polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

(Re)photographing Palma

by Melissa García Lamarca

While wandering along Barcelona’s streets earlier this year, I stumbled upon the Barcelona Photographic Archive exposition on rephotographing the city. I thought this was an intriguing approach to exploring urban change over time, so when I came across century-old photos of Palma de Mallorca I decided to try my hand.

Palma has an extensive and very well-maintained old quarter, replete with a maze of narrow streets and dozens of churches. What is remarkable is how the urban form of many places has changed only slightly over the past 100 years, particularly the Plaça de Cort (Court Square) area around City Hall, pictured above and below. The main signs of change here are shop fronts and people's clothing.

The same is true of a quirky side street next to the theater, where 50-plus years ago vendors sold traditional bags and baskets weaved on the island. Now these have been replaced with inexpensive goods made in China.

The wall surrounding the old city used to have waves lapping up to its edge. Now land outside the walls has been reclaimed to build a park and road beside the sea. In Ses Voltes, just inside the city’s wall (as seen below), what was formerly used as a military outpost is now a civic space used for outdoor concerts. The indoor space under the wall is now a museum.

Finally, the Passeig des Born, a popular place to stroll and enjoy the city, is now bustling with people. The photo I found from a century ago gives an empty, vacant feeling.

There is no doubt that the city and island have transformed dramatically over the past century, particularly with the advent of mass tourism, which brings many thousands of visitors each year. It is nonetheless fascinating to clearly visualize through rephotography how some urban scenes change and others stay almost the same.

Credits: All historic photos from Fotos Antiguas de Mallorca. All new photos from Melissa García Lamarca. Thanks to Diego Borbalan Cabañero for his help rephotographing.

+ share

Semiotics of Sticker Art in Providence

by Melanie Friedrichs

If you wander around Providence and pay close attention to tarnished street signs, dusty corners and dilapidated doors, you can occasionally find a small black-and-white square with a message from the past: Andre the Giant Has a Posse. The discovery of one of these old and faded stickers invariably sends a thrill down my spine. I have stumbled upon a secret, a special heritage, an ancient symbol of the city I now love. Some do not know, some have forgotten, but I, I remember.

Of course, the stickers are not secrets at all, but manifestations of a well-documented event in artistic history. In 1989, Rhode Island School of Design student Shepard Fairey printed the stickers and distributed them to the local skater community, who quietly stuck them all over Providence, sparking their eventual appearance in cities all over the world. Andre the Giant Has a Posse went viral before the Internet did, foretelling the rise of the image-with-caption meme. Crisp up the grainy ink-on-vinyl image a bit, and you can even imagine that Andre the Giant is a character in a rage comic.

Old meme, new meme. Analog, digital. Sources: OBEY GIANT (left) and Know Your Meme (right)

Fairey’s second Andre sticker, a close-up of the giant’s brow printed on a red or white background with the slogan “OBEY,” blew up a hundred times greater than the first. Like Andre the Giant Has a Posse, OBEY GIANT was adopted by skaters and spread, slowly seeping into the mainstream. Today OBEY supports a department-store assortment of merchandise. OBEY stickers are easy to find in Providence and, I suspect, are still stuck up fairly often.

This mural by Shepard Fairey has become an unofficial symbol of Providence. Source: AS220

Fairey’s career flourished with his sticker campaigns, and his art has became Providence’s brand. Several local businesses have adopted his bold red-and-black palette, and the mural he designed for the back wall of local arts nonprofit AS220 symbolizes the city in the eyes of many residents, myself included. While not all Providence residents know the story of Andre the Giant Has a Posse, I’m confident that nearly everyone in the city can recognize Fairey’s art.

The transition of Fairey’s illustrations from counterculture to mainstream exemplifies the evolution of sticker art at large. For street artists, stickers function much like graffiti tags, requiring more preparation beforehand but less time when it comes time to do the sticker “bombing.”

A recently (within the past few years) bombed OBEY GIANT sticker.

