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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.”

Location of Praxis in Landscape Architecture readers since March 2012

In order by numbers of page views: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Philippines, India, France, Malaysia, Germany, South Africa, Republic of Korea, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Finland, Jordan, Greece, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Croatia, Sweden, Armenia, Serbia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Norway, Chile, Saudia Arabia, Taiwan, Denmark, Russian Federation, Lithuania,Ireland, Ukraine, Switzerland, Austria, Moldova, Japan, Guatemala, Slovenia, Columbia, Uruguay, Hungary, Viet Nam, Cyprus, Namibia, Peru, Bahamas, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Uganda, China, Slovakia, Kenya, Cayman Islands, Czech Republic, Mali, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Ecuador, Angola, Togo, Albania, Malawi, Honduras, Bulgaria, Libya, Georgia, Nigeria, Algeria, Qatar, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Laos, Oman, Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bolivia.

So this begs the question: what’s up Venezuela, Paraguay, Guyana, Kazakhstan (and most of the other -stans), Madagascar, and others I’m missing? I think, for one thing, a Spanish language version would be a good thing! And, perhaps, a return to more frequent posting.

 

Somehow I missed the new Plant Hardiness Zone Map issued by the U.S.D.A. earlier this year! But now there is word that we, perhaps, should disregard the re-issued and updated map. Our climate is changing so rapidly that the zones published in 2012 are already off by 1/2 to a full zone, depending on your location. It’s the winter minimum lows that are throwing things off, according to Nir Krakauer, professor at the City University of New York, referenced by the New York Times. Professor Krakauer has an online calculator for the additional warming that may affect your location. Syracuse is apparently 1.3 degrees Celsius warmer than the hardiness map indicates.

Plant Hardiness Map of the Northeastern U.S. 2012

Carl Franzen, of Talking Points Memo, brings us up to date on the latest from Google Maps – high resolution imagery and new 45-degree angle imagery.

High-resolution image of the clock tower, Abraj Al Bait, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia from Google Maps

Isaac Yuen, creator of the blog Ekostories, elaborates on the connections between Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful animated film, My Neighbor Totoro, and children’s need for nature. Yuen’s Children and Nature: My Neighbor Totoro should appeal to a lot of the folks I know at SUNY-ESF!

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?

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.

The title, Earth, Still Awesome, comes from Paul Werdel of the political news site, Talking Points Memo. He is referring to a new NASA time lapse video sequence taken from the International Space Station. You can read the TPM synopsis here.

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.

Cheatgrass near Gardiner, MT in 1964
Image Credit: National Park Service

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on biological controls being tested on cheatgrass – one of which is a fungus with the striking moniker, Black Fingers of Death. Labeled the “country’s most invasive plant species,” cheatgrass covers perhaps as much as 60 million acres, with a concentration in the Intermountain West region.

“Cheatgrass is a very insidious kind of biotic virus,” said Stephen Pyne, a Western fire historian at Arizona State University. “It takes over and rewrites the operating system. Because it grows earlier, it can burn earlier,” then in its regrowth “drive off all the other competitors. That makes for a complete overthrow of the system.”

It is the association with fire that is significant, resulting in millions of dollars being invested in research to eradicate it. The article raises an interesting point. Research may result in new, effective treatments, but then industry would need to take up the mission. Markets would determine if the new treatments make it into production. If demand stems solely from the federal government, Westerners may be shaking their fists at cheatgrass for another 100 years.