Deforestation Bill in Brazil: Resposibility of Urban Citizens and Planners

Last Tuesday, the Brazilian Parliament passed a bill that eases restrictions on deforestation, and then granted amnesty to those who have illegally deforested up to 2008. Despite the Government's international commitments (80% deforestation reduction by 2020) and the president's explicit position against the bill, it was passed by a margin of 410 to 63. According to Greenpeace, the bill represents a death sentence for 86 million hectares of Brazilian forests, far more than the amount deforested in the entire history of the Amazon region. Fortunately, the battle to save Brazilian forests from such an ecological catastrophe is still not lost, as the bill still has to be approved by the Senate and the president has veto power (which is rarely used because of its negative political implications).

Deforestation is part of the urban ecological foodprint, a phenomenon that is masterfully illustrated in the film Green. Urban areas are by far the main consumers of tropical wood and paper from deforestation, as well as meat, soybeans (mainly used to feed animals raised for meat production), and biofuels, the main products coming from deforested areas in Brazil. The bill is a direct threat to the world's most biodiverse region, among the last of nature's pristine frontiers and, according Brazilian members of the IPCC, "with the deforestation, there will be an increase in the release of carbon to the athmosphere, afecting the microclimate, influencing the rain regime, and provoking soil erosion." Indeed, deforestation accounts for almost 20% of CO2 emmisions, and if we consider that it is primarily done to gain space for agriculture, then it accounts for more than 30% of CO2 emmisions.

Green film trailer from Patrick Rouxel on Vimeo.

Deforestation should be taken into consideration in urban planning and city management as an indirect consequence of unsustainable urban life and development. Through unrestricted consumption of biofuels, wood, paper, and meat, citizens, planners, and local government are responsible for what is happening in Borneo and the Amazon region, along with many other threatened forests around the globe.

Credits: Photo of ongoing deforestation in Brazil, from Greenpeace.

Interlude: A City Without Text

At a subway station in Barcelona, the breathtaking Sagrada Familia appears purely by way of its iconic silhouette, without text:

From the same vantage point, the cathedral in progress:

In making cities accessible across languages and cultures, a thought experiment worth considering might be a city post-text, based on iconic forms of universal recognition. While much is lost in the absence of words, it may be possible to communicate largely through images. Perhaps there are similar opportunities in using sound for the sight-impaired, like the tweeting noise that lets people know when it's safe to cross an intersection.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

American Street Food: The Food Truck Craze

The food truck phenomenon has spread through a number of major cities in the United States, from New York to Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. For those who have lived in other parts of the world, especially in South and Southeast Asia, this craze over street food may seem strange. In Chennai, I used to walk across the street in the morning to have an omelet made by a man sitting in front of a skillet on the sidewalk.

New York Magazine agrees that, while food trucks are obviously not new in New York — from hot dogs to roasted nuts to halal chicken and rice — the difference in current trucks is the "elevation of the form," which they explain in a review of the top 25 trucks in the city. This heightened level of sophistication is reflected in DC as well — from the number of trucks to the types of food to the ways of tracking them. The trend has inspired websites dedicated to tracking food trucks (one lists not only where the trucks are, but also retired food trucks and trucks that are coming soon), articles that rank the top food trucks (from lobster rolls to cupcakes to Korean tacos), entire blogs dedicated to reporting on experiences with food trucks (such as JP, who has committed to eating every lunch for the next year at food trucks), and tense debates over kosher regulations of specific trucks

Credits: Images of street vendors in Bangladesh and the Philippines, respectively, by Anna Fogel.

DiverCity: An Interview With Ana Betancour

For those spending Saturday in Gothenburg, Sweden, the seminar Urban Cultures: On Art, Architecture, Social Movements, and Everyday Life is taking place at the Gothenburg City Museum on May 28th.

The lineup includes Stockholm architect and artist Tor Lindstrand with his group Economy, Argentinian photographer Oriana Elicabe of Rebel Voices, London-based design practice Post Works, and Spanish artist-activist collective Enmedio.

