Paths to Revolution

by Peter Sigrist

The second post in a series on public parks in Moscow, this is a brief visual exploration of urban development leading up to the October Revolution of 1917.

Plan of Moscow's Kremlin, Kitai Gorod, and Bely Gorod, c. 1600.

Map of Moscow, 1894.

Moscow's Kremlin was constructed in 1156 to protect the aristocracy, clergy, traders, and artisans living in its center at the time. The surrounding plains made the city highly vulnerable to attack, so expansion required protective embankments in the form of concentric rings. Moscow grew in stature as the great cities of Kievan Rus declined. Its grand princes (later known as tsars) led the resistance to Mongol rule, and the city was almost completely destroyed numerous times in the process. Russia managed to regain independence by the end of the fifteenth century.

Moscow proved very different from the relatively democratic cities of Kievan Rus. The grand princes ruled autocratically. In order to prevent other nobles from limiting their power, they gave land and laborers to a lower-order gentry in return for allegiance. Thus, serfdom was ingrained in Russia as it was falling out of practice in Western Europe. The landed gentry extracted income from their serfs and provided a military force for the tsars.

Illustration from an edition of Krylov's Fables, by Georgi Narbut.

Under this system, Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible strengthened the protective walls surrounding the Kremlin, Kitai Gorod (the market area east of the Kremlin), and Bely Gorod (White City, within the current Boulevard Ring); a new embankment was built around Zemlyanoy Gorod (Earthen City, within the current Garden Ring), and monasteries, estates, and artisan communities were established beyond the rings.

Plan of the seventeenth-century Apothecary's Garden at Izmailovo.

Peter the Great spent much of his childhood at his father's Izmailovo estate on the outskirts of Moscow. He traveled throughout Europe, absorbing modern ideas and developing an interest in landscape design. Ascending to the throne in 1694, Peter set Russia on a course of aggressive modernization (with the notable exception of political reform). He expanded the borders in campaigns against Sweden, invested heavily in industrial development, and built a sophisticated new capital city on the Baltic coast. Landscape architects from Western Europe were hired to design private gardens and parks for the nobility.

Island in the Swan Pool at Peter's Kadriog Palace, designed c. 1718.

Factory in Moscow, 1864.

Moscow became an industrial center in the nineteenth century, and its population surged. The serfs were freed in 1861, but their treatment did not improve. There was a shortage of housing in the city, and health conditions declined severely. Early public parks were established, perhaps in an attempt to resolve the social and environmental problems that came with rapid urban industrialization.

Poster for the All-Russian League for the Campaign Against Tuberculosis, 1914.

The tsars were not equipped to manage modern development, and their limitations became increasingly clear during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. Growing discontent set the stage for revolution. In my next post, I will focus on city planning ideas that emerged in the new socialist state.

Credits: Plan of Moscow c. 1600, plan of Apothecary's Garden, and photo of Swan Pool at Kadriog scanned from Russian Parks and Gardens, by Peter Hayden. Map of Moscow scanned from Muzhik and Muscovite, by Joseph Bradley. Illustration of carriage driver and tuberculosis poster scanned from Russian Graphic Design: 1880-1917, by Elena Chernevich. Photo of Moscow factory scanned from Mosca 1890-2000, by Alessandra Latour.

Looking for Help in Dhaka

by Anna Fogel

I sat at the small, local restaurant on a side-street of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in a room filled with Bengali men and the music blasting from the Bollywood movie playing in the background, trying to focus on the conversation I was having about affordable housing development in South Asia. I had found the restaurant on my search for dinner and the two Bengali men who had joined me for dinner found me sitting alone in the restaurant. We started talking about their business, a structural design and engineering firm that works on all types of commercial and residential projects around the world, from their base in Newark, New Jersey, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. One of the men was the CEO of the international business and when he heard more about my background in housing finance and low-income housing development, he asked about good examples of affordable housing development in this part of the world. This idea – of a best practice or key example of affordable housing development – is one that is often requested; there are many developers who would incorporate housing into their portfolio if there were successful examples to imitate.

