Considering Urban Retail: A Re-post at the Crossroads

As we head into 2009 with economists predicting the closing of as many as 73,000 retail locations across the United States due to dismal holiday sales, it seems like a good time to look back at one of Where's most popular posts from last year, "The Possibilities of the Post-Retail City," originally published in August of '07.

I just had my first exposure to Reverend Billy, the leader of the Church of Stop Shopping. After reading a Polis post about the Reverend's anti-consumerist group, I thought it was an actual church. To which I said: "Oh, excellent.

Of course, the CoSS is actually an act, with the "Reverend" being the stage persona of NYC performance artist Bill Talen. It's a send-up of streetcorner preachers and televangelists, and it sounds hilarious. Better yet, there's a point! Reverend Billy preaches against corporatist architecture and urbanism, advocating for sustainable, walkable communities with local economies. And while the site does pay lip service to independently owned local businesses, it is the Church of Stop Shopping, and one of their taglines is "Love is a Gift Economy!" Obviously, these people think that there are better ways for us to use all of that street-level retail space.

And that got me thinking: if there were no major retail chains and independents had to hold up the local economy, what would we do with all of that ground-floor space? Indeed -- and my upbringing in a capitalist society may shine through right here -- but where would we walk to? Certainly, there are plenty of places that we walk every day, but a large amount of pedestrian traffic is genereated by shoppers. And while it's not a requirement for these ground-level spaces that make up our streetscape be places of commerce, their presence is utterly vital to functioning neighborhoods. Often (these days) even moreso than upper-level residential windows, storefronts are the Jacobsian "eyes on the street" that act as a natural deterrant to crime.

Shopping is also a huge part of the social life in many (if not most) contemporary cities; in fact, that's just what Reverend Billy and his fake church take issue with. And whether or not you agree with the Church of Stop Shopping (or, as I'm sure many do, find it outright offensive), it's interesting to imagine a world in which shopping took a back seat to other social spaces as the dominant street presence. Imagining Paris without the Champs-Elysées or New York without Park Avenue sparks a giddy, no-holds-barred creative energy akin to imagining those cities in a work of science fiction or postapocalyptic literature.

To get an idea of what might fill the void, it might be interesting to see how social space is structured in places where gift economies (or at least barter systems) often already exist and retail strips are few and far between, at least in the traditional sense: slums.

An article from Forbes, mentioned briefly in a previous post at Where, described the socioeconomic situation of many older, established slums in Asia and South America thusly: "Many slum dwellers are in fact entrepreneurs, albeit writ very small. They recycle trash, sell vegetables, do laundry. Some even run tiny restaurants and bars for their neighbors." So while there are no Ginza Districts in the favelas of Rio, there is a social commerce to such places. Restaurants and bars remain important components of the neighborhood, which makes good sense; people have always come together over food and drink, and will continue to do so regardless of any freak evaporations of the retail sector.

Another thing that brings people together is knowledge -- or, more specifically, the exchange thereof. Another recent post covered McGill University's Edible Cities project in Kampala; the site for the students' project "includes a low-lying wetland area...where a youth cooperative practices brick-makings, providing work for otherwise unemployed youth...and a sloping dryland area where farming is [practiced]." While this is a very rural area being discussed (albeit in the context of a larger city), the Kampala site illustrates two more possible uses for a retail-less streetscapes: public workshops (which could cover a variety of topics in addition to brickmaking) and storefront hydroponic community gardens.


If the second option seems somewhat far-fetched, the first is hardly at all; in fact, in the face of looming irrelevance in the digital age, libraries around the world are starting to take on a more social role in their respective cities, staging various events and programs to encourage public discourse and teach skills that cannot be learned with a mouse and keyboard. One of the most innovative library programs that I've heard of recently is in Medellín, the second city of Colombia.

Once the so-called Kidnappping Capital of the World, Medellín has made more news recently for building five spectacular modernist libraries (like the one in Santo Domingo Savio, pictured above) in its most impoverished barrios. One of the programs to utilize these new libraries -- which are equipped with computer labs full of brand spankin' new computers -- is HiperBarrio, which teaches teens in the barrios how to use blogging and other social media tools as a creative outlet for self-expression. Juliana Rincon, one of the founders of HiperBarrio, spoke of the program's inspirataion in a recent interview with Global Voices Online, saying, "It was amazing...telling these kids about blogs and finding out that they had no idea that there was something like a blog, that they existed. [Or even] that you could write online and have a virtual space to keep your writing, the videos you like, and pictures." Libraries, in this case, serve not just as containers for information, but as catalysts for the creation of new information and new ideas. Certainly, this kind of social space, the place of public learning, will play an increasingly important role in cities as we continue through the Information Age.

Whatever we come up with to fill storefronts and social spaces, shopping districts and neighborhood retail strips are unlikely to disappear within the lifetime of anyone reading this blog post. Still, imagining a world without retail can tell us a lot about how we use cities, why we do things the way that we do, and how we can improve urban places without courting Starbucks and Barnes & Noble for civic salvation. In fact, picturing your neighborhood without any shops selling anything other than necessities might be a great way to fall in love with the place all over again. That is, of course, assuming that you love your neighborhood -- and that you don't live off Rodeo Drive.


That's all for now, folks. Best of luck to everyone in 2009. Let's hope it's not as bad as we're all worried it's going to be.

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



City stuff to consider in 2009 :

- Urban crises as a prelude to the whole-hog global meltdown

- The downfall of retail urbanism

- Cities as shock therapy

- A switch from the urban explosion of the last century to a wide range of urban implosions, shrinkages and infra-urbanizations

- Suburbia as wasteland and promised land

- Urban politics make a comeback

- Urban rite makes a comeback

- Shift from urban contemplation to urban action

- Small is beautiful, but only with a big mindset

- Think urban sub-unit

- The downfall of multiculty (diversity is recognized as vital yet inextricably conflictive)

- The city and the web come together

- Connected sprawl

- Urbanity detached from lifestyle

- Urbanity reattached to survival strategies

- Luxury deadspace

- Productive squatting

- Protomodernist revival

- The “developed world” dissolved

- “It’s a small world,” on crack

- Tercermundismo

- Technodisurbanism

- Technocumbia

At least we won’t be bored.