The program is part of a project called DiverCity, founded by architect, professor, and artist Ana Betancour. We interviewed Ana recently about her work.

One of the aims of DiverCity is to deepen contemporary discourse on sustainability. In your mind, what is currently missing?

It predominantly focuses on technical and physical aspects of urban development. Thus, sustainability becomes a way of sustaining a contemporary way of living — and sustainable strategies a way of optimizing energy, consumption, etc.

There is an urgent need to address and expand the debate on urban ecology, to focus on issues of cultural and social representation — what kind of everyday life do we imagine and for whom are we creating a sustainable urban future? Who makes these choices and where and how do they operate?

Your work is international in scope, including a fascinating study of residential segregation and exclusion in Mexico. Have you noticed any similar situations in Sweden and Gothenburg?

Raising issues of exclusion and segregation requires a closer examination and understanding of the structures of power that create and reinforce these conditions, whether in Latin America, Africa, Asia, or Europe.

The intention in this is to find ways to begin to understand and translate cultural differences in urban development, involving local processes and space for negotiation. What are the modes of working, and what is the role artistic and spatial practices can have in social, environmental, and political change? How can we develop strategies for a social and ecological urban development process? How can we develop a city of diversity?

The seminar on Saturday will focus on art in relation to public space and architecture. What new developments do you foresee in this field? Can art be a viable approach to changing cities?

"Art in the Public Space," "Art as Intervention," "Art and its Context," and "Art and Social Critique" refer to rethinking the conventional role of the spectator as a passive receiver and consumer. They suggest a shift in the creative process and new tendencies in artistic practice, where the focus is not the work of art or the object, but the tools, strategies, and modes of working.

Networks of art activism, collaborative art projects, and direct acts of civil disobedience also suggest a notable shift in the role of the artist. Here the creative processes and artworks are defined as part of networks, and these networks are, by extension, political subjects.

These artistic practices involve the social and cultural production of space, and the role of artistic production in creating a framework for spatial negotiations. The artist/architect becomes a cultural producer and a node within local and global social networks, helping to generate public debate.

What can we expect from the seminar?

We have invited various artists from Barcelona, London, and Hamburg to present their ways of working, with the aim of catalyzing public debate on the role of art and architecture in social change.

The seminar presents a series of artistic groups, forms of creative dissent, and collaborative art projects at the intersection of public art and new social movements. These projects are developed in response to processes of homogenization, gentrification, and privatization.

Exploring these practices — the tools, strategies, modes of working — might lead to alternative strategies and frameworks for action, drawing upon the notion of culture as a resource to be mobilized for social justice.  

Ana Betancour teaches at the A + URL Architecture + Urban Research Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and at the Chalmers School of Architecture in Gothenburg. She is also a partner at the architectural practice U+A Agency. 

Credits: Photo of V de vivienda, a demonstration for affordable housing in Barcelona, from Oriana Eliçabe. Photo of Ana Betancour from Ana Betancour.

The Visible Pulse of Politics in Buenos Aires

During the past few months, I have been struck by one of the many wonders of Buenos Aires: how blatantly politics resonates and vibrates throughout the city, particularly around the downtown core. From spontaneous and permanently installed protests to more static representations, such as monuments and ("retouched") political campaign billboards announcing upcoming elections, there appears to always be some visible, palpable movement questioning the status quo. Arguably the heart of this pulse can be seen, and indeed felt, walking down the Avenida de Mayo from Plaza Congreso to the Plaza de Mayo, the avenue connecting the executive and legislative powers of the city and nation. Graffiti adorns the walls for several blocks and protests are located strategically along this axis, with permanent camp-outs becoming more common as one nears Plaza de Mayo.

The following photos are a few of many taken while walking down the Avenida de Mayo from the Plaza Congreso to Plaza de Mayo in late April.

The Kolla people in front of Congress demanding historic reparation and the return of their lands.

Graffiti (current and past layers) for a variety of political parties and candidates on the sidewalk in front of Congress.

