Five Innovation Myths Applied to Urbanism

A recent CEOs for Cities post pointed out a great article by Dev Patnaik that outlined five common mistakes made by businesses looking to be innovators. All of them, in one way or another, dealt with the myth of the silver bullet, and the article made a clear and concise argument for the importance of institutional context and diversified methodology. The myths that Patnaik does away with are all important for urbanists to consider as cities work to position themselves as both innovative places and as incubators of economic and technological innovation. On top of that, responding to context (cities each have very different conditions, physically and economically) and diversification (urban problems are both numerous and intrinsically interconnected, and there is no one solution to anything) are particularly applicable. The following is a breakdown, in urbanism terminology, of Patnaik's ideas.

• Over-reliance on high-profile, "sexy" projects

The Guggenheim Bilbao made just as big a splash in the fields of urban planning and policy as it did in architecture. Now, it's a commonly-held belief that cities can build megaprojects that will catapult them into the international spotlight and trigger a surge of prosperity. In reality, even when such projects are independently successful they are never the silver bullet that was imagined. Chicago's Millennium Park, for example, is by all accounts a huge success as a public space and tourist attraction. Still, it was a financial fiasco, and the glamour and goodwill afforded the city by the park is now being squandered by the miserable failure of the city's transit system -- a battle in which the City of Chicago is too strapped to play any meaningful role. Big projects can be important to cities, but it's even more important to pay close attention to what trade-offs will need to be made in terms of basic services (transit ain't the only thing hurtin' in Chicago) in order to pull off a good piece of stunt urbanism. Millennium Park is an innovative piece of landscape architecture, but as an urban regenerator it's as archaic as they come.

• Unhealthy fascination with unique, charismatic civic leaders

Michael Bloomberg, Gavin Newsome, and Ken Livingstone all command a considerable amount of media attention for their efforts to improve their cities. This innovation red herring is especially potent in urbanism: everyone loves a superstar mayor. And while these mayors can teach us a lot, it is important to remember that the best and most innovative mayors from the past (Jaime Lerner is a prime example) were willing to take risks; that is to say that great mayors have often made names for themselves by bucking trends and trying new ideas that were responsive to their specific cities rather than following standard procedures being replicated, cut-and-paste style, in other cities.

• Misapplication of other cities' approaches

Building on the previous point, it is often assumed that because Idea X worked in City Y, it will be equally successful in City Z. This is absurd. Take, for instance, the public transportation system in Medellín. The city's 3.2 million inhabitants live in a long, narrow valley. While the central part of the city, located in the lowest and flattest part of the valley, is served by a standard subway system, the densely populated neighborhoods that climb up the western hillsides are served by the Metrocable, a cable-car line that has become very successful both as a transit line and -- to the delight of city officials -- a tourist attraction that has helped (along with other projects) to lower crime and improve the economic outlook for the neighborhood's poorer residents. The lesson to be learned here for other cities is that unconventional transit options can be worth the risk if they are properly tailored to the needs of the community. The misapplication of this lesson would be for a flat city to assume that building a cable car would be a good idea since it worked in Medellín. This is a relatively simple illustration, but you get the idea.

• Descent into a cycle of self-recrimination

Pittsburgh, the oddball city so dear to my own heart, is the poster child for this kind of thinking. Many Pittsburghers labor under the assumption that their city is suffering because it is unable to hold onto the talented young people who graduate from major universities in the area like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. (In fact, Pittsburgh has an unusually high rate of retention of its young natives). Pittsburghers see Creative Class capitals like San Francisco and Austin attracting large numbers of young creative types and makes the assumption that it is not cool enough to compete. Untold energy is put into trying to make the city cooler and more attractive to young people. Meanwhile, the draconian tax system that discourages start-ups (the number that exist regardless of this fact is a testament to the city's unrealized potential) go unchanged because Pittsburgh fails to realize that music festivals and extensive bike paths aren't going to save the city. The Burgh was a global hub of commercial and technological innovation at the turn of the 19th century. To be successful today, all cities (Pittsburgh included) would do well to look back at their strongest points and learn how to replicate that kind of success.

• Resignation to superficial changes

Patnaik uses the example "Let's just paint the walls purple" to mock companies' shallow understanding of the funky interiors of creative business HQs -- most famously, the Googleplex. Cities have a long and storied history of believing in the power of cosmetic changes only to be let down by the results. A phenomenon that you might call Trinket Urbanism had a death grip on North American cities until relatively recently as every city rushed to have their version of one-off amenities built in other cities. Baltimore's Festival Harbor spawned a gazillion of those so-called "Festival Marketplaces." Arenas were all the rage throughout much of the 1990s. Making a city more attractive is certainly not a bad idea, but there is a dangerous perceived correlation between beautification and prosperity. Flowering medians do not a center of innovation make.

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

Innovation Mistakes (CEOs for Cities)

Five Common Mistakes in Innovation (Business Week)


Mapping Chicago @ the Chicago History Museum

Mapping Chicago, the inaugural exhibit in the Chicago History Museum's new Skyline gallery, is also one of the inaugural exhibits in Chicago's Festival of Maps. The show, which opened near the end of September, divides the spacious new gallery into three distinct areas, each with its own theme, and shows the city of Chicago in various stages of its history, and from a variety of distinct perspectives. Overall it's a bit of a grab-bag, but certainly worth your while.

