The recent New York magazine article on the former Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, delineating the plans and hopes for the site’s transformation into an immense park, kicks off with a false ending:

“Let’s start at the end of one story, the story of the dump, with the view from way up on top of it…”

Fresh Kills might not function as or look like a dump anymore, but that doesn’t mean the dump is gone, or that the 53 year-old, 3000 acre-wide “mistake” is finally on its way to being “corrected” (same thing with this month’s Metropolis Mag profile of the alleged future park).

At the risk of this sounding like shameless self-promotion, I want to point to a very different perspective on the whole reclamation affair presented by architect/geographer John May in a book I recently worked on. As others have already highlighted, May’s controversial take on Fresh Kills describes the trash heap as a materialization of a collective morality, a set of basic, unquestioned beliefs that sustain and make operative our everyday reality without us even noticing. May sees in Fresh Kills a frightful memento of an era based on the assumption that “freedom and accumulation are complimentary goals; the recognition that images are commodities; and an unquestioned embrace of a set of hopeful and reactive technological responses, designed to prevent massive accidents that have already happened.” He recognizes that Fresh Kills is tied to a particular development scheme, both in economic and cultural terms.

What counts for the dump, counts for the remediation and redesign of the site. May goes straight to the throat of the Fields Operation proposal for reclamation, despite all its good intentions and wishful 4-step "livingscape" program. All the capping and veiling and the sealing tight are carried out not only to elude dealing with material run-off of the waste, but also to distract from what that waste means and implies and reflects (the architects and the city want to avoid any leaks, physical or moral).

In the urbanism of Fresh Kills, before and after closure, a series of enormous corrective measures and technological “fixes” (along with minor changes in the official rhetoric) are supposed to heal and cleanse and erase the ugly from the site, leaving a landscape that can be consumed without guilt as the “wholly fantastical Photoshop collages of upper-middle clash recreational enjoyment” of the proposal demonstrate. One has a nagging sense of this whole idea of a place set back on the right track, and healing itself back to normal is something of a hoax, “a remarkably compelling lie, beautifully rendered, but a lie nonetheless.” Like people who promise to cure cancer with meditation or massages.

What is to be done then? How can we respond to these overwhelming objects we’ve spun into being and then lost grip on? Do we need to make things better, or do we need to learn from them, even if the learning process is ugly and painful? Is there any way we can do both? The same questions apply to all the vast environmental challenges we’re currently faced with, our cities included.


Happy Thanksgiving

Really my favorite holiday in that it revolves around copious amounts of food.  Go get yourself some stuffed tofurkey.

(Photo from Flickr use JP Puerta. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Human Nature

Photo of the Portland skyline, trees, and Mt. Hood“[It] appears that we must recognise at least two principal meanings in the word 'nature.' In one sense, it means all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes place by means of those powers. In another sense, it means, not everything which happens, but only what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man. This distinction is far from exhausting the ambiguities of the word; but it is the key to most of those on which important consequences depend.” John Stuart Mill, On Nature, 1874

Nature as a term can be inclusive and exclusive. It may include everything in existence or exclude products of human agency (e.g. cities, corn fields, art, technology, pollution) from the rest of the world (e.g. old-growth forest, boulders, elephants, fire, snowfall). Photo of Dolly the cloned sheepThe distinction is blurred when we think of tree farms, artificial lungs, and cloned sheep. Many words have dual meanings, but perceptions of nature can influence our place in the world. When nature is viewed exclusively, where does this leave humans?

The city is often considered separate from the natural world. As a remedy, some call for the integration of nature (usually trees) into urban settings. While I consider this a good thing, the terms imply that cities are not already part of nature. When people use these terms, they don't necessarily intend to be exclusive. It just reflects a deeply ingrained idea of nature without a clear alternative. According to inclusive views, cities are no less natural than birds' nests. Both are constructed by animals with material derived from the Earth. This is not a justification for environmental abuse, but simply an understanding of human activity as within the scope of nature.

Photo of Earth seen from spaceI like the idea that we are arrangements of atoms -- the same atoms that constitute the world around us. Some arrangements result from human action while others may result from the actions of bears, rain, or geological faults. Fortunately we are capable of conscious decisions, which can and should include a sense of responsibility for environmental well-being.

Perhaps it is enough to refer to streams, flowers, jets, and sculptures individually, reserving nature to describe the whole. All of the examples above are human concepts, and all are composed of material from the (natural) world. If this view of nature is too inclusive to be useful, is there a simple way to distinguish beehives from buildings, ponds from swimming pools, sunsets from street lights ... ?

