Alternative Globalization in 'Ordinary Cities'

by René Boer


Tunis, Tunisia, site of the 2013 World Social Forum. Source: Paix & Développement

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in Tunis for the World Social Forum (WSF). They plan to discuss alternatives to capitalist globalization, in response to widespread economic and ecological problems wrought through market-oriented development over the past thirty years. The WSF has taken place annually since 2001, inspiring national and regional versions in cities throughout Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia and South America. These forums have become important congregation points for the alter-globalization movement, and their locations reveal a striking counterpoint to those of "global cities."


A map of World Social Forums (green) and their regional counterparts (pink), by René Boer.

Saskia Sassen coined the term "global cities" in reference to increasingly interconnected nodes of worldwide economic and political influence. Periodic reports like the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) Classification or the Foreign Policy Global Cities Index tend to designate London, New York and Tokyo most influential, followed by cities like Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Paris, Zurich, Chicago and Seoul. Cities in lower-income countries are disproportionately scarce among the top 25, which contrasts sharply with the nodes of global social movements.


The 2011 World Social Forum in Dakar. Source: Abdullah Vawda

Jennifer Robinson, Aihwa Ong and Ananya Roy criticize "global cities" rankings that concentrate on the development trajectories of relatively few cities in the highest-income countries. Such hierarchies dominate contemporary thinking on urbanization and shape policy in not-so-global cities, aimed at "catching up" with the command centers. Robinson's notion of "ordinary cities" highlights the unique histories, current situations and future possibilities of all urban areas. While not discounting the importance of examining global cities, this idea opens a much wider range of options for research and policy.


The 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai. Source: Claudio Riccio

Research on less-dominant cities often takes the form of local case studies with limited scope. Broader lateral networks, interactions and mutual experiences among them receive less attention. Robinson points to alternative globalization processes taking shape among ordinary cities and shaping their development paths. Migration patterns, criminal networks and religious movements, for example, forge new relationships between cities and exert considerable influence at local scales. In a similar way, the recent emergence and distribution of social forums has created an alternative urban constellation. The networks of activists meeting in ordinary cities of different sizes, cultures and regions prove that these places can be "global" in their own way.

René Boer (@rene_boer_) recently graduated from the University College London Urban Laboratory and currently works for Failed Architecture in Amsterdam.

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Suburban Transit Revolution

by Laurent Vermeersch


Source: Sprachcafe

Paris is on the verge of a massive transportation upgrade, largely for the benefit of its long-neglected suburbs. The Boulevard Périphérique is currently a physical and psychological border between two unequal worlds. The 2.2 million residents of Paris intra-muros rarely set foot in the banlieue, home to a primarily lower-income and more ethnically diverse population of 9.5 million.


Tours Aillaud housing complex in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. Source: Skyscraper City

Reaching education and employment centers is extremely difficult for many suburban residents. They often face longer commute times to the center than those from provincial cities linked by high-speed rail. As central Paris becomes a playground for the well-to-do, suburbanites remain marginalized. Frustration reached a boiling point in 2005, when riots broke out in Paris suburbs and spread across the country.


Paris riots in 2005. Source: Spiegel

French officials launched the ambitious "Grand Paris" plan in 2007 to connect suburban residents with economic centers throughout the metropolitan area and reduce their need to travel through the center. Two weeks ago, $34 billion of the proposed $50 billion investment was approved, and construction is to begin by 2015.


Source: Société du Grand Paris

Four new driverless metro lines, spanning 200 kilometers, are scheduled for completion in 2030. The so-called "super metro" should drastically improve transit around the periphery, with 72 new stations linking isolated areas like Clichy-sous-Bois — where the 2005 riots began — with airports and business districts.

The Grand Paris plan is on course to bring a transformation more profound than Haussmann's famous boulevards. If succesful, other cities may learn from this experience and prevent the isolation of low-income communities before frustration gives way to violence.

Laurent Vermeersch is a Brussels-based journalist and historian. He works as a staff writer for brusselnieuws.be and keeps a blog called thecitygeek.tumblr.com. Connect with him on Twitter @thecitygeek.

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Abandoned Homes: An Interview with Eve Morgenstern

by Katia Savchuk


A vacant house in Detroit, where decades of economic decline and population loss have produced about 90,000 abandoned homes.

