polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

What Do Bangladesh and New Hampshire Have in Common?

by Anna Fogel

What do Bangladesh and New Hampshire have in common? According to The Big Picture, they have roughly equivalent GDP. The above map compares the economic output of each state to another country’s GDP. Though this doesn’t necessarily comment on cities in particular, it makes some interesting points and comparisons when considering development of cities and states in the USA, and around the world.

A couple of my favorites:

Bangladesh and New Hampshire – Bangladesh has a total population of 160 million, more than 100 times the size of the population of New Hampshire.

California and France – if California was a separate country, it would have the 8th largest GDP in the world.

Michigan and Argentina – this map, however, was made in 2007, so I wonder if Michigan’s GDP has now shrunk to a smaller country’s GDP.

Alabama and Iran; Kansas and Malaysia; Oregon and Israel; Arkansas and Pakistan. 

Credits: Image from The Big Picture.

Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City: A Conversation with Peter Marcuse

by Melissa García Lamarca

Known throughout the world as a leading scholar and practitioner of progressive planning, Peter Marcuse needs little introduction. Currently Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York City, Peter is a lawyer, urban planner and activist with hundreds of professional and scholarly publications on dozens of topics including social housing, housing policies, the history and ethics of planning, the legal and social aspects of property rights and privatisation, as well as on questions of globalisation and space.

Polis is honoured to post an e-interview with Professor Marcuse on one of his current projects: the formulation of a theory of critical planning, and the attempt to make critical urban theory useful to the U.S. Right to the City Alliance.

Please give us a brief overview of your work in formulating a theory of critical planning.

After 20 years of practicing law, defending civil rights cases, unions, tenants, as well as better-paying clients, I decided to quit law and get a PhD in urban planning because its seemed to me that urban planning represented a combination of my two main concerns: understanding how the system we were living in actually functioned, and doing something about the injustices and inequalities it created. It is where the rubber of theory hits the ground of reality, notably in cities. But much of urban planning, I found, did not deal with issues of justice and equality, but rather with technical arrangements to facilitate the functioning of the system as it was, injustices and all. So I’ve tried, over almost 50 years, to focus on those problems of urban policy that involve the difficult issues of social justice, such as rent control, homelessness, global competitiveness, gentrification and displacement, mortgage foreclosures, racial discrimination, social movements, feminist critiques, planning education, on most of which I’ve been active and published extensively. The work on Critical Planning is, in a sense, my attempt to put it all together.

Gender is an issue that has gradually been gaining importance in urban planning theory, public policy and urban development projects. Today, equal gender relations are widely considered as an intrinsic component of social justice and the right to the city, as evidenced by research, practical and policy activities at various scales. How are you planning to integrate gender in your theory of critical planning?

Gender relates to urban planning in two related but separate ways. One is in obvious (if thought about) real discrimination, the burdens imposed unfairly and to the benefit overwhelmingly of men, with limited access to professional positions (one early dissertation I supervised at Columbia (Jacqueline Leavitt, 1976) dealt with then astonishingly small number of women in planning). Housing is geared to maintaining women as housewives; transportation and suburban development generally limits women’s access to jobs, education, recreation; credit is more difficult for women to obtain than men, etc.

Gender issues also relate to planning through their contribution to the symbolic linking of ascribed characteristics (in this case gender) with relations of power, domination, inclusion and exclusion. Resistance to gender discrimination thus is parallel to resistance to other forms of discrimination, based on race, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability and immigration status.

Both aspects need to be combated wherever they appear.

What sort of process are you using in attempting to make critical urban theory useful to the US Right to the City (RTTC) Alliance? How and why did this collaboration begin?

It began by working with groups that belonged to the Alliance, and knowing personally some of the academics that were already involved. We had an informal academic group of left urbanists going for a while in New York City devoted to reading and discussing Lefebvre, and some members of the Alliance were also attracted to that. But we’ve also worked together in various settings, from fund raising to educational programs to panels together at various conferences, such the Left Forum. David Harvey’s Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York has provided a meeting place and home for a number of joint programs. The Brecht Forum, in New York, a place where left political groups find common ground to explore ideas and strategies, has also been a site for common discussions. There is as yet no formal educational process underway in which theory and practice is explicitly discussed, although the right to the city concept comes up as a framework in much of the training material the Alliance uses.

In your 2009 article in the journal CITY, you define the right to the city as “an exigent demand by those deprived of basic material and existing legal rights, and an aspiration for the future by those discontented with life as they see it around them, perceived as limiting their own potentials for growth and creativity.” In terms of ‘whose rights’, the RTTC Alliance Charter homogenises class and racial difference into a single category, that of "working class communities of color." Do you see this category as self-imposed by urban communities with stakes? What challenges do you see with this sort of categorisation in terms of conflict among different urban communities?

With “whose rights” the Right to the City is concerned is a matter that is still being explored. In general terms, I’ve used the formulation of the exploited and the dominated, or the materially deprived and the socially oppressed. The Right to the City Alliance has spoken of low-income communities of color, clearly fitting into both categories, highlighted because in political and organizing terms it defines a clearly recognized and conscious community of interest. Elsewhere in its programmatic formulations it speaks of “”the most vulnerable,” elsewhere of “public housing residents, the homeless, youths, LGBT people and communities of color.”

Legal and civil rights are determined and practiced within the scope of the sovereign nation state. As the Right to the City alternative offers another scale for this bundle of rights (i.e. the city) what do you think this means for the role of the sovereign national state in justice related matters?

