Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for January, 2012

More than 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, and it is estimated that 1/3 will live in slums. As urbanists of all stripes consider the consequences of these changes, I’m finding it helpful to recall the history of urban industrialization in the U.S. In the span of 100 years – possibly one person’s lifetime – a remarkable transformation has taken place here. But it is perhaps too easy for us to forget the tenements, terrible working conditions, and environmental degradation of our past. As we preach to industrializing countries and decry the sins of zoning (segregation of land uses leading to sprawl), we should take time to reflect on the conditions that existed in American cities at the turn of the last century. This passage from Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring (pp. 64-65, 1st edition, 1993) stands out:

Settlement reformers first became involved with the conditions in “Packingtown,” as the stockyards community was known, through the establishment of a settlement house at the University of Chicago near the stockyards. This settlement house was headed by the ersatz “garbage lady,” Mary McDowell. In her new location, McDowell was immediately appalled at the back-of-the-yards environment and sought to develop what one reform publication characterized as a “neighborhood consciousness” about the surrounding area.

In this small, dense, urban neighborhood was an extraordinary mix of environmental hazards. It was bounded on the north by the stagnant backwater of the South Fork of the Chicago River, where putrefying refuse filled in the river bed and formed “long, hideous shoals along the bank.” The decaying organic matter released quantities of carbonic acid gas, which continually broke through the “thick scum of the water’s surface,” causing this section of the river to be named “Bubbly Creek.” To the west lay the city’s garbage dumps, four huge holes from which the clay had been dug for neighboring brickyards. These vast, open pits were fed daily by horse-drawn wagons carrying trash from throughout the city. This included waste from the packers that was then burned, creating a permanent stretch of fire surrounded by a moat to keep it from spreading. To the east was vacant land used as “hair fields,” containing animal hair and other incidental slaughterhouse wastes that putrefied while drying. And, finally, to the south lay open prairie. Without paved streets, without trees, grass, or shrubbery, with no sewer connections or regular trash pickup, and with its densely polluted air and powerful odors, Packingtown had become an urban environmental catastrophe by the turn of the century. “No other neighborhood in this, or perhaps in any other city, is dominated by a single industry of so offensive a character,” wrote two settlement figures in 1911.

Upton Sinclair was a regular visitor at McDowell’s Northwest Settlement, and his experiences there informed his book on life in the stockyards community, The Jungle, published in 1906 (Gottlieb, 1993).

Pictures are (1) National Archives American City collection, (2) Chicago Historical Society, and (3) Warner, 1995 and Chicago Historical Society, Daily News.

Chicago: Hog Butcher of the World

Slaughterhouse Working Conditions

Stockyard Neighbors

Read Full Post »

In Small Change, Nabeel Hamdi includes an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s Le Cita Invisibili (1972) that I find striking, especially as I consider the challenges of planning in the merging megacities of the world. It’s worth sharing, I think.

Zenobia, a city in Asia, has houses made of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging belvederes, with barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, fish poles and cranes.

No-one remembers what need, command, or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, as the buildings are constructed on pilings that sit over dry terrain. But what is certain is that if a traveler asks an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its piling and suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps aflutter with banners and ribbons, quite different from the original but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

Read Full Post »

Khayelitsha Township via The Guardian

How can designers improve the quality of life for residents of the poorest and most dangerous parts of cities? It is a daunting problem, and the temptation is either to say that the problem is too big or that a huge infusion of cash is needed to even get started. What if some of the problems of the poorest and dangerous places could be ameliorated, at least, by design that does not cost a fortune? The figure for total world population living in cities by 2050, cited in the Gary Hustwit film, Urbanized, is 75%! And 1/3 of those people will be living in slums. It’s time for creative thinking!

One of the many interviews with Gary Hustwit on Urbanized is found in Urban Omnibus. Hustwit describes a project in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa that is striking in its success, both as participatory design and as a well-conceived, modestly priced solution to improving quality of life for area residents. In Hustwit’s words:

the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

And on the process:

They spent two years talking to residents before they even started thinking about their first plan. They trained volunteers to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems they face. The biggest priority turned out to be pedestrian walkways, which were where most crime was happening. Khayelitsha has a series of stormwater overflow channels that run through the settlement that were just undeveloped, garbage-strewn land. They weren’t lit, and harbored gang activity and all kinds of criminal activity. But those stormwater floodways were also the informal pedestrian route between the train station and the township. So what VPUU did was formalize the informal pedestrian paths, or desire lines, by paving and lighting the barren channels and turning them into these amazing walkways and public spaces. People are now turning their homes to face these routes because they’re so well designed, and that increases passive surveillance, puts more eyes on the spaces. The murder rate has dropped by 40%. It has become a great pilot program, which they’re now expanding into other townships and to other areas in South Africa. Also, they have trained the people who live in the area to maintain and program it. The project is still evolving. They didn’t just say, “here you go, we built a path, see you later” and step away from it.