Imaginary Cities

Photo of the Bagdad movie theater in PortlandThere is an interesting perspective on cities in a short essay by Matthew Gandy, titled “Urban Nature and the Ecological Imaginary.” In referring to urban nature, Gandy includes both concrete elements and abstract ideas. The ecological imaginary is an example of the latter, as in the use of scientific metaphors (such as organism and metabolism) to represent cities. This way of thinking seems to have gained momentum in response to industrialization, as urban areas were increasingly viewed as separate from and harmful to nature. Thus planners sought to reconnect cities with a natural ideal.

According to Gandy, urban space is produced through a nature-culture synthesis. In other words, cities take shape through our actions in combination with biophysical processes. Kevin Lynch found that "the quality of a place is due to the joint effect of the place and the society which occupies it" (Good City Form, p. 111). Gandy proposes a political approach that recognizes this co-evolutionary dynamic and moves away from the idea of cities as unnatural.

Photo of sledders in Riverside Park in New York CitySo how might Gandy's thinking help in solving urban environmental problems? I like the way it implies that cities are not results of grand designs that remain fixed over time. They are transformed constantly through social, political, economic, cultural, and biophysical processes. Instead of looking for answers in comprehensive plans (whether City Beautiful, Garden City, Radiant City, Urban Redevelopment, or Ecocity), perhaps we should consider the ways in which cities change incrementally.

Of course, it's possible that the way we understand urban nature makes little difference when faced with concrete problems like air pollution, food shortages, and contaminated water. Does thinking of cities as integral parts of the natural world, and considering the processes through which they change, help in a tangible way?

Baltimore buildings from Urban PalimpsestPossibly. Rather than viewing nature as an external force that can save us from shortsighted actions, or hoping that a new technology will magically solve our problems, we can identify the actions that threaten our life-support system and work towards viable alternatives. We can recognize the importance of political engagement in this process. I'll look forward to reading Gandy's Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City for more background on his ideas.

(Photo of the Bagdad movie theater is from anti:freeze. Photo of sledders in Riverside Park is from Flickr user WhatDaveSees. Photo of buildings in Baltimore is from Urban Palimpsest.)


The Obligatory Holiday Post

All I want for Christmas is to go one whole day without seeing another blog post, news story, or photo of Norman Foster's deadly-dull double-decker. Please, please, pleeeease, Santa.

Anywhoo, whatever you celebrate, and wherever you celebrate it: Happy Holidays from all of us at Where.

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

Water and Power

More than two thirds of the world's cities are in coastal zones, yet few of them utilize the ocean as a power source. Nonetheless, as the environmental cost of traditional power plants grows increasingly apparent, the oceans warrant a closer look as generators. Several emerging technologies are changing the way that coastal cities can produce power, and though they hardly look like traditional dynamos, the five following systems may be the coastal energy infrastructure of the future.

1. Offshore Wind Farms

Although the concept of offshore wind farms isn't new, large scale built examples are relatively rare. The waters of Denmark are one exception. The Danish coastline is dotted with enormous turbines, and government has aggressive plans for more. In fact, the Danish Wind Industry Association estimates that by 2030, 40% of all Danish electricity will be generated by offshore wind farms.

Taking advantage of winds undisturbed by land, current offshore wind farm methods are still only cost effective in shallow waters: costs rise with deeper water and larger waves. In response, some companies are experimenting with floating turbines or turbines strung on cables between sea anchors and blimps, but there are others that are finding ways to use the waves themselves.

2. Wave Harvesting

In Agucadoura, Portugal, the Pelamis Wave Power Company has installed a series of snake-like semi-submerged tubes that can harvest energy from waves. The insides of the tubes feature hydraulic rams that extend and compress as waves move past. The rams in turn force fluid through turbines that generate electricity. Although novel, the technology can produce significant power in rough seas.

3. Tidal Turbines

Energy can also be generated by harnessing the power of the tides. In the 1800s, tides were sometimes captured by building dams that would open at low tide and close at high water to create mill ponds. (Boston's Back Bay was used for this purpose before it was completely filled in 1882.) Today, tidal power projects, like the SeaGen turbine in Northern Ireland, work not by holding back the tide, but by letting it flow past.

Unfortunately, there are also great challenges to creating successful tidal turbines. Besides the difficulty of creating machines that don't break down in such tremendous forces, there is also the issue of preexisting coastal activities. The best locations for tidal turbines are usually the narrow inlets of large bays, but these very same places are also important for shipping. Thus some locations that may seem perfect for tidal turbines, like the Verrazano Narrows in New York Harbor or the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay, are not available for generating electricity.

4. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion

Fortunately, there is another technology that uses a part of the ocean with little human use: the deep. Engineers in Hawaii are currently working on an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) system that uses cold seawater from the depths of the ocean to create a temperature differential for a heat engine. The ocean water serves as a heat sink for a working fluid like ammonia that vaporizes at surface temperatures. As the working fluid vaporizes and expands, it is used to generate power. Cold seawater from the deep, pumped into thermal exchangers at the surface, is used to condense the working fluid and the process starts over.

The method, which is similar to a giant refrigerator run backwards, has not yet been advanced to a scale that makes economic sense. Indeed, many obstacles remain in creating a large-scale OTEC system, and the impact on the environment of such a system is unknown. Nonetheless, given the size of the oceans and the chill of their depths, OTEC systems offer great potential for the future.

5. Halophyte Ethanol

One final way to produce energy using the ocean is simple: grow it. New efforts are being focused on the potential of saltwater tolerant crops -- halophytes -- to generate biomass for energy production. Crops like Salicornia bigelovii, which can be irrigated with seawater, are now being farmed on the western coast of Mexico to produce biodiesel. Specifically, the oil-rich seeds are converted to ethanol, turning sandy deserts into fields of energy watered by the sea.

