Cities in Dystopian Science Fiction



For the urbanist, comparing the 1982 film "Blade Runner" and its progenitor, the literary classic "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," is as rich and startling as it would be for any science fiction enthusiast — especially with respect to its choice of urban setting. While the novelist Phillip K. Dick imagined the protagonist Rick Deckard roaming (or more accurately, hovercraft-flying) the "kipple-ized," isolated urban degradation of post-fallout San Francisco, director Ridley Scott chose Los Angeles as the setting for this dystopian narrative, dark and buzzing with neon and people.



Scott may have found a post-human setting more easily conceived by mashing up LA's infamous sprawl with visions of vertical buildup; the hilly ebullience of modern-day San Francisco, with its Victorians and Edwardians, would need convincing visual translation into entropy on screen. The landmarks to which Dick anchors the book — the Mission Police Station, the San Francisco Opera House, a fictional pet hospital on Van Ness Street — dissolve into generic cityscape ephemera in the film, save the use of the Bradbury Building, a historical architectural landmark in downtown LA.



The city — and its associated notions of chaos, crime, daily antagonism and almost subhuman compact living — are often integral to the dystopian science fiction narrative as purveyor of character and place. At the same time, in contemporary reality, the city is also the vibrant setting for the collision of ideas and creativity, a symbol of modernity and economic opportunity. Perhaps the act of constantly re-imagining and revitalizing our urban environments — through architecture, urban planning, enterprise and a vocal and vital grassroots — will be crucial to keeping dystopian realities at bay.

Credits: "Blade Runner" images from Wikia. Photo of the Bradbury Building by Min Li Chan.

+ share

On the Streets of Alexandria, Egypt



The trial against two policemen charged with the death of Khaled Saeed has just ended, with the policemen sentenced to seven years in prison. Staying in Alexandria, Egypt, just a few blocks from the courthouse, I've talked to many people who believe that the sentence is far too short. However, there has been little evidence of public protest.

While walking to the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, I've passed the courthouse many times. Young military men gathered outside the building in tanks, with their guns pointed toward the street.



I have been documenting a four-day international urban planning conference called New Urban Topologies, which included participants from Stockholm, Alexandria, Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Istanbul and Beirut.



An architect from Lebanon expressed how strange she felt walking just one meter from the tanks. "I've experienced war, but I've never been so close to the military," she said. "We in Beirut always try to avoid these kind of gatherings.”

But we followed the locals' lead and continued to stroll. Khaled Saeed's Facebook profile picture was stenciled on bus stops by a local activist. We passed honking minibuses and taxis, trying to move forward without much help from street signs or traffic lights. We passed private beaches, luxury hotels and the many colonial villas in decay, protected by law until collapse. We passed the informal housing areas, multi-story buildings erected out of necessity, without permission or design regulations. We passed the old cotton district, once a vibrant industrial area where many of the factories now stand empty. We passed the archaeological excavations, showing traces of a city with a deeply layered history. Alexandria: the metropolitan city, the intellectual city, the divided city, and now a city of hope. The Alexandrians I've talked to have chosen optimism.


Site where the office building of the governor of Alexandria stood before the revolution.

Yet the atmosphere in the city is tense. There is hope, but also frustration in the air. The political situation is uncertain, and the unemployment rate high. Private parks have opened. The governor's office has been razed. Street vendors are no longer harassed by the police. People talk about politics in public. Taking part in this discussion at this time is something I'll never forget.


The Cotton District.

Trenton Makes, The World Takes



It is a story we’ve heard before: In the early 20th century, Trenton, N.J., was a booming, industrial city with an economy based on manufacturing. In the 1960s and 1970s, factories and industries began closing, and like many manufacturing cities along the steel belt, it has been in sharp decline for the last 40 years. Although the story of shrinking American cities is common, few have a slogan that so clearly describes their past and present.

