Can Buildings Learn?

How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand, is a perceptive study of how the built environment changes over time. Brand draws insight from historic and contemporary buildings to explain why some remain useful and/or well-loved, while others become obsolete. He compliments his examples with wonderful images throughout the book.

Brand points out the double meaning in the word “building” (both noun and verb, action and result) to explain that architecture is not a fixed entity. Thus buildings can evolve toward greater complementarity with their occupants and surroundings. Brand recommends that building processes incorporate this notion of continuous adaptation and improvement with time.

Throughout the book, buildings are discussed in ecological terms. Brand relates “low road” and “high road” development to r- and K- selected species. The low road is associated with rapid cycles of adaptive use and reuse (such as an industrial warehouse converted to a restaurant, then a bar, then apartments). The high road refers to incremental change over generations (such as a mansion cared for lovingly and eventually preserved as a museum). A combination of both approaches can bring about multifaceted environments that are both attractive and useful.

Brand finds that “age plus adaptivity is what makes buildings come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it.” People modify the built environment, and in the process discover ways of making buildings last. If the longterm use of buildings is an effective means of conserving resources, the ideas presented in How Buildings Learn have much to contribute to sustainable development.

There is a six-part BBC series on How Buildings Learn posted for free viewing on Google Video (see links to each part below).

1 of 6 - "Flow"

2 of 6 - "The Low Road"

3 of 6 - "Built for Change"

4 of 6 - "Unreal Estate"

5 of 6 - "The Romance of Maintenance"

6 of 6 - "Shearing Layers"

(Photo included with permission from William Bernthal. The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


What could be new about “New Localism”? (and what’s not)

In a recent Washington Post article Joel Kotkin uses the term “New Localism” to describe a series of current (escalating) shifts in the operative and moral landscape of U.S. everydayness. Not unlike its trampled cousin, New Urbanism, New Localism is, in essence, reactive conservatism with a big smile and even bigger—albeit comforting—words. Kotkin’s New Localism choses familiar concepts like the strengthening of “community”, the virtues of “small town” organization and lifestyles, or the risks of dispersion and dislocation brought about by global dynamics. It’s a story we’ve heard before: local is good, worldly is bad; big tends to be nasty and small is beautiful. But why?

We are falling back into a time of fundamental uncertainty; uncertainty generates insecurity, and insecurity usually promotes conservative tendencies. The U.S. in particular has a longstanding tradition of moving back and forth between isolationism and international involvement. These broad political, social and moral tendencies become evident not only through public policy or in the handling of foreign affairs, but often seep into the organization and production of space. At the scale of the city (or the suburb) isolationism might be expressed in the concentration on personal or family ties, populist distortions of Main Street America and the tainted concept of community itself. All of these issues are at the heart of the New Localist repertoire, with its odes to the Pleasantville life of playhouses and pushcarts and evenings at the philharmonic; a buffered, conflict-free quotidian existence of home offices, “staycations”, local rodeos and farmers’ markets.

Does any of this really promote “community” bonding, or at least transcend the selfish, individualistic nature of consumerist society? Not really. In fact, behind the homey, comfy and seemingly innocuous rhetoric of New Localism lie some very old and serious dangers, including self-absorption, bigotry, and—despite its supposed purpose of bringing people closer—fragmentation.

Regardless of Kotkin’s misleading perspective, the notion of “breaking down” the scale of everydayness into manageable and more grounded units might indeed be crucial for approaching our (near) future agglomerations. New Localism should not be understood as a lifestyle, but as a mindset; a way of providing more focused, immediate and realistic grasp on the things that make our cities or suburbs or exurbs (or whatever) tick. I’m all for downsizing from the usually abstract and overwhelming working concept of “city” into a more specific, landed, focalized spatial unit: neighborhood, barrio, district, enclave, belt, etc.