(Danish Wind Turbine photo from Flickr user Mads Prahm. Pelamis Sea Trial video from Youtube user mindseyecreative. Tidal turbine images from Daily Mail and New Scientist. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion diagram from New Scientist. Salicornia photo from Wired Science Blog.)


The Healing Power of Overcrowded Trains (and Other Urban Ills)

It has been almost a month since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and three weeks since I wrote about my return to a terror-tinted cityscape in "My Mumbai". By now, the attacks have completely disappeared from the international media spotlight. Although the aftermath still makes the front page in India, the main story under the headline "More 26/11 Aftershocks" in the December 19 edition of Mumbai's Hindustan Times was tellingly about India canceling its cricket tour in Pakistan. To be fair, this fact may do almost as much damage to the national psyche. Still, with the Taj and Oberoi hotels reopening today, Mumbai is virtually back to normal — albeit with some extra bag checks and a tempered night life.

When I wrote last, I marveled at the speed with which Mumbaikers reclaimed the city's spaces, which the terrorists sought to transform into sites of fear. Since then, Mumbaikers have taken back the streets not only by diving into the daily grind, but with a surge of activism. The weeks after the attack have seen a number of peace marches and rallies take place near affected sites with an energy uncharacteristic for a culture known for its resignation to fate. Although some of the demonstrations were less than peaceful (more platforms for venting anger against the government), these events were a visible sign of Mumbaikers taking back the city streets.

In my last report, I wondered how long it would take me to reclaim Mumbai for myself, as most residents had quickly done. How have I been doing? A lot better. In the first few days, I ducked when airplanes flew a bit lower than usual. It felt like a shadow had come over the landscape, and I felt an extreme sense of vulnerability, in Mumbai and in the world. For the next week, I avoided sites that were marked as danger zones on my mental map: train stations, night clubs, cinemas, restaurants frequented by foreigners. Not long after that, though, my routine was pretty much back to normal. The biggest change was that I stopped taking the train, which was my daily mode of transport to and from work. However, I took the train twice last week — and that's a start.

My progress has nothing to do with an increased sense of safety. Speculation that more terrorists had been on the boat and remain at large has still neither been definitively affirmed nor denied. Some political heads have rolled, and there are more police on the streets and bag and vehicle checks at high-profile spots, but I am not convinced that this has had a meaningful effect on security. Just a few days after the attacks, to prove a point, someone successfully got a gun through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), Mumbai's biggest station and the one in which terrorists fired in November. Unexploded bombs were found in the same station a week after the attack, whereas authorities declared the station safe and reopened it just a few hours after the shooting. It is well known that police do not have the capacity to fully secure vulnerable sites. Many officers haven't had a practice shot in a decade; in fact, a cop whose gun accidentally went off at CST set off a panic a few days after the attacks. Metal detectors and heightened police presence at stations appear to be mostly for show. I personally attempted to alert officers at a train station about some unidentified baggage last week; I might as well have told them I had a stomachache.

Although I don't actually feel more secure, I have realized that it's not really I who am reclaiming Mumbai, but Mumbai that is reclaiming me.

There are already so many homemade messes to deal with in Mumbai — poverty, inequality, communal riots, domestic bomb blasts by both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists, gangsters, deadly flooding — that there is hardly time to fear external threats. The plague even made an appearance recently.

In particular, the purported ills of urbanization for which Mumbai is berated and that both frustrate and dazzle visitors seem to be a large part of what makes residents so resilient. Getting from one place to another, you are constantly stuck in traffic jams, narrowly avoiding being hit by a moving vehicle and navigating an obstacle course of sewage puddles, hawkers and pavement dwellers. You take in an overwhelming barrage of smells, sounds and sights: garbage and incense, temple bells and car horns, wandering cows and densely packed slums. Everyone and their mother is carrying around an over-sized package. Fireworks that sound like bombs explode on a daily basis (nothing gets in the way of marriage season). Part of the ability to bounce back may come from habituation to moving on no matter what comes at you throughout the day. In such a chaotic and taxing environment, there is no time or energy to be afraid.

There's no better example of this than the city's crowded trains — the main site of my personal struggle with fear. In the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai (the cover of which was a picture of a giant screw with the words, "Our message for terrorists...Screw you!"), Reason #7 that Mumbaikers bounce back quickly from crises is local train journeys: "Every day, just under half of the city's population boards the local train, 5,000 of us jammed into carriages designed to hold 1,800 people... When we board the train, we make an unspoken pact with our fellow citizens: we know we're in for a horrid time for a little while, but in the end, we'll all get to our destination. Those daily negotiations give us a sense of empathy and solidarity with our fellow citizens that's unique to Mumbai... We're just showing the city the same tough love that it bestows upon us every day." Sometimes it feels like solidarity, other times like survival of the fittest, but when you are busy trying to keep from getting physically crushed in a stampede of saris while avoiding elbowing the newborn cradled behind you, it's pretty hard to worry about anything else. Besides, as 4000 people die every year in accidents on Mumbai's trains, the journey poses more pressing safety issues.

As seems to happen so often, it appears that my greatest hope for recovery lies in the same place as my biggest fear: in this case, on the local train.

(Photo of station from Times of India. Photo of peace march from E-Talk India. Photo of train from the Mumbai Insomniac blog. Photo of flood from the Delhi Greens blog.)

Interstate Bike Trails

The above is a collaboration between the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials and the Adventure Cycling Association, who have created a transcontinental network of interstate bike routes out of more than 50,000 miles of existing trails. From the Baltimore Sun:

The effort relies on cartography instead of construction, signposts instead of earth-movers.

Working from a bewildering tangle of existing roads, planners mapped a web of corridors where the national bicycle system should go. They considered traffic volume, terrain, amenities and ways to link together lightly traveled byways, secondary roads, urban trails and already established transcontinental bicycle routes.

