Music in the Urban Landscape

by Vivien Park

New American Noise is a collection of short films that document emerging music scenes in six cities — from bounce beats for gay rappers in New Orleans to cross-pollinated genres at Detroit house parties to stripper-curated setlists in Atlanta. Each cultural and geographical setting gives rise to a unique sound. Through intricate networks of inspiration and distribution, the music finds its place within the landscape.

The films are produced by Nokia Music and the Sundance Channel. All six can be viewed at

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Book Review: ‘Modernism’s Populist Architect’

by Cristiana Strava

Source: W.W. Norton & Company

Despite a lifelong commitment to modernist architecture, Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) is often associated with the movement away from modernism toward decorative and neoclassical styles. It is rare to find detailed studies on the ideas behind his transition from stark modernist buildings like the MoMA in New York City to the "Romantic Modernism" of buildings like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. A recent book by architectural historian Mary Ann Hunting comprehensively addresses this transition.

In the introduction we learn of Stone's childhood in Arkansas, followed by his Beaux Arts architectural education and European travels, during which he found inspiration in the Bauhaus and early modernism. Hunting sheds light on Stone's close friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright, and traces his career from "pioneering experimentations" with middle-class housing to contentious use of decorative elements often labelled "kitsch."

The American Embassy chancery in New Delhi, 1956. Source: Discover Diplomacy

After Stone completed the famous American Embassy chancery in New Delhi and the United States Pavilion for the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels, he steadily became notorious both as a wayward modernist and as a heavy drinker. Indeed, much of Hunting's book reads as a thoroughly researched biography that oscillates between presenting Stone's work through the prism of his personal life and vice-versa.

Colliers Magazine House, 1936. Source: Triangle Modernist Houses

Hunting places Stone's architecture within the economic and political climate of his day and shows how iconic designs like the Colliers and Goodyear homes were aimed at introducing modernism to middle-class America. After the Great Depression, the federal government saw home ownership as key to political stability and economic prosperity. According to Hunting, Stone was a fervent believer in educating people about the potential in modern architecture for building better homes at lower costs. Through popular magazines such as Colliers and Ladies' Home Journal, he sold scaled-down designs based on his more expensive commissions for $3 apiece.

Stanford University Medical Center, 1959. Source: Dwell

Stone managed to design and build on a scale rare for his time, securing lucrative commissions from companies like PepsiCo, Tupperware and Levitt & Sons. At the same time, many of his postwar buildings — including the Stanford University Medical Center and the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan (known as the "Lollipop Building") — drew criticism for excessive repetition and ornamentation.

What is most valuable in Hunting's book is its examination of relationships between American modernism and middle-class consumption. She points out, "Stone deserves a very special place in the history of modernism, not for formalistic or aesthetic reasons, but for his relationship to the culture and the times." Through her research, we discover how Stone's desire to see modernism embraced by the masses began to place his work at odds with the more austere tenets of the movement.

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Hardt and Negri on the Metropolis as ‘Common Wealth’

Source: Melissa García Lamarca

“One vast reservoir of common wealth is the metropolis itself. The formation of modern cities, as urban and architectural historians explain, was closely linked to the development of industrial capital. The geographical concentration of workers, the proximity of resources and other industries, communication and transport systems, and the other characteristics of urban life are necessary elements for industrial production. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the growth of cities and the qualities of urban space were determined by the industrial factory, its needs, rhythms, and forms of social organization. Today we are witnessing a shift, however, from the industrial to the biopolitical metropolis. And in the biopolitical economy, there is an increasingly intense and direct relation between the production process and the common that constitutes the city. The city, of course, is not just a built environment consisting of buildings and streets and subways and parks and waste systems and communications cables but also a living dynamic of cultural practices, intellectual circuits, affective networks, and social institutions. These elements of the common contained in the city are not only the prerequisite for biopolitical production but also its result; the city is the source of the common and the receptacle into which it flows.”

— Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth, 2011

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

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Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg on Making History in the Bronx

by Alex Schafran

Rendering of the Sheridan Community Plan. Source: Pratt Center

Dear Mayor Michael Bloomberg,

I'm sure you don't have to be reminded that your time as mayor of the greatest city in the world is coming to an end. You've formed your Super PAC, and I'm curious to see what you'll do next. There's still much unfinished business in La Gran Manzana, and I don't underestimate your ability to successfully manage post-Sandy recovery while taking bold steps for the future during your final months in office.