Standard Bank on Avenida de Mayo: "Money cannot be eaten," "Justice for Cromañon," and "Long live popular rebellion."

The Qom people camped on Avenida de Mayo and 9 de Julio demanding a meeting with the President and for multinationals to leave their lands in northern Argentina.

Veterans of the Falkland War have been camped out in the Plaza de Mayo for over 2 years demanding recognition. At left, the white shawl of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is painted on the ground where they march every Thursday.

Credits: Photos by Melissa Garcia Lamarca.

Featured Quote: Jennifer Robinson on Comparative Urban Studies

"The very fact that cities exist in a world of other cities means that any attempt at a general or theoretical statement about cities either depends upon or invites comparative reflection. What constitutes a city, how are cities organized, what happens in them, where are they going? — in a world of cities these and many other questions invoke a comparative gesture. The budding theorist finds herself asking of the many studies she reads from different parts of the world: are these processes the same in the city I know? Are they perhaps similar but for different reasons? Or are the issues that are being considered of limited relevance to pressing issues in the contexts I am familiar with? And yet, in the generalized functioning of this comparative feature of urban studies, the "world of cities" has been analytically truncated, meaning that the experiences of many cities around the world have been ignored even as the broadest conclusions about contemporary urbanity are being drawn. I suggest that revitalizing the comparative gesture is an important requirement for an international and post-colonial approach to urban studies."

Jennifer Robinson, from "Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2011.

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

Credits: Image of "Scary Shoreditch" from pureandapplied.

'Intimate City': Portraying Urban Life Through Dance

In the middle of a performance of “Intimate City,” a dance piece by emerging choreographer Jenni Bregman, a cell phone interrupted with the familiar scales of a text message. For a split second, the audience froze, fearing embarrassment. When they realized the phone was part of the soundtrack, the line between stage and street blurred.

Making people recognize their own behavior was one of Bregman’s main goals for “Intimate City,” which she based on her observations of urban life in San Francisco. She created the piece – her first full-length work – as a resident artist at The Garage, a community-focused performing arts space in San Francisco. Bregman took notes on how people behaved on the train, on the street corner, and in elevators. She then translated these movements into choreography and worked with a musician to create a soundtrack.

Twelve weeks later, nine dancers enacted the sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic ballet of human interactions in crowded urban spaces, in the appropriately intimate Garage venue. They awoke alone, unaware that others were performing the same motions just behind the wall. They got down on their marks and raced off into high-speed streets, ensconced in headphones. They maneuvered awkwardly in a crowded elevator, avoiding contact at all costs.

Excerpt from Intimate City - elevator from Jenni Bregman on Vimeo.

Isolation caused by our attachment to devices was among the main themes that concerned Bregman.

“We’re in the city together, but we’re really ignoring each other,” she said. “It’s a defense mechanism.”

But there was room for hope in Bregman’s city. Friends hugged, a woman connected with memories through a three-dimensional scrapbook, people took turns catching one another when they fell. Now and then, dancers revealed red paper hearts taped to their chests, concealed just beneath the surface.

“We constantly make an effort to cover that with corporate armor or with headphones, but it’s right there,” Bregman said. “You can, in the right circumstances, reveal that.”

Bregman’s next show will take her further from the ground. She will perform with the Printz Dance Project in “Hover Space,” an evening-length work that includes a floating floor, in early December.

Credits: Photo of paper heart by Sunshine Jones. 

How Smart Should a City Be?

Imagine a city that can anticipate your needs and desires, and provide you with information you'll need to know based on what it knows about you. Such is the vision of many in the field of urban and ubiquitous computing, and it is a discourse that is becoming more popular and powerful.

User experience designer and writer Adam Greenfield challenges this vision of techno-utopia. Instead of cities that are smart, he prefers ones that make us smarter. Greenfield believes that people will always be much better at making sense of the world than artificial intelligence. He proposes a network of open public "objects" (data collected from, and generated in, public space) that can be understood and used by the public.