I read “city” not as a definition of a scale but rather as shorthand for an urban society, the governance of which is clearly still largely developed at the scale of the state. The Alliance is organized both at the city and the national scale, although its strength is overwhelmingly at the city level. It recognizes the importance of the national, but has still a way to go before it becomes a force at that scale. It is also aware of the importance of global forces, but its organization to deal at the level is still locally based. And much can and needs to be done there.

As the right to the city enters into popular discourse, we have seen many instances of it being ‘watered down’. How effectively do you think the US RTTC Alliance is balancing the tricky bridge between theory and practice, that is challenging / creating an alternative to the capitalist system and working in/with/outside it towards change? What do you think are the most effective strategies to implement a radical right to the city approach in practice?

At the societal level, at which it is necessary (if not indeed at the global level -- a real alternative in only one country is not a very promising program), creating an alternative to the capitalist system is not on the immediate horizon. I would not worry about the watering down as a threat. It is certainly happening (see Marcuse, Peter, “Rights in Cities and the Right to the City?” in Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (editors), 2010, Cities for All:  Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, Habitat International Coalition, Santiago, Chile, pp. 87-98) but it is being done, I believe, largely in good faith, and by people we should work with, although we need to keep pushing the shortcomings of the watered-down version. But it helps put the phrase on the agenda. After that, there's no magic formula to implement it; I would rather speak of pushing for programs that move in that direction. One possibility might be an organized sectoral approach: pushing for implementing the concept in, say housing production, distribution, and occupancy, or in health care, or in education, and using those examples to show what can and ought to be done. I think that approach has more potential than trying to implement it in one geographical enclave at a time, to in essence let a thousand flowers bloom.

How can a municipal planner use the RTTC Alliance Charter and critical urban theory in her/his daily work?

I’ve suggested the slogan: “Expose, Propose, Politicize” as an appropriate guide in day-to-day practice. [1]  Exposing means showing the roots of a given problem, for mortgage foreclosures or lack of affordable housing, key issues today in the U.S., it means addressing the provision of housing for profit and not for use, rather than the greed of bankers or dishonesty of developers. Critical theory is the best underpinning for such analyses. And it should illuminate proposing and politicizing, too. Proposing means developing concrete plans for doing what can be accomplished immediately, although with a view to the roots, so that planning is not only criticizing but also proposing, for instance community land trusts, mutual housing associations, ways of getting housing out of the private market that can be accomplished today. Politicizing means understanding that such proposals require political action, political organization, to be implemented; planning involves proposals for action as well as for policy.

[1] For more information please see Marcuse, Peter. 2010. “Changing Times, Changing Planning: Critical Planning Today.” Progressive Planning, Winter, No. 182, pp. 13-16, and in “An Interview with Peter Marcuse.” Critical Planning, University of California at Los Angeles, vol. 15, summer 2008, pp. 179-191.

Credits: Photo of Peter Marcuse from Columbia University webpage. Image of the Right to the City logo from Miami Indymedia website. SF Families Stand our Ground photograph from the Displacing the Dream report by the Youth Media Council.

Unregistered City

by Vivien Park

When Jiang Pengyi first moved from his lesser developed hometown to Beijing, his impressions of an ancient city in rapid urbanization left him with a deep sense of cultural shock and alienation. Once a cityscape and architecture photographer, he now uses the medium to recreate a personal viewpoint of the city he lives in.

In his new series "Unregistered City", Jiang digitally manipulated high-rises and expressways and placed them inside abandoned buildings, where an old world was dismantled to make way for a newer, slicker, and more generic version. The inverted scale is almost a psychological attempt to reverse the power position between culture and expansion, but in the end human presence will merely become traces of activities it has left behind.

Credits: Image of Unregistered City 02 via Rebelart, courtesy of Jiang Pengyi and Blindspot Gallery.

In Memoriam: ‘La Calle’ by Octavio Paz

by Hector Fernando Burga

La Calle

Es una calle larga y silenciosa.
Ando en tinieblas y tropiezo y caigo
y me levanto y piso con pies ciegos
las piedras mudas y las hojas secas
y alguien detrás de mí también las pisa:
si me detengo, se detiene;
si corro, corre. Vuelvo el rostro: nadie.
Todo está oscuro y sin salida,
y doy vueltas y vueltas en esquinas
que dan siempre a la calle
donde nadie me espera ni me sigue,
donde yo sigo a un hombre que tropieza
y se levanta y dice al verme: nadie.

The Street

A long and silent street.
I walk in blackness and I stumble and fall
and rise, and I walk blind, my feet
stepping on silent stones and dry leaves.
Someone behind me also stepping on stones, leaves:
if I slow down, he slows:
if I run, he runs. I turn: nobody.
Everything dark and doorless.
Turning and turning among these corners
which lead forever to the street
where I pursue a man who stumbles
and rises and says when he sees be: nobody

La Calle, “The Street” by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, always offers me a unique reading experience. Somehow, I always return to its reading much like its enigmatic protagonist returns to find.... what exactly?

Paradoxically, this poem is a compass for me among my daily (e)motions. In conversations with colleagues, in books about cities and walks around places, in memories and absences, I return to La Calle and breath its riddle.

I don’t remember when or where I first read it. I remember remembering forward - Is this possible? - knowing that in its reading I would find the dimensions of an inquiry that would always drive me: What is the City?

So I return to “La Calle” regularly. Is it a clue to a method? A theory? A practice of the city? Perhaps a lucid fragment? Or maybe a totalizing representation? A coded master-plan? An aesthetic whimper among the clamor of chaos?

Much can be said about its gendered gaze, its alienation and its subtle predictability, maybe even about its vulgar simplicity. But this poem makes me consider alternative genres, ways of telling, marking, recording and finding urban space and life. Its simultaneous clarity and obfuscation teaches me a simple lesson.

La Calle “The Street” is a monument in the landscape of urban thought. A moment that reminds me (forward) that the city will always be unattainable and whatever truth I claim for it will be shaped by a shadow before me: a frame of my own making.

Credits: Image of Callejon by Javier Samper.

Progressive Urbanism?

by Alex Schafran

I spent part of the last two days at CEO's for Cities "Urban Next Summit", an intimate gathering of a hodgepodge of both professional and nonprofessional urbanists from around the United States (and a few token Canadians). Hosted by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), attendees, who had to apply to attend but who paid nothing to do so (save travel expenses), split their time between formal presentations and breakout groups designed to brainstorm ideas centered around CEO's for Cities newest campaign — the US Initiative.

US in this case is a double entendre — referring both to the nation it is intended to rebuild and reimagine (through better urbanism, city building and a rethinking of the American Dream) and to the actors involved — the proverbial us. But one question that was rarely asked, at least not in any serious way, was who is this us? The irony of a group calling itself "CEO's for Cities" launching a "for us, by us" campaign in the name of everyday Americans seemed lost on everyone. If everyone wasn't so earnest and nice, I would have felt as if I was in a live-action parody of a David Harvey book.

Yet the issue here is not simply whether this group - which is more university president and foundation head than corporate titan - should be spearheading a popular campaign to reinvent how we live. Many of the ideas they promote - liveability, connectivity, opportunity through transit, biking, DIY urbanism, pedestrianism, arts, culture, good design - are ones most of us have endorsed in the virtual pages of Polis. Nor is this a canned critique of neoliberalism - public-private partnerships and an active non-state urban activism are as old in America as cities themselves.

But throughout the conference, the word "progressive" was used from time to time, by both SPUR and CEO for Cities, despite few explicit references to social justice, poverty, inequality, despite a rhetoric surrounding talent, creativity, capacity and clustering that owed far more to Richard Florida, Michael Porter and Amartya Sen than to Henri LeFebvre, Peter Marcuse or john powell. Can a campaign and a convening that does not explicitly include either the poor or issues of poverty be called progressive?

Both out of respect to my hosts, who were kind enough to have me and feed me over a course of two days, and in the interest of debate, I hope that this comes across as the question that it is meant to be, even if my biases (both here and in previous posts) are somewhat clear. It is certainly a sore point for SPUR, an organization with a storied yet checkered past, one that includes so many of San Francisco's truly legendary reformers but also a period in which, as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, it provided some of the intellectual weight behind a federal and municipal bulldozer which gauged massive holes in the African American community, wounds which are still felt to this day. But I have many friends, colleagues and co-conspirators who are active parts of SPUR and similar "mainstream" organizations who would argue that their more conciliatory rhetoric is more "progressive" because it can reach across ideological divides and does not fear development, business or capital.

It is an issue which goes beyond urbanism to broader questions of development and democracy, and which is far more important than simply a question of labels or semantics. What exactly does it mean to be progressive in the contemporary urban environment? Do those of us who cling to a critical urbanism that demands overt conversations about injustice and inequality risk losing something if we define out those who do not? Or is the concept of progressiveness at risk if it can be stripped of these once core issues? At the very least, it is an important question, one which unfortunately was left off the table this week in San Francisco.

Credits: US image from CEO's for Cities. Photo of urban renewal from Dave Glass.

Featured Quote: Mark Whitehead

"[E]veryday socioecological consciousness is suggestive of new political opportunities. At one level a focus on the everyday presents an overwhelming diversity of sites around which environmental politics could be forged and conceived. But more importantly it emphasises an environmental politics which, while rooted within human experience and action, conceives of this experience within broader ecological communities of living things and objects. Consequently, an everyday politics of the environment becomes a politics which emerges from a human context, but is never conceived of on human terms alone."

Mark Whitehead, from Between the Marvelous and the Mundane: Everyday Life in the Socialist City and the Politics of the Environment, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2005

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just things that may be interesting. Please feel welcome to add others.

Credits: Photo by Peter Sigrist.

Origins of Permaculture in Cuba

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

This post is a continaution of a previous one on permaculture and also of Melissa's last post on urban agriculture in Rosario, Argentina. In the past months I've had the chance to work with permaculture experts from Cuba's Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity. This experience has helped understand ecological urbanism as a feasible and necessary option in the face of the unsustainable urbanism that is overwhelmingly dominant in almost every corner of the world. This time I will explain, similarly to Rosario's case, how urban agriculture and permaculture in Cuba became so important as a result of economic crises.

In the early 1990s, Cuba entered into a severe crisis due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its associated economies in Eastern Europe. These countries supported around 80 percent of Cuba's economy, which was based on intensive single-crop agriculture and was highly dependent on imports of agricultural sub-products, such as fertilizers. Cuba also had to import most of its food from other countries. The Soviet Union had been paying much higher prices for sugar than the price in the capitalist international market. In a very short period Cuba's agricultural system collapsed, posing a serious threat to something that had been taken for granted: food.

In the 1980s, anticipating the unsustainability of an economy that was highly dependent on a few agricultural products, Cuba's government and agriculture-related professionals had been developing alternative technologies and processes for agriculture. Then the crisis arrived and they were relatively prepared, but the crisis was tougher than anyone could expect. The response from the government moved along basic survival strategies from urban communities. Agriculture, in a few years, moved from large export-oriented, chemical dependent monoculture to small-size, urban-based organic food production. Having an orchard at home or in an empty plot in the neighbourhood became the norm. Most of these drastic changes were supported by the government, and soon urban agriculture became national policy. Today, urban agriculture in Cuba produces 70 percent of the country's food needs.