One of many Bloomberg-era projects that are remaking the city without truly breaking new ground. Source: Alex Schafran

It seems clear from your actions and statements over the past decade that you have a keen sense of history — including how to make it. You seem to recognize that in a 21st-century world of dynamic global cities, the business of New York is to build and rebuild. Few mayors will leave as large a physical imprint as you have with the transformation of the West Side, the new Cornell tech center on Roosevelt Island, the Brooklyn waterfront, multiple stadiums and a largely reconstructed lower Manhattan.

Yet with the exception of rebuilding Ground Zero, none of your efforts, whether good or bad, rise to the level of true historic urbanism. In extending the 7 train and densifying the West Side, you are doing something that Singapore, Vancouver and numerous other cities have done before. Same with the stadiums, the upzonings and downzonings, the waterfront access, the new luxury towers. These efforts may change the fabric of the city but they do not make history. Even the fabulous High Line is cribbed from your Parisian counterparts.

Source: Museum of the City of New York

In some ways, this is good. There is too much unhealthy competition among cities, and "making history" is often overrated. The Cross Bronx Expressway made history but was a social disaster. The Zoning Resolution of 1961 changed urban zoning norms across the country, but ended up killing parts of the cities it was meant to protect. The Westway and the Lower Manhattan Expressway are infamous symbols of the hubris of an earlier era, and shining examples of planning gone astray. But there will always be a place for bold innovation in urban development.

Source: Pratt Center
The community plan to tear down the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. This is a neighborhood devastated by the Cross Bronx Expressway — a historic casualty of Robert Moses's proverbial meat-axe. The plan would become one of the first truly grassroots megaprojects in any major city, driven by organizations and activists who have been working for many years to repair the South Bronx.

This would be one of the first highway teardowns designed not to open up prime central real estate, but to benefit an extremely low-income congressional district. It would bring a sorely needed infusion of affordable housing, commerce, light industry, community space and economic activity. It is a project that gained not only community support but also praise from former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff and Congress for the New Urbanism president John Norquist. People are watching because they recognize that this is an unprecedented opportunity.

Yet instead of seizing the moment, your administration has thrown up roadblocks. You allowed the Economic Development Commission to pressure the Department of Transportation to remove teardown as an option in a federally funded traffic study, placing Janette Sadik-Khan in the position of having to defend that decision. This feeds into the perception that your seemingly progressive actions like remaking the city for biking are really more like new-school gentrification.

Source: Sheridan Community Plan

Nobody is arguing that this development would be easy, or that maintaining traffic flow and delivery to Hunts Point Produce Market wouldn't require serious attention. But challenges haven't stopped you elsewhere in the city, and you've made it a point not to cave in to old political divides and tired planning logics.

As you gaze out on these remaining months, I hope you see how profound an opportunity you have in the Bronx. With a little of your customary independent thinking, you can support the efforts of a community on the other side of the income divide, reminding the world that New York City is not afraid to make history.


Alex Schafran

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Peter Kropotkin on Invention

Source: Nadar

“The cities, bound together by railroads and waterways, are organisms which have lived through centuries. Dig beneath them and you find, one above another, the foundations of streets, of houses, of theatres, of public buildings. Search into their history and you will see how the civilization of the town, its industry, its special characteristics, have slowly grown and ripened through the co-operation of generations of its inhabitants before it could become what it is to-day. And even to-day; the value of each dwelling, factory, and warehouse, which has been created by the accumulated labour of the millions of workers, now dead and buried, is only maintained by the very presence and labour of legions of the men who now inhabit that special corner of the globe. Each of the atoms composing what we call the Wealth of Nations owes its value to the fact that it is a part of the great whole. What would a London dockyard or a great Paris warehouse be if they were not situated in these great centres of international commerce? What would become of our mines, our factories, our workshops, and our railways, without the immense quantities of merchandise transported every day by sea and land?

“Millions of human beings have laboured to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves to-day. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labour to maintain it. Without them nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.

“There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present. Thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty, have co-operated in the invention of each of these machines which embody the genius of man.

“Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have laboured to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared. And these thousands of philosophers, of poets, of scholars, of inventors, have themselves been supported by the labour of past centuries. They have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts. They have drawn their motive force from the environment.

