Markets, Commercial Streets and Shopping Malls

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Markets and open commercial areas usually are the most lively spaces in cities. Personally, in my home city or when traveling, I enjoy going to food markets to buy fresh food, articrafts and eat. I also enjoy going shopping to commercial streets and squares, where I feel I'm merging in the city and its society. I enjoy talking to the sellers and people around, hear varied music, listen to different languages, feel different smells, taste popular and unknown foods and sit on a terrace and watch people walk by.

In the second half of the past century a new way of organizing commercial space arouse all over the world that challenged traditional markets and commercial open areas. The modality, commonly known as shopping centers or malls, is about concentrating shops and supermarkets within blind gigantic buildings, isolated from the outer world and often surrounded by parking lots. From my understanding, this type of organization of commercial space responds mainly to the following factors: urban sprawl and sectorization caused by the overwhelming power of the car industry, domination of commerce by few large companies, and no support given by city authorities to open commercial areas and traditional markets.

This trend has happened in almost every corner in the world, and can be understood as a spatial reproduction of social classes. Indeed, commercial spaces in cities are often divided between those for people with a car and those for people without a car. In Asia, Europe, Africa and Americas I have heard people who have a car say that they don't like to go to traditional markets and commercial streets because they don't like the people there (they usually say they feel unsafe). I've had the chance to experience this urban situation in Beijing, Hanoi, Bangkok, Mumbai, Accra, Sao Paulo and Quito.

In the past two decades there have been efforts to counterbalance this situation with investments (public and private) in traditional markets and commercial streets, with the aim of rehabilitating degraded neighborhoods, stimulating the local economy or as part of real estate investments. Some notable examples are Barcelona (Spain), Cuenca (Ecuador), and Retrofitting Suburbia Project in the US.

Credits: Image of La Boqueria Public Market in Barcelona, from Ajuntament de Barcelona.

Gondola Lifts

by Peter Sigrist

This is just a brief call for gondolas that float between buildings and trees, that pass by windows, chimneys, lamps and steeples, with people going by in the opposite direction, bouncing softly above rooftops. I'm reminded of Portland's aerial tram, which I suspect is a more accurate term, since a search for gondola turns up mostly Venice. Portland does everything right. But in this case not quite. Portland's aerial tram doesn't go through the city in its most dense areas. I mean, it's still right. It's rational and efficient. It doesn't really have to be romantic.

The tram to Roosevelt Island is more integrated. There's the bridge, and some buildings on either side before leaving Manhattan. As in Portland, the faraway views are beautiful. Still it doesn't feel like moving through rooms. There isn't a new atmosphere every 20 feet or less, like in the video above.

There are all kinds of interesting forms of cable transportation. I love the sky bus at Mt. Hood, the aerial tram at Palm Springs, and the Tochal Telecabin at a ski slope in Iran. For more information and examples, see a post by Megan McConville on cable cars, and another by Steven Dale on Cable-Propelled Transit (CPT).

Someone, actually the Gondola Project, has addressed the naming question. Wikipedia lists all the aerial tramways in the world, and further clarifies the naming question. It seems that aerial tramways are pulled along a fixed cable, while Goldola lifts and funitels move with their cable in a forward loop and can detach temporarily to board passengers. Funitels are usually larger, with paired cables for added stability. I think the example in the video is a gondola lift.

All amazing, but still not quite what I have in mind. This is less about CPT and more about urban settings. The video reminds me of small, unconventional places that are often just out of view. A charming gondola lift might work well in these settings.

Credits: Film clip (from the movie "Assa," featuring the song "Golden City" by Akvarium) posted at tabri59.

Stockholm Heartbeats: The Fate of Slussen

by Rebecka Gordan

In the center of Stockholm there is a traffic junction named Slussen. Connecting the two urban islands Gamla Stan and Södermalm it is also a sea lock, with its earliest roots from the 1600s. The latest version opened in 1935 as a modernistic structure made of concrete and steel in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Being an important landmark for the people of Stockholm, the renewal of the deteriorating and sinking junction has been a hot topic for many years. Political and architectural proposals have succeeded one another, embodying suggestions for exact reconstructions as well as daring new creations.

The most recent competition included a group of five renowned offices, from Atelier Jean Nouvel to Foster+Partners. Together with the Swedish office Berg Arkitektkontor Foster+Partners was named winner in 2008, but have since then been forced to change their futuristic swirling plan to a rectilinear version. The project is currently due to start construction in 2012 and will include a replacement of the old structure with an entirely new. New pedestrian quaysides, a transport interchange, a toned down roadway system and buildings for commercial, residential and cultural uses are some additional features. The new lock will continue to allow boats to move between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.

While the redevelopment was outlined by the City of Stockholm, a young photographer decided to document Slussen at its present stage. Calling his project “Urban Anatomy”, David Molander dissected Slussen by taking photos of all its external faces and secret internals during the period of a year. Using a multitude of cameras, from a shaky mobile phone to a digital Hasselblad camera, he stitched a large-scale collage of hundreds of night- and daytime images in a seamless side cut. The result is a ten meter wide collage, on view as “City Heart” at the Swedish Museum of Architecture in Stockholm until November 21, and in the form of a fascinating high-resolution picture-play online.