 For more on Hustwit’s thoughts, check out Urban Omnibus – or see the film!

Read Full Post »

Gary Hustwit via The Atlantic

On Thursday, I watched Gary Hustwit’s film, Urbanized. It is now available from iTunes, and I highly recommend it! There is much to comment on, but I’m limiting myself to three things.

  1. The power of imagining something differently. Hustwit’s film allows the audience to imagine cities differently, and Hustwit suggests that Candy Chung’s I Wish This Was project invited New Orleans residents to imagine their neighborhoods differently, something that urban residents are not often called to do. “The idea of imagining something differently is the kernel is what I think of as design,” Hustwit says in this Urban Omnibus interview.
  2. A balance between top-down planning and bottom-up, grassroots initiatives is possible with participatory design. In the online journal, Places, Hustwit describes the relationship in this way: “It’s the top mining the bottom for ideas, and really using those ideas to drive development, as opposed to a top-down planning model, where planners get feedback from the people who are actually going to be living in the city, but only after the ideas are already formed.” He also says, “I don’t think DIY interventions are enough to change our cities. I think they are a great compass for governments and professionals to look at to see the types of interventions that people are coming up with on their own when government isn’t doing anything. You have citizens stepping in to try to change their cities on their own. The next step is for governments to use those projects as a model but then formalize them.”
  3. The promise of digital communication for addressing the future needs of cities is tremendous, but the exchange of ideas between mayors, designers, planners, and activists in different cities is just beginning. The film itself makes this point subtly in that we see ourselves in the vignettes from around the globe. Several quotes from interviews with Hustwit elaborate on the point. (more…)

Read Full Post »

The Atlantic Cities and the Landscape + Urbanism blog note the release of this 1959 video as part of the Urban Land Institute‘s 75th anniversary. It seems that everyone is surprised by different things in this video. I’m surprised that the National Association of Home Builders would co-produce anything critical of home building, perhaps especially over 50 years ago. Granted, it was the pattern of home building that was of concern. I’m also surprised at how I think that 1959 was not really that long ago! Tracking the rise and fall of growth worries (aka rampant growth, sprawl) is as easy as tracking recessions over time. The current big slump is likely to make growth controls unpopular for the next decade (?).

Read Full Post »

Karl Linn

On the planning academic listserv, Planet, a recent string of posts debated the emerging interest in tactical urbanism (also known by several other names including pop-up urbanism and insurgent urbanism). Ellen Shoshkes from Portland State University pointed out that the conceptual forerunners of activist urban design include people like Karl Linn, a landscape architect who worked with communities in the San Francisco Bay area since the early 1960s. Ellen is right to suggest that we all can benefit by knowing more of this history. Karl Linn died at the age of 81 in 2005, but a website lives on in his name at karllinn.org.

A brief description of Karl Linn’s life is found in a SFGate article that announced his death. An excerpt is provided below. A more thorough description of Karl’s long and generous career is found here.

As an 11-year-old Jewish boy in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, Karl Linn knew about persecution when he fled with his family to Palestine.

The conflict he saw in both places launched him on a lifelong quest for social justice and harmony, notably through landscape architecture and community gardens, three of which he established in his adopted city of Berkeley.

“My experience with racism motivated me to devote my life to contribute to the emergence of a humane society,” he said in a 2003 documentary film that focused on him and one of his community gardens. “That’s the way I’ve attempted to live my daily life.”

Very fitting to be thinking of Karl Linn on the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday.

Read Full Post »

One blogger, Caroline Tucker, analyzed keywords from 4000 randomly selected articles published in 2011 and summarized her findings in The EEB and Flow blog. Among her conclusions is that “community ecology” is on the upswing. The keyword word cloud that she produced is found below.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »