Ian Bentley et al. on Responsive Environments


Vietnam street scene, photographed by Tracy Gross. Source: IBIT

"[T]he built environment should provide its users with an essentially democratic setting, enriching their opportunities by maximising the degree of choice available to them. We call such places responsive."

Ian Bentley, Sue McGlynn, Graham Smith, Alan Alcock and Paul Murrain in "Responsive Environments," 1985

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

+ share

'Welcome Home Soldier'



Last holiday season, while awaiting my flight in a Cincinnati airport, I saw a soldier in line to get a seating assignment. There was nothing special about this soldier apart from the fact that his fatigues made him stick out rather than blend into his surroundings. No family members were with him, and his camouflage was a pattern of desert hues, suggesting he was on his way home from a Middle Eastern conflict zone. But where, I wondered fleetingly.

My attention snapped quickly to the television, where a CNN update announced new statistics about the foreclosure crisis. The numbers confused me, but the tone was grim. Americans were losing their homes at an accelerated pace.


Source: Politico

Still sitting in the greasy terminal seat — somebody's "i-device" thumping music, another person's airport food wafting in my nose — it came to me in a vision. I saw a crystal-clear image of a typical American home, straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration, but with boarded-up windows, an unkempt lawn and a foreclosure sign out front. On the steps of the home, a woman and child were standing in anticipation. On the walkway, frozen in disbelief, was a soldier in desert fatigues, a rucksack on his back and a duffel bag at his foot.

Upon returning home, I decided to make an artwork out of this vision because it is at once simple and complex: simple in imagery (house, woman, man, child), complex in detail and significance (boarded-up windows, foreclosure, soldier, war). As an artist, I find it important to express ideas that reflect the society in which I live, so I made some preliminary sketches to capture the vision before memory deleted it. These sketches evolved into an original sculpture and rubber mold. I then cast five copies in plastic resin and painted the casts by hand, with help from two assistants.

Although "Welcome Home Soldier" is a work of imagination, it is anchored in truth. With a large number of citizens having been effectively ejected from their homes during the past six years, my generation no longer looks at the home as a family's greatest asset — in many situations, it has proven to be the greatest liability. And under these housing conditions, men and women in the armed forces are returning home from war, some after nearly a decade in rotation. For some soldiers, the homes they left behind in 2001 and 2003 are not the homes they are returning to in 2012. "Welcome Home Soldier" is an allegory for this new American reality. 

Leon Reid IV is a Brooklyn-based public artist. His recent sculptures include "The Hundred Story House" and "Hot Off the Press."

+ share

Housing Design from the Outside



After spending the past seven months studying urban housing, I've drafted the following list of design variables that shape perceptions of place around the home: proximity, enclosure, scale, accessibility, materials, additions and style. There are many studies of urban design elements (including classics by Camillo Sitte, Colin Rowe and Christopher Alexander), but this list focuses specifically on shared space around apartment buildings. I hope you will let me know if you have ideas for improvement.

Proximity refers to the distance between each building. It is similar to density, but I find it more useful from a design perspective because the arrangement and size of buildings in a given area is at least as important as quantity. Building density is also easily confused with population density. Internal proximity can make a community feel sheltered from extreme weather and protected from crime based on Jane Jacobs’s notion of “eyes upon the street." It also brings the challenges of sharing and maintaining limited space, and making it feel more comfortable than crowded.

Enclosure represents the degree to which shared space around buildings has an interior and exterior. For example, courtyards are more enclosed than fenceless yards, creating interior space without ceilings. Housing that is more densely arranged offers a sense of enclosure without courtyards or fences. In multi-unit buildings, enclosed space may be accessible or inaccessible to the general public. Thus, the maximum degree of enclosure is found in private courtyards, and the minimum is found in widely distributed housing surrounded by public space.

Scale includes the height, length and width of apartment buildings, which help create the dimensions of outdoor space. Higher buildings result in cavernous settings when grouped together, and conspicuous voids when spread apart. While they have the obvious capacity to house more people in less horizontal space, inefficiencies tied to internal climate regulation, elevators and maintenance place their benefits in question. Longer and wider buildings can impede walkability and reduce green space. Expansive façades highlight repetition, monotony and decay. Smaller buildings tend to be associated with comfort around housing, perhaps because of the psychological effects of less-polarized differences in scale.

