Conscious Urbanism: Guerrilla Gardening

NPR has a story this week about the tending of so-called "defiant gardens," which are gardens created by soldiers or prisoners in hostile environments. The NPR feature quotes author Kenneth Helphand (great last name, no?), who describes these gardens as "[exemplary of] the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions."

While it doesn't take place behind enemy lines or within the walls of a concentration camp, the contemporary phenomenon of Guerrilla Gardening seems to be similar in concept to wartime defiant gardens. Guerrilla gardeners take run-down and/or underused public green spaces -- often they are grassy areas that have been overrun by weeds -- and, under the cover of night, move in with spades and flowers and add some color to the area, so to speak. Interestingly enough, guerrilla gardeners, at least the ones on the eponymous website, speak as though they are engaged in battle, referring to the site as "an arsenal for anyone interested in the war against the neglect of public space.

It is normal for people to want to be around other people. We all crave social interaction, on some level. Culturally, we have been fed the line about the anonymous metropolis for ages. "Community," we are told, is something that cannot be found in the city. Surrounded by other people, we become a number on census charts. Cities dehumanize and isolate us. It's totally absurd, but for some reason we eat it up.

In the end, I think that this has a lot to do with scale. A city, when viewed as a whole, is a massive thing. If we look at sprawling urban areas (or even central cities) as the smallest units of measurement, of course we feel insignificant. But we have to learn to start looking at things from the neighborhood, or even the block perspective. Community is something that exists where we, as humans, create it. So where there are more people, there are more opportunities to create communities. Guerilla Gardening is a movement that creates very small, and very local changes to the cityscape, thereby redefining that cityscape as something small and local. A massive park downtown is a nice thing for a city to have, but a median or empty yard covered in flowers is something that will have a more lasting impact on the people who live in a neighborhood.

For example: I live in the Uptown area of Chicago. Every morning on my walk to the L, I pass dozens of other pedestrians running errands, exercising, or walking to and from transit. My neighborhood is about a half-hour north of the Loop (in mass transit time), which means we're within virtual spitting distance of Millennium Park. Millennium is exactly the kind of park that city governments should be building -- it's centrally located, boosts civic pride, and challenges everyone who visits it to rethink the traditional idea of the urban park. But while this fantastic amenity is one of my favorite places to take friends and family when they visit me from out of town, I get very little value out of it on a day-to-day basis. I do, however, pass a few open lots that would most certainly brighten my morning walk were they to be a source of visual excitement, as opposed to shabby holes in the urban fabric.

Guerrilla Gardening, then, is exactly the kind of thought-provoking, public-sphere-improving, subtly-subversive activity that citizens can and need to take part in to humanize their surroundings. Think about how many patches of barren grass there are in your neighborhood, and now imagine them as flowering, shade-covered oases. Big change, right? This is where the defiant gardens mentioned above come in: Guerrilla gardens are, to steal Helphand's line, examples of the struggle to create something normal in the most abnormal conditions. These gardens are about taking the urban context as an unrelatable mass of people and glass and brick and asphalt, and turning it into something small and local. It's a true grassroots (oh no, a pun!) movement.

Tending 'Defiant Gardens' During Wartime (NPR)



Speeding Succession

I've been searching for over an hour trying to figure out how many trees are felled to produce the average suburban McMansion. I hope you enjoy fuzzy math because you're about to read some pretty hefty guesstimates.

To start out, Habitat for Humanity of Midland, Texas estimates that, to build a 1104 square foot home, they use about 600 two-by-four beams. Wikipedia's page on McMansions lists the average square footage of a suburban home today as being between 3000 and 5000 square feet! (Coincidentally, it also provides the image for today's post.) That means a McMansion requires something between 1630-2717 two-by-fours. An article at How Stuff Works that estimates how much paper comes from one tree provides some numbers that allow me to estimate that the average pine tree produces roughly 161 2x4s. That means that, lowballing the average suburban home at 3000 square feet, just over ten trees (with one tree being 1 foot in diameter and 60 feet tall according to HSW's formula) come down to produce the skeleton for one Mcmansion. That's right -- just the skeleton.

So what's with all of the numbers? We'll get to that in a minute. First, some news: I read last week about a plan by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to plant more than 9 million trees in areas of the world that have been deforested by refugee camps. This made me think back to an article I wrote for a local paper last summer about ecological succession, the process by which nature reclaims developed land that has fallen into disuse. It's easy to spot, even in urban areas -- just take a look at the shaggy grass growing through those endless miles of rusting, unused train tracks all over the US.

The UNHCR plan, then, sounds almost as redundant as it does brilliant. If nature will simply reclaim areas deforested by displaced humans over time (and it doesn't take as long as you might think for ecological succession to kick in), why bother wasting time and resources to plant a bunch of trees? What saves this particular project from being an exercise in ceremonial hubris is that the refugees are being involved in the replanting process. From the WorldChanging article: "They [UNHCR] are seeking to involve refugee populations directly in environmental management and rehabilitation activities, in the hope that such stewardship can have positive effects long after displaced populations are able to return home."

This is total and complete awesomeness on several levels. First, it's just a great project to get a large number of disenfranchised individuals involved in creating positive change in their immedeate surroundings, which always earns gold stars. More importantly, it creates this kind of souped-up, hybridized process of ecological succession that makes humans part of the natural progression of the earth's self-healing process. In other words, people, in this instance, are part of enhancing and actually accelerating a natural progression. It's all very warm and fuzzy and Circle-of-Life, I know.

And at last, back to the fuzzy math! (You'd almost forgotten, no?) In these post-Kunstler days of the "green" cultural awakening, the question of what to do with the suburbs does occasionally come up. And what, really, will we do with our vast swaths of tract houses and prefab, peaked-and-dormered McMansions if things get even half as bad as Mr. Kunstler has predicted? Assuming that the pendulum will eventually swing back, and the population flow will once again move toward dense, urban cores, something will have to be done with the suburbs.

Why not help along the process of ecological succession? As urban areas around the world begin to reimagine and reconfigure themselves as more localized, sustainable places, people stranded by a fuel crash or a series of eco-disasters could get work replacing suburban communities with trees. For every house torn down and mulched, ten trees could be planted. These sapling armies would grow into massive forests over time, knitting together to form fabulous greenbelts around urban centers. They would provide recreation and clean air to cities and, depending on the kinds of trees planted, even food.

Imagine if, just fifty years from now, visitors to the top of the Empire State Building could look out over New Jersey and see, not far past the Hudson, a seemingly endless expanse of tall pines and white oaks. If you had told someone in 1957 that in just half a century the view from that very point would be of houses as far as the eye could see, they probably wouldn't have believed you. If nothing else, human beings have shown that they are very capable of drastically altering the face of the planet in a relatively short period of time. But for almost (or more than?) a century, we've been swimming upstream, a fact that is reinforced every time we see weeds poking up through the cracks in the sidewalk. So let's try going with the flow, for a change. Imagine how fast we could change things then.

Midland County Habitat For Humanity Statistics

Wikipedia entry for "McMansion"

How many sheets of paper can be produced from a single tree?

A Billion Trees to Help Refugees (WorldChanging)


The Carnival of Cities is Coming to Where!