When Fairey was a student, stickers were big in the punk scene, used for decoration, promotion or to convey a political message. (An essay by Fairey on sticker art can be found here.) And, like every other type of street art, stickers are now used as advertising by commercial vendors. The street signs in Providence are still covered, but 90 percent of them carry logos for smoke shops or vegetarian restaurants, list the lineups at local venues or peddle some other sort of product likely to appeal to the demographic who reads stickers on street signs.

Stickers on a street sign in Providence.

IDEO, the international design firm that Fortune 500 companies and national governments turn to when they need an unconventional solution to a pie-in-the-sky problem, was once hired to help encourage democratic participation in Peru. The team of designers handed out “Fix This!” (“Arregla Esto!”) stickers to citizens of Cuzco and told them to stick them on anything they thought was broken. In very little time, the stickers piled up on surfaces throughout the city, including government buildings, police cars and school doors. The appeal of “sticking it to the man” was irresistible.

I find the many ways to "stick it" fascinating and somewhat amusing. Stripped to its essence, sticker bombing is not much different from scent marking. See this pole here? This is MY POLE. But sticking it is also a richly symbolic form of communication. A few square inches are enough to carry an image or a phrase that can encourage action or create a sense of cultural belonging that lasts long after the person who posted the sticker moves on.

Credits: Photos by Melanie Friedrichs unless otherwise noted in the captions.

+ share

Hardt and Negri on Sharing

Source: Livin’ in the Bike Lane

Democratic commons ...

“A democracy of the multitude is imaginable and possible only because we all share and participate in the common. By ‘the common’ we mean, first of all, the common wealth of the material world — the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty — which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. We consider the common also and more significantly those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth. This notion of the common does not position humanity separate from nature, as either its exploiter or its custodian, but focuses rather on the practices of interaction, care, and cohabitation in a common world, promoting the beneficial and limiting the detrimental forms of the common. In the era of globalization, issues of the maintenance, production, and distribution of the common in both these senses and in both ecological and socioeconomic frameworks become increasingly central.” (p. viii)

False alternatives ...

“The seemingly exclusive alternative between the private and the public corresponds to an equally pernicious political alternative between capitalism and socialism. It is often assumed that the only cure for the ills of capitalist society is public regulation and Keynesian and/or socialist economic management; and, conversely, socialist maladies are presumed to be treatable only by private property and capitalist control. Socialism and capitalism, however, even though they have at times been mingled together and at others occasioned bitter conflicts, are both regimes of property that excluded the common. The political project of instituting the common ... cuts diagonally across these false alternatives.” (p. ix)

Power is embodied in property and capital, and embedded in law ...

“A kind of apocalypticism reigns among the contemporary conceptions of power, with warnings of new imperialisms and new fascisms. Everything is explained by sovereign power and the state of exception, that is, the general suspension of rights and the emergence of a power that stands above the law. ... The problem with this picture is that its focus on transcendent authority and violence eclipses and mystifies the really dominant forms of power that continue to rule over us today — power embodied in property and capital, power embedded in and fully supported by the law.” (pp. 3–4)

Definition of biopolitics ...

“We adopt a terminological distinction, suggested by Foucault’s writings but not used consistently by him, between biopower and biopolitics, whereby the former could be defined (rather crudely) as the power over life and the latter as the power of life to resist and determine an alternative production of subjectivity (p. 57) ... which not only resists power but also seeks autonomy from it.” (p. 56)

Sharing increases capacity ...

“[B]iopolitical production is not constrained by the logic of scarcity. It has the unique characteristic that it does not destroy or diminish the raw materials from which it produces wealth. Biopolitical production puts bios to work without consuming it. Furthermore its product is not exclusive. When I share an idea or image with you, my capacity to think with it is not lessened; on the contrary, our exchange of ideas and images increases my capacities.” (p. 284)

— Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth, 2011

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

+ share

National Park Commemorates Women’s Rights

by Peter Sigrist

Recent visits to the George Eastman House and the Susan B. Anthony House left me troubled. The museums were far from disappointing, but their budgets seemed widely unequal. As one might expect, the founder of Eastman Kodak lived in a stunning mansion in a neighborhood of mansions, and his estate is now a destination for photography enthusiasts around the world.

