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Landscapes of Ice

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New Hampshire Public Radio recently featured the ice castle work of Brent Christensen. Check out the story here.

This winter and spring, I will be posting a series on two projects I’m working on – a public health/neighborhood environment survey that I am very excited about and a studio class that I am teaching. The study area for the research and teaching are roughly the same, so there should be quite a bit of overlap. Together, both efforts allow me a rare opportunity: immersion in a set of related topics and, in this case, they are my favorites!

First a bit on the studio class. The subject, broadly, is urban transformation. By studying our home city, Syracuse, New York, the students and I will be examining forces that have and are transforming Syracuse. I’m casting Syracuse as “Everycity” – a unique place, yes, but with a set of opportunities and challenges that are fairly universal (for sure they are common to medium-sized cities and Rust Belt cities). The students will be studying the city as a whole and then shifting to a neighborhood scale. It is the neighborhood unit/scale where, I think, the lessons learned (including such lessons as how to study a city) are most transferable to other locations (i.e., all cities are composed of an array of neighborhoods). An archival search into historical records will set the stage for spatial analyses using geographic information systems: physical and biological environmental features, demographics, economic conditions, and so forth. And what shall we do with this information? Two things. First, students are charged with “telling a story” about urban transformation in Syracuse through a set of graphic representations depicting trends over time, especially the evolution of urban infrastructure and employment since 1890. This exploration will take half of the semester. The second outcome will be a project with a neighborhood group – yes, a “real” project. We have a small grant to help a neighborhood and its elementary school create a plan for its grounds, including an adjacent public park. The neighborhood might be called “disadvantaged,” so the question of how urban transformation might take place in this setting is one we will be exploring. I call it “shaping the public realm,” the intersection of design and planning. One word for this work? Fun!

The research project is worthy of a post of its own. For now, I will say that it is an interdisciplinary research project (team of 12 – medical researchers, sociologists, public health expert, and landscape architects) funded by a seed grant, by definition exploratory. Our team decided to bridge disciplinary boundaries with a survey research project. I, happily, am the lead. What are we doing? The grant was for diabetes research; our survey is aimed at gathering information for the design of diabetes awareness/prevention programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The central focus: relationship between health and neighborhood conditions, including social cohesion. We are attempting to conduct a simple random survey, in-home and by appointment, in a single neighborhood in Syracuse, the Southwest Neighborhood. Our survey takes 30 minutes, and we are providing a $20 gift card to respondents as an incentive for participation. The best part so far? My field survey team – five neighborhood residents paired with five graduate students, all trained to conduct human subjects research (CITI). Amazing group of people, and they are all loving it! The respondents seem pretty happy so far too. Now to get a random sample of sufficient size! More fun for winter days ahead.

I am lucky, lucky to have my days filled with such satisfying work. My plan is to post regularly over the coming months as the studio work and research project have their own “transformations”/evolutions. Stay tuned.

 

Academic Blogging

When I launched this blog 2 1/2 years ago, I sent a link to several academic friends and acquaintances, asking them what they thought. In general, the response was “what do you think you will get from this?” and “are you sure that this is a good use of your time?” I posted a lot in the first year and, sadly, much less since (although I would like to reverse the downward trend this spring). Two and a half years out, though, I think I can answer the suspicious questions with an enthusiastic, positive response. Connecting with a global community of landscape architects and planners has been transformative for me, even though those connections have not taken the form that I thought they would.

I remain intrigued with the idea of a global landscape planning “community of practice.” At the blog’s launch, I thought I might elicit enough comments on my posts to build a fledgling community here. That has not happened for various reasons (the writing would have to be much more prolific (and perhaps just better!), I would have to actively promote it, and so forth). For me, connections have been build around a steady flow of site visitors (even without new posts people still discover the blog) which, I believe, resulted in greater numbers of people contacting me directly – prospective graduate students, professionals seeking a LinkedIn connection, etc. Academics who jealously guard their time, typically for very good reasons as demands on academic performance have increased considerably in recent years, can still find an outcome such as mine to be worthwhile, I think. We all need the steady flow of good graduate students, right fellow academics?? More importantly, though, blogging and reading to support the blog – Twitter feeds, Google Alerts, and so forth – has given me the sense that this global community of practice is within reach.

Those of us at the intersection of landscape architecture and urban planning are small in numbers. Landscape architecture alone is a small profession. A subset of a small profession is, perhaps, tiny. However, a larger group, going well beyond the narrow confines of landscape architecture, is interested in physical planning. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a platform to discuss best practices? Does such a thing already exist? If so, let me know! The prospect excites me. Our communities face such challenges. Talking with other professionals around the world who are facing remarkably similar problems (even if unique to place in obvious ways) would be so helpful. LinkedIn groups could eventually fill this need. So far, my experience says that they do not. Nevertheless, the prospects are like we have never had before. Immersion in blogging, Twitter, and other social media offers professional benefits that are obvious to those engaged in them. More academics should get on board! It’s a GREAT use of your precious time! And you get to use exclamation points – a perk!

