polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Reviving a Plaza Through Collaborative Play

by Teresa García Alcaraz

Macarao is a district along the periphery of Caracas, home to over 50,000 people within roughly 10 square kilometers. Dramatic problems are visible there, including prostitution, violence, poverty and inadequate healthcare. Housing is highly vulnerable to natural disaster.

Two brothers sit on a rooftop observing the city below.

At the same time, the streets of Macarao are galleries of ingenuity — residents constantly invent their surroundings. Approaching the steep stairways and unstable shelters, it is surprising to see how quickly a grocery store is built, a small shack is expanded to accommodate a new family, a nursery is added to a community center, or a meeting place takes shape in an unclaimed space. Gathering places are highly valued in the scarcity of space for social life to unfold.

A woman lowers food in a basket to her neighbor.

In the historic center of Macarao, the population of children and teenagers is particularly high. They play games and hang out in a square beside a church from the colonial era. Plaza Bolívar, as it is called, has traditionally been a hub for social interaction.

Plaza Bolívar in the historic section of Macarao.

Lack of maintenance and infrastructure has taken a toll on Plaza Bolívar. Community leaders decided to take action in collaboration with Liga de la Partida Urbana (L.P.U.), or League of the Urban Game, an activist collective that helps revive and reconfigure public space through a process rooted in inclusive play.

Children playing in the plaza.

L.P.U. proposed a quick and inexpensive intervention that would bring people together with a shared purpose. They planned to create lines and geometric shapes on the ground that would transform the space visually and socially, sparking dialogue among diverse participants. The proposal was presented for community review and approved. Two weeks later, the group distributed paint, brushes and tape to local children, who decided to design a panel for playing the traditional Venezuelan game fusilao. The children set up their own rules, deciding where to draw, how big the panel would have to be, and which colors would look best.

Other members of the community joined in as well, and the activity became a means of rediscovering the plaza through creative social interaction. The plaza became an immediate and changeable space that everyone could share. The intervention allowed architects, sociologists and artists to engage with the neighborhood in a spirit of collaborative play, sparking use of the plaza in surprising ways.

When the paint dried, the children began playing fusilao on their new panel.

Teresa García Alcaraz is an architect with a focus on community planning in informal settlements. She is a member of L.P.U., and author of Archithoughts.

Credits: Photos by Teresa García Alcaraz.

In Parts of Manhattan, It’s Back to Normal after Sandy

by Katia Savchuk

In parts of Manhattan lucky enough to avoid flooding and power outages during Superstorm Sandy, things started getting back to normal Tuesday morning. Many businesses were open in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in Upper Manhattan. Residents swept the streets, walked dogs and ventured out for a peek at the aftermath — or just to run errands.

Subway service may resume in four or five days, but it could be longer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference Tuesday morning. All subway tunnels that run under rivers were flooded, he said.

The New York Daily News published Sandy updates from a newsroom without power, but papers didn't make it to racks.

Buckets of concrete and thick chains helped keep a chair, shopping cart and metal rack from flying away in the storm.

Joggers and dog-walkers were out in full force at Riverbank State Park near the Hudson River, where there was no flooding.

Credits: Photos by Katia Savchuk.

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Louis Wirth on an Urban World

“Pipes for the Gas Pipeline” (1971). Source: Dmitri Baltermants

“The degree to which the contemporary world may be said to be ‘urban’ is not fully or accurately measured by the proportion of the total population living in cities. The influences which cities exert upon the social life of man are greater than the ratio of the urban population would indicate, for the city is not only in ever larger degrees the dwelling-place and workshop of modern man, but it is the initiating and controlling center of economic, political, and cultural life that has drawn the most remote parts of the world into its orbit and woven diverse areas, peoples, and activities into a cosmos.”

— Louis Wirth in “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” 1937

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

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Preparing for Hurricane Sandy

by Katia Savchuk

Stores across New York City were packed Sunday as residents stocked up on water, batteries and canned goods to weather Hurricane Sandy, expected to make landfall on Monday. Transit systems were shut down Sunday, only the second time ever that services were suspended citywide. The other shutdown was during last year's Tropical Storm Irene, which had a more modest impact than expected. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered 370,000 residents to evacuate, and schools will be closed Monday. The New York Times has a live feed of the skyline as the storm approaches.

Business was booming at a liquor store on 145th and Broadway.

Members of a Pentecostal church handed out fliers on a street corner. They called the storm a warning from God.

A woman gazed out on the Hudson River from Riverbank State Park. Water levels may surge up to 11 feet, officials say.

Travelers caught the last trains before subways shut down at 7 p.m. Transit officials said no one would be allowed to camp out in subway stations because of the risk of electrocution and other dangers.

Credits: Photos by Katia Savchuk.

