Music in the Urban Landscape

by Vivien Park

New American Noise is a collection of short films that document emerging music scenes in six cities — from bounce beats for gay rappers in New Orleans to cross-pollinated genres at Detroit house parties to stripper-curated setlists in Atlanta. Each cultural and geographical setting gives rise to a unique sound. Through intricate networks of inspiration and distribution, the music finds its place within the landscape.

The films are produced by Nokia Music and the Sundance Channel. All six can be viewed at

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Book Review: ‘Modernism’s Populist Architect’

by Cristiana Strava

Source: W.W. Norton & Company

Despite a lifelong commitment to modernist architecture, Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) is often associated with the movement away from modernism toward decorative and neoclassical styles. It is rare to find detailed studies on the ideas behind his transition from stark modernist buildings like the MoMA in New York City to the "Romantic Modernism" of buildings like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. A recent book by architectural historian Mary Ann Hunting comprehensively addresses this transition.

In the introduction we learn of Stone's childhood in Arkansas, followed by his Beaux Arts architectural education and European travels, during which he found inspiration in the Bauhaus and early modernism. Hunting sheds light on Stone's close friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright, and traces his career from "pioneering experimentations" with middle-class housing to contentious use of decorative elements often labelled "kitsch."

The American Embassy chancery in New Delhi, 1956. Source: Discover Diplomacy

After Stone completed the famous American Embassy chancery in New Delhi and the United States Pavilion for the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels, he steadily became notorious both as a wayward modernist and as a heavy drinker. Indeed, much of Hunting's book reads as a thoroughly researched biography that oscillates between presenting Stone's work through the prism of his personal life and vice-versa.

Colliers Magazine House, 1936. Source: Triangle Modernist Houses

Hunting places Stone's architecture within the economic and political climate of his day and shows how iconic designs like the Colliers and Goodyear homes were aimed at introducing modernism to middle-class America. After the Great Depression, the federal government saw home ownership as key to political stability and economic prosperity. According to Hunting, Stone was a fervent believer in educating people about the potential in modern architecture for building better homes at lower costs. Through popular magazines such as Colliers and Ladies' Home Journal, he sold scaled-down designs based on his more expensive commissions for $3 apiece.

Stanford University Medical Center, 1959. Source: Dwell

Stone managed to design and build on a scale rare for his time, securing lucrative commissions from companies like PepsiCo, Tupperware and Levitt & Sons. At the same time, many of his postwar buildings — including the Stanford University Medical Center and the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan (known as the "Lollipop Building") — drew criticism for excessive repetition and ornamentation.

What is most valuable in Hunting's book is its examination of relationships between American modernism and middle-class consumption. She points out, "Stone deserves a very special place in the history of modernism, not for formalistic or aesthetic reasons, but for his relationship to the culture and the times." Through her research, we discover how Stone's desire to see modernism embraced by the masses began to place his work at odds with the more austere tenets of the movement.

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Hardt and Negri on the Metropolis as ‘Common Wealth’

Source: Melissa García Lamarca

“One vast reservoir of common wealth is the metropolis itself. The formation of modern cities, as urban and architectural historians explain, was closely linked to the development of industrial capital. The geographical concentration of workers, the proximity of resources and other industries, communication and transport systems, and the other characteristics of urban life are necessary elements for industrial production. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the growth of cities and the qualities of urban space were determined by the industrial factory, its needs, rhythms, and forms of social organization. Today we are witnessing a shift, however, from the industrial to the biopolitical metropolis. And in the biopolitical economy, there is an increasingly intense and direct relation between the production process and the common that constitutes the city. The city, of course, is not just a built environment consisting of buildings and streets and subways and parks and waste systems and communications cables but also a living dynamic of cultural practices, intellectual circuits, affective networks, and social institutions. These elements of the common contained in the city are not only the prerequisite for biopolitical production but also its result; the city is the source of the common and the receptacle into which it flows.”

— Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth, 2011

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg on Making History in the Bronx

by Alex Schafran

Rendering of the Sheridan Community Plan. Source: Pratt Center

Dear Mayor Michael Bloomberg,

I'm sure you don't have to be reminded that your time as mayor of the greatest city in the world is coming to an end. You've formed your Super PAC, and I'm curious to see what you'll do next. There's still much unfinished business in La Gran Manzana, and I don't underestimate your ability to successfully manage post-Sandy recovery while taking bold steps for the future during your final months in office.

One of many Bloomberg-era projects that are remaking the city without truly breaking new ground. Source: Alex Schafran

It seems clear from your actions and statements over the past decade that you have a keen sense of history — including how to make it. You seem to recognize that in a 21st-century world of dynamic global cities, the business of New York is to build and rebuild. Few mayors will leave as large a physical imprint as you have with the transformation of the West Side, the new Cornell tech center on Roosevelt Island, the Brooklyn waterfront, multiple stadiums and a largely reconstructed lower Manhattan.

Yet with the exception of rebuilding Ground Zero, none of your efforts, whether good or bad, rise to the level of true historic urbanism. In extending the 7 train and densifying the West Side, you are doing something that Singapore, Vancouver and numerous other cities have done before. Same with the stadiums, the upzonings and downzonings, the waterfront access, the new luxury towers. These efforts may change the fabric of the city but they do not make history. Even the fabulous High Line is cribbed from your Parisian counterparts.

Source: Museum of the City of New York

In some ways, this is good. There is too much unhealthy competition among cities, and "making history" is often overrated. The Cross Bronx Expressway made history but was a social disaster. The Zoning Resolution of 1961 changed urban zoning norms across the country, but ended up killing parts of the cities it was meant to protect. The Westway and the Lower Manhattan Expressway are infamous symbols of the hubris of an earlier era, and shining examples of planning gone astray. But there will always be a place for bold innovation in urban development.

Source: Pratt Center
The community plan to tear down the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. This is a neighborhood devastated by the Cross Bronx Expressway — a historic casualty of Robert Moses's proverbial meat-axe. The plan would become one of the first truly grassroots megaprojects in any major city, driven by organizations and activists who have been working for many years to repair the South Bronx.

This would be one of the first highway teardowns designed not to open up prime central real estate, but to benefit an extremely low-income congressional district. It would bring a sorely needed infusion of affordable housing, commerce, light industry, community space and economic activity. It is a project that gained not only community support but also praise from former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff and Congress for the New Urbanism president John Norquist. People are watching because they recognize that this is an unprecedented opportunity.

Yet instead of seizing the moment, your administration has thrown up roadblocks. You allowed the Economic Development Commission to pressure the Department of Transportation to remove teardown as an option in a federally funded traffic study, placing Janette Sadik-Khan in the position of having to defend that decision. This feeds into the perception that your seemingly progressive actions like remaking the city for biking are really more like new-school gentrification.

Source: Sheridan Community Plan

Nobody is arguing that this development would be easy, or that maintaining traffic flow and delivery to Hunts Point Produce Market wouldn't require serious attention. But challenges haven't stopped you elsewhere in the city, and you've made it a point not to cave in to old political divides and tired planning logics.

As you gaze out on these remaining months, I hope you see how profound an opportunity you have in the Bronx. With a little of your customary independent thinking, you can support the efforts of a community on the other side of the income divide, reminding the world that New York City is not afraid to make history.


Alex Schafran

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Peter Kropotkin on Invention

Source: Nadar

“The cities, bound together by railroads and waterways, are organisms which have lived through centuries. Dig beneath them and you find, one above another, the foundations of streets, of houses, of theatres, of public buildings. Search into their history and you will see how the civilization of the town, its industry, its special characteristics, have slowly grown and ripened through the co-operation of generations of its inhabitants before it could become what it is to-day. And even to-day; the value of each dwelling, factory, and warehouse, which has been created by the accumulated labour of the millions of workers, now dead and buried, is only maintained by the very presence and labour of legions of the men who now inhabit that special corner of the globe. Each of the atoms composing what we call the Wealth of Nations owes its value to the fact that it is a part of the great whole. What would a London dockyard or a great Paris warehouse be if they were not situated in these great centres of international commerce? What would become of our mines, our factories, our workshops, and our railways, without the immense quantities of merchandise transported every day by sea and land?

