicles that carry goods and people down the main road. While the term and its associated practice may be comical for outsiders, those who are well experienced in jugaad are held in good regard by their peers.



It isn’t difficult to locate an example of the infamous ‘quick fix’ in almost any average Indian business or household. Power connections may be fused and held together in a tangle of knots, while a truck may be assembled out of an old horse cart and a salvaged motor. In most instances the solutions are incredibly clever and useful, while in other cases they can border on the side of ‘life threatening’. In any event, jugaad is a widespread practice across India and a useful skill to harness, considering the social circumstances.



And yet, the notion of jugaad doesn’t stop at the built fabric of houses, cities and streets. This particular form of thought proliferates throughout many of India’s day-to-day practices. It is widely known that ‘creatively’ bending the rules in India can get you from one place to another, and in most instances, from the bottom or middle to the top. The resourcefulness of those who are jugaad experts can assist them in finding ways through the cracks of business, policing, planning and politics, and it is so widespread that it can be found in most places where quick decision-making can mean the difference between making or breaking the bank.



While jugaad and its associated ‘people-powered urbanism’ can shine a light into the beauty of organic, incremental developments that are most vividly captured throughout India’s bustling cities, it also casts a dark shadow on the alternative interface in the ‘business’ of local politics and planning.  In a sense, what we find is a system in which the necessity for ‘jugaad’, or the make-do solution, replaces the need for a legitimate fix to a much greater problem. Perhaps in the cases of policing, politics, and administering municipal development, what we see is a multi-tiered agglomeration of participants in jugaad, each finding their own way around the immediate challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis. Far from being grounds for moral judgment, the idea of jugaad needs to be thought about in equally creative ways, not only in the sense of built fabrics and creative solutions, but also the ways in which this creativity is embodied throughout various sociopolitical strata and practices. 

Credits: Image of Jugaad Buggy from Meanest Indian. Image of Knife Sharpener from Ben Piven. Image of Dharavi Houses from lecercleImage of Delhi Wires from Kannanokannan.

Urban Photographer's Life's Work Discovered


Vivian Maier's photographs of street life in New York and Chicago have been compared to the work of Walker Evans and other masters of the genre. Until she died in 2009 at 83, almost no one knew her name. Born in New York City in 1926, she spent most of her life as a nanny. A family for whom she worked for 17 years say they never saw her make or receive a single phone call.

Maier's talent came to light in 2007, when 26-year-old John Maloof, who was working on a book about his Chicago neighborhood, purchased her negatives at an auction. He found 30,000 black-and-white photographs that Maier took on her days off, most from the 1950s and 60s and many of marginalized urban characters. He didn't realize what a treasure trove they were until he posted them on Flickr and got an overwhelming response. 

Maloof has created a blog dedicated to Maier, and fundraising is under way for a book and film on her life and work.






 Credits: Photographs by Vivian Maier.

Hanging Out in the Polis with Cute and Fuzzy



Here at polis we usually write about cities, social transformation, new urban innovations, featured artists and even now and then a beautiful picture or film that captures our imagination of what the "urban" is or can be.

But, who says that polis and The Polis cannot be a place for cute and fuzzy critters? Like the fat squirrel that lives outside of my apartment in Berkeley.

I have been watching this little gal/guy over several weeks as it seeks comfortable surfaces where it can lay its body and receive some warmth from below and above. Most importantly, I imagine, from its favorite spot on my front yard fence, it monitors the situation in case a predator like cat passes by. From its high reconnaissance post, it seems at times to be monitoring me more than anything else.

I haven't named it, since this step would surely represent a colonial project of anthropo-morphism. I'd rather allow our ambiguous relationship to remain mysterious and full of wonder, like the one described in one of my favorite short stories from Julio Cortazar: Axoltl.

Instead, I will use adjectives, which equally evidence my anthropomorphic gaze. Indeed words get in the way of a special relationship. What is certain is that cute and fuzzy (C&F) has become a companion during my long hours of dissertation writing. But on a more serious note C&F makes me consider the presence of urban wild-life in our cities, which leads me to the following question: should we plan for animals in our cities? Or is this one of those frontiers of planning that ends up being more of a theoretical exercise rather than a practical one?

Back in Miami, where I travel regularly, urban wildlife is always present in one way or another. Miami conjures up Miami Beach, Enrique Iglesias and Pit Bull (the rapper), but this is not the wild-life or wild living that I am referring to. Rather I am considering how everyday life in Miami is filled with brushes against lizards, ibises, manatees, alligators and wild turkeys, boas, and tropical cousins of C&F. Some are invasive species, like the fascinating story of urban parrots liberated from the nets of Miami's Parrot Jungle after Hurricane Andrew. You see them fly in formation loud and proud over the skies of South Florida. There is also the case of the frozen iguanas, solemn and dignified as they encounter the perils of rare subtropical frosts and meet their material terminus to face their metaphysical Iguana creator.