A week from today, on Monday, June 4th, the Carnival of Cities will be making its way over to Where. If you are interested in submitting a blog post to the Carnival, you may do so by using THIS FORM. Here are the submission guidelines if you are interestsed:

Any blog post that features an aspect of a city, town or region. Any topic within a location is perfectly welcome.

One entry per person or blog per week…if you are prolific, then pick your best.

Submit high quality posts, the editor will feature the top posts in a way that they will likely receive the most attention.

Submit recent posts only, from the last week or two are preferred. We’ll consider older posts but if they at all seem to be outdated, we’ll take a pass.

Sorry, this carnival accepts entries from blogs only [sites with: chronological archives, comments, trackbacks etc.]

Don’t submit stories that are advertisements; we respect our readers and won’t include then in the carnival.

It is a lot of work to compile the carnival entries, so please have your entries in by 2pm Eastern time on Sundays.

Family friendly posts please.

In case you've never heard of the Carnival of Cities, go take a look at this week's carnival over at Walkable Neighborhoods to get an idea of what goes on with these things. And if you go into hibernation for the rest of the week, make sure to wake up and stop by Where on Monday for the next Carnival!

The Carnival of Cities

Carnival for 5/28/07 @ Walkable Neighborhoods


Don't Touch The Art

In case you haven't heard, tourists are ruining Machu Picchu. The famous Incan sanctuary left over from that civilization's headier days, is starting to show signs of wear and tear after a tenfold increase in tourist numbers since 1990. In case you're wondering, that adds up to almost a million visitors traipsing across the fragile site every year. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, 2.5 million visitors a year are beginning to cause problems for another famous ruin, the Alamo. Many wandering hands have grazed the walls, and the moisture and oil from this contact is beginning to wear the structure down.

I am utterly fascinated by the fact that so many of us find ruins so compelling that, in our desire to take part in them and their history, we willingly take part in their gradual destruction. I'll admit off the bat to being one of the dreaded "touchers" in art museums...I'll walk right up to a painting and brush my finger along a particularly juicy-looking brushstroke -- after scoping out the room to check for guards, of course. I know that this makes me a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad person, but I'm making the confession to say this: I don't have a thing for touching ruined buildings, but I get it.

Consciously, the desire to touch a building like the Alamo is most likely the result of something along the lines of "Maybe Davy Crockett touched this very wall." But subconsciously, I wonder if the need to touch a historic building, or a painting, or any kind of artwork, comes from that most famous aspect of human nature: the desire to leave our mark on the world. With signs around telling us not to touch or be careful near a crumbling building, our instincts kick in, and we perform an act of counter-creative graffiti in a tiny effort to take part in recreating the world for future generations. We are not fascinated with Davy Crockett's history as an isolated idea, but with being a part of the same history as this man.

Buildings are very solid, permanent things in our day-to-day experience of the world around us. It makes perfect sense, then, that on some level we look at ruins as artworks, once-lived-in sculptures. They provide us with an opportunity not just to connect with the past, but also take part in the imagined past of the future...if that makes any sense. Ruined buildings are not solid, permenant things, but continually-evolving pieces of collaborative art. They are living history. By touching a deteriorating wall, we become architects of destruction.

(Photo from Flickr user liquidhotmagma.)

Machu Picchu site at risk (LA Times)

Remember Not to Touch the Alamo (Architectural Record)


WEEKEND READING: May 19-25, 2007 (The Conscious Urbanism Edition)

It's been a hectic week for this blogger, hence the low post count. News in the Conscious Urbanism realm, however, has been pretty solidly frequent. So this weekend, take a gander at different projects going on around the world that are creating a more socially aware urban citizenship.

I've said before that I believe the places where you can find the most severe examples of a problem are the places with the highest potential for finding a solution. In that spirit, we'll start this post off with a story from Detroit, one of the hardest-hit cities in America's Rustbelt region. Apparently, residents on the troubled city's southwest side are taking matters into their own hands and redeveloping their neighborhood. "In southwest Detroit we don't wait for help from anyone," one resident says. "If we want something changed, we do it ourselves. It says a lot about who we are."

For our next item we travel...well, not that far, really. Just to Chicago, where Art Institute students have been surveying several neighborhoods a year to create intensely comprehensive maps of local pollution sources and green resources. These maps are great resources for residents looking to live sustainably or activists hoping to create change at the local level. (Today's photo is of the Uptown map.)

Up north a ways, in Toronto, Mayor David Miller's administration is taking advantage of new large-scale carbon footprint-measuring technology to calculate the footprint of the 50,000 city employees. The project, dubbed Zerofootprint Toronto is described on its website as "the first ever community-wide initiative aimed at engaging all citizens to fight climate change on a massive scale."

We hop the pond and head south a ways to Cape Town, where the city government has just announced that they will be providing basic services (water, sanitation, lighting) to the thousands of residents living in the South African metropolis' 222 informal settlements as part of an effort to crack down on "land invasions."

Back on the other side of the Southern Hemisphere, the NY Times Magazine this week has a fantastic article about the Brazilian city of Curitiba's evolution into one of the ecological and progressive planning capitals of the world. Curitiba, probably most famous for its groundbreaking Bus Rapid Transit system, has been ahead of the curve for a long time...I was shocked to see how early they put some policies into place.

Finally, PerfectCity has new poll up asking readers to help define what makes up "Social Structure," which came out as the top factor in their earlier poll about what is most important for creating livable cities. Place 'yer bets.

Enjoy the weekend. See you bright and early on Monday. Well, probably more like late Monday night.


Conscious Urbanism: Slowing Down Our Cities

I grew up in Suburbia, and my mother once asked me, "Why on earth would you want to move to the city? It's so busy and noisy and crowded." To which I responded: "I love it when you answer your own questions."

Still, there are times when the urban environment can get a little overwhelming. While I love it dearly, I'll be the first to admit that the nature of a dense environment can be -- and is -- exploited on many levels. Take, for example, advertising. The high concentration of people in high-density city neighborhoods provides advertisers with a sizable market for visual ads. High-traffic transit lines and highways provide the same kind of mass viewership. Think, for a minute, about how many billboards you pass on your walk, ride, or drive to work each morning. Try actually counting them tomorrow.

This visual noise has been attracting a lot of attention lately, it seems. Beijing's mayor, for example, is speaking out against proliferating ads for high-end luxury goods in the growing Chinese capital. Meanwhile, on the literal opposite side of the globe, Sao Paolo made headlines by enacting an ordinance that forced the removal of all of the city's outdoor advertising. The massive billboards that once formed the city's urban landscape -- even served as its landmarks -- have fallen like scales from the city's eyes, to paraphrase one NPR commentator's description. Now, apparently, the city has been exposed to some of its more unsavory elements; the 'boards dispensed with, impoverished favelas have been exposed along high-traffic routes. (And you'll have to forgive me this indulgence, but knowing the very vertical nature of Sao Paolo, I keep picturing stacked slums sandwiched between office towers. It's a bit fantastical, and neither here nor there, but I wanted to share nonetheless.) According to one reporter from the city, it's like walking through an entirely new city.