Opened in 1806, the Lower Trenton Bridge was the first to span the Delaware River. The slogan, “Trenton Makes The World Takes” was first hung on the bridge in 1935, after being adopted as the city’s slogan in 1917, and is widely visible from the highway and train tracks that whiz commuters past Trenton, up and down the East Coast. In 1917, the slogan referenced Trenton’s leading manufacturing role; today, it emphasizes shrinking opportunities in the capital city, where the largest employer is the state of New Jersey and there are high rates of crime, unemployment and poverty. 

Credits: Image of the Lower Trenton Bridge from artskooldamage.blogspot.com.

+ share

Capitalism is Crisis: OccupyLSX



Having heard about Occupy London Stock Exchange (OccupyLSX) and read the recent Polis post on it, I couldn’t resist checking out the action during a short visit to London last week. Despite the fact that St. Paul’s Cathedral closed and several popular media accounts have attempted to discredit the movement (the Telegraph and Guardian, for example), the occupation unsurprisingly continues to be strong and highly organized.


OccupyLSX info tent with information on the movement.


The food tent on the east side of St. Paul's Cathedral.


The legal aid tent on the east side of St. Paul's Cathedral.


The Starbooks occupation library at OccupyLSX.

Interlude: Sidewalks of Sao Paulo

Just as a flaneur in Hong Kong would be remiss in his or her explorations without looking up into the density of urban life that occurs in skyscrapers and apartment towers, looking at the ground offers a glimpse of art, utility and public works in a city — from manhole covers and street gravel, to sidewalk collisions of color, texture and pattern.

In this brief photo interlude, I'd like to highlight a photo series by ethnographer Phoebe Kuo, as she documents Sao Paulo underfoot:

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Credits: Photos by pfebes.

+ share

Reinterpreting Bridges as Public Art

From a pedestrian bridge connected to the Maple Leaf Square building in Toronto, Canada, an array of vertical luminaires oscillate in color and geometry based on the movement of passersby. The rhythms of humans and the environment transform the structure of the bridge into a fluid entity. Connection is created by United Visual Artists, a London-based art and design practice that produces work at the intersection of sculpture, architecture, live performance, moving image and digital installation.



Under the New Bridge in Bratislava, Slovakia, an area of about 1,000 square meters is painted with green road paint. This area is also the site of a bus terminal, and is not far from a historic square. The intervention is an attempt to elevate the mood in a stressful environment and provoke a stronger commitment to landscaping on the part of city officials. Green Square was created by the "Urban Interventions" civic association and the Vallo Sadovský Architects.





In New York City, brightly colored plywood shapes fill the negative spaces of the Brooklyn Bridge arches. Depending on the angle and height of viewers, a degree of spatial adjustment is needed to achieve a perfect alignment. The installations were created by artist Martha Clippinger for the 2011 DUMBO Arts Festival.





Creative use of public space on and around bridges offers new ways of experiencing cities. It awakens us to the possibility in all kinds of urban infrastructure. What other forms of public art and urban spectacle can we bring to our everyday environments?

Credits: Video of Connection by United Visual Artists. Images of Green Square from Vallo Sadovsky Architects. Images of Martha Clippinger's DUMBO installation from Perimeters.

+ share

Creative Reuse Transforms Asheville Community



In Asheville, N.C., a small city in the Appalachian mountains, creativity abounds, and so does the need for community transformations. With its beautiful mountain setting and vibrant downtown, Asheville has quickly become a popular destination, drawing visitors and new residents from all over the country and the world. People are drawn to the creative energy flowing through the city's music, art and food.

A recent post about grassroots creativity effectively highlighted the need for a "hidden catalyst," embedding artistic values within local communities to help cities place themselves competitively in the global context. Yet true grassroots creativity should go beyond helping a city compete globally; it should activate and cultivate local resources. In Asheville, the concept of "local" is all the rage, whether it is eating, buying, growing or building. Yet some of its most local resources — people that have lived and called Asheville home for generations — have often been overlooked.

Beyond the galleries, art studios, storefronts and restaurants, the creative spirit is alive and well, engaging local communities in a collaborative effort of social change and transformation. One such place, the Burton Street Community, has been working creatively to transform discarded objects into art, neglected properties into community spaces, and at-risk youth into creative catalysts for change.

