That's All, Folks!

After a pretty solid run of two years, five months, ten days, and 470 posts, the pull of new projects has forced my hand: it's time to say farewell to Where. I'm not much for long goodbyes, but I do want to thank all of this blog's longtime readers for their interest and their input. Perhaps, a few years down the line, it will be time to blog again, but for the foreseeable future, Where will be inactive.

For those of you still looking for a regular urbanism fix, several Wherebloggers will be continuing or launching their own blogging efforts elsewhere. To wit:

Peter and Katia will be launching a new blog today called Polis.

Mario will continue posting at his existing blog, Mañanarama.

And, while I'm not planning on doing any blogging, I'll be doing some behind-the-scenes work for the site MoveSmart.org, so I encourage you to check out that site as well.

Here we are at the end. Thanks again for a great run. Adios.


Dharavi III: The Rules of the Game

This is Part Three in a series looking at Dharavi, a mostly informal township in Mumbai often referred to as Asia’s largest slum, and the government’s controversial plans to redevelop it. With billions of dollars on the table, tens of thousands of homes and businesses at stake, and the global spotlight shining bright, this case of contested urban space is worth a deeper look.

“The early residents of Dharavi recall that when they entered the area from Mahim station, they had to build an access path themselves as there was no road. People placed rocks on the marshy ground, covered it with mud, and created a dirt road… Today, that same dirt road has become Dharavi Main Road.”
Rediscovering Dharavi by Kalpana Sharma, p. 25

"My vision would be that it would be transformed into one of the better suburbs of Mumbai – it will be forgotten as any kind of slum – there will be state of the art modern amenities and a lot of happy people living in Dharavi."
― Mukesh Mehta, “Slum in Way of Mumbai’s Progress,” BBC News, 21 March 2007

In my previous post, I brought up what becomes obvious to anyone who’s taken even a cursory stroll through Dharavi: that describing the area as one big “slum,” a term that is officially sanctioned and almost universally accepted, is deeply problematic given the ground reality.

Packaging Dharavi with this label is very convenient, however. Not only does it condemn the area as an unacceptable space, but one that needs emergency rescue ― an idea not-so-subtly reinforced in a slide Mukesh Mehta likes to feature in his presentations that shouts, “Support Our Slums,” emphasis on the “SOS.” Ostensibly, the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan is a “win-win” slum rehabilitation scheme that will provide slum dwellers with adequate housing and amenities subsidized through commercial development.

Up close, it’s clear that calling it a welfare scheme is a dangerous euphamism. In fact, the plan enables the government to repossess a luctrative piece of land occupied by a poorer population in order to efficiently clear and resell it, while affording those in the way the minimum possible space and benefits to make this politically feasible. This not only allows large corporate conglomerates to maximize the land’s commercial value (leaving a hefty profit for the state, of course), but also squeezes the poor out of a central piece of land to make room for middle- and upper-classes and “cleans up” Mumbai to make it attractive for upper classes and investors.

The decision to redevelop Dharavi as a township creates the regulatory and administrative conditions for this to take place efficiently. Although taking a holistic approach to Dharavi is necessary for planning things like infrastructure and transport networks, in this context it allows land appropriation to take place in one fell swoop, sets up an authority to organize the process, and makes economic exploitation maximally convenient by limiting contendors to big multinationals and dividing land into convenient pie slices – a “readymade project with a potential to net in excess of USD 1.5 BN” as Mukesh Mehta put it in his presentation.

Authorities have manipulated the rules and regulations governing the area’s development in order to maximize and facilitate commercial development. They have limited the population eligible for rehabilitation to those who can prove residence prior to 1/1/2000 (previously 1/1/1995) and live on the ground floor (70% of Dharavi homes have more than one floor, which means 35,000 families according to one informed estimate!). They abolished a clause that typically requires the consent of 70% of affected households for slum rehabilitation projects. They modified the Development Control Rules (DCR, 1991) to allow the project to demolish non-slum areas, like government-built housing and private property, in the service of a "public purpose." They declared Dharavi a "difficult area", on which basis they raised the Floor Space Index (Floor Area Ratio) to 4 from 1.33, meaning that developers can build for-sale space at a rate of 4 :1 relative to rehabilitation area. This represents a profit in the billions of dollars, while experts have proven that the project could be subsidized through development at an FSI as low as 0.25.