Cities are places with vast histories comprised of millions upon millions of stories stretched across hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years. As the curators of Mapping Chicago point out several times in this exhibit (most entertainingly, at one point, in the rather incredulous "voice" of the city itself) it is virtually impossible to create a map of a city that really encapsulates what Chicago is about. Buildings go up and are torn down, streets are widened or erased, demographics shift as people come and go, and all of this contributes to the fact that as soon as a map of a place as dynamic as Chicago is made, it is in some way already out of date.

The first area of the exhibit, then, attempts to piece together a historic portrait of the city. From a detailed map of the area destroyed by the Great Fire to a map of the original settlement showing the original Native American trails that crisscrossed the area, this introductory set makes no attempt to show Chicago as it is. The unofficial centerpiece here, a wall-sized full-color birds-eye view map of the Loop from the early 1900s drawn in exquisite detail, subtly underlines the show's message; of the many large and grand structures that surely seemed as permanent as time itself when this map was completed, only a few are still around today. Even monumental constructions like the old Federal Building or the Masonic Temple (then the city's tallest building) are long gone.

It's in the second area that the exhibit sags a bit as it veers rather noticeably off course to demonstrate by video and through several kid-friendly kiosks how two-dimensional maps are formed into globes. Replogle Globes, a major manufacturer of the objects, is a sponsor of the installation. This middle section is interesting in and of itself, as it answers in careful detail one of those questions that you'd never thought to ask but find yourself very curious about once it's been asked for you. Still, the section can't help feeling like a commercial in the middle of a good show since the subject matter is only tangentially (at best) connected to that of the overall exhibit. At any rate, it's fun for kids, and certainly no reason to skip Mapping Chicago altogether.

The third and final area is separated from the other two by a very unconventional map made up of a cluster of very large, very colorful representations of Chicago landmarks. It is a sculptural creation made of oversized drawings by children from around the city that sets the tone for the area of the exhibit that shows how the diverse and divergent perceptions of the city by its many inhabitants over the years has created some very interesting and unconventional maps of the city. A pinball machine printed with a map of the 1933 World's Fair, a color-coded map of building heights in the Loop in the early 20th Century, large digitally-produced maps of SOM's plan for the city's 2016 Olympic bid -- all of these and more are on display in this part of the exhibit. Together, they bring home the message that a city like Chicago is a constantly-changing thing, exciting and mysterious in the way that it constantly eludes the cartographer. The city is the subject in all of these maps, but ironically this collection, brought together, puts the focus on the map-makers. After all, in the end it is the people -- not the physical environment -- that make the city what it is at any given moment.

Mapping Chicago is on display at the Chicago History Museum until January 6th, 2008. The museum is open seven days a week; the entry fee is $14 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, and free for children under 12. Hours vary, so check the website for more details. While you're there, if you are in need of some more map action, don't miss the permanent exhibit Chicago: Crossroads of America, which features a number of detailed maps from the city's two world's fairs. Also on display: gorgeous architectural models of the Chrysler Motors and Transportation Buildings from the '33 Fair.

Mapping Chicago (Chicago History Museum)

(PS -- Where is back in business! Thanks to all of the fine people at the North Michigan Avenue Apple Store who saved my hard drive and, by extension, my sanity. They are awesome.)


WEEKEND READING: October 20-26, 2007

No good news on the laptop front...the machine is very dead, but whether the files on the hard drive are salvagable or not is a mystery until next week. In the meantime...

ITEM ONE: Built Environment Blog chimes in on the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment in New York with a brief history of the Superblock.

ITEM TWO: The Map Room features João Machado’s colorful map creations.

ITEM THREE: The Affordable Housing Institute highlights a series of articles from the Times of India that illustrate how myriad urban problems in Mumbai are interrelated.

ITEM FOUR: Does Big Development kill the American Dream? The American thinks so (and I agree!).

ITEM FIVE: Richard Florida's new report (with Tim Gullden and Charlotta Mellander), The Rise of the Megaregion, presents us with a whole slew of new opportunities for "BosWash"-esque portmanteaus -- and some kickass demographic images like the one at the top of this post.

Have a great weekend, everyone! Hopefully I'll be able to get my paws on a laptop for Urbanffffinds on Sunday.


Dear Blogosphere...

I miss you.

Things with the laptop aren't going so well. There is hope that the information on the hard drive can be salvaged, but it looks like the machine itself is pretty much shot. I have been cursing and and gnashing my teeth quite a bit these past few days.

So Where is still out of commission, at least for a few more days. I will hopefully be able to get repaired or new hardware by next Thursday, when I'm supposed to start National Novel Writing Month. Luckily, since I had planned ahead for that absence, there will be a number of guest bloggers and other exciting fun things coming up at Where in November. More on that next week.

