Placemaking and the University

by Melanie Friedrichs

Last Sunday I woke up in Boston with a marvelously unusual prospect: a day with nothing to do. I decided to hit the pavement.

Back Bay, my starting point. Source: Melanie Friedrichs

I live in Providence, and Boston is only an hour and $10 away by commuter rail. I've been to the city many times over the past few years, but always for a specific reason: to visit friends, to attend conferences, to tour historic places. I would arrive at South Station, hop on the T, climb up to the street and beeline to my destination. My mental map of the city was a series of disjointed snapshot memories, mainly of college campuses and public centers. A walk, I thought, would string them together and let me see the places in between — the "real city" outside of the structured spaces I had visited.

A placemaking map of Boston. For an explanation, keep reading. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But as I walked, all I found was structure. I went southwest through the pathways of Northwestern University, past the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and through the quiet green of Simmons College. I walked north past Fenway Park, through Boston University's campus center and across the bridge to the glass and steel arches of MIT. I walked southeast through Boston Common and the stately squares and steps of Government Center, and I walked back down the southeast corridor and through the grand Prudential Center.

In New York or Buenos Aires, all walks are beside screeching cars, all lines are straight and all turns are sharp. The only curves are cut out of square parks carved from uniform blocks. In Las Vegas or Detroit, commercial strips are interspersed with abandoned or under-used space, and pedestrians shortcut across parking lots or empty grass to get from place to place. In Boston, I could walk for hours on pathways made with the pedestrian in mind. There were paths along waterways, pedestrian-only alleys, wide boulevards with wide sidewalks, footbridges over roads and rail lines, and everywhere benches, stairs and green spaces where I could sit.

There are only a few types of organizations with the incentive and ability to engage in placemaking. Governments build monumental spaces to intimidate and awe. Commercial developers build urban parks like Boston's Prudential Center or Las Vegas' casinos to attract business and consumers. Communities build spaces to encourage urban living.

Universities are also placemakers. They build enclaves for the academic community, to foster interactions between faculty and students and attract applicants for whom the aesthetic of the university is becoming more and more important (consider the multitude of online "Most Beautiful Campus" rankings). In an urban setting, however, a college campus is not private — anyone can wander in and out of the MIT or Northeastern campuses and take advantage of their carefully watered lawns and strategically placed benches.

Three types of placemaking: government at the city center, commercial next and university third. Source: Melanie Friedrichs

In Boston, home to more colleges per capita than any other city, university placemaking has significantly transformed the landscape of the city. I observed three layers of placemaking: government placemaking at the center, surrounded by commercial placemaking in the more crowded and therefore more profitable downtown, surrounded again by a ring of university placemaking (see Boston map above). I see the similar patterns in Washington, D.C., and Providence, although less pronounced.

A placemaking map of Washington, D.C. Source: OpenStreetMap

A placemaking map of Providence, Rhode Island. Source: OpenStreetMap

Of course, these rings are not walls. In Boston several colleges fall within the "commercial" ring, although their campuses tend to blend into the grid, and many colleges fall outside of the "university" ring and carve out mostly private spaces from suburbs. And not every city is like Boston. New York defines the university, not the other way around. Still, this is an interesting pattern.

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Open Source Housing

by Cristiana Strava

Assembling a WikiHouse frame. Source: Delfino Legnani

“Imagine if we could make designing and printing your house as easy as shopping on Amazon — and put it into the public domain forever.” This is the challenge put forth by the minds behind open source D.I.Y. project WikiHouse, which recently won the TED City 2.0 award.

A model WikiHouse frame. Source: Delfino Legnani

Started in 2011 by 00:/ (pronounced “zero zero”), a London-based team of strategy and design practitioners, WikiHouse is an open source architectural design and construction set. True to its name, the WikiHouse is not a finished product but a constantly evolving community project. Available under a Creative Commons license as a free download, the WikiHouse construction set is meant to revolutionize 21st-century design culture and has been lauded as the future “house and home by the 99% for the 99%.”

Plywood fin with grid gauge. Source: WikiHouse Blog

The WikiHouse is a basic structure made mostly of plywood and formed by a series of “fins” assembled on a grid with a predetermined gauge. Each fin is made up of two layers of plywood assembled from smaller parts using staggered S-joints with minimal bolts and screws. The size of the fins and the gauge can vary as needed. Functioning as a basic skeleton, the WikiHouse can then be clad in materials appropriate for local climate conditions.

A mallet is the only tool needed to assemble the WikiHouse. Source: Delfino Legnani

Those who join the WikiHouse community as design collaborators are encouraged to follow 10 rules that embody the civic-minded and environmental spirit of the project. These range from considerations about safety and using locally sourced, biodegradable materials to a focus on designs that require minimal formal skills or training for assembly. The group defines their approach to open source as “being lazy like a fox.” Instead of re-inventing the wheel, the WikiHouse designers encourage a spirit of constant adaptation and building on existing solutions, while giving credit to the original creators.

WikiHouse prototype being assembled in London. Source: WikiHouse Blog

So far, six prototypes have been designed and assembled in various locations. None of them are ready for mass production. However, the London practitioners are planning to roll out what they call “maker labs” around the world and hope to use the TED City 2.0 award money to set up the first lab in Rio de Janeiro. Local partners Dharma and Brazilintel will contribute to the project in the Complexo de Alemão group of favelas. The ultimate aim is to provide youth in the favelas with a community space where they can harness the energies of what WikiHouse founders Alastair Parvin and Nick Ierodiaconou call “a constantly humming factory of micro-economic, civic, creative, educational and entrepreneurial outcomes of epic proportions.”

Source: Delfino Legnani

This is an ambitious project born out of its authors’ conviction that 21st-century design culture has become too obsessed with professionalization and authorship. Instead, they argue that “un-originality” should be proclaimed architecture’s new virtue. Based on ideas of simple, locally inspired design solutions, the WikiHouse seems to echo the vernacular moment in Modernist architecture of the 1950s. The designers refer to their open source approach as “accelerated vernacular design.”

But is it possible to create a platform so user-friendly that anyone can log on, design a house and “print” its components with the click of a button? Not quite. The need for a CNC mill severely limits the project’s D.I.Y. potential. Although CNC mills are becoming more affordable, they remain prohibitively expensive for most. The designers seem to be aware of these challenges and are wary of having D.I.Y. become a privilege for those with time and money. If WikiHouse is to serve the needs of the poor and marginalized, it needs to expand its collaborative ethos into the building and financing process.

These are ripe times for open source architecture and design. With SketchUp now available for free on Google and an increasing population of computer-savvy youth around the world, it will be exciting to see what the future holds for affordable D.I.Y. housing.

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Painting the Furtive Utopias of Omaha, Nebraska

by Hector Fernando Burga

"Placemats (Charrette)" (2011), acrylic and oil on panel.

Neil Griess is an artist living and working in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in December 2011. His work has been included in group exhibitions in Omaha, Lincoln, New York City and Kansas City. In this interview Neil describes the interests, processes and methods behind his work.

How does your hometown influence your work?

I am from Omaha, Nebraska, a Midwestern city with a metro population of over 870,000. I grew up in a 50+ year-old suburb, which exists between what could be called the center of the city and the frontiers of westward sprawl. Despite it being in a good school district with a strong tax base, much of the commercial presence in the area is low performance retail, where strip malls have gone through makeovers of varying success, or in certain cases been demolished altogether. I found the existing aloofness towards these places close at hand to be perplexing as a child, particularly in relation to the radius that my friends and I could reasonably travel on foot or by bicycle. I still carry this perspective towards scale as it pertains to use and transportation, and it directly impacts my work. I find myself always asking questions about how needs can be met at the local level, and what kinds of tools people can use in order to shape the process.

"Site Measure" (2010), oil on panel.

Omaha has both the greatest number of millionaires per capita and the highest percentage of black children living in poverty of any city in the country. It wasn’t until high school that I began to recognize how divisions of class and race play out spatially in the city. I began to see the relationships between spaces that were familiar to me and those that were not due to various forms of exclusion.

"Untitled (Sift)" (2009), oil on board.

Tell us about your creative process; how do you approach your artwork?

For each of my paintings, I first build a miniature model that I arrange and photograph. The resulting photographs form the points of reference for the painting. I have been doing this for around four years. It came about based on a desire to coherently combine architectural details from various sources, sources that were largely chosen based on their affective qualities. As I sought to better pin down what this work was about, I read more about the environmental design fields, and began to be drawn to temporary and/or small-scale urban interventions. My method of working eventually became a way to represent my own landscape architecture and urban design ideas — a fairly recent development. My current body of work is centered on modular landscape design, exploring multiple facets of potential use.