I have searched for exemplary and illustrative low-income housing projects in South and Southeast Asia (I spent six months working on slum redevelopment financing and housing financing in India, and recently worked on housing finance in the Philippines) and around the world, and have consistently run into a roadblock in finding meaningful or illustrative projects. The project and financing must be profitable, providing a level of sustainability for the developer and also allowing and ensuring that the housing will target a low-income market. One of the main issues with housing and housing development in this part of the world is scale – according to government statistics, India has a housing gap of 50 to 60 million, with some estimating closer to 100 million homes needed. In Bangladesh, Cyclone Sidr, which hit in mid-2007, caused flooding in over 40 percent of the country and destroyed or damaged over 500,000 homes. For a housing project to be relevant, it must be scalable, sustainable and of course, transferrable.

While there are many exciting examples of housing projects, they are often missing a key feature of a successful housing example. One of the recent examples of for-profit low-cost housing development coming out of India was developed by Tata, who was recently touted for developing its low-cost Nano car. Tata’s New Haven is an apartment that will sell for $7,800 to $13,400 and 1,300 apartments are being developed outside of Mumbai. They are small apartments – with a minimum size of 670 square feet – but still offer a potentially scalable, affordable, for-profit approach to low-cost housing development. There are innovative financing schemes, especially targeting non-profit developers, such as Homeless International’s CLIFF (Community Led Infrastructure Finance Facility), a strategic venture capital facility that, as they describe, “enables organized communities of the urban poor to expand their existing portfolios of demonstration construction projects that work for the poor as well as for the city as a whole”. Part of the goal of CLIFF focuses on the demonstration impact of significant projects, recognizing the lack of demonstrable models and successful examples in the housing field. There are housing developers who have focused on cost-cutting mechanisms such as relying on local materials, though often these smaller developers cannot reach beyond middle- or low-middle-income. However, building for middle-income is another strategy, hoping for a trickle-down effect by easing the housing crunch in the middle-income range. Finally, there are of course U.S. examples of for-profit low-cost housing developers, but there are questions about their transferability to more challenging locations.

There are a number of key challenges that arise in the finance and development of affordable housing projects in the South Asia region, and around the world in developing countries. One issue is a lack of supportive infrastructure – the height of buildings are often legally prohibited by zoning laws because the infrastructure, including sewage systems and electricity grids, cannot support this level of density. In countries and cities where housing is most severely limited infrastructure already strains under the high density and system demands. (As I sat at dinner with my engineering experts, the power went out a number of times, leaving us in complete darkness – punctuated only by the cell phones of waiters coming around to check on us.) The regulatory environment is also prohibitive – many real estate development issues spring from insecurity of land tenure and inadequate titling rights and laws. Nonexistent or unreliable titling can prevent developers from getting the rights to build on land, and can limit the possible financing for the developers and their potential residents if they cannot rely on titling to secure loans. There are many other challenges, from government corruption to natural calamities, that limit developers’ and housing financers’ success. In many countries, such as Bangladesh, new housing should be designed to be resistant to common natural calamities, such as earthquakes, flooding or hurricanes.

Consider this post a cry for help, for suggestions, for recommendations, for guidance. There are so many people working in these fields and in parts of the world where housing is such a focus who are desperately searching for innovative financing methods, creative building solutions, and sustainable development techniques.

Credits: Image of Tata's New Haven housing development from Tata.

Western Grids

by Peter Sigrist

After seeing Natalia's picture of new development in the desert near Cairo, I remembered Alex MacLean's Designs on the Land: Exploring America from the Air, which has a section on urban grids. Here are some examples from the American West in the late 1900s.

Highway within the grid in Los Angeles.

Housing grid at the border near Douglass, AZ.

Housing oasis in Mojave, CA.

New suburban housing grid near Las Vegas.

Beginnings of a grid in Mojave, CA.

Credits: Photos by Alex MacLean.