Each corridor on the map they approved is a broad swath 50 miles wide; the precise routes within each corridor are still to be designated, numbered and given signs.

The plan has been under development for four years now; I'm guessing that the AASHTO and ACA are glad to see the political tide turning the way that it is, since construction responsibilities fall to the states (though I'm guessing that the creators will be working hands on, lobbying hard to see things built, connected, labelled, and otherwise completed). Seeing the above makes the relative unanimity of the newly selected Transpo Secretary Ray LaHood, aka Ray LaWho? as most of the planning media has been calling him lately, seem more worrisome. Does anyone know LaHood's record on bike issues?

(Found via).


Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 3

Urban journalism: a new focus for civic philanthropy?

People in cities want public art. They want zoos. Orchestras. Parks. Museums. Soon, a critical mass of them will want good urban journalism. And, just as they fund the other amenities, civic philanthropists will soon be funding your local news.

Here’s what I’m predicting: in the not so distant future, civic philanthropists looking for high impact ways to benefit local communities will start aggressively funding non-profit organizations dedicated to producing professional journalism about local issues. They will do this because, as local for-profit newspapers die or shrink, they will realize how important good public service journalism—the stuff newspapers used to fund and produce—is to the vitality of their communities.

Or at least we should be hoping this is what happens.

Many business analysts think its increasingly unlikely that newspapers as we know them now will survive much longer. This is—as I’ve said in earlier posts in this series—a problem for cities.

Daily newspapers do a lot of work for cities, including the critical job of supplying public service journalism about local issues. These types of stories and reports about important political, economic and social matters will be extinct—for the most part—when newspapers are gone. Bloggers and citizen journalists, even the most extensive and liveliest networks of them, can’t replicate the depth or frequency of what local newspapers once produced.

Why should we be hoping for civic philanthropists to rescue local news? Surely if local news is so valuable someone will figure out a way to make money from producing it. There are tons of suggestions out there about how to do this.

From what I can tell, these suggestions sort themselves into two approaches.

One approach wants to change newspapers into lean, mean elite magazines. Under this model, newspapers embrace their smaller scale. They publish weekly, not daily. They celebrate a more limited scope. They concentrate on excellence. They make money like some magazines do—by appealing to an elite audience and selling high-priced, highly targeted advertising.

The other approach seeks to make money reporting and analyzing local news in an online format. This usually involves dumping print altogether, but mixing traditional newspaper-like content with blogs and other features that allow readers to post comments, report on happenings, rank and share content and upload photos and video.

Each group of suggestions might well result in a sustainable business model for some form of local news purveyor. Many people recommend blending the two approaches. But I don’t think either approach (blended or not) could sustain a daily package of comprehensive and credible coverage of local issues. Producing such a package is expensive. Without sufficient resources, it just won’t be possible to match the scope and depth of what local newspapers used to offer.

I’m not a business analyst. My sense of the economics necessary to support this kind of daily news package is based on informal impressions gathered from what I read in the papers and online.

With that caveat, here’s why—more specifically—I’m skeptical of the sustainability of these approaches.

While the make-it-a-magazine approach might work for newspapers with national circulation, I’m less convinced that smaller markets could support this. After all, weekly newspapers and even monthly local magazines are struggling now too.

The prospects of the online approach are perhaps more attractive, but most local newspapers have significant online portals now—and while they have improved revenues—revenues are flattening. More profoundly, though, the trouble with relying on online advertising revenues for a local paper is that local advertisers aren’t as willing to pay as much for web views as they are for paper subscribers: the revenue stream just isn’t as thick.

And thanks to Craigslist and other free or near-free online classified ad web sites, both approaches no longer have access to that formerly rich revenue vein for newspapers.

If my guesswork is right, we’ll have to look outside the market to fund the kind of professional urban journalism that cities need and deserve. That’s why we’ll need civic philanthropists.

Journalists are already exploring new ways to finance their work. Spot.Us uses a crowdsourcing model to match story ideas with journalists and donors to fund the work. ProPublica calls itself a non-profit “newsroom” that produces public service investigative journalism funded by a number of foundations and philanthropists. The Center for Public Integrity is much the same. Foundations have been funding journalism about particular issues for years. The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, for example, funds journalism about health issues.

The model I like best for funding local public service journalism at the right scale is the multifaceted one used by National Public Radio. NPR funds itself with grants from foundations, corporate underwriters and membership drives. Of course, to maintain credibility and independence, non-profit local news purveyors would have to erect effective firewalls of separation between the editorial and fundraising sides of their operations—much like NPR does.

The reason I like this model best is that it seems most likely to provide the kind of stability and resources that are needed to produce professional public service journalism over the long-term. The other models alone—crowdsourcing or funding for specific kinds of coverage—are either inherently unreliable or too ad hoc for this purpose.

Not only could the NPR model work to fund urban journalism, I actually think it will work. I think a critical mass of both elitist wealthy civic philanthropists and regular middle-class city residents would be happy to help support quality public service journalism for their community. Testing this hypothesis right now—in the middle of a deep economic downturn—might temper my optimism, but I’d be willing to bet on its near-term future success.

In any case, as local newspapers fade and leave a void of public service journalism, civic philanthropists now have a new opportunity to do good for their communities.

This is the third part of a series of posts I’m writing about the future of urban journalism. The next--and final--post will be a sketch of what a post-newspaper local news organization might look like (if I had my way). Read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.

For excellent articles about journalism and its future, check out American Journalism Review, Poynter Online and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

(Photo credit: A screen grab from ProPublica's site on December 19, 2008.)


New HUD Head

In the midst of my final reviews I somehow missed that Shaun Donovan was appointed to Obama's cabinet as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When I finally saw the news while reviewing Obama's cabinet selections this afternoon, I actually pumped a happy fist in the air.

I had the chance to meet with Donovan a couple times when he was the head of New York's Department of Housing Preservation and Development while I was working with a team analyzing the potential for housing built on platforms over railways and highways.