(Photo of Portland from Adrian's Photo Blog; Photo of Dolly from Next Nature; Photo of Earth from Wikimedia Commons)


Eat local or eat smart

I love food. I'm a happy eater, and a less-than-happy yet genuinely enthusiastic cook. Only recently, though, have I started gaining a sort of food conscience. Food conscience growing up was more about knowing how to hold up my chopsticks properly, or being able to recognize a shallot, or learning to enjoy gross stuff like ants eggs (yes, we eat ants eggs in Mexico. We call them escamoles, and they're positively buttery and delicious). In any case, conscience was more of a snob thing than an actual curiosity or desire for knowledge about the stuff I was being fed.

Now that I'm older, though, not only do I care about what I cook or eat; I also try to worry about what goes onto my plate and how it gets there. I've tried to go organic, but in Spain it's still virtually impossible (organic food stores or markets rare here, and the prices are simply insane). I've tried to buy fresh produce in markets instead of supermarkets. Barcelona has wonderful food markets. But most of the tomatoes in the markets are also grown in those massive plastic-covered freak farms in Almería, and many of the fruits are imported from Brazil or India and the fish is sometimes frozen. I've begun to wonder how far a conscientious eater can really go, particularly in an urban setting.

Apparently pretty far. Take locavores, or local eaters. Yes, it's a proper word. But what does eating locally actually mean? Originally, it seems locavores should only eat food produced within a 100-mile radius of their home. Details and hidden agendas aside, a very good case has been made against this hardcore notion of eating local, in its own terms. It turns out that eating local can actually be less sustainable than eating food from the other side of the equator (click to read why).

Again, we're faced with one of the distortions of the localist rhetoric. It's one thing to support locally-oriented farmers markets or wanting to eat something that hasn't been radiated and tastes like plastic. I think initiatives like Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates or the various urban-farming movements taking over empty lots and fighting underemployement are great. But this sort of initiative can only cover a fraction of our needs, and can only work under very specific conditions. Why not make a call for eating consciously instead of only locally?


O'Reilly Talks San Francisco Values

I haven't been to San Francisco yet myself, and I have heard tell of their massive homeless population, but this all seems a bit...skewed. Especially considering the source. It's an interesting piece of propaganda, though, and it speaks volumes about the far right's conception of cities. What I find most interesting is the attempt to paint New York as tame and orderly in opposition to San Fran's off-the-wall liberal madness. Seems to say more about New York than it actually does about San Francisco.


Urban America, Urban World

Besides reveling in the renewed post-election America-philia as an American living abroad, I was happy to hear that less than a week after he became President-Elect, Barack Obama affirmed his campaign promise to create a federal Office of Urban Policy. As someone who has had her eye on urban denial in the developing world, I hadn't fully realized that the U.S. has yet to acknowledge our urban future.

The new federal office will be in charge of developing a comprehensive and targeted strategy for America’s cities and coordinating the work of agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Transportation, and Department of Labor. Given its title, I thought HUD may have been doing this job, but it seems to mostly ignore the second half of its name and focus overwhelmingly on homeownership and reluctantly on public housing programs. It also doesn't bode well that HUD’s secretary resigned in the very heat of the mortgage crisis in April amid corruption allegations.

In contrast to Obama's urban focus (his campaign website included sections on "Urban Policy" and "Poverty", as well as a fact sheet on his urban strategy), the McCain-Palin camp ignored cities altogether. Their campaign website didn’t seem to even have mentioned the word; instead, they listed the right to bear arms, national service, and a space program as key issues more worthy of discussion.

Here in India, the idea that this is at heart a rural country and that migrants who come to work in urban centers are "encroachers" who should by no means be encouraged to stay with luxuries like basic shelter or sanitation is a surprisingly deep-seated, although waning, attitude. Mahatma Gandhi's oft-repeated quote —"India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages" — is still re-printed on half-page spreads in The Times of India. All members of the elite Indian civil service, who will go on to fill the nation’s powerful bureaucratic posts, are required to first serve a term in a rural location. Domestic development efforts are still largely focused on rural areas. Many cities are implementing development plans that remain unchanged from when they were approved two decades earlier; some cities and states lack an urban policy altogether — especially one that affords due attention to their large poor populations.

A focus on rural development and denial of urbanization as a systemic and irreversible force is not unique to India. This remains the tenor of policy in most developing countries and, by some accounts, of international aid.