"Median" (2011), mixed media.

What are the themes that you explore through your work?

In his 1953 essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” Ivan Chtcheglov describes a shifting city condition designed to illicit specific emotional responses from the city’s inhabitants through sounds, sculptures and other environmental factors. At the same time, the inhabitants are able to freely reorganize their surroundings as they choose. The text served as a seminal document for the Situationists. While it is a quirky, idealistic, and ultimately problematic vision, I still find it to be a compelling one, in that it suggests a democratization of urban form.

I am interested in how people interact with the built environment, particularly when those interactions are unexpected, or unplanned. These interactions often make power dynamics visible. The Occupy movement has been fascinating in this regard, revealing what physical spaces are available for public organization and expression, and under what circumstances. In the case of Zuccotti Park, the law became an asset: as a Privately-Owned Public Space, it is not subject to the usual public park curfew. What was briefly occupied was the space between property and the commons, and I love that.

The horizontal decision-making structure of Occupy is worth considering in relation to Chtcheglov and utopia-minded thinkers in general. Utopia suggests consensus, but what kind of consensus is possible when striving to provide equal representation of a multitude of subjectivities? In her essay, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Claire Bishop asserts that visible antagonism is a healthy indicator of democracy. The utopian still has a place in her analysis, not as a stable goal but as an instrument used to envision the possible. I like to think of the spaces that I depict as existing around moments when utopia is glimpsed through some collaborative effort.

"Field" (2011), mixed media.

When and why did you start to paint?

I began to take my art practice seriously during my junior year of high school in response to the passing of my uncle — hyperrealist artist Kent Bellows. It was a difficult time to lose someone like that, as I had a lot of admiration for him, and my identity was just beginning to take shape. Although I had always been painting and drawing, I really pushed myself after his death because I felt that I had missed the opportunity to relate to him on a deeper level. Since then, I have had to shift from trying to measure myself against someone else towards focusing on my own interests, addressing them with my strengths and perspective. This is an incomplete process, and probably will be for as long as I make the kind of paintings that I do. My uncle's work was a central part of my visual culture growing up, and I can’t really divorce myself from that.

"Field" detail.

Do you consider your work mainly political or aesthetic, or perhaps a combination of the two?

I think in terms of the political very frequently, but the fact that I am making paintings places me pretty firmly in the latter category. I am ok with that. I think it is important to recognize one’s contradictions in order to really run with them. I could address the issues that I care about more directly through a relational art practice, yet I am using pictorial space to flesh out these concerns. I am interested in the places where communities can flourish, yet I generally keep to myself, preferring isolated places (my images are devoid of people, after all). A painting should first work as a painting, and I spend a lot of time with that. Any political impact seems negligible, but there are other ways to participate, of course. For the time being, I feel that I have reached a workable balance between my divergent inclinations.

Credits: Artwork and photos by Neil Griess.

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Roger Keil on the ‘City in Waiting’

Source: Bellefair Urbanistik

“The city in waiting is the domain of multiple speeds: la ville a vitesses multiples. Yet the time space compressions of the inner city (the scrambles and layerings) here are splintered still into competing modes where automobility reigns supreme and the pedestrians and cyclists as well as the transit buses hurry along uncertain yet of their role in the landscape. This will eventually change. The layout is there. The tracks of rapid transit will surely be built. Right now, pedestrians hurry, bent in the frigid wind, as they leave the futurist bus shelter, along the six-lane highway, beyond the commercial strip into the safe zone of the lone condo tower or the monster home behind. It cannot and will not stay that way. The city in waiting will grow into itself. But who has time to wait?”

— Roger Keil in “Cities in Waiting,” 2011

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Urban Housing in Revolution’s Wake

by Peter Sigrist

Countless books and exhibits address early Soviet architecture, but the residential buildings most often included don't adequately represent housing from this era. According to the usual narrative, architecture in the 1920s was more theoretical than practical, political upheaval made its proper realization nearly impossible, and the few completed buildings are now in terrible condition. While this is true in many cases, a walk through the streets and courtyards of Moscow reveals a more interesting story.