The fight against excessive urban ad-age is taking place Stateside as well. Los Angeles' famously commercialized cityscape is littered with illegal ads that were recently legalized due to some shady political maneuverings. Meanwhile many of New York's rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods are seeing their historic charm "draped like a giant burrito in enormous vinyl signs" in the words of Kevin Fry, the president of Scenic America.

This brings us to the issue of visual noise, a highly potent but often overlooked piece of the overstimulation experienced in cities. Many of us take the sinage around us for granted; in a hypercommercial society, it's hard not to. But the effect of all of this sinage is a decreased capacity for independent thought. We are constantly bombarded by images of things that we should want, near-subliminal messages (thanks to the aforementioned taking-for-granted) that hold us in a state of distraction. The mayor of Beijing's argument illustrates the deeper problem associated with this phenomenon: increased advertising, especially for high-end goods and services, increases tensions between social classes, the haves and the have-nots.

Vinicius Galvao, the aforementioned Paulistano reporter, describes the current situation in his city thusly: "It's amazing, because people on the streets are strongly supporting that. The owner of the buildings, even if they have to renovate a building, they're strongly supporting that. It's a massive campaign to improve the city. The advertisers, they complain, but they’re agreeing with the ban." And while it's impossible to say for sure without being there, his description makes it sound like the urban pulse of the city has been calmed somewhat. Perhaps, even, slowed.

Part of the fear of density in people comes from a fear of intensity. Cities are busy, noisy, crowded places. And while some people will always thrive on that, modern cities are large enough to provide a wide variety of different environments. Density, however, is an extremely important part of creating sustainable, high-quality urban environments. Thus, it is inspiring to see support growing for "humane density." Neither Too Slow Nor Too Smart, a paper by Richard Bender and John Parman, calls for a sensible, regional approach to population density. Another quote for you: "[We need to] fall in love again with a region that, for many of us, captured our hearts when we first set eyes on it, tasted its delicious food, savored its wine, walked its captivating streets. We know what it is and what it can be. Something this beautiful demands our indulgence, our generosity, and our commitment. We know how to treat it well, and yet we have so often failed to do so. Time to change."

While these words were written about the SF Bay Area, they can easily be applied (perhaps with a few alterations) to most major cities in the world. People choose to move to cities for many reasons, but they generally have the same reason for staying (given the option to leave): they fall in love with the place. And while there will always be a high concentration of activity in urban centers, cities extend far beyond their cores. Residential neighborhoods could benefit greatly from a general calming; be it through the removal of visual clutter, or just more careful planning. There is no reason that density cannot be calm and enjoyable; we just have to slow it down.

(Photo from Flickr user H111.)

Beijing mayor blasts billboards promoting luxury (Breitbart.com)

Clearing the Air (NPR)

Billboards vs. A 'Greener' America (Washington Post Writers Group)

City of Panic (Occupied London)

Neither Too Slow Nor Too Smart


States of Mind

"I'm in a weird place right now."

We've all probably said that, or heard someone else say it, in our lifetimes. It's an odd phrase, when you think about it; to be, physically, in a strange location is one thing. But we know better than to take this phrase literally -- it refers, of course, to a state of mind.

I've always thought it interesting how geography works its way into our daily language. To say one is in a "weird place" in order to convey some kind of life-altering instability says a lot, I think, about how subtly place invades our consciousness. We are much more aware of where we are than we usually acknowledge.

And think, for a minute, about an actual State of Mind. A physical place that represents your consciousness. In reality, physical places are nothing more than fragments of that imagined place -- or, rather, the billions of imagined places in which each one of us lives. Assuming that we have the ultimate freedom to make all of our choices for ourselves, we live in the States of our Minds. We create our own rules, social structures, traditions, languages. Each one of us forms, throughout the course of life, our own culture. We build our personal geography.

If we live in the States of our Minds, what does this mean for the world around us? Our emotions, our values, our thoughts, our dreams -- how do all of these things translate into physical reality? Does a fence protect us or cage us in? Do streets speed us along or divide us from our neighbors? If we choose to live in the city, do we do so to become more connected, or to get lost in the crowd? Do we live in a lively place? A dangerous place? A mysterious place?

A weird place?


Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: The Phil Tadros Interview

I had a chance to talk to Phil Tadros, who runs Dollop, the coffee shop that serves as a major third place in Buena Park, my neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. Dollop, from the front door to the back storage area, looks like your living room. It's comfortable, cozy, and full of friendly-looking people chatting or typing away furiously on their laptops. Not gonna lie -- I love the place.

So I was really excited to talk to Phil about the website he's developing, MetroProper.com, this past week. The site, which Phil and his team hope to have up within the next month, takes a number of components from different Community 2.0 sites and combines and organizes them into a more locally-focused format that takes a lot of cues from the many third place-type businesses Phil has run over the past few years. It's small business-thinking on a massive scale. Check out the interview, then go sign up at the placeholder site.


Where: Describe, in your own words, what MetroProper is and why you are developing it.

Phil Tadros: It's a city-based social network that I'm developing because I have a background of opening coffee shops and communty hubs that are productive safe havens that people are able to work out of or be a part of or meet each other in. One of the things I've learned is that there are not enough people that know each other or what each other does or each others' names, even though they see each other's faces every day...so MetroProper is an extention of my coffee shop background. Like, in a way, my whole business history has been leading up to this one, really big coffee shop.

The site also includes an independent, front-page citizen media component as well as classifieds and individual pages for businesses. I really just wanted to create the most productive atmosphere for community-based media...I want to cut the crap, basically. One of the things about the internet is that it is cutting the crap from a lot of the old media. It's getting you your information more quickly and more productively and it's not as controleld by a small group of people and, I guess, manipulated, even ad-wise.

I mean look at craigslist: they're unbelievable, right? They could have sold out but they're actually making a ridiculous amount of money and they're doing it in a really respectful way. They're not insulting the communities they serve or undermining their intelligence and they're treating people with a lot of respect. And that's the kind of environment that I want ot create on land life as far as coffee shops, etc...so MetroProper is kind of bringing that mentality of what I do and what I respect that others do and trying to offer a more productive version and mixture of a lot of the sites that I like.

W: There's still this fear, I think, of the internet for some people where they worry that communities will get increasingly focused on the web and less on the real world. How would you say--or would you say--that MetroProper would deal with that?

PT: Well some people, you know, they're just not into technology at all, and they're more into everything being completely natural and going back to everything being earth and trees and I repsect that highly, but I think we've gone too far in a man-made world to just go back to that, or even to try to maintain the world as it is. We, as animals, have already made up more things than any other animal in the history of the world -- language, art, etc. So it's like the internet, in terms of democracy and information to the masses is, I guess, the only way that i've learned about so far that you can actually organize all of that information and bring back a lot of things that have lost meaning or touch through being controlled by other types of business and media.

W: Like taking what you learn about online and bringing it back to your land life?

PT: Yeah, you've got to take the connections that you make and the stuff you learn about and use all of that along with your values to choose what to be a part of. In a general positive sense -- again, I compare the web to newspapers because those things are controlled by a small, powerful amount of people -- I believe that the masses, as far as people who are more pro-honesty and pro-humanity, would probably like more options. That's what the internet has offered. Anybody can publish information. It's amazing.