“Millions of human beings have laboured to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves to-day. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labour to maintain it. Without them nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.

“There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present. Thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty, have co-operated in the invention of each of these machines which embody the genius of man.

“Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have laboured to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared. And these thousands of philosophers, of poets, of scholars, of inventors, have themselves been supported by the labour of past centuries. They have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts. They have drawn their motive force from the environment.

“The genius of a Séguin, a Mayer, a Grove, has certainly done more to launch industry in new directions than all the capitalists in the world. But men of genius are themselves the children of industry as well as of science. Not until thousands of steam-engines had been working for years before all eyes, constantly transforming heat into dynamic force, and this force into sound, light, and electricity, could the insight of genius proclaim the mechanical origin and the unity of the physical forces. And if we, children of the nineteenth century, have at last grasped this idea, if we know now how to apply it, it is again because daily experience has prepared the way. The thinkers of the eighteenth century saw and declared it, but the idea remained undeveloped, because the eighteenth century had not grown up like ours, side by side with the steam-engine. Imagine the decades that might have passed while we remained in ignorance of this law, which has revolutionized modern industry, had Watt not found at Soho skilled workmen to embody his ideas in metal, bringing all the parts of his engine to perfection, so that steam, pent in a complete mechanism, and rendered more docile than a horse, more manageable than water, became at last the very soul of modern industry.

“Every machine has had the same history — a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings, without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that: every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry.

“Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle — all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present.

“By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say — This is mine, not yours? ... Thought being incapable of being patented, patents are a crying injustice in theory, and in practice they result in one of the great obstacles to the rapid development of invention.”

— Peter Kropotkin in The Conquest of Bread, 1906

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Replacing Industry with Eco-Housing in Stockholm

by Peter Sigrist

A stormwater channel in the Hammarby Sjöstad housing development. Source: Malena Karlsson

“Sustainable architecture and urban development can never be solely technical issues or be reduced to a matter of points on a certification scale, but need to begin with fundamental social issues: How are we to live together and how can architecture and the city create best possible conditions?”

Henrietta Palmer in “Art and Institution: A Contradiction?” 2010

Site of Hammarby Sjöstad, three kilometers from central Stockholm. Source: Google Earth

Hammarby Sjöstad is a large residential development in Stockholm, with an innovative urban design and sustainability program. Since 1995, the municipal government has transformed a 200-hectare industrial site on Hammarby Lake into a neighborhood with 9,000 residential units, 400,000 square meters of commercial space, new canals, piers, bridges, a tramway and ferry service. By 2011 it was home to 17,000 people, and the total population (including 5,000 local workers) is projected to be almost 30,000 upon completion in 2017.

Land use around Hammarby Lake before and after redevelopment. Source: ITDP

The industrial area was once anchored by the Luma co-operative lamp factory in a functionalist architecture landmark constructed between 1929 and 1947. The Lugnet peninsula (now called Sickla Udde) accommodated small-scale industrial operations and a trailer park. Many enterprises around the lake were prospering — albeit informally or illegally — when redevelopment proposals started to gain traction in the 1990s. Their removal was possible because the city owned most of the land. While government officials raised the threat of expropriation, they ended up compensating many business owners at rates far above market value to avoid lengthy appeals.

Hammarby Lake today. Source: Malena Karlsson

The decision to uproot industry around the lake was driven by rising demand for urban housing and a desire to address environmental contamination, noise, traffic and disorder associated with the site. It was a prime location for the government’s “build inwards” strategy of reducing sprawl by reusing developed territory within the city. This was a response to state-sponsored suburban housing construction during the 1960s and 1970s, known as the “million homes program.” The resulting apartment blocks lacked the healthy street life that tends to arise when accessible housing, employment, recreation and commerce coexist in walkable communities. In light of this experience, municipal leaders saw residential density as key to economic vitality, environmental conservation and quality of life in the new district.