“The genius of a Séguin, a Mayer, a Grove, has certainly done more to launch industry in new directions than all the capitalists in the world. But men of genius are themselves the children of industry as well as of science. Not until thousands of steam-engines had been working for years before all eyes, constantly transforming heat into dynamic force, and this force into sound, light, and electricity, could the insight of genius proclaim the mechanical origin and the unity of the physical forces. And if we, children of the nineteenth century, have at last grasped this idea, if we know now how to apply it, it is again because daily experience has prepared the way. The thinkers of the eighteenth century saw and declared it, but the idea remained undeveloped, because the eighteenth century had not grown up like ours, side by side with the steam-engine. Imagine the decades that might have passed while we remained in ignorance of this law, which has revolutionized modern industry, had Watt not found at Soho skilled workmen to embody his ideas in metal, bringing all the parts of his engine to perfection, so that steam, pent in a complete mechanism, and rendered more docile than a horse, more manageable than water, became at last the very soul of modern industry.

“Every machine has had the same history — a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings, without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that: every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry.

“Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle — all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present.

“By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say — This is mine, not yours? ... Thought being incapable of being patented, patents are a crying injustice in theory, and in practice they result in one of the great obstacles to the rapid development of invention.”

— Peter Kropotkin in The Conquest of Bread, 1906

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

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Community Cartography in Moscow

by Shriya Malhotra

Partizaning, an artist-activist collective based in Russia, recently teamed up with the Strelka Institute of Design to organize a series of Cooperative Urbanism workshops in Moscow. The workshops brought practitioners from around the world together with local residents to initiate positive change in public space. Mapping served as an essential tool for collaborative research and neighborhood improvement.

The partition of Africa between 1912 and 1920. Source: Wilfraco

While maps have often been used to establish power relations that provoke enduring conflict, they've also helped solve problems and change the world for the better.

John Snow's cholera map of London. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are many creative ways to use mapping for research and intervention in cities, from sharing experience to drawing attention to site-specific problems and redrawing boundaries. The process may combine exploration, design, narrative and activism.

New York City blocks rearranged. Source: Armelle Caron

Maps are becoming more and more dynamic, interactive and collaborative as digital technologies make them easy to create and share. People are experimenting with cartography in fascinating ways, including practical low-tech methods.

A neighborhood map by Denis Wood, Carter Crawford and Shaub Dunkley. Source: Mammoth

The Cooperative Urbanism workshops approached community cartography experimentally, adding data from surveys, interviews and site observations to a Google map (below). The map is still in its early stages as we keep working with residents to fill it in over time.

Source: Google Maps

Michiel de Lange and Marc Tuters of The Mobile City led a workshop in Moscow's Yuzhnoye Medvedkovo district, which involved mapping ethnographic information from interviews and photos. Interview questions were focused on discovering important locations and concerns from the perspective of people in the community.

SynchroniCITY website mockups. Source: Camilla Burke

The workshop by Nitin Sawhney and Christo de Klerk of the New School for Public Engagement began with an exercise in food mapping in central Moscow. As the name suggests, food mapping involves pinpointing and describing the culinary options in a given area. It's a helpful way of assessing the extent to which these options meet the needs of different populations. The group developed a prototype for an online tool called SynchroniCITY (above), which geotags problems submitted by residents and spreads the word about D.I.Y. solutions.

Emotions and perceptions mapped by color. Source: Christo de Klerk

One team mapped spatial perceptions by coding their reactions to a series of places and tracking their routes with a GPS device.

Walking routes tracked with a GPS device. Source: Christo de Klerk

Urban hacktivist Florian Riviere led a workshop that included exploring Moscow's Voykovskiy district and marking interesting locations on printed maps. Participants also created a map for D.I.Y. neighborhood games.

Announcement for the neighborhood games. Source: Marika Semenenko

Making a D.I.Y. badminton net. Source: Cooperative Urbanism

TYIN Tegnestue Architects led a workshop in which participants mapped the sights, sounds, smells, circulation routes and textures of the Mitino district. The group printed a blank map and placed it on walls to be filled in by passersby.

Creating the legend for a community map. Source: Alex Melnikov

Aurash Khawarzad of Change Administration led a workshop in which D.I.Y. aerial mapping (with a camera attached to a giant balloon) became a tool for studying traffic patterns in the Troparyovo-Nikulino neighborhood. The results can be used to improve cycling infrastructure.