MetroProper is basically about offering a true productive democracy. Like with our business listings: you can't give us money to be on the top of the list. We won't take it. If you have votes, you'll be there. The way we would make money (if we make money) is on businesses activating a profile and then customizing their page and making it their web presence if they choose to because a lot of small businesses struggle with that. So on the business side, it's about interacting with local people in a more charming, down to earth, and intelligent, productive way.

W: How do increased connectivity over the web and all of these new ways of learning about other people and working with them online -- how does that play out in the physical landscape? How does that change the way that we build cities?

PT: Well it ties into knowing your neighbor more and knowing your local businesspeople more and just kind of offering something that's useful and charming enough where, if you choose to get involved, there are other people there who are saying "I want to be involved in my community also," and those people can communicate. With MetroProper specifically, we're doing a lot of interesting things for sure but we're not inventing anything new; we're just offering ways to shape the information differently, really -- and in my extreme opinion, more productively once the site is populated.

So as far as tying in with "how does it develop communities" from the net and how does it translate back into each neighborhood...take Bojono's Pizza [the restaurant next to Dollop] for example: they have no website. So if I can give Craig, the guy who runs the shop, the url map for Bojono's Pizza through MetroProper, he's basically running a social network that he can customize. He can let people that come in that shop know about the site and use it to post specials or news or have people leave comments, or just say to new neighbors "hey, we're here." So with MetroProper, we are offering a way for the community that he already has to be a tighter community and a more informed community. It's a really productive way to enhance relationships in your outfit.

W: Let's talk about what you call "land life" a bit...as you mentioned, you've run several "third place," community hub-style establishments...how have you seen, in your own experience, that type of space working within a community and creating change?

PT: Well when I ran Chase Cafe, the space was a 4000sf 1920s hotel lobby and ballroom, and in it we had a kitchen, we had a broadcast-level video production room, we had a sound studio, we had a design office, we had a commercial printer and we were printing posters for bands and flyers and whatever, and we had an art gallery and there was so much going on there...we didn't lock the doors. We didn't need to. There was always somebody working on a project in there, 24 hours a day. People checked in, basically, it was like a lifestyle. It was an independent, artistic, productive community, and I was more in love with the experiment of it and watching it happening than trying to control the majority of it.

Most businesses would not do what I did in land life, with my neck out there, on my dime. But the thing is, that was a place where someone like Eve, this girl who cause a lot of trouble, learned to make beats and make music and got into the music industry. You know, everything I've been a part of, in a way, I feel comfortable in believing that they have been community hubs that were actually helping the community, or evolving peoples lifestyles. There are so many people who, on an emotiional level -- and I mean, we're basically all emotions all the time -- have appreciated having something like that, to be a part of a place where you can just sit there and feel, and it's beneficial...I think we need more of those, period: more coffee shops and local businesses and community hubs.

And with Dollop, people are so happy about it, it's a very very loved and respected coffee shop, and it's very cozy and productive, It's taken this neighborhood [Buena Park], where people have lived forever, and brought together the whole freakin' community. There wasn't a place for people to hang out and just talk to each other, and that's what we brought here.

W: The internet has this kind of amorphous, fantastical geography of its own but it's not actually a place; we think of it as a place, but it's not actually a physical place. But MetroProper is very focused on specific areas...I don't know any other community sites that focus on that aspect. What made you decide to go that way and really focus locally and give each metro it's own page, instead of the Myspace model, which is more universal?

PT: Well the whole thing started with the name ChicagoProper.com, about five years ago. I wanted to do a newspaper online and interview bands and chefs and whatever was going on in Chicago and do a really unique version of news, whether it was video or articles or whatever. So then I thought, if ChicagoProper works out, I might want to secure NewYorkProper.com and LondonProper.com, and that became an addiction and I wound up doing 400 cities. So now, if I go to London and find a cool bar there and I I ask them "Hey, can I throw a party here for MetroProper," it can be for LondonProper.com and we can let people know this is for their city and about their city.

And there's also the fact that Myspace and other sites like it are more generic...but people like repping their city. If you're browsing for people on sites like that you're going to look wherever is close to your house. So it's about wanting to make real life connections happen more. MetroProper is about making the web experience be honest and productive so that my land life experiences can be enriched.

W: To wrap up, how do you envision, or how do you hope MetroProper as a website and community will affect physical communities?

PT: It feels good to interact with people; you need to. It's more important than eating. So I want to be a part of facilitating good things in general for other people, and that's a huge goal and ambition that I feel good about. We live in a world that we really don't have any answers to at all. So if I know these things [about the importance of connections] for sure, then I want to be a part of facilitating more of that. And I want to be able to help people who are running small businesses, too -- and being a small business owner I know what all goes into that. I have a proven track record of really getting things done. I've contracted and built seven stores in seven years, so I know what it is on the other side in terms of "I need everything at once: I need help with an electrician and a graphics person and I need help with this espresso machine," and you get into the details and the list becomes enormous...so I want to be a part of helping facilitate those resources on a more local level, and that's what I hope MetroProper will allow me to do.


And so ends "Community 2.0 and the Built Environment." Hopefully you've enjoyed the series...and in case you missed it: Introduction; The New Agora; Communeconomics; Neighborhood Futurism

See you all next week, when I go back to talking about whatever the hell strikes me as interesting.


MP @ MySpace

(Sorry about the length on this one...I can't figure out how to do those "after the jump" things, but I'm working on it.)

WEEKEND READING: May 12-18, 2007

This week's roundup will be relatively short. All this Community 2.0 talk has (ironically?) made me want to spend more time outside. Actually, that could just be the slowly-but-surely improving weather here in Chicago...

First: I know that it's a bit silly for a little start-up blog to "promote" the most popular architecture blog in the 'osphere, but just in case you missed it Geoff over at BLDGBLOG had a really stellar week.

Second: We head over to Planetizen where one of my favorite Interchange bloggers, Josh Stephens, has a great post on working urbanism and planning into the high school curriculum in the US. (This is actually from last week, but I missed it. Better late than never...)

Third: This article by Jane Powell in SFGate has been making the rounds through the urbanism news aggregators. With good reason, too: it's
informative, hilarious, and debunks some surprising myths about the "green" building craze that's taking over our cites. It also has one of the best factoids I've heard in weeks: "Demolishing 10,000 square feet of old buildings wipes out the environmental benefit of recycling 2,688,000 aluminum cans." (!)

Fourth: I happened upon a great blog called Celcias this past week thanks to this wonderfully straightforward and informative post about building cities for people instead of cars. Who knew Bogotá was such a forward-thinking city? Probably a lot of people, right? Again, better late than never...

Fifth: My friend Jacob's blog, The Urban Louisvillian, has an interesting piece about Humane Metropolis-esque projects going on in Kentucky's largest city, like the City of Parks initiative pictured at the top of this post. I like both Jacob and the Humane Metropolis concept; thus, you are reading this plug.

That's all for this week. Make sure to check back later this evening, as "Community 2.0 and the Built Environment" will be concluding with an interview with MetroProper founder/developer Phil Tadros. And Windy City residents, don't forget about Great Chicago Places and Spaces. I'll see you there!


Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: Neighborhood Futurism

"The Long Tail may prove to be a problem for another reason, what Robert Putnam calls 'cyberbalkanization'...Given the vast number of possible clusters one can associate with, it becomes possible, ultimately, to find a comfortable niche with people just like oneself, among other individuals whose views merely reinforce one' own. If the Internet is hardly responsible for this condition, it can exacerbate it while giving us the illusion that we are connecting with others. Through portals like news.google.com or my.yahoo.com and, even more so, through RSS readers, Nicholas Negroponte' vision of a personalized newspaper freshly constructed for us every morning, tailored to our interests, is a reality. Even big media, under pressures of post-Fordist flexible consumption, has itself fragmented into a myriad of channels. But this desire for relevance is dangerous. It is entirely possible to essentially fabricate the outside world, reducing it to a projection of oneself. Rather than fostering deliberation, blogs can simply reinforce opinions between like-minded individuals. Conservatives talk to conservatives while liberals talk to liberals. Lacking a common platform for deliberation, they reinforce existing differences. Moreover, new divisions occur. Humans are able to maintain only a finite number of relationships and as we connect with others at a distance who are more like us, we are likely to disconnect with others in our community who less like us. Filters too can lead to grotesque misrepresentations of the world, as in the case of happynews.com ('Real News. Compelling Stories. Always Positive.')."

This passage, from the conclusion of Kazys Varnelis' forthcoming book The Rise of Network Culture, absolutely sets my brain on fire. The (theoretical) process examined here -- this "Cyberbalkanization," as it were -- strikes me as having the potential to cause one of the most radical and fundamental shifts in urban demographics over the coming few decades. Human beings have always formed local communities by seeking out familiar neighbors. In America, the ethnic clustering caused by massive waves of immigration in the eighteen and nineteen-hundreds carved the social geograpies of major cities into the familiar, nationality-coded neighborhoods that now serve, more often than not, as tourist attractions in a country that is increasingly obsessed with the "other." We have a whole slew of Chinatowns and Little Italys scattered across the nation that allow us safe passage to foreign countries without ever requiring us to bother getting a passport. Or actually leave home.

It seems very possible to me, then, that as Community 2.0 technology creates increasingly mobile and focused networks of people, it has the possibility to shift the emphasis from ethnic demographics to lifestyle-based demographics. Think "Gayborhoods" multiplied on a massive, society-wide scale. Imagine Lower Manhattan, the proverbial "melting pot" of ethnic neighborhoods, reorganized into new, hyperbranded communities: the Bowery as a center of the Dungeons & Dragons community; Little Italy as a robust enclave of Birding-types; the streets of Chinatown filled with immigrant Map Enthusiasts digging through bins of fake antique sextants and folders of illegal knockoff designer topographic charts to decorate the exposed-brick walls of their loft apartments.

If the internet and C2.0 tech turn out to be the great economic equalizers that some hope they are, our city neighborhoods could become intensely focused, dismantling the current, socioeconomically segregated landscape in favor of these types of interest-based communities. Marketing would become less about influencing decisions and more about directing entire social networks (which is already happening, in some ways.) As culture was sliced and diced into ever-smaller, more specified pieces, block numbers would become the new brands. To be from the 300 block of Broome Street in Manhattan would make one instantly identifiable as a Level Three Dungeon Master of Fire...or something. (My apologies to D&D enthusiasts.)

Or think about the potential nightmare of the post-net neutrality real estate market in a world of internet-organized neighborhoods, with users living in server- or website-centered communities. New Yorkers might choose to live in TriBeYa (Triangle Belonging to Yahoo!); San Franciscans could buy trendy lofts in The ComCastro; across the pond, Londoners would flock to the clean-scrubbed, hypernetworked streets of Mayfairspace. Just imagine the advertising fustercluck...no, on second thought, don't.

All of this fantastical speculation leads me to this question: if the internet has the power to reshape urban demographics, what power, if any, does urban design have to combat this kind of ideological, hypercommercialized isolation? I should probably have at least some semblance of an answer to close out this post. But I don't.

Any ideas?

Series Posts: Introduction; The New Agora; Communeconomics; The Phil Tadros Interview

Conclusion to Networked Publics (Varnelis.net)


Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: Communeconomics

It's not exactly news that the internet is an innovative marketplace. While the urban commercial landscape is fairly predictable (commercial activity centers on and near arterial streets to take advantage of concentrated traffic), online marketers are continually figuring out newer and more effective ways to sell you more stuff and/or services. There are no streets in the virtual world along which to concentrate retail. Instead, websites with something to sell (which means every site with a .com address and then some) must take the idea of the traditional urban retail corridor forming a sort of informal, symbiotic and vaguely cross-promotional environment and try to replicate it. As technology has evolved, direct cross-promotional advertising and monitored preferences have created their own commercial "arterials," increasing commercial activity by focusing marketing efforts on increasingly specific audiences.

As Community 2.0 technology begins to influence this evolution, the internet is starting to change how retail is organized at the local level. 43 Places, from the people who brought us 43 Things and 43 People (surprised?), allows users to create pages for locations as specific as individual businesses within their neighborhoods. Well-regarded services like Yelp and UrbanSpoon (which is one of my favorite sites) allow people to check out businesses and restaurants in their neighborhood that provide both sponsored and user-generated reviews and ratings. Local businesses like the third places described in yesterday's post can become exponentially more popular as they receive free, customer/user-based publicity on the web. And with services like Twitter facilitating mass texting, web-based social groups can move their operations off of their desktops and into the proverbial real world. And with neighborhood-focused sites on the horizon, the need for web presence increases for local businesses looking to attract these highly wired groups to hold their meetings at these businesses. (I apologize for the wording there...it's a bit awkward.)

The internet is changing the model for independent, locally-based businesses. For the first time, these businesses are being provided with a marketing tool that allows them to level the playing field, somewhat, with large chain stores that spend more money on marketing than most independents spend in a year. (I'm guessing, but could you honestly say that's a stretch?) Local, community-based businesses have long been shown to reinvest more of their profits in the local community; now, C2.0 tech is enabling people to invest in their communities by promoting local businesses in an unprecedented way. One particularly exciting possibility for this symbiotic relationship is the strengthening of local businesses in the face of gentrification. While the question of how to provide equitable housing to residents in gentrifying neighborhoods remains unanswered, the C2.0 movement is providing a potential answer for business owners who provide a high-quality product but can't otherwise compete against international, hyperbranded machines.

There are an infinite number of ways that this could all play out, so I'm not going to try to make any predictions. But a suggestion, perhaps? I'd like to highlight a website that I almost featured in a Conscious Urbanism post a few weeks ago but decided to save for this series: Kiva.org. From their website: "Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world. By choosing a business on Kiva.org, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates from the business you've sponsored. As loans are repaid, you get your loan money back."