Collected Visions of Utopian Living

by Cristiana Strava

In 1932, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced a utopian vision of a democratic society in a manifesto titled “The Disappearing City.” The antithesis of urban, Wright’s Broadacre City would house families on separate one-acre plots spread out along freeways. This was, in Wright’s view, “not only the single form the democratic city could take, but the only possible city of the future.” Broadacre City was never built, and received a fair amount of criticism as a naive vision of utopia. Nevertheless, Wright continued working on the concept until his death.

The idea that artists should use their work to champion social change dates back at least to the Enlightenment, but it was Jean-Paul Sartre who articulated it most memorably. His notion of littérature engagée and its sister, l’art engagé, were driven by an ethical commitment to exert an emancipatory political and social influence on humankind.

Rendition of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia by Craig Hodgetts (1982), envisioning the San Francisco Bay with solar power stations. Source: TU München

L’Architecture Engagée: Manifestos for Changing the Society,” an exhibit on view until Sept. 2 at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, looks at the architectural equivalent of Sartre’s concept through the ideas of Wright and other visionaries, including Thomas More, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Ebenezer Howard, Bruno Taut, Theo van Deosburg, Moisei Ginzburg, Tony Garnier, Jiří Kroha, Renaat Braem, Frei Otto, Ernest Callenbach and Yona Friedman.

Welcoming visitors with a panel on Thomas More’s “Utopia” and continuing into the 1980s, the exhibit diligently traces the historical development of idealist architectural visions. The curators assembled a series of hanging panels and a variety of media to create seven spaces that educate visitors about the central works and tenets of each vision.

Moving from More’s time to the early 19th century, the next section introduces visitors to Welsh social reformer Robert Owen and his utopian socialism. Driven by a desire to alleviate poverty through cooperative living, Owen moved to the United States and started an experimental village centered around unity and mutual cooperation. New Harmony, as the community was called, failed within two years.

Panel showcasing Charles Fourier’s Phalanstery utopian settlement. Source: Cristiana Strava

The fate of Owen’s initiative did not deter Frenchman Charles Fourier from his own vision of a utopian community. Designed to integrate urban and rural features, Fourier’s Phalanstère (Phalanstery) was similar to an Israeli kibbutz. It was meant to house a self-sustaining community of no more than 1600 people. The complex comprised both living and working space, as well as a nursery and a ballroom. Due to lack of financial support, Fourier never built a Phalanstery in Europe, but several communities were created in the United States.

A view of the Garden City section. Source: Jens Weber

Owen and Fourier both shared a preoccupation with what they saw as the eroding influence of industrialization on human communities. Ebenezer Howard also shared this concern, advocating a vision of living in harmony with nature. His Garden City movement was a response to the increasingly squalid living and working conditions that he witnessed in London. A somewhat different response to industrialisation, Tony Garnier’s Cite Industrielle (Industrial City) occupies a wall across the room from Howard’s Garden City plans.

“Alpine Architecture” by Bruno Taut. Source: TU München

The exhibit then transitions rather brusquely into the internationalist movement and offers a glimpse of Bruno Taut’s theoretical writings alongside the eye-catching model of the Maison d’Artiste (Artist’s House) by Theo van Doesburg.

Model of Theo van Doesburg’s Maison d’Artiste. Source: Cristiana Strava

Examples of socialist and communist architecture occupy the middle section of the exhibit, revolving around Moisei Ginzburg’s (in)famous Narkomfin Communal House. Together with the work of Renaat Braem and Jiří Kroha, these examples draw upon ideas that are similar to Owen’s and Fourier’s visions of communal living with less concern for nature. The theme of living in harmony with the land resurfaces in the last section of the exhibit with Wright’s Broadacre City and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.

Section on socialist architecture. Source: Jens Weber

Model of Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House. Source: Cristiana Strava.

Despite the great quantity of information accompanying the exhibit, by the end I had a distinct feeling that questions of substance had been left out. For instance, I was struck by the omission of Le Corbusier and the Athens Charter from the timeline of utopian manifestos. His Unite d’Habitation was clearly influenced by the Narkomfin House, and evokes certain aspects of Fourier’s Phalanstery as well.