The Burton Street Community, founded in 1912, was a thriving black community that gave rise to prominent leaders, a successful agricultural fair and a minor-league baseball team. In 1960, the neighborhood was bisected by the building of Interstate 240. Since then, it has dealt with abandonment, disinvestment, drugs and crime. Throughout these hardships, a strong and active community has persisted. In 2008, faced with the threat of losing 20 more homes as a result of the expansion of the same highway that decimated it half a century before, the neighborhood became proactive. Instead of letting outside forces dictate their future, they decided to define and create the community they wanted to live in — and make it happen on their terms.



Through a partnership with the Asheville Design Center (ADC), a local non-profit community design center, the Burton Street Community developed a neighborhood plan to help articulate and define their future. Residents wanted to ensure that their neighborhood would remain intact, diverse and affordable. They also wanted to activate and support existing resources, such as vacant land and local youth.



Dewayne Barton, a community leader, activist and artist, is working to ensure that as the neighborhood improves, so will the people who call it home. Barton and his wife, Safi Mahaba, a community activist and gardener, bought four adjacent properties in the neighborhood and developed the Burton Street Peace Garden. They have slowly been transforming these spaces, which were covered with weeds, discarded alcohol bottles and syringes, into productive spaces cultivating art, food and environmental justice. The Peace Garden holds a collection of pieces constructed from waste Barton picked up on the streets. The pieces confront a range of issues, including corporate power, media, gentrification, race and the military-industrial complex. Inherent in each of the pieces is a critique about waste and consumption in our society.

Dolores Hayden on Suburbia’s Hope

"Americans have cherished suburbia in many of its forms, but many people feel puzzled and frustrated by the tracts, malls and freeways found in edge nodes and rural fringes. A new generation hopes to start over. The problem is that many people believe that starting over means exerting total design control over elite enclaves or placing isolated houses in undeveloped land. For all the talk of smart growth, what might it mean to be smart? Suburbia is the hinge, the connection between past and future, between old inequalities and new possibilities. In all kinds of existing suburbs, inequalities of gender, class, and race have been embedded in material form. So have unwise environmental choices. To preserve, renovate, and infill the suburban neighborhood of the past can make the suburban city more egalitarian and sustainable."

Dolores Hayden, from Building Suburbia GreenFields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, 2003.

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

Credits: Photo of suburban life by Carl Sandbag, from Mad Magazine c. 1974.

+ share

Cities as Cultural Landscapes



Cultural landscape. What does it mean? Is it a valid way of understanding our role as humans in defining and physically shaping the world around us? Is it useful for solving problems? How can we — as architects, planners, artists, policy makers, citizens — apply insights from this idea toward improving life in cities? I've started exploring these questions in a brief historical overview on cultural landscape in theory and practice. This, along with reading current scholarship on the subject, is helping me better understand the ecological relationships through which urban green space is established, maintained and used. I hope it will evolve into positive action in the outside world.

The word landscape is based on the ancient German word scapjan (to work or do something creative) (Haber 1995: 38), and this process can be physical or psychological. In other words, landscapes are defined through action, including perception. Examining our role as humans in landscape production is of great value in understanding and improving cities. It applies to placemaking, architecture, planning, activism, policy, horticulture and a wide variety of other urban concerns.

German geographer Otto Schlüter was among the first to define cultural landscapes as areas distinguished by the role of humans in their development (Livingstone 1992: 264, Martin 2005: 177). Carl Sauer (left), a human geographer from the United States, began building upon this concept in the 1920s. He saw culture as the primary agent shaping much of the planet's surface (Sauer 1925: 63), rejecting the environmental determinism prominent in many geography schools at the time. He drew upon cultural anthropology and biological sciences, defining himself as "an earth scientist with a slant towards biogeography of which man is a part" (Leighly 1976: 342). Sauer founded a highly influential approach to cultural geography known today as the Berkeley School. It is centered around field-based inquiry into the diffusion of material and non-material cultural traits, the identification of cultural regions based on such traits, and cultural ecology (i.e., how environments are influenced by their inhabitants over time) (Winchester et al. 2003: 17).