In his Swedish blog on the project, Molander writes about his rare excursion findings. Through an air outlet by the bus garage he captured a glimpse of a cobblestone wall from the 1600s, visible for only a second from the windows of passing trains. Deeper down, he discovered the legendary Akay temple, located in an underground room that was leftover when the subway was built. It is now a hidden center for contemporary street art that few know of. By fusing the different parts of the much-debated construction called Slussen, Molander creates a deeper understanding of Stockholm’s central core. It turns out that this pulsating knot is not mere a circular system for traffic and pedestrians but also a space enriched by human memories and traces.

Change might be an inescapable outcome of our urban landscapes. At the same time a city neither can, nor should erase its scars and memories. But the question remains what we chose to remember–and what is possible to save. “The rocks in the tunnel entrance with its centuries-old history, are fine as they are when passing the subway window,” Molander writes. “Any attempt in the mind to recreate the history that brought them to the spot misses its target in the dark. They flash for a moment, shortly in duration between darkness and light.”

Map of Slussen as it looks today from Stadsbyggnadskontoret. Images of future Slussen from Fosters+Partners and Berg Arkitektkontor. Images of Slussen as the artwork "City Heart" from David Molander.

Shifting Urban Development Toward ‘VillageTowns’

by Melissa García Lamarca

Claude Lewenz has dedicated much of his life to developing the concept of VillageTowns, an alternative approach to urban sprawl departing from questions such as why and how we do and should build communities. The suburban and vehicle-dependent growth model that emerged in the US after World War II has run rampant and obviously resulted in dozens of societal and ecological ills all over the world, for which alternatives like ecovillages and co-housing (among many others) have been proposed as solutions. With some similarities to new urbanism, Lewenz has created his VillageTown approach with instead a more mainstream appeal, yet still having many of the needed actions towards facilitating more sustainable living. 

Inspired by Aristotle’s concepts of a good life, Lewenz bases his VillageTown model on principles of conviviality and citizenship plus artistic, intellectual and spiritual growth. These ideals, as well as enabling people to provide for economic, social cultural well-being while protecting and preserving environment, are reflected in the proposed urban design: human scale dimensions, no cars allowed within enabling smaller, pedestrian streets (i.e. below), plazas as public spaces to encourage interaction, and many others. From various studies Lewenz found that the optimal population for a village providing face-to-face contact and mutual aid is 500 people, while that of a town is 10.000, a size that adds economic, social and cultural enrichment. The VillageTown is thus created in this conglomeration of 20 villages into a town foreseen to cover 500 acres, 125 of which are urban, 325 greenbelt and 50 industrial, freight depot and motorpool (cars cannot enter the VillageTown), with a community-organised governance system.

While this approach is interesting as a replacement for building new suburbs, industrial estates and so forth, one of my big concerns is how we use the already existing built environment, that is how we can reclaim, reinvent and reuse the large amounts of built areas that exist at present. In this light, it appears that the VillageTown approach has been developed through a narrow lens with little reflection on how it connects into bigger social change movements, such as Transition Towns and Degrowth, that seek a broader societal transformation reflected at multiple levels (social, environmental, physical etc.), changes we desperately need considering the challenges we face with climate change, ever-growing social inequities and many others. 

The VillageTown model works clearly within the existing capitalist framework – reflected in Lewenz’s stated goal of turning real estate development upside down (or right-side up) – with a proposed house in one of these new areas costing $250,000. This price tag makes me wonder how diverse such areas would end up being, perhaps instead creating neo-ghettos of privileged people able to ‘buy in’ to such a development. It is easy to think romantically about the concepts of community and citizenship, and unfortunately most of what I have heard or read about VillageTowns falls into this trap. 

The projects currently underway in the US, Australia and New Zealand are still at the early stages; experience will tell how the VillageTown concept functions in practice.

Credits: Image of Claude Lewenz book How to Build a Village from Image of human scale streets from

An Urban Cinderella Story

by Katia Savchuk

It’s not often that you come across a true urban Cinderella story. I did last Saturday, when I was lucky enough to go sailing in the San Francisco Bay with Anthony Sandberg, founder of the Olympic Circle Sailing Club (OCSC). Sandberg is on the board of Ethical Traveler, for which I volunteer as a news writer, and had offered to treat the all-volunteer staff to an afternoon on the water. We set sail from the Berkeley Marina, looking like bananas in foul-weather gear (which came in handy when it started pouring).

Like many, I had been under the impression that sailing was the purview of the rich, and had subconsciously thought of the Bay as closed to me. That’s exactly the kind of notion Sandberg has spent half his life overturning.

He started OCSC as a sailing school in 1979 on the Alameda estuary, with a borrowed boat and a telephone, sleeping in his van. Within a year, the club had hundreds of students, 100 members and a small fleet of boats. In 1981, he moved the school to the Berkeley Marina – previously the city’s dump.

He convinced the Berkeley City Council to lease him the land in exchange for investing in improvements and building facilities, promising to hand over a first-rate sailing destination and community resource at the end. By the time OCSC celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, it was the largest single-location sailing club on the West Coast, with more than 50 yachts.

The club actually owns about one-third of the boats; it maintains the rest, and shares revenues with the owners. This way, owners earn money when their boats sit idle, and a wide swath of people has access to boats that would otherwise be empty.