The institutionalization of urban agriculture led to its integration in urban planning and its different systems, notably water, solid and liquid residues and energy, including transport. In many instances this integration had Nature's cycles as their main reference, which is the principle of permaculture: an intelligently designed human settlement can be self sufficient in terms of food, water and energy.

It has been repeatedly said that a crisis should be understood as an opportunity to change to more sensible and intelligent ways to live and develop. However, as Mike Davis expertly points out, the reaction from most governments has been the opposite.

In the case of Ecuador, single-crop farming dominates its economy (together with petrol). Moreover, according to Ecuador's Ministry of Environment, intensive export-oriented agriculture is the main source of the country's CO2 emissions. This is the case of many other countries that have an economy that is highly dependent on few cash-crops and that is in the hands of few landowners. This is, as was the case of Cuba and Argentina, a highly risky situation, not only in terms of jobs and economic stability, but also in terms of food. Hunger, as tough as it sounds, might be closer than it seems for many millions of families. The question is: should we wait until large proportions of the population go hungry and/or are hit hard by unpredictable extreme climate events before we adopt permaculture?

To find out more about urban agriculture, see the first article in DPU News 2009.

Credits: Image of single-crop farming from http://www.veoverde.com. Image of urban agriculture from http://www.cityfarmer.org/cubaRoberto.html.

Designing the Corporation

by Peter Sigrist

Corporations are too often undemocratic engines of profit at the expense of a more broadly shared wellbeing. However, as collections of minds working together, they are highly effective and full of potential.

Individual gain seems to be the force that holds corporations together and tears them apart. What could take its place? Coercion, ideas, and altruism have their limits. Basic self-interest seems to be a constant. It may not be our highest calling, but we can count on it. In making use of self-interest to effectively address ecological problems from poverty to environmental degradation, architecture can play an important role.

Actually, this calls for an explanation of what I mean by architecture. At its best, architecture is collaborative design, planning, and implementation of well-informed ideas. By collaborative, I don't mean that individual architects should be marginalized in favor of an unwieldy group-think. It's more about people working together, using their talents in ways that are best for them, communicating effectively, and bringing about well-conceived, democratically formulated plans. It involves the design of self-improving systems — from ecological processes to infrastructure, organizations, technology, events, and other contributing factors.

Architecture as a term seems as obsolete as monarchy. How many architects can honestly call themselves master builders? Doesn't the client usually make the final call? And given the amount of capital needed to realize most projects, clients tend to be wealthy and powerful. Large-scale architecture has pretty much always been controlled by these kinds of patrons, but maybe that can change. On a side note, urbanism seems equally problematic. Why should the urban be such a rallying point? The "-ism" implies a valuation of cities over other places, which seems limited in scope when considering global problems. It also brings up unnecessary associations with fascism, racism, and sexism, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of attention and resources that metropolitan areas already attract.

Expanding the field of architecture requires an engagement with the processes of implementation if it is to become more than fantasy. This would include humans and nonhumans working together in well-coordinated ways, guiding self-interest toward a common good. It shouldn't be limited to the urban.

For coordinated action at a global scale, it's hard to imagine a more effective structure than the cooperation. What if it were applied toward solving ecological problems? Does its effectiveness depend on evading the accountability of democratic governance, or can it play a useful role?

Credits: Photo of La Paz, Bolivia, from Lottelies.

A Playful Take on Serious Matters: The Center for Urban Pedagogy

by Rebecka Gordan

Collecting my thoughts after six months as an architectural reporter in New York City, one of my most memorable encounters was undoubtedly with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). I wrote three articles on this Brooklyn-based organization, two in print and one online. What makes this non-profit so special is the way it combines art, design and visuals toward its well-targeted goal: to demystify the complex mechanisms of the city. With a strong emphasis on public participation, the relatively small core of staff starts several projects by teaming up with another NGO, specializing in a certain issue in the city. Together they track a critical issue that needs further explanation.

Last summer, 15 Bronx public high-school students came together to break down the Community Benefit Agreements, CBAs, which are unofficial agreements between a real-estate developer and a community. The result: an educational poster.

One outcome of this strategy is the project Making Policy Public, which includes a series of foldout posters that are published four times a year. Created in close collaboration with policy advocates and design professionals, these posters are giving much-needed answers to vulnerable groups in the city. One issue, for example, called “Vendor Power!” explains the rights of New York’s circa 10 000 street vendors. Another recent triple-launch focus on non-citizens, youth, and formerly incarcerated people–outlining the situations they face on the fringes of the criminal justice system with titles such as “I Got Arrested! Now What? and “Immigrants Beware!”

The foldout poster Vendor Power! was designed by Candy Chang and included in the National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York.

CUP is also engaging the community through workshops and other teaching tools. On a slushy Friday last February, I participated in one such workshop, in connection with the launch of the Affordable Housing Toolkit, part of CUP’s Envisioning Development Toolkit series. In an empty corner store on the Lower East Side, CUP staff member John Mangin explored the mechanisms of the city’s affordable housing policy together with a group of housing advocates, who aimed to use the kit to educate the tenants they already worked with. Opening the red box we found a colorful felt chart, an informational book, and a postcard with the address to an online map. The purpose: to teach participants about income demographics, rent levels and the technical definitions of affordable housing–thereby empowering them to dare to ask the crucial question: “Affordable to whom?”

The Affordable Housing Toolkit, from 2010, was designed Glen Cummings of MTWTF. 

John Mangin, who has a background in policy and law, said that in the last few years the government has been getting better at recognizing its obligation to educate the public. Nevertheless, many decisions are made without adequate public participation, even if there are channels written in the city and state law for public participation to happen. “Our mission is kind of twofold,” he said. “First, we want to help people understand how things work. But secondly, we would like people to want to participate. And that’s where the designers and artists come in.”

