Sense of the City Contest

Where has partnered with new travel and exploration site NextStop.com to bring you, our wonderful readers, the Sense of the City contest. Check out the contest page and use NextStop's super-intuitive site to create a tour of your city to enter. The contest will last for two weeks from today, and can be accessed easily during that time by clicking on the big fancy link at the top of the right sidebar at Where's homepage. The winner (to be determined by a public poll) will be announced on Thursday, May 14th, and will receive a $50 Visa Gift Card. So check out the prompt below, and get to work! We're looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

What defines your city's sense of place? The way that a city makes you feel is determined by so many things -- that's why the same city, or even the same neighborhood, can mean so many things to so many people. Where is hosting this contest to give you a chance to communicate how your city makes you feel, and why. Tell us about the places -- neighborhoods, public spaces, transit stops, buildings, businesses, whatever! -- that capture what your city is all about.


In Jane's Footsteps

Get your walking shoes out. This weekend (May 2 and 3) is the annual Jane's Walk, dedicated to everyone's favorite grassroots urbanist. Inspired by Jane Jacobs' close attention to the everyday experience of urban life as it unfolds on the ground as a basis for understanding and acting upon the city, volunteers will lead free walking tours in over 200 neighborhoods in North America, and for the first time, in India (where PUKAR will lead the way). Organized by the Centre for City Ecology in Canada and by the Center for the Living City in the US, Jane's Walk included over 6000 participants last year, its second in existence. Many tours focus on the built environment, but others touch on local culture, history or crucial planning issues. It's not too late to lead your own...

The walks celebrate Jacobs' simple and groundbreaking idea that in order to figure out what will work for cities, one has to look at how people actually experience the city at ground level and plan with people at the center, rather than on the basis of car traffic, utopian models or scientific formulas. Not a formally trained planner herself, Jacobs' principles (higher densities, mixed uses, short blocks) are now the ABC's of the field. More importantly, her promotion of community-based planning as a counterpoint to top-down master-planning was responsible for a vast paradigm shift. It's no accident that Where readers voted her seminal treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, into the top position of our list of best books for the novice urbanist.

To what extent have Jane's footsteps left a lasting imprint? According to Hilary Ballon, an architectural historian at NYU quoted in the NY Times' City Room blog, this is a "'golden moment for the rebirth of city planning... after a long period of tremendous suspicion about the viability and value of a master plan' — suspicions fueled by a perception of 'evil top-down planners who didn't understand what neighborhoods needed.'" She was introducing a talk on April 15 by Daniel L. Doctoroff, deputy mayor until early 2008, on PlaNYC, what he called '"one of the most sweeping, most comprehensive blueprints for New York ever undertaken."

Based on the premise that New York's population is expanding rapidly, its infrastructure is aging, and its environment is at increasing risk from climate change, PlaNYC lays out a detailed framework for meeting goals in the arenas of land, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change. The plan was created after a four-month public outreach process, including consultation with advocacy groups and town hall meetings in all five boroughs. With characteristic NYC bravado, the plan claims to be a model for city planning in the 21st century.

Are we indeed witnessing the rebirth of far-reaching master-planning, but with new features? Is this a happy medium: planning for tomorrow while making residents' needs and voices central? Or are Jane Jacobs' views on the importance of keeping our feet on the ground and involving communities being diluted to token community outreach meetings?

(Flyer from the Center for the Living City. Photo of Jane by Maggie Steber, Planning Magazine, 1986, sampled here.)


Don't Miss: Playful Infrastructure @ NAC

There's a new post up today at the NAC Daily Report (the blog of Next American City magazine) from yours truly. Sample below, link right here. Once you're done checking out the other Wherebloggers' recent posts right here on the home turf (scroll down!), hop on over to NAC and take a peek.

It makes sense for urban designers and planners to consider play as a conduit in the system of places that develop a city’s talent pool. Things like playgrounds, sports facilities and the like should be arranged in a manner where safe, engaging facilities are available to all children—which is often not the case in our cities.

Promisingly, playspace advocacy group KaBOOM, creators of the Playful City USA program, recently launched a campaign called 100,000 Playspaces in 100 Days through which Dancing With the Stars winner Julianne Hough will donate a dollar to children’s charities for every play place in the United States marked by users on a map...

Here's that link again.

(Photo from Skira.)

Black Swans and Redundant Cities

Swine flu: legitimate global emergency or 24-hour Internet culture’s flavor of the weekend? Regardless, the story suggests that it’s getting easier and easier to view cities through the lens of risk and disaster preparedness. The past decade’s biggest news events—Hurrican Katrina and 9/11—both revealed key weaknesses in our most beloved cities’ infrastructure. Furthermore, Where has recently examined the nature of urban disasters and the importance of mitigating their impacts, along with the need to guarantee the provision of urban food and housing.

Cities and the people who inhabit them are inherently vulnerable. Urban environments depend on the basic means of survival—food and other resources—coming in from their hinterlands, while large populations living close together amplify the impacts of natural and manmade disasters (as Peter pointed out).