Strongest Storm …

” … to make landfall anywhere in the world on record” (Capital Weather Gang). This is an image of Super Typhoon Haiyan making landfall on November 8th in the Philippines. I’m not looking forward to more record-breaking weather! Devastating human impacts from such events are obvious, but whether or not they provide the incentive to change our behavior to limit greenhouse gas emissions remains to be seen. UPDATE: Now we know. A terrible tragedy. Some of the most significant climate activism has originated in the Philippines. Their vulnerability has been undeniable all along. 

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Image courtesy of CWG tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy.

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WE REALLY, REALLY LOVE OUR PARKS!!!  CNN headline on October 17, 2013. Now fund them better!

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Last winter, Kevin Drum reported in Mother Jones on the lead – violent crime connection, and I missed it!  Just in case you missed it too, I am posting the link here. Informed urban gardeners know of the overwhelming presence of lead in urban soils. Between leaded paint in adjacent buildings and the legacy of leaded gasoline, lead is everywhere in dense urban areas. Drum’s mission was to sort out the theories on why rates of violent crime have plunged in recent years, and it turns out that lead contamination rates parallel the violent crime rate. Drum cites the work of Rick Nevin (2007) whose 2007 paper in Environmental Research (Vol. 104, No. 3, pages 315-336) suggests that this association is found in cities around the globe. Even though lead remains in urban soils, the daily dose of lead has fallen precipitously since lead was banned in paint (1978) and gasoline (1986 for all of the U.S. except Washington State where it was banned in 1991). The promising news is that further lead remediation is attainable.

A series of posts in Talking Points Memo alerted me to the Drum article. A reader post draws out the various factors at play in the rise and decline of violent crime.

American lead contamination is embedded within the growth of the new urban ghetto, a period of rapid segregation of new cities, along with the decline of the urban economy and white flight.

Any sort of silver bullet based theory is going to be wrong. The problem of the lead contamination argument is that its appeal is, in part, the lack of an actively malignant empowered white population. It makes the main problem not the racism and its role in American capitalism, but a naivete that is easily beaten with science. That’s just not how it happened—it is certainly a part of how it happened, and it is important for us to understand what lead does and how to fight it. But to do so without also actively highlighting the role of local, state, and federal government as well as private industry in creating the ghetto, depolicing (and then repolicing) it, and devestment is to paint an overly rosy picture of one of the most inhumane things Americans have done on the basis of race. Lead exposure is a part of that, but it is important not to let medical\/biological explanations lose the basic fact that they are embedded in our social experience.

 

Next City published an excerpt from a new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and it has stayed in my mind for the past few days. I’m sharing the first few paragraphs from the Next City article here. What Katz and Bradley lead with is the research of the economic sociologist Sean Safford on the role of networks in Youngstown and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Short version: networks matter to urban vitality, and “networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective.”

When economic sociologist Sean Safford first began comparing midcentury board lineups of local Boy Scout chapters and garden clubs in the cities of Youngstown and Allentown, the idea that such data could have any bearing on the future of a city seemed shaky at best. Safford’s research, about who knew who and from where, was coming at a time when communities had begun to take seriously the idea that civic participation, even participation in something as seemingly superfluous as a bowling league, mattered to the health of a community. Even so, his question — how the structure of civic relationships shapes economic trajectories — seemed rather far afield. Networks mattered. Did their composition matter to a region’s economy?

That was the early 2000s. A decade later, Safford’s argument that networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective — laid out in the book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown — is particularly on point. Through his careful reading of archived society pages and board minutes dating from 1950 through 2000, Safford determined that Youngstown, Ohio, a fading steel industry hub, was actually stymied by its most powerful insiders. The network of elites that called the shots in the city were too tightly enmeshed, intertwined and isolated from other groups in the region to effectively guard against the steamroll of change that would gradually wipe out the local economy. In other words, there were too many strong ties and not enough weak ties.

These elites, marooned on their own small island, lost power as the domestic steel industry declined all around them, leaving behind a fragmented and uncoordinated region. Allentown, Pa., by contrast, had looser networks that provided alternative relationships that cut across social, class and political lines, encouraging new alliances and exchanges. All this meant that while these two areas of the Rust Belt had very similar demographics, economic structures and challenges, Allentown was better equipped to bounce back from the decline of the steel industry, specifically because it had individuals and organizations that could serve as bridges between the various groups that needed to be engaged in the region’s recovery. It turns out it did matter who was on the board of the Boy Scouts.

When telling stories of transformation and turnaround, it is tempting to shape them into personal stories about heroes. One charismatic visionary — a mayor, school superintendent, entrepreneur, outraged citizen — steps up and, with unrelenting vigor and inspirational leadership, starts an irreversible cascade of change. But there is a growing body of research suggesting that, as a system or problem becomes more complex, arriving at a solution requires multiple minds from multiple sectors or perspectives. As Safford found in Youngstown, this search for the lone superhero, or one lone team of superhero buddies, is misguided. Metropolitan areas are so big, complicated and diverse that they don’t need heroes. They need networks.

Check out the Next City article called The Post-Hero Economy and then the new book!

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