Accessibility refers to the ease with which residents are able to make use of amenities around their homes. Amenities include public transportation, shopping areas, kindergartens, parks and libraries. In many apartment complexes, modernist “superblocks” separate residential areas from major streets. These buffers usually consist of grass or trees, and are penetrated only by small access roads. They are a common feature in housing projects and subdivisions, which have been thoroughly criticized by proponents of mixed-use neighborhoods. However, they make green space more accessible and offer an escape from bustling street life.

Additions to the space between buildings — such as trees, parking lots, benches, playgrounds and sports facilities — serve as shared resources for neighborhood residents. Trees exert an especially strong influence on space around the home, as a function of their quantity and maturity. Mature trees are cooling, calming and capable of making building monotony and decay less apparent. They also require maintenance, such as pruning and protection from blight. Parking is always in high demand, but its influence on the non-utilitarian enjoyment of shared space is profoundly negative. Many additions are popular among those who use them, but not pleasing to everyone.

Materials selected for buildings and other structures influence the aesthetic experience of place around the home. They can also facilitate or complicate maintenance. Certain materials hold up especially well over time, from visual and/or structural perspectives, and they are not always the most expensive. Studying existing materials — and thoroughly testing new ones before applying them on a large scale — can make the environment around housing more attractive and easy to maintain.

Style refers to the distinctive forms and decorative elements that contribute to the atmosphere of shared space. Certain colors make walls appear more dirty or low-quality. Structural variations and details can add visual interest or aversion. This is primarily subjective, but it may be worth exploring what people think of different styles to see if there are any points of frequent convergence.

Again I encourage anyone to critique this list and let me know what I've missed.

+ share

Credits: The source of the opening photo is unfortunately unknown to me. I found it online a few months ago but forgot where, and now it isn't turning up in search results. Please let me know if you have any information about it.

Review: 'Urban Constellations'


Montréal Biosphère (2007). Source: Matthew Gandy

In a recent conversation on Polis, urban geographer Matthew Gandy touched on the multiple registers of urban governance, development, society, media and film that link with contemporary debates on cities. These viewpoints — framed as a reference to Sigfried Kracauer's "vignettes" — collectively render a vital, kaleidoscopic view of the modern and historical city. As editor of "Urban Constellations," Gandy collects an astounding 43 contributing authors, loosely and artfully shuffling them into chapters on "Urban Lexicons," "Crises and Perturbations," "Excursions," "Places and Spaces" and "Projections."

Most entries are distilled text from wider ruminations on topics ranging from London's Trellick Tower to property markets and capital accumulation in East Asian cities. The chapter on "Excursions," which prioritizes image over text to highlight the work of young artists and photographers, is a welcome deviation from the pattern. This segment of the book begs to be designed in a way that capitalizes on the shift in content — full-bleed images and a more striking graphic layout.


Buenos Aires (2006). Source: Matthew Gandy

Providing a glimpse into the past five years' work at the Urban Laboratory of University College London, the book quietly makes a case for cross-disciplinary urban research and the complexity and contradictions that emerge from it. In an indispensable introduction, Gandy pinpoints the relevance of both urban processes and the cities that generate them:
The idea of the 'urban' encompasses far more than the 'city' as a bounded or discrete entity, since the cultural, political, technological, and ecological impacts of urbanisation extend to the most remote regions. Yet we cannot dispense entirely with this distinction between cities and urbanisation because cities have served as catalysts for successive waves of modernity and many 'city-states' also perform specific roles as nodes for connectivity and exchange.
While this collection of short essays does not claim to provide answers, it does lead the reader to contemplate the collection of included themes. While aligning these stars into a recognizable image is a monumental task, this book presents the firmament of urban scholarship in an engaging way that encourages us to make our own connections. 

+ share

Rio+20: Results and Controversies

Last week, presidents, parliamentarians, mayors, U.N. representatives and civil society leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to debate and agree upon a new environmental agenda for the world's future. The Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was meant to be the world's most important environment-related event, and expectations were high, amid increasingly scarce natural resources.