Dharavi was initially a marshy swamp. Over generations, those who inhabited it acted as land developers by gradually creating landfill, pathways, and residential and commercial space. This incremental development is the only reason that the area is habitable in the first place. Besides physical development, this homegrown growth has been a huge creator of affordable housing and jobs, not to mention cultural capital and social cohesion. Yet, rules and regulations are not amended to recognize this investment and functioning system or to support local economic growth. On the other hand, the rules of the game are happily and briskly changed when it benefits the other players.

Dharavi was ignored when it was on the periphery of the city (The city’s main water lines initially plowed right through Dharavi without serving residents. It was only to prevent nuisance and contamination when people understandably hacked into the line to access water that the government provided this basic service.) Now that the Bandra Kurla Complex has re-oriented Mumbai’s financial compass and land values are high, it’s a convenient time to want to help. It’s the kind of charity that comes with a price tag.

(Dharavi 2014 image from Mehta's presentation at the Urban Age conference, SOS image and sector map from his "Slum Free Dharavi" presentation.)


The Attraction fo Free

Everyone likes to get free stuff, even when it's junk -- like brochures and keychains at a trade show, or a reusable bag from your local market. Retailers and businesses give out free things as a marketing ploy, to build rapport and disseminate information. Another form of free comes in the newspaper ads, with the buy one get one free coupon, or the holiday giveaways (think Black Friday.) These giveaways are designed to attract patrons to a certain retail location in hopes that they will spend more moeny, come back more often, and essentially support the business. It seems to work as my mailbox is inundated with these coupons nearly everyday.

So, with my tabletop covered in coupons and freebie offers, I began to think, how can Rustbelt cities and cities with declining populations use the idea of free to attract new residents. The goals seem similar, stores need people to come in and buy their assorted goods while cities need to attract people to come and start businesses, raise families, and pay city taxes. Perhaps these cities could create marketing campaigns targeting young creative entrepreneurs by offering buildings, land, space, tax breaks. After all, the Rustbelt is, if nothing else, is rich in land and space, just look at Flint.

There exists a whole class of creatives out there who would love to start their own businesses but can't due to the burden of large overhead costs especially in business hubs like NYC or Chicago. Rustbelt cities in conjunction with the internet's world wide marketplace offer very low overhead costs. However, in order to make these individuals pack their bags and move to a new city that they know little about and attempt to form some type of business, they need incentive. Businesses take time to start, and by offering entrepreneurs free rent, you are granting them time to learn the city, be inspired by the city, and establish their own business' in the city.

The real power of a program like this comes in the formation of a community. Once the idea catches on and creatives begin to take to he plunge into the Rustbelt, stronger and stronger creative communities will form attracting more and more people to the city. This can be seen in the reformation of the DUMBO neighborhood in NYC from a burnt out, unattractive block, into a vibrant community of artists and professionals. David Walentas, a NY developer bought up a huge portion of the Dumbo neighborhood in the late 90's then enticed an array of artists to take up residence by offering free rent for an extended period of time. The artists attracted the professionals and soon the neighborhood was bustling with a diverse group of New Yorkers. So the question is, can this work on a national if not global scale with the Rustbelt and other declining cities?

(Photo from icanhascheezburger, Corine Vermeulen-Smith, and NYT The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


The New High Line

Photo of the High Line pathway

The High Line is an elevated park that runs along a portion of Manhattan's west side. It was once a railway, in use from 1934 until 1980. As vegetation took over, it became an informal and (not completely) inaccessible greenway above the streets. Neighborhood residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond started Friends of the High Line in 1999, hoping to save the structure from demolition and build support for the park idea. The city approved funding in 2004, and the lower section (from Gansevoort to 20th Street) opened in June.

Photo of trees and benches along the High Line

The park was designed by James Corner Field Operations, Piet Oudolf, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It is made up of pathways that weave through the original train tracks, as well as diverse plants inspired by those that grew in the absence of maintenance. The city plans to continue the park along the Hudson Yards to the Javits Convention Center. According to Mayor Bloomberg, the first section has sparked considerable neighborhood development, with more than 30 new plans now in the works. The Whitney Museum is building an extension by Renzo Piano at the Gansevoort entrance.

Photo of plantings along the High Line

On a recent visit, I was impressed by the High Line's varied landscape and playful atmosphere. It offers a different perspective on the city, where things come into view that are usually hidden from street level. The path moves along and through buildings, creating excitement in the discovery of new environments.