This wonderful service has an international focus. The idea, however, is easily transferable to the local level. This type of service, replicated in the urban centers of the developed world, could do some pretty amazing things. Imagine a site that allowed neighbors to make small donations or loans to local businesses to help with repairs, expansions, or infrastructure upgrades to help fend off encroaching corporate interests in a neighborhood. Or a site that, more closely along the lines of the Kiva model, facilitated loans from citizens to small business owners in depressed areas of their city in an effort to strategically combat poverty and relieve stress from the social services system. Or even a site that helped residents of a neighborhood to come together to determine what is lacking from their local retail/services district and create community loan funds to encourage and help neighbors who might be thinking about opening a business, or even to create community owned and operated establishments.

The possibilities for the Community 2.0-enhanced economy (or the communeconomy, as I've so facetiously nicknamed it for the sake of creating a snappy title) are endless, and have a great deal of potential in terms of not only empowering local residents to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, but also even to give people a reason to gather together, face-to-face, and really invest in their communities and each others' well-being. This all sounds pretty optimistic, I know, but I'm sure that Kiva's founders were told the same thing. And they've now loaned over $6 million to small business owners around the world.

Series Posts: Introduction; The New Agora; Neighborhood Futurism; The Phil Tadros Interview

43 Places, Yelp, and Twitter

UrbanSpoon (gets its own line for being so awesome...Chicago is the default, but there are several different cities along the top right of the page.)

Kiva.org (Photo from Kiva)


Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: The New Agora

One of the most important places in the ancient Greek city (or polis, I suppose) was the Agora. The Agora was a physical nexus, the point at which many major roads often converged. This very public space was large and open, sometimes colonnaded, and designed to accommodate large numbers of people. It served first as a gathering place for public functions, then as a marketplace, but most importantly became the center of daily social life thanks to easy access and high traffic. Often surrounded by important civic structures, it was a beating heart, the place from which life flowed to and from, helping the physical environment of the city to transcend its bricks-and-mortar status.

In today's society, the internet has become the new Agora. What began as a media outlet and became a marketplace has now evolved, thanks to increasingly easy access and Community 2.0 tech, into the casual, electronic public square for contemporary society. As C2.0 sites focus on smaller and smaller areas, shifting now from cities to individual neighborhoods, the technology that created the global community is now becoming, ironically, increasingly local.

The most highly publicized sign of this phenomenon -- the shrinking of the internet, in a way -- has been the development of the blogosphere into a neighborhood-based media institution. Neighborhood blogs monitor local goings-on, serving as a touchstone for current residents and a deep well of information for prospectives. Websites like Outside.in (which recently earned a great deal of attention for its "10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods" article, breaks cities down by ZIP code) and Placeblogger are now beginning to compile bloggers' efforts, creating hyperlocal blogging communities that allow neighbors to see exactly what the buzz is around the block.

It has been a long time since most cities, especially Stateside, have seen anything remotely like the Agora. While parks and squares remain social gathering places, there aren't very many great centers of public discourse anymore. While places like Times Square in New York and Ginza in Tokyo maintain all of the characteristics of the Agora -- plenty of media, retail, and traffic -- they lack the social aspect. Discourse has become associated almost exclusively with the internet. Information is readily available just about everywhere one goes in a city, but the discussion of this information, and the cultural process of dissecting and digesting this information, has become increasingly anonymous, as opinions most often belong to avatars and screennames, not actual people.

As a result, purpose-built public spaces -- the squares and "plazas" that are Agora-like in their conception -- have grown more and more anonymous themselves. Far from encouraging any sort of social interaction (much less the kind of chance meetings Jane Jacobs so famously explained to be the root of urban vitality) new public spaces range from desolate to kitschy. As C2.0 sites gain more and more cultural weight, places like web cafes and other ably-wired "third places" are becoming community hubs, taking the intangible Agora of the internet and giving it a physical anchor. And as our cities go wireless, we will likely see these types of establishments become neighborhood fixtures. Put simply, The City will no longer be required, as it was in Greek times, to provide a great public meeting place; instead, this will become wholly the responsibility of The Neighborhood.

Our shrinking world is about to get even smaller.

(Photo from Flickr user stephenwoo.)

Series Posts: Introduction; Communeconomics; Neighborhood Futurism; The Phil Tadros Interview




Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: An Introduction

Ours is a hyperlinked reality. As technology-enabled connectivity increases, we marvel at how our world seems to be shrinking before our very eyes. For decades now, if not longer, people have spoken of this phenomenon with a mixture of apprehension and bemusement. The apprehension comes from the fact that geography, one of the fundamental building blocks of our reality, is seemingly being relegated to a sort of background status -- an attractive desktop image for life, if you will. The bemusement is likewise rooted in the concrete nature of the physical environment: it never ceases to amaze us each time communicating with people on the other side of the world gets a bit easier because we understand physical distance on a very personal level. Thus the idea that we can communicate instantly with someone in China while sitting in a library in Boise, Idaho, by simply clicking some underlined text is...well...amusing, no matter how tech-savvy we happen to be.

Much as the automobile and its promise of increased physical mobility captured the public's imagination at the turn of the last century and rallied the masses around infrastructural and legislative capacity-building to enhance the automotive experience, the internet has transfixed the global community at the turn of this century by flashing us a future of greatly increased psychological mobility. China, now, is not nearly as far away -- nor as mysterious -- as it once was. Neither is Uraguay, or Romania for that matter. Physical and political boundaries are beginning to fade; the modern world is ours for the taking in a way that is much more immediate than it was twenty years ago.

As a result, it can sometimes seem like humanity is hurtling forward, with new technology (or at least new uses for existing tech) is developed and introduced to the public on an almost daily basis. And just as each technological revolution has had to prove its mettle over time, so has the internet; at first, there was a great deal of fear surrounding the dot com revolution, with people fearing that the world of online communities -- chat rooms, message boards, webcams -- would keep people locked away in their homes, glued to computer screens. Physical communities, we feared, would become a thing of the past. But now, it seems, we have reached the critical point at which people trust the web -- trust it enough to really take control of it.

The "Web 2.0" movement has become a pretty monumental phenomenon in a fairly short period of time. And it comes as no surprise, at least to me, that the interactive nature of collaborative media sites like Flickr, digg, Technorati, Myspace, and the like is not erasing, but re-shaping the way that we build communities. Special interest groups have evolved into social action coalitions. The Blogosphere (a phenomenon of which I am personally quite fond) has passed through its awkward, melodramatic LiveJournal stage and, aided greatly by user-generated media sites like YouTube, become a genuine media powerhouse credited with fundamentally altering political processes around the world. And social networking sites, while still in their own narcissistic adolescence, are slowly starting to show themselves to be, quite possibly, the most promising prospect on the e-horizon through sites like Idealist.org.

So how does this massive shift in the way that we experience life translate to the built environment? "Community 2.0," the communal side of Web 2.0 technology, is growing stronger as you read this, simply by virtue of the fact that you're reading it. Still, it is a young movement, and it is just now starting to show signs of how it will affect the physical landscapes of our cities and towns.