When Art Takes Action

by Melissa García Lamarca

Connecting the topic of social change in cities into two of this month’s posts on Public Art and Montreal, one of my favourite cities, a provacative organisation named ATSA came to mind. I first came across l’Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable sometime in 2003, walking along Avenue Mont Royal towards the Metro and stumbling across a burnt out (and still smoking) SUV with a TV inside blaring black and white static. This art intervention called Attack, since repeated in cities across Canada, is an action incriminating the automobile industry, rampant consumerism and governments, seeking to grab passers-by from their daily worlds and usher them towards a fiction which contains strange hints of reality, pressing people to reflect on the perverse effect of petrol-guzzling, power-hungry vehicles. In a more recent Attack event, a Citizen’s Statement of Offence has been created, a flyer that looks like a traffic violation form but instead has environmental demerit points, available for anyone to print, fill in and place on the windscreens of high fuel consumption vehicles, to raise awareness and to use as a tool to engage in dialogue.

Founded by artists Pierre Allard and Annie Roy, ATSA creates urban installations, performances and realistic stagings that highlight the various social and environmental aberrations preoccupying them. Since 1997 their works have sought to investigate and transform the urban landscape and restore the citizen’s place in the public realm, employing it – I would say rightfully and as it is meant to be used – as a political space open to discussion and societal debates. ATSA promotes an open, active and responsible vision of artists as citizens contributing to the sustainable development of their society.

Dozens more actions have taken place in Montreal and beyond; my top three favourites that I’ve been able to interact with include 500 Billion, FRAG on the Main and State of Emergency.
500 Billion was set up as a stand during the Saint-Laurent sidewalk sale in 2005 displaying dozens upon dozens of colourful plastic bags cavorting in the breeze, highlighting society’s rampant consumption of these objects and their impact : it takes 60 million barrels of petroleum and one second to produce them, they are used on average 20 minutes and take between 100-400 years to decompose.

The second, FRAG on the Main, is a journey through fragments piecing together the historic Boulevard Saint-Laurent through audio and graphic installations on 32 spots, connecting the existing city space to its cultural and social past. As the dividing line between east and west Montreal, an historically significant hub for the garment industry with important Jewish, Portuguese and Italian communities, Boulevard Saint-Laurent is a fascinating piece of the city. These installations provide a fantastic historical link which is especially critical as the past disappears, as the Boulevard becomes more and more gentrified.

Finally, perhaps my favourite ATSA action, running now for over ten years, is l’État d’Urgence, State of Emergency, an annual five-day urban refugee camp in November in downtown Montreal. The event seeks to connect the reality of the city’s homeless communities to regular Montrealers, with music, dance, cinema, spoken word, circus, story telling, workshops, art, night time sleeping quarters, a 24-hour snack table, free warm clothes and three free delicious meals a day for 150 people, the latter donated by a different local restaurants each day. Dubbed by the artists as a mani-festival – a protest festival – the event seeks to broaden peoples’ visions, to confront and challenge social exclusion head on, bringing together the reality of homelessness with art to educate the public about the reality of life on the streets. Last year’s 10th anniversary coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; l’État d’Urgence’s insurgent art tactics sought to highlight how far there is to go towards meeting these ideals. Roy and Allard, the artists behind ATSA’s actions, aim for this event to be a call to action.

Information on this year’s event, taking place from 25-29 November, will be available on ATSA’s website as of 10 November. If you want to learn more about l’État d’Urgence, check this 8 minute audio piece the National Film Board’s Citizenshift made on last year’s event.

For me, ATSA’s work is a great example of the kind of public art we need in cities: reflective, politicised and challenging the viewer to question and change their social and cultural norms. Moving beyond the public space, where art takes action.

Credits: Image of Attack action from ATSA’s Attentat #2 2003 photo album. Image of Citizen’s Statement of Offence flyer from ATSA’s Attentat #11 website. Image of 500 Billion event from ATSA’s 500 Billion website. FRAG on the Main image of Jewish life on St. Laurent from FRAG flyer of all urban installations on the Main. Images of State of Emergency from, ATSA’s Change website and ATSA’s home page.