There are many apartment buildings from the late 1920s in use around Moscow's center, and they tend to be strikingly humane. Most are 5 stories high, with generous balconies that overlook intimate courtyards. They show signs of Constructivist style, but there is great variation in design. Some are in need of repair but others have been well cared for and still look wonderful as they approach their centennials.

Prospekt Mira 46a, built in 1929, is a model of quality design and maintenance. Its care isn't fussy, allowing for personalization of balconies and a nontraditional paint job, but the building clearly hasn't been neglected. The glass elevator remains fully transparent, there's no sign of vandalism, and flowers line the base. A peaceful atmosphere surrounds the building despite its location at the intersection of two major streets.

Maybe Prospekt Mira 46a has been written about and displayed, but I don't remember seeing anything about it, and there are many similar cases that receive little or no attention. Instead they are at risk of demolition because of their limited rentable area and ample green space in prized central locations.

I often wonder who designed these buildings and how they came about. Some may be the work of house-building cooperatives that emerged in 1924 as part of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed some forms of private enterprise to meet pressing needs while the new Soviet government established its footing (see Vihavainen 2009: 53). Whether or not this is the case, there is much to learn from the history of such comfortable urban housing.

Credits: Ground photos by Peter Sigrist, aerial via Google Earth.

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Design Activism in Detroit

by Melissa García Lamarca

The Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) is not content with the status quo when it comes to built environment professionals — especially architects. Based at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture since 1994, it sees the production of architecture as a political act, one that supports or disrupts the actions of individuals and institutions. An architect is thus inherently an activist.

Source: Open Architecture Network

Source: DCDC

DCDC's work is based on three premises. First, they operate through intensive community participation, working only by invitation and solely with non-profits. They characterize their role as “the guide on the side vs. the sage on the stage,” meaning that they use their design skills to advise and facilitate rather than dominate and dictate spatial solutions. Second, they intertwine the tools of the discipline and community engagement to create the content for design, not for its validation. Finally, they are concerned with the totality of the built environment, not just buildings, as illustrated in the video on the Firebreak urban intervention below.

DCDC's approach and practice, 90 percent of which is based in Detroit, is particularly important in this shrinking city. The heart of the automotive industry and home to 1.8 million people in the middle of the last century, it now has a population of 700,000. Rather than returning to the "glory days," when the urban form celebrated the social, economic and racial divisions of the city, DCDC recognizes the need to work differently.

Through process and form, they believe that architecture and design can change the established way of doing things. On a small scale, they are doing just that.

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The Invisible History of Safed

by Eden Gallanter

A view of the Galilee region from the city of Safed in Israel.

Those familiar with the great historic cities of Israel may know of Safed, a lovely mountaintop town overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It is considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism, as the historical locus of one of the great renaissances of Kabbalah, a mystical Jewish tradition, in the 16th century. Today it is a municipality with a high proportion of orthodox Jews, Russian and African Jewish immigrants, and religious and secular Jewish artists. Since 1977, the Palestinian village of ‘Akbara was placed under the jurisdiction of Safed.

Racial discrimination against Palestinian-Israeli citizens occurs on several levels: political, cultural, geographical and social. This discrimination is intensified in Safed due to the politics of the Galilee region, where Arabs outnumber Jews, and the extremist positions of ultra-orthodox Jews, who make up the majority of Safed’s population. Aside from the ‘Akbara village, Safed College and the Faculty of Medicine are both heavily attended by Palestinian students, and the regional Palestinian communities depend on Safed’s Ziv Hospital for health care. Racist graffiti (“Arabs are Dogs” in Hebrew), social pressures (prominent Safed rabbis have called for Jews not to rent apartments to Palestinians) and violence notwithstanding, Safed is in fact a solidly binational city, although the city center is virtually without Palestinian residents.

A street in the Old Jewish Quarter of Safed.

For a tourist in Safed, the Palestinian side of the city’s rich history is invisible. ’Akbara, situated under a bridge between a ridgetop and a pine forest, hidden just below sight as the main road curves along the countryside. Safed’s Artist’s Colony, which is in fact the city’s old Muslim quarter, contains a single plaque describing the war of 1948, with no mention of the religious traditions, culture or people who were driven out of their homes. Safed’s website, full of historical articles, makes the most glancing references to the Arab cultures that dominated the city for much of its history.