Aerial images from a balloon-mapping workshop. Source: Change Administration

D.I.Y. traffic counters by Ted Ullrich of Tomorrow Lab helped with mapping vehicle circulation and density in the district. We used Tomorrow Lab Contrails (containers of water-soluble pigment that mark the path of a bicycle) to highlight cyclable trails.

Ted Ullrich testing his bicycle Contrails. Source: Yulya Besplemennova

Jona Piehl and Sarah Featherstone of Central St. Martins College of Art and Design led participants on "performative interventions" in the Otradnoe neighborhood. One group devised a cartographic walking game arranged like a chessboard.

Diagram of a chessboard walking game. Source: Anastasia Chernyshova

Testing the "hackability" of mailboxes for resident feedback. Source: Katerina Gonchareva

Partizaning encouraged community feedback by installing mailboxes in accessible locations throughout the city. Some people wrote messages several pages long, and some included hand-drawn maps.

A scanned message from one of the mailboxes for community feedback.

The Cooparative Urbanism workshops encouraged a rapid, experimental approach to mapping for community development. Although schematic and transitory, they provided a valuable opportunity for people from different parts of the city and world to share ideas for public space. More information on the workshops is available in English and Russian at

Shriya Malhotra is an urbanist and artist working with Partizaning in Moscow.

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Inventing a Verb for Urban Transformation

by Teresa García Alcaraz

El Raval, a neighborhood in Barcelona's central Ciutat Vella district, has a long history of immigration, deindustrialization and illicit activity. Political and economic marginalization increased social problems to crisis proportions in the 1980s, prompting the city council to begin a focused regeneration campaign. The northern section has seen longterm economic development and reduced crime, while these changes have yet to take hold in the southern section.

Fundació Tot Raval, a community organization in the heart of El Raval, was founded in 2001 to help coordinate the improvement efforts of local residents, nonprofits, businesses and city government. It has played an important role in El Raval's partial transformation, and is working to bring similar change to the entire neighborhood.

One of Fundació Tot Raval's ideas involved placing a large sign in the plaza outside the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), emblazoned with the invented verb "ravalejar." Its aim was to represent and build momentum behind positive change in the community. The plaza is frequented by people from both sections of El Raval, as well as visitors from around the world.

Wordplay is no proxy for addressing the intricacies of neighborhood improvement from different perspectives, but "ravalejar" beautifully captures the hard work that gave rise to its appearance in the plaza. The sign both commemorates and encourages this work, making use of public space to support the neighborhood's comprehensive turnaround. Since "turnaround" is often another word for gentrification, there is much to learn from El Raval's experience.

Credits: Photos of El Raval by Teresa García Alcaraz.

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From City to Polis: Reflections from Heraklion, Greece

by Panayotis (Panos) Samartzis

Layers of history in Heraklion, on the island of Crete. Source: Panayotis (Panos) Samartzis

It is common in Greece to refer to the city of Heraklion as chaotic, perhaps due to its crowded streets and uncontrolled expansion. It is also a historical crossroads, where many different powers and everyday citizens have left their cultural imprints. As a result, Heraklion contains notably diverse and multilayered "realities" that offer each visitor a unique relationship with the city. Walking along the Venetian Walls from St. George Gate, one can encounter intersecting worlds in the urban fabric.

While visiting Heraklion, it occurred to me that we focus on and relate with different people, objects and situations in the city, as in life. We create our own story about the city, as in life. We decide if we'll move as strangers or as co-constructors in the city, as in life. Perhaps in shifting these relationships from a passive to an active mode, we can help the city become a polis.

Cornelius Castoriadis wrote perceptively about the role of philosophy, democracy and tragedy in the Greek polis. Philosophy and democracy emerged through critical and active participation in political life, while through tragedy people were "educated" in the results of hubris. This kind of education was of great importance for active citizens, reminding them of the need for self-control.

In the transformation from city to polis, a journey toward autonomous self-expression begins. A polis needs us to be free and responsible for the continuous creation of society. It rests upon our critical negotiation with the city's multiple realities, as well as self-control to allow these realities to coexist constructively.

In such a journey we are not alone. This blog, as well as other online (and offline) public spaces, can facilitate the networking of persons, ideas and actions for a better world.

Panayotis (Panos) Samartzis is a public servant in the Greek Ministry of Interior. His research is focused on citizen empowerment and participation in spatial planning.