Beyond Nostalgia

by Katia Savchuk

On one hand, it’s clear that there’s a “there” there – a physical landscape upon whose basic contours we can agree. Brick house. Yellow leaves. Twilight. We often even seem to agree on subjective evaluations of our environments: There’s too much traffic. New England is pretty in the fall.

Despite the apparent convergence, I think for the most part we inhabit very different worlds. The way we interpret our surroundings – as the rest of reality – is largely the product of our own minds. It’s not just that our interpretations of the same scene differ, but that we actually see the city around us differently depending on the filter of our own conceptions. Our sensory perceptions of the environment are nearly inseparable from the interpretations we overlay on them.

Soon after I returned to San Francisco last July after living in India for almost two years, I heard a woman complaining that the city’s streets had gotten dirtier in the last ten years. At the time, fresh from the visual cacophony of India and in the throes of culture shock, I saw the neat streets of San Francisco as strangely polished and sterile. Our wildly different interpretations brought home the fact that the city is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

I thought about this a lot this past week, when I was back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the first time since graduating from college two-and-a-half years ago. The streets literally seemed paved with memories – the ones that actually happened and the possibilities imagined. The environment was animated by my gaze, and in turn, it made me feel that the last 2.5 years had been a figment of my imagination. Nostalgia seems an inadequate term: walking certain paths, entering certain cafes actually affected how I felt in my own skin.

We are constantly evaluating our environment and the way we feel in it: who we were, are or could be. Whether we are threatened or invigorated, constrained or liberated, annoyed or pacified. Although there are physical conditions (I’m not saying we’re all just dreaming), the way we perceive our world is so tied up with our interpretation of it so as to define the places we dwell. Sometimes we have a collective tendency to view things a certain way, but other times the degree to which our mental maps are idiosyncratic appears in high relief.

We live in cities of our own making.

Credits: Photos of Cambridge and Brooklyn by Katia Savchuk.

Cairo Part Two: The Inside-Outside

by Ivan Valin

In her post last week, Natalia described the problematic developments occurring in the periphery of Cairo, where suburban mega-developments are siphoning investment and water from urban areas in dire need of both. Natalia shows that in the vastness of the desert, neoliberalism looks like an ample, green sprawl. But Cairo has another periphery--the Nile--and the same forces of private development applied here disrupt and erode the meaningful connections between the city and its waterfront.

A map of Cairo from 1685 by Vaisseau Graviers d' Ortiees

As an ancient city, Cairo was established at a safe distance from the Nile's broad floodplain. Laced with canals and strung with shadoofs, this buffer was also a productive agricultural zone. In the beginning of the 19th century, the city began expanding west towards the Nile and swaths of this land were drained and stabilized for occupation. In the 1950s, with the infill complete, the Nile Corniche--a public promenade at the water's edge--formalized the city's connection to the water. Inaugurated by socialist president Gamal Abdel Nasser, this space was originally intended to relieve overcrowding that plagued much of the city.

The Nile Cornish is still needed today. The lack of public open space in urban Cairo is extreme and well documented. The corniche still serves a vital role as a place of public gathering and collective release in the city. It is most active in the evenings, when the cool breeze coming off the water invites an almost promiscuous mood. Every surface, every railing, is occupied. Packs of slick young men strut along; multi-generational families eat a picnic-dinner; shy lovers find seclusion in the crowds; felucca pilots scurry up and down the fortified banks, soliciting loudly for rides.

A view down the promenade, even during the day, shows a well-used space, at all levels.

But recently, a rash of private or exclusive developments along the Nile have systematically overrun this public space. With few restrictions and fewer planning documents, hotels, apartments, malls, social-clubs, pay-to-enter gardens, and restaurants interrupt the promenade. Fifty years ago, people cheered when the British Embassy's riverfront gardens (a plain symbol of colonial rule) were destroyed to make way for the completion of the corniche. Now, as entrepreneurs and developers capitalize on the Nile view and its cooling breeze, the corniche is in danger of being lost again.

