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Posts Tagged ‘cities’

Jan Gehl’s Vision

In a documentary film.

The Human Scale

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Lead_Crime_325

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.

 

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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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Massive urban tunnel projects, like the Second Avenue Subway construction project in Manhattan, are mind-boggling in scale and complexity. The MTA just released some photos that have a lot of people talking. Read more about the project here.

Second Avenue Subway construction. MTA photo, Creative Commons license

Second Avenue Subway construction. MTA photo, Creative Commons license

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ImageAlong the way, the poor are crushed. It’s an old story. From today’s NY Times:

Many said they were given 20 minutes, at most, to pack up their belongings.

“Everybody was running helter-skelter,” said a resident, Femi Aiyenuro, adding that those who went back in to retrieve possessions risked being beaten with rifle butts and batons. “They started beating people.”

What little that could be salvaged was piled along a railway line running along Badia’s edge.

“They were flogging me,” said Charity Julius, 27 and pregnant. She said she ran into her dwelling to fetch her baby boy, and once he was safely out, she ran back to gather as many possessions as she could. The police did not like that and beat her, she said, showing a bruise on her right arm as evidence.

The Lagos state commissioner for housing, Adedeji Olatubosun Jeje, provided a different version of events.

“It’s a regeneration of a slum,” he said. “We gave enough notification. The government intends to develop 1,008 housing units. What we removed was just shanties. Nobody was even living in those shanties. Maybe we had a couple of squatters living there.”

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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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