Still, it’s absurd to understand these as detached, self-sufficient, self-referential nuclei. Today more than ever, nearly every single aspect of our “local” day to day existence is traversed by the “global” . New localists might want to ignore this fact, or even worse, “reverse” it. This is especially evident when they go on about their conservative fantasies of “community” as a condition that relies on a strong physical and cultural proximity, a source of consensus and immutability. Not. A grounded, localized focus doesn’t necessarily have to be at odds with a networked, dispersed functional reality.

According to Kotkin, “localism is neither urban nor anti-urban. At its heart, it represents something larger: a historic American tradition that sees society’s smaller units as vital and the proper focus of most people’s lives.” But he’s wrong. There’s nothing particularly “American” about focusing on “community” or smaller aggregations. Kotkin goes on to affirm that this small-unit type of organization is what good ’ol Tocqueville noted as the main difference between U.S. political structure and its European counterparts. He seems to have skipped the chapter where Alex d.T. writes of another feature, which actually sounds more intimately American. Regarding individuals in democracies, Tocqueville remarks:

They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.


Cities Rising

Yesterday's Washington Post talks about the anti-urban bias of American politics:
Is Obama's ascent a further sign...that our cities are back and that the country is making peace with its non-agrarian side? And would a big-city president address as never before the problems of our urban cores -- blighted housing, shoddy public transit, dismal schools?
Well, one can hope, but few of these problems have traditionally been considered national in scope -- the president doesn't build subways or set school curriculum for example.  Of course, the federal government does play an important role in funding local projects, and with economic crisis potentially leading to mass transit cuts, among other things, this role is even more important.

This part is encouraging:
One of the first interest groups [Obama] met with after securing the Democratic nomination in June was an alliance of bicycling advocates. 
Maybe they talked to him about how to make America more French.

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

Bringing Soil Back

Hunters Point Shipyard is an unusually shaped peninsula hanging off the southeastern corner of San Francisco. Once an important Navy yard servicing the United States' Pacific fleet, Hunters Point today is 495 acres of artificial fill steeped in spilled diesel fuel, chemical solvents and radioactive heavy metals. A federal Superfund site, Hunters Point is eventually slated for construction as a mixed use development. The Navy is currently remediating the site by removing contaminated soil at great expense.

The plan for Hunters Point calls for traditional remediation and an eventual cover of paving to keep soils away from human habitation. The reactivation of natural soil systems, though, could reduce dependency on infrastructure and provide a more complete long term clean-up solution. Furthermore, emerging technologies are generating novel bioremediation methods that change how contaminated sites can be cleaned. A closer look at soils and remediation is warranted.

In natural ecological systems, soil is created as wind and water erode rock into ever smaller pieces. Simultaneously, plants convert carbon dioxide, water, and light into food, which moves through the food chain until it eventually decays into the soil as well. Over time, soil develops hydrological and biological cycles that support and reinforce each other, stabilizing the environment through meteorological and seasonal variations.

In urban soil systems, impervious paving and storm sewers disrupt the relationship between water and soil. Creeks are channeled into culverts, surface vegetation dies, and soils wash away in storms. By disrupting interdependent functions cycles, urbanization destabilizes beneficial soil systems.

For many cities coping with climate change and the environmental shifts that come with it, the reactivation of natural soils systems offers a means of reducing strain on sewer and drainage systems and adapting to more volatile weather. Functioning soil systems can act as ecological sponges, buffering the urban environment from extremes of flood and drought.

Yet like sponges, soils absorb more than just water. Broad varieties of industrial contaminants can be found in urban soils, and their presence has serious impacts on ecological functions. In places where this is the case, like Hunters Point, remediation is required before ecological systems can be reactivated.

Bioremediation, the use of living organisms to clean up industrial waste, is often the most efficient means of remediating contaminated sites. It can also seem like science fiction at times. In Chernobyl, hydroponic sunflowers were used to absorb radioactive heavy metals from lakes. Earlier this year, oil-soaked mats of human hair were digested by oyster mushrooms to clean an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. You can't make this stuff up!