I worked on the project only briefly, and with Donovan specifically even less. Even so, he made a strong impression on me. He struck me as remarkably creative -- a rare talent in a field like housing where a mastery of the numbers of finance and economics is paramount. An architect, Donovan also demonstrated an ability to think spatially, conceiving of solutions that were neither pure planning nor pure finance.

Although the work ahead for Donovan and Obama is tremendous, I am encouraged by this new direction for HUD. It's a time for change, and I hope Donovan can make HUD lead the way. (For more on Donovan, see the NY Times.)

(Donovan photo from the Huffington Post.
Highway platform image from Brownstoner.)

Demand for Recyclables

Alright, there’s been a lot of talk going around the blogosphere lately about the recycling epidemic forming in the United States. Basically, if you haven’t already heard, the United States sends a majority of their recyclables over seas to China to be processed into new materials, however, because of the global economic crisis prices for recyclables have plummeted leaving the United States with a growing pile of trash. So yes, this is a problem, but seriously, don’t you think it’s an even bigger problem that we create so much waste we have to ship it overseas?

Maybe it's time we begin to look at our recyclables as a raw material rather than a waste product. Many designers from around the world have been creating beautiful products made from post consumer products. Take for instance the Campana Brothers or Piet Hein Eek, both creating beautiful furniture from reused materials and both happen to be outside of the United States. Perhaps it's time for US designers to start looking at these waste materials as a material to work with rather than ignore. The alternative craft movement in the US have been quick to use found materials as it is economically attractive due to the fact that waste is generally free. Also, the use of waste materials is an evironmentally sustainable idea, cutting down on the mining, processing, and shipping of raw materials.

Aside from the alternative craft movement, there have been a few grassroots movements to use our waste as a raw material and divert malterials from being barged overseas or dumped in a landfill. Tiny Texas House has been carefully deconstructing houses in their region and building new prefab houses out of the materials. For me this just makes sense, and apparently it is working from an economic perspective as well.

So what is really stopping these ideas sound really great, and seem to make so much sense, what is stopping them from really taking off? Well there are 2 real issues. First, economic feasibility, Tiny Texas Houses works however they are only producing a very small amount of homes a year and aimed at a particular market who are willing to pay a high price for sustainability. The production of houses is a very refined process and the mining and transporting of materials is rigorously efficient. Maticulously taking down houses and preserving the material is a much slower process and therefore costs more money. New processes and networks need to be put in place before these ideas can really take off. These can come in the form of online networks or informal networks. Ebay and Craigslist are 2 online networks that have done a great deal for reuse. Think about how many items have been listed on craigslist that would most likely have found the landfill 10 years ago? Informal networks can work too, for instance the scrap industry, where legitimate, (and sometimes illegitimate) scrappers pick up reusable materials and sell them to scrap yards for a small profit.

Second, a paradigm shift will have to occur in which the general public changes their opinion on the value of our recyclables. Big name designers don't fool around with used materials because they presume their consumers will not appreciate used materials over new ones. This is why reuse is still a niche market. It is important to note however, that reuse is gaining steam and many companies, such as Frietag, maker of recycled messenger bags, have made enormous strides in changing the perception of used materials. The best way to infiltrate popular opinion is to hit the authorities in consumer products. When Macy's, Bloomingdales and Barneys start selling reuse, soon to follow will be all the small retailers scattered across the nation. But in order for reused goods to get there, there needs to be a good amount of quality designs using these materials to choose from. Maybe we need a national design challenge or something.

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


Best We Can

Nothing gets people talking like a shared grievance. Misery, as everyone knows, loves company, and anyone who has ever been laid off or evicted, or even had to cut back on groceries has found quick solace in the similar complaints of their friends and neighbors. Stories of the run-down neighborhood that rose from the ashes when residents banded together to fight crime, or repair abandoned homes for resale, or convert empty lots into gardens are far from uncommon. Indeed, the hard-knock neighborhood lifting itself up through a communal sharing of the burden is an archetype of urban development.

There's a lot to be worried about these days. There's a lot to complain about. But we can believe that things are going to get better; in fact, it's doubtful that they can until we do.

The Project for Public Spaces published an article on their most recent newsletter entitled How Your Community Can Thrive-- Even in Tough Times, that made the blunt but wisely-worded case that cities, now more than ever, have to use what they've got. As financial markets collapse and leave perpetually cash-strapped city governments scraping by or knee-deep in red ink, expensive programs, high-profile redevelopments, and frivolous policies can no longer be relied upon to distract any attention from the most deeply-seated problems that face their communities. "What They've Got," for cities, is suddenly much less than it was.

Jonah Lehrer, speaking recently about the late Studs Terkel's book Hard Times, made this important point: "While a depression or steep recession is a terrible thing, it does lead to a few less Rolexes. And if the Terkel interviews are any indication, it was that diminished sense of disparity - the fact that everyone was going without - that made the time bearable." One thing that cities have got, today, is an economic mess on their hands; luckily, just about anything can be seen as an opportunity in the right light, and Lehrer's comments suggest a critical urban asset that should not be overlooked in these hard times: shared struggle.

A note to all those people who have been worrying about the collapse of traditional community structure in urban neighborhoods: now is your chance to change the course. It is somewhat rare that an economic crisis hits so hard that even the relatively wealthy are genuinely hurting; at the risk of sounding overly opportunistic, it is the depth of this recession that could provide a rare chance to get neighbors talking to neighbors, and sharing the burden of hard times in the community. As stated at the outset of this post, nothing gets people talking like a shared grievance. If awkwardness or ignorance have ever been reasons for avoiding a chat with the folks next door or down the hall, everyone now has something to talk about, to share, and to help each other with.