By the late 1970s, the Berkeley School faced arguably groundless (Price and Lewis 1993: 1) criticism for adopting a monolithic "reified" and "superorganic" view of culture — focused excessively on the rural and pre-modern — without adequately considering the influence of contingent perceptions and relationships among individuals (Duncan 1980: 181, for an overview see McColl 2005: 223). Such critics drew upon post-structuralism, constructivism, linguistic theory and critical social theory in calling for a new cultural geography (Cosgrove and Jackson 1987: 95). They saw cultural landscapes as multifaceted processes of representation, and not simply imprints of a given culture upon the land (Livingstone 1992: 10). Cultural landscapes were analyzed as "texts" (via interpretative qualitative methods such as discourse analysis) for insight into the ideas and interactions through which they emerged and changed (Johnston et al. 2000: 140).

New cultural geography was criticized during the 1990s for giving rise to a proliferation of relatively arbitrary descriptive studies of "the cultural" that did not sufficiently engage with "substantive" aspects of landscape (i.e., real as opposed to apparent, including the establishment of rights and responsibilities, Olwig 1996: 645), the meaning of culture (Mitchell 2000: 73), and the abuse of power (Barnett and Low 2004: 3). In addressing these concerns, scholars have pointed to the combined representational and material aspects of cultural landscapes, along with the dynamic social, political and economic relationships through which they are produced (Mitchell 1996: 28, Schein 1997: 660). Not all studies associated with new cultural geography ignore these processes, just as not all studies associated with the Berkeley School deserve much of the criticism from new cultural geography. However, the debates have enriched our understanding of cultural landscape and its relevance in practice.

In 1992, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee included cultural landscape in its operational guidelines to represent areas that are only partially human-made. This sparked initiatives to preserve these sites throughout the world (Fowler 2003: 14, PDF). UNESCO defines cultural landscape as places or objects that "represent the combined work of nature and man ... illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal" (UNESCO 2008: 14, PDF). The UNESCO definition is based on the following classifications (ibid: 86, PDF):
  1. The most easily identifiable is the clearly defined landscape designed and created intentionally by man. This embraces garden and parkland landscapes constructed for aesthetic reasons which are often (but not always) associated with religious or other monumental buildings and ensembles.
  2. The second category is the organically evolved landscape. This results from an initial social, economic, administrative and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect that process of evolution in their form and component features. They fall into two sub-categories:
    • a relict (or fossil) landscape is one in which an evolutionary process came to an end at some time in the past, either abruptly or over a period. Its significant distinguishing features are, however, still visible in material form.
    • a continuing landscape is one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time.
  3. The final category is the associative cultural landscape. The inscription of such landscapes on the World Heritage List is justifiable by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent.
UNESCO cultural landscapes differ from cultural and natural heritage based on the official acknowledgement of hybridity between the two — a kind of human-nonhuman coproduction of meaning. Examples include Stari Grad Plain in Croatia, Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe and Mount Wutai in China. There are no UNESCO-designated cultural landscapes in the United States (Mesa Verde, for example, is listed as a cultural site of exceptional archeological value but not a cultural landscape). While I don't see culture as separate from nature, the UNESCO definition is an important acknowledgement of our role in shaping the world around us. At times it's useful to distinguish between degrees to which environments are shaped by humans.

It seems that everything we know is shaped by human action if we include the act of acknowledgement. And we are very much a part of nature. At the same time, as many post-Sauer geographers have noted, social problems should not be "naturalized" (e.g., Mitchell 1996: 26-27) as perpetual and beyond our ability to solve. In light of the questions raised in academic discourse, can cultural landscape be applied in other ways, with a more direct focus on solving ecological problems, from poverty to pollution? How can it help us contribute beneficially to the natural world?

Credits: Photos linked to source.

