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Posts Tagged ‘global trends’

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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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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Justin Gillis, of the NY Times Green blog, is encouraging readers to watch the PBS 3-part documentary titled, EARTH: The Operators’ Manual, which is being broadcast by stations across the country this week. The part that caught my attention is where Gillis says that the series is not gloomy!

The host of the miniseries is Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Penn State with a gift for talking about his field in terms that ordinary people can understand. The basic idea is to lay out the problem of climate change in the first episode and then talk about how to fix it in the others.

Several points distinguish this documentary series, created with financial support from the National Science Foundation, from others on the subject. For starters, it is not gloomy! While Dr. Alley certainly conveys the sobering facts about rising emissions of carbon dioxide and what it could mean for the planet, he does it with a light touch and from interesting locales rather than beating people over the head with portents of doom.

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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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The Urban Land Institute released an important report today on real estate trends to 2020, asking the question that is on everyone’s mind – what’s next? The report is tied to the 75th anniversary of ULI. Two years ago, prognosticators were looking for green shoots. Today, organizations like ULI are finally acknowledging the effects of the Great Recession/Lesser Depression as “fundamental societal change.” The major findings of ULI are summarized as:

  • Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
  • Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
  • The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
  • For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
  • The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
  • Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.

On Asia and Europe:

  • Nearly all Asian countries are going through a radical urban transformation, and many believe that the next decade of Asian urbanization will drive the global economy. By 2020, China alone will have 400 cities with populations over 1 million. Asia’s surging middle class is projected to reach an amazing 1.7 billion in 2020. Water availability—and the maturation of real estate capital markets—will be major issues.
  • In Europe, the global financial crisis has made investment capital increasingly hard to obtain. Resilient cities, those with a strong city government and high degree of market trust with investors and businesses, will be most attractive to investors. With companies operating in increasingly global markets and citizens expressing a desire to reduce their commute times, European cities must place an even greater emphasis on effective, state-of-the-art transportation systems.
And the effects on urban planning and design?

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Nice catch by Donovan Gillman of Urban Choreography – an extensive post on urban design, the Strelka Institute, and the revitalization of Gorky Park from the polis blog. Many images of the park and the new institute as well as a video of a presentation by Rem Koolhass accompany the post, which you can view here.

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