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Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

Don’t miss the NY Times article on the recognized need for open space in Mumbai, especially open space that is accessible to the least privileged members of society. Parks, it is suggested, are a hedge against maladies such as respiratory diseases, malaria, asthma, and  neuropsychiatric disorders. Neha Thirani, the article’s author, opens with the personal story of Anusaya Nair, a slum dweller who prizes her time in a newly developed small park – a park that would not have been developed without a lawsuit. Thirani reminds us of the growing need for parks in rapidly developing cities around the world and the difficulty of implementing them in tight land markets.

Not far from where Anusaya Nair lives, a room that measures barely 5 feet by 5 feet, is her main escape: a 9,200-square-foot park, boxed on three sides by a ramshackle garage, tenement housing and an apartment complex. A few women take their evening stroll on the walking track circling the park; elderly companions exchange gossip on a handful of scattered benches; neighborhood children play on a swing set at the back.

Ms. Nair, 43, lives in the Ambedkar Nagar slum, like many of the domestic workers who take care of the area’s high-rise apartment buildings. She spends her days cleaning the homes of more affluent residents of southern Mumbai and regards her twice-a-week visits to the garden as a welcome relief from her routine.

“I’ve liked gardens since I was a child and always try and find some time to visit,” Ms. Nair said. “I like the natural beauty. The mind finds peace.”

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Photograph by The Eng Koon/National Geographic

We all know about the amazing expansion of, and creation of new, Chinese cities over the past couple of decades. Discussion of the significance of all that growth is inconsistent. Perhaps we don’t know what conclusions to draw from China because so much of the world seems in flux these days. Straight line projections are more dubious than ever. A couple of articles in the online journal, Foreign Policy, expose our confusion over China, in my opinion.

On August 13, 2012, the journal published an article by Isaac Stone Fish with the provocative title, Unlivable Cities. Fish paints a stark picture of life in Chinese cities. He says that the megacities “may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.” Fish’s perspective comes from living in China for seven years and traveling widely within it. He first decries the remarkable sameness of many Chinese cities.

Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.

Fish saves his harshest critique for Harbin, the northern Chinese city with over 6 million residents that is the home of the Harbin Institute of Technology and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. (A good number of Chinese landscape architecture students studying in the U.S. hail from Harbin.)

Like many Chinese cities, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made “Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”

Whoa! Not exactly a gleaming city of the future! Fish lightens up a bit toward the end of the article, but the focus is clearly on the “unlivability” aspect. Contrast that with another Foreign Policy article from the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue  and the cognitive dissonance is hard to avoid. Dustin Roasa tells us that the cities of the future are made in China. Is that supposed to be exciting, or terrifying? Roasa lands on exciting. Roasa’s claims ring true too, as he says “China is at the forefront of the world’s flashiest urban innovations.” Roasa recites a list of Chinese innovations, some familiar, some not, and he begins his article with lines designed to make Americans cringe. It’s the familiar meme:

just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, ‘Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one’s in China?’ most Americans would say, ‘Well, that great one is in America.’ It’s not.” The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure — 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe — and with the country’s population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president’s advice and head east.

OK, China is a huge country, and Harbin and Shanghai are very different places. But the efforts exerted in Beijing to alleviate air pollution in advance of the Olympics make it clear that the horrible and the impressive can coexist. If, indeed, Chinese cities are the cities of the future – models for the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere – what part of the model will we get?

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All in the name of citizen-led urban redevelopment. OK, a bit breathless and slightly high pitched too. But good nevertheless. I love it when people send me good links (thanks Andy!). Follow this one to see a TED X presentation by Jason Roberts of the Better Block project – rapid urban revitalization.

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Rochester graffiti captured by Nick Swann

Landscape architecture students, among others, seem to have a passion for graffiti/street art. In what I think is the only interesting story I’ve seen on “network news” this year, CNN’s report on street art as public art includes a shout out to Rochester. Not much depth, but some good photos from around the world.

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Urban forestry meets the Olympics?

VA.PHC

http://www.rtcc.org/nature/london-olympics-art-display-breathes-new-life-into-importance-of-urban-forestry/

London Olympics art display breathes new life into importance of urban forestry

26 July 2012

By Tierney Smith

Urban forests play a vital role in regulating a city’s environment as well as improving the social well-being of residents.

The benefits from trees removing pollution and carbon from urban atmospheres could be worth millions of pounds, while ‘green walls’ in cities could cut pollution by 30%, according to research conducted by the University of Birmingham.

A new art installation in London ahead of the Olympic Games attempts to highlight these benefits.

The ‘Breathing Trees’ display is based in Russell Square – one of they city’s best known public areas – and is intended to change a typical city park into a living, breathing organism using light and sound installations.

The ‘Breathing Trees’ installation aims to turn Russell Square’s canopy into the lungs of the city (Source: Camden Council)

The…

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In difficult economic times, landscape architects – and other designers, artists – may begin to doubt the value of what they do. I think Frank Bruni’s column on parks in New York City serves as a testimonial. Take heart, ye servants of the people!

Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York.

This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.

It’s also emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland. While so much of American life right now is attended by the specter of decline, many cities are blossoming, with New York providing crucial inspiration.

This is my favorite line: “It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.” Soul-satisfying for all involved.

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From ASLA’s The Dirt blog: In D.C., New Eco-District Plans Unveiled.

110 acre, 15 sq blocks south of the Mall

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Medellín, Columbia, a city once known for catastrophic levels of drug violence and now considered by many to be “reborn,” was the subject of an article in the New York Times yesterday. New public architecture, infrastructure, and public space are noticeable drivers of change in this city, and the author, Michael Kimmelman, describes the physical changes and illustrates them with a slideshow. Kimmelman also calls our attention to an essential fact of urban renaissance – there has to be a mechanism for financing it. Medellín has a vehicle for transformation that no U.S. Rust Belt city has.

Medellín, by contrast [with Bogotá, a city now struggling to maintain its achievements], still counts on an almost fierce parochial pride, a legacy of decent Modernist architecture dating back to the 1930s, a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, E.P.M.

You can’t begin to grasp Medellín’s architectural renaissance without understanding the role of E.P.M., the Empresas Públicas de Medellín, which supplies water, gas, sanitation, telecommunications and electricity. It’s constitutionally mandated to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in the city’s illegal slums, so that unlike in Bogotá, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellín there’s a safety net.

More than that, E.P.M.’s profits (some $450 million a year) go directly to building new schools, public plazas, the metro and parks. One of the most beautiful public squares in the middle of Medellín was donated by E.P.M. And atop the slums of the city’s Northeast district, E.P.M. paid for a park in the mountaintop jungle, linked to the district by its own cable car.

Federico Restrepo used to run E.P.M., before he became the city planner under Mr. Fajardo. “We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces,” he told me, pointing out that while fewer than 20 percent of public school students here used to test at the national average in 2002, by 2009 the number exceeded 80 percent.

“Obviously it’s not just that we built and renovated schools,” he said. “You have to work on the quality of teaching and nutrition in conjunction with architecture. But the larger point is that the goal of government should be providing rich and poor with the same quality education, transportation and public architecture. In that way you increase the sense of ownership.”

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Blogging is suffering as the intensity of the academic year reaches a peak, and most of my attention is focused on wrapping up projects. But I have also been re-reading a number of urban planning and design texts as part of a seminar class I am teaching, and I will share some noteworthy bits here. Planners are aware of the charge/risk that the plans that they work so hard to develop may end up sitting on the shelf. Lew Hopkins, Professor Emeritus of urban and regional planning and landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, wrote about the this dilemma in his 2001 book (Urban Development: The Logic of Making Plans). I was struck by the observation Hopkins makes in the first chapter.

When I am asked what I do and respond that I am a planner, people say, “Well, we can certainly use you around here. There is no planning here.” Or “Planning is not working here” (pg. 5).

Hopkins goes on to say that he has heard similar statements in locations around the world and in places that are known for planning. He then speculates about why the perception is that planning is either nonexistent or has failed in many communities, getting to the heart of what planning can and cannot accomplish. His observations are worth keeping in mind as many of us work to improve communities through planning, even in the face of its limitations.

Citizens have very high expectations of what plans can accomplish and very vague notions of what a plan is or how it actually works. If they can imagine a better living environment in their locality, there must not have been a plan. If they think that government or private developers ought to have behaved differently, there must not have been a plan. To infer that the lack of planning is the explanation of all problems of human settlements implies that plans could solve all problems of urban development. Plans, however, can only do certain things and they work imperfectly even in these situations.

Successful human settlements require much more than planning. Some of the outcomes that people often expect of plans are more likely to be achieved by democratic governance or regulation, each of which also can accomplish only certain things and works imperfectly. In simplest terms, plans provide information about interdependent decisions, governance makes collective choices, and regulations set rights. Understanding these distinctions will give people reasonable expectations with which to use all three to improve human settlements (pg. 5).

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Seems fitting for a Sunday afternoon post – a long quote from Leonie Sandercock. These are the opening paragraphs from her chapter in Story and Sustainability (Eckstein and Throgmorton, 2003).

I look into my crystal globe, and I dream of the carnival of the multicultural city. I don’t want a city where everything stays the same and everyone is afraid of change; I don’t want a city where young African Americans have to sell drugs to make a living, or Thai women are imprisoned in sweat shops in the garment district where they work 16 hours a day 6 days a week; where boys carry guns to make them feel like men, suspicion oozes from plaster walls, and white neighborhoods call the police if they see a black or a stranger on their street. I don’t want a city where the official in charge refuses to deal with the man standing at his desk because everything about him is different; where immigrants are called “blackheads” and forced to find shelter in the industrial zone; where whites pay more and more of their private incomes to protect themselves from “strangers” and vote for officials who will spend more of everyone’s tax dollars on more law and order rather than more schools and health clinics; where political candidates run on promises of cutting off services to “illegal immigrants”; where the media teaches us to fear and hate one another and to value violence in the name of “patriotism” and “community.” I don’t want a city where the advertising men are in charge and there are no circuses for those without bread. I don’t want a city where I am afraid to go out alone at night, or to visit certain neighborhoods even in broad daylight; where pedestrians are immediately suspect, and the homeless always harassed. I don’t want a city where the elderly are irrelevant and “youth” is a problem to be solved with more control. I don’t want a city where my profession – urban planning – contributes to all of the above, acting as spatial police, regulating bodies in space.

I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are wooed by it; where only after consultation with us could decisions be made about our neighborhoods; where scarcity does not build a barbed-wire fence around our carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no one is without authority; where I don’t have to translate my “expertise” into jargon to impress officials and confuse citizens.

I want a city where the community values and rewards those who are different; where a community becomes more developed as it becomes more diverse; where “community” is caring and sharing responsibility for the physical and spiritual condition of the living space. I want a city where people can cartwheel across pedestrian crossings without being arrested for playfulness; where everyone can paint the sidewalks, and address passers-by without fear of being shot; where there are places of stimulus and places of meditation; where there is music in public squares, buskers (street entertainers) don’t have to have a portfolio and a permit, and street vendors coexist with shopkeepers. I want a city where people take pleasure in shaping and caring for their environment and are encouraged to do so; where neighbors plant bok choy and taro and broad beans in the community gardens. I want a city where my profession contributes to all of the above, where city planning is a war of liberation fought against dumb, featureless public space; against STARchitecture, speculators, and bench markers; against the multiple sources of oppression, domination, and violence; where citizens wrest from space new possibilities and immerse themselves in their cultures while respecting those of their neighbors, collectively forging new hybrid cultures and spaces. I want a city that is run differently than an accounting firm; where planners “plan” by negotiating desires and fears, mediating memories and hopes, facilitating change and transformation.

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