Faced with these risks, cities need to be more redundant. That is, critical urban systems like transportation and public health must become as reliable as possible by depending on more than one component. If one road goes out in an earthquake, there should be alternate routes. If one levee breaks, there should be multiple backups to protect a city from flooding. If a primary water source becomes contaminated, an alternate source should be ready to start pumping. In many cases, cities already achieve this. Modern road networks, for example, are among the most redundant systems in existence.

Redundancy is widely considered necessary in certain fields, like civil engineering, but it’s shockingly neglected in others that are equally vital. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has recently blamed the financial system’s meltdown on a lack of redundancy—everything depended on rising home prices and easy credit, and when those fell short of expectations the failure cascaded throughout the economy. There was no backup plan.

Taleb’s best-known metaphor is the Black Swan (also the title of his last book). Black Swans, Taleb writes, are fundamentally unpredictable based on past events but have potentially huge impacts. 9/11 may have been the quintessential Black Swan—it could not have been more catastrophic, and lacked any precedent that might have facilitated preparedness. Our civilization can best prepare for the Black Swan, Taleb says, by grasping our limited ability to predict and by making decisions that account for the unknown.

For the urbanist, this means building and maintaining resilient and redundant cities. It may have been impossible to predict the exact circumstances that caused New Orleans to flood. It’s not impossible, however, for urban citizens, communities and city officials to understand the vulnerabilities particular to their own city and to build a more resilient urban environment on the basis of that understanding.

(Photo from Flickr user mariemassacre.)


Review: Buckminster Fuller at the MCA

In a corner of the soaring lobby of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art sits an inconspicuous screen cycling though a series of quotes. "Don't fight forces," one suggests, "use them." A few seconds later: "Do more with less." And then: "Real wealth is ideas plus energy." These are the words of Buckminster Fuller, the great American thinker and designer famous for his geodesic domes and his pragmatic idealism. Fuller was a colorful man, and extraordinarily wealthy if measured by his own standard: his thoughts were abundant and bright, and his energy seemingly boundless. In the exhibit Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, the MCA has crafted an impressive overview of Fuller's life and work that brings into focus his prescient worldview and, more importantly, the thought process behind it.

It was after his failure as a businessman and the death of his daughter in 1927 that Fuller resolved to turn his life into an experiment to see how much one man could contribute to society in a lifetime, labeling himself "Guinea Pig B." The exhibit opens with several rooms filled with a diverse selection of objects that recount the beginning of this experiment. Models, drawings, maps, notebooks, and other objects show the evolution of Fuller's early work into his development of the World Game and the Dymaxion map during and after World War II.

Fuller prided himself on his comprehensive thinking; he approached each problem as part of a larger system of problems. Humanity's great challenges were all interlinked, and to consider solutions for one, it was necessary to consider the others simultaneously. Nowhere in the Starting With the Universe is Bucky's way of thinking on display more clearly than in the two rooms that detail the evolution of the Dymaxion Map into the development of the geodesic dome. It was his work on creating a map that eliminated the distortion of the planet's land masses that led to Fuller's fascination with polyhedrons. His engineer's brain latched onto the structural integrity of the icosahedron form that his map created when folded into a "globe," and by the 1950s he was working with his students at the legendary Black Mountain College in Asheville, NC, on developing the dome that would define the later part of his career.

Interestingly, it is a rather inconspicuously-placed video of Fuller at the mid-point of the exhibit that offers the clearest glimpse of how his industrious mind processed information about the world. His demonstration of how a flexible polyhedric structure shifts form is underlined by his emphasis on its uniform contraction and expansion. Throughout his life, Fuller worked on devising comprehensive solutions to myriad problems; his fascination with a flexible structure in which each part was equally responsive to all of the others is hardly inconsequential.

Beyond the geodesic dome, the maturation of which is explored in the second half of the MCA show, Bucky Fuller is arguably best remembered for his prescience. His ideas about environmentalism and the consequences of man's actions on the planet presage the contemporary Green movement by decades; he is also remembered for his early conceptualization of the internet and his musings on the growing importance of mass communications. Fuller understood everything as being part of a system, a network. In Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, the MCA has created an exhibit that presents Fuller's as a visionary worldview that remains relevant more than twenty years after the great thinker's death. Like any good museum exhibit, this one makes the visitor re-think they way that they look at the world. Bucky would be proud.

Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago until June 21st, 2009. For more information about the museum and its other exhibits, click here.

(Photos from ArchNewsNow, OSEarth, and PentaMil.)


The Image of the (Failed) City : Spillover

After years of being off the radar, Mexican border cities are finally making headlines in the U.S. again. Violence and vice "spilling over" from Tijuana or Laredo or Juárez into the wholesome and "safe" American Southwest is the latest (and paradoxically also one of the oldest) of foreign menaces pointed at by the media. What Fox News won't tell you though, is that the root of the systemic degradation that is tearing Mexican bordertowns apart, both from a contemporary socioeconomic perspective and in terms of historically entrenched factors, actually lies on the American side of the border. The spillover is nothing but a backlash.

The last massive wave of americanización (extension of U.S. power and influence into Mexico) to hit the border before the signing of NAFTA in 1994—and by then it was the entire country, not only the border—came with the National Border Program (Pronaf) of the 1960s, a top-down planning and urban beautification initiative promoted by local elites in Ciudad Juárez with the support of the federal government. The Pronaf was supposed to improve urban conditions and to "integrate" border cities—that already back then were experiencing important demographic growth and a general lack of urban services—to the national development scheme. Paradoxically, the "failure" of the program to establish a national industrial base and generate a strong local supply was the key factor that opened the border cities to other alternatives: most importantly, the establishment of the first foreign-owned maquiladoras.

The Pronaf expected to correct the blatant economic asymmetries of the settlements on the Mexican side compared to their U.S. counterparts. Even more so, the promoters of the programs were convinced that it was time Juárez and other cities emulated the success story of the Sunbelt, with an all-in-one, triple-whammy formula that would compress the hundreds of years of frontier settlement, exploitation and industrialization, and (sub)urbanization of the American experience in a single program and in a couple of years.

The Pronaf made way for the transit between State-run planning to privatization of public space and the distortion or clouding of (dubious) political strategies. It brought a new notion of "regeneration" to the border: instead of the typical idea of providing infrastructure and social housing, it pushed policies inspired in a twisted "tradtion", an imaginary vernacular, seeking to attract the bustling suburban middle class with its visions of pastoral comfort, easily digestible culture and a blind confidence in the power of a consumerist urban economy. New Urbanism, Mexican style.

The creation of the Pronaf coincides with the start of a decline and "restructuring" period in the global economy, with all of its political repercussions and its visibly negative effects (particularly in cities). Mexico too was going through an extremely delicate period, when the "Mexican Miracle" started to fade, and with it the illusion of political and social stability. (By the way, this is pretty much what I'm going to be writing about in my new blog: Mañanarama. Go see.) In Ciudad Juárez, the Pronaf had already sown the seed of a development formula that had departed from the traditional protectionist, import-substitution and government-led development scheme of the rest of the country. Even though its architecture wanted to demonstrate a strong confidence in the future and an even stronger loyalty to the regime, the Pronaf only offered empty gestures. Behind the facade of an age of abundance, the program was already moving the pieces in the structure of the cities where it operated; this reorganization would leave and indelible mark in their urban futures (or present, viewed from today): maquiladoras, land speculation, self-constructed slums, urban violence, the dominance of the private sector, the monetization of space... In terms of policy formulation, concerns over the image of the city began substituting the concerns over the city itself.

In my final Juárez post, I will move on to see how the "failed" program of the 1960s gave way to the perversely successful "informal" strategies of the following decades, and how the current mess Juárez and other border cities have sunken themselves into is not accidental. This isn't a case of policy miscalculation (certainly not an absence of policy) but simply an exacerbation of a strand of urban development, in good deal imported from the U.S., twisted slightly and taken to an extreme.

(Photos from a Ciudad Juárez Promotional Leaflet by the PRONAF (1960). The projects and sketches are all by architect Mario Pani. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Forbidden City

As if urbanists needed another reason to heart New York, I recently came across Access Restricted, a free mobile lecture series that brings prominent speakers to rarely frequented or normally exclusive spaces in Lower Manhattan for site-specific lectures on architecture, planning and related topics. This year's theme, Capital of the World, explores the "temples" of Wall Street, from penthouses to private social clubs to corporate skyscrapers. The next event on April 28 focuses on possibilities for grassroots urban planning in the real estate capital.

This type of series is so appealing because it gives the average Joe (well, more likely the not-so-average urbanist Joe) the chance to penetrate spaces in the city that are typically shut off from view. As Where noted in a post on the role of gender and class in determining geographic access in Chicago, people who live in the same city — even those who work in the same building — actually inhabit separate, insulated paths and bubbles within that city. Depending on the degree of spatial segregation, two people on opposite sides of the spectrum may never even have occasion to cross paths.

When you think about it, "Access Restricted" is a term that applies to the city at large. Very little urban space — land and what's built upon it — is actually accessible to the general public. Even that which is technically open is usually restricted in some other way: a park closes at dusk, a coffee shop requires that you purchase something, a nightclub requires you to wear heels. And then there are tacit barriers of social pressure and stigma. We all seem to be living in a forbidden city.

Some don't wait to be invited to cross prohibited urban borders. A subculture of urban explorers, linked mainly through online networks, intentionally trespass in off-limits urban sites, typically abandoned structures or the inards of the city infrastructure. Abandoned factories, sewer drains, subway tunnels (incidentally, Rochester's subway system is the only abandoned, formerly used system in the U.S.) — all are ripe terrain for expeditions by explorers who, armed with tools and cameras, don construction uniforms, pick locks or climb fences to gain access to closed-off sites.

Urban exploration (sometimes called urbex or UE) is a form of adventurism, but for those in the fold, it is also a science and an art. As covered in this scintillating piece of investigative journalism by an author of great repute, urban explorers are careful to distinguish themselves from ordinary trespassers rebelling against authority or defacing property. Rather, like historians at a ruins site, they consider themselves investigators and documentors of the landscapes that surround us but remain hidden from view. Most explorers write down what they see, take photos and share their findings through self-published magazines or online.