Photographer and filmmaker Eve Morgenstern has been travelling throughout the United States documenting abandoned homes — monuments to the human impacts of financial crisis. Her "Facades of Crises" photographic series recently appeared at the Bildmuseet in Sweden. She also makes videos on the aftermath of foreclosure for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Reserve Board. Her current project is a documentary about an Ohio town bought and bulldozed by a polluting power plant. I interviewed her about her experience as a documentarian of foreclosed homes, and about the role of art in periods of economic crisis.

How did you begin documenting foreclosed homes?

I began photographing homes in 2007, when I was studying at The San Francisco Art Institute. I was focusing on the beautiful Victorian facades of homes in Oakland and began to notice foreclosure signs and plywood going up over windows and doors. This was really when the crisis was beginning, and I became more and more interested in documenting these homes. When I first pulled up a map online and saw the densely clustered red dots that signify foreclosures, I was completely floored. I started to travel to photograph homes and began to see how pervasive this housing crisis was — there were foreclosures in new communities, old communities, seemingly stable communities, poor communities. It was and still is everywhere.


An Oakland foreclosure photographed in 2008.

Why is this project important to you?

The housing crisis continues to impact cities and communities across the nation. I felt that by documenting the homes and showing the geographic span — from Sun Belt to Rust Belt, from East Coast to Midwest to far West — I could shed some light on the tremendous reach of this crisis. I hope the photographs bring the crisis closer to public consciousness and generate dialogue about what has happened.

Home is such a widespread symbol of stability and comfort, there's something especially tragic about seeing an empty house. What will become of the hundreds of thousands of them, and how will their vacancy alter surrounding communities?

Did you come across any rays of hope during the process?

There is some encouraging work being done. Phoenix is putting resources into developing public transportation downtown and encouraging people to move to the center from the suburbs. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland are converting vacant land into urban farms, encouraging community investment and healthy and affordable food sources. Housing organizations in cities and suburban communities across the country are purchasing empty homes, rehabbing them to green standards and making them available at lower cost through Neighborhood Stabilization Funds. In Cleveland there is a fantastic data resource being used to identify potential foreclosures and prevent them, for example, through mortgage counseling and loan modification.

What would you like to express through your house photographs?

I hope the humanity comes across in the house portraits, and the tragedy of what happened. I hope viewers will spend time looking at these homes and reflecting on their personal feelings about home and stability. And I hope the work contributes to and encourages dialogue about the crisis.

The American Dream has been shattered for so many by sub-prime mortgages, shady investor activity and foreclosure. Recently I watched a video of Elizabeth Warren's pointed questioning of bank regulators. She presses them about whether they've ever taken a major Wall Street institution to trial rather than negotiating a settlement for breaking the law. She points out that the banks pay their penalties from the very money they made illegally. There needs to be more of this questioning, more action taken against banks for abusive practices, and more solutions that prevent people from going into foreclosure and losing their homes.


In Phoenix, one of the Sunbelt cities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, more and more houses in large, new subdivisions are now abandoned, bank-owned or up for auction.

What kinds of reactions have you encountered?

When I'm photographing, people often approach me and ask if the house has been sold, mistaking me for a real estate agent or bank representative. I tell them about the project, and people tend to open up and tell me how many homes in the community are in foreclosure and how sad it is. Or they stop and take a closer look at the house, remark on the architecture and express hope that someone will move back in. If the house is really falling apart, they say it should be torn down.

I've only had one upsetting incident. I told a curious couple in Phoenix about the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and how foreclosed homes were being sold at affordable rates for lower- and moderate-income working families. The couple expressed concerned about who these people were and how it would change their community. I think I really shook them up with this news. Community development organizations promote the program as a way of making neighborhoods more racially and economically diverse, but clearly there are those who find this threatening and want to keep things homogeneous.

After people view the prints, they often share stories about the crisis in their communities. People also ask if I ever speak to the homeowners, but I don't because by the time I'm photographing they're long gone.

How do you compare this work to that of photographers who documented the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration?