Yes, animal life becomes the fodder for urban legends. They are all around us. Come to think of it, we are the ones encroaching on animals rather that the other way around. Recently a cougar was shot in the streets of Berkeley, making residents aware of their proximity to wildlife. And yet it seems that the only way to conceive of planning solutions for animals involves domesticity in the city, production in the countryside or conservation /preservation in the wilderness. One good example of this determined relationship is the S street Park in Washington DC, colloquially named “Dog S**T Park” by North Dupont Circle residents.



But what if there are other ways to relate and plan for “Cute and fuzzies” and “uglies and hardies”? Practical solutions are evident and ongoing scholarship on Animal Geographies may open a theoretical space for the exploration of new relationships and spatial outcomes with animals.

Certainly, many questions remain: What are our priorities? Where, why and how should we allocate infrastructure funding for such an issue? What techniques do we have available to consider this scope? What is the purpose? These are all valid questions to ask and consider, specially if we realize that we are not alone in the Polis.

Credits: Image of "Cute and Fuzzy" from Hector Fernando Burga.

The Signs of Midan Tahrir

Seventeen days on, and thousands of Egyptian protesters continue to occupy Tahrir Square. Ignoring the onslaught of abuse from government supporters and more recent reports of torture at the hands of the military, the city has become a space of fearless opposition and unrelenting anger. The following video from Oliver Wilkins showcases the captivating words of protest from the signs that populate this site of sociopolitical transformation.



Credits: Video of Tahrir Square from Oliver Wilkins.

Forbes is Making Me Miserable

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” - Oscar Wilde

As a general rule, I am all in favor of people talking about cities. It is both my hobby and my profession, and I am on record as believing that more people thinking about and talking about how and where we live and work and interact is part and parcel to making those relationships more equitable and more sustainable. That, and it means more people reading Polis.

But there are times where I want to pull my eyes out at the things I read.

It starts with Geoffrey West, the physicist whose forays into urbanism he has compared to Kepler's discoveries in physics. As my fellow Polisian Anna Fogel points out, there is some redeeming value to his work, which attempts to reduce all urban activity anywhere to points on a linear regression. Efficiency is a part of the urban conundrum, and some basic "truths" about the correlation between growth rates and infrastructure could help with service provision in an urbanizing world. The New York Times helps West's case by giving the sole rebuttal to Joel Kotkin, the world's leading promoter of suburban life. Yet the argument is a bit absurd, because West and his partners, like Kotkin, never really bother to define what a city is — they just take data attached to a name, never thinking about the region or the metropolis. They talk of Riverside, California as if it is a stand-alone place, rather than a place enmeshed in a larger metropolitan region. If they want to play city as organism, this is their organism.

The region as the true organism is a fact that Jane Jacobs pointed out in Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, two great books that I will add to my list of great Jacobs' ideas that seem to get forgotten in the fetishization of the "sidewalk ballet." Jacobs is building on ideas about innovation and urban interaction pioneered by Simmel and the Chicago School of Urban Sociology a century ago, a fact pointed out by a nice New York Times reader in Dallas, and which are the underpinning for decades worth of economic geography. Maybe we feel better now that a physicist used math to tell us something we have known for a century.

That said, I will take West and an army of data-crunching physicist-urbanists over the hyperbolic dystopian garbage that Forbes is slinging about "America's 20 Most Miserable Cities." It is based on a vague "methodology" that somehow combines real estate prices, unemployment rates, losing sports teams, tax rates, commute times, crime and bad weather into a frothy cocktail which spits out a list of "miserable places." The editors are even kind enough to give us a handy slide show so that you can see a picture of each miserable place, usually a foreclosed house or a protest sign.

This "index" contributes nothing to our knowledge of places or our hopes of making anything better, and is essentially nothing but the TMZ of urban journalism, designed to produce blog posts and generate traffic to their website. But what is most galling is the fact that a ruling class mouthpiece like Forbes saw not a shred of irony in the overwhelming relationship between the places on its list and the foreclosure crisis and subsequent economic downtown, and, more critically, the fact that the "happy places" are doing quite fine after a Wall Street bailout and resurgent corporate profits amidst stagnant wages and property values for the middle and working class. There are "miserable places" everywhere in the United States now thanks to the economic logic pushed by Steve Forbes and his comrades over the years in every Metropolitan Statistical Area (what they mean by city) — some are just lucky enough to get their picture in the magazine.

Credits: Image of Lyon by author, image of the cover of CATWON cribbed from the Amazon.

Designing Consumer Experiences: What Can Industrialized Countries Learn from Emerging Economies?

Some time in the thick of winter last December, I stopped by a supermarket located in a low-income neighborhood in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio.