Safed was the site of many tragedies and dramatic conflicts. Jews were massacred and plundered several times by the Arab majority. The Crusaders conquered the city twice before being conquered in turn by the Mamluk Baybars. Safed’s devastating earthquakes, plagues and wars ravaged both its quiet landscape and its people. These are landmarks in a history that Palestinians and Jews endured together, until in 1948 Jews expelled Arabs from the city and occupied their property. Most tourists could easily come and go without having any sense of Palestinian history or presence in Safed.

A doorway in Safed's Jewish Quarter.

This invisibility is particularly tragic because Safed’s rich history of Kabbalah has strong ties with the its history of the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism. In both Spain and Egypt, which were centers for the wave of Kabbalistic thought just before the expulsion of the Jews and Moors (Berbers, black Africans and Arabs) from Spain, Kabbalists and Sufis studied together. They shared techniques for mystical devotion to God, which survive today.

With an influx of Jews from North Africa and Spain in the early 16th century, Safed became the new global center of Jewish mystical thought. Kabbalah bloomed in a rich community of artists, musicians and poets, who supplied many traditional songs and prayers still used by Jews around the world. At that time, Safed also contained a large center for Sufi mystical study and discourse, and Kabbalists and Sufis continued to study together and exchange practices for fostering individual union with the divine.

Today, hardly any obvious traces of Safed’s Muslim traditions or Arab culture remain. The old mosque, once painted gold and the heart of the Muslim community’s religious and secular activities, is now painted light blue (a Jewish symbol of God and heaven) and functions as an art gallery. There are traces of the lives of the Palestinians who once lived in Safed in the tangle of old olive, fig and grape orchards on the slopes of the city, and in the Turkish fortress Saraya, which once housed the Jewish minority and was a marketplace, inn and military base for the Ottoman Empire.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Islamic character of the Galilee, and Safed in particular, was boosted by an influx of Algerian and Circassian exiles and immigrants from Damascus and Transjordan. The history of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Safed is largely absent from most historical accounts of the city available to tourists and Israelis.

The village of 'Akbara today.

'Akbara is a small village made up of “present absentees” (surely one of Israel’s more surreal labels, this refers to Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes but remained within the state, homeless). Today, the village provides an idyllic-looking contrast to Safed, with its mounting problems of poverty and unemployment (40 percent of the city’s residents are on welfare).

In 1980, the municipality of Safed required residents of ‘Akbara to relocate across a small creek and demolish their original homes. Today, the village sits in a beautiful mountain landscape, between the forest and the sea, in full view of the old stone rubble of the former village, now vacant ruins or serving as stables for cows and goats. A little mosque sits at the head of the village, and vegetable gardens spill lushly over rough wooden fences, while horses and sheep roam the dirt roads and fields. The residents of ‘Akbara, like most Palestinian citizens, own very little of their own land and have poor access to health care, municipal services and schools. Between Safed and 'Akbara is the last remaining building of the demolished town of Al-Zahiriyya al-Tahta. The building, a Muslim shrine, is today a stony ruin perched on a cliff, overlooking a 700-foot drop to a forested canyon leading toward the sea.

The Al-Zahariyya cliff shrine.

How can this invisible history (invisible, at least, to tourists and most Israeli Jews) be preserved? Safed is considering embarking on a long path toward the achievement of UNESCO World Heritage site status, a distinction that the city unquestionably deserves to have once historic structures are rehabilitated and stabilized. Although the municipality wishes to gain distinction and the economic benefits of tourism, this project is an opportunity for the city to recognize its dual history.

UNESCO is a branch of the United Nations that has been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and apartheid laws since Israel’s independence. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is specifically targeting underrepresented countries and sites signifying periods of peace and coexistence. In spite of Safed’s history of conflict, its Golden Age in the 16th century was a shining example of coexistence and mutual benefit, and it is in this aspect that Safed has the greatest chance for being internationally recognized as having universal value.

Safed as a center of Kabbalah is not complete without more research into Safed as a center for Sufism, as each flourished side by side, enriching one another. Safed, once the site of spiritual and religious cooperation and growth between Jews and Muslim Arabs, has far more universal significance than is now evident to a tourist eager to experience Safed’s traditional Jewish attractions. Celebrating the golden age of Kabbalah in 16th-century Safed cannot conscientiously or practically exclude the history of the Palestinians of Safed and the wealth of intercultural dialogue offered by Sufi teachers. Historical preservation is a resource and tool, just like sustainable design. It gains meaning when used to improve quality of life, especially for those with limited resources for political power, decent living and self-determination.