What exactly accounts for the deep-seated ambivalence of America towards its cities? The agrarian ideal (famously promoted by Thomas Jefferson) and resistance to the clogged metropolises of the Old World go back to the founding days of the United States. Frank Lloyd Wright and other intellectuals, as well as developers and the media, helped to reify suburbs as incubators for model families and idyllic town-country living. Activists like Lewis Mumford and Jac
ob Riis helped highlight the social ills bred by city life. Then, there's always been the "frontier mentality" encouraging us to spread out because he have so much darn land. White flight, the erosion of cities’ industrial cores, and the concentration of poverty and violence have helped give cities a bad name in the last quarter-century. It is well known that "inner-city" and "urban" have become euphemisms for “violent, poor and black.”

It is fitting that we elect an "urban" president the year we become an urban world. As Obama realizes, America's cities need attention because they "house over 80 percent of the people, businesses, universities and cultural institutions… and produce well over 85 percent of the nation's wealth." In a globalized world, cities are on their way to eclipsing countries as centers of wealth and power. They are a locus of productivity, culture and innovation, but also of poverty and inequality.

Obama's urban sensitivity may have come from his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago — or perhaps from a cursory
glance at the general state of affairs in the world — but I hope it also signals a shift on a larger scale away from idealization of suburbs and bad-mouthing of cities: not only for the sake of nurturing our own cities, but also for directing programs and resources to address the effects of urbanization around the world.

(Photos from Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Pitch Blog)


The Next, Next Street Art

Street With A View is a performance/digital art hybrid (I know! So rad!) coordinated by a small team of artists, residents of Pittsburgh's North Side, and Google. The artists thought up the idea to create vignettes in the city's streets that would be coordinated with when Google's Street View camera car would drive down those same streets. They tapped local residents to act out a series of scenes, coordinated with the Googleheads, and the rest is history.

SWAV's staged "interventions," as the team refers to them, point out an interesting possibility for street art. Referring to an earlier post on the subject, tech like RFID chips and barcodes will make digital graffiti a more ready possibility in the future. SWAV highlights one of the many ways that this type of art could be achieved: take a 360˚ photo (of which there are plenty freely available through Street View for an enterprising hacker), doctor it, and attach it to an RFID chip installed inconspicuously nearby. Set it up with an automatic trigger, and any passersby with an iPhone or a Blackberry will be treated to an alternate reality version of the place that they're walking through.

Aside from the potential for humor, there is political potential here as well. Think of preservationists looking to impress upon people the importance of preventing the destruction of historic structures; take the current, well-publicized battle over St. Vincent's in Manhattan, for example. A skilled digital artist with a penchant for quirky 1960s-vintage low-rises could create a digital, 360˚ recreation of the intersection of 7th Ave and 12th Street in which to-scale renderings of the 300 and 233 foot towers planned by the adjacent hospital replaced the distinctive O’Toole Medical Services Building. Passersby could get a better sense of the scale and blandness of the new development than they ever could from a wallet-sized picture in the Times.

Inverting the perspective, SWAV says some interesting things about Google's Street View feature as well. When examining the interventions on the Google Maps website, try to imagine what a normal user, unaware of the SWAV project, might think when encountering the digital parade. At the same time that it makes Google Street View more fantastical, SWAV also makes it, in a way, seem a bit more real. Certainly moreso in examples like the moving truck or the garage band practice. Add to that the impromptu "meta-interventions" staged by locals unaware of the project until it was happening, and the lines between reality and digital representation get delightfully blurry.

To ponder: If people become more aware of the Google Street View camera car and scenes like those staged by SWAV become more common (which seems very plausible, I think), what role does the Street View feature take on? Its parallel reality becomes heightened; humor and politics are woven into the scenery, and become as valid as the built environment that the feature was intended to represent. In addition, what does a more theatrical representation on the web mean for the real place being represented? If one were to walk down Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh -- a charmingly "Pittsburgh" kind of street -- would it seem boring? Less authentic or interesting than its Street Views counterpart? Does the digital city draw from the real city, or add to it?

(Photo from Street With a View. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Flexible Technology

"A Better World By Design," a joint conference of Brown Univerisity and RISD, brought together a remarkable group of top design and socially-focused minds last week. Among the speakers were Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameenphone, and Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair. One particularly compelling presentation introduced the Portable Light Project. The Portable Light, a design which grew out of Kennedy & Violich Architecture Firm, is a photovoltaic textile that provides light and power through its generating strands. The project grew into a nonprofit dedicated to manufacturing the lights and introducing them to populations internationally.

This product seems to me incredibly innovative even compared to some other leading solar light products. (Acumen investee d.light comes to mind). Its strength derives from the following general characteristics:

1. Sustainability
2. Leapfrogging Technology
3. Adaptability
4. Open source design

The first two are the most obvious: the light functions off the grid, removing the need for electrical infrastructure and drastically reducing the product's carbon footprint. (Though they did take the leapfrogging technology idea to a whole new level. It's solar nanotechnology- I mean, how amazing is that? The separate units even digitally communicate with one another to improve efficiency.)