CUP staff member John Mangin explains the educational felt chart.

But it is not only graphical experts that make CUP’s urban education so engaging. Another branch is the youth education programs, varying in length with a reach of over 500 students each year. Here, the students themselves create the educational artwork, ranging from videos to comic books, models and exhibitions. In the longer “Urban Investigations” the students make site visits and conduct interviews with the help of a teaching artist. The programs are focused on specific questions: Where does our garbage go? Can illegal basement apartments be legalized? Why are there homeless people when some buildings stand empty?

In the spring of 2008, students from New Settlement’s Bronx Helpers interviewed officials and researchers on the food that is sold in the bodegas of Bronx. The project resulted in the film “Bodega Down Bronx.”

In the project Re-inventing Grand Army Plaza, from 2008, students from College Now investigated what it would take to be allowed to build on the old square in front of Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Three weeks after the toolkit workshop, I rode my bike to an old cannery in Brooklyn to meet with Christine Gaspar, CUP’s Executive Director. Surrounded by semi-finished sewage models, piles of Lego, golden paint bottles and rulers, she explained why she decided to join CUP in 2009, after providing architectural and planning services to low-income communities recovering from Hurricane Katrina: “The more people that actually understand how the city works, the more people can be represented in shaping it–whether it is through their vote or holding the developers or elected officials accountable for their actions,” she said. CUP’s persistent work–creating playful products on serious matters in collaboration with those that want and need to know–makes an important contribution to the democratization of the city. As Christine Gaspar put it: “We cannot put money in people’s hands–but we can give them power through knowledge.” And while the CUP staff are continuing their work in their little office in the Gowanus plant, hopefully similar strategies will follow in other cities.

Credits: CBA poster developed together with CUP Teaching Artist Hatuey Ramos-Fermin, and Teaching Assistant Prudence Katzewas. Image on street vendor from CUP. Image on toolkit from CUP. Image on John Mangin by felt chart from CUP. Image on students conducting interview from CUP. Image on students at table from CUP.

International Design Festivals

by Anna Fogel

Over the next few months, there are international design festivals being held all over the world. From the theme of “Redesign the World” at the Dutch Design Double program in Amsterdam to the Seoul competition “Design for All”, the festivals and the contributing designers push the edge of architectural, artistic and planning design. The London festival has the AVATAR exhibition, exhibiting architecture for the virtual world, and the prestigious Italian Architecture Biennale is held in Venice over the next few months. Top designers from around the world contribute ideas and the designs vary from having significant intellectual impact to trying to promote a single idea to creating a stimulating or unique experience. Below are some images of exciting, fun, or moving exhibits and designs from various festivals, and the recent New York Times article lists a number of other festivals and artists to follow.

Credits: Image of Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, the first phase of a new design district designed by Zaha Hadid, will be built around Seoul’s ancient city walls, from the New York Times. Image of Paul Cocksege's Drop, Size + Matter, London Design Festival, from http://www.morfae.com/0182-london-design-festival.

The Right to Urban Agriculture in Rosario, Argentina

by Melissa García Lamarca

Rosario, located in the province of Santa Fe about 300 kilometres northeast of Buenos Aires, was a city that suffered greatly during Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis, with poverty levels reaching almost 20% by 2003. One of the responses of the city’s Socialist government was the creation of an Urban Agriculture Office, in the Solidarity Economy Department, initiating an extensive programme across the city that enabled people to grow their own food. Slowly the programme expanded and improved, with the Office serving as a meeting place for people to come and ask for a plot of land in their neighbourhood to grow food, receive seeds as well as the infrastructural, technical and social support they needed to set up or join a garden plot.

Facilitated by this bustling Office employing dozens of people, Rosario now contains over 700 community gardens and four large park-sized gardens known as parque huertas, specifically located next to marginalised communities – a new model in Latin America (see images below). There are also five markets in different parts of the city where people sell the vegetables and fruit grown on their terraces or near their homes to their neighbours. A social agroindustrial processing plant was also created to process and can excess produce into jams for people across the city (photo at right), and on a smaller scale people have been making creams, soaps and similar products for sale with on the aromatic and medicinal plants they grow themselves.

Innovative initiatives have been developed to support urban farmers, such as a ‘green bond’ programme that collects funds from private sector organisations for schools in low-income areas to redeem with farmers and a financial support programme for farmers whose crops fail.

Urban farmers provide the only source of organic produce in the region at very affordable prices, and urban agriculture has enabled many to support themselves and their families since the economic crisis hit Argentina in 2001. People in essence have obtained, for now, the right to fresh, organic and accessible food in the city. Ideally we will begin to see this sort of shift towards more sustainable food production in other cities around the world, but the question is who will facilitate it: local government, as in Rosario’s case (also responding to a profound economic crisis, helping people meet their basic needs) or perhaps communities themselves?

Credits: All images from Melissa García Lamarca.

Urban Typhoon Workshop in Khirkee Village, New Delhi

by George Carothers

Urbanists, artists, activists and academics alike should take note of the latest exciting URBZ workshop to hit the urban circuit. The next Urban Typhoon workshop will be held from the 9th to the 16th of November 2010 in Khirkee Village, New Delhi. The event has been organized by URBZ in a special partnership with KHOJ International Artists’ Association.

“The Urban Typhoon workshop invites artists, architects, activists and academics from all over the world to ideate with residents, grassroots groups and other users of Khirkee Village, New Delhi. The event aims to reclaim the locality by collectively generating multiple ideas, visions and plans for its future.”