Over the coming week, I'll be using Where to look at what I consider to be the most intriguing and promising aspects of the web-enabled communities of the future. I'll be writing about the way that the internet is changing the way that we use and think about public space; the way that Community 2.0 sites are cutting through crap known as "infotainment" to shed light on some real problems -- and solutions; and the ways in which real estate and the very future of traditional urbanity will be affected by an increasingly mobile public. The series will culminate on Friday with an interview with Phil Tadros, an untraditional Chicago businessman who is applying the people-oriented, localized focus that made his "third place"-style coffee shops into community institutions to the social networking movement in a way that could change how we look at the relationship between electronic communities and our physical neighborhoods.

(Photo from the Internet Mapping Project.)

Series Posts: The New Agora; Communeconomics; Neighborhood Futurism; The Phil Tadros Interview


WEEKEND READING: May 5-11, 2007

Where is back! And it's Friday! That's enough good stuff for two consecutive exclamation points!!

First off, there have been a lot of big plans being made for cities across the US (New York, Los Angeles, Seattle) over the past few weeks. WorldChanging has a great article on NY2030 that has really made me reconsider my anti-congestion pricing stance. This week also saw the announcement of a comprehensive plan for Boston.

Cultural/ethnic diversity is something that is discussed often in urbanism, but biodiversity doesn't get nearly as much air time. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Curitiba, Brazil, is looking to change that, and suggests that cities are the solution to significantly reducing global warming-caused biodiversity loss.

Youngstown, Ohio, has been popping up in recent discussions about shrinking cities. Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal that discusses the city's plan for "smart shrinkage" -- a plan that includes actually removing underutilized neighborhoods and buildings and returning them to their natural state. This seems like a pretty important idea in the US, where a city's success is based entirely on growth.

There are two pieces of Conscious Urbanism-related stuff that I've been meaning to get around to for weeks and have finally decided to just stick into Weekend Reading. Don't let my laziness fool you, though -- these are great reads on turning streets into shared space and innovative chilrdens' programming in the inner city.

Not to name drop LA twice in one post, but I remember reading fantastic urbanism mag The Next American City's first issue when it came out several years ago...back then, only a handful of articles were available online, but one of them was a piece on the movement to restore the Los Angeles River (pictured above in its current state.) I was excited to learn that the City Council just gave this project unanimous approval.

That about wraps it up for this week. Where will be back full-time (which henceforth shall mean "five times a week") on Monday (5/14). This week I'll be looking at the Community 2.0 movement and how it's changing the world around us. Sounds fun, right? See ya soon

(Photo from Flickr user dmperkins.)


Another Hiatus? What Is This, A Hit Show On ABC?

I'll be taking the week off to catch up on a few things (Weekend Reading will still be posted on Friday.) Next Monday (May 14th) Where should be back full-time with a shiny new look -- which is actually already in progress -- and, if I manage to pull it together in time, "Community 2.0 and the Built Environment," a series of posts that will focus on how the internet is changing the way that we form communities, and how this shift might affect the physical environment of our neighborhoods and cities.

Until then...


Great Chicago Places and Spaces

Having grown up in the "City of Festivals," I have developed a great appreciation for large, civic celebrations. Cultural festivals, music festivals, street festivals...I love them all. One thing that I had not encountered, until now, is a festival dedicated entirely to places. But on the weekend of May 18-20th, the City of Chicago will be hosting just that.

The Great Chicago Places and Spaces event is not so much a centralized "festival" in the traditional sense of the word as it is a citywide celebration of geo-identity. All cities define themselves by two things -- people and places. Chicago, though, has a special affection for its places; it is one of the world's great architectural capitals, so its public spaces and buildings take on a special importance. Architecture is to Chicago what film is to Los Angeles: lifeblood.

GCPS will open with a public lecture entitled Innovation in Social Housing: Art, Design and Community that will feature Rick Lowe, Carol Ross Barney, Raul Raymundo and Curtis Lawrence. Saturday and Sunday have full schedules of architectural and neighborhood tours that will cover everything from the renaissance of Bronzeville to the influence of the Burnham Plan to recent architectural landmarks. (Most tours are free and open to the general public, but some require pre-registration and a small fee, so if you plan on going make sure to register soon!) In between tours, participants can take self-guided tours of the city's great interior spaces (The Rookery, La Salle Bank Building, Reliance Building, and others) or attend a number of place-related events that include an architectural film festival, exhibits at the Art Institute on the drawings of Louis Sullivan and Renzo Piano's glassy new addition, and the School of Architecture at UIC's Year-End Show. It's like a place buffet!!

So if you're at all interested in architecture, public space, or Chicago in general, plan a trip out to the Windy City. You'll never have a better excuse.

Great Chicago Places and Spaces

Chicago Architecture Foundation


WEEKEND READING: April 28-May 4, 2007

First things first: Were she still alive, today would be Jane Jacobs' 91st birthday. Unfortunately, and I say this with no sap or cheese involved, the world lost one of its greatest urban thinkers this past April. Oh Jane, you are missed.

Moving on to lighter things...well actually, that was a small lie. This week saw two stories that suggested that maybe Floridian developers are sort of missing the point about walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. 800,000-acre developments and medieval farming communities...ooooh, progressive. Forgive me if I wear my disgust on my sleeve here...

CEOs for Cities had their national conferrence this week in San Jose, California. This led to more than a few blog posts, my favorite of which feature Chicago Architecture Foundation prez Lynn Osmond talking about the Bilbao-esque effect that Millennium Park has had on the Windy City. The experiential playground is certainly a type of park that I would love to see replicated in other cities...with new and equally innovative projects, of course. Though artists will undoubtedly have trouble topping the Bean.

A well-worded and humorous post over at a blog called 13th Floor From Governing that served as partial inspiration for yesterday's Where post. Silly yuppies...grit is for skids. Skid rows, that is.

Sorry. That was a pun. It won't happen again.

Debate over the destruction of Marcel Breuer's Cleveland Ameritrust Tower (covered in the very first non-introductory post of this blog) rages on.

Meanwhile, Urban Paradoxes has shaken its path, so to speak. This already great blog, in plainer terms, has shifted its focus and will now be "[documenting] (in word and picture) the urban life, both the price that urban living extracts and the benefits it provides through as many eyes as possible; [seeking] to understand the paradoxes of urban life without offering condescending solutions or empty accolades." Rock on.

And finally, this little nugget of terror out of El Paso, Texas, that includes one of the most spectacularly awful quotes I've ever read from a public official about public spaces: "It would be great for El Pasoans to go to a Starbucks downtown."

So there you have it. The good, the bad, the ugly. And then, the very ugly. Happy Friday, everyone.


The Fall of the Fearsome Ghetto

The ugly, flip side of the Glamourous City coin is, of course, the Fearsome Ghetto. A glamorous reputation almost guarantees that a city is home to neighborhoods that are as broken and ravaged as the attractive parts of town are...well...attractive. If not moreso. Glamourous Cities require these desolate places to serve as counterpoints; they offer contrast and add a note of danger to the mix. And, if nothing else is, a little bit of danger is very glamorous. As Tom Wolfe's brilliant Bonfire of the Vanities illustrated, the Upper East Side of Manhattan would not (could not) look so impossibly plush if not for the existence, a mere three miles away, of the ruined South Bronx. Literary allusions aside, Paris -- the ultimate Glamorous City -- saw its Fearsome Ghettos exposed to the world during the riots that plagued its impoverished suburbs in the fall of 2005.