The destruction of the corniche takes three primary forms:

  1. Territorial Extension: Where the offending interest exerts such an overwhelming presence on the corniche with guards, signage, or planters, that it cannot be occupied by anyone other than an invited guest. (I was repeatedly chased out of these areas, my camera and sketchbook being too suspicious.)
  2. Embankment Occupation: Where private space occupies the space of the embankment, from the cornice edge to the water's edge. If kept low, these buildings can allow a view across the river from the corniche, but often even this is screened with fences.
  3. Water Occupation: Where barges are parked in the water adjacent to the corniche. Gaudy and big, these boats block views as well and are often accompanied by a guard-shack on the corniche. If coupled with either of the above techniques, the effect is especially stifling.

Barge and embankment constructions combine to block the view to Zamalek.

In short, as everyday Cairenes are facing disinvestment of infrastructure and housing resources, they must also now deal with diminishing access to the primary recreational, social, and spiritual corridor of the city. I am not arguing that the waterfront should be a single, accessible free zone--as this would be neither feasible nor desirable along the Nile's diverse edges. I would argue instead that a generous public right of way should be established and respected. It would define not only a dimension for circulation, but include allowances for near and far views, room for air and water movement, and even strategies for cleaning and maintenance.

But resourceful Cairenes have not waited for the government to free their space--they have already adapted by taking over the bridges that cross the Nile. Along the low-slung sidewalks of University Bridge, this new social space is at its most vibrant. Connecting from the residential areas around Abdeen Palace to Cairo University, this bridge draws on a large and young population. At dusk, vendors set out hundreds of cheap plastic chairs as the bridge fills up with people. Some are crossing, but many more are just there for the evening spectacle and cooling air. Grungy infrastructure becomes righteous public space.

Vendors on University Bridge make preparations for the evening.

Credits: All photographs by Ivan Valin, many more here. Map of Cairo from 1685 by Vaisseau Graviers d' Ortiees from the Islamic Cities Map Collection.

Self-Contradictory and Extremely Neutral

by Peter Sigrist

This video, posted yesterday on Filep Motwary's site, brings to mind Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi Trilogy. Tilda Swinton moves through city environments in shy bewilderment. There is an urban golf scene (though not quite the adventurous urban golf featured recently on Pruned). There is also a sadness, or a view of cities as fast-paced, damaging, and unnatural. Here is a more playful perspective:

RMB City is a Second Life animation directed by Cao Fei (aka China Tracy), with music by ME:MO. It is described as "a series of new Chinese fantasy realms that are highly self-contradictory, inter-permeative, laden with irony and suspicion, extremely entertaining and pan-political." This video strikes me as a refreshing view of urbanization, aware of the problems as well as the magic.

Credits: Video of The Box, by Orbital, from lindol90. Video of RMB City by China Tracy.

Homeless 2.0

by Vivien Park

When a photo of a soup kitchen patron taking a picture of Michelle Obama with his cell phone camera surfaced earlier this year, it essentially jump-started a national debate on whether the homeless should have access to technology.

Considering how many mobile phones and laptops are discarded each year, and with the number of public pay phones and library hours decreasing, it seems not only logical but sensible to put mobile technology into the hands of the homeless. A simple mobile phone can be used to connect to current and potential employers, track food stamps, apply for public housing, report whereabouts to loved ones and, if necessary, call the cops when being assaulted or robbed. Quite simply, owning a mobile phone is no longer a luxury, it is a lifeline. Mobile devices are small and packs away easily, and those who search for it can usually find access to free wifi and limited power supplies.

Since an increasing amount of homeless are new to the streets, it is not hard to imagine that some of them might still have their old mobile phones and laptops. Many homeless also have jobs, and therefore a limited source of income. It is sometimes enough to purchase a pay-as-you-go phones that cost as little as $10. These phones are often available at discount stores that also accepts food stamps.

Beyond basic needs, technology also serves as a tool to manage public perception, and can be a reminder that communication and access to information are basic human rights. It is much easier to cross the social divide online than in real life. A connected homeless can utilize the internet as a forum to share their stories and survival tips, or hide the status their living situation (and associated stigma) when looking for income opportunities.