Usually, microbial bioremediation (using bacteria) and mycoremediation (using fungi) decomposes contaminants into other components, while phytoremediation (using plants) simply accumulates contaminants in their tissues for easier clearing. Scientists, however, are genetically engineering plants by splicing useful genes from other sources into hyperaccumulating species of mustard, poplar and willow.

In Indiana, for example, scientists have inserted a gene into poplar trees that breaks down trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent and common groundwater contaminant. The genetic modification allows Poplars to digest TCE where they once could only accumulate it, dramatically altering the role of phytoremediation. This sort of advance is incredible, but I wonder: can we go further?

Genes for the production of bioluminescent proteins have been spliced into the DNA of cats, tobacco, and rabbits. Perhaps these genes for luminescence could be paired with genes that create enzymes that sequester or degrade harmful contaminants? Hunters Point could be planted with fields of willow and sunflower that glow in the night as they accumulate dangerous pollutants. High rates of remediation would be accompanied by brighter glowing; as the glow faded over months and years, it would signal that a given area is safe for habitation. The soil, remediated and reactivated, would be ready to support human use.

Hunters Point will probably never be home to a forest of phytoremediating bioluminescent transgenic trees, but there is plenty of room for innovation at the polluted site. At Hunters Point and other contaminated sites around the world, restoring soil systems is becoming more realistic as scientists develop more incredible technologies and designers and planners find ways to apply them.

(Images Sources:
Hunters Point Aerial: Telstar Logistics
Soil Systems Illustrations: Jonathan Espalin
Soil Network: Josh S Jackson
Chernobyl Sunflowers: Phytoremediation History
Phytoremediation: Ideonexus
Transgenic Organisms: Biotechnologies Blog)


The Ads Are In the Air

In case you were wondering, the answer is no; nothing is sacred anymore. At least not to advertisers. A Dutch company called Geotronics recently launched a re-branding campaign by staging a full-blown musical number in the busy concourse of a train station in Utrecht. While there are plenty of ways to read this (the least entertaining of which is not that we'll finally have an answer for people who say musicals are unrealistic because "no one bursts into song and dance routines in real life"), it seems to set a troubling precedent. Long since unsatisfied by innumerable billboards and neon signs, advertisers have been aggressively acquiring pieces of the cityscape (ceilings, stairs, escalators, trees, sidewalks, benches, busses, etc.) over the past few decades. With this latest move, it seems, even the physical space -- the very air around us -- is fair game for splashy advertisements.

Observe above: an image of Charing Cross Station in London. Below, the same image with green filters highlighting existing advertisements:

Here, as in most contemporary public and quasi-public spaces, people are bombarded with ads for food, real estate, toiletries, and events. The advertising has become so ubiquitous, that it seems abnormal to pass through an urban space without ads on every flat surface (think back to the media bonanza in late 2006 when São Paulo banned all outdoor ads). And now, we can't even count on the people we're sitting next to, or the janitor sweeping up litter a few yards away, not to be a part of some grandiose sales pitch just waiting to erupt. The advertisement space in public spaces starts to look a bit more like this:

There's a fundamental problem with being told by your environment that you are merely a consumer. Yes, we are consumers living in a capitalist society, and I don't intend to argue the merit or value of that. But there is something to be said for maintaining the dignity of public space, and keeping some places free of advertisements. If we merely see each other as fellow consumers we are, in an odd way, pitted against each other. I have to buy what you can't buy if I want to feel successful. Ads do nothing to reinforce the fundamental building blocks of any harmonious human settlement: community, interdependence, and civic engagement. Those are the values that public spaces should strive to promote.