Photo of the theater onto the street at the High Line

The architecture is kind of slick, but it also has a relaxed, inventive feel that plays well against the seasoned ruggedness of its surroundings. I really like the idea of including the original train tracks. This might be even better if their continuity could somehow be maintained. They currently seem like set pieces rather than historically integrated parts of the neighborhood. I loved the rolling chairs on tracks, and the vegetation is tough and beautiful. The spectator windows onto the street (or into the park) are an interesting concept, framing everyday life as entertainment. However, I'm not sure the frames and stepped seating add much to the view, and they seem to draw energy away from the path. These opinions, however, are especially inconsequential in light of the overall greatness of the park.

Photo of rolling chairs on tracks at the High Line

The High Line is a wonderful part of the city's changing ecology, one that builds upon the old in shaping the new. I recommend starting with the exhibition Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City at the Museum of the City of New York. It includes detailed reconstructions of the island before modern development, giving a sense of how our current moment fits within the area's unfolding story.

(Photos by Peter Sigrist)


Coming Back to the City

The American city has taken quite the rollercoaster ride over the past 70 years. For the half century following World War II, anti-urban sentiment managed to keep pace with the United States’ unprecedented affluence, creating glistening suburban landscapes that surrounded increasingly troubled urban cores. Eight of the ten largest US cities in 1950 recorded their historical population peaks that year (only New York and Los Angeles continued to grow after that census).

This trend has reversed itself in the past couple of decades, of course, and most cities have benefited from the newly widespread appeal of urban living. As Mark Twain reminds us, though, history tends to rhyme rather than repeat itself, and the rebirth of cities is no exception.

A few months ago, Marc described a phenomenon he called Earbud Urbanism. Contemporary technology as epitomized by the iPod, he wrote, now allows us to replace our actual surroundings with personalized content, one sense at a time. Kazys Varnelis made a similar point last week, just before the 30th anniversary of the Sony Walkman. The Walkman, he wrote, symbolizes the recolonization of US cities just as boomboxes (perceived as “sonic assault devices”) symbolized the height of urban tension and decay.

Why, then, did cities become more appealing in the 1980s and 1990s? Perhaps Earbud Urbanism contributed by making it easy to ignore the unsavory elements of urban environments. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, cities teemed due to lack of choice: If you wanted to do certain things you needed to be in the city. Now, our choices have increased exponentially, and comparatively few people truly need to be located at any one place in order to do something. Everyone’s loved ones are just a virtual arm’s reach away, consumer products can be delivered to some of the most remote places on earth, and one can practically run a business without rolling out of bed. The physical locations of jobs seem to follow people to where they’ve decided to live, instead of the opposite.

Perhaps the suburban fortess mentality of the postwar era gave way to a subtler kind of fortress mentality. The affluent who have chosen to return to the city have come back on their own terms, not the city’s. Many inhabit condos that are sealed off from the surrounding urban environment, with plenty of parking infrastructure to facilitate driving everywhere else. The same high-end chain stores, also with ample parking, have even filled in the formerly industrial spaces of many cities (Chicago’s Clybourn Corridor, for example). And when we do have to venture outside of our comfort zones on foot, of course, we have our iPods to keep us company.

(Photo from Flickr user fensterbme.)


Suburbs Survival

Cities have been getting a lot of attention lately with the majority of earth's population residing in dense urban cores for the first time in history. There seems to be a growing consensus that cities are the way forward and that suburbs should burn in hell for destroying out beautiful countrysides, our farmlands, and promoting unsustainable lifestyles. So how do we resurrect the suburb or make it better? Are we planning on disassembling them and using the material to build new urban dwellings or are they going to become abandoned and sit empty? Is there a way to think about the burbs differently that will lead to a new lifestyle or a renewed sustainable energy?

To survive long-term, the suburbs will likely have to become more community oriented and organized. This century thus far has proved to be about social and sustainable movements. Two movements the suburbs can embrace to improve their chances of retaining and attracting citizens are intense car sharing programs, and intense community farm programs.

Typically, neighborhoods center around some type of public space, whether that be a park, an elementary school, or another type of community-oriented structure. These centers could act as transport hubs, where car share programs are initiated. Programs like carpoolconnect.com can help people find rides and coordinate with neighbors to accomplish errands and daily tasks. Perhaps it seems extreme, but if the suburbs want to kick their negative wrap, they are going to have to show they can compete with cities on transportation and social interaction.