In the meantime, if you are looking for some fun bloggy reading, a few new links have been added to the Otros Blogos feature on the sidebar. Take a look:

Civic Nature


Global Voices Online (Development Page)

The Contemporary Grand Tour

The Creativity Exchange (aka Richard Florida's daily musings)

There will be Weekend Reading tomorrow. Along with death and taxes, it's one of the only constants in this crazy world. Hah.


Water + Laptop = Bad

The wind was kind enough to knock a glass of water onto my laptop while I was out yesterday. There is hope that it may still work, but it's going to need a few days to dry out. So Where will be going dark for a few days. Best case scenario is that regular posting will resume on Wednesday. Worst case scenario is that...never mind, I don't want to think about it.

In the meantime, might I suggest some archive-diving? I'm preparing to add several new menus to the sidebar, one of which will be an Archive Highlights list. Here are links to the past posts that I am planning on adding to that list. Suggestions are welcome. ;-)

Centers of Stuff
Don't Touch the Art
A True Alternative
Everyone is Watching You
What's in a Name? (Or: Car-free on the High Seas)
Possibilities of the Post-Retail City
(re)Building Intellectual Infrastructure

Adios, compadres. See you soon (I hope).


Urbanffffinds 001

Urbanffffinds will be a new weekly feature, starting today. Each weekend Where will feature a roundup of the coolest urban, architectural, and cartographic images discovered on the amazing (still in private beta) new collaborative image repository, FFFFOUND. The images will appear unedited (unlike the usual b&w thumbnails) and will be directly linked to FFFFOUND. Bon appetite, photogrubbers!



A heads up: Where is now publishing a full RSS feed instead of a partial. To access the feed, click the RSS Feed button on the left sidebar under the Blog Archives.


WEEKEND READING: October 13-19

It has been a busy week in the blogosphere. That makes for a fat WR list!

ITEM ONE: Wikipedia's impressive list of urban squares ranked by area. This is the kind of thing that the internet was invented for.

ITEM TWO: A post at Line of Sight covering the delightfully wacky buildings of Argentine architect Francisco Salamone. (Photo credit)

ITEM THREE: BLDGBLOG's got a crush on Los Angeles...

ITEM FOUR: ...and over at Spacing Wire, an Angeleno has a crush on Toronto.

ITEM FIVE: Kazys Varnelis with an interesting take on the city vs. suburb debate.

ITEM SIX: Interesting post at IAdotO about Emotional Architecture (with the added bonus of a link to a free online version of the book The Emotion Machine).

ITEM SEVEN: Antonio Gaudi's got a Brazilian doppelgänger.

ITEM EIGHT: International Listings' take on the Top 100 Architecture blogs -- a good resource with lots of blogs both old and new. Where comes in at #100 thanks to good old-fashioned alphabetization. ;-)

Have a great weekend, everyone!


Speculative Urban Blogging

I came across two great new blogs this week that do what you might refer to as "speculative urban blogging" in two very different (if equally innovative) ways. So consider tonight's post sort of an in-depth lead-in to Weekend Reading, if you will.

Audacious Ideas takes a look at how things are going in Baltimore and makes some rather audacious suggestions as to how these problems might be addressed more effectively. Here's the catch: the entries are written by Baltimore professionals who work in fields that deal directly with the problems that they are writing about. Audacious Ideas takes big questions and provides answers sized to match. And even with only five posts (not including the introduction), AI has provided audacious[ly pragmatic, in most cases] suggestions for policy reform in the areas of public health, the city budget, childrens' safety, drug treatment, and education.

Even better, the audacity is apparently just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. Every topic has spurred a discussion at least a dozen posts long. Baltimoreans are taking inspiration from this new public forum, and from everything that I've read the readers are taking the discussions seriously -- a rare occurence on the internet. It certainly helps that these discussions are being started and led by community leaders with experience and wisdom. Online conversations almost always benefit from having a curating presence, and as this blog continues to build a body of posts and public discourse, it stands a better chance of becoming a real engine for change in Baltimore. Speculating on the future of the city opens up possibilities and puts some 2.0 juice into public policy.

The Blurgh looks at Pittsburgh's future from an entirely different angle: the writers are already living in it. Written in an imagined 2027, The Blurgh is a rather audacious blog, itself. "Frank" and "Gretchen" are two twentysomethings, a student and a writer, making their way in the now-resurgent Steel City. Written as a simple journal-style blog, The Blurgh is coy. The bloggers mention massive changes in the city's physical and economic environments -- Pittsburgh's status as a hub of sustainable technology, the city's impressive literary scene, an über-extensive mass transit system -- in passing, stopping only occasionally to do a sort of "gee, whiz" look back at the past (aka our present) and comment on how glad they are to be living in the "new" Pittsburgh (aka the one in 2027).

It's the realism that is so clever. If this very blog were being written in 2007, it would be wholly unremarkable, another drop in the massive bucket of naval-gazing public journaling that has earned the field blogging its currently somewhat uneven reputation. Well, okay...it is actually being written in 2007, but you get what I mean. The writer(s) of The Blurgh seem to know exactly what they're doing and, while it's too early to tell, they could turn this blog into a very important forum for the discussion of Pittsburgh's future, and how the city got/could get there. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how The Blurgh -- and its community of readers -- evolves.