But what's the big deal with the Geotronics musical performance ad, you may be asking? If we are already bombarded by ads everywhere we go, what's the difference adding the occasional flash-mob-esque song and dance routine hawking toothpaste or the newest Barbie doll? It might even be fun -- certainly moreso than any billboard. But advertising has a way of growing, cancer-like, taking over new nooks and crannies without us noticing. In some cities, storefronts are now more profitable with windows boarded up to shoulder more posters and billboards.

Jump ahead a decade or two, to when these performance ads have become more commonplace. What happens when civic officials see more value in a park as a place for elaborate performance ads? Just imagine your city's parks, transit stations, and civic plazas as dozens or even hundreds of little Disneylands. And what would a child who grows up riding the Citibank Train to Coca Cola Park instead of just 'the local playground' think of the city once they were grown? The only value a place has once it's been bought is what the company that bought it was willing to pay for it.

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

Harshing Body Art

It's too late now, but I think the question Dan should have asked Kunstler is why he hates artistic expression.

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


The Valley Does Watts

Pickle and Cake has this great video of a field trip of suburban LA residents to another suburb that happens to have this famous piece of outsider architecture. Of course, the trip is only noteworthy because of the "whites visiting the ghetto" angle, and the visitors to their credit are very honest about race and their perception of danger.

However, I was struck by something more trivial -- that as recently as 1994, when the video was made, people were still fascinated by light rail lines. So fascinated, that LA's (admittedly new) Blue Line shared top billing with the Watts Towers as the trip's main attractions. Even the ticket machines are an exciting and confusing part of the experience! And ticket machines, I think we can all agree, are really boring.

It's as if the scores of midwestern immigrants who settled in LA actually managed to produce children less urbane than they were. Reluctant metropolis indeed.

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


Housing in Wartime

I've been reading this biography of Ove Arup (who was the hot-shit engineer, for what that's worth), and while it contains all of what irritates me about the biography genre -- who really cares about the minute relationship details of an angsty 20-something, even if they go on to Do Great Things? -- it also has a fascinating history of the architecture and politics of WWII-era British bomb shelters which are an example of the ways in which design matters.

During WWI, there were no private shelters and the London tube stations were used extensively, with some success ('only' 670 deaths to aerial bombing in the city). For the second act, uninterupted tube service was desired, so they were ruled out. Dedicated underground shelters were judges too costly to universally provide, so they were ruled out. Trenches in public parks were found to save burial costs, but few lives. Instead, Sir John Anderson, the Home Secretary, promoted the shelters you see below.

family buries corrugated metal Anderson Shelter
They were cheaply made corrugated iron and steel structures, typically placed in domestic gardens, and capable of holding half a dozen adults: conscientious families half buried them in the earth and covered them with vegetation.
-Peter Jones in Ove Arup

Yes, the pictured shelter features a gasmask-clad stuffed animal hood ornament -- who says building your own bomb shelter can't be a hilarious? Anderson's government distributed several million of these structures during the early war years, all the while fought by Arup (among others), who argued for deep concrete shelters at the neighborhood-level. "Engineer advocates massive infrastructure project" is not exactly a shocking headline, but this time there was justification.

The Anderson shelters chief virtue was cheapness, but they were not particularly effective at life safety (relative to the tubes) or comfortable to use. As a partially buried structure with no waterproofing or even finish floor, a few inches of water would collect at the floor, making any extended stay in the shelter cold and wet. This may seem beside the point given the circumstances - surely, the end user's sole concern here is avoiding death!

However, bombings are not constant. Given a lapse, there is an understandable tendency to flee miserable dwelling and return to the exhorbitant luxury of floors and dryness. What protection Anderson shelter's did offer was proportionally reduced whenever tenants opted out, placing themselves at risk of a surprise assault. By the late 40s Sir John was promoted out of his post and the shelters that bore his name abandoned in favor of other options.

The important conclusion here, other than concrete >> corrugated metal, is that design is important! Even during air raids - especially during, when violence compresses decision-making -- design affects behavior, so it should be consciously considered. In the extreme case, it can save lives. Or at least keep your socks dry, which is almost as important.