Echoing the sentiment of my previous post, I look to distributing affordable and sustainable temporary solutions as a realistic way to manage the current homeless situation. There are a number of resources and organizations that give out free mobile phones with prepaid minutes and refurbished old laptops to those with low income. Here are a few links:
I'm sure I'm missing a lot, so I look forward to seeing this list grow. Hopefully, even more homeless-focused technology distribution programs will be created in the near future.

Credits: Photo of soup kitchen from Telegraph. Photo of homeless laptop user from the Wall Street Journal.

The Reflective Architect

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Architects in almost every part of the world are trained to translate our interpretation of client needs into sophisticated abstract spatial compositions. We are trained to communicate our spatial ideas and technical solutions through a sophisticated urban graphic design language. This is what the great majority of architects aspire to: creating artistically advanced projects for clients who have the power and wealth to afford them.

Source: Urban Nouveau

The reality that architects live seems to be blind to the fact that today one third of people living in cities worldwide live in slums. That is, they live on informally occupied land, in hazardous environments, without rights, basic services or security of tenure. Moreover, according to UN-HABITAT, 95% of urban growth in the world is taking place in the form of slums. There is a massive need of professionals, including architects and planners, to help city authorities and slum dwellers sort out this crisis. However, the training that architects traditionally receive has mostly produced vertical slums in the cities’ periphery, still in service of the rich and powerful in their pursuit of accumulating wealth and power.

Last May and June I was in Pune, India, documenting a housing project that is an excellent example of the role that we, architects, can adopt in order to contribute effectively to sort out today’s urban crisis. This project was developed by the Indian Alliance, a partnership of urban poor groups and the NGO SPARC, with a group of young architects from Brazil, Portugal and Sweden (urbanouveau). This role can be defined through the following logical points:
  • If architects talk less and listen more, architecture improves, instead of imposing, quality of life.
  • If architectural language is understandable to those living in slums, many of whom had never access to basic education, solutions are more likely to be appropriate and to contribute to alleviate poverty.
  • If architects create a design methodology that allows a minimum level of customisation, solutions are more likely to integrate the features that can help slum dwellers escape from poverty.
  • If construction costs fit the economic limitations of the urban poor, preventing corruption and wrong management, developing an improved version of the natural process of consolidation of slums’ houses and neighbourhoods, and give priority to slum's enterprises and women collectives as contractors, the project is more likely to alleviate poverty.

Edible Roofs: You Are What You Eat

by Christina Yessios

Urban agriculture, something that many of us question whether feasible or actually sustainable, and perhaps right off as fad, is becoming a reality in New York City. The first commercial rooftop farm has taken root over a defunct bagel factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, more than appropriately titled “Rooftop Farms," it is 6,000 square feet of agriculture tended by Ben Flanner and Annie Novak. This heralds an array of other projects currently under construction or in their first planting season in New York.

To create Rooftop Farms, 200,000 pounds of lightweight shale to serve as soil was hauled onto the roof once its load bearing capacity had been calculated. The result is 16, four foot wide beds that grow dill, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy lettuce. The $60,000 cost ($10/sqf) was covered by the film production company, Broadway Stages that owns the building. The project can be seen as having many benefits like creating a porous, green roof surface that can harness rain water and help with New York’s sewage-overflow problem. For the owners it is a profitable model that means creating higher quality produce that travels a shorter distance to the table and in New York City which imports 1 billion dollars of vegetables every year. If you are in the New York area this Sunday, October 25th, Rooftop Farms is having a straight from the farm Farmers Market.

Another large project is Gotham Greens, a 12,000 square-foot hydroponic, greenhouse system on a church’s rooftop in Jamaica, Queens, New York. It will be completely water based, with a system for capturing rainwater for irrigation and will be powered by 2,000 square feet of solar panels on a neighboring buildings roof. The project is projected to produce 30 tons of fruits and vegetables per year but Gotham Greens has a much larger vision as well that hopes to construct over 100,000 square feet of hydroponic farms throughout the five boroughs by 2030. A large percentage of the produce will be sold at Whole Foods that has already signed a contract, but 4.5 tons will go to local farmers markets as part of a local initiative for higher quality food.