Building on the words of many past participants, as well as the international reputation that these events have garnered, workshops such as Urban Typhoon and the URBZ Mashup are exciting, transformative, and incredibly inspiring. For those who are not familiar with the Urban Typhoon workshop, I would strongly encourage you to explore the experiences and outputs of the previous workshops in Shimokitazawa and in Dharavi Koliwada.

Through the partnership with KHOJ, this particular event hopes to emphasize the 'special' role of the artist within the city. For all of the details of Urban Typhoon Khirkee Village, visit the URBZ website here.

Credits: Photo of Urban Typhoon Shimokitazawa from URBZOO.

Urban Journalism in Transition: An Interview with Roland De Wolk

by Katia Savchuk

City papers play a vital role in civic life, but they are struggling to survive in a depressed economy and adapt to new technologies. Award-winning journalist and online media pioneer Roland De Wolk recently shared his views on the changing media landscape and what it means for urban coverage.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, De Wolk was a newspaper reporter for 15 years before moving to broadcast and online journalism. He is a senior lecturer in San Francisco State University’s journalism department and co-created its online journalism program, among the nation’s first.

Note: This Q&A is adapted from a phone interview. All sentences are direct quotes, but they have been combined without indicating omitted material.

How has the way that major newspapers report on urban affairs changed over time?

It’s deteriorated. The number of reporters is down significantly. The number of what I would call quality news outlets has shrunk. The kind of people that have gotten into news management has really deteriorated. When you’re working in a monopoly business … there’s no need to be really good. You’ve got people that own these mass media outlets that are used to essentially drug profits. Now they’re not getting those kinds of profits, and they don’t know how to respond to it. They add more work with fewer people, so the quality diminishes.

In the longer term, obviously the shift in demographics has gone from an urban to a suburban population. Since most Americans now live in what we would call the suburbs, the coverage has shifted away from urban America.

When did alternative weeklies come onto the scene, and why? How have they changed the way that urban affairs are reported?

They began in the late sixties. They didn’t really prosper until the dot-com situation. I worked for the [San Francisco] Bay Guardian for a while when I was young, and I find it useless to me because it’s so unreliable. There’s more money in these alternative weeklies, I think, in entertainment listings – the massage adds at the end – than in urban coverage.

When did community newspapers become widespread? What role do they play in the urban media landscape?

They’ve been around forever. Those are usually controlled one way or another, practically every way, by the commercial interests. They’re economically very vulnerable to local parochial interests.

Are mainstream dailies more objective?

Major news outlets are reasonably objective. We’re all human beings.

How has coverage of urban issues by major papers changed over time?

I think there’s been much better transportation coverage in the last 30 years than ever before.

Development and zoning … They’re interested in their own neighborhood. In my neighborhood, there’s an old military hospital [that may be redeveloped]. I want to know what’s going on, but I know somebody who lives a zip code away from me doesn’t really care. But I think it’s gotten better overall.

Crime touches everybody in this country. To say it’s not or shouldn’t be covered necessitates that perspective. On the other hand, I think it’s too easy to cover, and we cover it too much.

Have the types of sources that reporters on the urban beat rely on changed over time? 

Unfortunately not. It’s a deadline-driven business to a large extent. You’re going to call somebody you know who’s smart and articulate and informed and available. And unfortunately, the practicality of that is that it often brings us back to a set cast of characters. We work pretty hard to break free of it, but that clock doesn’t stop for anybody.

You co-created one of the first online journalism programs in the nation. What are the potentials of online journalism?

Incalculable, infinite, awesome, beautiful. I just think it’s the greatest thing since fried spam. We’re in this fascinating zone here where were transitioning from one to the other.

How have major city papers adjusted to online media? 

Poorly, at best. Disastrously actually I would say. They don’t have a clue. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.  The [San Francisco] Chronicle is better at it than the other ones.*

The managers can’t let go. It’s all they know. They’re afraid of anything else. The same thing’s happening in the journalism departments. They’re stuck where they shouldn’t be.

The Chicago Tribune … was the dominant newspaper at the turn of the last century. Radio was just emerging then, so they started a radio station called WGN. You know what it stood for? World’s Greatest Newspaper. It was a promotional tool for the newspaper and it floundered. Instead of just trying to transfer, let’s take these grits and try to turn them into oatmeal.

What do you think of citizen journalism sites?

That’s like going to a citizen’s surgeon. I don’t think it’s journalism. They’re just people with an opinion. It’s a contradiction in terms. I’m an extreme free speech person, and I love the idea that people can go online and write. It ain’t journalism. It’s a highly skilled profession if you do it right, and it takes years, even for the most naturally gifted people, to learn it.

It’s an accelerant on this fire that’s already burning the industry.

What impending changes do you foresee in print and online media that may affect urban coverage?

You have candidates who … refuse to take press questions … because they can essentially buy media spots. Who openly say out loud, “We don’t care about reporters and the news media. They don’t count anymore.” How many people have stopped to realize, outside of the business, what they’re losing when those priceless people who cover politics … business … your local zoning board … they’re gone?

What types of issues are under-reported?

Last week … I went down to Fremont. I don’t see hardly anybody who looks like me. I don’t see hardly anybody who talks like me. I might as well be in India. What story have I done in the last year that these people would be interested in? I can’t think of one. And that freaks me out; it upsets me.

Any insight into being a new American? What it’s like to be 15 instead of 48? Where are those stories? There’s this disconnect because the reporters, the editors, the managers aren’t connected in there … because of economics, because of ethnicity, maybe to some large degree, because of education, because of taste. We’re just out of touch. I think there are huge commercial opportunities to do that.

Where are people getting their news?

They’re not, as far as I can tell. Journalism majors … don’t read the news. They can tell you who Lady Gaga is … but they can’t tell you who the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America is. I’m not blaming the audience for that. We just haven’t produced a product that’s relevant.

