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Posts Tagged ‘cities’

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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My research on the potential for design to positively affect low income communities led me to an editorial in the New York Times from May of last year. The article’s title is Hands Off Our Houses, and it was a response to a competition to design a $300 house for the world’s poor. The authors, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, work in Dharavi, a neighborhood in Mumbia “that has become a one-stop shop for anyone interested in ‘slums’.” They give us a glimpse into a world that outsiders, especially Westerners, do not understand. Without an understanding rooted in the uniqueness of place, and of the lives of people living in that place, designers cannot offer solutions. The $300 house, an idea with good intent, will not help the poor of Dharavi for these reasons:

To start with, space is scarce. There is almost no room for new construction or ready-made houses. Most residents are renters, paying $20 to $100 a month for small apartments.

Those who own houses have far more equity in them than $300 — a typical home is worth at least $3,000. Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.

None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.

In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.

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Take a look at this Next American City review of the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibit.

Curated by Barry Bergdoll and produced in less than three years (lightning-fast for large museums like MoMA), Foreclosed presents five architectural projects that rethink the suburbs from their economic underpinnings to their aesthetic character. But while the exhibit’s thesis that sprawl is toxic jives with that of many urbanists, the architectural remedies on display seem almost as problematic.

And the crux of the criticism:

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). …snip… This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them.

Follow the link for the full review, and see some images from the exhibition here. And while you are at the Next American City site, check out the article titled, What Legos Can Teach Us About Civic Participation.

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Just ran across Urban Ethics and Theory, the blog of my friend and former colleague, Lisa Schweitzer. Brilliant, quick-witted, no BS, Lisa is just as I remember. Add her blog to your reading list, if you do not already follow her work. And, Lisa, a few feet away from where I am sitting is the Tiki cup you gave me when I last saw you – its fierce face is strangely encouraging. We’ll have to get together again soon!

Of all things, I choose this random post to pass along. Enjoy the Schweeb!

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The BMW Guggenheim Lab blog features an interview with Michael Van Valkenburgh, principal of MVVA. Van Valkenburgh speaks of the emotional qualities of designed urban spaces and the approach that his firm uses to heighten the urban experience. The design of the Brooklyn Bridge Park is highlighted.

 

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Call it what you will – tactical urbanism, DIY urbanism, etc. – many urban planners and designers are thinking creatively about how improvements to the city can be made in an era of tight budgets. The video below showcases a project in Syracuse that could be considered in this vein. The project, called A Love Letter to Syracuse, is a public art project sited in a strategically important location in the city. My personal experience of the project matches the artists’ and community organizers’ intentions, I think. It makes me happy to pass through this area and generally feel good about the city. Residents of aging cities need more of this! It is also a good example of a public-private partnership between the private university, SU, and the local government.

The video was posted on YouTube a little over a year ago, but it deserves another look and wider circulation. I have to say, I’m growing more and more interested in the use of paint as an inexpensive tool for neighborhood improvement.

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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

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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.

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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!

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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…)

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