(Photos from Flickr user Richard Parmiter and Ove Arup: Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
Mention subway stations, and instantly images of a dark seedy platform spring to mind. A place where green neons flicker and where Neo battles Agent Smith in duel to the death. A place the homeless rest on its steps, dangling a forearm in an ever static position. Where artists come to be found, strumming away at a guitar, singing a tune.

Like it or not, the life in an urban centre is defined by its subway stations. Commuters pass through these spaces everyday, but are greeted by utilitarian enclosures designed to serve the train cars more than the passengers.

A long abandoned website, (http://metroart-subways.blogspot.com/) collects a handful of the world's beautiful subway stations. From the baroque allusions in Russia, to the organic-structuralist elegance of Calatrava's. Subway stations have found been built with identities. And scrolling through these, one would wonder... What happened to our subways today? Still many of them are built with little identity that one would be proud to be associated with everyday while commuting to work.

Like in many other cities, Sydney's train stations are "photocopies" of a prototype that worked very well in its time. With the duplication of these stations so vastly over the network, comes a generalisation of what a train station should look like. The pitched roof, the logo, the colour. The same goes for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur's commuter networks. Generic cut-and-paste architectural "solutions".

There must be a move for train stations to be able to understand and interact with its context or vice versa. The Karlsplatz station was built to the avant garde Art Nouveau style. It is today, a hotspot to the avant garde artistic youth. As such, it has gained an identity.

Celebrated urbanist Rem Koolhaas completed the Souterrain Tram Tunnel in Hague, where with 2 trams stations and a 500 bay parking lot, he brought a new definition to underground station typology.

The Dutch government spent 4 years building the project, contemplating if it was worth all the trouble of by submerging density and transport systems underground and freeing up the streets above.

Koolhaas brought the adjacent building facades below grade, effectively allowing the underground urbanism to relate to a broader idea of "streetscape". And with timber as a flooring material on the platforms, managed to soften the effect of transport infrastructure, away from those harsh rivetted columns or concrete platforms.

Each train station should be designed with careful thought to its surroundings in order to maximise even the most pragmatic needs - commercial worth and effective distribution of movements. 

(Photo of Matrix scene from Gapyx.com. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

(Photo of Hornsby Station from Wikipedia. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

(Photo of Souterrain from Architecture Page. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Wanted: Questions for Kunstler

I'll be going to a talk by James Howard Kunstler tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, October 21).

If I get the opportunity, I want to ask him a penetrating question or make an astute observation about his work.

The trouble is, I haven't read much of him.

I've only skimmed The Geography of Nowhere, and dipped into a couple of the chapters in Home from Nowhere. Over the weekend, I've been plowing through his latest non-fiction book, The Long Emergency—a book that predicts cars, big cities, suburbs and many other parts of our everyday lives are about to start dying off as we run out of oil (which will happen a lot sooner than we think).

I need some help to look smart. What would you ask—or tell—Kunstler if you had the chance?

Let me know soon. Kunstler is scheduled to start talking at 4 pm tomorrow, so submit a comment with your suggestion before, say, 2 pm tomorrow.

Gleefully gloomy. Analytically dubious. Insistently optimistic. Sincerely sober. All tonalities of questions or comments are welcome. But I'm likely to find short questions that get to the point easier to ask. And I doubt I'll have the nerve to ask certain really rude questions in person.

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

The Garden City, Revisited

Sir Ebenezer Howard was a true visionary. In 1898 he wrote ‘To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ which outlined his vision of towns in the UK. He wanted to create towns that would be truly sustainable, desirable places to live and work, without slums and poverty. He understood human dynamics and our unbreakable relationship with nature. He recognised Man’s desire to be in contact with the natural environment and our rising fondness for suburban dwelling.

