polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Jack London on the East End

"Late last night I walked along Commercial Street from Spitalfields to Whitechapel, and still continuing south, down Leman Street to the docks. And as I walked I smiled at the East End papers, which, filled with civic pride, boastfully proclaim that there is nothing the matter with the East End as a living place for men and women. It is rather hard to tell a tithe of what I saw. Much of it is untellable. But in a general way I may say that I saw a nightmare, a fearful slime that quickened the pavement with life, a mess of unmentionable obscenity that put into eclipse the 'nightly horror' of Piccadilly and the Strand. It was a menagerie of garmented bipeds that looked something like humans and more like beasts, and to complete the picture, brass-buttoned keepers kept order among them when they snarled too fiercely."

Jack London, from "People of the Abyss," 1903

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 White Chapel High Street, 1905, from Wikimedia Commons.

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The Water’s Pretty to Me

by Prudence Katze

In late April and early May of this year, Memphis briefly joined the fraternity of cities affected by natural disasters attributed to "global weirding." Thanks to snowmelt from the north and heavy rains, the Mississippi River stopped just short of beating its record flood level set in 1927. The musical "Show Boat" also opened that year, bringing the metaphor of an uncaring flow into a new context through the song "Ol' Man River." By the time the musical and movie came out, the steamboat era had drawn to a close. Without the need to worry about a dam, pumping station or flood impeding a river journey, massive hydrological engineering projects have now become the norm on the Mississippi.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in treating the ebb and flow of water as a circle to be squared, has wrought a river that seems to exist only in designated municipal contexts. There is not one Mississippi River; there are as many rivers as the number of towns that line its banks. It is no longer a natural force that knits the North with the South, but convenient background noise. This story is echoed in waterways the world over: They either become zones for sluicing precious water, territory dividers or backdrops to tout in advertisements for new downtown co-ops.

Steamboats once acted as a connecting thread, drawing disparate port cities into a larger, shared narrative. Now the Mighty Mississippi of song and folklore is mostly traversed by anonymous, grain-hauling barges or the odd recreational kayaker.

As far as natural disasters go, the Memphis version of the Great Flood of 2011 was fairly benign. Homes were abandoned in the hundreds, not thousands, and over-flowing sewage was more of a hazard than the flow of the river itself. The slow rise of the waters was also timed perfectly for Memphis's annual Beale Street Music Fest, which typically signals the beginning of summer and good times to come.

With the passing of time, the swelling Memphis river bank became a locus of both silent curiosity and gaggles of festivity. People on a lunch break, tourists strolling downtown and visitors from nearby states came to gawk at the river and upload pictures on their cellphones. Natural disasters are our new World's Fairs — we all witness a moment stemming from globally connected phenomena.

I made this short video, in the atmosphere of bated breath and surreal festivity, in an attempt to examine how the seemingly disparate political grids of local decision-making are actually connected and felt on a national level. The two main, anonymous narrators view the river from their own vantage points and try to come to terms with what it means when an ignored element becomes "out of control."

James Corner once wrote that the idea of a landscape is a combination of both "recollection" and "invention." Rivers inhabit both of these worlds, not only because human societies have come to rely on forceful hydrological manipulations to control a river's flow, but also because rivers are abrupt reminders of an edge, a mercurial change from solid land to swirling molecules. When the flood waters began to creep up, the denizens of Memphis were confronted with an edge that not only had moved, but was blurred.

Land is plotted as annexed dots on a map, and our collective understanding of a crisis is blocked out and truncated. We can never be totally saved by the scale measurements of the engineer's ruler. According to Charles Waldheim, "the idea of landscape has shifted from the scenic and pictorial imagery to a highly managed surface best viewed, arranged, and coordinated from above." But, in the end, it is those on the ground that interpret the flood's flow.

Prudence Katze was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She has been enjoying New York City's version of cicadas for the past seven years.

Credits: Image of the confluence of the Mississippi & Ohio Rivers from a detail of a Harold N. Fisk/US Army Corps of Engineers 1944 report on the "Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River."

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Featured Artist: Kevin Reynolds and the Detroit Sound

by Vivien Park

Kevin Reynolds entered the Detroit techno scene as an audio engineer for Derrick May's label Transmat. His live performances were showcased at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2001 and 2004. More recently, his live sets were noted in Resident Advisor as highlights of the 2009 Movement Electronic Music Festival. Dubbed by BBC Radio One "the new sound of Detroit," Kevin Reynolds is a producer and live performer deeply influenced by the city where he lives.

Credits: Photo from mntothat.com"You Search for a Means" by Kevin Reynolds

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When Transportation Becomes a Tourist Attraction

by Yolanta Siu

When a country spends 10 billion yuan ($1.33 billion) on a new train line, one would expect people to use it. That is not the case with China’s Shanghai Maglev Train, which is still mostly a tourist attraction after being in service for seven years. It is less a transportation system than a way to boost China’s international image.