So much of urblogging is focused on keeping tabs on what's going on right now in a neighborhood or a city. The local everyday politics of potholes, homelessness, new construction, and Starbucks are important to local discourse, and this is not a knock against of-the-moment urblogs. But it certainly wouldn't hurt, I don't think, if bloggers in a few more cities took on the challenge of trying to imagine a better and brighter future for the places they live. The hyperlocal movement is very much tied to the immediate present, and sometimes this means that urbloggers can't see the forest for the trees. A better future for our cities is something worth speculating about, and blogging provides those interested with the perfect medium to address rapidly-changing problems. As Audacious Ideas and The Blurgh show us, there are many different ways to use this technology to speculate on a brighter urban future.

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

Audacious Ideas (via CEOs for Cities)

The Blurgh (via The Burgh Diaspora)


New City, Old Urbanism

Cities in the New World followed a relatively simple logic that involved gridded streets and a central public space. In both North and South America, the evidence of this development pattern is most readily apparent in smaller towns and cities, where grids remain regular and humanly scaled, and town squares and plazas mayores are alive and well. Urban development has largely erased or obscured the original layouts of larger cities on both continents, but the real difference between the impact that the form had can best be seen in how they build cities today.

In North America, for instance, the meandering suburban road, splintered with cul-de-sacs, has become the favored layout, while South American suburbs often maintain the urban grid, often extending the original further and further into the hinterland. Even more than the grid, though, the plaza mayor is encoded in the DNA of Latin American cities. Since the conquests of the Portuguese and the Spanish began reshaping the continent through colonization and subsequent urbanization, every settlement -- from the smallest of towns to enormous cities like Buenos Aires and São Paulo -- has been centered around one of these compact public spaces. So while contemporary North American towns and neighborhoods are usually built around retail clusters, when it is time to build a new city down South, the plaza mayor remains the central feature.

The image at the top of this post is an aerial photograph of the central area of Palmas, Brazil. Founded in 1989 after Brazil created the new state of Tocantins by separating the northern and southern territories of Goias, everything about this city is new. Still, as the aerial shows, the central feature of this rigidly-plotted micropolis (pop. 187,000) maintains the traditional form of the South American city, with an unrelenting grid and a visibly dominant central plaza that plays host to several important government offices.

It is, by all photographic accounts, a very green and spacious place. By all written accounts, it's also one of the most economically robust cities in the country at the moment. But cashflows and palm fronds aside, what earns Palmas its reputation as a modern-day Brasilia are its public buildings. Hubris is immediately visible in Palmas' architecture. The government house and administrative buildings spaced evenly across the massive plaza mayor are a delightful and at times shocking mix of modernist elegance and Las Vegas kitch. In short, the Brazilians have done it again: they've built a capital from scratch.

As an outside observer, it seems to me that Palmas might be the most Brazilian of Brazilian cities as this southern juggernaut enters the 21st century struggling to gain more than just a regional foothold in the global economic/power structure. After all, Palmas is a city that remains true to tradition while making it seem distinctly modern. The eccelctic plaza and broad, tree-lined avenues look fresh and exciting, even though they are variations on a theme started in the 1500s (or earlier, depending on how you look at it). The architecture and the sheer expansiveness of the place are daring and ambitious in and of themselves. Palmas is a city with something to prove, and a plan on how to do it.

Really...just look at it.

(Photos from Panoramio users jpncerrado, GILMAR QUEIROZ, Rodrigo Goncalves Luz, and Ronaldo Mitt. Don't forget -- clicking on the images takes you to the full-color originals.)


Boom time in Brazil (BBC News)


Addressing the Sub/Urban Divide

The following post is part of Blog Action Day 2007, in which more than 15,000 bloggers around the world are posting about the environmental challenges that we face today as a society. For more info, follow the link at the end of the post.


These days, cities and suburbs are locked in a seemingly intractable struggle. Cities are understood to be the dense urban cores bustling with pedestrians and laced with mass transit lines, while suburbs are viewed as the stomping grounds of the wicked and immoral Sprawl Monster that devours land at alarming rates and drives up demand for auto traffic and freeway construction, adding untold millions of tons of carbon into the air and accelerating global warming. It's a typical Western dichotomy: dark vs. light; right vs. left; good vs evil.

What often gets brushed aside as a result of this oversimplification is the fact that urbanity has little to do -- especially in the United States -- with political boundaries. The average densities of American cities and suburbs are almost the same. In fact, if you look at the 43 American municipalities with a density above 10,000 people per square mile, only six of them -- New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami -- are the central cities in their metropolitan areas. (That number rises to eight if you include Trenton and Newark, both in New Jersey, whose smaller metros are usually absorbed into the CSAs of Philadelphia and New York). Granted, some of the suburbs that reach this density are far more auto-centric than some of the less densely populated central cities, but the point here is that questions urbanity cannot be boiled down into easy, diametrically opposed sides. Density, sprawl, city, suburb -- all of these things are involved in the equation, but they don't always line up as neatly as we might hope.