His movement, the Garden City Association (later to be called the Town and Country Planning Association) had real results. It can lay claim to creating two entirely new towns, Letchworth Garden City (1903) and Welwyn Garden City (1920’s). Both could be called the ‘home’ of town planning, precursors and arguably basic blue-prints for the Britain’s twenty-one New Towns that were built between 1946 and 1970. These New Towns have subsequently been used as valuable case studies by urban planners when designing new conurbations across the globe.

Of course, Sir Howard’s vision has been distorted and added to along the way. This seems to me to be both fortunate and unfortunate. He envisaged a scenario where the over crowded urban centres ‘over-spill’ to New Towns and Garden Cities created in the countryside. Given the population growth of the UK (since 1946), the average Briton might be glad that this hasn’t happened, at least to the extent Howard proposed. After all, green space in the UK is a prized asset, something that the general public and the likes of the pressure group, Campaign to Protect Rural England, are so adamant to preserve. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that we do not have more green space in our cities. Clean air and water are often lacking and there is a ubiquitous congestion problem.

The future then is where we must look. Mistakes of the past are evident, but the aspirations of the likes of Ebenezer Howard are not forgotten. Eco-Towns may sound like a new concept but fundamentally they are little more than a re-branding by the UK government (and other governments) of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities. We also need to look at innovative as well as simple ways of bringing nature back to existing cities, ways including those my fellow bloggers have previously proposed, like tree planting and other greenery mechanisms. By looking back, and forward, we can maximise our chances of achieving a sustainable urban environment. Let’s also learn about what is already out there. In some African capitals, such as Accra, there has emerged a potential blue print for a new type of urbanisation. High density tower blocks interspersed with city gardens giving space to grow food and vegetables. Green space with a purpose, unglamorous but effective. An old idea; successfully and perhaps necessarily, revisited.

James Shepherd (Cambridge, UK).

Check Us Out: New Team, New Design

What blog can go through a major structural overhaul without a major visual one as well? Certainly not this one! Today marks the first "official" day of the new Where, with the fully redesigned blog site up and running. There won't be any more post-a-thons for a while, so your RSS feeder has some time to breathe. On average, we're aiming to put out between eight and ten posts every week, with all posting taking place during the Monday-through-Friday grind. In other words, we hope to be your favorite distraction from work.

In the coming weeks, we'll be relaunching several popular Where features -- namely, Weekend Reading, now retooled as a geographically diverse report on what's doin' in urbanism across the globe; and a slightly tweaked Urbanffffinds, which will now draw from Where's extensive FFFFOUND! archive for curated posts that (we hope) will be less about eyecandy and more about communicating an idea with imagery.

In the coming weeks, we're hoping that you, dear reader, will take a look around the new site and let us know what you think. If you have a suggestion for how the new template could be improved, do not hesitate to let us know. We're pretty excited about the new look, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement! So take some time today to get used to Where's fresh face and enjoy the new stream of content. The pacing might be a bit uneven at the start while we get used to the way things work backstage, but in a couple of weeks everything should be running smoothly.


Sacred Figs

There are many new ideas about how to deal with urban poverty, but one of my favorites in an old one. Plant trees.

Consider, for example, the Sacred Fig trees found in the impoverished parts of Bangkok's Chinatown. Amidst a rabbit's warren of tangled alleys, Sacred Fig trees carve out light and space from the street, both of which are in short supply the dense neighborhood. The trees, which are of the same species as the Bodhi tree that Buddha achieved enlightenment under, are considered holy. They are draped with colored clothes and protected from being cut down.

Encountering one of these trees in the city today provides its own revelation. The trees do more than simply create space -- they also form the backbone of a distinctive re-use economy. Broken and damaged machines are placed under the dangling boughs of the trees in the hopes that the tree can return the machines to order. Should the tree's force be unable to fix the machines, the parts are recycled by the community.