However, there was an even larger white elephant looming in the room. Hovering amongst the beautifully preserved archival documents and plans was the scarcely mentioned fact that all these visions eventually failed to achieve their goals of social emancipation. Although the ideas were frequently recycled as time went on, they never congealed into another coherent manifesto.

Architect Jiří Kroha’s “The sociological fragment of living, the human being and his dwelling.” Source: TU München

The exhibit’s curators hope that a re-examination of these “efforts to improve or change social systems could help to historically deepen the current discussions about the importance of the built environment.” Despite recent initiatives like WikiHouse, there is a common view that the moral mission of architecture has been in decline for the past 25 years. Increasingly perceived as an elitist domain whose practitioners build monumental museums and luxurious villas, 21st-century architecture has thus far failed to productively engage with pressing social issues. One can only echo the Munich curators’ hope that the situation will soon change.

+ share

Visualizing Dislocation Across Borders

by Vivien Park

Location-based technology is not known for its accuracy. At times we can be logged as being in a different place than our actual location, especially when we are moving across territories. Artist Julian Oliver's Border Bumping project focuses on these moments of disparity.

Screenshot of evolving map data.

As part of the project, a free Android application tracks location discrepancies and uploads them to a map used by participants when they cross national borders. The results are presented as an ever-changing terrain that visualizes the disruptions inherent in cellular technology. Viewers can also view updates to the map from a mobile cartography bureau.

Mobile cartography bureau.

Border Bumping is part of the Abandon Normal Devices Festival, which takes place from Aug. 9 to Sept. 2, 2012 in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster, England.

Credits: Images from Border Bumping.

+ share

Landscapes of Inequality in Nairobi

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Although Nairobi is one of the most dynamic business and institutional centers in sub-Saharan Africa, it is also home to more than 200 slums, where living conditions are among the harshest in the world. Many of the richest and poorest people in Africa live in this highly unequal city with an extremely high Gini income-inequality coefficient close to 0.60.

Low-income Kibera neighborhood.

High-income Westlands neighborhood.

High-income areas have excellent services and infrastructure, while low-income areas have next to none. Sanitation problems in slums like Kibera, Pumwani and Maringo are exacerbated by high population density. Slums in Nairobi are known for flying toilets — plastic bags filled with toilet waste thrown away by people with no access to latrines.

Low-income Kayole neighborhood.

High-income Milinani neighborhood.

The low-income Kayole neighborhood (pictured above) is a formal settlement, which shows that inadequate infrastructure and public space are not limited to informal settlements. As in Quito and Madrid, state investment is clearly higher in wealthier neighborhoods, even when poorer neighborhoods have much larger populations.

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

+ share

Mobile Placemaking and the Web-Enabled Food Vendor

by Ginette Wessel

Cities across the United States are becoming hotbeds for mobile-food entrepreneurs benefiting from an online social networking culture. The mobile food-vending phenomenon is a rich environment for examining the development of technical, social and economic dimensions of contemporary urban life through the mobilization of services and social activity in both virtual and physical space. Although the number of mobile food vendors in cities has nearly doubled over the past decade, few studies have addressed this trend’s impact on the current and future urban fabric.

Portland, New York City, Austin, Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the most well-known cities for mobile food vending. Food trucks appear at a variety of public and privately owned locations, including plazas, community parks, tourist areas, alleyways, office parks and college campuses. They range from innovative units equipped with restaurant-quality equipment, often referred to as "gourmet" food trucks, to less-fancy and often marginalized trucks known as "roach coaches."

With the rapid increase in gourmet food trucks, smartphone applications such as TruxMap, Food Truck Fiesta, Road Stoves GPS and Truck Spotting have emerged, offering real-time tracking of favorite eats. Yet Twitter is the most popular source of information among vendors and customers alike. It is used to exchange tips about serving locations, daily menu items, service outages, customer feedback and changing city ordinances. Social media has become essential to vendors by assuring a sufficient customer-base wherever they choose to locate. At the same time, urban spaces acquire new functionality and meaning with the presence of food trucks, as customers instantly populate urban sites for temporary periods of time.