It is often said nowadays that cities produce the majority of carbon emissions (roughly 80%) and therefore these areas must be the solution to the problem. This is entirely true, but we have to realize that "city" in this instance refers not to central urban areas, but entire metropolitan regions. One of the greatest challenges that US cities face, then, is how to undo the damage that poor land use policies and auto-dependancy have done to our suburbs. Many of the suburbs in the 10K+ density range are older places that were established before or during the early years of the automobile age: Paterson and Jersey City across the Hudson from New York; Somerville and Cambridge across the Charles from Boston; Cicero and Berwyn on the western edge of Chicago. These suburbs often have their own commercial areas, neighborhood shops and restaurants, and immigrant communities priced out of central cities. They are densely populated and often less reliant on cars than postwar suburbs. Many are connected to transit systems. In short, these suburbs are very urban places.

In the same stroke, some very large cities can be very sparsely populated places. San Jose, the center of Silicon Valley, is half as dense as Lakewood, Ohio, an historic streetcar suburb of Cleveland. Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, is twice as dense as Las Vegas. And how about this one: the most densely populated municipality in the US, Union City, New Jersey, has a population density 54.5 times higher than that of Jacksonville, Florida, one of the country's largest cities.

Numbers and boundaries have never been very good ways of defining places. They're too clinical, and they often substitute statistics for the human element. This has led to a critical misunderstanding on the part of the general public in the US of terminology pertaining to the built environment. As a result, people here are having a lot of trouble figuring out how cities should address climate change. There is a consensus that something must be done, but people can't seem to agree on what that might look like. City-dwellers pat themselves on the back and blame climate change on amorphous "sprawl," anti-urbanists twist stats to try to turn the tables on urbanists who are ill-equipped to deal with public perception, and suburbanites guard their turf rather fiercely, fearing that "density" will translate to more hellish commutes and the loss of "local character" that often doesn't exist in the first place. As a result the US plods along slowly toward a drastic change in the coastline with no solution in sight.

There is a near-total lack of vision in how we deal with urbanization and development in this country. However, this is starting to change. Hopefully, a rather damning trifecta of recent reports will give urban planners and civic leaders the tools they need to redirect the conversation.

First, it was revealed by the New York City Department of Health that New Yorkers lived, on average, nine months longer than the average American -- a fact linked to New Yorkers' more active lifestyles and the city's dense, walkable streetscape. Next came a report from Smart Growth America with the claim that "the projected 59 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels." Finally, the American Public Transportation Association announced that "when compared to other household actions that limit carbon dioxide (CO2), taking public transportation can be more than ten times [more effective] in reducing this greenhouse gas." It was a three-strike, rapid-fire attack on auto-centric development patterns. The message was made very clear: if we want to seriously address climate change in the United States, we must walk more, improve our public transit infrastructure, and drive much less often. All of this is reliant upon the existence of one thing: an urban environment.

At some point it must be acknowledged by a majority of Americans that if we want to change the way we impact our climate, we have to change the ways that we build and live. Making the switch from regular light bulbs to CFLs is all well and good. But understanding the way that land use and transportation actually work, and accepting the fact that we must be more responsible in these areas, is critical to finding a real solution. If the public is to come to this better understanding, recognizing and explaining the difference between straight statistics (city/suburb, density/sprawl) and genuine urbanity should be the first items on the urban agenda.

(Photos from Flickr users jimheid and mirkob. The first shows Cambridge, MA, rising across the river from Boston's Back Bay neighborhood; the second is an image of Jacksonville, FL's hollowed-out core and the sparsely populated surrounding neighborhoods.)

Blog Action Day

US Municipalities Over 50,000:
Ranked by 2000 Density (Demographia)

Why New Yorkers Las Longer (NY Magazine) (via All About Cities)

Less Auto-Dependent Development Is Key to Mitigating Climate Change, Research Team Concludes (Smart Growth America)

Taking Transit: The Most Effective Route to Cutting Carbon (WorldChanging.com)


Chicago Humaities Festival

The 18th Annual Chicago Humanities Festival runs from October 27th to November 11th here in -- you guessed it -- Chicago, Illinois. There's a great schedule of lectures, art installations, plays, panel discussions, and movies that are all focused on the festival's theme, "The Climate of Concern," which translates to global warming and sustainability issues. If you live in the Chicago area or are planning a visit some time during the two-week festival, you should definitely check out the website.

I just bought my tickets to a few archi/urbanism related events, so I wanted to throw it out there -- if any of you Where readers is planning to attend any of the following events, email me and perhaps we can meet up. The more the merrier, right? Hope to see you soon. ;-)

304: PANEL
Sustainable Building in Chicago -- A Scorecard
Tue, Oct 30 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM

Museum of Contemporary Art, Theater
220 E. Chicago Ave.
FREE (Tickets still required)

Starship Troopers
Wed, Oct 31 6:30 PM

Facets Cinémathèque
1517 W. Fullerton Ave.
Tickets: $5.00

420: PANEL
Adaptation -- The Other Half of Our Response to Global Warming
Sat, Nov 3 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago Campus
375 E. Chicago Ave.
Tickets: $5.00
(I am also planning to walk down to Millennium Park after this to check out ARCTIC.)

Douglas Kelbaugh with Harrison Fraker: The Greening of the Metropolis
Sun, Nov 11 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago Campus
375 E. Chicago Ave.
Tickets: $5.00


This is just too cool.