There has been a massive sea change in the last generation. I would say in the last 5-10 years. It blows my mind.

*De Wolk later added that the Los Angeles Times had a “decent (if not great) online news site.”

Credits: Photo of Roland De Wolk from rolanddewolk.com.

‘Build Your Own World’

by Vivien Park

Zero1, an art and technology Biennial hosted by the city of San Jose, will begin next week from September 16-19. An impressive array of visual art, performances, film screenings, symposiums, artists talks, and urban gaming will all center around this year's theme, “Build Your Own World”:
The future is not just about what’s next. It’s also about what we can build to ensure that what’s next matters. How can we, as resourceful, innovative, and knowledgeable local and global citizens build and participate in a desirable future in the face of global climate change, economic meltdown, political instability, and cultural divisiveness?
The 2010 01SJ Biennial is predicated on the notion that as artists, designers, engineers, architects, marketers, corporations and citizens we have the tools to (re)build the world, conceptually and actually, virtually and physically, poorly and better, aesthetically and pragmatically, in both large and small ways. 01SJ is about how powerful ideas and innovative individuals from around the world can make a difference and come together to build a unique and distributed city-wide platform for creative solutions and public engagement.
In addition to the main events, local organizations such as the Buckminster Fuller Institute and San Jose Museum of Art will also be hosting parallel programs and exhibitions. This sounds like an event not to be missed.

Credits: “Art Barn” concept sketch by MTAA.

Notes on Opa-Locka: Fundamentalism in the City

by Hector Fernando Burga

Opa-Locka. The Arabian Nights Festival

The potential burning of the Koran on the commemoration of the 911 attacks set in motion a controversy of global dimensions that underlined the intersection of spectacle, memory and conflict in urban space. This inflammatory gesture in a day of solemn remembrance represents the staging of fundamentalisms circulating in our own backyards. In this post, I offer a window to place that blurs the political relations that bind symbols, memory and built form in the city.

The city of Opa-Locka is one of 35 municipalities, which together with unincorporated areas make up the fragmented metropolitan region of Dade County. Generally recognized simply as Miami, this region comprises tourist destinations such as Miami Beach and Coral Gables. Opa-Locka, located at the northwest corner of Dade County, was developed during a period in Miami’s urban history when the aesthetic branding of newly planned suburban communities attracted investors, speculators, visitors and new residents to Miami’s burgeoning urban frontier. The city grew westward from Biscayne Bay, through the design and incorporation of new cities. In this way, Miami’s early 20th century urbanism transformed vast swaths of oolithic limestone, swamp and mangrove vegetation into modern theme oriented design utopias.

This storyline defined Miami’s urban development during much of the early 20th century. Yet, what exemplified Opa-Locka, in this urban puzzle of thematic urbanism, was the aesthetic signature it adopted. Miami Beach took on Art Deco, Coral Gables embraced the Mediterranean Revival Style, but Opa-Locka’s urbanism was deeply influenced by Moorish Revival arabesque architecture. The details, forms and motifs, which adorn its main public buildings and many of its residences represent a fantastic collage of Middle Eastern icons. In fact, Opa Locka contains the largest concentration of Moorish style architecture in the western hemisphere. Up to 20 structures –residential, retail and public buildings -are historically designated in the US National Register of Historic Places.

Far from a symbolic gesture driven by politics, religion or ideology, Opa-Locka’s emblematic place-making derived from a shrewd profit-driven scheme. Its vision was the work of Glen Curtiss, a renowned early 20th century aviator/entrepreneur who invented the aileron. Curtiss came to South Florida in 1916 with the intention of opening an aviation school (1). Miami’s geographic location close to the Caribbean and Latin America, offered the perfect base for the creation of an airline industry ready to embark on a hemispheric path.

Opa-Locka. Hunt Building, home of the first Post Office.

Opa-Locka was Curtiss’ third speculative land development in Northwest Dade. The original name of Opa-Locka was “Opa-tisha-wocka-loca”, a Tequesta word meaning “big island covered with many trees in the swamps”. When Curtiss began to plan the city on 120,000 acres of farmland, he envisioned: “The most perfect city that planning and engineering could achieve and the most beautiful that the art could conceive” (2).

Such sales pitches were common in South Florida during those days of rampant urban growth. To make it happen, Curtis asked his architects and engineers to gather inspiration from the book “One thousand and one Arabian Nights”. In Opa-locka one finds streets named Baghdad Avenue, Ahmad street, Ali Baba Avenue and the main boulevard called Sharazad (shortened from scheherezade). The buildings were simple wood-frame structures covered in the conventional stucco coating typical of South Florida. Nevertheless within these material limitations, minarets were built, Syrian arches were constructed and arabesque parapets were assembled.

In 1926, a hurricane ripped through South Florida ending the development boom and with it Curtiss' enchanting fairytale. After World War Two a military air force base which had supported the city's economy closed. Opa-Locka, never truly recovered. Today it remains one of many low-income communities in Miami bound together by the shared values of history, economic marginalization and hope. In many ways the story of many other urban communities in American cities.

On February 17th 2009, Opa-Locka commemorated the election of the first African American US president by renaming one of its streets Barack Obama Avenue. Close to that street, the doorway to a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post and the lobby of the old train station mimic the entrance to an islamic temple. Some blocks away, an american flag waves next to a fake minaret in the grounds of City Hall. Opa-Locka makes us ponder about the complicated ties that connect place, national belonging and politics unveiling contradictions and paradoxes. Its history of aesthetic appropriations and the reality of its contemporary urban struggles challenge fundamentalism in the city.