The empiricism of the urban explorer, sharpened by the edge of terror, is a rich, focused record of the forbidden city.
-Psychopathology and the Hidden City, Jinx, magazine dedicated to UE

The first magazine on the subject was Infiltration, published by the explorer Ninjalicious, which launched a worldwide movement. Since then, other groups like Jinx, Cave Clan, and Dark Passage have started up. One website has an FAQ list dedicated entirely to supporting young adventurers to access utility tunnels underneath their university campuses, a popular exploration site (under "tips for finding entrances": "when there is a light covering of snow, look for swaths of bare grass running across campus"). There are now books on the subject (quite a few about New York). (For a brief history of UE check out this timeline).

Most of us won't risk arrest or asphyxiation to break into closed-down plants or underground tunnels. Even if we were willing to don head gear, unless we happen to get on the Access Restricted guest list, we still couldn't invade the off-limits spaces that surround us. So when we speak of the city, how much have we really seen?

(Images from Access Restricted and Dark Passage.)


The Maturation of Urban Agriculture

Urban Agriculture is maturing, and like any concerned parent, those of us with a vested interest are worried about the path she will take and the choices she will make in these crucial developmental years. She's not quite ready to leave home, but she certainly isn't interested in hanging with the 'rents all weekend. That corporate bloke has been coming around a lot more lately, whispering sweet nothings in her ear and chumming it up with Dad in the den. With all this attention, she's beginning to see that life exists outside of the small community in which she has grown up. The city offers so much opportunity, yet with it comes so much risk, and as for that corporate guy, word on the street is that he's been into some pretty shady business. Meanwhile, there is a young guy around the block that Urban Ag has become friends with; he's so sweet, and seems to be well-grounded. Sure, he's a bit dorky, but we all know he'll treat her better in the end than the corporate bloke looking for some arm candy and a quick buck.

Now that I've lived out my childhood fantasy of writing a mid-90's teen sitcom, I should clarify that comparison. Urban Agriculture is at a pivotal point in its life. It began as an agency for social change, turning abandoned inner city lots into fruitful gardens which accomplished great things within their communities. Not only did these gardens beautify otherwise decaying neighborhoods, they also began to educate underprivileged residents about proper diet, provided nutritious food where none was to be found, and in some cases initiated job training programs with the local residents to jump start agricultural opportunities. Growing Home in Chicago, and Red Hook Farms in Brooklyn are too shining examples of this idea. Indeed, the social gains far exceeded the monetary gains, but it was only a matter of time before the light was shed on the potential of Urban Agriculture.

Today, we are seeing the corporate world snake it's way into the game. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press shows a possible 70 + acre development in the middle of downtown Detroit proposed by 2 financiers. Corporations, operating on the intention of reaping profit, will by nature set in motion practices to eradicate the competition. In the case of Urban Agriculture, this would mean all the small non-profit organizations trying to grow food in community settings to help residents get on their feet. Corporate-run urban farms could dominate the local food market by creating huge quantities and lowering prices which will drive out the many smaller farms. Walmart drove out all of the little Mom and Pop shops; why wouldn't a corporate farm drive out all the Mom and Pop farms?

Meanwhile, behind the backdrop, there is a growing movement of young creatives turning back to the land. Hundreds if not thousands of college grads are learning farm practices, working on CSA farms, and gaining knowledge to begin building a new food network in America. With the average age of farmers nearing 60 years of age, there is a huge push to get youth engaged in agriculture. In this case, Urban Agriculture makes a lot of sense because not only will the food be local, but it will allow young people to work and create in a collaborate environment where they can go out at night and have a life...off the farm.

I can think of about 15 people I know personally who are graduating with design degrees and looking to start their own small farms to supplement their freelance work. Why? Because nobody is hiring, they see the need, and they understand the value that a farm can create within a community. This has been well illustrated by the New York Times over the past year with many features focused on growing young farmers. But these people are starting farms of l1-2 acres, not 70-100 acre lots, and they aren't taking over whole portions of the city, but rather fitting nicely into the existing urban fabric. In addition, this new generation understands the problems associated with industrial farming, and therefore has a new respect for the land as not only creating profit, but creating life. That poetry just doesn't seem to flow from corporate farms, no matter where you put them.

Times are changing for Urban Ag -- she's growing up. The difference between Urban Agriculture and a real person though is a brain. A person can make decisions, Urban Agriculture relies on an intense network of farms, advocates and patrons. Together, we must figure out what is best for Urban Agriculture and our communities, then we must act to insure their safety. Will the introduction of large corporate farms defile the great assets of Urban Agriculture?

(Photos from Chicago GSB, Detroit Free Press, NYT, The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Tending to Cities

Photo of the Plaza de la Constitucion de Oaxaca (Zocalo)Does it matter how a city or neighborhood looks? Many would say it does, though much less than, say, health or safety. So if it matters to some extent, what makes a place visually attractive? Are there any common characteristics, or is it only in the eye of the beholder?

Maybe "looks" is the wrong word. How about the way a place feels? This would include all the senses -- the different variables that make an area appealing. Of course, people have unique tastes and I don't know if there are any qualities loved by everyone. However, there are places generally considered attractive. They are usually in wealthier districts, but should extend to poorer communities as well. If we work towards achieving this throughout our cities, without displacing low-income groups, we might look back some day and wonder how we ever lived in some of the neglected areas we know today.