(Photo found via FFFFOUND.)


WEEKEND READING: October 6-12, 2007

It's been a busy week for this blogger, so the Weekend Reading list will be a bit shorter than usual.

ITEM ONE: Part IV, aka "The World's Worst Blog," put up a public poll to determine the three Best Archiblogs of 2007. Where has been nominated. Feel free to vote for it, if you so choose. ;-)

ITEM TWO: The new issue of The Next American City features this great article about the ripple effect war causes on crime, which happens to be available online.

ITEM THREE: City of Faded Elegance points us to the new edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which has a ton of great content on contemporary South America.

ITEM FOUR: Aussie blog Pigs Will Fly reports on so-called Sustainability Streets. The formula is quite fun: Mulch (learn), Sow (plan), Grow (do), Harvest (teach).

ITEM FIVE: Planetizen features a great post about a new museum in Salt Lake City that focuses on the ever-changing nature of the city.

Have a great weekend!

(Photo from Flickr user LeggNet.)


Public and Private Spaces

While they are best known for Park(ing), San Francisco group Rebar recently completed another interesting project called COMMONspace in which they visited POPOS (short for Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces) around San Francisco and staged some bizarre stunts in order to highlight the fact that these places were, despite common perception, open for public use, whatever the public determined that to be (within the law). Their self-described objective was to ask of these public places, "How public?"

From a recent article on the project in The Next American City: "'We partnered up with [performance and activist group Snap Out Of It] and said, 'Let’s just get in there and energize these spaces,' which appeared to us to be underused by the public and constrained by the psychogeography of downtown,' says [Rebar member] Blaine Merker -- in other words, the very fact that these spaces are located in the business district gives the public the idea that access and certain behaviors are prohibited."

Security guards, surveillance cameras, and the business attire of the crowds of office workers in San Francisco's financial district had all created the illusion of exclusivity in these decidedly un-exclusive places. POPOS were the result, after all, of a law that aimed take advantage of new commercial construction by requiring developers to include public areas for the enjoyment of all San Franciscans. But citizens were not enjoying these spaces because the physical environment, while perhaps attractive, was hardly welcoming in the way that a park or plaza might be.

I have to wonder, reading this, what effect corporate advertising has on public spaces. This is largely due to a recent post at Spacing Wire that pointed out the absurdity of Canadian communication megacorp Rogers spraypainting advertisements for Myspace Mobile onto sidewalks in public parks.

"Big businesses like Rogers (and the ad company responsible for implementing the campaign) should act like responsible corporate citizens. Sadly, these companies take advantage of [the City of Toronto's] over-stretched staff. They are fully aware that City will not invest the time or energy to prosecute them. But when teenagers get caught with a spray-paint can in hand, they’re arrested and eventually ordered to take part in community services."

The Spacing team also pointed out that this was the same park where Audi placed advertisements thinly veiled as sculptures earlier this year. Rogers and Audi are certainly not alone when it comes to corporations willing to bend the rules in public places in order to create "authentic" or edgy advertisements for their products. (While I can't comment on their legality, I have seen multiple "graffiti ads" around Chicago for various companies). But what do these infringements say about the role of corporations in the public realm?

Whether they are spraypainted on random surfaces or screwed onto fake art, logos undoubtedly have some effect on the psychogeography of a place that is supposed to be the unfettered domain of the common citizen. In the same way that cameras and guards create a "you are being monitored" feel in POPOS, logos and advertisements that encroach on public places seem to say "you are still on our turf." When private corporations take over public spaces and undermine the legal entities that care for those spaces, they claim the public for the private. These seemingly harmless infringements say some disturbing things between the lines.

I'm not trying to sound paranoid, and I am aware that this is a small problem at present. But it is certainly something worth keeping an eye on. After all, when private entities claim psychological domain over public spaces, we start down a slippery slope.

Challenging the Commons (The Next American City)

Rogers thinks the sidewalk is my space (Spacing Wire) (Photo credit)


Guerilla Geography

"We all have a different view of the world. Each of us have our own and diverse ways of using our unique senses to interpret the risks, emotions, possibilities, futures and experiences that places have to offer. How we see where we are is dependent on the experiences that we have had, how we have experimented and explored our environment - and so if the guerilla geographer (psycho-geographer) shapes an experience for a person, that person might forever change their view of themselves, their influences and their world."

Guerilla Geography Blog (found via Very Spatial)


Civic Crowdfunding

As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the internet is fast becoming the new Agora. The social functions of the public square are being transferred into cyberspace, and we are being forced to come up with new ways of doing things in cities. Public discourse is the perfect example; urbanites, once able to voice their opinion in the public square, are finding a new voice online. City governments have a real opportunity, then, to tap into public opinion and get to work on citizens' real concerns.