Of course, this model is not without its challenges. Government policies surrounding privacy, corporate interests in ownership of data, and standardization of a presentation layer are just a few that come to mind. Tackling these challenges may seem like a daunting task, but hopefully these kinds of conversations will continue and attract the attention of people with the right amount of influence to make things happen.

Adam Greenfield is the founder of the urban systems design practice Urbanscale. He is also a former head of design direction at Nokia and has taught at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Credits: Video from Blinkenlichten TV.

Featured Artist: LAB at Rockwell Group

Plug-in-Play, an installation for the 2010 01SJ Biennial, encourages passersby in downtown San Jose to participate in a shared urban video-game experience. Created by the LAB at Rockwell Group, the project fulfills the LAB's ambition to "explore, experiment, and embed interactive experiences augmented with digital technology in objects, environments, and stories." The Plug-in-Play site includes the following description:
Plug-in-Play represents a playground of ideas related to how we engage our urban environments. By connecting a number of objects (some existing and some staged) in San Jose City Hall Plaza to the building facade via oversized theatrical plugs, we suggest a new type of environment wherein social interactions, citizenship, and personal activities are more dynamically reflected. As visitors interact with objects on the plaza or connect to the installation via social networks, this physical and virtual activity is registered through the projection of an abstracted urban landscape on the facade of City Hall. The resulting effect constitutes an attempt to create a more accurate representation of the vitality and complexity of our urban environments.
For the 2008 11th Annual Venice Architecture Biennale, the LAB created an installation called Hall of Fragments, which "disengages visitors from the bricks and mortar of Venice and connects them to the alternative world of 'Architecture Beyond Building' through an immersive and interactive environment constructed from iconic films."

Credits: Video from Plug-in-Play.

Spain's Plazas: The Takeover

This past Sunday, May 15th, over 130,000 people in more than 60 cities across Spain took to the streets under the banner of, and to claim, Democracia Real YA (Real Democracy NOW). As 13 of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities and over 8,000 municipalities are holding elections tomorrow, Sunday May 22nd, the mobilizations were a popular expression of widespread anger and dismay about Spain’s increasingly dire economic, social, and political situation. Unemployment officially reached 21% in April, double Europe’s average. An astounding 42% of youth under 30 can’t find work, creating a generation of self-named Youth without a Future. Many people who do have jobs struggle to make ends meet, as they are stuck in the low-wage economy, netting one thousand Euros per month (thus known as "mileuristas"). Meanwhile government corruption scandals and charges on both the right and the left litter the papers across the country, and actions taken to recover from the 2008 crisis have not shown any long-term success.

Since last Sunday’s mobilization, what is being called the 15-M Movement has grown and spread like wildfire across the country. Plazas are now being occupied in over 150 cities across Spain, despite the Electoral Board’s ban on protests the day before elections. Popular assemblies and direct democracy is in action, as people discuss and debate proposals ranging from voting strategies in tomorrow's elections to broader reforms of the democratic system.

Madrid's Plaza del Sol on Friday, May 20th. Estimated 25,000 people.

Thousands of people protesting in Barcelona's Plaça Catalyuna on Friday, May 20th.

Sevilla's Plaza de la Encarnación on Friday May, 20th. Estimated 4,000 people.

Popular assembly in Madrid's Plaza del Sol on Friday, May 20th.

Continuous news is available through a highly organised virtual network. Follow the developments – and likely find a solidarity protest in your city! – through Twitter (#democraciarealya, #spanishrevolution, #acampadasol, #nonosvamos, #yeswecamp are just a few of many), Facebook (Spanish Revolution), and/or Toma la Plaza. El País also has good coverage (in English here). And more news to come on Polis.

Credits: All images from El País.