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Richardson Apartments: A Fresh Take on Affordable Housing

by Min Li Chan

Nested within San Francisco's affluent Hayes Valley neighborhood, Richardson Apartments is an unconventional affordable housing initiative for the recently homeless. Riding the bus home last weekend, I caught a glimpse of the building's impressive facade a few intersections away, hopped off the bus and ventured closer to take a look.

International Collaboration on Urban Development in Alexandria

by Rebecka Gordan

Nine months after the Egyptian revolution last year, the Stockholm-based Färgfabriken Center for Contemporary Art and Architecture organized a three-day workshop in Alexandria with Gudran Association for Art and Development, the local Swedish Institute and the department of architecture at Alexandria University. Participants included municipal administrators, architects, artists, urban planners and students, from Alexandria, Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, Damascus and Stockholm. The program was part of a larger project called New Urban Topologies.

The aim of the workshop was to create a holistic view of the city based on a shared platform for discussing its identity, history and future possibilities. A number of themes emerged gradually, revolving around collaborative planning, public space, infrastructure and industrial renewal. These themes became chapters of a new book called "Alexandria. City of Layers," for which I served as editor.

The layers in the title refer to physical and mental traces left throughout the city by people of diverse cultures who have come together there for thousands of years. The book documents the New Urban Topologies project with summaries of workshop presentations and interviews with participants. It also includes essays on Alexandria, and a rich assortment of images. Translated into English and Arabic, the book was launched this month in Alexandria. The Swedish release takes place on Nov. 27 at Färgfabriken in Stockholm. The electronic version is now available for free.

Inspired by the results from the workshop, the director of the urban planning department in Alexandria has initiated a second New Urban Topologies meeting in Feb. 2013, with a focus on dialogue, transparency and participation in planning processes. The industrial area and old cotton district Minet el-Bassal will serve as a case study, and the findings will inform a new plan for the area.

Participants in the New Urban Typologies project hope the book will lead to sustained collaboration between Egypt and Sweden in fostering creative approaches to urban development.

Credits: Images from "Alexandria. City of Layers."

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Revisiting Urban Economics

by Melanie Friedrichs

In writing about cities, I often recall a course I took with Nathaniel Baum-Snow, which drew upon "Lectures in Urban Economics" by Jan Bruekner. The three concepts outlined below are my biggest takeaways from the course. Many principles of urban economics seem like common sense oversimplified, but articulating them has helped me assess their value in illuminating the nature of cities.

Source: Melanie Friedrichs

1. Agglomeration Effects

"Agglomeration effects" is a fancy way of saying "two heads are better than one," or rather "many heads are better than a few." It’s also the primary economic explanation for the existence of cities.

There are two main types of agglomeration effects:
  • Pecuniary. Things are cheaper in cities. This is obviously untrue for rent, and many goods and services — like restaurant meals and boutique clothing — that fluctuate with demand. But it probably is true for shared resources like electricity, water and transportation.
  • Technological. People are more efficient in cites, possibly because they can learn more from the diversity of people around them or because they are able to find more suitable jobs. In a farm town, there aren’t as many options for employment, and you might not be good at the job that’s available to you, but in a city there are more choices and opportunities to find a good fit.

Barcelona is a classic example of a high-amenity city. Source: Corsi Spagnolo

2. The Indifference Principle

Economists spend a lot of time thinking about why people do what they do. Some employ an overarching framework based on the notion that, when all things are considered, people choose what makes them happier or just as happy as any other available choice. According to Steven Landsburg's indifference principle, individuals are impartial toward choices that yield equal utility. This corresponds with Adam Smith's theory that individuals choose what will make them happiest, and thus what will make society happiest overall, through more or less rational decisions.

Urban economists often refer to the indifference principle in explaining why people live where they live. They generally group the factors involved into three groups:
  • Rent. How much does it cost to live in a particular city?
  • Income. How much can you earn in a particular city?
  • Amenities. What is the city like? Examples of positive amenities include good weather, beautiful architecture, low crime, a waterfront and a lively music scene.
    The principle of indifference seems like common sense, but can be a powerful tool of analysis. It implies that changes in any one of the three factors above tend to influence the other two. If jobs decrease, people will move out of the city, and with less demand rent will fall. If the amenity value of a place increases, then people will move into a city, and with more demand rent will rise.

    Source: Alexiptoto

    3. The Monocentric City Model

    The monocentric model is a standard component of urban economics. In the monocentric world, there is one dominant place to work: the central business district (imagine downtown Manhattan).

    Source: Melanie Friedrichs

    Rent is highest closest to the central business district, decreasing as distance increases and the commute to the central business district gets longer and more annoying (in accordance with the indifference principle). When the amount of rent a central-business-district commuter is willing to pay is the same as the rent farmers are willing to pay for an acre of cropland, the city ends. (This is called the "urban fringe.") Consumers tend to pay higher rents per square foot closer to the central business district and lower rates farther away; that’s why the line for city rent is curved.