One of the most interesting web 2.0 developments has undoubtedly been the rise of crowdsourcing, and now by extension, crowdfunding. A particularly interesting and grassroots-y example of crowdfunding comes from the site Sellaband, which allows music lovers -- whom Sellaband refer to as "believers" -- to pool their money with other believers to help artists, who submit their music to the site, fund a trip to the recording studio. This method breaks a band down into 5,000 "parts," which are each sold for $10. Once $50,000 has been raised through the sale of these parts, Sellaband provides the artist with an A&R professional to guide them through the recording process. The full amount must be raised before the recording process can begin, so this turns both artists and believers into music evangelists, spreading word of the fund-raising effort to friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

It would be great to see something like this applied to neighborhood, or even city-wide improvement projects to create a kind of civic crowdfunding. The Sellaband method makes a great deal of sense since it pools money from a large number of people who then provide free marketing and PR. By tapping into peoples' passion for where they live, city officials and even developers can enliven the civic discourse by using internet technologies. Just imagine the potential of a site where people didn't just complain about local problems, but offered feasible solutions and invited their neighbors to get involved in getting real results. City Hall could even have an agreement whereby it provided a city official in a related office to help guide a fully-funded neighborhood project through the implementation.

If it sounds pie-in-the-sky, you might be surprised to hear that there are already somewhat similar programs in several cities. Seattle, for instance, has its own Department of Neighborhoods, a city department that deals with neighborhood projects and services. The SDoN even has a matching grant program that helps groups of Seattleites to fund projects that address the problems they have identified within their own neighborhoods. From their website: "Funds are limited so it's a competitive program. Applications are considered during specific funding cycles and the highest rated applications are awarded funds." From the sound of it the ratings come from a government body, but this looks like an early form of civic crowdfunding.

Next we turn to Minneapolis' Neighborhood Revitalization Project (NRP), which is "an investment program based on truly empowering residents by bringing them into the priority-setting process of the city. It is based on the belief that the empowerment of residents and the mobilization of untapped resources, energy and creativity can make our collective desire for a better future a reality. Neighborhood based priority setting, planning, and implementation are NRP's core. Residents and other neighborhood stakeholders create Neighborhood Action Plans (NAPs) that describe the neighborhood they want in the future and the goals, objectives and specific strategies that will help accomplish their vision. NRP completes the empowerment process by providing funding to each neighborhood to help implement their approved NAP."

The Neighborhood Action Plans seem to be another form of primitive civic crowdfunding. While the funding structure is still traditional (read: external), it is neighborhood residents that are creating the plan for their neighborhood (I knew someone had to be doing this already) and setting the priorities of the plan. Will everything that these plans address work out as residents had hoped, or even in their favor? Probably not. But it would be foolish to suggest that developers and/or City Hall always gets it right when trying to "fix" neighborhoods. There is a certain amount of risk involved in a program that asks lay citizens how their neighborhood should be improved -- but there is a wealth of unprofessional expertise, as well. After all, planners may know best how to move traffic efficiently through a theoretical neighborhood, but residents understand the idiosyncrasies and unplanned tics of their neighborhoods better than anyone who doesn't live there.

Springwise, the bloggy arm of Trendwatching.com, had this to say in a recent profile of a software crowdfunding site: "In addition to a marketplace for software development, microPledge reckons its site will come to be viewed as a free market-testing service to gauge the reception for new software products and features. Interesting example of the intention economy at work: when consumers have to put their money where their mouth is, it's a pretty good bet you can believe what they say." If you extend this argument to neighborhood crowdfunding in cities, it holds up quite nicely. The risks of trusting what some might term "non-experts" are mitigated in crowdfunding by the wary wisdom of the consumer. Neighbors are more likely to ignore flashy-but-ineffective revitalization projects, choosing instead to fund the kinds of improvements that will raise an area's quality of life in all of the little ways that legacy-laden city officials can overlook.

Little bits add up. That's what crowdfunding is all about.

(Photo from Flickr user djpiesas.)


Seattle Department of Neighborhoods

Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Project

Crowdfunding software projects (Springwise)


WEEKEND READING: September 19-October 5, 2007

Lots of good stuff over the past few days. Here at Weekend Reading, it's an eight-item week!

ITEM ONE: A great story -- from the BBC of all places -- on the relationship between the American military base at GTMO and the city of Guantanamo, Cuba.

ITEM TWO: A disturbing letter from a freedom of speech/human rights activist in South Africa over at Squatter City.

ITEM THREE: Speaking of South Africa, the Lincoln Institute's new newsletter is out, and it contains a really fantastic overview of the current situation in Johannesburg.

ITEM FOUR: Another CEOs for Cities national meeting has come and gone, and their blog features this great list of the ideas that were bouncing around last week.

ITEM FIVE: A new economic pact to connect South American cities could potentially lead to "widespread deforestation and the eventual loss of the Amazon jungle within three or four decades."

ITEM SIX: Richard Rogers on public space, Pompidou, and how he almost became a cab driver.

ITEM SEVEN: Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent analyzes four of New York's most visible public spaces for the NY Times.

ITEM EIGHT: Lets wrap up with some imagery. This week saw the work of photographer David Schalliol (covered in one of Where's very first posts) featured on things magazine and Archinect. (Photo credit)

If you enjoyed that really comprensive profile of São Paulo a few weeks back, don't miss Item Three. Comprehensive profiles are kind of awesome, as a rule. This is no exception.