OCSC was imagined as the antithesis to the quintessential yacht club. Classes, memberships and recreational trips are open to anyone, and are relatively affordable. Sandberg wanted to encourage women to get involved in what was once a male-dominated activity and build community ( through a friendly spirit and events like free barbecues and Wednesday Night Sails.

To me this is an inspirational example of how one person with a vision can be the force behind a major urban transformation that leaves a legacy far beyond their years. It is also a reminder that successful redevelopment efforts do not necessarily need top-heavy investment from commercial interests in a way that compromises the mission. In many places, it seems that idea has been inculcated in a way that dissuades governments and citizens from thinking creatively about alternative visions of redevelopment.

Credits: Images from the OCSC Sailing Blog.

Bomb It 2: Tel Aviv

by Vivien Park

Bomb It 2, sequel to the street art documentary Bomb It directed by John Reiss, is an investigation into the global graffiti culture. The first installment, Tel Aviv, showcased the work of artists Know Love, Klone, and Inspire - each influenced by the city they live in and produced work with very distinct approaches and styles.

Credits: Video of Bomb It 2 from Babelgum.

Runners, Running and Mutual Aid (Even in the Harsh City)

by Min Li Chan

Runners in cities are a ubiquitous phenomenon -- be it in the vastness of Beijing shrouded by the early morning rush-hour smog, on the streets of Paris by the Seine, or in the fish-tank gyms of New York. Ivo Gormley of the design consultancy ThinkPublic started with a dislike for the model of the contemporary gym -- too wasteful for the yearly subscriptions that we fail to honor, and fundamentally an isolating endeavor that he believes doesn't lend itself to opportunities for mutual aid. In scenarios of mutual aid, segments of humanity that may otherwise never intersect can forge relationships and help each other out. The arrangement rarely inconveniences the helper, as the assistance is often easily incorporated into the existing flow (so there isn't the added friction of inefficiency).

Gormley then started an experiment known as The Good Gym:
The Good Gym pairs runners with isolated less-mobile people in their area. Runners jog to their house, deliver something nice, have a brief chat and are on their way again.
It helps people get fit by providing a good reason to go for a run and it helps the person being visited by providing them with some friendly human contact and a newspaper or piece of fruit.
(abstracted from 
The Good Gym operates on the principle that if you're held accountable to someone else's happiness, you'd be better at keeping commitments to yourself ("I want to run and be healthy...and there's someone who's expecting me at the end of the wretched 12-miles"). Imagine if participating runners in The Good Gym were responsible for deeper tasks beyond delivering the paper, such as helping deliver insulin injections to older citizens in their community. At the moment, the Good Gym is operating only in Tower Hamlets, London -- but just a little bit of a global groundswell could scale a social innovation like this to other cities.

Gormley believes that there are ways to design formats for mutual aid into contemporary life, particularly in cities. Some examples he cites include couchsurfing, pervasive gaming in cities, and community-based tools on the Internet (think Craigslist).

Here's Gormley on mutual aid at the Lift conference this past summer in Marseille:

Credits: Photo from Video from

Having a Jane Jacobs Moment: TXT-Urbia

by Hector Fernando Burga

Since her death in 2006, Jane Jacobs has been having a resurgence (or maybe she never really went away). New publications and debates underline the value of her work. Given the attention is it fair to ask: How do we read Jane Jacobs today?

Her most famous publication The Death and Life of Great American Cities (D&L) is a canonical text in urban studies. Part metropolitan bible, part urban-fix cookbook, part manifesto against modernist planning this text circulates freely among politicians, designers, activists and ordinary lovers of cities proclaiming neighborhood life, everyday observations and human scale as essential components of good urbanism.

But D&L provides multiple interpretations and leaves us pondering questions: Should the urban life of Greenwich village become an urban paradigm to emulate? Can "Eyes on the Street" be deployed as a design formula for community? Is Jane's critique of planning equally driven by environmental determinist ideas? Was Jane Jacobs ultimately a writer who seduced us all? An activist with an ethnographer's bent? Perhaps a feminist who stood firm before a legacy of male urbanists? What would Jane Jacobs have said about the foreclosure crisis? mega-cities? the gentrification of Times Square.

Inspired by Polis's collaborative format and with many of the above interrogations in mind, my "Jane Jacobs moment" led me to participate in an open online reading of D&L called TXT-Urbia. As we face challenges in cities in the US and beyond the re-reading of classic urban texts becomes necessary if not essential. The question of how we read Jane Jacobs today extends to other important publications. Their interpretation can be framed with new lenses and spaces of collaboration which next to academic production, political rhetoric and technocratic discourse, add new life and contingency to the voices of exemplary authors.

Credits: Video of Jane Jacobs in New York from the Municipal Art Society of New York.

The Rodeo Connection

by Alex Schafran

Driving south on San Pablo Avenue from Crockett, you start to see the beginnings of the oil-refining complex come right around the intersection with Cummings Skyway. Out of the bucolic greenery and the blue of the San Pablo bay, a tank farm appears alongside horse pastures, a gleaming white precursor to the industrial phantasmagoria to come. The road, one of the Bay Area’s oldest and longest, crawling through a dozen cities and towns and hamlets on its path from Oakland’s City Hall to the Carquinez Strait, meanders around a series of curves past old schools and petroleum wharves, taking a dramatic dip into an intimidating complex of reservoirs, ducts and valves raised portentously on the horizon. This is the back entrance to Rodeo.

The front entrance, the one the signs point to from the freeway and the internet maps give you coming from San Francisco or Oakland, is more nondescript: suburban tract housing merging into a Safeway, more empty storefronts than traffic lights, a newly landscaped median slowly giving way to a historic downtown that is neither totally abandoned nor truly vibrant. The old movie theatre is now a Pentecostal church, the boarded up Windmill Club is matched by the excellent salsa at El Sol and the cold Budweisers at Lakemans, and the mold creeping up the side of one housing project is matched by the dazzling purple bougainvillea creeping up the side of a well-kept Victorian.

Both in literal and figurative decibels, the front door to Rodeo is as quiet as the back door is loud. Yet this is not a post about juxtapositions, but about connections. If you scratch beneath the surface of the oil refinery and the newly landscaped median, you will find two of our more pressing urban issues – resource extraction and environmental contamination on one hand, and fiscal crisis and regional inequality on the other. The contemporary crises in how we extract, process and use the oil that runs our economy and the money that runs our government come together in Rodeo, an unincorporated hamlet on the northwestern edge of California's Contra Costa County, a mere 25 miles from downtown San Francisco.

These are issues fresh in our minds. Over the past few months, the ongoing impact of industrialized living has garnered worldwide attention through colorful and horrifying spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Hungary, while the fiscal crisis of local government has come center stage across the US and particularly in California, where the bankruptcy of nearby Vallejo, the payment scandals in Bell and the ongoing battles over pensions and taxes have left many questioning the long term viability of local government in California.

One might not think that these two issues would collide in Rodeo, a fairly hidden industrial suburb of roughly 10,000 residents. But following a century long history as a company town, Rodeo is struggling with both continued environmental damage and the challenge of paying the bills in 21st century California. Whereas companies may have once willingly ponied up to help pay for basic municipal services, now they resist - Conoco Phillips, the giant oil refinery in town, had to be forced to pay $300,000 per year, a drop in the bucket for a billion dollar oil company, and would only do so after a massive chemical leak in 1994 sickened thousands and led to an $80 million settlement. That deal is now done, and the County - which is the local government in Rodeo - is now asking citizens to pay more for basic services like police, street maintenance and a community center.

The big question is why they are not going after Conoco Phillips. Despite two recent spills - one into the air and one into the water - not only is the company allowed to continue being a poor environmental citizen, but they don't even try to mitigate the fact by helping to maintain let alone revitalize Rodeo. While they may maintain the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce, they stall on renewing the 300k financial contribution from the Good Neighbor Agreement negotiated in the wake of the spill. Meanwhile, redevelopment and revitalization plans for the waterfront and the main street sit on the shelves largely unfunded, with the exception of the median strip.

As oil fouls our shores along the Gulf, and budget cuts impact basic education, health and welfare across the US (and Europe), we must realize the connection evident in places like Rodeo - that our solution to both problem lies not just in fiscal austerity or innovative green energy, but in the old fashioned ideas of citizenship and fairness - for corporations as well as residents.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.

The Choreography of Urban Arrival

Often the first introduction to a new city is framed by the windows of cars, buses, and trains on the journey downtown from the airport.  It is in this interstitial space that one can scan the removed urban environment which they are entering and feel the nascent metropolitan buzz gradually build into full delirium as they reach the centre of the city.  During the changes between modes of transport, from ground level bus, to elevated train, to subterranean metro, urban dwellers carve out their first impressions of a new city.  The photographs that follow document one trip, through a series of visual reflections, from Budapest Ferihegy International Airport to Batthyány tér metro station on the West bank of the Danube.

Credits: Satellite photo from Google Maps. All other photos by Andrew Wade.

Bridging Social Gaps in Cuenca’s Historic Center

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Cuenca is arguably the most beautiful city in Ecuador. Its historic center was declared world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. Apart from the beautify of its churches and bourgeois XIX Century courtyard houses, the city stands out in Ecuador for the good care given to its public spaces and for the good functioning of its public institutions.

This weekend I had the chance to visit a very special recent intervention in a popular market area and river side of the city's centre. It is special not only because it has provided aesthetic improvements and comfort for inhabitants and visitors; it is also an example of how poverty and social inequality can be fought through improving public spaces. This visit was exceptional because I did it with the author of such interventions, the architect Boris Albornoz, who is now serving Quito's municipal government with a similar mission.

Cuenca’s city centre is home to every spectrum of its society: humble families and businesses, luxury hotels, public clinics and schools, high class clubs and restaurants, government buildings, modern design shops and popular markets. However, as happens in almost all Latin American cities, all these have long been physically divided according to social classes. This division has been traditionally reproduced through interventions in the public space; wealthier and touristic areas have been benefitting significantly more than poor popular areas in terms of quantity and quality of public works and street furniture.

This exceptional project has upgraded two poor popular areas that had been abandoned by previous city governments and were clearly segregated from the touristic and well-off areas by one block-distance only. This project was possible thanks to a loan from the Interamerican development Bank. The Municipality not only chose to make the most emblematic investments in these poor areas, but also applied the quality of materials and architectural solutions that were traditionally reserved to wealthier areas.