The rail network between China and Taiwan, with high speed rail lines colored according to speed.

Currently, China is home to the longest high-speed rail line network in the world: a staggering 9,676 kilometers of track. To understand why the Maglev train system has become a tourist attraction rather than a useful mode of transportation, a little background on the Chinese train system is required. There are three main types of train in China: the regular train (火車), high-speed rail (高速铁路/高速鐵路) and the Shanghai Maglev Train (上海磁浮示范运营线/上海磁浮示範運營線).

According to my uncle, regular trains are “very cheap,” but they are “slow” and for “poor working people.” The high-speed rail, which goes about 200-350 kph, is the next step up. Most white-collar, working-class people, including him, use this as their main form of transportation, and it is the most popular mode of transport in China. The Maglev train, which operates at a top speed of 431 kph, is the fastest commercial train in the world but is also the least popular among regular commuters in China.

The first reason for its lack of use is coverage. Take for instance the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, which has 24 stations on its line and covers 1,318 kilometers between Beijing and Shanghai. Most importantly, it connects two major economic zones in China: The Bohai Economic Rim (环渤海经济圈) and the Yangtze River Delta (长江三角洲). Compare that to the Maglev train system, which has only two stations on its line and covers only 30.5 kilometers between Longyang Road (龙阳路) and Pudong International Airport (浦东国际机场) in Pudong, Shanghai. Worse yet, the terminus at Longyang Road is 20 minutes by subway from the city center. One could compare it to taking a bus and being forced off two stops too early.

Shanghai Maglev Route.

The second factor is cost. While the first two, slower systems cost around 0.42-0.5 yuan per kilometer for the cheapest ticket, the Maglev will cost travelers 1.64 yuan per kilometer. If you want to go into the city, you have to switch to other train systems. For people that work five or six days a week, it makes very little sense to take the Maglev.

Most people in China rode the Maglev once when it opened for the hype but never again, even when flying into Pudong International Airport. It more time- and cost-effective to take a taxi into the city center than paying for both a Maglev and high-speed train ticket.

The Maglev is not economically viable, even with the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, which brought an incredible number of tourists into China. Even Chinese travel websites point out its inherent flaws. In my opinion, the Maglev was never slated to be an economically viable or efficient mode of transportation but was rather created to boost China’s image to tourists. A quick Google search on the Maglev train produces articles about its speed and promotes it as a must-see attraction for people visiting China. It is an effective symbol of China’s newfound economic power, because no train of its caliber can be found anywhere else in the world. Perhaps China is truly trying to implement a faster railway system, but at this point, it is nothing more than a tourist attraction and a symbol of China's growing wealth.

Yolanta Siu is a Polis intern.

Credits: Diagram of rail network between China and Taiwan and Shanghai Maglev Route from Wikipedia.

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Edgar Pieterse on Radical Incrementalism

"The existential core of urbanism is the desire for radical change to bring all the good implied in the original utopian association of the 'the city.' This radical impulse stands in contrast to the necessary prudence and constraints of incremental change, which is the only way of intervening in conditions of profound complexity and entrenched power dynamics embedded in capitalist modernities.”

Edgar Pieterse, from "City Futures," 2008

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: Image from Underground (1983) by David Macaulay. 

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Exhibiting Urban Development

by Peter Sigrist

As part of a growing collection of features (from artists to quotes) contributed by Polis readers and writers, today we introduce one on places. This can include any location that makes you want to share the experience of being there with others. Simply upload a photo, multiple photos or video to the group pool on Flickr. Relevant submissions are then geotagged, briefly described and published on Polis. We hope this collection will be useful for designers, residents, planners and travelers in search of extraordinary places.

Today's feature is the "Permanent Exhibition on City Planning in Moscow" by the Moscow Government Committee on Architecture and Planning. It is located in the "Building on Brestskaya" at 6 Vtoraya Brestskaya Street, a few blocks from the stunning Mayakovskaya Metro Station.

The exhibit fills a gigantic room, and its centerpiece is a continuously updated wooden model of the city (above). It can be viewed at floor level or from a mezzanine. The quality is remarkable, and it shows that beautiful models and plans don't necessarily correspond with experience on the ground.

More-detailed models of buildings and neighborhoods surround the central display, along with high-resolution photos, maps and diagrams. The exhibit is a "meta" place, in that it comprises depictions of every place in the city. The experience is fascinating and highly informative.

A hand-drawn map of Moscow (above) greets visitors at the entrance. It has a key that identifies different forms of land use, including green space, industry and housing. I'd like to find out more about the production of this map. Could it possibly be updated consistently like the model? If not, I wonder how it differs from current maps, especially in light of the plan to vastly expand Moscow's borders.

Despite incredible quality, central location and (as far as I know) free admission, I don't think many people visit this exhibit. I highly recommend going if you're interested in urban development, architecture, planning, information design or cartography.

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist.

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Establishing Helsinki as a Design Capital

by Andrew Wade

A previous post on Polis questioned the worth of city rankings, noting increased social polarization in global cities while uncovering some of the consequences of inclusion in, or exclusion from, the rankings. While Monocle heaped praise on Helsinki by awarding it the top spot in its Livable Cities Index, the Finnish capital is set to be bolstered by the additional accolade of becoming the World Design Capital next year. There is now even a formal exploration of expanding the Guggenheim Museum network to Helsinki.

While Helsinki is and has been host to innovative furniture, product and household designs, what will be the effect of such self-consciousness on the future of Finnish design thinking? Luckily much of the current design innovation in this city still lies under the radar, emerging in less-recognized urban interventions and live art installations that seem to spontaneously engage public space. From converting containers on a concrete harbor to cafes, to encouraging citizens to open up their own barbecue restaurants for a day, design thinking is thriving as much in the appropriation of space as in the production of industrial products. The value of Finnish design seems to be most strongly embedded in the city's ability to adapt its spaces to promote civic life.

Public art in central Helsinki.

Ihana Kahvila in Kalasatama, Helsinki.

Cafe in a shipping container.

An impromptu event for pop-up restaurant day.

Serving Thai soup in the park.

Credits: Photos by Andrew Wade.

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Urban Weather Online

by Min Li Chan

This week, the Web offered up exquisite visualizations of weather and climate in cities, for those of us snooping from afar in our "technoverses." Two gems that came my way, thanks to a few friends, were:

Edlundart's Weather Wheel

A few words from the visual artist:
"Some interesting things you might notice: Chicago is indeed a "Windy City," but not to any extraordinary degree. In fact, Boston is windier. San Francisco is all the way towards the right, because on average it never reaches higher temperatures than the Scandinavian cities at their hottest. London is not very rainy, while Tokyo gets more than a fair share. Nowhere gets rainier than Lagos. 
The Weather Wheel is based on widely available weather data, but does not display the actual numbers. Things like millimeter precipitation readings are not very meaningful to most people, so thinking of and showing these metrics in a relative way instead seemed like a clean and elegant approach."
Mike Bodge's NSKYC, visualizing the average color of the sky in New York:

A peek at "weather" on Google Insights for Search today revealed that the top regional searches for weather in the last seven days included the U.K., New Zealand, Canada and Ireland.

Credits: Screenshots from Edluandart and NSKYC.

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Beyond Consumption: Enabling Participation for Livable Cities

by Chiara Camponeschi

In Public Space We Trust Public Design Festival, 2009.

I wrote The Enabling City, a toolkit on social innovation for urban sustainability and participatory governance, in the early days of green consumerism's ascendance to popularity. It was an interesting, if deeply troubling, time. Limited-edition designer tote bags were waging war on plastic bags, the Internet was obsessing over green gossip websites, and everywhere I looked a growing number of eco-gadgets were promising freedom from guilt with a kind of fervent urgency that can only be described as hopefully naive. I followed the spread of "participation through consumption" with growing concern:
[A]ll around me, I saw consumerism being confused with activism, carbon offsets with environmentalism, and growth with innovation. Nowhere in the mainstream did I see the principles of self-organization, mutual support, and interaction — the elements that kindled my commitment to sustainability — recognized as valid pathways to participation. Instead, concerned citizens like me were being encouraged to buy (RED), shop green, and donate to far-away causes from the comfort of their home.
Ever the stubborn student, I refused to believe that the only outlet for citizens to make a difference was through consumerism, so I started collecting evidence that spoke to the potential of collaboration to move cities and communities toward a more sustainable future. In so doing, I uncovered a rich world of underground hope where creative citizens tackle increasingly interconnected social issues in thoroughly encouraging ways.

At a time of widespread economic crisis and growing concerns over the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, the impact of neo-liberal policies on the social sphere and the consequences of unmitigated growth have become the objects of serious public scrutiny. Through my research I came to understand the importance of city- and neighborhood-level narratives in forming a more nuanced understanding of sustainability and developed an appreciation for the role culture and creativity can play in the process.

The Enabling City details my vision for urban sustainability and participatory governance from a "place-based creative problem-solving" point of view, an approach that leverages the imagination and inventiveness of citizens, experts and activists in collaborative efforts that make cities more inclusive, innovative and interactive.

Embedded in the idea of enablement is a participatory process that changes the way we think about the commons. If until recently we tended to see cities as dirty and aggressive places, today they are hotbeds for community innovation, the starting point for shifting the emphasis away from profit and private property to an enhanced idea of well-being. This is a kind of well-being that goes beyond GDP outputs and material stability to take into account holistic indicators like the health of the planet and the quality of our daily lives – with a particular emphasis on the conditions that enable citizens and communities to thrive and be empowered.

Tim Devin has been putting up broadsides, or small posters, in the Boston area since last March.

In my Thesis Chronicles series on CoLab Radio, I explore practical applications of "place-based creative problem-solving" through a series of posts that introduce creative citizen initiatives across six categories: placemaking; eating and growing; resource sharing; learning and socializing; steering and organizing; and financing. The articles feature examples that can be found in the Enabling City toolkit, as well as initiatives that were launched following its publication. The aim of the series is to raise the profile of these inventive solutions and present them as alternatives to traditionally static forms of civic engagement. More importantly, I hope they serve as inspiration for individuals and communities to unlock their creative potential and embrace the contagious effects of collaboration.

Nine months into the release The Enabling City, my confidence in the power of the everyday has only increased, and I feel just as strongly about the capacity of communities to act as catalysts for positive change. As I write in one of my posts, “what happens in resilience circles, lending networks, co-working spaces, social enterprises, business alliances and public spaces can have surprisingly far-reaching social outcomes.” I find it reassuring to know there are countless "ordinary" people out there working hard to prove to us just how much these local efforts matter.

Chiara Camponeschi works at the intersection of interdisciplinary research, social innovation and urban sustainability. Her latest project, The Enabling City, is based on graduate research conducted at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies in Toronto, Canada. To learn more about the project, visit the website or follow The Enabling City on Twitter.

This post is part of CoLab/Polis Thesis Chronicles, a forum for sharing student research on cities. To share your thesis work, drop us a line at info@thepolisblog.org.

Credits: Photo of design festival from Esterni. Photo of broadside from Tim Devin.

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Zero Tolerance for Street Art in Stockholm

by Rebecka Gordan

Last weekend Art of the Streets, an international street art convention, took place in Stockholm. The convention, organized by touring national theatre company Riksteatern, was given the green light to advertise on more than 300 of Stockholm's so-called cultural billboards. The posters were designed by some of Sweden's foremost graffiti artists, but after they were printed in mid-July, officials at the Traffic Office suddenly announced that they would not put up the ads.

The incident triggered a debate that has been going on in the Swedish capital during the last month. Stockholm is the last capital in Europe to maintain a zero tolerance policy against graffiti and vandalism according to Riksteatern. The graffiti policy, which dates from 2007, states that Stockholm will not support activities or events that don't clearly renounce tagging, illegal graffiti, or similar acts of vandalism.

It includes provisions that the city should not participate in activities or events that may arouse interest in graffiti and illegal graffiti. This means, among other things, that the walls of legal graffiti paintings found in many other cities are not allowed. The policy also prohibits all municipal branches from having graffiti designs in exhibitions, on-demand art, or include the aesthetics of graffiti in their operations in any other way.

What Meets the Eye in Northeast Portland

by Nick Kaufmann

Portland's northeast neighborhoods have become a new frontier for arts and culture in the city. Lower rents, generous bike lanes (even a highway), arts festivals like Last Thursday, and low-rise shopping streets like Alberta Street and Mississippi Avenue have attracted Portlandians to live and play in the area.

Yet as these "historic districts" have gained momentum, they have introduced economic and social tension to historically black and Latino areas. Discriminatory "red lining" practices of banks in the 1940s led to concentrations of minorities in North and Northeast Portland, the only areas where they could buy from realtors, who risked losing their licenses if they sold to minorities elsewhere.

Despite the narratives of gentrification surrounding Northeast, the area is full of contradictions and places where the stereotypes break down. A leisurely stroll down Alberta Street during the recent annual street fair revealed a diverse cast of Portland characters stepping out in the neighborhood in their own ways and taking in the relaxed atmosphere of the street.

More information on Portland's northeast neighborhoods can be found at +_Positive Spaces.

Nick Kaufmann is a recent graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he majored in sociology and anthropology. He has since conducted research in Japan as a Fulbright student and volunteered for Heart of Biddeford, a dynamic urban development foundation in his hometown in Maine.

Credits: Video by Nick Kaufmann.

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Spain’s 15-M Movement, Three Months On

by Melissa García Lamarca

In mid-May, the outrage simmering below the surface of Spain’s economic and political situation came to a boil, as tens of thousands of people marched for "Real Democracy Now" and took over plazas in more than 60 cities across the country. A remarkable degree of organization was evident in these citizen-occupied squares, from small- to mid-sized cities like Palma de Mallorca to Madrid and Barcelona, where operations were effectively choreographed on a much larger scale.

Indignados in Madrid set up a highly organized takeover of Puerta del Sol.

The plaza takeover energy entered a temporary lull after a few weeks, but it snapped back to life when the police attempted a violent eviction of Plaça Cataluyna in Barcelona at the end of May. Scenes of people sitting peacefully, arms in the air, as the police dealt blows with batons right and left re-energized the outrage, and there were solidarity actions across the country to support the Barcelona camp-out and others against evictions.

Police evicting the indignados in Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona.

In late June and early July, popular assemblies in most cities across Spain agreed to disband their central plaza camp-outs and decentralize activities into neighborhoods across the city, focusing on building context-specific, local action plans. This happened more smoothly in some cities than others; in Palma de Mallorca, for example, many people with no place to live stayed camped out in Plaça d’Islandia, resulting in a police eviction and brutal repression during a protest the following day.

Confrontation with the police during a protest against the plaza eviction in Palma de Mallorca.

As charges were laid against the police in Palma, the next phase of the movement began. Now over half a dozen neighborhood assemblies take place across the city. Designated representatives attend an inter-neighborhood popular assembly once a week to share and coordinate activities. The Acampada Palma (Palma Camp Out) website has information on neighborhood and issue-based meetings — including those focused on the free university, communication, anti-eviction, retirees, education, and indignados, to name a few — with agendas and meeting minutes posted online.

In August, most 15-M Movement participants are taking a break after two months of intense work. Dozens of actions are being planned locally, such as a campaign to re-appropriate Local Agenda 21 processes across Mallorca as channels for citizen participation in governance. President José Luis Zapatero has called for national elections on November 20, and it is certain that things will heat up again in the coming months.

At times it seems that the only actions of the 15-M Movement are protests and endless assemblies that take place in cities across Spain each week. But in the past three months the movement has made some important achievements. For example, evictions have slowed and dozens have stopped, as activists have pressured a few banks to change their policies in favor of those unable to make their mortgage payments. The 15-M’s call for transparency has pushed the current government to complete a Transparency Law (Spain is the biggest country in the EU without one), and there have been a flood of transparency-related initiatives in Parliament and local administrations. Perhaps the most important outcome of the 15-M Movement is that tens of thousands of people have become politicized, as the street has turned into a space of collective learning.

An assembly in Madrid's Puerta del Sol in early August.

The 15-M Movement, despite the many challenges it faces in working through a horizontal decision-making process with no clearly defined leadership, is making remarkable headway in cities across Spain. Perhaps its greatest achievement to date, citing a recent paper by Swyngendouw, is well summarized by the following:
"The political act is, as Žižek argues, 'not simply something that works well within the framework of existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work ... it changes the very parameters of what is considered 'possible' in the existing constellation.'" 
While the long-term impact remains to be seen, within three short months the indignados have certainly questioned and begun to shift the boundaries of what is considered possible within Spain's existing political and economic system.

Credits: Photo of Madrid's Puerta del Sol from noticiasdenavarra.com. Photo of the eviction of Plaça Catalunya from Cadena Ser. Photo of the assembly in Puerta del Sol from terra.es.

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Doina Petrescu on Participatory Design

"Driven by desire, participatory design is a 'collective bricolage' in which individuals (clients, users, designers) are able to interrogate the heterogeneity of a situation, to acknowledge their own position and then go beyond it, to open it up to new meanings, new possibilities, to 'collage their own collage onto other collages,' in order to discover a common project. As in bricolage, in participative projects, the process is somehow more important than the result, the assemblage more important than the object, the deterritorialisation more important than the construction of territories."

Doina Petrescu, from "Losing Control, Keeping Desire," in Architecture and Participation, 2005

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 community workshop in Pune from Urban Nouveau.

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Street Photography and the Fear of Terrorism

by Vivien Park

Why does street photography make us paranoid? In "Stand Your Ground," a short film made for the London Street Photography Festival, six photographers were given an assignment to capture images of public space in different parts of London. All six were asked by security to stop, and three were confronted by the police. While no one was arrested and the exchanges were primarily civil, the scenarios were still unsettling. Boundaries between private and public space are at times ambiguous. How do we start defining these boundaries? And is it possible to protect the rights of all parties involved?

Credits: Video produced by the London Street Photography Festival.

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Insecure Space and Precarious Geographies

by Joe Penny

Ever since I took Alan Ingram's inspirational course on geopolitics at the University College London in 2009, I have been intrigued by the idea of security urbanism — the growing tendency to plan and build cities with “security” as the guiding rationale — and its tendency to harm the lives of society’s most vulnerable groups. This interest has been widely shared in academia, with notable examples including Mike Davis’ seminal City of Quartz and Jon Coaffee’s work on cities in the U.K.

Much of this work has focused on spaces of security — airports, gated communities, shopping malls — how they are produced, and what their implications are, particularly for Henri Lefebvre’s Right to the City. Much less discussed, I think, is the deliberate and calculated production of insecure spaces, precarious urban geographies where life is actively made vulnerable. How are they produced? What form do they take? And more importantly, what is their relationship with secured urban spaces?

It is this last question that interests me most. Does the practice of producing secure spaces simultaneously engender the production of insecure spaces? Is there a relationship there, whether causal, correlative, or conjunctive? My cautious answer is yes, with some important caveats.

To add some conceptual flesh to this argument, it is instructive to refer to Michel Foucault’s conceptualisation of biopolitics and biopolitical power. In a nutshell, Foucault identified a significant shift in how state power was exercised in the late 18th century, from the ancient sovereign power to “make die and let live” to the modern power to “make live and let die”. Foucault believed that making live and letting die were constitutive of one another: In the process of making certain groups live, other groups were allowed, or even encouraged, to die. As he put it himself:
"The more inferior species die out, the more abnormal individuals are eliminated, the fewer degenerates there will be in the species as a whole, and the more I — as a species rather than individual — can live, the stronger I will be, the more vigorous I will be."

Translated into an urban context, the implication of this view is that to make certain spaces and people secure, it is deemed necessary to make other spaces and people insecure. Space, and therefore space-making professions (architecture, planning, geography, etc.) may thus become intimately implicated in what Achille Mbembe calls Necropolitics, as the medium through which death is managed and eventually brought about.

Perhaps the clearest example of this process is East Jerusalem, a city with a tortured history and a spatially splintered present. Here, the safety of one group does not simply imply their insulation from the outside (through the infamous wall, for example), but also management and control of the outside. A biopolitical logic pervades the production of space in East Jerusalem. In order to secure the Israeli population, the lives of Palestinians are actively made precarious: Land grabs and dispossession are commonplace, rights to free mobility are denied (greatly damaging local economies and problematizing hospital access), and basic infrastructure is deliberately allowed to dilapidate. Even where infrastructure has been improved it is not always clear that this was for the benefit of Palestinians, as former mayor Ted Kolleck candidly noted:
"For Jewish Jerusalem, I have accomplished something over the past 25 years. For East Jerusalem… nothing… Yes, we provided them [Palestinians] with sewage and we improved the water delivery system, but why? For their benefit? To make their lives better? Not at all. There were a few cases of cholera there, and the Jews panicked that it might come their way, so they improved the sewer system and the water system against the cholera."
Yet, it would be far too simplistic to say that this is simply social or spatial exclusion. To be sure, this is a clear case of denying Palestinian people their right to the city. But it must also be recognized that, through the spatial control and management of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the Israeli state is also including these people within the reach of their sovereign power, creating what Giorgio Agamban has called “spaces of exception," where people’s rights to life are made constantly precarious and too often stripped with impunity. The checkpoint is a material embodiment of this chilling reality.

Jerusalem is an extreme example, but it is not an exceptional case. The process of abandoning groups of people to the fringes of life in the city, while simultaneously maintaining almost complete control over them in name of “security,” is not limited to Jerusalem alone. Even a cursory glance at the dynamics, past and present, of a range of cities indicates that this is a more common process than we may wish to think.

To name only a few examples, we could apply this thinking to the precarious lives faced by the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, the increasingly militarized policing of informality in cities across the developing and developed world (particularly in Sao Paulo), the history and persisting legacy of South African apartheid and its use of temporary law-and-order police, and the mobilization of health and security discourses to free up prime real estate areas from their current use as informal housing.

We must be mindful of how urban spaces are produced, particularly in the name of security.

Joe Penny is a researcher at the new economics foundation (although all opinions expressed here are his alone). He is interested in the production of urban space, security urbanism, and the right to the city.

Credits: Images of East Jerusalem from Zimbio and Flickr.

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Strelka and the Reconstruction of Gorky Park

by Peter Sigrist

Remarkable change has taken place in Moscow over the past year. While government (federal and municipal) is playing an important role in new initiatives to improve the quality of life in the city, these initiatives are increasingly influenced by the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. The process has been dynamic and in keeping with the latest ideas in urban development. Strelka's involvement in the reconstruction of Gorky Park prompted me to continue the series on public parks in Moscow.

Strelka's rooftop bar and restaurant, which help offset the costs of operation.

Choice parking for bikes.

Strelka is located on the Moscow River in an adapted section of the former Red October Chocolate Factory. It was conceived during a conversation among friends at the Venice Biennale in 2009. They were motivated by concern over the trajectory of urban development under former mayor Yury Luzhkov. These design and media luminaries — including Alexander Mamut, once known as "the Yeltsin family banker" — inspired Rem Koolhaas and OMA/AMO to develop an educational program aimed at preparing designers to address societal problems in Russia and around the world. The institute was established in less than a year and the first group of students began in October.

Recruitment poster affixed with ubiquitous yellow logo tape (left). Reception office and ping-pong table (right).

Courtyard where public events take place over the summer.

Rapid development is a Strelka hallmark. Since October, the first group of students has graduated and the institute has become well known throughout the city. Strelka is perhaps excessively branded and hip (derivative by definition), but its human-scale, functional, ecologically concerned, preservation-sensitive, walker/biker/skater-friendly, and public-oriented values are a welcome departure from urban development trends of the past twenty years. Those trends have led to dystopian landscapes, choked with exhaust from traffic jams, where cultural heritage is routinely destroyed and replaced with architectural monstrosities or heavy bronze statues that look as if they might awake to wreak havoc on the city. Incidentally, Strelka has considered best ways of "sinking" the statues' admiral, unmistakably visible at the highest point in the opening photo.

Jiang Jung, chief editor of Urban China, presenting on comparative geopolitics and urbanization.

Bleachers and chairs for attendees.

Alejandro Aravena discussing Elemental's Quinta Monroy housing units.

"Poems About Moscow" poetry readings. Despite $15 admission, the courtyard was packed wall-to-wall.

Strelka associates organize an amazing list of summer events, which include free lectures, panel discussions, design workshops, English lessons, TEDx forums, movie festivals, ping-pong tournaments, concerts, poetry readings, and an all-night urban bicycle tour. Most events take place in the courtyard, where you can find bleacher seating and less-expensive food (po' boys, cups of cherries, and ice cream for a dollar). There is public wi-fi inside and out. Strelka's rooftop bar has become the place to be for well-heeled Muscovites, so there's usually an array of black luxury vehicles parked outside. Besides offering a central public meeting place, Strelka works on local and national design projects, including an upgrade of the State Biology Museum and the reconstruction of Gorky Park.

Open window to the design studios.

Second-floor studio.

First-floor studio.

Yekaterina Karinskaya, granddaughter of Konstantin Melnikov, speaking in Strelka's indoor conference space at an event on reclaiming the Russian avant-garde.

Max Nikolaev discussing movie nights on the embankment in Neskuchny (Not-Boring) Garden.

Sergey Kapkov, director of the Gorky Park redevelopment, at a public forum on new possibilities for Neskuchny Garden.

Rem Koolhaas explaining Strelka's educational program. Source: Strelka, via 032c

Strelka accepts post-graduate students from around the world, offering free admission, housing, and a stipend. The term runs from October through July, and students take part in lectures, workshops, field trips, and research projects based on a set of themes selected each year. Last year's themes were Design, Energy, Preservation, Public Space, and Thinning (i.e., dispersion of human settlement). Students present their research projects in a final review, and Strelka uses its ties with Russian and international media to disseminate their work.

Minkoo Kang presenting on legacies of the Soviet tourism industry.

Presentation by Merve Yücel on democratic micro-transformations in public housing.

Anton Ivanov discussing a community that reuses old buses for sheds, greenhouses, and rabbit pens.

The final review for the first term was free to the public, so I attended. Students presented in English, on topics such as "Crowd-Sourced Moscow 2012: A Public Space Game," "Moscow Public Art in the 20th Century," "Neodacha: The Freedom Kit," and "Transport Beyond Oil and Gas." They faced questions and critique from the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Mohsen Mostafavi, and Joseph Grima in the front rows. At the end, instructors for each theme shared closing remarks. Strelka's president, Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, confessed that many mistakes were made over the course of the first year, and that he hoped Strelka would make even more (and more creative) mistakes in the future. Whatever the mistakes he had in mind, the program came across as remarkably well organized and successful.

Strelka's president and directors of each research theme giving their closing remarks. 

The themes for next year are Megacity, Hinterland, Urban Culture, Citizens as Customers, and Senseable City Moscow. The school's philosophy is based on "thinking and doing," so the research is very much geared toward practical application and students often learn by working on public projects.

Ferris wheel that once stood in Gorky Park. Source: ITAR-TASS, via svobodanews.ru

Deconstructing the old amusement rides. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

The transformation of Gorky Park since the end of April is nothing less than phenomenal. The park has shaken a reputation for decay, poor taste, and organized crime to become one of the most exciting places in Moscow. It is benefiting from a $2 billion investment by the city and star oligarch Roman Abramovich, but the difference can't be ascribed to this alone. Throwing money at a problem only works if spent wisely, and Strelka is helping to make this happen.

New plantings, conference bikes, and bean bags.

Beginnings of a new skatepark?

Free yoga classes in the morning and evening. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

Rental boats for just under $14 per hour. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

Ice cream with the new park logo. Source: Gorky Park on Facebook

Results are apparent and plans are clearly communicated in leaf-shaped signs near the entrance. The park is highly branded, with a new logo that appears even on ice cream sold on the premises. There is now free admission, public wi-fi, and a colorful musical fountain. There are bean bags and comfortable chairs everywhere, art installations, a halfpipe on the embankment, bike/rollerblade/boat rentals, a wooden "beach," a giant chess board, yoga, capoeira, updated lighting, and new plantings. The absences are as notable as the additions. Most of the shoddy carnival stands and rides have been removed, along with a great deal of pavement and the Soviet Buran spacecraft that overlooked the river. [Note: In apparent contradiction to a report in Russia Beyond the Headlines from August 3, the Buran was still there when I returned to Moscow in September. Maybe it was removed temporarily?]