The main product of the gathering was "The Future We Want," a declaration that renews U.N. member states' commitment to sustainable development, a principle established in 1972 and made famous in the first Rio conference in 1992, also known as the Earth Summit. The articles 134, 135, 136 and 137 from the document relate directly to sustainable cities and human settlements. Polis published two posts last year as a contribution to the Rio+20 debate, which stressed the importance of cities when discussing the environment and raised questions about the main theme of the conference: the green economy.



A demonstration during the Rio+20 Conference.
Source: Common Dreams
During Rio+20, a diverse group of NGOs, environmentalists and social movements from around the world organized a parallel event. Known as the People's Summit, it had its own online portal and declaration (currently only in Portuguese). There is also a specific declaration by indigenous peoples from around the world. The declaration critiques the unquestioned capitalist approach behind the official Rio+20 declaration and its emphasis on the "green economy" concept. A similar parallel event organized by civil society and grassroots groups took place during the 2010 World Urban Forum, which was coincidentally also in Rio.

Participants in the People's Summit have been some of the many voices criticizing the Rio+20 negotiation process for the lack of involvement from heads of state, among other things. Nobel Laureate economist Elinor Ostrom, in her article "Green from the Grassroots," called the event's focus on a single international agreement a "grave mistake," stating that "decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements." As heads of state and other prominent leaders have not taken the lead, she focuses on what cities can do in an interconnected world. 

+ share

Satellite Views of Urban Inequality

Tim De Chant, in his blog Per Square Mile, considers income inequality from space by contrasting Google Earth images of adjacent neighborhoods of different income levels. The results are striking and provocative. In one instance, affluence evokes order over chaos:


Rochinha, Rio de Janeiro


Zona Sul, Rio de Janeiro

In another case, affluence seems to liberate residents from the grid, to carve out living spaces more organically:


Ball Square, Somerville, Boston Metro Area


West Cambridge, Boston Metro Area

De Chant observes that in all his examples, and those curated from his readers, the prevalence of urban trees signaled greater wealth in the area. Taking the ten thousand foot view, one can posit urban trees as the impact of local tax dollars manifested, bringing to mind the political and commercial mobilization of power that more affluent communities wield.


Source: Min Li Chan

As I peered through a plane window over the outskirts of Las Vegas last week, I wondered what the bird's eye view pictured above might foreshadow.

Credits: All images from Google Earth via Per Square Mile unless otherwise noted in the captions.

+ share

Kate Stohr on Investing in Cities


Source: Favela Painting

The photo above is of Praça Cantão in Communidade da Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro. The buildings were repainted by artists Jeroen Koolhaas, Dre Urhahn and young men living in the neighborhood. It is featured in the book "Design Like You Give a Damn [2]," which also features the following quote:

"Place matters. Just as we need to invest in people, we must also invest in place — and like car racing, every square meter counts. Cities that turn a blind eye to pockets of blight and violence not only put community members at greater risk, but also put themselves at greater risk for the flight of capital and jobs. This, combined with leveling of populations in many areas, and projected population decline in others, means that cities cannot count on urbanization and rising birthrates to fuel economic development. Companies can and do go 'city shopping,' looking for 'creative' places that are safe and desirable. Cities that breed cultural diversity as well as opportunity — where the walk to and from work offers spontaneity and chance inspiration — will thrive. Others will shrink, creating a different but equally challenging kind of opportunity to reinvest in open space and renew the natural environment."

Kate Stohr, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, in "Design Like You Give a Damn [2]: Building Change from the Ground Up," 2012

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. 

Modeling a Green Street in Cleveland



Pop Up Rockwell is a green street-improvement project based on rapid design prototyping. For a week in April, an underused stretch of Cleveland's Rockwell Avenue was transformed into a tangible vision of bike and pedestrian friendliness. Temporary structures like cycle tracks, stormwater-biofiltration benches, enhanced waiting areas for public transit, and wind-animated public art were installed, experienced and studied. The lightweight modular configuration made it possible to transport the installation to other sites and optimize its functions.

The project was carried out by graduate students at Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), along with non-profit organizations, the municipal government, federal agencies and local businesses. Although the methods are lean, this project reflects best practices of temporary urbanism developed through CUDC's Pop Up City initiative and recommendations from Cleveland’s Complete and Green Streets Ordinance and Group Plan Commission.