Planning Histories Collide in Józsefváros, by Utazó

Photo by habeebee, via

In the cities of the former Habsburg Empire, you’re bound to find a neighborhood called Josephstadt (Józsefváros in Hungarian). Since at least the early 1980s, the Józsefváros in Budapest has been a symbol of prostitution, urban blight, and segregation. It is no wonder that "The District," a 2004 animated film, depicts the neighborhood as a battle ground for Roma and Hungarian drug gangs. As part of recent neoliberal restructuring, district politicians and real-estate developers have sought to rebrand Józsefváros as a trendy residential area.

Photo by Bálint Rigó.

In developing a post-Communist identity for Budapest, public intellectuals have looked to the late 19th century as a "golden age" characterized by peaceful multicultural coexistence, urbanization, and economic boom. This has resulted in a mimicry of styles associated with the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Through EU- and state-sponsored projects, inner-city streets have received cobblestone paving, lamp posts, and street benches similar to those of a hundred years ago. Municipal officials have renamed streets based on the 1896 map: Lenin Boulevard is now Joseph Boulevard, Mayakovsky Street is King Street, and so on. There has been a veritable transformation of dilapidated apartment buildings in downtown Budapest, often limited to the facades.

Photo by Qtya, via

Józsefváros has been a primary site of redevelopment. The inner section has gentrified in the past two decades, with the substantial Roma population and pensioners being pushed farther and farther out. When you cross the main boulevard that divides the neighborhood, you arrive at the outer section, which has been a testing ground for architects and planners for many years. The 19th-century apartment buildings are poorly constructed and uncomfortable, often with communal bathrooms. Some areas have experienced a "shock therapy" approach to redevelopment, while others have been completely abandoned.

Photo by Bálint Rigó.

Ghosts in the Machine

Proposal for a second tunnel through the East Bay Hills, 1958.

The longer I go about this planning and urbanism business, the more I become fascinated with the plans that never made it off the table, particularly transportation plans from the San Francisco Bay Area, images of which accompany this post (a debt to Eric Fischer for many of them). As a member of the post-modernism generation (very much meant in the after-modernism sense), we inherited not a world where urban thinkers-cum-architecture gods-cum regional scientists felt that they could do anything anywhere to anyone, but a much more humbled profession, at least in the United States.

1966 regional transportation plan.

This is largely a good thing. Urbanism is not science, and never will be, and the modernist era was ego-driven, ideological, racist, and often so wrong about humans and their habits and desires as to be almost irrational, despite its fetish for rationality and its supposed adherence to the project of the enlightenment.

A second bay bridge that never was, 1949.

The first wave of post-modernism — and again, I wish the intellectual world would start thinking more historically about this term — was more about learning to preserve what was good, be it sidewalk ballets, open space, historical neighborhoods, local cultures. Unfortunately, this reaction to the sins and excess of modernism often morphed into a nostalgia-driven NIMBYism, and a general blindness to the fact that there was still a lot of work to be done in the world. Not only had modernism failed to solve many of the problems of the world, it created new ones of its own, ones that the neoliberal era, with its market fetishes and generally conservative ethos of preserving the status quo, has done little to change. Many people are still left on the outside looking in.

Mid-State Tollway, 1993 (neoliberal modernism at its worst).

More recently — and again I am talking about the US, although this is big in Europe as well — we have seen the proliferation of DIY urbanism: innumerable small projects, mini-interventions, food carts, Park-ing days and event driven spectacles, a strange hybrid of the postmodern and Guy Debord. It certainly makes the urban more fun and more interesting, and it is wonderful to see how many people — from artists to farmers — are now thinking about space and place and people in new ways, pushing the professional urban classes to think beyond Autocad and Excel, and, more importantly, to rethink who is an urbanist.

Proposed Antioch BART Station, 1976.

But all the DIY planning in the world is not capable of moving hundreds and thousands of people from one part of the region to another for work, nor can it transport water long distances, let alone make it drinkable. As I have argued before, we need some form of paramodern planning, a way where we can make space for everyone to do little things on their own (and reap the collective benefit of innumerable individual actions) while simultaneously making some key big decisions about mass transportation, energy and water infrastructure, and large public spaces like stadiums, convention centers, hospitals, and universities. My vision of the paramodern involves a deregulation of the micro and a reinvigoration of the macro, albeit one infused with principles and processes of justice and democracy, and a humbled reading of our past failures.