Off the Grid, a weekly street-food event in San Francisco.

Unlike Portland or Los Angeles, which have longstanding food-truck industries, the nascent scene in the San Francisco Bay Area is spreading rapidly through an abundance of media coverage. This coverage is often focused on the effects of mobile vending on local municipalities, including issues of nighttime theft and crime, regulating distances from secondary schools, resolving spatial conflicts between vendors and restaurant owners, assigning proper public parking areas, updating outdated ordinances and permit costs, and maintaining health-code requirements. Despite these challenges, street-food events like Off the Grid, Bites Off Broadway, Food Truck Mafia and the new SOMA Street Food Park are becoming weekly fixtures and drawing unprecedented crowds.

SOMA Street Food Park in San Francisco.

This fast-growing industry shows how information technology is linked interdependently with social events and practices in urban environments. The ubiquitous use of online media presents challenges for urban design and planning. Largely built upon principles and strategies of modernization since the emergence of the industrial city, they must now incorporate flexible social, political and economic strategies that accommodate and respond to new modes of communication. In "Telecommunications and the City,"Steve Graham and Simon Marvin point out that "a primary challenge for planners and local governments is that they inevitably have to deal with bounded and enclosed jurisdictional definitions of urban space, which leads to difficulties in taking account of real-time flow of capital, information, services, and labor power that continuously and invisibly puncture these boundaries."

The role of online communication in redefining how we receive, generate and share information is widely discussed, yet the ways in which it reconfigures the urban environment remain unclear. How can we understand the relational meaning, use and relevance of contemporary urban places when everyday activities are becoming more mobile? How might urban analysts, planners, designers and inhabitants respond to the influence of information technology on these increasingly dynamic environments?

Ginette Wessel is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include ethnographic investigations of information technology and everyday urban environments, as well as methods of urban visualization and cognition. Ginette's article "From Place to NonPlace: A Case Study of Social Media and Contemporary Food Trucks" is published in the Journal of Urban Design.

Credits: Photos by Ginette Wessel.

+ share

An Ode to High-Speed Rail

by Alex Schafran

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

— T.S. Elliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

On Monday I traveled 1000 km (a megameter?) round-trip for a meeting. It could not have been a simpler and more relaxing experience — approximately 25 minutes from my apartment in the 18ème arrondissement via two metro lines to the Gare de Lyon; 10 minutes to walk from the metro to the platform; precisely 119 minutes on the TGV to the Part Dieu Station in Lyon; a leisurely half hour on the BRT-esque C3 to Vaulx-en-Valin and, as the French say, voila. Three hours for a 500 km journey on three modes of transit, comfortable enough to read Eric Charmes and Walter Mosely. Did I mention it was 100 degrees outside?

TGV bar car.

A more accurate name for this post would be "A love song for the TGV," for, in all honesty, I know nothing about other systems of super-rapid transport. Though I'm learning to appreciate transportation planning, I am certainly not a transportation planner. I am well aware that other systems may be considered boondoggles, or simply overblown tourist attractions, but one cannot say the same about Le Train à Grande Vitesse. In 30 years it has carried over a billion passengers, has never had a fatal accident, and has slowly grown in France and throughout Europe, with high-speed connections from major French cities to their counterparts in Italy, Germany, England, Belgium and the Netherlands.

What is most fascinating is how the TGV — and the "time-space compression" (to use a favorite David Harvey concept) it has produced — has changed what is possible in terms of daily life. Like many residents of France, I can now consider jobs outside of my metropolitan area, especially if I don't have to go everyday. The halls of academia are littered with students and professors who travel great distances once or twice a week to teach and study, enabling them to maintain roots in one place while following work or education opportunities as needed. I don't have to choose between family and employment, between community and a living — I can live in Paris and teach in Reims or Lille, or vice versa. And this is not about car ownership; what I did on Monday is simply not possible to do safely in a car, and likely never will be.

Not available in automobiles.