Sunlight analysis. Source: Dick Urban Vestbro
The Stockholm City Planning Bureau drafted a master plan for multi-unit housing reminiscent of 19th-century urban blocks with interior courtyards and businesses at street level. They adapted this layout into U-shaped buildings to maximize waterfront views, and set height restrictions to bring more sunlight into each courtyard.

Hammarby Sjöstad’s urban livability features are complemented by a comprehensive environmental strategy. The municipal government decontaminated the area and set a goal for limiting carbon emissions to 50 percent of the average for new residential development in the city. The Stockholm Waste Management Administration worked with the Stockholm Water Company and Fortum — a Finnish energy company — to develop the “Hammarby Model” for managing water, energy and waste based on an “eco-cycle” of consumption and reuse.

The Hammarby Model’s “eco-cycle.” Source: Hammarby Sjöstad

Among the development’s many energy-saving technologies is an incinerator that turns combustible waste into electricity. The plan also focuses on land use, building materials and transportation as means of conserving resources and decreasing the use of cars. This includes reusing the Luma factory for housing and amenities (including a new Brooklyn Brewery). A central community center showcases and supports the city’s ecological strategy.

Waterfront housing and amenities in the repurposed Luma factory. Source: TEA

Despite Hammarby Sjöstad’s impressive planning, it has not escaped criticism. Providing advanced facilities for waste management, energy-efficiency and public transportation has apparently not prompted residents to adopt ecologically sensitive lifestyles to the extent expected. Post-occupancy studies show that many are unwilling to make even minor sacrifices to help realize the city’s environmental goals, lobbying instead for more parking (although their use of cars is still lower than average for Stockholm). A large shopping mall outside Hammarby Sjöstad has been an impediment to limiting the use of cars and supporting neighborhood businesses. In addition, the municipal government hasn’t enforced standards for window size and building materials that would further reduce energy consumption. While the development includes a small percentage of subsidized apartments for students and people with disabilities, and efforts are underway to increase low-cost options, existing costs have led to a much higher average income than that of the city as a whole.

Hammarby Sjöstad in comparison with a nearby suburb, the city center and the entire city in 2010. Note the relatively high average income and low use of cars. Source: ITDP

Sustainability as a concept is blessed and cursed with a seemingly endless range of interpretations. It unites us in a general sense, but often becomes problematic in transition to specific action. Hammarby Sjöstad is a case in point: sustainable development served as a rallying call for public officials planning for the future, but also helped stigmatize the area’s previous inhabitants to make way for high-income housing. The redevelopment appears to be a net gain for the city, but critical assessment helps identify what was lost and what should be improved. Returning to the Henrietta Palmer quote, initiatives like Hammarby Sjöstad can benefit from continuous reflection upon how we live together and how to create the best possible conditions.

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Community Cartography in Moscow

by Shriya Malhotra

Partizaning, an artist-activist collective based in Russia, recently teamed up with the Strelka Institute of Design to organize a series of Cooperative Urbanism workshops in Moscow. The workshops brought practitioners from around the world together with local residents to initiate positive change in public space. Mapping served as an essential tool for collaborative research and neighborhood improvement.

The partition of Africa between 1912 and 1920. Source: Wilfraco

While maps have often been used to establish power relations that provoke enduring conflict, they've also helped solve problems and change the world for the better.

John Snow's cholera map of London. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are many creative ways to use mapping for research and intervention in cities, from sharing experience to drawing attention to site-specific problems and redrawing boundaries. The process may combine exploration, design, narrative and activism.

New York City blocks rearranged. Source: Armelle Caron

Maps are becoming more and more dynamic, interactive and collaborative as digital technologies make them easy to create and share. People are experimenting with cartography in fascinating ways, including practical low-tech methods.

A neighborhood map by Denis Wood, Carter Crawford and Shaub Dunkley. Source: Mammoth

The Cooperative Urbanism workshops approached community cartography experimentally, adding data from surveys, interviews and site observations to a Google map (below). The map is still in its early stages as we keep working with residents to fill it in over time.

Source: Google Maps

Michiel de Lange and Marc Tuters of The Mobile City led a workshop in Moscow's Yuzhnoye Medvedkovo district, which involved mapping ethnographic information from interviews and photos. Interview questions were focused on discovering important locations and concerns from the perspective of people in the community.