One of them is a popular market area for food, clothes and crafts. This area was considered dangerous, ugly and unpleasant, most businesses there were informal, and public spaces were occupied by unhygienic food stalls and parking lots. These investments were carried out with an active participation from the inhabitants and small businesses, and included regularization and dignification of all businesses. Car parks were put underground. Markets, stalls and public spaces became secure, clean, beautiful and pleasant to walk around.

These interventions had a clear political vision, aimed at eliminating physical barriers between social classes, which implied prioritizing investments in poor areas. However, the recently elected mayor is neglecting these areas, not because he has a different ideology, but rather because he seems to be afraid of showing appreciation for what previous opposition mayors did. This kind of politicking is, sadly, often stronger than political visions and commitments. Nevertheless, the precedent and its benefits are too obvious to be forgotten or underestimated, and shall become an example to follow in other cities.

Credits: Image of a new bridge over Tomebamba River from Image of the restored 9 de Octubre market and public space from

Urban Plant Archive

by Peter Sigrist

As part of a class on woody plant identification, I've been working on an online archive of plants for use in urban settings. Although the current focus is on distinguishing features, the site is linked to a woody plants database with more information on the conditions these plants need to thrive. Most of the information is from Michael Dirr's comprehensive Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, and images are from the database.

The site I put together is still very new, with plenty of room for improvement. I used a simple Blogger platform, but for some reason the search engine isn't working. Any ideas on what might be going on there? I haven't had luck yet with Blogger help or forums. Also, as someone who's still new to the terminology used to describe plants, I completely understand the frustration one might feel in finding that simple leaf descriptions make almost no sense without looking up most words in the dictionary. I guess this works better for standardization within the field, but I'd prefer the site to be easily accessible to anyone who wants to find a good plant for their home or neighborhood. There are still tons of plants to add, as well as images for existing entries. Finally, the site needs a better name than ps4910.

The idea is to keep developing the information and images over time. I plan to add a comments section so anyone can share additional information, point out sections that need correction, and add new plants. I like to see people collaborating on these kinds of archives, providing useful resources for those who would like to add more healthy vegetation in their communities. If anyone knows of good ones, please share them.

Credits: Photos of Albizia julibrissin from the Woody Plants Database.

Helping Mongolia Breathe

by Anna Fogel

Mongolia evinces images of rolling mountains, swaths of open countryside and snowy terrain spotted by horses and herders. Two thirds of the population lives the way they lived 3,000 years ago, during Genghis Khan’s rule, living in gers as nomadic herders.

However, as increasing numbers of Mongolians immigrate towards the cities from the countryside, they continue living in gers, as the only affordable housing option, in camps on the outskirts of the city known as ger districts. In Ulaanbaatar, the capital city with close to 40% of the country’s population, more than 90% of the city is ger districts with 60% of the city’s population. Ger districts, which are Mongolia’s equivalent to slums, have no infrastructure or planning, with dirt roads, and no water or sanitation systems. People live in the traditional gers or in small, detached houses which they have built themselves. This is the poorest population in Mongolia, with monthly incomes that average around $150.

Quality of life in the ger areas is very low – with water kiosks and outhouses, rather than running water and sanitation, little to no lighting and no paved roads. The situation is getting increasingly worse as the levels of pollution rise. In order to heat their homes and gers, Mongolians rely on traditional coal-burning stoves. The World Bank estimates that 70% of the pollution in the Ger District and 60% of the pollution in the city during the heating season is attributed to coal burned in the Ger Districts. Air pollution levels are seven times higher in the ger districts than in the city center during the cold seasons, and the poorest population spends as much as 40% of their monthly income on heating costs during the winter.

This has attracted the attention of many in the country and in the international community. There are many exciting products and innovative technologies that are being piloted and used to lessen the air pollution and increase the quality of life of ger area residents, and the entire urban population. Some are simple – such as ger insulation blankets to cover the overall ger which retain heat better than traditional ger blankets, subsidized by the Asian Development Bank and produced by local businesses. Energy efficient stove products have been developed by a number of people in the market, as coal is the source of the majority of the air pollution, including initiatives by the Asian Development Bank, UNDP, the World Bank and local entrepreneurs. But there have been larger and more innovative solutions as well, including a local real estate developer who is importing energy efficiency building technology initially developed in China for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. UNDP is partnering with Habitat for Humanity and local financial institutions to build energy efficient homes to be sold to ger area residents. While none of the solutions are perfect – either prohibitively expensive for the target market or missing cultural requirements (in one of the earlier energy efficient stove designs by the World Bank users could not see the fire which made the stoves unappealing to the population) – as more and more people collaborate and focus on developing innovative solutions, the opportunities for energy efficient heating in Mongolia are increasing.

One of the exciting elements of this market is the level of collaboration and partnership. The energy efficient housing project is partly sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Account, developed by UNDP, financed by XacBank (a local microfinance bank), and built by Habitat for Humanity. The market is working together – though is facing one of its greatest hurdles in the lack of education of its potential customers who often do not appreciate the products or eventual financial savings from energy efficient structures and products.

As the mining companies increase their activities in the countryside and immigration from rural areas to cities increases, year by year, increased attention needs to be paid to more sustainable development in the cities and ger areas. Sustainable in terms of energy usage and pollution, and sustainable in terms of adequate quality of life.

Credits: Photos by Anna Fogel.

A Campus Where Expansion Comes First

by Danya Al Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin

In the last few months, the New York Times has published two articles about The American University in Cairo (AUC) ("A Campus Where Unlearning is First" and "For Americans, Life Lessons in the Mideast"). These articles give little attention to perhaps the most newsworthy development concerning the university—its recent move to New Cairo, a yet-to-be complete satellite city. In another article, however, the New York Times does not altogether ignore the experimental fusing of private and public forces giving rise to a New Cairo.

Rather than recognizing that private educational institutions are embedded in the process of urbanization, all three articles provide a basic understanding of education and urbanization as distinct phenomena. This categorical separation removes the agent from the process. Knowing then that the university recently relocated to New Cairo, how can we understand the AUC as a leading player in the larger project of constructing a gated, exclusive Cairo, letting in some at the expense of others?

It should come as no surprise that the first projects to open their doors in New Cairo were private universities. The most prestigious of all, AUC, has established itself as both the heart and brain of New Cairo. Knowledge about desert landscaping, transport infrastructures, and water systems – the very logistics that enable New Cairo’s desert development – is produced at AUC.

The character of this expansion is best captured by the slogan of Madinaty, a luxury housing compound: "medina aalamia ala ard masria," which translates into "a worldly city on Egyptian land." Here the conception of "worldly" is defined by internationals and the Egyptian elite. A definition constructed to exclude what is not so worldly: the urban working class. They can have Old Cairo.

The AUC website astutely describes the vision of New Cairo as "a predominantly middle-to-high income residential community with...AUC campus at its center." David Arnold, AUC’s President, explained how after consulting with the Prime Minister, and the Minister of Housing and New Development, the university determined that New Cairo would be a significant new center of development. He stated, "The location of our campus at the center of that development just seemed to make a great deal of sense" [Business Today, April 2008].

With projects advertising themselves based on proximity to the highly esteemed campus, the impact of AUC on real estate development is undeniable. Arnold himself laughed: “I wish we could have captured some of the increase in the property values around us for the benefit of the university. We could have paid for the whole new campus!” [Ibid] By making the first move, AUC has spurred the demand and altered the scope and shape of this future satellite city. But what about the logistics of moving to the desert?

AUC has been described as a feat, a state-of-the art experiment. The technologies that sustain the livelihood of this 260-acre desert campus have their roots in the 1979 establishment of AUC’s Desert Development Center (DDC). Arnold recently stated, the DDC “works to train and assist small farmers on marginal lands to improve their livelihoods and productivity” [Speech at the World Innovation Summit for Education, Doha, Qatar, November 16, 2009].

But Arnold’s description of the DDC’s activities is not completely accurate. Perhaps, while describing the organization’s activities, he was not aware that AUC is not a "small farmer" and New Cairo is not "marginal lands." The DDC’s proclaimed credo of "treating the desert as desert" has been compromised. Thirty years’ experience working with small farmers has been retooled to maintain AUC’s 27 fountains and pools, including its advanced underground cooling system. Since AUC opened its gates in New Cairo, the DDC has grown the campus’s shade—a total of 6,970 trees that require individual irrigation.

Under the hood of AUC’s pristine agricultural decor exists an unstable dependency on a public water supply. Due to irregularity in water pressure from government-run sources, pipes have burst, halting the campus’s cooling system. This not only makes classes extremely uncomfortable, but has also cost the university significant sums. Since water is a publicly maintained service, the citizens of New Cairo also suffer from inconsistent access. As recent as last month, residents in the surrounding neighborhoods have moved back to Cairo due to a volatile water supply.

The DDC’s recent research measuring AUC’s water-usage is tied to a sincere concern over conservation, ensuring the least amount of waste as possible. But such efforts merely tag AUC’s superfluous aesthetics with the "environmentally friendly" label. Despite this fact, in 2009 the Urban Land Institute presented the campus with an award, citing the significance of AUC’s role in anchoring, "community development around the university." While the award correctly credits AUC for an imaginative fueling of New Cairo, the enclosed villas of the future city are neither community-oriented nor environmentally conscious.  Madinaty’s proposed grassy lawns decorated by track home mansions are reminiscent of the desert development of Southern Californian suburbs, which are not known for their sustainability.

This allusion to the tract homes of Southern California is more than a mere analogy. Understanding the uneven development of New Cairo as only an Egyptian issue rests on a faulty conception of a contained New Cairo, unaffected by outside forces and not affecting processes outside Greater Cairo. Far from a localized issue, the inequalities that are being produced in New Cairo have profound implications for American college students, Arabic-Language education, and most importantly, national, cultural, and economic understandings in the context of war and anti-terrorism.

In a May 2008 interview in Al-Ahram, Arnold cites increasing attractiveness to international students, from the Middle East and abroad, as one of the motivating factors behind AUC’s move to New Cairo. As the final touches were being put on what could be called the pull factor, the new campus made possible by a $100 million-dollar USAID grant, President Obama in his lauded speech at Cairo University provided the push factor: "On education, we will expand exchange programs...encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities." Motivating Obama’s eagerness to send American students abroad is his urgent call for unity and cooperation:
So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict ... . This cycle of suspicion and discord must end [The New York Times, 4 June 2009].
By hosting American study-abroad students on the outskirts of Cairo, is AUC rather than turning divisive difference into cooperation and unity continuing a "cycle of suspicion and discord"?

Since the founding of its exchange program, AUC has played an integral role in international students’ daily lives in Cairo. It is AUC that most often provides them housing, food, and an education.  By pioneering the development of a New Cairo, AUC has had an unprecedented opportunity to construct, from scratch, a new Cairenian lifestyle for its American students.

Perhaps most significantly, the securitized isolation of the university removes American students from those who may not speak English fluently. While a holistic approach to Egyptian Arabic is taken inside the classroom, geographic separation boils down the real-world colloquial Arabic to material necessities and verbs often conjugated in their command form. Relations based on menial economic transactions do not foster deep understandings of commonalities, but rather produce a managerial, domineering fluency in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. The tongues of such students are not equipped with the words necessary to overcome powerful divisive perceptions of difference.

When David Arnold proudly declared that AUC’s construction required "the largest amount of stone ever used in any project since the Great Pyramids" [Business Today, April 2008]. he embodied the new AUC in an astute metaphor. The Great Pyramids were three tombstones constructed by slaves and are now World Heritage sites that have encouraged government dislocation of surrounding neighborhoods. Like the pyramids, AUC was built with a select group of people in mind, driving the development of an exclusive New Cairo.

Our aim in writing this is not to definitively brand AUC as iniquitous, but rather to forge a connection between the university and New Cairo’s uneven development—a connection that has not been emphasized. What we hope to have done here is open up dialogue about the general intersection between private institutions of higher learning and inequitable urbanization.

Danya Al-Saleh is a senior Political Science major at UC Berkeley, with research interests in colonial education and its role in the (re)making of colonial subjects/cities in the Middle East and in private universities and urbanization. She spent the past year in Cairo learning Arabic and teaching English at the Spirit of Youth's Recycling School.

Mohammed Rafi Arefin is a senior Critical Development Studies major at UC Berkeley pursuing issues of access to education, housing (both informal and high-end) and sanitation systems. He is also committed to teaching and education, having taught a history and practice of vinyl DJing class at Berkeley and worked in illiteracy eradication programs in Cairo.

Credits: Images from AUC and

‘Sustainable’ Rural Cities in Mexico

by Melissa García Lamarca

Just over a year ago, in mid-September 2009, the first new ‘rural city’ known as Nuevo Juan de Grijalva was inaugurated by President Calderón and other high level officials in Chiapas, Mexico, amidst great fanfare. The 410 families that moved into Nuevo Juan de Grijalva came from eleven surrounding localities characterised by their isolation, difficult access and proneness to flooding – where one such event largely destroyed one of the villages from which residents were relocated. This first rural city’s inauguration heralded the official start of a larger federal and state project known as ‘Sustainable Rural Cities’, whose premise is to centralise what are now extremely dispersed and impoverished local communities towards meeting the objectives of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Indeed, according to the UN, Nuevo Juan de Grijalva is the first and only sustainable rural city that meets the objectives of the MDGs.

While such flattering discourses filling the mainstream Mexican press to the brim over the past year (i.e. this is a typical example) on how this project combats poverty and brings sustainable development clearly sound great, the reality on the ground is – unsurprisingly – something completely different. As pictured above, the ‘rural city’ is artificial, faceless and monotonous, with row upon row of 60 square metre houses each sitting on 300 square metres of land. The employment promised to residents has not manifested to the scale where people can actually support their families, and the small lots behind houses are insufficient to grow food, meaning that purchasing this basic commodity is now a new cost for families. Many people are thus forced to travel by bus daily to their land (sometimes up to 5 hours away), a journey creating yet another burden on their meager incomes, to continue their agricultural work. Although through such centralised living arrangements people can more easily access health care, telecommunication and energy services, residents interviewed recently by CIEPAC (see below) in Juan del Grijalva note that the clinic is in very high demand and very little medication is available, and that electricity bills are extremely expensive, to the point where many small shop owners are becoming severely indebted. It appears that most families are staying for the moment because their children have access to education.

Video footage containing interviews with residents released last month by CIEPAC (Centre for Economic and Political Community Action Research) as well as an article from NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) take further steps in damning this initiative. The latter places the Sustainable Rural Cities project square in the region’s larger Plan Puebla-Panamá neoliberal development, now known as the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project. There is also concern that new ‘sustainable rural cities’ will serve as a paramilitary strongholds used to undermine local indigenous autonomy, to stealthily combat Zapatista support bases.

In the meantime, Mexican President Calderón has plans to create at least 25 other ‘sustainable’ rural cities. Time will tell what further critiques and issues will arise from those clearly unsustainable existing sites (from social, ecological and economic perspectives, for now including Nuevo Juan de Grijalva and Santiago el Pinar) and those to come in the future.