Suburban farming has become a big thing as well. Though urban farming has attracted much of the attention because of its extreme conditions, many suburbanites have been converting their yards into mini-farms and, in some cases, turning a profit. Many organizations have popped up to promote the transformation of turf lawns to lush homestead farms, most famously Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates. His organization has inspired a new breed of farm and a new brand of agriculture. Companies are beginning to form around the country with the intention to lease and cultivate neighborhood lawns. Weekly neighborhood farmers markets could be held at the community center with the majority of produce and added value products coming from within the neighborhood.

When it comes down to it, the suburbs need to bolster their sense of community interaction in all areas of their citizens daily life from transportation methods to food choices to live/work arrangements. The suburbs aren't going to just disappear, so hopefully in the next few years we as a society will develop some new suburban living models worth promoting.

(Photo from The Shift Home and the author. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Informality, Enhanced

Why is it that so many of the people out there studying/analyzing/writing about new urban trends, new technologies, new social configurations, etc. are either well past or fast approaching midlife?


Watching academics (or worse: bureaucrats and business gurus) try to keep up with the frenetic pace of our present-day spatial, cultural, social, etc. milieus can be a sad sight. Pro Thinkers struggle like parents or marketeers or morning TV hosts to stay current and swank and therefore (allegedly) relevant.

They are quick to embrace buzz working concepts, and just as quick to dump them.


To make matters worse, even regular people like you or me have a hard time upholding concepts, just like we do keeping relationships, tastes, personal aims, political allegiances and attention spans. We consume our concepts like we consume our everydayness.


The problem is that a number of these concepts could actually be useful and significant. They are unfairly — even irresponsibly – deemed tired, passé, fizzle; superficially exhausted and then dumped.


One of the poor bastards in this bunch is the notion of "informality". After a brief, guilt-driven stint of Western academic and media focus on the subject, at the moment informality sounds as old and worn as French Theory. Something to roll your eyes over.


I don't want to redeem anything or anyone here. I just don't think ideas should be treated as disposable objects. Ideas always linger and creep back up when you least expect it.

It's only fair that we're tired of hearing the same stuff from the same people, over and over again. OK. But that doesn't mean that everything that needs to be said has been said.


Right now, more than anything else, I have some basic, intuitive, poorly-shaped questions. I guess they're mostly questions for myself (given my comment track record on this blog):

- Can anyone actually pin-point "informality"? Or is the notion simply elusive and any attempt at this futile?

- Is the concept itself inadequate? Particularly considering there isn't an actual divide between formal and informal, that they are both the same thing: reductive categories that try to organize and make sense of functional and active by-products of our (Modern, global) development schemes and efforts.

- Do we really have to keep opposing the "informal" to the Western-developed-organized-etc.-etc. or can we maybe start understanding it as a mirror modernization, as the crooked limb of Modernity or its bad twin?

- Instead of considering it an absence of logic, can we accept informality as a logic in itself, with controls and hierarchies and orders and struggles and changes and growths?

- If we want to emphasize the historical breach and inequality of modernizing processes, why not simply try to analyze and describe how unequal types of development are crashing up against each other and invading each other as a result of globalization, instead of making it an Us vs. Them thing? There is no Us vs. Them. We've all been smeared.

- Beyond aesthetics, isn't informality ugly (scary even) because it reveals too much about our dirty, insecure, two-faced Modern selves?

- How about picturing an enhanced version of the informal? One that isn't primitive or picturesque or exotic, or at least not in its entirety. One that is inextricably related to whatever happens elsewhere: interconnected, active (sometimes aggressive), efficient and significant in its own right. One that we need not pity or fix, but understand.

Would anyone like to take a shot?

(Photo by Pablo León de la Barra. José Rojas at House of Gaga in Mexico City. From the Centre for the Aesthetic Revoluction).


Agricultural Education in the City

Photo of Amanda Forstater with Saul livestockA public school in Philadelphia is training students in food production and environmental care on an urban farm. The Walter Biddle Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences is a magnet program with 600 students from throughout the city. Located in the upper Roxborough neighborhood, it includes a 130-acre farm with livestock, greenhouses, crops, and pastures.

Saul offers concentrations in Food Science, Floriculture and Greenhouse Management, Landscape Design, Animal Science, and Natural Resource Management. In addition to the agricultural program, students take a full range of high-school, advanced-placement, and college-level courses. The results are impressive. