polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Fountain Stage in Manhattan Square Park

by Peter Sigrist

While visiting my parents over the holidays, I stopped by a park near the center of Rochester, N.Y., where I spent a lot of time as a child. I remember its unusual playground with long, wide slides that you could run and jump onto, landing halfway down before reaching their sandy base. We saw Garth Fagan Dance, Arlo Guthrie and Ahmad Jamal perform there for free on summer evenings. There was an observation deck at the top of a giant steel lighting apparatus for shows in the courtyard below. I never thought about how this unusual place came to be.

Source: Landslide 2008: Marvels of Modernism, an exhibit by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The official name is Howard Hanson Plaza in Manhattan Square Park. It was designed by Lawrence Halprin in 1972. The steel structure is a sculpture by Kerro Bruegging, titled "Tribute to Man." The park was part of an urban renewal project initiated in 1968, which included demolition of a residential neighborhood to make room for the Inner Loop expressway.

Lawrence Halprin's Lovejoy Fountain Park in Portland, Ore. Source: Pika 69 | Fort Washington Park

The park hasn't been a great success. The fountain proved too expensive to maintain, the restaurant didn't seem very popular and the concrete surfaces never became comfortable. As much as we loved playing in the plaza, it was also kind of hazardous. I remember a girl in my kindergarten class having to get stitches after stepping on broken glass in the wading pool. The design is inexpedient, but maybe its bright points can be preserved or redone in a way that functions better in use.

This is part of a collection of featured places from around the world. If you’d like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

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

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Podcast: Occupy as an Urban Movement

by Alex Schafran

An occupied home in Atlanta. Source: Occupy Our Homes.

It may seem completely spontaneous, but the Occupy movement did not come from nowhere. It has deep roots in longtime efforts to combat injustice, often at the urban level. As the Occupy movement in the U.S. moves toward 2012, this podcast looks back to the urban roots of the movement — in particular the role of community-based organizations and coalitions. It also explores the movement's newest manifestations, including Occupy Our Homes and Occupy the 'Hood.


Nwamaka Agbo, Soul of the City campaign director and former green jobs director, Ella Baker Center

Ilana Berger, co-director of the New Bottom Line and former executive director of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE)

Rachel Brahinsky, doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley's Department of Geography and former staff reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Jennifer Flynn, managing director of Health GAP and former executive director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network (now Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders VOCAL-NY)

Hosted by Alex Schafran. Recorded via Skype, pardon the odd beep and ding.

Polis brings you this Polis Podcast on CoLab Radio with our partners at CoLab Radio. Our goal is to offer a stimulating series of discussions, debates and interviews on a wide range of subjects from as many different places as we can imagine.

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Retracing ‘Singapore Songlines’ Through Orchard Road

by Benjamin Leclair-Paquet and Andrew Wade

Taking Singapore's Orchard Road as a linear slice of urban fabric, it may be read as representative of both the city-state's remarkable capacity for economic development and complete disregard for historical strata. In an awkward attempt to impose a blanket of elite market-driven exchange without the frayed edges and individual liberties of Western urban models, Singapore has stirred heated debate over its cultural authenticity. What is the genuine essence of a city that functions in a constant cultural grey zone, importing multinational corporations and citizens from abroad?

In the opening passage of “Singapore Songlines” — Rem Koolhaas’ seminal essay on the Westernization and runaway modernization of Singapore — he critically discusses the Singapore Model as the “Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis ... or 30 Years of Tabula Rasa.” He points out that there is a “sense that no one in Singapore speaks any language perfectly”: The planning regime has kept pace with the rapidly growing population by perpetually uprooting, leading to a state of permanent cultural disorientation. “From one single, teeming Chinatown, Singapore has become a city with a Chinatown,” Koolhaas writes.

Singapore’s tabula rasa developmental logic has subtracted any perceivable contextual background, adding only glamorous foreground. The Potemkin Metropolis of Singapore — more harshly described by William Gibson as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” — is a model for rapid urbanization in a part of the world where priorities diverge from those established in other global cities. Food poverty, defective infrastructure and destructive flash floods continue to shape the reality of countries in the region. Singapore developed by betting on qualities that rarely push cities to greatness in Europe and North America. It implemented a rigid, authoritarian ethos that appealed more to immediate conditions than to the cosmopolitan lifestyles of New Yorkers and Londoners. The city-state renowned for its prosperous economy, the banning of chewing gum and effective strategies against crime remains the odd man out within a broader geographical context accustomed to hardship and scarcity.
“It is shown with pride, not shame. They think there will be no crime. We think there can be no pleasure.” (Rem Koolhaas)

Within Singapore’s constantly shifting urban context sits Orchard Road — a celebration of architecture at the far end of the technological turn, hosting global icons in fashion design and a neoliberal culture of accelerated consumption. Just a few days into December, holiday lights had already transformed this iconic commercial street into a reflection of London’s Regent Street or Los Angeles' Rodeo Drive. Chinese, Malays and Indians — who compose just over 98 percent of the local population — embrace this holiday period regardless of religious inclination or interest in the Gregorian calendar’s New Year. In fact, (religious) national holidays are respected by all, independently of personal beliefs. Hindus take part in Christmas, Muslims feast with Hindus at Deepavali, and so forth.

Just as public holidays unite diverse Singaporeans, Orchard Road’s high fashion retailers break through international boundaries as they offer upper-class Singaporeans the opportunity to share dress codes with Milan, Paris, London or New York. With six Gucci shops, five Prada stores and many Louis Vuitton and Chanel locations, you don’t have to look far to buy the same gear as you would in other global cities.

Singapore’s weather does not seem to much influence the latest arrivals in high fashion. Since the end of the European summer, it has become increasingly difficult to find summer clothing, despite the fact that stubborn local temperatures rarely fall below 25 degrees Celsius. While thousands of travellers are anxiously planning their holiday escapes to the beaches of Koh Samui, Phuket and Bali, an hour away in Singapore, we can dress as if we were in Milan and be blinded by shimmering holiday lights as if we were in Manhattan. Singapore continues to build and invest in its glamorous foreground, seemingly convinced that the soul of the Western cosmopolitan cities it seeks to emulate is built upon global brand icons, ranging from Louis Vuitton to Santa Claus.
“The irony of Singapore’s climate is that its tropical heat and humidity are at the same time the perfect alibi for a full-scale retreat into interior, generalized, non-specific, air-conditioned comfort – and the sole surviving element of authenticity, the only thing that makes Singapore tropical, still.” (Rem Koolhaas)

The qualities that Singapore achieves through its complex assemblage of Western semiotics are fundamentally different than those which these signals create when embedded in their original context. While Prada may celebrate high fashion in Milan, a utopia for up-and-coming fashion designers, Singapore’s commodity market honors the brand only, not the creative talent from which it emerged — consequence without cause. Without historical background, even originals become simulacrum.

Benjamin Leclair-Paquet researches participatory design and heterotopian architecture in violent spaces.

Credits: Photos by Benjamin Leclair-Paquet.

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Claude Fischer on Big Cities and Subcultures

"In the early 1970s, Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer began investigating the social effects of living in dense urban centers... His research led him to one overwhelming conclusion, published in a seminal paper in 1975: big cities nurture subcultures more effectively than suburbs or small towns... If one-tenth of one percent of the population are passionately interested in say, beetle collecting or improv theater, there might only be a dozen of such individuals in a midsized town. But in the city there may be thousands. As Fischer noted, that clustering creates a positive feedback loop, as the more unconventional residents of the suburbs or rural areas migrate to the city in search of fellow travelers. 'The theory...explains the 'evil' and the 'good' of cities simultaneously,' Fischer wrote. 'Criminal unconventionality and innovative (e.g. artistic) unconventionality are nourished by vibrant subcultures.'"

Steven Johnson, from "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation," 2010

Here is a taste of the rockabilly subculture in Japan, as personified in a music video from Peter, Bjorn and John:

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: Aerial photo of Hong Kong by Min Li Chan.

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Why Rio+20’s ‘Green Economy’ Approach is Not Enough

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Source: Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil.

During the 1992 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, most of the world's national governments agreed on the existence of a global environmental crisis. However, this agreement did not recognize the systemic relationship between this crisis and the dominant development model. Instead, signatories of the Rio Declaration institutionalized a seemingly friendly label for a highly profitable and predatory system: sustainable development.

Caricature of the famous giant statue of "Cristo Redentor" (Redeemer Christ) in Rio de Janeiro, where the next UN Conference on Sustainable Development will take place in June 2012. Source: FASE.

By next year's United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, the environmental crisis will have worsened exponentially to a nearly irreversible situation, giving space to a debate that in 1992 was considered a prophecy of doom: adaptation. Biodiversity today is largely considered a lost cause, as climate change seriously threatens the global economy. Deforestation, pollution and depletion of fisheries indeed seem relatively insignificant in the face global-scale, interlinked catastrophes caused by greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

Although the starting point for Rio+20 is a broad agreement on the threat, the dominant debate again avoids any serious questioning of the development model that is driving the globe to this catastrophic future. This time the main theme is "Green Economy," a new tag that preserves the ideology of the prevailing development model, based on economic growth that feeds unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

The greater challenge is that an immense majority of the world's population has bought into this model and aspires to own cars, air conditioning and concrete houses in sprawled urban areas, as well as to eat meat every day, as symbols of improved social status. National governments, which lead the conference as member states, are either elected by such populations or depend on their conformity to maintain their authority.

The world cannot sustain seven billion compulsive consumers for a very long period without disrupting its climate and essential environmental elements, such as water. A green economy is only feasible in the long term if there is a significant change in the social dynamics that are pushing governments to preserve our unsustainable development model.

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The Town of Jesus, Bedouins and American Explorers

by Rebecka Gordan

Visiting Capernaum was a surprise. Not knowing what to expect from the dot on the map, we found ourselves at a site where Jesus strolled more than two thousand years ago. Today — during a birthday observed by many — I am reminded of the ancient town I visited last April on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Passing the ruins of such ancient houses, churches, synagogues, squares and streets made an impression.

The day was hot, and when we read a sign that said, "No shorts, please," we almost considered passing it by. Capernaum is not only an excavated site for tourists to wander around but also home to a Franciscan monastery and Greek Orthodox church. But we chose to obey the demand – sometimes one just has to put on pants.

Capernaum was Jesus’ second home and, during the period of his life, a garrison town, administrative center and customs station on the major road between Damascus in Syria, southern Israel and beyond. According to the New Testament, Jesus chose his disciples Peter, Andrew, and Matthew from Capernaum and performed many of his miracles here.

The town of Capernaum first came into existence in the second century B.C. It remained a large and prominent city, holding some 1,500 residents for more than nine centuries. In 1838, an American explorer discovered its ruins, and British, Italian and German archaeologists and pilgrims soon followed. The newcomers acquired a large area from the Bedouins and fenced off the site where they had found remnants of churches and a synagogue (above).

The layout of the town appears to be quite regular for its time. On both sides of an ample north-south main street arose small districts bordered by small cross-sectional streets and no-exit side streets. The most extensive part of the typical house was the courtyard, where there was a circular furnace made of refractory earth, as well as grain mills and a set of stone stairs that led to the roof. Seems like a likable city to me.

This is part of a collection of featured places from around the world. If you’d like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

Credits: Photos of Capernaum by Rebecka Gordan. 

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Sarajevo’s Buildings Embody Diverse History

by Anna Fogel

Austro-Hungarian buildings line the river that runs through the center of Sarajevo.

A few weeks ago, on Nov. 25, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina celebrated Statehood Day. Earlier that week, Republika Srpska celebrated the 16th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement, the peace framework that ended three and a half years of war that had torn the Balkans apart. However, Republika Srpska doesn't celebrate Statehood Day, and the Federation doesn't celebrate the Dayton Agreement — one of many reminders that Boznia and Herzegovina are autonomously governed areas.

The Central Bank is housed in a 1920s Art Deco building.

As I walked through Sarajevo on Nov. 25, I saw the national flag everywhere: in store windows, pinned to small children's jackets, flying above major streets. Walking through the streets, I was reminded that the city's history reaches far beyond the pock-marked buildings damaged by war in the 1990s. I passed 18th-century buildings that have stood since Turkish rule, elegant 19th-century Austro-Hungarian apartment buildings and early 20th-century Art Deco buildings. I walked by heavy, concrete structures from the communist era and Tito's rule and newer buildings that demonstrated impressive rebuilding efforts after the war.

A quiet residential street with one of the many mosques that make up the city's skyline.

When exploring Sarajevo, it is easy to see only war-damaged buildings. Looking beyond these, the city's architecture reveals a long and varied cultural history.

Credits: Photos by Anna Fogel.

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Hanoi’s Red River Project

by Melissa García Lamarca

Before the development of roads, the Red River was fundamentally important in facilitating trade between Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam. While Hanoi is nestled into a bend of the river, the city’s growth has cut it off from this waterway, largely due to a heavily traversed arterial road (pictured below) that disconnects the city from the central part of its riverside.

Yen Phu Road separates Hanoi from the Red River.

Getting over to explore this part of the riverside, an area known as Phuc Xa – Phuc Tan, is a bit difficult but worth it. At the base of Long Bien Bridge is Long Bien Market, a large, agricultural wholesale market open from midnight to 2 a.m. There is a mix of formal and informal settlements as one continues east on the bridge. On the river, these settlements transform into a few dozen floating houses made largely from found materials. Residents fish and farm on the island in the Red River.

Long Bien Market.

Informal housing next to Long Bien Market.

Floating houses on the Red River.

Woman working her family’s fields on the island in the Red River.

Floating houses on the west side of the island.

As Hanoi is undergoing rapid growth, it is uncertain how much longer this area will retain its form and character. In 2005 Hanoi signed an agreement with the city of Seoul for Koreans to help the Vietnamese capital develop the area along the Red River. With a projected cost of $7 billion, plans involve construction and upgrading of more than 75 km along banks on both sides of the river, including 42 km of new development, and building 80 km of roads along the river.

This massive redevelopment project will require relocating 39,100 households (170,000 people), begging the question of what will happen to people living in informal housing next to the river or in floating houses on the river. Equally uncertain is the fate of people who farm on the island — the plan slates agricultural land there for “leisure and tourism.” While the plan has been controversial, it is currently stalled due to the financial crisis. Time will tell what comes of it.

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca. Images of Red River redevelopment plans from Tran Hoai Anh.

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Trivandrum: Urban Life Beyond India’s Megacities

by George Carothers

London. New York. Tokyo. Paris. Mumbai. Chicago. We all know that these cities are big and powerful, and that we are now living in a truly "urban" world. Few students of cities, myself included, have been willing to take the leap outside of "big city life" and venture into the relatively uncharted territory of the "small city." For many urban dwellers, it is a sad day when we have to leave the city limits.

My day came about two months ago, when I moved to the South Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram (or more simply Trivandrum) in Kerala, my home for the next year. I am renegotiating my understanding of the "city" in a place that is still negotiating its own idea of "urban-ness."

Trivandrum is an expression of the"rest" of India’s idea of urbanization — beyond the Mumbais, Delhis and Bangalores — with a distinctly Southern flavour. It is still in its infancy, trying to figure out what this "city" business is all about.

From the sky, Trivandrum looks like a forest with a gentle dusting of high-rise apartments. The view of the tall palms is both spectacular and confusing: For a place that is supposed to hold a population of 750,000, the city looks more the part of an overgrown village. But somewhere beneath all of the green, there is a city of bustling markets, traffic-ridden streets, chain restaurants and a string of home-grown big box stores.

There is a beautiful heritage in its architecture, an amazing sense of the highly politicized Keralan population (with a nearly permanent set of chairs for protesters who gather and chant daily in front of the State Secretariat), and everywhere there are constant reminders of the state’s "communist" and "Marxist" politics.

For those of us who have lived in India's bigger urban centers and become versed in contemporary issues with Indian cities, Trivandrum seems to sing to a tune of its own. Kerala has often been touted as India’s golden child, with a relatively high standard of living, lower poverty rates and literacy rates comparable with those of a developed nation. Trivandrum appears to live up to such expectations, with less visible extreme urban poverty, although it may just be a matter of time before these issues emerge with the steady growth of cities in Kerala.

There are signs of change already. Trivandrum has slowly been revealing a new face through infrastructure upgrades and marketing for prospective investors in the IT field. The Trivandrum Technopark, the first of its kind in India, has been largely successful and similar projects are popping up elsewhere in Kerala.

However, the future is uncertain. A challenging global economic climate has rendered the Malayali Diaspora of Persian Gulf workers unemployed, and they are coming home to a Kerala that is not yet ready to employ them. Cities such as Trivandrum are poised to be centers of growth, and substantial transformations may be on the way. But in terms of urban living, Kerala adheres to its own social realities, where norms are conservative and very much based on village life, and a true sense of urban awareness is still being negotiated. In comparing Trivandrum to bigger Indian cities, there is a sense that people are subjected to a subtle form of social policing. Youngsters, for the most part, do not mill about on the street, young couples are rarely found "hanging out" together, and public spaces are largely empty.

My initial observations have shown that Trivandrum, while a vibrant place of protest and politics, has little regard for or understanding of "public space." My Malayali friends who are researchers here suggest that, like the majority of India, the idea of living in an urban world is still quite foreign, and Trivandrum is continuing to figure itself out.

Credits: Photos by George Carothers.

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On View: ‘Cities and the Things that Matter’

by Vivien Park

Cities are complex social, political and cultural ecologies. “Cities and the Things that Matter,” currently on view at New York’s Lombard-Freid Projects, explores the numerous rhythms, structures, stories and transactions of urban life. Seven artists and artist collectives — Haig Aivazian, Emre Huner, Wilfredo Prieto, Michael Rakowitz, Raqs Media Collective, Nasan Tur and Yamashita+Kobayashi — took a present a subset of urban ecologies through particular lenses. The artists examine the monumental qualities of the tallest buildings in the world, juxtapose utopian-themed 1960s corporate propaganda with shots of abandoned buildings and reverse spectatorship at baseball games. Their sculptures, installations, videos, photographs and drawings contribute to the collective urban story.

“Cities and the Things that Matter” will be on view at the Lombard-Freid Projects gallery in New York until Jan. 21, 2012.

Credits: Image of “Post-Scriptum: On the Other Side of the Sky (An Epilogue in Three Parts)” from Lombard-Freid Projects.

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Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore on (New) Media

"All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the message. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.

faculty  —

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, from "The Medium is the Message," 1967

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 "The Medium is the Message."

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A Sculptural Response to the Wall Street Bailout

by Leon Reid IV

"OCTOBER 2008" is the title of my new limited edition sculpture — a satirical jab at the 2008 bank bailout where tax-payer dollars went to prop up the tax-exempt elite. The sculpture shows a panhandling Wall Street executive accepting cash from a homeless woman.

The concept came to me in the summer of 2011, and I planned its release in fall to coincide with the three-year anniversary of the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008." The casting/molding materials to produce the piece were a bit over my production budget, delaying the release by several months. The resilience and sacrifice of the global OWS movement truly inspired me to ante up and bring the work to life. My message to the global struggle: Thank you for setting a positive example, keep fighting the good fight.

Leon Reid IV is an artist based in Brooklyn. More information on his work can be found at leonthe4th.com.

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Tunis Through the Lens of Mark Mouck

by Alex Schafran


When news broke on a crisp January day that former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country after 23 years of dictatorial rule, people around the world watched in awe at what would become the first major victory in one of the most important waves of popular resistance in history. But in the streets of Tunisia, the day after Ben Ali's departure was one of hopeful uncertainty. The police, long the violent bulwark of the regime, were now gone. The army had stepped in to do what it could, but it had been purposefully weakened by the government, and no one knew what would happen when no single force could protect people or property.


We are taught to fear anarchy, but anarchy is precisely what happened: not in the colloquial sense of chaos and lawlessness, but rather the voluntary association of free people to protect and defend their communities, families and property. In Tunisia, anarchy was neighborhood-based. With no perceivable law enforcement, and rumors of disgruntled former police officers rampaging through neighborhoods to incite popular violence for Ben Ali's return, neighbors banded together to build roadblocks, exchange news and wait.


My friend Mark Mouck is a teacher in Tunis, and an excellent amateur photographer. He lives in the quiet suburb of La Marsa, a fairly bourgeois but diverse community. Many local families have lived there since it was farmland, and middle-class homes sit side-by-side with mansions and expatriate enclaves. La Marsa is also down the road from the Presidential Palace and from Ben Ali's personal mansion, a monstrosity that juts out from the hills of Sidi Bou Said, lording over Carthage and the rapidly growing city of Tunis.


With news limited and sporadic, the men of the neighborhood (and some women) spent Jan. 15 watching and waiting, peering from rooftops and hoping that what seemed like a blessing would in fact turn out to be one.


They also gathered and talked, an activity that was dangerous to do in large public groups under Ben Ali. One never knew who was watching or listening, and even hints of subversion could have long-lasting repercussions.


It was not all business, as the newly closed streets and installed barricades provided a perfect opportunity for soccer games.


People went to bed that night not knowing what would happen, and the feeling of uncertainty remains prevalent. One of the tragedies of the West's obsession with Islamism in post-revolutionary North Africa is that there is not enough attention paid to inequality, especially in cities. Few are asking what will happen if the doors to the Tunisian economy and land market are yanked open by the "Turkish model" to Euro-American and Gulf capital.


What we do know is that nothing happened that night in La Marsa, or in most of the neighborhoods and subdivisions of Tunisia. People came together peacefully in their streets, and anarchy ensued.

Credits: Photos of La Marsa by Mark Mouck.

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