According to New York Sun Works, if all the 14,000 acres of New York City’s unshaded roofs were covered with hydroponic farms, over 20 million people could be fed. The city in the future may actually feed itself, but what does this mean for the transformation of space in the city, going beyond a grounding in profit gain and reforming these newly inhabited layers in the city.

Credits: Photo of Rooftop Farms from

My Business is Architecture

by Ali Madad

The absurdist-spiritual journey that is Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973), is a confounding delight of many layers. The following is the dialogue from a segment on architecture:

My name is Lut, my planet is Pluto, my business is Architecture. 

When we built this multi-family complex, we made a big mistake, we lost money. We gave them small gardens and windows, we installed water, lighting and heating systems — this was a wrong concept.  A man doesn't need a home, all he needs is a shelter.

 If we can sell him on the idea of a shelter, we can make millions.

The worker will come here only to sleep. He won't need electricity or water. He won't have to cook. We'll condition him to eat at the factory.
Recently a box set, from Anchor Bay, was released with Jodorwsky's seminal works (including The Holy Mountain) — at 31.99 it's quite a steal.

Credits: Images from The Holy Mountain (1973) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

What Makes Great Public Art?

by Peter Sigrist

Do you have a favorite public work of art? Or least favorite? Whose work would you like to see more of? Or less?

Great public art doesn't always share the qualities that are thrilling in galleries. I like Georg Baselitz statues, but I would feel uncomfortable viewing some of them in the presence of children and grandparents. At the same time, it can be uncomfortable when public art is boring or just not appealing. This is subjective, but it is also why thinking about public art is important -- it enters the lives of many different people, few of whom have any say in the matter.

Not having a say can be good if it exposes us to delightful things we never knew existed. There is a hit-or-miss quality that keeps things interesting, as long as they don't become static. To keep this from happening, maybe there should be some kind of periodic review for public works of art. This could be a chance for people who experience them to voice their opinions. If a piece turns out to be well loved, it could be preserved. If people are repelled or indifferent, maybe it could be moved to make way for something new. Allowing for a constant stream of work, and keeping the ones that fit, might improve upon the places we move through each day.

It's nice to see interactive public art, with people stopping to look closer when they're late for work, kids playing on sculptures, friends posing for funny pictures, couples hiding away, or skateboarders jumping on and off. Art doesn't have to be social in this way, but it can be great for public spaces when it is.

Credits: I can't remember where I found this picture of a skateboarder in Philadelphia's Love Park, but I hope, since I'm not making any money, the photographer won't mind that I post it. Please let me me know if you have any leads.

Cairo: Suburbanizing the Desert

by Natalia Echeverri

Construction booms and real estate speculations were a global phenomenon in the past decade. Under neoliberal policies, governments encouraged private entrepreneurs to develop mega projects. In many cases these projects had no ecological or social concerns and were often allowed to violate city regulations and to fence-in public space. The free market unevenly concentrated investment, growth and redevelopment in certain areas, while other areas became increasingly abandoned and marginalized.

In Cairo, large investments from other Arab countries fueled this process, and a good part of the resulting benefits ended up lining politicians' pockets. While governments in developing countries have given incentives for construction to create jobs, especially for unskilled workers, many times these subsidies end up in the wrong hands. After a crisis in 1990, the IMF required Egypt to apply neoliberal policies. Only 5% of the citizens, benefited from the resulting privatizations and subsidies.

Alegria development, Six of October, Cairo.

Now, in a time of oil and water crises, President Mubarak is creating new cities in the desert--luxury suburban oasis--which are sprouting up several miles outside of Cairo on former military or state lands. The government has sold this cheap, dry land to developers, invested and constructed modern highways for the new car-owning suburban dwellers and subsidized water for their luscious desert lawns.