As green planning becomes more common, the use of urban prototypes could potentially be a rapid, collaborative and cost-effective way to implement and adapt innovative ideas. 

+ share

An Ethic of Care in Urban Interventions

For architects, employing an ethic of care involves reflexive practice with value placed on process, empathy and everyday life. This post explores several projects in which participants adopted processes of interdependence, nurturing and long-term sustainability.

In 1973, Liz Christy, an artist and New York City resident, found a vacant lot in lower Manhattan that was once a farm owned by the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. She obtained permission to turn the site into the city’s first community garden, paying City Hall a dollar per day as rent. Liz and her fellow gardeners called themselves the Green Guerrillas, and started to plant and create a recreational space for the community. After more than 30 years, one can still find this lot between Bowery and Houston streets in Manhattan, cared for by local residents. Small guerrilla actions have the potential to mobilize long-term urban care-giving.


The first garden by Green Guerrillas, between Bowery and Houston streets in Manhattan.

Almost everyone born in Amsterdam between the 1950s and 1970s is connected by an unusual fact: All grew up and were cared for, in a sense, by one of the 700 playgrounds designed by Aldo Van Eyck. Van Eyck not only designed the playgrounds, but also worked closely with local communities to decide where they should be placed and for what uses they should be equipped.

After World War II, during a period of modernist ideals, the Public Works Development Department attempted to provide every neighborhood in Amsterdam with at least one place of leisure. Beginning in 1947, Van Eyck and Jakoba Mulder — head of the department — created playground designs that favored relations of equity and empathy. Derelict places in the city were given careful attention. Van Eyck continued worked on these spaces for over 31 years, and many are still in use today.



Aldo Van Eyck's Dijkstraat Playground in Amsterdam.

Lina Bo Bardi is another architect that adopted an ethic of care. She is known for integrating Brazilian Tropicalism with modernist discourse, creating a synthesis of tradition and contemporary urban complexity in projects such as the Olodum House and the Benin House in Bahia.

Bo Bardi's Teat(r)o Oficina de São Paulo project helps us understand the care and empathy with which she approached her work. Founded in 1958, the theatre company has occupied the same building since 1961. After a fire in 1966, the company was plunged into economic difficulties. Bo Bardi began to collaborate with them by building stage sets. After five years, one of the set designs developed into a project called "Na Selva Das Cidades," which reconfigured the space abandoned after the fire into a street theater.


Teat(r)o Oficina in São Paulo, Brazil.

The street theater was conceived as an open space with a dirt floor, similar to courtyards where children play and women grind millet. This fundamental characteristic shows the close relationship between the memory of place, outdoor activity and care. The project was completed over a 10-year period, from 1981 to 1991. Through longterm collaboration with directors, technicians, visitors, and the site itself, the architect acted as care-provider for all other participants, and vice-versa, generating an affective fabric of multiple relations.

Care-providing activities are based on process rather than pointed action. Caring is not just an act, it's a perspective. Lacaton & Vassal's intervention at the Place Léon Aucoc in Bordeaux accentuates the site's latent beauty by replenishing gravel on the ground, planning a periodic cleaning, pruning the lime trees and modifying paths. These action words — replenish, plan, prune, modify — depict a process of continuous change.

Lacaton & Vassal's collaboration with Frédéric Druot in the Tour Bois le Prêtre project significantly improved a housing block by adding a prefabricated extension of spacious balconies. Residents were able to continue living in their apartments as they were expanded. The designers worked with the strengths of the building, helping to link diverse inhabitants, existing structure and the surrounding landscape. Their labor was a transformative process of mediation between the many project elements.


Remodeled interiors at Tour Bois Le Prêtre, 2011. Source: Lacaton & Vassal

As architects, the systems we are part of don’t always allow us to accomplish our goals. It becomes necessary to take a detour and explore in order to modify our goals and ourselves. It is through this process that the labor of care helps generate a shared project through cooperation and exchange.

The ethic of care can be a mobilizing agent for participatory development and urban empowerment. Limiting care to the private sphere leaves the public sphere lacking quality attention. The citizen ethic feeds itself through familiar, affective and interpersonal roots, thriving on reciprocity between public and private, justice and care, architect and citizen. 