    Source: Melanie Friedrichs

    The monocentric model is a little out of date, however, as many cities have multiple centers and the Internet makes centralization of employment less important. But there are important lessons to be drawn from this model:
    • Cities are denser at the center. Did you need a model to tell you that? Probably not.
    • Transportation increases sprawl. Or, rather, faster transportation increases the convenience of commuting, increasing rent that central-business-district commuters are willing to pay, and thus increasing the area of developed land without a corresponding increase in population. For this one, at least for me, the model helped.
    These three concepts are some of the basic building blocks of urban economics. Together they are meant to shed light on why cities exist, what drives up rent in some areas and down in others, and why transportation fuels sprawl. Of course, all of these principles are substantially distorted by power relations, asymmetric information and other contingencies, so cities rarely, if ever, reflect an idealized urban economy. I think of them more as the structural beams of a skyscraper, which determine the basic shape of the building without determining the texture of daily life inside.

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    Henri Lefebvre on Governance and Space

    Nationwide strike in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Source: The Telegraph

    “Just as economic pressure from the base … is able to modify the production of surplus value, so pressure grounded in spatial practice is alone capable of modifying the apportionment of that surplus value — i.e. the distribution of the portion of social surplus production allotted to society’s collective ‘interests’, to so-called social services. Such grass-roots pressure, if it is to be effective in this regard, cannot be confined to attacking the state qua guardian of the ‘general interest’. For this state, born of the hegemony of a class, has as one of its functions — and a more and more significant function — the organization of space, the regularization of its flows, the control of its networks. It devotes to these purposes a considerable part of global surplus value, of the surplus production assigned to the running of society.

    Occupy LSX appropriates real and symbolic space in London. Source: Melissa García Lamarca

    “Pressure from below must therefore also confront the state in its role as organiser of space, as the power that controls urbanization, the construction of buildings and spatial planning in general. The state defends class interests while simultaneously setting itself above society as a whole, and its ability to intervene in space can and must be turned back against it, by grass-roots opposition, in the form of counter-plans and counter-projects designed to thwart strategies, plans and programmes imposed from above.”

    — Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space (pp. 382–3), 1974

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

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    Instant Urbanism Brings ‘Mega Projects’ to Morocco

    by Cristiana Strava

    To many Casablanca is a city of myth, spies and dark cafes. For the Moroccan government it is the future financial and business hub of North Africa. While most of its neighbors are still reeling from the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, Morocco is aggressively trying to fashion itself into the Dubai of the Maghreb. Lacking the revenue of resource-rich Gulf states, Morocco is counting on European loans and investments to finance its own brand of "petro-urbanism." With no less than 9 "mega building projects" across the country, current urban development in Morocco is focused on creating retail and business revenue.

    Casablanca's luxury seafront development is due to be completed in 2013. Source: Casablanca Marina

    Morocco's flagship "mega project" is the $500-million redevelopment of Casablanca's waterfront into the luxurious, mixed-use Casa Marina. Stretching across 450,000 square meters, the complex will include high-end retail spaces, an integrated business center and "luxury apartments targeted at VIP customers." The Moroccan Central Real Estate Company (CGI) has announced its intention to add three manmade islands to the Marina.

    The Morocco Mall in Casablanca. Source: Morocco Mall

    Inside the Morocco Mall. Source: Morocco Mall

    The controversial opening of Morocco Mall in 2011 to a performance by Jennifer Lopez, was the most recent step in placing Casablanca on the business map. While a projected 14 million visitors will enjoy the exclusive spas and gourmet restaurants of Africa’s largest shopping mall, an estimated ten percent of Moroccans continue to live in poverty. The most dire conditions can be found right on Casablanca’s doorstep as the rural exodus leads to a growing slum population.

    The new city of Tamesna (2011). Source: Cristiana Strava

    The Moroccan government has made some inroads in tackling a chronic shortage of affordable housing through its "Cities Without Slums" initiative. Erected in a rural district 20 kilometers south of Morocco's capital, the new city of Tamesna was meant to relieve Rabat of some of its growing population. While some of the housing at Tamesna was earmarked for low-income groups, the projected 250,000 new units mostly target middle-class citizens.

    Targeting the "new modern family" in Tamesna, Morocco (2011). The ad reads: "Jnane al Mansour. Your dream has a new address." Source: Cristiana Strava

    Rapid development of Tamesna (2011). Source: Cristiana Strava

    The authorities have yet to develop comprehensive public transport links between Tamesna and Rabat, as currently there is only one bus line linking the two. Meanwhile, this new suburban dream is predicated on the assumption that the families who will live at Tamesna are middle-class, car-driving (sub)urbanites with no more than four children, judging from the floor plans.

    Example of floor plan for a mid-range apartment at Tamesna. Source: Marina d'Or

    Low-income people applying for subsidized housing in Morocco's "new cities" have long waits ahead, as real estate speculation currently outpaces construction of affordable housing. To echo the words of a Moroccan commentator, the dream of a slum-free Morocco is not for tomorrow.

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