+ share

Searching for Our Metropolitan President



In 1967, Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher became the first African-American mayors elected to head large American cities, part of a wave of African-American urban leadership that would sweep the North and South alike over the course of the next three decades. African Americans would be elected to head famously black cities like Chicago and Atlanta, famously white cities like Spokane and Seattle, and famously Latino cities like Los Angeles. Since Stokes and Hatcher, African Americans have been elected to head virtually every major city in the United States.

It has not always been an easy ride. African-American leadership has come under fire over the past forty years as cities struggled. Inner-city poverty, much of it African-American, worsened in many places, even as core parts of many cities gentrified with public support that seemed to benefit the growth machine as a whole but not many of its poorest citizens. What we tend to forget is that African Americans won the battle for urban leadership just as the abandonment and denigration of American cities was reaching its apex. The cities they took over were wracked by abandonment, stripped of their power and populace by federally subsidized suburbanization, and ripped apart by the modernist folly of slum clearance and freeway building. Undoubtedly mistakes were made, often in the name of maintaining power rather than using it for the public good, but this merely continued an American political tradition dating back to Tammany Hall and beyond.



As protesters occupy the centers of American cities from coast to coast, President Obama would be wise to remember this history — not simply because he shares a skin color with his urban predecessors, or because of any debt Obama owes to African American leaders, but because the story of pioneering African American mayors parallel his current situation in more ways than one. He too broke through one of human history's most famous barriers to take the helm of a polis just as it has reached its nadir; he too has fallen into sad traditions of maintaining power by kowtowing to the powerful rather than using power to reduce suffering or raise up the powerless; he too has taken over a debt-ridden economy beset by rising inequality and redevelopment for profit rather than people, all while under-invested infrastructure crumbles and the core reproductive functions of mobility and education remain inadequate.

Spatial Protest in the Era of Fast Capital


A video by Iva Radivojevic and Martyna Starosta exploring how Liberty Plaza is being inhabited by the Occupy Wall Street movement. "This space is our sonogram of potential."

On May 6, 2010, trillions of dollars — about 9 percent of the total world market — sloshed in and out of existence like a clumsy child carrying an over-flowing milk pail. The celebrated capital liquidity that is the hallmark of the wide spreads and cheap trades associated with High Frequency Trading (HFT) turned into hot lava as a result of the automated programming of a few trading algorithms. Traders the world over watched open-mouthed as the second-largest point swing (1,010 points) and the biggest one-day point decline (998.5 points) in the 114-year history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average unfolded over the course of 30 minutes.

Especially jarring for those who pay attention to the world's financial ecology was how the Flash Crash seemed to defy traditional conventions of space and time. Even the traders on the floor were confounded: Their bodies, the frantic voice of the announcer and the space of the stock exchange itself seemed pitifully quaint in comparison to the typhoon of 0's and 1's rocketing back and forth.

The “flash” was no more than a horrific blip only because the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was eventually able to pull the plug on the algorithms that were playing hot potato. But it became apparent that capital is hanging by a thread, as lightning-fast trades circle the globe continuously, beyond the average person’s understanding.

Traditionally, trades were executed by humans in close physical contact with each other. Hand gestures, emotional vibes and verbal outbursts ricocheted in the chambers of the Chicago, New York and Tokyo stock exchanges. Capital was moving, but within the context of humans communicating with other humans — even a day trader was in close contact with his or her clients over a phone line. The rapidity of HFT leaves human perspective in the dust, as market trends fall increasingly into an endless loop of responding to their own responses before the human world has a chance to catch up.

But there is another event unfolding that also pushes the boundaries of speed and unpredictability. While millions of trades are executed every second with little human oversight, the world is collectively witnessing — if not participating in — a rapidly evolving gesture that solidifies the power of a particular body in a particular place.

Today's globalized market place and the decentralized claiming of public space through protest are both powerful examples of how unpredictable flow — the gyrations of capital, the rhizomatic distribution of bodies – dictate and restructure ecologies. The collective gathering of human bodies is a different sort of liquid force, one that has the power to dissolve the traditional boundaries of territory and of how community is usually imagined under the umbrella of capitalism. One could see the emphasis on direct action through spatial occupation as a direct response to the mercurial unpredictability of today's robotized financial systems.