The effect that the current crash (we can call it that, right?) is having on our economic system will undoubtedly be extreme. The fundamental building blocks of our society will change, whether we like it or not. But if you're smart, you'll make what you can of hard times, and get to know what's going on in the lives of the people around you. When something shatters The Way Things Work like we're seeing them shattered today, there are small but invaluable shards of opportunity scattered all around. To some, it might look like a mess; to the wise, it is the start of a newer Way that will be stronger than what came before it.

(Photos from Wooster Collective and Flickr user Scott Haefner. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 2

Bloggers and citizen journalists don't have all it takes

As local newspapers die or shrink into specialized magazines and web sites—as they shed reporters, editors, librarians and other staff to cut costs and adapt to much smaller revenue streams—it seems reasonable to anticipate that cities will experience a net loss in coverage of local news.

But maybe that’s wrong.

It’s possible bloggers and citizen journalists will pick up the slack.

They are, after all, already a major presence in many localities. In fact, I’d be surprised to find a city anywhere that didn’t have a network of local-issue bloggers and citizen journalists. In some places, a few of these volunteers probably out-hustle and out-write the paid print journalists.

City residents also have access to lots local information through aggregator web sites like Yelp, outside.in, CrimeReports.com and EveryBlock.

(I’m ignoring local television news coverage, which is—as far as I can tell—universally very thin when not actively harmful. Local radio is a bit more promising, though many stations have been cutting or eliminating local news coverage for years.)

Despite bringing enthusiasm and talent to local news coverage, the volunteer online media corps and its aggregator helpers just don’t have—in my view—what it takes to replace what newspapers provide (or used to provide) for a city: a daily package of comprehensive and credible coverage of local issues and happenings.

It takes a lot of resources, skills and experience to put together such a package every day. Volunteers—even networks of them—can’t do it reliably every day for years and years.

OK, so volunteers can’t replace professional newspaper people. What about local news web sites—such as, for example, Chi-Town Daily News and Urban Milwaukee (both of which got picked as examples because I happen read them every so often)—that employ (and pay) professional reporters and freelance journalists? Aren’t these sites already doing what local newspapers do for cities?

In part, they are.

On some issues, they seem to be doing a better job of covering the news than their local newspaper competitors.

But in general neither—from what I can tell—has the volume, breadth or depth of coverage as their local papers. And neither seems able to fund in-depth investigative reporting, though Chi-Town Daily News—a non-profit organization—has done some focused, smaller-scale investigative reports.

Sites like these could evolve into what I’d consider full-fledged replacements for local newspapers. But because they’re not there yet, I think cities are likely to suffer from the loss of newspapers as we know them now.

If you care about cities, you should care about the post-newspaper future. You should—I think—not expect too much of bloggers and citizen journalists, but instead hope for--and perhaps help to build--a well-funded and professional future for urban journalism.

The résumé of an urban journalist

The sample résumé that follows illustrates (with slight exaggeration for purposes of emphasis) the skills, experience, education and interests the new breed of urban journalists should have.

Clark Kent
101 S. Hero St.
Metropolis, OH 00007
(555) 666-7777


Position as a paid reporter for a major city news and information hub.

Skill highlights

  • My writing brings clarity to complex subjects, and is fun to read.
  • I can conceptualize and create a variety of infographics.
  • I know how to create and use many kinds of databases.
  • My command of statistics, including multiple regression, is impressive.
  • I am a master of applications commonly used online.
  • I know how to get around a library, and how to search online.
  • I understand urban economics, government budgeting and the process of policymaking.
  • I smile and interview subjects melt, and tell all.
  • My ability to see through lies is amazing.
  • I am an excellent digital photographer, videographer and voice recorder.
  • I grok every point Jane Jacobs made about what makes cities tick.

Employment history

Daily Planet, Metropolis, OH
Part-time reporter, 2007 to present
Reported on variety of local government issues.

Justice League, Happy Harbor, RI
Research analyst, 2005 to 2007
As part of team, helped research and write a major report about overburdened juvenile justice system in Gotham City.

Legion of Super-Heroes, Comics, D.C.
Web designer, 2003 to 2005
Developed an online interactive timeline of all the Legion’s members and their exploits.


Bachelor of Arts, History, 1998 – Great Little Liberal Arts College
Master of Public Policy, 2001 – World Class State University
Journalism Training Certificate, 2002 – Mass Media Trade School

Personal information

Interesting fact: I was raised in Kansas, but born on another planet.
Favorite authors: Jane Jacobs, Edward Tufte and David Macaulay.
Hobby: aerial photography of cityscapes.


This is the second part of a series of posts I’m writing about the future of urban journalism. The next post will be about how to fund the kind of urban journalism that cities need and deserve. Read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4.

(Photo from Flickr user arellis49. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

The Cow and How We Use Our Resources

This past summer, I was perusing the aisles of my local, or perhaps regional IKEA store when I happened upon a heaping pile of cow skins, more acceptably called hides. At first, I was amazed, just at the sheer idea that this huge hide used to be part of a living animal. I thought of the Corb chair and lounger, once made of cowhide and how in a sense it was a very modern decoration. But then I looked at the display for what it was: a giant heap of cowhides. This isn’t Nieman Marcus or Bloomingdale's Home; this is IKEA, an operation that sells huge amounts of furniture and home accessories on the mass market. If there are 100 cowhides in just this one IKEA, there must be hundreds of thousands around IKEAs worldwide, and it just hit me as kind of a shock -- wow, that’s a lot of cow. I know that we slaughter some 35 million cows a year for food, and that’s a really crazy number to digest (pun only slightly intended) but we are desensitized to this because we don’t see it and our meals hardly represent their once active past. The cowhide, on the other hand, is directly linked to our visual representation of this animal and therefore triggers a more sentimental reaction. Add to that the skin is to be used as a rug, which people walk on; it just doesn’t seem right.

The next question to ask is: where did these skins actually come from, because here lies the real issue. If the skins are from animals that are doomed to begin with, for food production, and the skin would otherwise be wasted, then is it a good thing to use our animal resources to the greatest possible extent? In addition, how does the social perception of animals change if we are selling cowhides at America’s new favorite furniture retailer? It’s interesting to look at how we use our resources, whether it be coal or cows, and the social perceptions that go along with that can have a lot of baring on what people believe is the right way to live.

Great little debate going on over at Apartment Therapy.

(Photo from Apartment Therapy. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
(Photo from Lindsay's Photography. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


The Paradox of the False Positive

An excerpt from Cory Doctorow's latest book, Little Brother:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here's a math lesson you need to learn first. It's called "the paradox of the false positive," and it's a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super-AIDS. You develop a test for Super-AIDS that's 99 percent accurate. I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result -- true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy. You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people have Super-AIDS. One in a hundred people that you test will generate a "false positive" -- the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn't. That's what "99 percent accurate" means: one percent wrong.

What's one percent of one million?

1,000,000/100 = 10,000

One in a million people has Super-AIDS. If you test a million random people, you'll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS. But your test won't identify *one* person as having Super-AIDS. It will identify *10,000* people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent *inaccuracy*.

That's the paradox of the false positive. When you try to find something really rare, your test's accuracy has to match the rarity of the thing you're looking for. If you're trying to point at a single pixel on your screen, a sharp pencil is a good pointer: the pencil-tip is a lot smaller (more accurate) than the pixels. But a pencil-tip is no good at pointing at a single *atom* in your screen. For that, you need a pointer -- a test -- that's one atom wide or less at the tip.

This is the paradox of the false positive, and here's how it applies to terrorism:

Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 = 0.00005 percent. One twenty-thousandth of a percent.

That's pretty rare all right. Now, say you've got some software that can sift through all the bank-records, or toll-pass records, or public transit records, or phone-call records in the city and catch terrorists 99 percent of the time.

In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys, you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people.

Guess what? Terrorism tests aren't anywhere *close* to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate, sometimes.

What this all meant was that the Department of Homeland Security had set itself up to fail badly. They were trying to spot incredibly rare events -- a person is a terrorist -- with inaccurate systems

DHS, in Doctorow's skillfully-written book (full disclosre: I'm a long-time fan) has taken over San Francisco after a pretty horrific terrorist attack, and implemented a security net so obnoxious that everyone is a suspect, turning the "innocent until proven guilty" maxim fundamental to the US justice system on its ear in the name of "protecting" the very citizens it interrogates on every corner.

As if we needed a reminder, the recent Mumbai attacks have thrust the extraordinarily rare specter of the large-scale, well-coordinated urban terror strike back into the public spotlight. Doctorow's greatest strength has always been his ability to make the future feel incredibly near; it is not even remotely difficult to imagine a scenario like the one described in LIttle Brother playing out were another major attack to strike a US city. Almost as frightening than the idea of an actual attack (or more frightening, depending on who you talk to) is the idea of what might come after. Imagine a massive citizen-tracking web, to put London's CCTV to shame, layered on top of the already overanxious contemporary cityscape, and consider the paradox of the false positive. Not pretty.

Little Brother is available for free download under Creative Commons licence right here.


Press Re:

Where's friends over at the Congress for New Urbanism passed along some info today for a fast-approaching deadline. If you are or know of an urbanist that's worth honoring , take a look and submit, submit, submit!

Charter Awards 2009 honor the urbanism the world needs now

CNU's Charter Awards recognize the best of New Urbanism and Smart Growth -- whether the work is architectural, landscape, and urban designs or the publications, policies, plans, and codes that structure them. Awards are selected by a jury of distinguished urbanists, led this year by Victor Dover, and judged on the extent to which they fulfill and advance the principles of the Charter of the New Urbanism. This year, submitters also have the opportunity to describe how projects advance the operating principles in the Canons of Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism.

In recognizing design and development that make communities more livable and promote greater harmony between the built and natural environments, the awards demonstrate how urbanism is a remedy our planet needs -- a vital way to green the American Dream. Please help spread the word, especially to those -- either professionals or students and professors --whose urbanism and Smart Growth you admire. Find information and entry forms at http://cnu.org/awards.

Submissions Due: January 20, 2009


Revisiting The Radiant City

A note accompanies this photo in Le Corbusier’s The Radiant City (1933):

“outside our apartments in the Radiant City: we come home from work and change; our friends are there waiting. High spirits, physical activity. And then we can go on to think about the 'serious' things afterwards."

I can see myself now, coming home after a long day's work and running the steeplechase with my neighbors. :) Le Corbusier’s plans, while at times charmingly unrealistic, are also blamed for inspiring the spread of giant housing projects in cities around the world. But is there enduring value in his thinking?

Two possibilities come to mind: 1) his embrace of new technology to improve living conditions, and 2) his use of space to minimize the ground cover of buildings.

As for technology, Le Corbusier tended to adopt ideas of mass production uncritically. However, his thoughts on prefabricated structures have great potential. As evident in the recent exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, the featured houses in Dwell Magazine, and the assembly of LivingHomes, prefab architecture is coming into its own. What if we could design our own houses from components displayed online? Would this result in monstrosities or homes well-adapted to our needs? Could this be a way of realizing some of the building ideas in Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language?

While Le Corbusier's use of space wouldn't work for everyone, tall buildings on pilotis with roof gardens would minimize the acreage occupied by our homes. This could bring benefits associated with energy efficiency, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and (provided that amenities are within walking distance) reduced dependence on automobiles. I don't suggest that everyone should live in this kind of building, and the architecture could use rethinking; still the idea of freeing up space for agriculture, forests, and recreation sounds promising.

Although we might not find spontaneous track meets in our yards, I think Le Corbusier was on to something.

(Photo of runners scanned from The Radiant City. Photo of the Swiss Pavillion from www.culture.gouv.fr)


Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 1

Demise of newspapers is opportunity to re-invent urban journalism

When I read recently about how the Christian Science Monitor will soon become the first major national newspaper to replace its daily print edition with a web site, I wondered when I’ll read about the first city to lose its last remaining print newspaper.