Commuting on high-speed rail is relatively expensive, but this does not mean the trains are bastions of the elite. Sure, the people like me who were taking business trips for the day seemed wealthier than the families traveling home for Eid or the students on vacation, but the second-class cabin of the Paris-Lyon line is fairly integrated in terms of race and class (the Paris-Nice train may be a different story...). I regularly find tickets for 25 euros each way, and with discounts for seniors, students, children, regular travelers and others, it can be even cheaper. My stepdaughter is able to navigate having a mother in Paris and a father in Lyon with less trouble than some kids I know with divorced parents on separate sides of an auto-dependent U.S. city.

As central cities in every corner of the globe gentrify, there is legitimate concern that expensive systems like the TGV, which connect urban cores, will detract from efforts to serve poorer communities whose transit needs are more within metropolises than between them, and will simply reinforce already privileged centers. But as California and the United States drag their heels on high-speed trains four decades after they were introduced in Europe, those of us who care about justice might want to learn from the French — they build interconnected systems at every scale, from bike paths on up, and then work to provide subsidies for students and other low-income people to access the system at different points. The path to inclusive urban centers should include high-speed rail between cities while making sure that everyone can afford a seat on the train.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.

+ share

Rethinking Urbanism at TU Delft

by Jiya Benni

The second annual Urbanism Week at the TU Delft Faculty of Architecture will take place this Sept. 24-28. Last year more than 200 students and 80 professionals from around the world took part in conference workshops, lectures and debates organized by the platform for urbanism at TU Delft (POLIS).

TU Delft Faculty of Architecture. Source: Managing the University Campus

This year's theme is “Secondhand Cities: Rethinking Practice in Times of Standstill.” Participants will explore alternative solutions to problems linked to economic crisis. The conference addresses questions such as: What is the role of the citizen today? What is the best way of engaging citizens and involving them in projects? Is it time to explore new ways of making cities? How can virtual networks help us find these ways?

Source: Urbanism Week 2012 Committee

Urbanism Week speakers include Joan Busquets, Machiel van Dorst, Henk Ovink, John Habraken, Duzan Doepel, Santiago Cirugeda, Wouter Vanstiphout and Atelier d'Architecture Autogérée. Symposium days will conclude with informal occasions to chat with colleagues.

Check out the Urbanism Week website for more information and registration details. Early-bird registration will be available until the end of August. See you in September!

Jiya Benni is a masters student in urbanism at TU Delft, and part of the Urbanism Week 2012 Committee. For inquiries related to Urbanism Week, Jiya can be reached at contact@polistudelft.nl.

+ share

Teresa Caldeira on ‘Fortified Enclaves’

Source: Mr. Greenjeans

“Among the conditions necessary for democracy is that people acknowledge those from different social groups as cocitizens, i.e., as people having similar rights. If this is true, it is clear that contemporary cities which are segregated by fortified enclaves are not environments which generate conditions conducive to democracy. Rather, they foster inequality and the sense that different groups belong to separate universes and have irreconcilable claims. Cities of walls do not strengthen citizenship but rather contribute to its corrosion. Moreover, this effect does not depend either on the type of political regime or on the intentions of those in power, since the architecture of the enclaves entails by itself a certain social logic.”

— Teresa Caldeira in “Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation,” 1996

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

+ share

Designing the Festival Experience

by Rebecka Gordan

This summer, the sounds of Swedish music festival Way Out West brought record numbers of visitors to Gothenburg's Slottskogen park, where a new installation added an unprecedented social experience.

Source: Jyllands-Posten

Festival organizers hired furniture designer Rasmus Malberts and landscape architects Felix Melin and Josefin Noren Almén to create a bright yellow installation called "hullaBOLLoo" out of plywood and 180 recycled box pallets.

Source: Felix Melin

Felix and Josefin build social environments at large scales with loosely orchestrated circulation. In the case of Way Out West, they sought to address the desire to socialize while experiencing a shared spectacle. "We wanted a place where you could interact, flirt and talk,” Josefin explains.