As Yves Smith wrote on the blog Naked Capitalism:

“There is nothing to oversee the hyper growth of derivatives or high frequency trading or endless debt games, because there is no global institution that equates with the global markets. It is a clash of the market state and the nation state … The market state is winning, which is probably why we are all on the brink of losing everything."




Robert Chambers on Development Practitioners

A 1968 poster reads, "I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, you participate, they profit."

"So it is not surprising that personal behavior and attitudes have remained a blind spot in much development awareness and practice. Development activity could be more effective if only the actors behaved and related differently. This applies in almost all development contexts. The personal dimension of development is pervasive. It is like the air we breathe, so universal that we rarely notice it. The arguments apply to all professionals whose lives and work affect development, whether they are policy-makers, fieldworkers or local people; in the centre or at the periphery; senior or junior; male or female; in aid agencies, government departments, universities, colleges or training or research institutes; and in NGOs or the private sector, including consulting organizations...

It is difficult to judge how much over the past decade the behavior and attitudes of development professionals have shifted from command, control and teach towards empower, enable and co-learn; but small changes do seem to have taken place on quite a wide scale. If progress is scattered and limited, it is also bright with promise. The six PAR (power and relationship) words, for example - partnership, empowerment, ownership, participation, accountability and transparency (Groves and Hinton, 2004) - have been memes, spreading and working away in development in practice."

Robert Chambers, from Ideas for Development, 2005

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: Poster by anonymous artist.

+ share

London Protesters Turn Public Space into Civic Space



Polis recently featured a quote from James Holston in which he called for reactivation of the "social imagination" in using spaces of insurgent citizenship to generate alternative future political, economic and social structures. With the recent spread of the Occupy Wall Street protests to cities around the world, civic spaces are becoming the canvas for such action.



Over the past several days, hundreds of London residents have appropriated the paved open area beside St. Paul's Cathedral by peacefully protesting the unchecked power of our global financial apparatus in driving inequality.  This serves not only as a reminder of the possibilities of collective action, especially in an age when technology makes it possible to build a truly international and cohesive effort, but also demonstrates the potential of merely public spaces to become activated insurgent civic spaces. Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar reminds us that "the appropriation and use of space are political acts" — a connection that is often masked in the sterilization of urban spaces through routine and conventional uses, but which surfaces in moments such as these.



Even the official website of St. Paul's Cathedral, in outlining its historical significance and role in society, states that, "It is a place for protest against injustice and for the public express [sic] of hope for a better society." Whether this expression occurs through traditional avenues of religious practice within the building or through secular acts of resistance next to it reflects the relative urgency of the moment and the freedom to re-appropriate the spaces of the city.



Of particular interest at the time of writing is the ongoing editing and construction of the new Wikipedia page on the "Occupy" protests, in which the true meaning and relevance of this movement is taking shape. This includes the basic mapping of countries involved in the protests, as well as those impacted by the Arab Spring. As this story grows and details are added, global cities, as the nodes of financial power and transaction, are also attracting a new social imagination to provide a counterpoint to the status quo. 

Credits: Photos of the London occupation from Wasi Daniju.

+ share

Oslo Opera House as Public Space



Visiting the Norwegian Architecture Festival in Oslo this September, I decided to take a look at city's new landmark: the Oslo Opera House by renowned Norwegian firm Snøhetta. A spectacular feature of this iceberg-like building is that it is possible to walk on its marble roof. Here, pedestrians and bicyclists, tourists and Osloites, young and old enjoyed the panoramic views of the city. For me it was fascinating to see a "starchitect," high-end opera house functioning as a popular public gathering space.







This post is part of a collection of Featured Places from around the world. If you'd like to share photos of a great place, just add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we will publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

Credits: Images of the Oslo Opera roof by Rebecka Gordan.

+ share