(Re)Building Intellectual Infrastructure

Richard Florida, Dr. Creative Class himself, spent a good deal of time in a post today on his blog responding to some of the concerns raised in yesterday's Where post on questioning the logic of the CC. I'll admit that I haven't yet read Rise of the Creative Class (yesterday's post was about the phenomenon, not specificlly the book that started it), so reading his thoughts taught me a lot that I didn't know about his argument. As it turns out, I agree with him on more than I had originally thought. From Dr. Florida's post:

"My bottom line is that every human being is creative. And the creativity cannot be forced into the social categories we have imposed on ourselves...The real task is to build pathways to a creative society in which all can contribute and be rewarded [and] in which all engage their creativity at a much fuller level, thereby contributing to economic growth...The key to the future will be to extend the creative force into the service and manufacturing economies - across all segments of the population. The logic of the creative economy is such that the further development of the economy requires the further development of human creative capabilities. We need to shift from a creative economy and a creative class to much fuller and broader creative communities and a creative society."

This plays directly into the follow-up I had planned to last night's post. If cities hope to strengthen the creativity of their citizens in order to secure their economic futures, the officials holding the purse strings need to realize that coffee shops and bike paths aren't going to cut it -- they're the icing, not the cake. As illustrated in the Slate article referrenced yesterday, the creative class will seek out existing creative societies. Cities looking to invest in their creative infrastructure, then, should focus on building up the skills of those who already live there instead of looking to bring new folks in. To paraphrase City Comforts, brilliance innovates, genius follows.

Cities looking to build a creative populace can do so if they are willing to invest in what we'll call their intellectual infrastructure. Civic leaders' first step here would be to create the strongest school system possible -- a major responsibility that many cities illogically refuse to take seriously. That sadly overpoliticized issue aside, cities must find innovative ways to encourage their citizens to develop their own creative skills. It's time that politicians stop looking at citizens as "constituents" (read: votes) and start seeing them as what they are: the city's greatest assets.

In a recent post at atlas(t)'s Galleon Trade Edition, blogger Claire Light waxed nostalgic about the proverbial days of yore: "Once upon a time, before art was professionalized (insofar as people are willing to pay artists, that is to say) folks stayed at home a lot and made art themselves. Every middle class home had a piano, every working class one a fiddle, or a jew's harp. Young ladies drew each other for sport. Young men drooped from the forks of tree branches shouting, 'Beauty!' Jigs were danced, and danced well, on homemade wooden heels, family theatricals taught children the fine art of crying at will, [and] a blank wall was excuse enough for interpretive dance..."

As Dr. Florida (and several readers who commented on yesterday's post) pointed out, creativity is about a lot more than what we traditionally think of as the arts. Creativity and innovation, especially in terms of economics, must be valued in all fields and industries. What the atlas(t) post illustrates particularly well is the way that art used to be intregrated into society; these kinds of activities were much more accessible to the general public. Art-for-fun had no social stigma; it was just something that everyone did. In this way, artistic endeavors served as both social activities and intellectual stimulation. When you gathered around a piano and sang songs with your friends, you got some beneficial social juju and you gave your brain a workout. While you may not have been able to use your piano-playing skills or your ability to sing a high G at work the next day, your musical exploits sent you to the office or the factory with a fresh and slightly-stretched mind.

So what policies or public projects could a city undertake to try to rebuild this kind of intellectual infrastructure that makes creativity a common civic value? One idea comes from a recent airoots post (them again!) about a kind of dwelling in the Dharavi area -- best known as Asia's largest slum -- in Mumbai known as the "tool-house." When is a house a tool-house? "When every wall, nook and corner becomes an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitant. When the furnace and the cooking hearth exchange roles and when sleeping competes with warehouse space. A cluster of tool-houses makes for a thriving workshop-neighbourhood and its public spaces emerge as a dynamic by-product of such an auto-organized habitat."

To attempt the transformation of a contemporary Western (or Westernized) city into a tool-house city would be both disingenuous and impossible. What we can learn from these places is a social principle, not a building practice. Tool-house cities are innovative by necessity, but they illustrate "the relationship between production, livelihood and spaces." This relationship is vital to creative cities, where production -- not consumption -- is the primary economic mode of the citizen (think "prosumer").

Cities, then, should invest in projects and policies that reinforce the production-livelihood-space relationship and encourage citizens to apply the skills that they learn on the job to the world around them in new ways. Citizens should also be encouraged by civic leaders to build off-the-job skills as well, as these can also be applied to urban problems and will likely be more potent and flexible when combined with work-related knowledge.

But what, physically, might this kind of thing look like? Perhaps cities could organize and/or facilitate neighborhood skill-shares or tool-sharing programs, sponsor a job-shadow program for adults, or subsidize classes that could teach arts and trade-related job skills (how about a graffiti club that teaches teens masonry skills so that they can learn to build walls to paint on -- and how to clean them off) There are ten times as many solutions as there are problems. Any ideas?

(Photo from Flickr users pbo31 and Soumik.)

Creative Class Debates (Creative Class Group)

Manalo Juan (atlas(t) Galleon Trade Edition)

Urban Fictions: The Toolhouse (airoots)