The third characteristic is often the hardest for social impact designs to achieve, but is crucial to products being sold in developing markets. According to the website,
"Each Portable Light unit is a simple, versatile textile with flexible photovoltaics and solid state lighting that can be adapted to local cultures and customized by people using traditional weaving and sewing technologies in an open source model. This creates the opportunity for greater levels of cultural acceptance and stewardship of this technology..."
Because the users are also responsible for creating the product, it can be designed locally as well as taught and shared within the community. This bottom up design approach removes artificially imposed restrictions by the manufacturer and allows for maximum flexibility in usage. Notably, the textile can be sewn into any shape and provides both power and light, depending on need.
While this is only one product, imagine what a city built upon technology with these characteristics could achieve. Instead of new technologies solely as a new advertising mediums, we would see new EveryBlocks and living buildings. In an era of increasing resource scarcity and interconnectivity, hopefully these technologies will become increasingly prevalent if only out of necessity.



Besides its outcome, the 2008 election was remarkable for another reason: the incredible range of maps produced to explain how people voted. My favorite map, by far, was actually a cartogram produced by Mark Newman.


Cartograms, "transformations of a map where the original polygons expand or contract their area based on an attribute value they have," can tell remarkable stories. In Newman's cartogram, above, counties are scaled based on the size of their populations and colored based on the proportion of democratic and republican votes. Besides being able to see how many people actually live in urban areas, this cartogram shows how people tend to vote there too. More analysis and a comparison to the 2004 election can be found on Newman's site.

(Cartogram by Mark Newman. Version with labels available from flickr.

Green me up.

Whilst casually surfing the news websites in a post Obama-election wind down, I stumbled across this gem: Green spaces reduce health gap.

Image: MVRDV / ADEPT Architects design for mix-use High rise ‘Sky Village’ for Copenhagen

As it turns out, with a degree of credibility, there seems to be evidence that living near any amount of green space is more than just good for you; it improves social equity too. The study (published in The Lancet) proves two things about green spaces. Firstly, they make you healthier. Secondly, they make you healthier when compared to the rich guy living next door. This appears to be true even if you only have a patch of green space outside your building, which you inevitably ‘share’ with a few hundred other people. In other words, it narrows the health gap that can exist between the rich and the poor.

“Populations that are exposed to the greenest environments also have lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation. Physical environments that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities.”

Dr Richard Mitchell PhD, and Frank Popham PhD.
The Lancet, Volume 372, Issue 9650, Pages 1655 - 1660, 8 November 2008

Thank you Dr Mitchell and Dr Popham! On environmental, equity and health grounds, cities must have green space. This is something that many of us would like anyway and indeed cities around the globe are now working on innovative ways to achieve higher densities whilst retaining, or increasing the amount of green space for their occupants. I particularly like these recent award-winning designs from MVRDV and ADEPT in Rødovre Copenhagen.

Image: MVRDV / ADEPT Architects design for mix-use High rise ‘Sky Village’ for Copenhagen

James Shepherd, Cambridge (UK).


reUsing the Economy

Recently, I wrote a short spot on scrappers and trashers. It focused on 2 professions, the first belonging largely to illegal immigrants trying to make a living under the radar by picking up scrap metal and selling it to recycling yards, the later focuses on a new industry aimed at vacating foreclosed homes by literally trashing all that remains from the previous inhabitants, including TV's, personal items, and furniture. It went on to compare the two and pose the question, what is right and what it wrong? What is socially accepted, and what is environmentally responsible?

Today, I present to you a third option. An option that I believe reflects the inherent sustainability and opportunity that is present in these times of economic hardship. Richard Bryant is a 62 year old widowed man living in Detroit Michigan. He runs a resale shop out of the ramshackle house next door, selling used good from foreclosed homes and abandoned homes of the deceased. Every two weeks or so Bryant will get a call from a real estate agent who will offer him all the remains from a newly vacated home so long as he clears the house. He then picks up the goods and brings them back to the house next door as new stock for his flourishing resale shop.

Reuse is such a beautiful thing, and to realize that, one must only surpass the stigma that everything good must be new. Braynt has capitalized on this beauty, and those who realize it, will too capitalize by finding great materials at a price simply incomparable to any other. It doesn't require sacrificing quality (often the opposite), it doesn't require parts made by slaves, it simply requires one to disregard a persistent social stigma. And when you buy a reused clock for instance, you can rest assured that you are saving a perfectly good clock from the landfill, that you are saving a new clock from being made (theoretically), and that your clock has a history and a story unlike any other.