Proposed Pittsburg Station, 1976.

This will necessarily involve admitting, especially on the left, that some of the plans left on the table should have been built. Perhaps not the freeways you see above, but certainly the last two images of BART transit stations in Antioch and Pittsburg, part of the largely unbuilt second phase of the 1956! plan, which sadly are just ghosts in a traffic-choked machine.

Credits: Images of the Shepherd Canyon freeway, 1966 regional transport plan, and 1949 second crossing from Eric Fischer's epic collection of Bay Area maps. Mid-state tollway map from the state DOT. BART renderings from the 1976 Antioch-Pittsburg BART extension plan.

Siam Dreams

The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Baan Eua-Arthorn Bang Chalong Project, National Housing Authority (Thailand).

On first impression, Bangkok is a city of contrasts, speaking through space about pressures on land acquisition, targeted housing supply, and low-income community empowerment. In 2003, the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI) began implementation of the government-initiated Baan Mankong Collective Housing Program in an attempt to enable low-income communities to effectively save and upgrade their housing and infrastructure.

The upgrading efforts along the Bang Bua canal have been particularly successful in building the capacities of informal settlement dwellers to transform their environment. Operating as a network of organized communities, the program has allowed its members to reach collective consensus on the use and appropriation of canal-side residential land. The process is driven by local citizens, and includes participatory design practices implemented by community architects to facilitate fundamental decisions on plot allocation and phases of construction.

While the Baan Mankong Program certainly yields positive results, its socio-spatial dynamics are often fragmented and rigid in construction typology and materials. With further emphasis on the efficient design of housing and public space, the program could bring architects into an area that has potential to become a prime model for slum upgrading.

Canal-side settlement in the Bang Khen District of Bangkok.

Upgraded canal-side settlement in the Baan Mankong Collective Housing Program.

Corrugated metal roof and electrical infrastructure in upgraded settlement.

Credits: All photos of Bangkok by Andrew Wade.

Opening Night: ExpoTENtial's Par Corps Lab

Can urban intervention create opportunities for fitness in public spaces? Can well-placed "extensions" to existing urban structures, such as scaffolding or bike racks, turn a city into a free gym? Par Corps Lab — led by curator Shonquis Moreno, Robyne Kassen and Sarah Gluck (Urban Movement), and Tucker Viemeister (Rockwell Lab) — investigates these possibilities through a series of physical experiments in the city of New York. Observations of passersby, as well as the skill sets of team members (Gluck is also a yoga instructor), led to the concept of cities as exercise machines. As a preliminary research phase, the documented experiments are presented as a film installation designed by Pure+Applied, which will open this evening at the Center for Architecture's Helfand Gallery.

Par Corps Lab is one of ten teams participating in ExpoTENtial, an ongoing platform for collaboration and festival based in New York City. The festival opened earlier this month with Hug a Worm Lab and Urban Alchemy Lab, each addressing different sustainability-related challenges via interdisciplinary approaches to design practice. The results aim to foster conversation and engagement among urban communities around ideas for a slower, smarter, livelier, and healthier experience in cities.
Program director and curator Laetitia Wolff (futureflair) is an active mediator and synthesizer of design and cultural practice. In 2005, her project ValueMeal: Design and (over)Eating, following its second showing at the AIA Center for Architecture, triggered a dialogue with the Department of Health and became a direct inspiration for the Fit City Conference. ExpoTENtial is hosting a fundraiser through Kickstarter to help fund the rest of the labs and continue the conversations on those that have already started. The fundraiser will end on May 31st.

ExpoTENtial's Par Corps Lab opens on Monday, May 16th, at the Center for Architecture. It is on view until May 31st. The Sixth Annual Fit City Conference opens the following day, May 17th, also at the Center for Architecture.

Credits: Images from futureflair. Logo design by Pure+Applied.