Mauro Gil Fournier E. is an architect at estudiosic in Madrid, Spain. He can be followed on Twitter via @mgilfour or @desdevic. This article originally appeared in Spanish on La Ciudad Viva, and was adapted and translated by Hector Fernando Burga in collaboration with Melissa Garcia Lamarca. This is the second post in a two-part series exploring the role of the architect as urban care provider. The previous entry is available here.

Credits: All images from La Ciudad Viva.

+ share

Peter Smithson on 'Belonging'


A narrow street in Dharavi. Source: "Dharavi: Documenting Informalities"

In a book called "Dharavi: Documenting Informalities" a group of artists from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm document the results of their collaborative engagement with residents from the well-known Dharavi settlement in Mumbai. Addressing the dual representation of the settlement as eye-sore to some and home to others, the authors go back in time to the words of British architect Peter Smithson:

"'Belonging' is a basic emotional need — its associations are of the simplest order. From 'belonging' — identity — comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails."

Peter Smithson at the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne in Aix-en-Provence, France, 1953 (via "Dharavi: Documenting Informalities," 2008, pp. 25)

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. 

+ share

Keep Off the Grass in Hong Kong Parks


Source: Strippedpixel

Hong Kong is one of the densest cities in the world. In between high-rise buildings, public space is limited and strictly regulated. In city parks, laying down on the grass, playing ball and playing the guitar are prohibited. These are just a few examples from a long list of rules that govern public use of open space.


Source: Timeout

The City of Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) is in charge of most public space, and while many of their rules rationally govern parks for the majority of users, a few are baffling. For example, you are not allowed:
fly kites, model aircraft, balloons or other devices... melt or burn wax; or sprinkle or pour liquid onto hot wax... play any musical instrument, operate any radio or gramophone, or sing to the annoyance of any other person, unless the playing of the instrument, the operation of the radio or gramophone, or the singing of any song is in accordance with written permission granted by the LCSD (Legislative Council Secretariat, City of Hong Kong).
Perhaps the most notorious restrictions have to do with grass. In most cases, grass is not to be walked on, sat on or played on. Signs declare the grass off-limits, and little white chains threaten to trip any trespassers. Other than strolling on paths, sitting on benches and a bit of tai chi in plazas, there are few other impromptu leisure and recreational activities that one can enjoy in a Hong Kong park. The LSCD generally cites maintenance issues to explain the regulations. Some people think it is a subtle crowd-control measure.


Source: Freedom Ball

In the last five years, however, these rules have been creatively challenged by a few residents who are trying to improve the quality of their parks. Freedom Ball, a group of activists, pokes fun at the government's park management by blatantly breaking the "no balls" rule. Their "installations" consist of releasing 1,000 large, red inflatable balls in city parks. As children play with the balls, they call the strict regulations into question.

Hong Kong media artist Thickest Choi was frustrated with the lack of green space and the government's tendency to favor development over the public realm. He created Lawnmap, an interactive website that displays the location and status of usable lawns around the city. The website currently lists about 130 lawns, mostly added by users. It also allows users to organize picnics, concerts and other events at these locations.

As the people of Hong Kong express their desire to use parks more freely, one hopes that the government will listen and relax its dominion over public space.

+ share

Urban Cartography in an Interactive Garden



The Cassano d'Adda Garden Map is exactly what it sounds like. I recreated the small municipality of Cassano d'Adda, part of the mosaic of eastern Milan's provinces, with earth, pebble, rocks and plants. The map reproduces the town's grid, shaped by the river Adda on the east, and by Milan's first canal Naviglio della Martesana in the north. I carried out the project within the frame of Ecoismi 2012, a show in which 12 artists were invited to develop site-specific projects on Isola Borromeo, an island-park near the city center.

What I attempted to do with the Cassano d'Adda Garden Map is to bring to the fore several fundamental properties of maps as spatial devices, and the ways in which we experience them. Maps, independent of scale or function, are fixed — they freeze the physis (what Greeks called the "living sphere") into an immobile image. Generally, trees and vegetation appear as blots of green, and animal life is completely absent. Although cities are some of the most concentrated nucleui of life, they appear to be accumulations of inorganic structures. Following the reasoning of critical cartography, which has explored these issues in depth, I tried to highlight that Earth's surface is a lived one by maintaining this fundamental property in a living map. This is a structure dependent on weather conditions and seasonal changes, and — most importantly — one that continuously grows and changes.



