polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Edward S. Casey on Public Memory

"Public memory is radically bivalent in its temporality, for it is both attached to a past (typically, an originating or traumatic event of some sort) and attempts to secure a future of further remembering of that same event. Public monuments embody this Janusian trait: their characteristic massiveness and solidity almost literally enforce this futurity, while inscriptions and certain easily identifiable features (such as those of the giant seated Abraham Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial) pull them toward the past they honor. The perduringness of the construction itself acts to cement the strong bond between past and future. This is not to say that public memory requires the density of stone to mark and re-mark it. At another extreme, a eulogy is certainly a form of public remembering — it is pronounced before others and is meant to direct their attention to the character and accomplishments of the departed — yet it is built entirely from words: sounds that carry sense."

Edward S. Casey, from "Public Memory in the Making: Ethics and Place in the Wake of 9/11," in Architecture, Ethics, and the Personhood of Place, 2007

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: "Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square" (still), by Bruce Nauman, 1968.

An Architectural Laboratory in Southern China

by Natalia Echeverri and Ivan Valin

Shenzhen, a booming city north of Hong Kong, has become a testing ground for architects and designers around the world. From wacky streetscapes to major civic and commercial buildings to high-profile master plans, the city is flourishing with design. It has its own Art and Architectural Biennale, and in 2009 it became the first city in China to be designated as a UNESCO "City of Design."

Well known international architects — from Rem Koolhaas/OMA and Steven Holl to Field Operations, BIG, Massimiliano Fuksas, Work A.C., and Meccano — have projects planned or underway. The architecture is usually outrageous: complex structures and unconventional forms that require clients dedicated to the patronage of contemporary architecture. It is the kind of work students of architecture make pilgrimages to see.

Steven Holl's Vanke Center is sold as a "horizontal skyscraper as long as the Empire State Building is tall." The mixed-use building, which includes a hotel, service apartments, and offices, removes the ubiquitous commercial podium and allows vegetated landscape to occupy the entire site. Most of the building seems to float on glass and steel piers. As public space, the open ground provides direct connections from the city to the adjacent lake. To achieve this largely open ground, Holl uses a long-span structural system more common in bridges. The result is an unusual but impressive architectural space that unfolds in dramatic ways. Holl realizes ideas that had been simmering in his sketchbook for years, but that were always too impractical to build. This project can also be read as a revival of 1950s and 1960s modernism.

Shenzhen, until now, was the city of imitation. Tourist go to buy fake Gucci bags and Polo shirts or visit theme parks like Windows of the World and Splendid China, where the main attractions are miniature imitations of other global tourist centers. But Shenzhen is also a city that never stops reinventing itself. As a "City of Design," it is making convincing moves toward becoming a center of creativity and cultural sophistication, following in the footsteps of cities like Barcelona, Berlin, and Rotterdam. We hope this phase proves lasting.

Credits: Photos by Natalia Echeverri and Ivan Valin.

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Maybe Living with Your Parents Isn’t So Bad?

by Julia Waterhous and Dylan Crary

With over half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, it is increasingly important to consider how to live cooperatively and maximize the limited amount of resources available. In many cities around the world, the reality of scarce resources necessitates practices that are also more sustainable, such as living in one home or taking bucket showers instead of letting water run. In the United States, greater economic wealth and plentiful space have resulted in less of a need to pool resources and bred a culture of individualism. But as sustainability becomes a priority, perhaps we need to re-examine the consequences of living an individualistic lifestyle and consider the long-term benefits of collective living.

Julia with her host family in Dakar.

About a week after I returned to the United States from my study abroad trip in India, Senegal, and Argentina, with these reflections fresh in my mind, my mother excitedly told me that my cousin had just found a job.

“Emily can finally move out of her parent's house now that she has this advertising job in San Diego," my mother said. "She was getting so sick of living there, and I’m sure they didn’t mind, but they’re happy she can be on her own too.”

I thought of my own upcoming graduation and the unsettling potential of having to move back in with my parents if (cringe) I am unable to find a job. I couldn’t imagine the humiliation of relinquishing my autonomy to move back into a space owned by my parents, a prospect faced by many recent graduates in the uncertain economy.

Yet, I had frequently seen people living with parents during my semester abroad, especially in Delhi and Dakar. Why is it looked down on in the United States?

While I was studying abroad in Delhi this past February, two students in my program were staying with a man who, at the age of 30, was still living with his mother. "How could he still live with his mother?" many of us wondered. Not only had he never lived away from home, but he also supported her financially.

In India, the family is a primary consideration in most life choices. Taking care of elderly parents is a duty that would never be left to a nursing home or live-in nanny, as it often is in the United States. Parents often still decide on a suitable husband or wife for their children; if they don’t make the decision, they at least have to give approval. Once married, a woman becomes part of her husband’s family and cares not only for her children, but also for her husband’s parents.

An Indian wedding is a family affair.

Generations of cousins at a wedding in Delhi.

In Dakar, families also take a more central role than the individual. The host family I stayed with was a young couple in their thirties with a five-year-old daughter and son on the way. They had their own home, but lived just down the street from each of their parents. When I asked my host father, Tony, where he had grown up, his response was “right here.”

“No, what neighborhood?” I specified, thinking he was referring to Dakar in general.

“This neighborhood.”

“So you’ve lived here your whole life?”

“Yes, Caty (his wife) and I both. This is where I grew up, this is where I met her, and this is where I still live, close to my parents.”

“Do you like being close to your parents?” I pressed.

“Yes, we visit them a lot,” he responded, nodding and smiling.

Over the next five weeks that proved to be true. Most evenings, Tony would return home from work only to announce that he was going to visit his father or cousin, and Caty spent most afternoons either with her family or Tony’s. When visiting their parents, they would open the doors of their homes and walk in, fluidly moving about the space as if it were their own.

These aren’t merely cases of family sentimentality. These societies are family-centered partially due to financial necessity — it’s cheaper to keep families under one roof and share resources. The fact that individualism is more common in the United States is in part a testament to the country’s economic wealth and purported never-ending abundance of natural resources.

Although family is valued in the United States, owning a separate space is the ultimate goal. It is a mark of independence and financial prosperity: the American dream. A recent New York Times article described how owning a home is central to most Americans' idea of success.

Conversely, the inability to purchase a place for oneself practically equates to failure. In the United States, the importance of individuality has become so ingrained that many forget to question what has allowed individualism to take precedence over collectivism. In an environment with diminishing resources, sharing provides the most gain for the greatest number. Collectivism evolved in part as a coping mechanism to deal with limited resources.

Today, it appears that the American reverence for individuality is a reverence for wealth and freedom, often interpreted as “every man for himself.” Pooling resources not only saves money and builds a sense of collective care and support, but is also less wasteful, reducing the amount of energy used per person. Shifting away from the centrality of individualism as a core value in the United States would likely lessen the country's enormous ecological footprint and foster sustainability. Instead of thinking of living with parents as a temporary setback, it can be seen as an option that is economically wise and environmentally friendly. Maybe living with your parents isn’t so bad.

Julia Waterhous and Dylan Crary are Polis interns.
Credits: Photos by Julia Waterhous.

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Styles Along the Boulevard Ring

by Peter Sigrist

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street” feature in The New York Times brings to mind one of the things I like most about cities: the many different styles on display. When it comes to placemaking, people’s style often contributes to the atmosphere as much as architecture, horticulture, and planning. It’s surprising and multifaceted, adding to the appeal of people-watching in cities around the world.

Although I have no discernible talent for street photography, I hope to improve with practice (on a side note, the London Street Photography Festival is currently underway). I find it difficult to get quality candid shots. Does anyone have advice? One approach is to sit in an interesting place when the lighting is good, taking pictures with a capable zoom lens. There’s usually not enough time for that, so while walking I hold a small camera in one hand at waist level, pressing the button with flash disabled when someone catches my eye. The pictures are often blurry, but it helps to be as stationary as possible and have sufficient lighting. It’s fun to upload at the end of the day because you never quite know what you’ll find. Sometimes I feel shady photographing people without them knowing. I hope they’ll take it as a compliment, and I don’t post anything they might find embarrassing, but if anyone asks me to remove their photo I’ll do it right away.

This post features people in and around Moscow’s Boulevard Ring, an allée between two streets that form a semicircle through the western, northern, and eastern quadrants of the city. In addition to trees, it is lined with shrubs, lawns, benches, playgrounds, statues, fountains, and low wrought-iron gates. Someone introduced awkwardly placed billboards along the path, which parts around a pond and is traversed in places by streets that radiate from the city center. At the intersections there are passageways to eleven metro stations, so you can walk from one to another under shelter from extreme weather and vehicle emissions. The Boulevard Ring is also a popular place to relax. There are temporary exhibits, performances, and all kinds of people talking, laughing, picnicking, reading, skating, playing, cleaning, singing, planting, kissing, sleeping, exercising, and customizing billboards.

Since I tended to photograph unique cases, it might be useful to give some context by describing common styles. There are simple outfits that evoke the Soviet era and there are colorful tiger, leopard, and zebra prints, astronomically high heels, and elaborate frills. Surprisingly formal dresses are common, but self-expression remains unhindered within this tradition. General discrepancies between male and female attention to personal appearance are especially noticeable.

Elderly women often mix diverse patterns with their head wraps, blouses, shawls, jumpers, dresses, and stockings. They can achieve bright pastel hair-colors, which stand out even among the brash crimson, platinum, and vermilion colors of younger women. Many kids and young men have mullets, which look great because they’re so bold.

In the summer, middle-aged men wear light-colored slacks, button-down shirts with short sleeves, and shoes with a basket-like weave. This ensemble quickly becomes dingy in cities with countless opportunities to be stepped on, splashed, and burned by cigarettes. Darker versions are also common, especially in work settings. Older men tend to wear light utility vests covered with more pockets than it seems possible to use.

Then there’s the unexplainable. While many drunks are nondescript, there’s a subset that outshines even the most extravagant “New Russians.” This may be something like a crackhead effect, in which excessive drug use inspires remarkable inventions. Whatever the case, the unconventional drunken style is a spectacle on city streets.

Moscow style is a mix of extreme uniformity and originality, all completely unabashed. You can find its varied splendor on display along the Boulevard Ring.

Amsterdam Is Nice. Is It Just?

by Alex Schafran

I have always loved Amsterdam, and not solely because I am from California. I credit a common (for foreigners) near-death experience there a decade ago — almost getting run over by a stream of bikes in dedicated lanes — with my transformation from old-school housing guy to full-fledged urbanist. Amsterdam can be an epiphany: a subtle, beautiful, and oh-so-pleasant example of what could happen if older cities fought for a different way of life, with a more humane urban design standard than what has become the norm in the United States.

amsterdam 068

My trip to Amsterdam in 2002 was partly inspired by the city's legendary affordable housing policies. A regime of state and social ownership meshed with one of the most vibrant squatting movements in urban history to create a lived city, where the most inherently monopolistic resource — land — was largely free from speculation. It was a city where public housing was not a four-letter word.

amsterdam 223

Experiences like these are part of what drives so many noted American urbanists to live in, love, and write about Amsterdam, not just as a nice city but as a just city. Ed Soja's LA/Amsterdam mash-up is one of my favorite pieces of his — Soja writing as only he can and the rest of us should. Susan Fainstein has written about Amsterdam for years, most recently in The Just City, where a major redevelopment project in Amsterdam becomes "the most just" of three urban projects (the new Yankee stadium in New York, the city's biggest urban shame since Moses, is the evil opposite).