Credits: Image of UN Millennium Development Goals from UN MDG website. Image of rows of housing in Nuevo Juan del Grijalva from La Jornada. Aerial view of Nuevo Juan del Grijalva from

David Harvey on the Right to the City

 “The right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart's desire. We need to be sure we can live with our own creations (a problem for every planner, architect and utopian thinker). But the right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality is one of the most precious of all human rights. The sheer pace and chaotic forms of urbanization throughout the world have made it hard to reflect on the nature of this task. We have been made and re-made without knowing exactly why, how, wherefore and to what end. How then, can we better exercise this right to the city?”

David Harvey, from “The Right to the City,” in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp. 939 - 941, 2003

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

Credits: Photo of Tottenham by George Carothers.

A Model for Community-Funded Reporting

by Katia Savchuk

Spot.Us - Community Funded Reporting Intro from Digidave on Vimeo.

Although some are skeptical of the merits of citizen journalism, it has great potential for producing in-depth coverage of urban issues, especially those of importance to local communities.  While it may not replace the capacity of mainstream papers to keep a daily pulse on city life and enforce professional standards, it can be an important complement.

One trailblazing model is, a nonprofit project promoting web-based, community-driven journalism. Reporters or the general public (the website makes no firm distinction) can suggest story topics, which become pitches that the public can fund by donating money or applying credits earned through participation in brief, sponsored surveys. People can also donate time, by completing "assignments" like conducting interviews or taking photographs. The definition of "journalist" is broad — past writers have included Pulitzer-winning reporters and high-school students. Pieces can be re-published for free. Mainstream newspapers can also partner with by splitting the cost of freelance pieces, which gives them temporary copyright.

Many of the articles people have chosen to write and fund so far have had to do with cities, especially Los Angeles. In a pair of articles on Redevelopment Hell, Eddie North-Hager covered the failed redevelopment efforts in his South Los Angeles neighborhood over the past two decades.  The story was picked up by six local publications.

Do you know of other pioneering citizen journalism sites that are enhancing urban coverage?

Credits: Image of interactive ownership map from

Digging the Past

by Vivien Park

Urban archeologist Scott Jordan has been excavating the remains of New York City since 1969. Starting in Governor's Island, where his father was stationed, Jordan eventually moved to Manhattan in 1976 and continued his quest for historical artifacts. Every Sunday, at the Green Flea Market on Columbus Avenue and 76th, you can find him as a vendor selling old bottles, restored pottery, and handmade collages of found objects.

Just like his collages, the stories behind the relics are often incomplete - mainly as brief descriptions of the objects and where they were found. Yet the beauty that emerges from these objects is undeniable. Not just in what was left behind, but more importantly in what was missing.

Credits: Video of Digging the Past from Shane Dixon Kavanaugh.

The Unsual Suspects: Micro-societies Around Two Museums

by Min Li Chan

I cannot help but be intrigued and somewhat bewildered by the confluence of communities around the neighboring museums of Palais de Tokyo and Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Go around the front and you'll see the twin signs and their distinguishing choices of materials and typographies, married by virtue of their shared location but separate in their respective artistic charters and operations:
But approach it from the back and you're greeted by a popular skateboard convention where boys on skateboards, graffiti and sculpture intersect — the only explanation offered by a neon sign declaring "Respublica" (the commonwealth, the republic, or most literally meaning “a public matter”), hovering over the skateboarding communion:

Venture around the side and you'll see artist Robert Milin's Le Jardin Aux Habitants (The Inhabitant's Garden), where Milin granted plots of land to amateur gardeners to fashion in their own aesthetic and personality:

If you're sufficiently curious to sneak upstairs past the visitor barricade at the Palais, you'll encounter a sanctuary on the roof — a pavilion designed as a meeting and collaborative incubation space for a micro-society of artists and designers. As French painter, filmmaker and photographer Ange Lecia describes it (translated from French):
So the special feature of the Pavillon is that it offers young artists and curators collaborative projects. One of the objectives of this laboratory is the establishment of a group that is encouraged to work together during its residency. But inside that micro-society, each individual goes his/her own way. Therefore the challenge is for the various personalities who have been brought together to understand one another in the context of a joint project. From this point of view the Pavillon is a utopia. Sometimes a utopia that offers a rough ride, but one that has the merit of confronting the reality of what defines a community : the tensions and misunderstandings, as well as the affinities and collusions. In spite of these difficulties, the Pavillon is a place that believes life’s richness lies more than ever in its diversity.
The artists' rooftop pavilion:

There's a paradox of both the collective and the individual inherent to these three intersecting micro-communities: the strength in numbers in a group of skateboarders, engaged in what is a very individually styled art of doing tricks on a two-wheeled board; the commune of amateur gardeners asked to fashion a plot of land in their own individual choosing; the collaborative charter of artists-in-residence at the pavilion where each is nonetheless also inspired to go his or her own way. (Then there's the unmentioned community of tourists and visitors such as myself, watching quietly as all this unfolds).

Perhaps the common thread that binds these three disparate communities is a sense of pride in one's craft, be it the consummate skill and derring-do of a skateboarder, the passion of an amateur gardener, or the work of a professional artist. A lovely expression in Japanese embodies all this: shokunin kishitsu or the craftsman's spirit, appealing to all of us, regardless of vocation, to aspire to beauty in everything we do and create.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.