SynchroniCITY website mockups. Source: Camilla Burke

The workshop by Nitin Sawhney and Christo de Klerk of the New School for Public Engagement began with an exercise in food mapping in central Moscow. As the name suggests, food mapping involves pinpointing and describing the culinary options in a given area. It's a helpful way of assessing the extent to which these options meet the needs of different populations. The group developed a prototype for an online tool called SynchroniCITY (above), which geotags problems submitted by residents and spreads the word about D.I.Y. solutions.

Emotions and perceptions mapped by color. Source: Christo de Klerk

One team mapped spatial perceptions by coding their reactions to a series of places and tracking their routes with a GPS device.

Walking routes tracked with a GPS device. Source: Christo de Klerk

Urban hacktivist Florian Riviere led a workshop that included exploring Moscow's Voykovskiy district and marking interesting locations on printed maps. Participants also created a map for D.I.Y. neighborhood games.

Announcement for the neighborhood games. Source: Marika Semenenko

Making a D.I.Y. badminton net. Source: Cooperative Urbanism

TYIN Tegnestue Architects led a workshop in which participants mapped the sights, sounds, smells, circulation routes and textures of the Mitino district. The group printed a blank map and placed it on walls to be filled in by passersby.

Creating the legend for a community map. Source: Alex Melnikov

Aurash Khawarzad of Change Administration led a workshop in which D.I.Y. aerial mapping (with a camera attached to a giant balloon) became a tool for studying traffic patterns in the Troparyovo-Nikulino neighborhood. The results can be used to improve cycling infrastructure.

Aerial images from a balloon-mapping workshop. Source: Change Administration

D.I.Y. traffic counters by Ted Ullrich of Tomorrow Lab helped with mapping vehicle circulation and density in the district. We used Tomorrow Lab Contrails (containers of water-soluble pigment that mark the path of a bicycle) to highlight cyclable trails.

Ted Ullrich testing his bicycle Contrails. Source: Yulya Besplemennova

Jona Piehl and Sarah Featherstone of Central St. Martins College of Art and Design led participants on "performative interventions" in the Otradnoe neighborhood. One group devised a cartographic walking game arranged like a chessboard.

Diagram of a chessboard walking game. Source: Anastasia Chernyshova

Testing the "hackability" of mailboxes for resident feedback. Source: Katerina Gonchareva

Partizaning encouraged community feedback by installing mailboxes in accessible locations throughout the city. Some people wrote messages several pages long, and some included hand-drawn maps.

A scanned message from one of the mailboxes for community feedback.

The Cooparative Urbanism workshops encouraged a rapid, experimental approach to mapping for community development. Although schematic and transitory, they provided a valuable opportunity for people from different parts of the city and world to share ideas for public space. More information on the workshops is available in English and Russian at

Shriya Malhotra is an urbanist and artist working with Partizaning in Moscow.

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Inventing a Verb for Urban Transformation

by Teresa García Alcaraz

El Raval, a neighborhood in Barcelona's central Ciutat Vella district, has a long history of immigration, deindustrialization and illicit activity. Political and economic marginalization increased social problems to crisis proportions in the 1980s, prompting the city council to begin a focused regeneration campaign. The northern section has seen longterm economic development and reduced crime, while these changes have yet to take hold in the southern section.

Fundació Tot Raval, a community organization in the heart of El Raval, was founded in 2001 to help coordinate the improvement efforts of local residents, nonprofits, businesses and city government. It has played an important role in El Raval's partial transformation, and is working to bring similar change to the entire neighborhood.

One of Fundació Tot Raval's ideas involved placing a large sign in the plaza outside the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), emblazoned with the invented verb "ravalejar." Its aim was to represent and build momentum behind positive change in the community. The plaza is frequented by people from both sections of El Raval, as well as visitors from around the world.

Wordplay is no proxy for addressing the intricacies of neighborhood improvement from different perspectives, but "ravalejar" beautifully captures the hard work that gave rise to its appearance in the plaza. The sign both commemorates and encourages this work, making use of public space to support the neighborhood's comprehensive turnaround. Since "turnaround" is often another word for gentrification, there is much to learn from El Raval's experience.

Credits: Photos of El Raval by Teresa García Alcaraz.

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From City to Polis: Reflections from Heraklion, Greece

by Panayotis (Panos) Samartzis

Layers of history in Heraklion, on the island of Crete. Source: Panayotis (Panos) Samartzis

It is common in Greece to refer to the city of Heraklion as chaotic, perhaps due to its crowded streets and uncontrolled expansion. It is also a historical crossroads, where many different powers and everyday citizens have left their cultural imprints. As a result, Heraklion contains notably diverse and multilayered "realities" that offer each visitor a unique relationship with the city. Walking along the Venetian Walls from St. George Gate, one can encounter intersecting worlds in the urban fabric.

While visiting Heraklion, it occurred to me that we focus on and relate with different people, objects and situations in the city, as in life. We create our own story about the city, as in life. We decide if we'll move as strangers or as co-constructors in the city, as in life. Perhaps in shifting these relationships from a passive to an active mode, we can help the city become a polis.

Cornelius Castoriadis wrote perceptively about the role of philosophy, democracy and tragedy in the Greek polis. Philosophy and democracy emerged through critical and active participation in political life, while through tragedy people were "educated" in the results of hubris. This kind of education was of great importance for active citizens, reminding them of the need for self-control.

In the transformation from city to polis, a journey toward autonomous self-expression begins. A polis needs us to be free and responsible for the continuous creation of society. It rests upon our critical negotiation with the city's multiple realities, as well as self-control to allow these realities to coexist constructively.

In such a journey we are not alone. This blog, as well as other online (and offline) public spaces, can facilitate the networking of persons, ideas and actions for a better world.

Panayotis (Panos) Samartzis is a public servant in the Greek Ministry of Interior. His research is focused on citizen empowerment and participation in spatial planning.

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Stopping Evictions in Spain

by Melissa García Lamarca

Protest against evictions in Spain. Source: 20minutos

As Spain's unemployment rate climbs above 25 percent and its social welfare system is meticulously dismantled, around 500 eviction orders are issued each day. Banks are repossessing the homes of those who can’t meet their mortgage payments. This trend is sadly not new. There were more than 325,000 foreclosures between 2007 and 2011, according to Spain's justice department. A fellow Polis blogger explored who is to blame for evictions in Spain early last year. In this post, I look at how advocacy and grassroots groups, including Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) and the housing groups from 15M assemblies, are working to stop and transform this process.

Platform of People Affected by Mortgages. Source: PAH

PAH was founded in February 2009 to defend the constitutional right to housing, stop evictions, enact social rent, and reform the Mortgage Act. The latter, as it exists now, gives banks the right to claim full payment of debt even after evicting the property's residents, including the difference in value and all legal costs. For example, María Carrión reported on a family that paid $98,000 of a $323,000 mortgage, but owed the bank an additional $405,000 even after it had taken back their apartment. The Act results in hundreds of thousands of families on the streets with a debt to repay for the rest of their lives.

PAH Stop Evictions Campaign in September 2011. Source: Esquerra Anticapitalista

Through PAH's Stop Evictions Campaign, members occupy and block entrance to properties where eviction orders are being delivered. The first successfully paralyzed eviction took place in November 2010 in Tarragona, Catalonia, where a judicial commission — made up of two government officials and a bank representative accompanied by Catalan police — decided not to force residents to abandon their house. This tactic has been used hundreds of times over by PAH and the groups who emerged during the 15M movement in May 2011. PAH has stopped hundreds of evictions, but in some cases the police succeed in prying people away one by one and then evicting the families inside.

Activists clash with police while trying to stop an eviction. Source: Estrella Digital

PAH and 15M have occupied foreclosed buildings to provide shelter for evicted families with nowhere to go. People are now doing the same on their own, as seen in Valdemoro, Madrid, where 50 families are occupying an empty chalet development. This is occurring across the country. In several cases, the interventions of PAH and local 15M housing groups have forced local governments to back down on evictions and provide emergency housing, as is the case in Getafe, Madrid.

