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Posts Tagged ‘cities’

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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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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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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