My recent trip to Atlanta was due to a training/orientation program for the Americorps VISTA program. VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) is a branch of Americorps that deals exclusively with fighting poverty. Thus, one day of our training was devoted to discussing the causes of and our own personal perspectives on poverty in America. The following passage from Donna Beegle's book Poverty...Be the Difference! was used in our training materials, and was one of the more powerful things I read during my time there:

"The current fragmented reactionary approach to addressing the challenges of poverty [in America] does not work. It falls short of helping people move out of poverty and will keep our society from getting to the point of addressing and eradicating the causes of poverty.

A comprehensive approach is needed to truly move people forward. This comprehensive approach to addressing poverty can only be achieved through partnership [Americorps' emphasis] between organizations that currently serve and interact with people in poverty: educational, social service, judiciary, law enforcement, health care workers, etc."

I know that it's a bit odd to cite a criticism of American policy right after using a French city to illustrate the breakdown of the Glamorous City/Fearsome Ghetto social balance, but the point, here, is universal: economic and social integration are the result of strong community networks. These networks require a restructuring of the way that we think about cities; for people to put the effort (and strong social networks take a lot of hard work) into their communities that is necessary to create inclusive neighborhoods, they have to have roots there. The Glamorous City actively discourages roots and, by extention, strong communities. These specialized areas cater to niche crowds -- yuppies, hipsters, DINKs -- and float along the currents of fad, leaving neighborhoods vulnerable to deterioration once the consensus of these groups changes.

Cities are constantly changing, demographics shifting like the sands. While change itself is a constant, the course for this change can be set -- for better or for worse. Neighborhoods and cities change for the better when people form strong community networks. To eliminate the Fearsome Ghetto, we must first deconstruct our notions of the Glamorous City. The two cannot be separated; when one falls, so shall the other. But not until.

(Photo from Flickr user brian4116.)


Capitals of Glamour

Berlin, it seems, is a city of paradox. The city has the image of an exciting, healthy metropolis set to ride globalization into the 21st Century. The reality is that, while vibrant, the German capital is a whopping $83 billion in debt, "[epitomizing] the costly, unfinished task of economically uniting east and west." (LA Times)

The much-buzzed-about city, which began rebuilding itself almost two decades ago, certainly looks good in photos. Splashy images of Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn's towers at Potsdamer Platz and the then-edgy Sir Norman Foster's Reichstag rehab made the rounds in architectural circles, and tourist brochures promoted the city as a hedonistic party haven. The Glamo-magic worked, and international opinion of the city appears to have soared even while unemployment and debt mounted. Now, foreign investment is carving out a new Berlin where abandonment and low land values -- a rarity in a modern European capital -- are actually adding to the glamour of the place by practically promising high returns on investments. Berlin has become, in short, a testament to the power of reputation.

Stateside, Washington DC is apparently beginning to experience growing pains thanks to the American urban renaissance. As land becomes increasingly scarce in the mostly-gentrified areas surrounding downtown, the law that restricts building heights to 130 feet is being called into question. This idea is as ironic as it is controvertial, as a big part of the visual allure that adds so much to the city's Glam quotient (GQ?) can be attributed to the uniform building heights throughout the city, which have preserved historical character and internationally famous vistas.

Though crime is notoriously high, DC maintains a sizable measure of glamour; Los Angeles and New York are the nation's centers of culture, entertainment, commerce, and celebrity, but Washington has the special distinction of being the political center of the Western world. Long before globalization kicked into high-gear in the early 1990s, Washington was an international metropolis. Now, with every city from Taipei to Indianapolis claiming international importance, the District's monuments and the Americanized Parisian streetscapes that frame them so well in billions of tourists' photos have even more weight; these vistas put to shame many cities claims of relevance, serving as reminders of what a true Global City looks like.

Berlin, until recently, was another capital city with a low-slung skyline. Now, towers continue to push into the himmel (like my German skills?) and the city's popularity continues to grow. It's hard to imagine the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome sharing the skyline with the types condo and office towers that appear on postcards of other American cities, but as land values in the central part of the city climb ever higher, some people are starting to ask whether its realistic not to. Their argument is not completely irrational.

Washington DC and Berlin are vastly different cities. Still, it's almost impossible to miss the parallels between the two in the tiny, tiny modern world. As DC struggles to calm its violent crime rate and re-imagine itself as a city that is accessible to people throughout the economic spectrum, it will be interesting to see whether the Glamourous City effect raises the city up like Berlin...or ruins it.

Investors betting on a Berlin boom (LA Times)

High-Level Debate On Future of D.C. (Washington Post)


Glamorous City/Fearsome Ghetto

"There's an original definition of the word glamour that I did not know about until I read fantasy novels. A glamour is a kind of magical spell, originally. To wear a glamour is to surround yourself with a kind of aura that causes people to see you in a different way, to see you as you are not--it's a disguise. And being on television, I've discovered, is sort of like wearing a disguise; one you didn't necessarily decide to put on, and only other people can actually see it."

So said John Hodgman in a recent piece on This American Life. Hodgeman was speaking about his own newfound celebrity, but what he was saying fit in nicely with a concept that I've been mulling for quite some time: the Glamorous City. Contemporary cities tend to be viewed in one of two ways: they are either dangerous, crime-ridden ghettoes or glittering hives of conspicuous consumption. Cities portrayed as healthy or attractive by the mainstream media (and, from what I can tell, popular opinion) tend to be those that have all of the amenities of the celebrity lifestyle. They are capitals of glamorous, high-tech industries and are rife with gentrification and urban chain stores. Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, and Miami -- these cities dazzle and delight the upper and upper-middle classes, who move into renovated lofts and edgy new condo towers and create a new influx of tax dollars that are supposed to benefit the host cities, but usually wind up providing increased police protection and granite flower planters in the areas from whence the new cash flows.

Now, there's nothing wrong with rich people living in nice neighborhoods. That's pretty much inevitable. What's troublesome about the Glamorous City is that it is a powerfully intoxicating concept that it fits perfectly into that quintessentially American ideal of moving to the city to "make it." But after making it, part two of the dream sequence is the move to a sprawling estate, or at least a house with a front and back yard, in the suburbs. The Glamorous City is a place that does not make room for children...its shimmering skyscrapers often (literally) cast shadows onto the other side of this painful dichotomy -- the Fearsome Ghetto.

The Glamorous City is a mirage. It is a transient place where only the richest of the rich stay put (often because they can afford to own a number of getaway homes elsewhere.) This impossibly attractive metropolis ignores what cities are about, advertising all of the perks of city life (fine dining, active arts communities, exciting nightlife) while not requiring residents to stick around long enough to need to care about dealing with all of the problems. The Glamorous City, then, creates the Fearsome Ghetto, as its sustainability (no green implications, for once) requires the parallel existence of an underclass, both to serve and to provide contrast. Glamorous Cities sparkle on our TV screens, promising luxury and privilege; meanwhile, those who live in the city (or have no choice but to), those who are a part of the actual urban community, don't see the mirage. They're left with the reality.

More on this throughout the week.

(Photo from Flickr user shadeofmelon.)