The benefits and appeal of reuse are no surprise to those who value the environment, but the real relevance of Bryant's story comes from it's place in today's economic crisis. It fits the bill calling for a new green economy by celebrating wholeheartedly the ideals of reuse. It provides goods at a price which can be obtained by all, including those who have lost their jobs in recent months. Everything is found locally, and transportation is kept to a minimum. But the best part of this story is the fact that Bryant has created his own business, his own initiative, just out of the dilapidated house next door. Without an ounce of business experience, but the drive to keep busy, Bryant grew a grassroots business from the ground up. In the meantime, he has created a life that he is happy with, and unwilling to leave. He provides a truly sustainable service to the community, and operations like these, I believe, lead to stronger, healthier communities and economies. In a time of economic hardship, Bryant has found hope and opportunity in what was previously seen as waste.

(Photo from detroitblog. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


An Era of Inspiration

I just wanted to remind everybody, that yes, Obama has won the presidential nomination of the United States of America, but it is not over. Our problems are not solved. It is up to us to follow his lead and create change within this nation and throughout this world. We, as citizens of this Earth must come together and collaborate to the best of our abilities to find new solutions, create new networks, and solve the problems that stand in our way. President Elect Obama has great drive to see this country succeed, and to heal relations within the world community, but perhaps his greatest achievement will be inspiring the masses to create change. As he reminded every citizen of this great country in his acceptance speech this Tuesday, it is the citizens of this great nation that have spoken for change, and it will be up to us to create it. We have not crossed the finished lines, we have simply just begun. We must spread ideas and come together in action to make change. To make change in our urban core, to make change in our economy, to make changes in our devastated environments, it is up to us. Barack Obama has shown us that we can be heard, now lets show him we believe by taking the same energy we harnessed to get him elected and using it to create change in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our world. It is the dawn of a new era, and an inspired era it will be .



Just got back from Barack's massive victory rally in Grant Park, here in Chicago. America's first black prez certainly knows how to throw a party; but the really amazing thing wasn't actually the rally itself, which was fairly typical (if nonetheless inspiring) political fare. The mind-blowing aspect of this event was how it completely devoured the city core. As far as the eye could see, down every street in the Loop and well into River North along the Magnificent Mile, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of supporters jammed the streets, sidewalks, and Mayor Daley's beloved planted medians. Every building with an LED or a floodlight mount was decked out in red, white, and blue. Buildings without such decorative schemes opted for window art, lighting interiors to form an American flag, "Vote 2008," and USA. Miles away from the event, the streets literally rung with the excitement of an entire city. The sense of pride, and of common purpose, was so intense you could taste it.

It seemed fitting that America's first urban president in quite a while should come from here, the most quintessentially American of cities. Obama is an American President, and a Son of Chicago. Tonight, we celebrated both.


A Tall Order for Poverty

I've been hearing a lot lately about the increasing density of our cities, especially in developing countries like India, Nigeria, and China. It's a sort of conundrum because when we think about dense cities, we tend to think of tall cities. Lagos and Mumbai are far from tall cities and their populations are set to exceed record numbers in the next 5 to 10 years. With huge amounts of impoverished citizens living in 3rd world conditions, and density going through the roof, some suggest building tall is the answer. It's really a quite interesting notion that brings to mind a lot of interesting questions regardless of how realistic the situation may be.

How would it work? Social housing has long been an issue for big cities and rarely have we found extremely successful models. So how do you take a problem, we already don't know how to solve, and try to apply it to the high-rise? It's a really complex issue, though Ken Yeang has some interesting theories about tall buildings and how they work. Though not directly related, he speaks of tall building design as urban design, flipped vertical, which might be an appropriate approach to a problem such as this.

Also, What implications might this have on the tall building typologies? What sort of social hierarchy would a project like this create? I mean, in today's high rise condo markets, everyone knows the higher up you go, the more you pay. Well how does that work when people can barely afford to live? Who gets the top floor? Perhaps the upper levels could be dedicated to community activities, or communal spaces, and the bottom floors committed to food services and shopping, with the middle strictly residential. Or would we have mixed income high rises, similar to the overwhelmingly successful Lafayette Park by Mies van der Rohe in Detroit?

And what would a project like this do for the social status associated with living in tall buildings? Furthermore, what happens if these high-rises that seem to be going up like hot cakes suddenly aren't selling? I mean, in an economy like ours right now this doesn't sound so unreasonable. The idea of social high-rise may not be realistic or eminent, however it may be in the future if it could be done right.

What are your thoughts?.

(Photo from Flickr user mihir. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(Photo from Flickr user ChicagoEye. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)