The informal reuse system set up by the Sacred Fig trees has influenced of the economy of Bangkok's Chinatown: there are entire districts dedicated to the reconstruction and repair of old machinery. Thus the trees have served as a catalyst that both generates income for the community and encourages the recycling of disused goods. Indeed, in the words of Allan Jacobs, "Trees can do many things for a street and city."

Section 8 Everywhere

Mixed-income neighborhoods are part of the urban planning canon and will make any good urbanist’s list of prescriptions for an ailing city.  The potential benefits are overwhelming: better job and school access for the poor, increased diversity of residents and services, reduced crime and class animosity, etc.  Most importantly, they are the exact opposite of “concentration of poverty,” the case against which has been made many, manytimes (pdfs). Unfortunately mixed-income neighborhoods have proven difficult to achieve, and the degree to which our cities remain segregated by class is easily visible in the geographic distribution of per capita income of any major city, such as for Los Angeles at right.

Los Angeles map showing per capita income as intensity with a donut-shaped distribution, poorest at city core
Section 8 was supposed to fix this. Not fix poverty or make every block magically diverse, but de-concentrate poverty and create less daunting occurrences.  Not so, enclaves of extreme poverty remain; Section 8 has duplicated many of the problems of traditional public housing.  Why?

Currently through Section 8 (less popularly know as the Housing Choice Voucher Program) the US government subsidizes up to about 70% of the rent of low-income families. Landlords may make their building a project and receive payments through the local public housing authority or accept individual tenants who pay part of their rent with government vouchers.  This is the first problem.

Landlords may accept vouchers, but they also may not; participation has always been voluntary.  This has very effectively curtailed the range of housing options available to poor folk, in some cases leaving them with privately-owned ‘public’ housing as their only choice.  Responding to this issue, New Jersey, New York City, & DC have all enacted laws to prohibit landlords from discriminating based on income source, meaning that they can’t refuse a renter because they will pay with government vouchers. Giving low-income renters the opportunity to live where they choose is certainly a positive step that should be emulated elsewhere, even if the non-discrimination laws prove difficult to enforce.

As problematic as the legal barriers to allowing Section 8 tenants to move out of poor areas are, the social barriers are more intractable.  Moving To Opportunity is a test program to study the results of moving people out of low-income neighborhoods.  It suggests that even when given the option, many do not or cannot take advantage.  As summarized at The American Prospect:
“Many families offered the opportunity to move chose to stay. Others relocated but then returned to their old neighborhoods. When families did move, many youths remained strongly attached to their old neighborhoods. Most participating families who did move ended up in relatively nearby, majority-minority communities that were safer and modestly more prosperous than their old neighborhoods. Unfortunately, many of these receiving neighborhoods…themselves have relatively low-quality, racially segregated schools…children didn't show much academic improvement.”
So: how do you get people to move when your “concentration of poverty” is their lifelong home?  When they have a community of support they clearly value more than school quality?

Money is one answer: Government could provide a stipend or mandate that a landlords provide one to entice Section 8 tenants out of low-income areas.  Zoning is another: restrictions could be placed on the quantity of Section 8 housing available in low-income areas (something that has local political support in some poor areas).  Either way, it seems illegitimately paternalistic to attempt to manipulate low-income folks into deconstructing their communities - it’s based on the assumption that they can’t properly evaluate their housing choices.

Mixed-income neighborhoods remain a venerable goal.  Certainly laws should facilitate their formation rather than hinder.  However, the focus on where cities should stock their poor is misplaced, especially in the context of the choice of actual low-income people.

(Photos from Flickr user The Voice of Eye and Radical Cartography. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Spain, what have you done?

I could understand it in the Middle Ages. Back then, if a country had a city in its realm, it was a clear exhibition of wealth. That country had moved on from subsistence farming and could afford to support a bunch of wealthy people who desired to live in an urban environment. They were badges of financial well being, exuberantly demonstrating that each country with a major city was doing very well for itself.