Maybe we can start by identifying the places people value most, why they are valued, and how to preserve them. (I'm not sure how best to do this. A popular vote doesn't seem practical, but maybe it would work. I wonder which areas would win out? Greenwich Village, for example, or Times Square?). We could go through a similar process for areas that people find unappealing, focusing on improvement. This might be considered a form of public participation in city planning. At the very least we would find out if there are any shared values among urban populations. If this kind of study reveals anything useful, it might inform the design of new places.

Photo of PittsburghA recent article on preservation in Pittsburgh shows how the adaptive reuse of urban areas can be an effective means of environmental sustainability. Cities are environments, and great urban settings should be valued and protected in a way similar to national parks. This is not a call to restrict new designs, but we can work to make sure the results are worth preserving. Setting standards for the quality of building materials might help. Design standards are another possibility, although that seems kind of arbitrary and stifling to creativity.

I wonder if there could be periodic review processes for all planned and existing development, assessing its contribution to the urban environment and how it might be improved. These reviews could address aesthetics as well as health and safety issues. Public funds might be used to make improvements. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference. A new paint job or facade can transform an area with minimal destruction of existing buildings. In other cases, shoddy construction can be removed to make way for something better. Would we be able to agree on what improvements to make? Who would be involved in the review process? How would we deal with the legal issues surrounding private property? There are many reasons why this would be difficult or impossible, but it would be great to set up a continuous process of developing healthy and attractive environments.

(Photo of Plaza de la Constitucion de Oaxaca (Zocalo) from The Project for Public Places. Photo of Pittsburgh from Statepa.org)


Squatting in America

Tent cities under an overpass. Wooden shanties invading vacant lots. Squatters illegally occupying empty houses. This is not Rio, Dhaka or Nairobi. Rather, scenes like this have begun to appear in Fresno, Seattle, Miami and other American cities, where thousands of people are resorting to illegal means to find shelter.

Illegal settlements of homeless people
have recently sprung up in around a dozen American cities as people have lost their jobs and homes and run out of options. As Where noted in a previous post on creative residential responses to the economic crisis, many families have refused to vacate or have illegally occupied foreclosed homes – which makes sense when 1 in 9 (14 million) homes fall in that category. In Miami, Take Back the Land is one of several groups either openly or covertly moving homeless families into empty foreclosed homes. In 2006, the group responded to a deepening housing shortage in Liberty City, Miami, by erecting a shantytown on a vacant lot that had held low-income housing, until the city demolished it 8 years earlier. Known as Umoja Village, the shantytown housed up to 50 homeless people until it burned down in 2007.

What does it mean when one of the world’s richest nations starts squatting? Although the economic recession has made houselessness jarringly visible, it’s really the tipping point of a much older affordable housing crisis. Homelessness is nothing new in America, and low and middle-income Americans have increasingly been priced out of the nation’s cities, even in the best of economic times. But when large numbers of working class, and even middle-class people, resort to the tactics of slum dwellers to find shelter in the city, it makes front-page news.

At the root of the issue is a subjective question: Is shelter a commodity or a right? As a society, we have treated it as both. We let the real estate market do most of the distribution. We agree that those who have more money are entitled to purchase larger homes in better locations.

On the other hand, we don’t think the built environment should be left entirely to the whims of developers. We enact zoning laws and building regulations to make sure that we live in structurally safe, well-ventilated buildings in quiet, unpolluted neighborhoods with enough open space. We agree to provide housing at below-market rates to certain people, like the elderly, disabled and very poor. In some places, we have rent control to keep housing affordable. Most of us echo President Obama’s conviction that it is "not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.” This is affirmed by the fact that illegal squatting has in many cases either been tacitly permitted (policemen not evicting squatters) or openly accepted or encouraged (cities placing portable toilets and security guards near encampments, a Congresswoman encouraging squatting in foreclosed homes) by the powers that be. We sign on to the idea that there is a "right to adequate housing," which the UN promotes (but obviously can’t enforce).

Most societies consider housing to be both a commodity and a basic necessity, but they draw the line in different places. In the U.S., we lean very much to the side of the market in comparison with our European counterparts.

Markets are an efficient way to distribute many types of goods — like the classic example of the ice cream stand we learn about in microeconomics. However, we agree that, even with willing buyers and sellers, some goods cannot be commodities for moral reasons (organs, sex). Other goods can be sold in the market, but must be made available for free or at subsidized rates to those who can’t afford them because they are basic necessities and rights (education, health care – again, to a lesser extent in the U.S. than in Europe). We haven’t tended to think of housing in this way.

Markets are great distributional tools, but they are only tools. What happens when our existing distribution system is not delivering basically adequate housing at affordable rates to all citizens?

The reason that slums crowd developing world cities is the same reason they are emerging in the U.S. It’s more obvious when 60% of the population have to access shelter outside of formal mechanisms, and policies and planning have as much to do with slum formation as markets, but the fact remains: if the system isn’t providing housing at affordable rates for a significant amount of people, there’s something wrong with the system.

(Photos from New York Times and Yes Magazine.)


The Image of the (Failed) City: Third World Imagineering

Although El Paso del Norte (the gate to the North) was an old colonial settlement, Juárez only became a city proper and really began growing after the American Southwest had. Juárez —like the rest of the Mexican border cities— is a product of the twentieth century. Like many other fronterizo towns, Juárez grew as a sort of a joyride appendix to its cross-border counterpart, El Paso, during Prohibition.

In Mexican bordertowns, the centro, the city center, isn’t really a center. As Daniel Arreola and James Curtis have noticed in their fantastic book on urban archeology and border building culture, titled The Mexican Border Cities: Landscape Anatomy and Place Personality, “the most evident discrepancy between these cities and others within Latin America is that their shapes are abruptly truncated along their northern edges by the international boundary.” Juárez was split in half by the border and extended in half-moons starting at the international crossing. The centro has traditionally catered to U.S. consumers, particularly the tourist districts located alongside the border. Visitors from El Paso cross over to Juárez and find themselves surrounded by the materialization of their narrow expectations, of their prejudices, their romantic idealizations and their cheap tastes—all turned space.

Mexican border city tourist strips are heirs to Prohibition-era architectural follies: brothels topped by red windmills, bullrings, racetracks, and fancy casinos that popped up in the flat, dusty settlements. Along with the “dirty” buildings came paved roads, waterworks, bottling plants, distilleries, warehouses, curio shops, restaurants and basic service-oriented infrastructures. The Great Depression and Nationalist reformism seemed to put an end to the era, but the border vice economy gained strength with the outbreak of WW2. Contraband flourished across the border thanks to war rationing, and thousands of soldiers training in El Paso found relief in the Juárez tolerance zone, one of many "boystowns" scattered on the outskirts of border cities.

Anyone that’s heard anything about Mexican bordertowns knows of the “Black Legend”, these depictions of border cities as wannabe Sodoms and Gomorras. But for every great period of “immoral” development there has been an official attempt at “cleansing”. In colonial times local cattle drivers asked for tax breaks and special treatment in order to deal with Apache threats (turns out many of the ranchers themselves were filibusters and cattle robbers, and the “Apache” menace was as vague and misleading as any of the Wars on Terror we’ve grown used to). In the years of the Revolution local bosses held staged fights between bandits and local authorities while cashing in on drug deals and gambling. Moralist crusades forbidding kissing in public were launched by authorities that owned speakeasies and bordellos.

The most spectacular of these ersatz improvement operations and urban makeover schemes (and, for that matter, the grossest failures) were the nationalist rescue campaigns of the Cardenismo in the 1930s and the Sin City-to-Pleasantville expectations of the 1961 National Border Program (Pronaf).

In 1935, President Lázaro Cárdenas declared gambling illegal, declaring open war on casino owners, mostly foreigners known as the “border barons”. The government seemed determined to reclaim its role as an active urban arbitrator. A couple of casinos were turned into public schools and handful of hotels were removed to give way to working-class neighborhoods. The idea was to come up with a number of concrete, eye-catching, straightforward urban measures that could speak for themselves: exemplary measures. But in truth, the deep structure of the uneven development in Juárez and other border settlements remained untouched by Cárdenas: the economic free zone that left the region dependent on American supplies and consumers. “Mexicanizing” the border could only go so far…

The Pronaf followed this rich heritage of image-driven urban policy, but took things a step further. It was a beautification and industrialization initiative sponsored by the federal government and led by Antonio J. Bermúdez, a former mayor of Ciudad Juárez, that was supposed to "rescue" Mexican border cities from the evils of their historic dependency on their U.S. counterparts. Some of the troubles outlined by the program included the commercial imbalances that forced local consumers—described as being held "captive" by American retailers—to cross the boundary in order to cover their basic needs and the seediness brought about by vice tourism. The program was supposed to remedy the situation through an "integral" planning venture, one of the earliest to be implemented in the country, and possibly the first that equaled improvement with beautification, concentrating on the physical aspect of cities. The Pronaf was divided in two phases: first it would focus on land acquisitions, refurbishing border entry gates, building new cultural and tourist landmarks, creating incentives for private investment, and promoting cities through a series of urban marketing campaigns. In the longer term, the Pronaf would build American-style malls (the first ever to be built in the country) and industrial parks, all administered by the government.

The program lasted only four years, and the second phase never came. The program failed miserably at dignifying and beautifying. Still, the Pronaf is the most important direct planning precedent in terms of the definition of Ciudad Juárez's current urban character and structure. If you’ll bear with me here, I’ll let you in on the secret as to why. Just stick around for the next post.

* To go to the first post of this series on Ciudad Juárez, click here

(Photo source: OAC).


The Position of Power

With big corporations falling like skittles from a rainbow, one can only wonder where the power will pool. Not only have big businesses taken a hit, but so have the middle class "Mainstreeter," and the millennial pre-grad who will soon receive a student loan bill with a piece of paper that couldn't get him a job if it were plated in gold. So many people have lost money, time, and consequently, power. If power is seemingly draining from corporations, 401ks, and college diplomas, who will inherit this power and its attendant freedom?

The high-school graduate will inherit this power. The community college student will inherit this power, for they are the ones who will be entering the so called "real world" without a huge debt on their shoulders. Their homes didn't lose half of their value because these students are too young to own a house, and they have yet to invest in a university and therefore are not saddled with thousands of dollars worth of loans. They are staring into the reforming world with light shoulders and clear eyes.