The visit was motivated by a desire to understand a typical urban consumer's experience on the path to purchase and consumption. Winter aside, this particular supermarket felt heavy with an air of malaise and neglect, but most strikingly, it was bereft of the usual embellishments one would expect from in-store advertising -- no brightly colored discount stickers or islands of product in the aisles. There were simply rows upon rows of product and prices on business card-sized paper, all situated somewhere between haphazard and order. Implicit within this lack of consumerist fanfare is a sinking suspicion that the creators of this shopping environment had deemed their low-income customers not worth advertising to, or even lifting a finger for.

This rather bleak experience sparked a thought:  if most of us go through life spending a considerable amount of time in places of purchase and consumption (be it the city supermarket or the local fast food joint), then surely a lifetime of frequenting these consumer spaces has some meaningful impact on one's outlook on life. For the brand marketer whose job is to design consumer spaces for the dollar-store clientele, it stops becoming a question of, "why bother with in-store advertising if the only thing my customer cares about is a low price tag?" Rather, the question becomes, "can a consumer space impact the sense of self-worth and aspiration for the community that it serves -- and what are we to do about this?"

In contrast to my experience in Cincinnati, I encountered a brightly decked grocery shop, replete with natural light and entirely pleasant by way of shopping experience -- while in a lower-income neighborhood in Jakarta, Indonesia. (When translated, the shop name "ceriamart" approximates to "cheery market"):


Nearby, a mom-and-pop shop didn't quite have the same embellishments, but the shop's orientation puts customer service at the front and center of the consumer experience:



The shop adjoined to a gas station in Kuala Lumpur took the trouble to adopt Ikea-esque information design:



Having experienced the harshly lit desolation of Walmarts at the outskirts of several major cities in the United States, I found it surprisingly uplifting to walk into a gaily lit, bountiful Walmart in the city of Shenzhen, China. One could argue a similar comparison for the McDonalds fast food joint in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, when contrasted with the McDonalds in downtown San Francisco. Granted, brands that traditionally cater to lower income communities in the U.S. tend to position themselves with the rising middle class when exported to emerging economies.

So what can we learn from this exercise in comparing urban consumer experiences in emerging countries, vis-a-vis that of industrialized countries? Perhaps the difference between consumer experiences in emerging and industrialized countries can be summed up as the difference between optimism and cynicism; aspiration and angst. For many emerging economies pulling out of the backwaters and into a burgeoning middle class, hope and optimism abounds -- and so does the sense of striving towards a better life. For more developed economies that have seen the failure of institutions over and over again, its players are more cynical, jaded, ambivalent. These disparate perspectives are reflected in the way both customers and corporations embrace consumer culture.

In his article, Design and Human Behavior: The Sociology of Architecture, William Du Bois contends:
Every decision on design has consequences for behavior. Each is an opportunity to influence interaction. We can either allow those consequences to happen by chance, or consciously design for human interaction. We can gear every design decision to how it will influence human actors. 
Should we thus hold designers, brand marketers, retailers and restaurateurs to a moral obligation to consider how consumer spaces affect a sense of dignity and self-worth? Is there a way for the industrialized and jaded to break out of the vicious cycle of cynicism and return to a state of optimism -- or more cogently, simply demand more from those who design our spaces and interactions? And at the end of the day, can we materially measure the social and economic upside of investing more time and effort in designing good consumer environments?

To sketch out a possible experiment to begin with: for a particular underserved urban neighborhood, start by putting in the effort and thought into redesigning its high-traffic consumer touchpoints (the McDonalds and Family Dollars in the neighborhood) in the way that we would for the Macys and Nieman Marcuses of the world, run this experiment against a control over a period of several years, and observe any overall qualitative or quantitative impact on the community against a set of socioeconomic measures. The devil is certainly in the details, but I'd love to hear more erudite thoughts than mine on this -- for what it's worth, it would all be in the service of eliminating those grocery aisles of dread, malaise and neglect. 

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Stories of the Suburbs








































Music, film, and (sub)urbanism are set to collide next week in screenings of the short film Scenes from the Suburbs - a collaboration between Arcade Fire and Spike Jonze, which will run from 12-18 February at the Berlinale.

While the film, like the album, will re-present the isolation and longing of suburban life in a nostalgic and exquisitely rendered piece of art, designers are concurrently re-imagining the future meaning and spatial uses of suburbia.  Both the physical remnants of suburban infrastructure as well as the lives that depend on them must adapt to a more sustainable model of peri-urban life in order to transcend the iconography of 'Suburbs' from the mid-to-late 20th century.

In a way of circumventing the arguments of 'more density v. less density', one can instead concentrate on the creation of responsive densities - landscapes that recalibrate previously established planning models for new uses and lifestyles, as suggested in 'Retrofitting Suburbia'.  What will the next generation's 'Scenes from the Suburbs' tell us? 


Credits: Image of film poster from Arcade Fire