(1) and (2) From Wilderness to Metropolis: The History and Architecture of Dade county (1825-1940) Metropolitan Dade County Office of Community and Economic Development Historic Preservation Division.

Credits: Image of Arabian Nights and Hunt Building (Romer Collection, Miami Dade Public Library) Images of Veterans of Foreign War's Post, Old Opa-Locka Train Station and Opa-Locka City Hall by Hector Fernando Burga.Video of the Triangle, by the Miami Herald.

Phone Cards at the Cornershop

by Min Li Chan

For the curious urban anthropologist landing in a metropolis for the first time, international phone card advertisements can provide a window into migrant communities and multicultural makeup of a city. While phone card services have been traditionally targeted to particular socioeconomic brackets, the flourishing of Internet-based telephony -- think Skype, Google Voice and such -- intersecting with greater access to the web means that the demographics of inexpensive phone calls overseas is one that is perhaps less skewed. All this is further convoluted by easy access to prepaid mobile phones for local calls. And perhaps, when going forward generationally and considering the strong diaspora connections in particular online social networks -- such as orkut in Brazil and India, or Friendster and Southeast Asia -- these dynamics are more hidden in bits and bytes than they are surfaced in the cornershop of a city. (Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research mentions a few interesting observations regarding the social division between orkut and Facebook in Brazil, quoting Pedro Augusto at the Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade in Rio).

Credits: Photo by Min Li Chan.

The Temporary Metropolis

by Alex Schafran

"Black Rock City really is a City." — Burning Man 2010

What first strikes you about Burning Man is the scale. This is not simply artists and hedonists playing city in the desert, but a massive human settlement more than a mile across which is home not only to 50,000+ people for a week, but a Department of Public Works, a police force (the Black Rock Rangers), an airport, a DMV (The Department of Mutant Vehicles) "stores" and "shops" and neighborhoods, roads and street signs and public spaces.

It has different social and economic groups, fetishists of every kind, denizens of every hour of the day, kindness and meanness, happiness and fear. It is largely but not exclusively middle class and white, but that is a subject of discussion and debate, not unlike the real metropolis. Gender and sexuality are very much on display and open for debate, in both cases in much more intense levels than in the ordinary world, both for good and bad. It has an economy, one based on deeply rooted forms of capitalist exploitation and fossil fuel dependance, and like the real world, this too is largely ignored by most people.

This year, the theme of Burning Man was metropolis, the most explicitly urban focus of a festival that has existed in city form in some way for more than a decade. The road into Black Rock City, as the place itself is known, was lined with quotes from Jane Jacobs and Walter Benjamin, and artists added a monorail, a Man(t) Farm, and other urban commentaries to the

regular landscapes of art cars, theme camps and villages within the city. As Greg Scruggs notes in a recent post on Burning Man, the bike culture is strong, and it feels at time as if BRC is a glimpse of the possible - it's utopian elements are hard to ignore, and the striving of many of the participants for the utopian fantasy is obvious at every turn.

BRC is in some ways the perfect place to think about cities, for the strains of the theoretical and the practical merge at every turn - from a conversation about solar power one can easily lapse into a Benjamin-esque conversation about the temporality of the urban, especially on the last night as the city dissolves in front of you. It is a space where flaneurie and grey water are of equal importance, where one can shift from a discussion of shade structure architecture to a debate about the liberal and anarchic underpinnings of BRC's self-declared radical self-reliance. By wearing it's contradictions and challenges on its sleeve, Burning Man is the ultimate fantasy playground for the urbanist, allowing both intense joy and incredible self-reflection, both about the self and the city.

And just like the greatest cities in the world, it is a place of incurable romance. Or at least it can be, especially if you are lucky enough to fall in love while you are there.

Credits: Image of BRC from burningman.com. Image of sign from Dave Scruggs.

The Cineroleum: An Urban Takeover

by Andrew Wade

This summer the site of a derelict petrol station in London has been reclaimed and reconsidered in an urban takeover that addresses a site in transition.  This former filling station on Clerkenwell Road fell out of use, and the site it occupied promised to be caught in a blank stasis until economic incentive and planning approval allowed for its redevelopment.  In the meantime, a group of young artists, designers and architects breathed new life into the physical fabric and public meaning of the site by converting it into a cinema, showing films from August 20 - September 12.  An efficient and inventive use of material meant using the existing roof structure as both the shelter and boundary area of the cinema.  The wooden chairs and shutters that provide enclosure were collected and assembled from recovered building materials.

This project demonstrates the benefits of collective action in the small-scale resilience of the urban fabric.  While top-down institutions of planning and economic development will eventually shape the site with a long term vision and more permanent built enclosure, this propositional design not only reclaims this valuable city space for greater public benefit, but it also ignites speculation as to the future of the site.  The wider idea of the functioning space also posits an interesting critique of the status quo.  Offering £5 tickets to carefully selected documentaries, classics and contemporary films in a unique atmosphere highly referential to the culture and history of cinema, why is paying £10-16 for a West End movie theatre a pervasive and dominant experience of moviegoing in London?

Perhaps the Cineroleum also tests the reclamation of the city in a post-petroleum landscape. Extrapolating this concept to all the vacant lots that would be produced by out-of-commission petrol stations provides an enticing palette of possibilities for the urban designer, the artist, and the citizen.  It is empowering to consider hundreds of sites re-entering the realm of the possible, to be shaped by a genuine right to the city - the power not only to access the city and its resources but to change them.

Existing structure in its former use as a petrol station
Construction of cinema seating
Testing the enclosing curtains, isolating the space from the street for screening films
Credits: Image of 'Film 'er up!' from The Cineroleum. Photo of petrol station from Google Maps. All other photos by Andrew Wade.