What I can’t understand is the pilfering of this earth’s resources to construct one million new apartments in a place where there is no demand for them. That is what has happened in Spain over the last few years. The planning law regime combined with easily available credit has fuelled a massive construction boom, with gross over speculation. This has resulted in a country with two million empty abodes, having a further one million. Spain, what have you done? This is no longer the thirteenth century when an urban centre proved your country’s wealth and everyone marvelled at it. Three million flats are simply sitting there empty, as a testament to mankind’s greed and propensity for waste. And that’s only in one country. No wonder there has been a credit crunch. If we must spend frivolously, then surely it should be on something worthwhile. Addressing poverty for instance.

Imagine for one second our current financial predicament arose because we became too benevolent and gave too much away to help all the poor and starving in this world. Not because we built empty houses or because we were enticed into loans to fuel a level of consumerism we can’t afford. Can you imagine how less depressing this financial crisis would be? Would there have been a credit crunch? Ok, so we have spent hundreds of billions of pounds but we have gone a long way to solving poverty, disease and famine for millions. What’s even better is that the American and European Governments are going to spend at least one trillion dollars of taxpayer’s money bailing out those who gave too much away, not financial instutitons who lent money to fuel house price speculation and unsustainable construction. How nice would that be? Governments backing the benevolent and altruistic, not the greedy.

What is really going to happen though? Hopefully a tightening of credit will result in more responsible investment and expenditure programs. A focus on efficiency and sustainable building. Making the most of existing buildings and forcing people to use their resources more responsibly. Perhaps all these empty homes will actually help alleviate poverty. Cheaper homes for those who have found it so hard to buy property in the past decade would be no bad thing. Coincidentally, the figure for the number of homeless people in Europe and the amount of empty dwellings in Spain are pretty much identical. Wait! I have an idea...

James Shepherd, Cambridge (UK) student and creator of greengremlins.com.

Cooper-Hewitt Features Tulou Affordable Housing Design

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is currently showing an exhibition on Tulou, an affordable-housing prototype designed by Chinese architecture firm Urbanus for the city of Guangzhou, China. The Tulou prototype includes 245 apartments, an inn, exercise facilities, a library, storefronts, and varied public space. The exhibition will feature two bedrooms at actual size, as well as images, models, and project information. It runs from October 3, 2008 to April 5, 2009 at 2 East 91st Street in New York.

In a recent review, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff praises Tulou as a thoughtfully designed solution to the urgent need for low-income housing in China's rapidly growing cities. Tulou, which means “little kingdom,” is a centuries-old term for structures once used to protect villagers from invaders in the Fujian Province. Dwellings were centered around an interior courtyard and surrounded by walls of mud. Urbanus has adapted this idea for contemporary use in urban settings. Ouroussoff notes a symbolic connection between original Tulous and the new models, which “suggest fortifications against a contemporary marauder: speculators who have so often forced the poor out of urban neighborhoods to make way for new development.” Urbanus maintains a sense of openness by arranging stores around the base and allowing entry portals, courtyards, restaurants, inns, and housing units to break the continuity of the exterior walls.

While Ouroussoff praises Urbanus's “graceful balancing act between historical and contemporary values,” some of his terms (such as monks' cells, Le Corbusier, and Communist-era housing projects) call to mind inhospitable housing schemes of the past. It is not clear how the recently completed Tulou in Guangzhou has altered the existing urban fabric, how it has been received by residents, or how the architects have learned from housing projects that failed in other settings. It seems the design might create islands of poverty instead of integrating residents into mixed-income neighborhoods. Low-income housing requires more than graceful adaptations of historical building types. It must provide a healthy environment that allows people to meet their daily needs and escape cycles of poverty. With hope, the Tulou design will contribute to a renaissance in affordable housing that improves living conditions for China's urban poor.

(Photos of the new Tulou plan are from the Urbanus website. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

(The photo of the traditional Tulou is from Kit's Hakka Earthen Houses (Tulou) album on Picasa. The original full-sized version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)