Newspapers once provided a viable way to fund journalism about cities. But as readership and revenues from advertising decline, this business model is failing. The prospect of newspaperless cities is real. If nothing takes over the role formerly played by newspapers cities will lose something important.

Think of what a newspaper does for a city.

With news articles and opinion pieces, it provides information and context for residents about what’s happening in the city. Those same articles and editorials when combined with photos and captions, obituaries, lists of personnel changes, classified ads, sports statistics, restaurant reviews and more comprise a daily scrapbook of city life. The multiplicity of functions and forms that all come together in one physical “space” make the newspaper a kind of city itself.

Guide, scrapbooker, metaphor. Every city needs a newspaper – or other form of media—that plays those three roles at a minimum. For the most part, I’d say that even bad local papers—and there are lots of them—perform these basic functions. But as someone who loves cities, I think cities deserve more and better than the basic journalism they’ve been getting lately from the current crop of faltering and shrinking for-profit newspapers.

I’d like to see newspapers (or whatever media form succeeds them) play an additional role for cities: cupid. Which is to say I want to start reading urban journalism that makes people fall in love with city living.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that urban journalists become civic boosters or chamber-of-commerce shills. What I want to read is professional journalism about cities that is motivated by a deep understanding of and love for what makes cities such vital places to live. As I conceive of it, journalists with these motives would not shy away from covering the problems of the city, but instead would be determined to confront them.

Journalists in love with the city would breathe new life into how urban issues are covered. As readers, we’d probably start learning more about infrastructure, about zoning codes, about income diversity, about sidewalks, about the potential energy and resource efficiencies of density, about architecture, about what makes a shopping district pulse, about the importance of well-designed public spaces, about traffic planning, about agglomeration effects.

And because these journalists would be motivated by their passion for cities to attract their fellow citizens’ attention, we’d probably be reading much more creative and interesting journalism about the city than we typically get in newspapers these days. (Of course, there is some good urban journalism being done out there now. Check out Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space's collection of "great urban journalism" links. Scroll down a bit on the right column.)

So, is the demise of newspapers as we know them a good thing for cities after all? Possibly.

But the fact that local newspapers are increasingly incapable of making enough money to support good journalism is hardly good news for cities. It’s also worrisome that there’s no obvious successor to newspapers –and the key roles they play for cities—on the horizon.

Still, the slow death of newspapers does create an opportunity to reinvent and reinvigorate urban journalism—or at least to think about how to do that.

This is the first in a short series of posts I’ll be writing about the future of urban journalism. The next post will be about how bloggers and citizen journalists, while useful and inventive, don’t have all of what it takes to replace the loss of real journalists writing for newspapers. Read the rest of the series: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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


Time to Reassess the Boxscape

Home in suburban Milwaukee for the Thanksgiving holiday this past weekend, I was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, into my very first Super Wal-Mart. From an urbanist's perspective, it was horrifying; one massive indoor space with a seemingly endless procession of aisles filled with every piece of crap you could imagine, stretching off to -- literally, it seemed -- the horizon. Indoors. It was the diametric opposite of "finely-grained." But the experience got me on the newly-minted bandwagon of architects and planners wondering aloud about how big-box and chain retail might be better integrated as metro areas shift and change over the coming decades. Redemption is not impossible for such places.

Last month, Wendy Waters wrote about new research from the University of Alberta that suggests that the presence of large, indiscriminate retailers like Wal-Mart can actually improve independent retail in the area by forcing owners to re-strategize and become more specialized in what they offer consumers. This makes plenty of sense: business owners that do nothing in the face of increased competition are hardly the kind of flexible, dynamic people that add to a local economy; nor are their businesses likely to be the ones that add to local character, which is often one of the most loudly mourned of the assumed casualties when big boxes come to town.

Wonkser (and long-time Where blog crush) Ryan Avent made another recent argument in defense of chain retail, suggesting that it strengthens urban economies and brushing off the argument that chains kill local retail:

Should we be upset when new chains move in? No, not really. There are reasons that chains do well nationally, namely, convenience and price. We should hold chains to high design standards, but there’s no reason to deny local residents access to chain retail. I have seen folks argue that chains are bad because they take profits elsewhere, but this is essentially an autarkic argument–that we’d be better off doing everything for ourselves. Obviously, that’s not the case. Successful businesses provide value for consumers, and preventing those businesses from operating here would deny consumers that value. Sometimes scale economies are important, such that national chains can deliver sharply lower prices. This is good for local consumers, who should be free to decide when they want to spend their money on independent retail and when they just want the best deal available. Moreover, many District [of Columbia] firms benefits from national and international business. A local only model leaves everyone poorer...

...It’s important to remember that chains can complement indie business. Some folks want to spend their money at an indie home furnishings store and save money by shopping at Giant. Others want to save money on their furniture by shopping at Target, and go all out at a local organic grocer. It takes all kinds.

Avent also makes the case in his post for the densification of areas looking to increase commercial vibrancy. In urban areas, where parking is scarce, businesses must draw on the local population for revenue; thus, independent retail flourishes in densely populated areas; the residential use must come first. It follows, then, that anyone looking to increase the diversity of businesses in an area currently starved for independent, specialized retailers should focus on increasing residential diversity. Re-thinking big box stores like Super Wal-Mart will require a residential component of some sort. We've been seeing this type of thinking slowly take shape as malls have begun incorporating condos over the past decade or so; more recently, strip malls have started looking at residential retrofits as a solution to waning consumer interest.

I can't help but wonder what it might be like to live in, around, or on top of a reclaimed Wal-Mart. The idea that the suburbs of today will look vastly different a few decades from now is an enticing one, but it's still difficult to imagine what, exactly, they might look like. Hopefully, as urbanists, we can learn to stop avoiding these stores entirely (I know I'm not the only one who does it) and start thinking more constructively about their future uses. The sooner the better, it would seem.

(Photos from Flickr user austrini, and from bustler.net. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)