These new cities, which include Sixth of October and New Cairo, recreate the American suburban typology: they are not walkable and lack a decent public transportation system. These new 'cities' are composed of shopping malls and gated communities that offer safe and unpolluted environments away from the city, as well as exclusivity, green landscape and, of course, golf courses.

Alegria and Dreamland developments, Six of October, Cairo.

Speculative builders profiting from the government subsidies doubled the size of these new cities by marketing foreign and bogus green lifestyles that are completely unsustainable. Coincidentally, one of the luxury suburbs, called Alegría, is owned by the father-in-law of President Mubarak’s son. In other words, president Muberak’s son is married to the daughter of one of the biggest developers in Egypt.

Despite the construction boom, only 25% of the units in the desert suburbs are occupied. In the rest of Cairo, there is a massive housing crisis affecting a large population that is living in overcrowded, illegal settlements without running water or sewer systems. People are living in the worst conditions. There are squatters on rooftops, people living in cemetery mausoleums (City of the Dead) and the city continues to sprawl out, with four to five storied informal constructions.

   City of the Dead and Historic Center, Cairo.

Regardless of this urgency for housing, the government has created incentives for the construction of luxury housing while limiting the construction of low-income housing. The misuse of government funds indirectly benefiting the high-end construction market is more widespread than one may think and distorts the very concept of laissez-faire, which is central to neoliberal policies. This distortion is causing the decay of the center of the city as the upper and middle classes leave it to its fate as it fails to attract private or public investment.

Credits: Images by Natalia Echeverri. Video of "Cairo, A Divided City" from The Arabist.

Los Suburbs

by Alex Schafran

Thursday marks the beginning of a three-day conference at Hofstra University dedicated to "the challenging and emergent phenomenon of suburban diversity." It promises to be an interesting mix of academics, policymakers and activists who share a common view that a critical piece of the future of urban America lies in that massive swath we urbanists have tended to write off as either the antithesis or enemy of the city and its denizens.

The challenge of suburban diversity, or of the suburbs in general, has been brought home by a foreclosure crisis which has impacted the exurbs of the Southwest and the inner ring suburbs of older industrial cities with an acute vengeance. Images like the one at right, taken in Antioch, California, are poised to be the poster child of 21st century "urban" decay.

In the wake of this crisis, some notable urban thinkers, including Chris Leinberger and Richard Florida, have predicted the end of suburbia as we know it, or at the very least the transformation of the suburbs into the "next slum." As important as it is to recognize the ways in which the current crisis will restructure and transform suburbia and the metropolis as a whole (for an excellent discussion on this see the symposium in the current issue of Critical Planning featuring Ed Soja, Neil Brenner, Allen Scott, Margit Meyer and John Friedmann), we must be careful about harkening back to the language of "slum" and "blight" which so dominated the travesties of urban renewal in the postwar era. As Bob Beauregard points out in his brilliant Voice of Decline, the human beings of the city (or in this case the suburb) quickly get caught up in this discursive violence, making poor people (and often people of color) synonymous with decline, rather than capitalist urbanization, neoliberal urban policy, inhumane design or plain old-fashioned greed.

It is along these lines that we have similarly begun to question just how "emergent" is diversity in the suburbs. Popular conceptions of the suburbs as white, middle-class or uniquely American (see the suburbs of Chiang Mai, Thailand at left) not only are increasingly untrue, they have never been completely true. Despite this fact, we tend to cling to our outdated concepts of suburbia, vilifying a straw man even as the reality around us changes.

This is not to say that suburbs do not have problems, nor is it a defense of an American urban form which is undoubtedly at the root of many of our economic, social and environmental problems. It is simply a reminder to pay closer attention to who lives in the suburbs and why, to how interconnected they are to cities and to the metropolis as a whole, and to the simple fact that they are part of us as Americans, whether we like it our not. We can not discount half the population of the United States simply because we don't like where (or how) they live. Better to ask the primary question of the conference, "How might the changing suburbs present new opportunities for creating a more just and equitable society?"

Credits: Images of Antioch, CA, USA and Chiang Mai, Thailand by Alex Schafran.