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Stopping Evictions in Spain

by Melissa García Lamarca

Protest against evictions in Spain. Source: 20minutos

As Spain's unemployment rate climbs above 25 percent and its social welfare system is meticulously dismantled, around 500 eviction orders are issued each day. Banks are repossessing the homes of those who can’t meet their mortgage payments. This trend is sadly not new. There were more than 325,000 foreclosures between 2007 and 2011, according to Spain's justice department. A fellow Polis blogger explored who is to blame for evictions in Spain early last year. In this post, I look at how advocacy and grassroots groups, including Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) and the housing groups from 15M assemblies, are working to stop and transform this process.

Platform of People Affected by Mortgages. Source: PAH

PAH was founded in February 2009 to defend the constitutional right to housing, stop evictions, enact social rent, and reform the Mortgage Act. The latter, as it exists now, gives banks the right to claim full payment of debt even after evicting the property's residents, including the difference in value and all legal costs. For example, María Carrión reported on a family that paid $98,000 of a $323,000 mortgage, but owed the bank an additional $405,000 even after it had taken back their apartment. The Act results in hundreds of thousands of families on the streets with a debt to repay for the rest of their lives.

PAH Stop Evictions Campaign in September 2011. Source: Esquerra Anticapitalista

Through PAH's Stop Evictions Campaign, members occupy and block entrance to properties where eviction orders are being delivered. The first successfully paralyzed eviction took place in November 2010 in Tarragona, Catalonia, where a judicial commission — made up of two government officials and a bank representative accompanied by Catalan police — decided not to force residents to abandon their house. This tactic has been used hundreds of times over by PAH and the groups who emerged during the 15M movement in May 2011. PAH has stopped hundreds of evictions, but in some cases the police succeed in prying people away one by one and then evicting the families inside.

Activists clash with police while trying to stop an eviction. Source: Estrella Digital

PAH and 15M have occupied foreclosed buildings to provide shelter for evicted families with nowhere to go. People are now doing the same on their own, as seen in Valdemoro, Madrid, where 50 families are occupying an empty chalet development. This is occurring across the country. In several cases, the interventions of PAH and local 15M housing groups have forced local governments to back down on evictions and provide emergency housing, as is the case in Getafe, Madrid.

Javier and Estrella outside a dwelling they're occupying in Valdemoro, Madrid. Source: 20minutos

Also in Madrid, PAH activists have carried out a variety of protests at Bankia — the bank nationalized and bailed out to a tune of $24 billion — to demand that they negotiate with families threatened with eviction. Bankia is responsible for 80 percent of home repossessions in the autonomous community of Madrid.

An October 2012 protest and occupation in front of Bankia's headquarters. Source: Cuartopoder

After years of pressure from PAH to reform the Mortgage Act, a spate of suicides late last year by people threatened with eviction finally pushed the government to take action. Yet the approved Royal Decree did not include any changes to the Mortgage Law, only allowing households under "extreme hardship" to have their eviction orders frozen for the next two years. To qualify they must have an annual income below $25,000 and pay more than half of this in mortgage payments. They must also meet at least one of a list of other strict conditions, such as owning no other property, being a single-parent household with at least two children, having a large family, having a family member with disabilities or being a victim of domestic violence. And coverage for qualifying households only begins for those facing foreclosure after the Royal Decree was adopted on Nov. 16, 2012, meaning that the 400,000 households that have already experienced foreclosure or eviction are left out.

PAH, 15M housing groups and other sympathizers are outraged, arguing that this token decree excludes the majority of people affected by foreclosures and evictions. They presented a Popular Legislative Initiative with over 700,000 signatures calling for regulation of foreclosure payments, social rent and a moratorium on foreclosure procedures. Public defenders across Spain were also up in arms last December, demanding that the government restructure mortgage debt, create a social housing fund and enact social rent. Today a communique from a European commission in Brussels outlined reasons why the reform will have limited impact.

Empty housing in Spain. Source: Madrilonia

Last week, the Association of Spanish Banks and the Spanish Confederation of Credit Unions ceded 6,000 dwellings to create a social housing fund for the evicted. Considering that 20 percent of Spain's total housing, amounting to 5.6 million dwellings, is empty because it hasn't been sold or was seized by banks, surely more can be done. The efforts of PAH, with chapters in over 80 cities across Spain, along with 15M housing groups and other activists, are critical in the fight to stop evictions and ensure access to affordable housing.