Source: Daniel Fried

The hullaBOLLoo consists of two intimate seating areas, a large ping-pong table, a crystal, a wooden sofa and a large pool of brightly colored balls with a slide. All materials are recycled, and perhaps the pool will find its way into a Gothenburg beer garden later this summer.

Source: Rebecka Gordan

The installation was a great hit, giving concertgoers something to explore, talk about and play with. If the producers of Way Out West are wise, they will let the designers try their hand at the entire area next year.

+ share

Edible Landscapes

by Anna Fogel

“Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture? … Yes, and the language would appear to be food.” – Pam Warhurst

How We Can Eat Our Landscapes,” a TED Talk by Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible Todmorden, illuminates the process behind a distributed and replicable movement to develop local food production on unused land. Warhurst discusses the organization’s inception and evolution, explaining that its purpose is to not only plant more fruits, vegetables and herbs around town, but to encourage neighbors to think about natural resources differently and interact with their surroundings in new ways.

Warhurst describes the organization’s work as centered around three spheres: community building, education and local business. They engage schools in the growing process, and artists from around town help create signs to inform residents and visitors about the program. They also organize “propaganda gardening” initiatives such as planting corn in front of a police station or growing herbs in parking lots. A group of local businesses set up an Incredible Edible Green Route, which Warhurst calls “vegetable tourism,” helping to connect growers with customers.

Local farmers have seen a marked increase in sales, as the movement has sparked a lasting interest in local food and attracted visitors from around the world. It is now spreading through the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, Japan and New Zealand. Incredible Edible Todmorden emphasizes replicability, providing a toolkit for other communities and hosting visitors interested in learning more about their operations. They hope the ideas can take root and be modified in other places to offer practical alternatives to global agribusiness.

+ share

Ownership and Identity in Kennedy Plaza

by Melanie Friedrichs

Ask anyone where the center of Providence is and they’ll point you to Kennedy Plaza. Geographically it is a natural center, located in a river valley between two hills. College Hill (to the east) is home to Brown University, and Federal Hill (to the west) is the heart of Providence's Italian-American community. Kennedy Plaza's layout follows the traditional colonial pattern, with the Providence City Hall facing the U.S. District Court. (According to local legend, when mayor Buddy Cianci was on trial he would walk across Kennedy Plaza to make his court dates.) The plaza is also a transportation hub, first as the home of a train station from 1847 to 1980, and now as a bus depot.

Components of Kennedy Plaza. Source: Greater Kennedy Plaza

Kennedy Plaza’s assets don’t necessarily add up to its status as city center. The State Capital and the Providence County Courthouse are located elsewhere. The first central plaza in Providence, Market Square, is located across the river. The bus depot is ugly and loud and takes up half the plaza’s usable space. But while other spaces can claim equal proximity to public buildings, greater historical importance and aesthetic advantages, they stand empty while Kennedy Plaza bustles with loiterers, tourists, commuters and professionals.

Market Place, the former center of ownership and identity in Providence. Source: City of Providence

Kennedy Plaza stands out because it has become a symbol of identity and (contested) ownership for the people of Providence. It is a reminder of what Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York and author of "On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture" describes as the “phenomenological and symbolic experience of a space as mediated by social processes such as exchange, conflict, and control.” The making of Kennedy Plaza is not a story one can Google and, as a relative newcomer to Providence, I am not in the best position to tell it. According to William McKenzie Wormwood, a historian at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, Kennedy Plaza “is the city's most constantly reworked space, and fully interpreting its history would fill a book that could be a landmark in understanding American urbanism.” That said, I can guess at several key historical processes behind the plaza's current centrality.

Providence City Hall.

First was the construction of City Hall in 1878. While arguably not the most important political building in Providence, City Hall is the most approachable. The modest facade is removed from the sidewalk by only a few steps, welcoming democratic participation in contrast to the state capitol’s grand walkway and imposing dome. City Hall, not the State House, is the primary voice in government for the average Providence citizen.