The plants and raised flower beds give the map a vertical dimension that is uncommon in maps, but which is fundamental to cities. The size of the map allows visitors to physically enter and circulate within it.



Since there is not an elevated viewpoint in its surroundings, the Garden Map cannot be fully embraced from a single perspective. This incites a spectator to move, traverse it, make circles around it — thus, he or she is no longer a spectator, but something of an explorer. Thus, the map is also a landscape. It uses life forms to indicate living forms, and earth to indicate manmade transformations upon the soil. But we should not forget that the Garden Map is not only a representation but also a functioning ecosystem unto itself.



Subsequently, should the spectator desire, he or she may become a gardener/mapper. This is because if the garden is to remain green and flourish, it needs people's participation and engagement. A casual visitor can water the Garden Map spontaneously by following instructions on a nearby sign. Otherwise, gardening visits can be scheduled online.

The current Garden Map, as seen in these images, is in its infancy. Empty "lots," mainly in the map's residential areas, are invitations for gardener/mappers to act by planting a “tag” to indicate a spot important to them, such as their house or workplace. Hopefully, the map will eventually sketch possible further developments of the city or gain a fantastical dimension. To paraphrase Henri Lefebvre, the Garden Map, like any social space, needs to be continuously produced and reproduced.



Because it is part of a larger ecosystem, the Garden Map is inhabited with less expected or welcome citizens of different species: weeds. Since the garden is also a community, or a polis, getting rid of the weeds directly leads to the problem of policing the city, exerting control over different cultures within it. Could different types of plants, each with very different lifestyles (nourishment, expansion, water needs) coexist successfully? The “right to the city” is a complicated affair, even in a seemingly simple system such as this.



Different species of flowers in the map differentiate areas of the city according to their uses. Yellow tagetes indicate schools, parks and other public spaces, while orange ones symbolize monuments, villas and churches. Red and pink begonias stand for residential areas. Purple and lillac alyssum indicate cemeteries. White begonias are industrial and commercial zones. (Stones mined from the river outline water pathways.)

More than being graphic symbols for buildings, the plants signify what citizens do during the day and where they do it. On the other hand, the fact that they are rooted in the terrain reminds us of a peculiar function that some plants (mainly trees) have performed for millennia — they act as landmarks. Plants may be the first architectures known to the man, and they served as major reference points for  movement and settlement. Iconically speaking, they blur the distinction between built environment as something inorganic, and lived (and living) environments as systems — ecosystems — which our cities essentially are.



It was amazing to discover that, even by laying out just 700 plants or so, we can produce a city representation that merges some of the critical properties of maps and landscape. In this mash-up, the convergences and divergences between the two systems become palpable. I wonder: Could this experiential knowledge have implications for our everyday practice in linking maps and cities?

Mirko Nikolić, working between Belgrade and Milan, paints cartographic landscapes of globalizing networks. In grayscale, he explores implications of contemporary spatialities and temporalities on his blog Point Line Flow.

Credits: Photos by Mirko Nikolić.

+ share

Raising Healthy Children in Cities


Source: The Outdoor Poetry Network

As the world's urban population grows rapidly, there is a risk of weakening our healthy ties to non-urban nature. This has a particularly strong impact on children.

Source: Penn State University
Given the importance of early childhood on longterm physical and mental health, securing each child's access to greenery, fresh air and clean water plays an essential role in achieving social sustainability.

Urban sprawl has many negative health impacts, from pollution to loss of green space and automobile dependency. Reducing sprawl is extremely difficult, in part, because living outside the city is generally considered more healthy.

Source: UNICEF
Raising children in a house with a garden is highly valued. However, the world cannot support five billion city residents living in automobile-dependent areas. The challenge, then, is to promote urban density (and restrict urban sprawl) without compromising the capacity of families to raise their children in a healthy environment.

In promoting healthier cities, simple practices like setting up orchards on balconies and terraces, facilitating access to organic products, cooking at home, extended breastfeeding and educating children outdoors can bring tangible results. We can plan and take good care of parks, cover streets with trees and implement other child-friendly design measures.

Several organizations are working to make urban childhood healthier. Babies and Kids in the City, started by three mothers from Manchester, U.K., assembles crowd-sourced reviews of child-friendly venues. The European Network of Cities for Children promotes innovative policy for urban families and child health. UNESCO has published a guide for youth participation in urban development, which seeks to help children protect their own wellbeing. UNICEF's Child Friendly Cities is a guide for local authorities and planners in making cities better places for raising kids. These initiatives are on the right track, but there is much more we can do to develop healthy urban environments for children.

+ share

Study 'Interactive Cities' in Moscow this Summer


Shukhov Tower in Moscow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From July 4-12, Interactive City will hold a summer school at the Strelka Institute titled "Interactive Moscow: Spatial Theories, Practices, Interventions." A collaboration between the University College London (UCL), Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, the Higher School of Economics (HSE) and the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), the course is dedicated to engaging students in dialogue on the future of cities. It is not an attempt to simply refresh the city's image, but to question who is the source of change, how does this change take place and what lies behind the concept of "right to the city."

The school is open to current undergraduates from any field, including those who graduated this year. The course will be in English, and led by academics and practitioners from LSE, Vilnius, HSE and RSUH.

Applications are due on June 24. The total cost of the course is $30 (1000 rubles), and only charged to admitted applicants.

Online applications and further information can be found at interаctive-city.org. Please contact Yuriy Milevskiy with questions. 

+ share

Is it Time to Transcend the 'Urban-Suburban' Divide?


Source: Mark Strozier

The "S-Word"

In a recent piece for The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger contemplates whether the place where she lives, Alexandria, Va., really counts as a suburb. Her concern, she writes, stems from lifelong aversion to the “s-word” — once “the most vicious epithet I could imagine hurling at anyone.”

For Badger, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago:
The city was innately virtuous because it had different kinds of people and more museums and a Chinatown. And if you were not willing to go through the occasional weapons inspection to win access to all of that, then clearly your priorities were wrong... I was sure the suburbs could permanently mar the very personality and character of everyone who lived there.
Given this deep-seated prejudice, it’s not surprising that she found herself going to great lengths to argue that Alexandria — an archetypal suburb — could not possibly be one.

She offers various reasons for this assessment: It’s too old (older than Washington, D.C., itself), it has metro access, it doesn’t have an Applebees. But when she gets down to it, none of these answers quite seems to clear up the confusion. “I realize I don’t know exactly what defines a ‘suburb’ as such,” she writes. “Is it a matter of geography? Authenticity? History? Density? Diversity? Housing stock? Land-use patterns? Auto dependence?”

She concludes that “to live in the city is to take a kind of risk, while to live in suburbia is to avoid it.” Sadly, this is an unsatisfying answer to a very important question. After all, the shape and definition of our urban fabric has implications that go far beyond 24-hour availability of Thai takeout, or even what one’s neighbors look like. Where and how we live strikes at the heart of the most pressing crises that face the world — from resource depletion and sustainability, to the nature and shape of our economy, to our physical and emotional health. If we can’t even figure out what defines a city, how can we hope to address these challenges?

In many ways I relate to Badger’s feelings, and to her dilemma, but from a different perspective. I grew up not in a risky, gritty but culturally edifying urban setting, but in Littleton, Colo. This was a generic suburban "notown" that blended into those around it, until a murderous rampage at Columbine High School put it on the map. By the time Columbine happened, I was already living far from that place, in the most anti-Littleton you could imagine: New York City. The events at my old high school only reinforced my own biases; I swore I would never go back to that "s-word."


Tarrytown Music Hall. Source: Dougtone

Suburbia, On a Human Scale

Eleven years, one wife and three children later, however, I found my life bursting through seams of a first-floor, 950 square-foot apartment in Washington Heights — and I realized it was time for a change.

My wife and I both worried about moving to the suburbs, but we did it anyway. Today we live in a nice house on a quiet street in Tarrytown, N.Y. — a place that is, instructively, entirely unlike either Littleton or New York City.