The Farm Security Administration provided funding for photographers and writers to report on the plight of poor farmworkers, out of which came the great works of Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans and others. The Fed, HUD and NeighborWorks America are also working toward solutions to economic crisis and supporting a variety of efforts across the country. The videos I make for them are shown at conferences and other venues to generate dialogue and highlight productive efforts.

My photographs are an independent project. The video work takes me to these locations and provides access, but I'm not getting direct government funding to make the photographic series.


A decaying house in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood, where there are many vacancies that end up burnt-down or bulldozed.

What artists inspire you?

Walker Evans is a big influence. I love his photographs of home interiors, facades of churches, storefronts and billboards. I've also always loved William Christenberry's pictures of homes, churches and other abandoned structures in his native Alabama. He used a small Kodak Brownie camera and worked in color. And I love Bernd and Hilla Becher's typologies of architecture in Germany — their straightforward approach and the tremendous detail they gain in the image from using a large-format camera.

One of my favorite projects on the current foreclosure crisis is Bruce Gilden's "Foreclosures" series for Magnum in Motion. He's been to Fort Myers, Detroit, Fresno, Las Vegas and Reno. These are incredibly moving, artful, devastating multimedia stories. I highly recommend his essay on Fort Myers.

Which aspect of this project left the greatest impression on you?

I think what really struck me was how quickly a neighborhood can decline when homes go into foreclosure. This is why I chose to focus on the facade, which is all we see when walking or driving through these neighborhoods. When the plywood goes up over the windows of even one home, the decline begins and quickly spreads down the block and to surrounding communities. Vacancies encourage crime and impact housing values. The empty house becomes an "eyesore" and contributes to fearful perceptions of the neighborhood.

I didn't realize how extensively this crisis is unraveling neighborhoods and undoing years and years of community development in cities across the U.S. It is deeply tragic — people are losing their homes, and the vacancies are bringing additional social problems that will take years to solve.

Credits: Photographs appear courtesy of Eve Morgenstern.

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Defending a Moroccan Cultural Factory

by Cristiana Strava

The Casablanca art world has been up in arms since the Feb. 15 print edition of Al Ittihad announced that the city government planned to transform a popular cultural space into a parking lot.


Source: Nafas

The site of Casablanca's old slaughterhouses — known locally as "les abattoirs" or simply "l'batoir" — covers five hectares in the historically industrial neighborhood of Hay Mohammadi. Its buildings were designed by French architect Georges-Ernest Desmarest and completed in 1922. Abandoned 80 years later, the site became a rallying point for local artists and architects with ideas for its reuse. They attracted support from King Mohammed VI and managed to register the slaughterhouses on Morocco's heritage list in 2003. Artist Georges Rousse started a project in one of the buildings later that year, and multidisciplinary cultural events soon appeared.


Source: Cinéma-Maroc

In 2008, Casablanca officials collaborated with officials from Amsterdam on a series of workshops dedicated to connections between industry and culture. Mayor Mohamed Sajid later authorized the architectural preservation society Casamémoire to manage the slaughterhouses with local artists, and they formed the Cultural Factory at the Slaughterhouses Association. Yet despite the Cultural Factory's status as a national heritage site and world-renowned center for the arts, it remains a piece of underfunded city property at risk of ruin and redevelopment. Casamémoire has been trying unsuccessfully to renew its lease, and when government officials began parking on the grounds last month it appeared to indicate a plan to reclaim the space.


Source: Telquel

The arts community mobilized rapidly via online and offline networks. Within 24 hours a petition campaign amassed 1,200 signatures and a "Save L'Batoir" page appeared on Facebook. Blogs and online forums were abuzz with indignation, and young designers created signs for the growing protest movement.


Source: Mehdi Ayache

Authorities eventually issued a statement explaining that the vehicles were there as a temporary measure to deal with overflow in their parking lots. City Council Vice President Ahmed Brija assured everyone that the 260 cars would eventually be removed, and they disappeared within the next two weeks.

A protest stencil reads, "The slaughterhouse is not a parking lot." Source: Zied Ben Cheikh

Supporters of the cultural space are nevertheless on edge, and an "Occupy L'Battoir" movement has emerged to keep the slaughterhouses dedicated to the arts. Despite the massive show of support, Aadel Essaadani — current president of the Cultural Factory — maintains that a longterm solution will require stronger political and financial commitment from the city government.

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San Francisco's New Favorite Bridge

by Emily Marsh

Although the Bay Bridge opened six months before the Golden Gate Bridge, it is widely considered the lesser of the two. The Golden Gate's Art Deco design in striking international orange has made it a global icon, while its silver counterpart is a heavily used expressway connecting San Francisco with its industrial neighbor, Oakland. After 75 years of living in the shadows, yesterday the Bay Bridge came into the spotlight.


Source: Emily Marsh

At 9 p.m., the 1.8-mile western span of the bridge became the world's largest Light-Emitting Diode (LED) sculpture, covered top to bottom in "25,000 undulating white lights." Artist Leo Villareal's "The Bay Lights" installation is being lauded for its contribution to public art, its potential to increase tourism revenue and the competition it now poses to the Bay's more famous bridge.

Thousands of spectators watched the unveiling (if that term applies, since Villareal activated the lights from his laptop). The City of San Francisco expects 50 million viewers during the installation's two-year run.

"It's brilliant," remarked Karen Nemsick, whose office sits directly beneath the Bay Bridge at Pier 28, after viewing one of the artist's test runs. "It's without a doubt the most spectacular thing I've ever seen."

Despite the slow drizzle that began half an hour before the unveiling, viewers filled the nooks and crannies of the waterfront and its piers. Cruises and bayside restaurants were sold out weeks in advance as people clambered to ensure a perfect view. From the top floor of the Transamerica Pyramid, I felt the significance of everyone's eyes turned away from the Golden Gate toward its less glamorous companion.


Source: The Atlantic

The bridge's new lights slowly began moving in apparent rhythm with the surrounding fog and waves. While the city seemed eerily quiet, social media channels captured the applause. The event created a sense of community around this seldom acknowledged piece of infrastructure. The Bay Bridge became a living work of art that viewers could connect with, discuss and remember.

Equipping the bridge with an LED display also captures a meaningful element of San Francisco history and culture. The installation combines art, technology and innovation — all important drivers in shaping the city we know today.

In comparison with the Golden Gate's iconic tradition, "The Bay Lights" speaks poetically of more-contemporary realities. This is a San Francisco that builds upon its history of Gold Rush settlers, Angel Island immigrants, beatniks, hippies, activists and public servants, while at the same time celebrating the rejuvenating energy of current artists, innovators, investors and all the misfits in between.

Emily Marsh recently completed a master's degree in Urbanization and Development at the London School of Economics and lives in San Francisco. She's currently pursuing a career in urban governance and neighborhood revitalization.

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Heynen et al. on Urban Political Ecology


The Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower in the city's new business district.

"The central message that emerges from urban political ecology is a decidedly political one. To the extent that cities are produced through socio-ecological processes, attention has been paid to the political processes through which particular socio-environmental urban conditions are made and remade. From a progressive or emancipatory position, then, urban political ecology asks questions about who produced what kind of socio-ecological configurations for whom. In other words, urban political ecology is about formulating political projects that are radically democratic in terms of the organization of the processes through which the environments that we (humans and non-humans) inhabit become produced.


El Molino housing cooperative in Buenos Aires.


A sign reads "self-management, collective property, mutual aid" in a toy-share space at El Molino.

"As global/local forms of capitalism have become more entrenched in social life, there are still powerful tendencies to externalize nature. Yet the intricate and ultimately vulnerable dependence on capital accumulation on nature deepens and widens continuously. It is on the terrain of the urban that this accelerating metabolic transformation of nature becomes most visible, both in its physical form and its socio-ecological consequences.


Central Detroit, looking towards the GM Renaissance Center.

"Urban political ecology research has begun to show that because of the underlying economic, political, and cultural processes inherent in the production of urban landscapes, urban change tends to be spatially differentiated, and highly uneven. Thus, in the context, of urban environmental change, it is likely that urban areas populated by marginalized residents will bear the brunt of negative environmental change, while other, affluent parts of cities enjoy growth in or increased quality of environmental resources. While this is in no way new, urban political ecology is starting to contribute to a better understanding of the interconnected processes that lead to uneven urban environments."

Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw, "Urban Political Ecology: Politicizing the Production of Urban Natures" in their edited compilation "In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism," 2006

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

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.

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A Collective Approach to Local Entrepreneurship

by Mark Minkjan



Locally owned shops were once cornerstones for products, services, employment and social networks in urban neighborhoods. The rise of automobiles, franchises and Internet shopping has forced many out of business or into niches that don't correspond with the needs of their local communities. However, in some cities they're seeing a resurgence due to creative initiatives that link grassroots activism with public- and private-sector resources.


The Van der Pek neighborhood in Amsterdam. Source: Design as Politics

In February, a special kind of shop opened in Amsterdam's Van der Pek neighborhood. It is called the Wisselwinkel, meaning "shift shop," because it hosts a new local entrepreneur every six months. If this trial period goes well, the entrepreneur receives assistance in setting up a more permanent location in the neighborhood.

Louise Went. Source: Amsterdam Museum
The Wisselwinkel is the brainchild of a young activist collective named Mama Louise. Their identity is a tribute to Louise Went, an influential advocate for public health and social justice in Amsterdam's working-class neighborhoods during the 1920s. Mama Louise organizes D.I.Y. summer markets and other events where people make things, give performances and exchange goods and services. The events strengthen community ties and offer opportunities for entrepreneurial residents to earn income. Mama Louise is now working to create a more permanent platform, and the Wisselwinkel is the first tangible result.

The Van der Pek neighborhood is absorbed in a process of gentrification and large-scale restructuring that threatens to displace many current residents. To help counter displacement, Mama Louise invests in people. Their aim is to uncover the neighborhood's hidden entrepreneurs, connecting local skills with local needs.

There are several conditions for entrepreneurs who wish to set up shop in the Wisselwinkel. They have to live in the neighborhood and show a desire to start or formalize a business. Once running, the shop has to be open at least five days a week and adopt high-quality marketing collateral developed with help from Mama Louise.


Inside the Wisselwinkel.

Designed and constructed by MOS Collectief, the Wisselwinkel interior is flexible so that different startups can use it according to their needs. Along with the storefront, entrepreneurs receive practical guidance in connecting with support organizations, fulfilling legal requirements and attracting customers. Mama Louise also provides a website, a logo, canvas bags and other material with help from Waarmakers design.


Source: Waarmakers

After six months, the entrepreneur moves out of the Wisselwinkel to make room for the next venture. Local housing association Ymere helps viable startups find another location in the neighborhood. Associations like Ymere — which are no longer public entities in the Netherlands — are often criticized as focused primarily on maximizing real estate profits. However, Mama Louise found that Ymere staff took to their initiative with entusiasm rooted in genuine care for resident wellbeing.

In working with Ymere, Mama Louise might be criticized for putting low-income entrepreneurs at risk of taking on insurmountable debt after the trial period. However, they help the Wisselwinkel's tenants become self-sustaining and attract investment. They channel the resources of organizations with a stake in Van der Pek's future toward opportunities for current residents to successfully weather gentrification.


Screenshot of the Wisselwinkel website customized for Rathu's bike shop.

The first entrepreneur in the Wisselwinkel is Rathu Gunawardana, who started out repairing bicycles for friends and neighbors in his backyard. Mama Louise supported his proposal because there was no bike-repair shop in the neighborhood and residents have expressed strong interest in having one. Through the city's Department of Work and Income, Rathu received a micro-loan for welfare recipients interested in starting their own businesses.

Business has boomed for Rathu, who also sells restored bikes and gear. After a few days, his shop became a popular gathering place for local cycling enthusiasts. A teenage boy asked to help and now takes care of smaller repairs. Other informal entrepreneurs have started visiting the Wisselwinkel to apply for six-month residencies and offer their goods and services.

Mama Louise is now building a map of formal and informal businesses in the neighborhood. Upcoming projects include a salon run cooperatively by local hair dressers, masseurs and other service providers. Each initiative is focused on developing commerce, employment, amenities and social ties to assure that current residents share in the benefits of gentrification.

Mark Minkjan is an urban geographer who works as an independent researcher and writer. He is part of CITIES and Failed Architecture, and runs City Breaths.

Credits: Photos by Mark Minkjan unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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