Fainstein's linking of Amsterdam and justice was an explicit and open-ended question at the recent RC21 conference, urban sociology's annual meeting of the minds. More than any conference I have ever been to, the host city's supposedly glittering reputation for doing good things was under attack — by the Dutch themselves. In a wickedly smart opening presentation, Holland's latest urbanist wunderkind Justus Uitermark managed to capture the hand-wringing angst of many progressive Dutch urbanists when he asked whether Amsterdam had lost the right to claim the moral high ground, becoming not an exemplary just city but "just a nice city."


It is hard to avoid the stunning pace of change in Amsterdam, captured in built form in some of my photographs. There is a wall of boxy glass and steel on either side of the IJ near the centrum, an architectural dike for the neoliberal era. Rather than holding back the North Sea, Amsterdam's new facade is designed to hold in capital and that precious resource Amsterdam has pursued with policy and fervor: the "creative class."


The impact of Richard Florida's "creative class" ideology is featured in a new documentary by the Netherlands-based German urbanist Tino Buchholz. Featuring numerous Dutch activists and intellectuals and geographer Jamie Peck, whose essay "Struggling with the Creative Class" remains my favorite piece of contemporary urban intellectual critique, the film situates the creative class debate in the broader context of capital-led redevelopment and questions of affordability and belonging in cities of the Global North.

In coming weeks, we will feature a review of Buchholz's movie and an interview with Uitermark and his mentor, Jan Willem Duyvendak. Amsterdam may no longer be what it was, but the changes wrought in the name of creativity continue to make Amsterdam a critical source of urban questions, for better or for worse.

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Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran. 

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A Place for Contemplation in Central London

by Andrew Wade

Interior garden space by Piet Oudolf.

Last year's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London explored playfulness and relied on the impromptu meetings of passersby at ping-pong or chess tables to create a lively and engaging space. This year's pavilion operates under a different logic. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor went for a minimal, contemplative space that envelops and encloses a rectangular garden. This haven from the over-stimulation of central London is presented as a welcome contrast, speaking to the internal life of urban dwellers that needs to be carefully nurtured within the buzz of the city.

Peter Zumthor inspecting the finished pavilion.

The pavilion is uniquely designed for London's notorious light rain, sheltering benches and tables with pitched roofs that direct falling water onto the central garden. The space takes on a different vibe in the evenings, with hallway lights as the only thing pulling the black pavilion out of darkness and marking the extended corridor that mediates the entrance to the enclosed garden.

In an ever more dense and active city, how can we preserve such room for contemplation and reflection on a wider scale? Architects are unofficially charged with the task of producing a graceful urbanism — harmonious density that provides restful spaces along with dynamic public arteries and places of exchange. This year's pavilion is a reminder that simple, natural spaces can become sacred ground within the city.

Credits: Photos from Chris Osburn and Kemey Lafond

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The Real Costs of Climate Change in Cities

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In its last report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underestimated the effects of climate change, a politically motivated move that poses a severe threat to cities in the short and long term. The IPCC did not seriously consider the meltdown and detachment of the two largest ice sheets at the planet's poles, which could precipitate an “albedo flip” (critically reducing the earth's capacity to reflect radiation), as James Hansen suggests in “Climate Change and Trace Gases” (PDF). In Hansen’s words, “the Earth is getting perilously close to climate changes that could run out of our control.”

Under pressure from large polluters, the IPCC calculated a probable 0.4-meter sea level rise. Considering all available scientific evidence, the rise will most likely reach several meters. The complete meltdown of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets would cause a 13-meter rise; even a fraction of this would be a global catastrophe. Under these conditions, most of the world's largest cities (Tokyo, New York, Seoul, Mumbai, Los Angeles, Manila, Shanghai, Jakarta, Karachi, Rio, Istanbul, Lagos, etc.) and smaller cities would have to confront the disastrous effects of rising temperatures and sea levels.

It is time to change the world's energy model to bring carbon emissions under control if we hope to avert future crises. There is no valid justification for ignoring this problem.

Credits: Photo of Shanghai by Keith Marshall. Maps showing sea level rise in U.S. cities from University of Arizona. Recommended reading: Hansen, J. (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, New York, Bloomsbury.

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