In her oft-quoted 1961 classic, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs famously slammed the urban planning trends that she believed were sucking the soul and health out of cities. Since then, the book has become a bible for anti-suburban crusaders. A great many of the pernicious trends Jacobs observed are today defining characteristics of what we think of as suburban: monolithic, single-use zoning, the favoring of cars over pedestrians or transit, the elimination and devolution of public space.

Jacobs, however, was primarily concerned with cities, not suburbia, and was equally appalled by quintessentially urban trends of the 20th century, such as the massive public housing projects and highway plans that butchered vital neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, Jacobs clearly had a pro-city bias, at least for the kind of “urban ballet” she favored. Suburbs, she said, simply lack enough people to support the kind of diversity that make cities vibrant: the “Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small.”

To those of us who love cities, this assessment makes intuitive sense. But is it the whole story? In his scathing critique of Jacobs' book, her would-be mentor-turned-critic Lewis Mumford accused her of muddling up the real nature of what is urban and what she loves about it.

According to Mumford, the very things that Jacobs most praises about Greenwich Village — face-to-face contact, a sense of belonging — rest not “on a metropolitan dynamism, but on continuity and stability, the special virtues of the village.” In other words, if these special places exist in cities, it’s not because of the urban forces that surround them, but in spite of them.

Unlike Jacobs, Mumford had a deep ambivalence about urban life, and a particular hatred for the 20th century gigantism that was turning “metropolis” into “necropolis.” But if there was one thing Mumford hated more than cities, it was the dehumanizing sprawl that he saw rapidly rising around them. In his prescient 1958 essay, “The Highway and the City,” he attacked the recently created Interstate Highway System, predicting that it would lead to “a tomb of concrete roads and ramps covering the dead corpse of a city.” Needless to say, if he could see many of the cities Americans now live in, he would not be surprised.

Like Alexandria, Tarrytown has history on its side. Although it doesn’t predate the first settlements of New York, it’s old enough to have already been historic when its most famous resident, Washington Irving, described it in the opening of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Like Alexandria, Tarrytown is “no post 1950s auto-oriented subdivision.” It has charm and good restaurants, the vast majority of which are locally owned (no Applebees). For most of us who live within the village, the daily needs of life (and the Metro North train station) are in easy walking distance.

Yet, we are suburbanites. No one would confuse this place with New York City.

The one thing that Tarrytown and a place like Greenwich Village share is a respect for the human scale. It’s not just that you can walk here — it’s that you want to. Neither of these places could be further away from a big-box land filled with strip malls and burdened with parking lots, or from the chokingly sterile concrete plazas and climate-controlled glass skyscrapers of a place like Houston. And neither place is comparable to the increasingly distressed, distant exurbs that have fallen victim to the housing bubble and collapse.

The Post-Suburban World

There are other reasons to question America’s old ideas about the suburban-urban divide. Today’s suburbia is far more ethnically and racially diverse than in the past. At the same time, in contrast to old stereotypes contrasting urban poverty to suburban affluence, more American suburbanites now live in poverty than urban or rural residents, according to a 2011 Brookings study. The image of suburbia as the sole province of single-family homes is no longer true, either. Since 1970, suburban multifamily housing has been the fastest growing real estate market in the country, accounting for more than one in four housing units today, according to the Journal of Architecture and Planning Research.

Call it the post-suburban world.

In reality, both Jacobs and Mumford were right. They illustrated how superficial distinctions between city and suburb are facile at best and dangerously misleading at worst. Most of Jacobs’s prescriptions for what ails modern urban life apply as well to the suburbs, as the New Urbanists and others have pointed out. But Mumford’s central point holds true as well: One cannot address the problems of the city without understanding the larger economic, socio-political and technological forces that create the conditions for both suburban sprawl and urban decay.

In other words, most of the diagnoses and prescriptions that Mumford and Jacobs describe apply equally to urban and suburban places.

Maybe it’s time to stop worrying so much about the symbolic meaning of general urban categories and to start looking more closely at the specific characteristics of particular places, how they function, and what makes them work the way they do — applying both a finer-grained and wider-angled analysis to understand how we got here and how to move forward.

Lakis Polycarpou is a journalist and ecological designer who is deeply engaged with the paradox of sustainable urban living. He is a partner in two ecological design collectives, Emergent Designs and Real Returns.

+ share