Eden Gallanter works with an Israeli NGO that is spearheading a project to register the city of Safed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in partnership with the Antiquities Authority and Israel’s Ministry of the Interior. She has consulted on restoration and green infrastructure design in San Francisco, participated in the Occupy movement in New York, Oakland and Washington, D.C., reported for BBC World Radio and researched the Garden City movement in Buenos Aires. She holds a Master's degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University, a Master of Fine Arts from the Academy of Art University and a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College.

Further Reading:

“The Arab Community of Safad, 1840-1918” (2003) by Mustafa Abbasi

“The ‘Aristocracy’ of the Upper Galilee: Safad Notables and the Tanzimat Reforms” (2005) by Mustafa Abbasi

“The Battle for Safad in the War of 1948: A Revised Study” (2004) by Mustafa Abbasi

“Safad in the Mandate Period: Social and Political Aspects” (2005) by Mustafa Abbasi

“Israel’s Northern Landscapes, Volume 1: Guide to the Golan Heights, Eastern Galilee and Lake Kinneret” (2008) by Aviva Bar-Am

“Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity” (2010) by Thomas Block

“Essential Sufism” (1997) by James Fadiman and Robert Frager

“Safed Spirituality” (1984) by Lawrence Fine

“As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist” (2009) by Eitan Fishbane

“Nature in our Biblical Heritage” (1980) by Nogah Hareuveni

“Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction” (2001) by J. H. Laenen

“Palestine Under the Muslims: Translated from the Works of the Mediaeval Arab Geographers” (1890) by Guy LeStrange

“The History of the Jewish People” (1965) by Max Leopold Margolis and Alexander Marx

“Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment” translated (1983) by Daniel Chanan Matt

“Safed: The Mystical City” (1992) by David Rossoff

“Six Self-Guided Tours of Safed” (1980) by Yisrael Shalem

“The Wars of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem” (c. 75) by Flavius Josephus, translated (2009) by William Whiston

“A Journey into the Zohar: An Introduction to the Book of Radiance” (2010) by Nathan Wolski

Credits: Photos by Eden Gallanter.

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Gerald Danzer on Critical Mapping

Planting Calendar from James Corner Field Operations. Source: Philip Speranza

“You can start looking at what’s on the map, what is not on the map. What is missing? How is it packaged? How is it framed? How is it meant to be used? We don't know a lot of these things, by the way. It’s like any historical document that you get. That it tends to all of a sudden put things together spatially, and say, ‘Well, what implication does it have? What does that mean? Why is this cartographer emphasizing this dimension?’ ... And we might, in our minds, think about alternative ways, alternative audiences, alternative purposes. And once you start playing with the map like that, it's a series of questions and answers and arguments, and delivery systems if you wish.”

— Gerald Danzer in “Analyzing Maps,” 2003-2005

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Water and Sanitation as Human Rights

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Students at the U.N. International Nursery School in New York viewing a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1950. Source: U.N.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation of international human rights law, inspiring a rich body of legally binding treaties. Since the declaration was adopted 64 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly has passed a number of declarations adding rights to the original document. The human right to water and sanitation was declared in July 2010.

In recent years, significant progress has been made toward adopting the declaration as an operational framework for international development cooperation. These efforts led to the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA), particularly within the family of U.N. agencies. In 2003 the U.N. created the HRBA Common Learning Package and an online portal for the U.N. Common Understanding on HRBA.

Although the U.N. is the most interested actor in adopting the HRBA and its related methodologies, these are also useful for all NGOs and governments. The third point in the Common Understanding sets a clear purpose for development cooperation programs: "contribute to the development of the capacities of duty-bearers to meet their obligations and of rights-holders to claim their rights."

The U.N. General Assembly. Source: Patrick Gruban

In Ecuador, the national government is one of the actors adopting the HRBA in its policies. In a previous post, I described how the country, through innovative governance, is challenging conventional definitions of human development. One of the most important milestones of this innovation is the "Guide to the Formulation of Sectorial Public Policies." Based on the HRBA, this guide has gained attention in the international community, mostly for advancing a national water policy soon after the U.N. declared water and sanitation to be human rights.