Javier and Estrella outside a dwelling they're occupying in Valdemoro, Madrid. Source: 20minutos

Also in Madrid, PAH activists have carried out a variety of protests at Bankia — the bank nationalized and bailed out to a tune of $24 billion — to demand that they negotiate with families threatened with eviction. Bankia is responsible for 80 percent of home repossessions in the autonomous community of Madrid.

An October 2012 protest and occupation in front of Bankia's headquarters. Source: Cuartopoder

After years of pressure from PAH to reform the Mortgage Act, a spate of suicides late last year by people threatened with eviction finally pushed the government to take action. Yet the approved Royal Decree did not include any changes to the Mortgage Law, only allowing households under "extreme hardship" to have their eviction orders frozen for the next two years. To qualify they must have an annual income below $25,000 and pay more than half of this in mortgage payments. They must also meet at least one of a list of other strict conditions, such as owning no other property, being a single-parent household with at least two children, having a large family, having a family member with disabilities or being a victim of domestic violence. And coverage for qualifying households only begins for those facing foreclosure after the Royal Decree was adopted on Nov. 16, 2012, meaning that the 400,000 households that have already experienced foreclosure or eviction are left out.

PAH, 15M housing groups and other sympathizers are outraged, arguing that this token decree excludes the majority of people affected by foreclosures and evictions. They presented a Popular Legislative Initiative with over 700,000 signatures calling for regulation of foreclosure payments, social rent and a moratorium on foreclosure procedures. Public defenders across Spain were also up in arms last December, demanding that the government restructure mortgage debt, create a social housing fund and enact social rent. Today a communique from a European commission in Brussels outlined reasons why the reform will have limited impact.

Empty housing in Spain. Source: Madrilonia

Last week, the Association of Spanish Banks and the Spanish Confederation of Credit Unions ceded 6,000 dwellings to create a social housing fund for the evicted. Considering that 20 percent of Spain's total housing, amounting to 5.6 million dwellings, is empty because it hasn't been sold or was seized by banks, surely more can be done. The efforts of PAH, with chapters in over 80 cities across Spain, along with 15M housing groups and other activists, are critical in the fight to stop evictions and ensure access to affordable housing.

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Policy and Urban Form in Buenos Aires

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Buenos Aires is one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Latin America. Before Argentina's reduction of the public sector in the 1990s, and economic crash in 2000, Buenos Aires also had a low inequality index by Latin American standards. But within a period of 15 years it entered the disreputable group of extremely unequal Latin American cities, such as São Paulo, Mexico City and Quito.

Despite Argentina's rapid economic recovery after the crash, its disparities haven't improved. This situation is evident in satellite images of Buenos Aires villas — informal settlements where many of the poorest people live. Most of these neighborhoods started as squatter settlements in the 1940s and 1950s. Government restructuring and economic crisis hit these areas hardest.

Villa 20

Villa 15

Villa 1-11-14

Villa 31

The city's middle-class neighborhoods are planned with regular square grids, a common urban form in Latin America.

Typical middle-income neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

Today the city's wealthiest residents are wealthier than ever, benefitting from opportunities that the global economy offers those with access to higher education, privileged information and contacts. The highest-income neighborhoods are in historically central areas like Recoleta or Palermo. Increasingly, the rich settle in low-density suburbs as well.

High-income neighborhood near Jardín Japonés in Palermo, less than 100 meters from Villa 31.

Las Cañitas, a wealthy suburb.

Prior to the 1990s, the government resettled thousands of families from informal settlements into large-scale housing projects. In most cases, this simply repackaged poverty in a different urban form.

Ejército de los Andes, a housing project from the 1960s, is popularly known as Fuerte Apache in reference to John Ford's 1948 western.

Buenos Aires is a city with substantial resources, but they aren't benefiting the majority of its population. Privatization has exacerbated poverty, and government anti-poverty initiatives have proven largely ineffective. In light of this experience, which is shared by many cities around the world, where do we go from here?

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

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