Joaquim DeBarros waits in front of the Kennedy Plaza transportation center. Photo by Bill Murphy. Source: Belo Blog

Second is the bus depot, redesigned and formalized by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority in the late 1990s. To the probable chagrin of the plaza’s more well-to-do tenants, the bus depot attracts the homeless and unemployed by providing benches and a constant stream of pedestrian traffic. Kennedy Plaza provides rare visibility for the dispossessed, who in other cities are often vetted away from the central public space.

Snow falls on Occupy Providence. Source: Occupy Providence

Third is local politics. The status of Kennedy Plaza as a space of contested ownership became most obvious when Occupy Providence moved into Burnside Park in October 2011. And, in fact, many of the participants had been occupying Kennedy Plaza for years through frequent demonstrations, petitions and orations in front of City Hall or the Court House.

Festival Ballet Providence performs in Kennedy Plaza. Source: Greater Kennedy Plaza

Recently the Greater Kennedy Plaza coalition has been working to reinvent the plaza once again, part of an initiative to “transform Downtown Providence into a lively public square, rich with activity.” The coalition includes several foundations, more than five state and local government bodies and Bank of America, among others. I see their project as another bid for ownership of this contested space.

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 Kennedy Plaza by Melanie Friedrichs unless otherwise noted in the captions.

+ share

Jesko Fezer on Design for a Post-Neoliberal City

Public art by Banksy. Source: Wikipedia Commons

“Our cities have become key arenas in a primarily market-driven globalization process, a process that primarily unfolds in circumstances and at the mercy of protagonists with little or nothing to do with planning and design. ... Premised on a substantive retreat of the state and the surrender of social interests to market forces, cities have become strategic spaces for the implementation of neoliberal logic.

Occupy Tent by Gregoire Vion. Source: Occupy Posters

“Designers continue to hold back with criticism and proposals, but the time has come to redefine the role of design in a social city – and to take action. Design in the context of cities could redefine itself as a search for an alternative urban practice, beyond the techniques and the ideology of crisis-ridden, late-capitalist urbanism.

Chalk memorial for Jack Layton in front of Toronto’s City Hall. Source: Jackman Chiu

“How would design look if it were inspired by an open, processual, micro-political, interventionist, communicative and participatory approach that relates to everyday urban life? Would it be destined to be merely an element in the commodified colonization of social spaces, or could it be a strategic tool with a political and social character that can make an essential contribution to a social city?”

— Jesko Fezer in “Design for a Post-Neoliberal City,” 2010

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

+ share

Housing Injustice in Madrid

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In 2007, Spain had 551 houses for every 1000 inhabitants, more than France (508) and Germany (485), according to data published by CF+S. This figure is the result of a giant real estate bubble that kept Spain's economy artificially growing for approximately ten years. Neither economic growth nor the real estate business generated any lasting benefit for the many thousands of families who still live in slums.

Low-income Santa Catalina neighborhood.

High-income La Moraleja neighborhood.

The situation is especially acute in the capital city of Madrid, the largest and wealthiest urban agglomeration in Spain, where 1,000 families were living in slums in 2008 when the city and regional governments approved a plan to resettle informal dwellers. By the end of 2009, Madrid's Institute for Resettlement and Social Integration (IRIS) had resettled some 600 families from informal settlements to social housing developments. The resettlement of residents from Santa Catalina, pictured above, was completed in 2011. The low-income neighborhood pictured below — part La Cañada Real, a long strip of informal housing in Madrid's southeastern periphery — was not included in the government's resettlement plan.

Low-income La Cañada Real neighborhood.

High-income Barrio Salamanca neighborhood.

Similar to the case in Quito, Ecuador, high-income neighborhoods correspond with greener landscapes and more regulated urbanization, while low-income neighborhoods show a clear absence of the state. Today, economic crisis and massive government budget cuts have reduced the possibility of public investment in the remaining city slums. Moreover, predictions of a devastating economic collapse for most of southern Europe raise the possibility that Spain could experience a process of rapid housing informalization similar to those that took place in parts of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. This can be prevented through adequate public policy to deal with the inflated housing stock, as the majority of empty properties are owned by banks, many of them taken through evictions.

Credits: Images from Google Earth and Google Maps.

+ share