The HRBA is strongly focused on diagnosis methods, through which problems are identified and priorities defined. It offers an adaptable framework at this stage to guide the politics of policy development in the international and domestic spheres.

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D.I.Y. Advertisement in Oakland

by Min Li Chan

If you peer over the wall as you exit the BART train car at the West Oakland elevated station in Oakland, Calif., you'd notice a homemade ad for car donations pasted on the roof of a neighborhood restaurant.

For me, this brief visual encounter spawned a series of reactions. First, I was amused by chancing upon an ad placed so unconventionally but opportunistically within the commuter's line of sight. I was also struck by its rough, handmade simplicity in contrast with the polish of corporate billboards. Finally, I was interested in the idea that every urban surface could be monetized by an enterprising citizen. For those inclined toward the Paulistano school of eschewing billboards entirely, the latter is surely terrifying.

Nonetheless, if one were to extend the metaphor of a city to the virtual world — each website as building or urban structure, homepage as front door, users as communities — it seems that we are more forgiving of virtual billboards in our online space than physical billboards in the cities we inhabit. In fact, there is probably something compelling about the notion that any individual or small mom-and-pop business can put up virtual storefronts and place the same online billboards as corporations do. Should we actively equip them to do the same in the physical world?

Then, the aesthetic argument: If the majority of billboards possessed the hallmarks of craft, thought and effort, we might be less inclined to dismiss them as sources of visual pollution.

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A Brooklyn Sanctuary

by Rebecka Gordan

Source: Green-Wood Historic Fund

In the boisterous metropolis, spaces for stillness and reflection are highly sought-after gems. In nineteenth-century New York, one particular cemetery became the number-one public place for gathering and rest.

In fact, just two decades after it was founded in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries, the Green-Wood Cemetery was attracting half a million visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction.

Green-Wood became a fashionable place to be buried, and a popular destination for family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing. This popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

The cemetery was the idea of Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, a Brooklyn social leader. Its original landscape architect, David Bates Douglass, found inspiration in Père Lachaise in Paris, as well as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mount Auburn also offers a park-like landscape in the English tradition.

In accordance with landscape fashion at the time, Green-Wood kept the varied topography provided by glacial moraines. Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, is located here, rising approximately 200 feet above sea level.

Green-Wood contains 478 acres of hills, valleys, glacial ponds and paths that weave through one of the largest outdoor collections of 19th- and 20th-century statuary and mausoleums in the world. Visitors enter through a spectacular gate designed in 1861 by Richard Upjohn in Gothic Revival style. Inside one can find approximately 600,000 graves, including those of Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Green-Wood is a designated National Historic Landmark as well as a Revolutionary War historic site, where the Battle of Long Island took place in 1776. It also contains a Civil War Monument, part of an initiative dedicated to identifying and commemorating Civil War veterans.

The Green-Wood Historic Fund organizes informative trolley and walking tours on a regular basis. But for those who don’t mind getting lost in its maze of avenues and narrow paths, Green-Wood is a magnificent place to ramble, rest and ponder in solitude or with a dear one.

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 and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

Credits: Photos by Rebecka Gordan.

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Catalonia’s Human Towers

by Melissa García Lamarca

Castellers from Villafranca del Penedès build a human tower atop 230 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Source: Alexandra Dean Hitzler

My recent trip to New York City coincided with the first ever visit of a Catalonian human tower building team to the U.S. Hailing from the city of Villafranca del Penedès in northeastern Spain, they are one of the most renowned teams among 58 found in cities and towns across the Catalonia region.

Source: Gaudí y más...por Ana Ma Ferrin

Human towers, or castells as they are called in Catalan, are a tradition from the late eighteenth century that are still present and very popular at festivals across the region. UNESCO formally recognized human towers in November 2010, when they were declared an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. One could argue that the cultural inspiration of temporary castells has been made permanent through a renowned work of architecture: It is believed that Antoni Gaudí was inspired by castells in developing his designs for the Sagrada Família.

Human towers can be built up to 10 human-stories high through the combined strength of volunteers of all ages, social classes and professions. Indeed, it is only through deep cooperation that a team of about 150 people can build castells. The motto of castellers, those who make human towers, is "força, equilibri, valor i seny": strength, balance, courage and the mental capacity that enables just perception, appreciation, understanding and action.