Incredible opportunities lay ahead for these individuals. My hope for future generations is that these people do what they wish to do, which today is rarely realized due to parental and societal pressures which make kids question their ambitions and dreams. Future generations growing up with social networking, online publishing, and open courseware will be equipped with a completely new set of tools to connect, learn, and create. The real world used to mean get a job, soon it will mean create.

To learn more about the hypothetical future of our youth, see Jeff Jarvis' Hacking Education: Google U.

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


Plan Your Own Route

Mass transit: the democratic transportation mode.

It sounds right, doesn’t it? More than driving (of course), cabbing, biking or even walking, transit just feels like the transportation of the people. Transit does tend to receive the most visible and direct public subsidy, after all, and any way of traveling that forces crowds of people to press up against each other has to be considered democratic.

The countless benefits that cities reap from functional transit systems could be even greater, however, if transit systems could truly match cities’ needs in a timely and precise manner.

Of course, transit service already does approximate the needs of transit riders. This should be obvious—if you’re riding transit, it’s because existing service can get you from point A to point B. If transit can’t meet your needs, though, you’re probably not riding the bus, and non-riders are a blind spot faced by transit service planners.

The actions of communities and neighborhoods within cities hint at a solution to this problem. Since communities know their transit and mobility needs better than any centralized authority, they can approach transit agencies with ideas for improvements to existing bus service. If their suggestions are implemented, both parties benefit—the community for obvious reasons, and the agency by receiving valuable information from a direct source. This process is limited, however, by the incompleteness of information that’s offered. What if only some community groups take it upon themselves to analyze and communicate their transit needs? And what if some groups slip through the cracks or fail to make their case?

A more innovative solution that incorporates more information sources would be helpful, but there are obstacles to such a solution. Urban transit tends to be a natural monopoly—the fixed costs of a transit system are so great that two or more companies could not profitably exist in the same market (actually, cities in most parts of the world can’t even support one transit agency profitably). The result of the single-provider model is that multiple entities don’t get the chance to compete and experiment with different transit strategies. Ultimately, the mass transit “industry” is less innovative than it could be.

However, the internet and GIS technology offer one possible avenue for more direct public participation in the transit planning process. An interactive, online GIS map of a city and its transit network could allow any user to input desired changes to transit service. The GIS database would aggregate all those suggestions and inform the transit agency’s decisions to allocate or modify transit service. The most significant limitation to such an approach would be its reliance upon computer access and technological proficiency, which is not evenly distributed in cities. Despite this and other apparent flaws, a more participatory method of transit planning seems attainable given the technology currently available, and transit agencies can most likely use any additional information they can get.

(Photo from Flickr user pbiongriffin.)


Response to Disaster

Monday's earthquake in central Italy brought disaster back to the forefront of international attention. Disasters take many forms, but are related in their unpredictable and severely disruptive effects. What does the threat of disaster mean for cities?

In many ways, urbanization increases our vulnerability to large-scale disaster. It multiplies damages associated with contagious disease, violent conflict, extreme poverty, environmental harzard, and loss of cultural heritage. As settlements become more concentrated in fewer places, threats to these places pose greater risk to stability at national and international levels.

Photo of people in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai after the terrorist attacks of November 30, 2008At the same time, cities hold advantages for disaster prevention and recovery. In comparison with rural areas, they are more connected to global support and information networks. Public services, while not always dependable, offer some protection against the most devastating effects of disasters. Cities are also repositories of knowledge and resources that can be applied towards reducing vulnerabilities. Urban disasters don't always bring chaos, and can even inspire a sense of shared purpose, as evident in the resilience of Mumbai's population after the terrorist attacks last November.

Cities can prepare to mitigate disaster through coordinated governance and policy. Less concentrated settlements are worth considering, though population distribution isn't something to be forced. In most cases, I think we're better off strengthening the places where people choose to live. As the world's urban population grows rapidly, managing the threat of disaster to cities will be increasingly important for development and stability.

(Photo of a damaged house in Castelnuovo, Italy from Komonews.com; Photo of people in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai from Chinaview.cn)


Considering Programmed Housing, Continued

Yesterday, Where featured a post about a proposed development in Albany that would provide affordable urban artist housing while providing valuable cultural services to the existing community by having the residents create and teach free and low-cost art classes, building a community service program into the rental agreement. But artistic development is not the only service that could be programmed into a housing development. In fact, when tax revenue is being used to stimulate the economy and efficiency has become the golden rule, programmed housing stands to give taxpayers a lot of bang for their buck by tackling multiple social problems at the same time.

Foreclosures have become headline news over the past year, and affordable housing has rocketed from being an oft-maligned political quagmire to being an oft-maligned political quagmire in the national spotlight. Public opinion of public and affordable housing is, as Where has argued before, not anywhere near as high as it needs to be at a time when millions of people are in dire need of a place to stay. The central problem here, from a PR perspective, seems to be that Americans assume all residents of public housing are lazy, riding on the government's coattails to avoid working or paying rent. Of course, access to jobs is one of the central reasons for why people actually need affordable housing, particularly in urban areas. Irony is, as the saying goes, a bitch.

To complicate matters further, the Brookings Institution announced the results of a new study on what they have termed "job sprawl" earlier this week. The study confirmed what many already knew: jobs have followed people out to the suburbs. Nearly every city in America has seen its share of the total metro population shrink drastically over the past half century, and now Brookings has hard numbers to illustrate just how drastically this has affected those cities' share of the job market, as well.

According to the study, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk metro area has the highest percentage of residents working within a mile of the city's central business district, at just 36.4%. New York City, with its infamous hyper-concentration of office space, only managed to come in second with just 34.8% of the metro workforce commuting to its CBD each day. That means that, in the best cases, only a third of people are working in downtown areas, which inevitably have the highest concentration of transportation options.

Transportation is the glue that binds these two problems -- a lack of affordable housing and access to increasingly spread-out job opportunities -- together. Affordable housing is only useful to workers if it is available in a location that allows them reasonable commute times to places where jobs are actually available. Many people in the States are finding themselves rather suddenly without a job or a home, much less the funds to drive around the city looking for either, or to drive an hour each way every day to work a part-time job for $8 an hour (if that).

With the need for affordable housing at an all-time high and urbanists hoping for a stimulus-funded urban renaissance, it only makes sense that we should be presenting decision makers at the Federal level with projects, like Albany's Academy Lofts, that can weave solutions to multiple problems together as efficiently and creatively as possible. Programmed housing has the potential to provide job-seekers with affordable housing while simultaneously providing them with an opportunity to continue building work experience, through participation in community programs, while they continue their search for paid gainful employment. Not only that, but since the work done at programmed housing developments would be on-site, transit costs would be accordingly lowered for residents.

The arts are an obvious starting point, but there's no reason why housing developments couldn't be built around legal clinics to provide students fresh out of law school (and saddled with the accordant debt) with a chance to cut their teeth, or around community centers offering technology classes and computer repair services. Programmed housing could be easily tailored to be double assets; by placing such developments in targeted urban neighborhoods where a lack of certain services was identified, these developments would help both the new residents and the existing communities toward economic recovery.

Programmed housing may not be a sure-fire scheme (a potential downside: turnover could make for some very ineffective services), but tying solutions to jobs, housing, and transit challenges together -- particularly in urban areas -- is certainly the most effective way to use stimulus funds. If we're not talking about multiple solutions at once, we're not really talking about a solution at all.

(Photo from Flickr users The Voice of Eye and your_nostalgia, and from Where@FFFFOUND!. The originals can be viewed by clicking the photos.)


Considering Programmed Housing

The old abandoned St. Joseph's School is a sturdy old building; a four-story block of red brick and arched windows -- every smart developer's dream. The surrounding neighborhood, Arbor Hill, is a bit run down, but the quality of the housing stock is high, and prices are still relatively low. The potential for an attractive, walkable community is high. To the southwest is downtown Albany and the stunning New York State Capitol; to the southeast, the Hudson River. Conditions being what they are, gentrification and displacement seem inevitable. And then, of course, comes the news: someone is going to turn the old school building into artists lofts. It's an all-too-familiar story.

But this telling has a twist: the artist housing, to be called Academy Lofts, is not an island unto itself; the plans call for the school's former gymnasium to be converted into a community art center where classes would be taught by the building's residents. These artists, who would qualify for the rental units only if they required affordable housing to make a career of their work, would be moving into a programmed housing development, where their residency required active participation in the cultural and social life of the neighborhood.

At the heart of the gentrification problem is the challenge of getting new residents with different sociocultural backgrounds moving into a neighborhood to engage with their neighbors -- and, on the flip side, convincing often very tightly-knit communities to open themselves up to new residents and see them individually as potential partners instead of a combined, faceless threat. If artists are the stormtroopers of gentrification, the set-up at Academy Lofts is particularly ingenious in that it quickly embeds the artists moving into the neighborhood into the existing community, directly connecting new residents with their new neighbors through free or low-cost community programming.

Listening to a Smart City interview with author Sean Safford a few months ago, I was struck by the author's explanation of why some Rustbelt cites in the US have fared better than others, and what this might mean for urban neighborhoods like Arbor Hill. In his book, Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown, Safford compares the steel towns of Youngstown, Ohio, which he describes as having had a very densely-woven social network during the decline of the steel industry, with Allentown, Pennsylvania, which had a looser, more flexible social network. His argument is that Allentown has fared better in the long run specifically because its loose network of connections was more amenable to creating the kind of broad coalitions that were able to adapt to change rather than resist it, whereas Youngstown's extremely dense network was too closely tied to the status quo.

Neighborhoods that are dealing with gentrification -- often places where ethnic or racial enclave communities exist -- the standard scenario over the past few decades seems to have been that of a very tightly-knit community resisting encroaching development. Safford's research, if it can be applied at the neighborhood level (and I don't see why it can't), suggests that these communities might be much better off accepting that the neighborhood will change, and working to build broad community coalitions to try to help the existing community adapt to these changes rather than fight them.

Urbanists around the country are abuzz with chatter about how the Obama Administration's stimulus plan could revitalize American cities and metropolitan areas. Check back tomorrow for more on why programmed housing developments like Academy Lofts should be a key part of that national conversation.