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Policy and Urban Form in Buenos Aires

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Buenos Aires is one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Latin America. Before Argentina's reduction of the public sector in the 1990s, and economic crash in 2000, Buenos Aires also had a low inequality index by Latin American standards. But within a period of 15 years it entered the disreputable group of extremely unequal Latin American cities, such as São Paulo, Mexico City and Quito.

Despite Argentina's rapid economic recovery after the crash, its disparities haven't improved. This situation is evident in satellite images of Buenos Aires villas — informal settlements where many of the poorest people live. Most of these neighborhoods started as squatter settlements in the 1940s and 1950s. Government restructuring and economic crisis hit these areas hardest.

Villa 20

Villa 15

Villa 1-11-14

Villa 31

The city's middle-class neighborhoods are planned with regular square grids, a common urban form in Latin America.

Typical middle-income neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

Today the city's wealthiest residents are wealthier than ever, benefitting from opportunities that the global economy offers those with access to higher education, privileged information and contacts. The highest-income neighborhoods are in historically central areas like Recoleta or Palermo. Increasingly, the rich settle in low-density suburbs as well.

High-income neighborhood near Jardín Japonés in Palermo, less than 100 meters from Villa 31.

Las Cañitas, a wealthy suburb.

Prior to the 1990s, the government resettled thousands of families from informal settlements into large-scale housing projects. In most cases, this simply repackaged poverty in a different urban form.

Ejército de los Andes, a housing project from the 1960s, is popularly known as Fuerte Apache in reference to John Ford's 1948 western.

Buenos Aires is a city with substantial resources, but they aren't benefiting the majority of its population. Privatization has exacerbated poverty, and government anti-poverty initiatives have proven largely ineffective. In light of this experience, which is shared by many cities around the world, where do we go from here?

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

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Sociology of Courtyard Design: A Conversation with Petr Ivanov

by Peter Sigrist

Petr Ivanov is carrying out ambitious research in his Moscow neighborhood. He and a group of young volunteers have combined Web technology with social surveys to gather input from residents of four tall buildings around a woeful courtyard. The survey results will inform a redesign project aimed at improving this public space.

Petr Ivanov, an independent researcher and activist from Moscow. Source: Varvara Tchumakova

Petr's neighborhood, Troparyovo-Nikulino, is a "sleeping district" in southwest Moscow, one of many apartment-block constellations from which masses of people commute to jobs in the city center. Much of the public space in these areas is plagued with poorly regulated construction, advertisement and vandalism. In addition to quality management, there's a pressing need for attentive design that goes beyond questionable improvements by local authorities (mainly limited to colorful recreation equipment). In the following interview, Petr discusses this situation and his approach to addressing it.

The research site, a housing complex at 38 Academic Anokhin Street. Source: Google Earth

Can you tell us about your current research on public space?

The goal of our project at 38 Academic Anokhin Street is to find out what improvements people would like to see in the territory around their homes. We went door to door to talk with residents and ask them to fill out a survey; if they declined, we asked if they could fill it out at a more convenient time and place it in one of the boxes we installed in each entranceway. Along with desired improvements, the surveys asked residents about how they use the courtyard, how they think others use it and what they view as appropriate and inappropriate use. We also collected demographic and historical information to add new dimensions to our understanding of the community.

Outside the courtyard at 38 Anokhin.

What inspired you to take on this project?

While working on my master's dissertation, titled "The Courtyard in Moscow's Sleeping Districts: Geography, Practices and Perceptions," I found some interesting phenomena and methods to explore in future projects. That was the first moment of inspiration. The second came last September in discussions with Vladimir Nikolaev, my dissertation advisor in the Department of Sociology at Russia's Higher School of Economics, and Yuriy Milevskiy, an instructor in the department of urban studies. We talked about the social surveys of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in British cities around the turn of the 20th century, and how we might adopt a similar approach in Moscow. The courtyard at 38 Anokhin offered a fortunate opportunity to combine these inspirations in a real project.

Entering the courtyard.

How did you select the site?

I can't say that I really selected it. Yuriy Milevskiy and I started writing a research proposal to try out social surveys at a micro scale. Around the same time, Kiril Samodurov — an activist from Troparyovo-Nikulino — mentioned the need to improve a gloomy walkway at 26 Bakinsky Komisars Street. We thought of surveying the neighbors around the walkway as part of a community-based redesign.

An underused walkway at 26 Bakinsky Komisars Street.

Then Gleb Vitkov — an architect who's leading a design project focused on Moscow courtyards — asked if we would conduct our survey at 38 Anokhin, not far from the walkway. He and his team were interested in finding out residents' wishes for improving the territory around the complex.

Entrance to one of the buildings that surround the courtyard at 38 Anokhin.

How did you go about collecting data?

We visited each household in the complex, drawing upon Soviet-era industrial sociology (especially "The Handbook of Sociology" edited by Gennady Osipov) in surveying as many residents as possible instead of using a predefined sample. With the submission boxes and announcements that included a QR code linked to an online version, we managed to survey about 20 percent of all residents over the month we had to complete this stage of the project. We're now organizing focus groups to discuss improvement possibilities in more detail.

A view from above the courtyard last November. Source: Kiril Samodurov

What are some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

It probably doesn't make sense to go deeply into the organizational difficulties; it's obvious enough that there should be paper to print questionnaires, and people to help complete them. We took care of these logistics through crowd-sourcing, thanks to wonderful volunteers who really invested themselves in the project.

Petr and another volunteer in front of a steel door. Source: Petr Ivanov

As for research challenges, I should probably mention the full range. First is the steel door. It's difficult for me to estimate the number of refusals, because I don't know how many people came to the door, looked through the peephole and, seeing a stranger, decided not to answer. The steel door encourages suspicion. I imagine people thinking, "Did I install a steel door because of that person I see on the other side?"

An automobile service station along the perimeter of the courtyard.

Even when people opened the door, we had to prove that we weren't selling vacuum cleaners, that we didn't want to make people believe in Jehova, that we weren't working for Putin or for the U.S. Department of State, and that we weren't trying to rob anyone. Convincing people of these things was sometimes impossible.

One of four run-down utility sheds on the lawn.

The third problem: prior bullshit. It turns out that two years ago employees from the State Agency of Engineering Services conducted a resident survey, but there's no indication that it was published or used in any way. So a lot of people were understandably reluctant to participate.

Exercise equipment and a soccer field.

The most interesting problem was the closed nature of the community. At first it seemed there hardly was a community. Despite the compact living situation, effective means of communication with and between residents are virtually nonexistent.

Empty benches for children and adults.

Were there any surprises?

Yes! One resident gave a moving speech — full of references to Baudrillard, Derrida and Guattari — about how the fountain installed in the courtyard by the prefecture is a false improvement. Another created a beautiful flower garden and pond around her building's entrance.

A new fountain wrapped in green plastic, one of many false improvements by the local prefecture.

Besides contributing to the participatory courtyard redesign, what do you hope to accomplish through this research?

I hope it will lead to future projects that include social surveys to help retrofit public space. It's also helping me determine which methods to use for a study of neighborhood communities, which I hope will become a series of excursions through the city. This might be called something like "Exploring Community in Moscow."

Kids using the soccer field and playground.

How can research be integrated successfully into top-down and bottom-up approaches to urban development?

Many people with the power to bring improvement seem oblivious to resident concerns, and many residents aren't aware of their rights. Housing communities are often highly atomized, leaving people without much leverage against administrative negligence. Authorities complain that they don't receive feedback while residents complain that their wishes are ignored; there's almost no productive dialogue.

Cars parked along both sides of the street that circles the courtyard.

Neighborhood activists interacting with the government seem like, if not guerrillas, then at least very dangerous elements. And even when guided by good intentions, planners tend to make bad decisions when they don't understand the people whose lives they affect. We hope our research will help change this situation for the better.

Advertisements greet people at another entrance.

We invite residents to exercise their rights to the city, and we offer city officials the feedback they need to make socially responsible decisions. Local government budgets include funding for sociological research; if this research is directed toward visible neighborhood improvements, it's possible that the relationship between residents and authorities will shift in a positive direction.

More advertisements and cars outside the complex.

How would you describe the significance of your project for urban development in other parts of the world?

It's hard to say, as I don't thoroughly understand the specific forms of urban development in other countries. But in comparison with work being done outside Russia, our idea for involving residents in planning is just a start.

Plants in one of the building stairwells. Source: Petr Ivanov

What are your future plans?

I'd like to expand opportunities for residents to have a say in planning the public space around their homes. In the near future we'll be carrying out similar projects in other buildings around the city. In addition to "Exploring Community," my longterm plan is to do a total social survey of Troparyovo-Nikulino that builds upon the data we've collected so far. I hope this will help strengthen the community and make our neighborhood a better place to live.

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

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