Since a high level of teamwork and trust is fundamental to building human towers, castells can also be understood as a form to create communities of place. A 75-minute documentary film called The Human Tower, released earlier this year, explored community building through the construction of human towers in Santiago, Chile; Mumbai, India; and Vilafranca del Penedès, Spain.

If you are intrigued by castells, the festival season just started and continues until the end of November across Catalonia, particularly in the provinces of Tarragona and Barcelona. Some of the most important events are held in la Bisbal del Penedès on Aug. 15, in Vilafranca del Penedès on Aug. 30 and Nov. 1, at La Mercè Festival in Barcelona in September, at the Diada de Santa Ursula in Valls in late October, and at the Diada dels Minyons de Terassa in Terrassa in late November. There is also a castle competition, the Concurs de Castells, held every two years in Tarragona, on the first Sunday in October.

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You’re Moving to Vegas?

When I tell people that I am moving to Las Vegas for the next two years, reactions are entertaining to say the least. They range from attempts to be funny (“Oh, so you are going to re-live 'The Hangover'?” and “Does that mean you won’t be able to talk about it since what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?”) to blank stares (“Wait, people actually live in Las Vegas?”) to, my personal favorite, the sage doubt (“Bless your heart.”). Reactions tend to be pessimistic and condescending.

What many people picture when they think Vegas. Source: Listal

In all fairness, there is some justification for being skeptical about my move to Sin City. Las Vegas was one of the regions hardest hit by the recession. Gambling revenues have decreased for only the second time since 1970, the first being after 9/11. Home values have plunged by an average of 37 percent. Las Vegas had the dubious distinction of having the five most foreclosed ZIP codes in the country for 2011, and unemployment remains stubbornly high at 12.2 percent.

Even in good times, many visitors cringe at the thought of enduring the bright lights of the Strip for more than a few nights. So all other things being equal, why would someone straight out of college want to move to an economically depressed town that is (in)famous for its touristy feel?

Downtown Vegas. Source: Downtown Project

The long and short of it is opportunity. Despite the dismal statistics cited above, there is potential in Vegas. It’s got history: Skip past the monolithic casinos on the Strip to the old downtown, and you can imagine what it would have looked like in the 1930s, during the Golden Age of gambling. It’s got world-class entertainment and cuisine, fed by the billions of tourist dollars every year. It’s got community: Fremont East is home to a hidden wealth of local shops and cafes, where residents quite different from nightcrawlers of the strip come out to play.

 The need is to make the wealth of Vegas accessible to locals as well as tourists and to build up the existing community into a vibrant urban life that is not centered around the Strip.

Fremont East, the real Vegas. Source: Vegas Chatter

Enter the Downtown Project, the newest venture of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. In 2011, Zappos was looking to move out of its current location in three sprawling office buildings in a Las Vegas suburb. When touring other corporate campuses, such as those of Nike, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, Hsieh was struck by how each campus was in some ways its own mini-city.

Instead of creating a separate mini-city, Hsieh decided to try to build community within an already existing city — "playing SimCity in real life."  Las Vegas's old city hall will become Zappos’s new corporate headquarters in October 2013. Hsieh and his partners will invest $350 million to revitalize the surrounding area, including $200 million for land acquisition and real estate development, $50 million in arts, education and culture, and, perhaps most importantly, $50 million to support small businesses and tech start-ups.

Funding is not always the best indicator of success, but buy-in from the government certainly is. The project has been enthusiastically endorsed by the city and former mayor Oscar Goodman. In a little over a year, the Downtown Project has helped bolster Las Vegas’s First Friday series, was a part of the inaugural Color Run and fostered the growth of local tech, sustainability and healthy living communities. The Downtown Project also plans to use refurbished shipping containers to cheaply house budding entrepreneurs until they move into newly built permanent structures, clearing way for the next iteration of entrepreneurs.

With six other 2012 Venture for America fellows, I will be moving to Vegas in three weeks to join the Downtown Project. The path will not be easy. Urban revitalization is not a formula that can always be solved with money, endorsement and enthusiasm. Cities are complex, and the Downtown Project might leave Vegas just where it started, or even worse. But it is an incredible experiment in urbanism, and I for one am excited to be a part of it.

Ovik Banerjee is a graduate of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a 2012 Venture for America fellow. If you would like to learn more about the Downtown Project, Ovik can be reached at 

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