Soviet Buran spacecraft on the embankment.

A contemporary art center run by Dasha Zhukova, domestic partner of Abramovich, is moving to Gorky Park from its current location in Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage (designed by Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov, Melnikov also planned the layout of Gorky Park). Zhukova managed a successful restoration of the garage in 2008. The art center will move into the "Hexagon" building, constructed for the 1923 All-Union Agricultural Exhibition and later severely damaged by fire. According to news reports, Rem Koolhaas will lead the renovation.

"Hexagon" complex before and after the fire. Photos from mk.ru.

As the story goes, revitalization of Gorky Park gained momentum after President Medvedev visited London in 2009 and found inspiration in Hyde Park. (I'm not sure how much this influenced the decision to replace Luzhkov, but new mayor Sergey Sobyanin appears to be fulfilling his promise to improve city parks.) Sergey Kapkov, a longtime associate of Abramovich and the Kremlin, is managing the project. So far he's gone for an atmosphere that's comfortable, minimalist, and relatively high-end without being overly commercial. However, he's also expressed interest in building a Ferris wheel like the London Eye and a gigantic ice-skating rink. I hope this won't reduce green space or put an end to ice skating along the paths.

Wooden "beach" attached to a new cafe beside the Andryeevsky Bridge.

Cafe viewed from the bridge. Photo from Gorky Park on Facebook.

Ballroom dancers assemble by the river.

Change has been substantial and apparently beneficial. The park is well attended, giving the impression of a place in transition for the better. It reflects a confluence of political resolve, finance, and quality design. There is something trendy about much of the new development, but also a wealth of new ideas. I'd like to see more departures from the global chic that can be found in other centers of finance and culture. It would be ideal if preservation, restoration, and continuous innovation nurtures the park's distinctive local character.

Rare sighting of a sailboat on the Moscow River.

Embankment at dusk.

The redevelopment team has made impressive efforts to include the public. In addition to presentations and meetings, there is a Facebook page with active administrators who share photos, maps, and information on the latest progress. They also answer questions, engage in debate, ask for suggestions, and accept crowd-sourced images. Despite these media-savvy and apparently effective measures to cultivate grassroots support, it would be refreshing to see great urban design that isn't dependent on wealthy patrons. The $2 billion budget seems like a lot for a single park. What are the tradeoffs? And is this more than a temporary appeasement of urban elites in the absence of real empowerment in governance?

Musical fountain. Photo by Olya Mosyagina.

Strelka is sparking dialog, strengthening international ties, and generating momentum behind much-needed changes in Moscow. Ample funding has allowed for quick results. The founders explain that this ensures independence from state control and market pressures. But Strelka probably isn't immune to government intervention or loss of financial support. The government has proven willing and able to pursue its own interests with impunity. However, Strelka is currently valued by government officials and a wide cross-section of the population. It challenges the existing order without taking an adversarial approach. And its focus on design as an agent for creative problem-solving at local, national, and international levels holds great promise for reversing dystopian urban development.

More on Strelka:

Strelka website (English version)

Information on the Strelka educational program from OMA

"Rem Koolhaas on the New Strelka Institute in Moscow," 032c, Winter 2010/2011

"The Most Exciting Design School in the World," Blueprint Magazine, Auguest 26, 2010

"Strelka: Drinks and Urbanism," The Pop-Up City, May 29, 2011

Video interview with Strelka president Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, Domus, August 27, 2010

Profile of the Strelka educational program, Dudye

Articles on Strelka research projects, Большой Город, June 29, 2011 (machine-translated from Russian to English)

More on the reconstruction of Gorky Park:

"Moscow's Gorky Park May Get $1 Billion 'Ideological' Makeover," Bloomberg, September 10, 2010

"Gorky Park, on a New Ascent, Shakes an Unsavory Image," Russia Beyond the Headlines, August 3, 2011

"Abramovich Brings Midas Touch to Gorky Park," Financial Times, July 28, 2011

"Wind of Change for Gorky Park," The Moscow News, July 25, 2011

"A New Chapter for Gorky Park," The Independent, April 8, 2011

"Roman Abramovich to Help Turn Gorky Park into Moscow Version of Hyde Park," The Telegraph, March 31, 2011

Updates on the Gorky Park redevelopment process, The Village (machine-translated from Russian to English)

Collection of photos and maps of Gorky Park, Facebook (in Russian)

Photos of Old Moscow, oldmos.ru (in Russian, requires navigation to Gorky Park on map)

Historical photos of Gorky Park, mosday.ru (in Russian)

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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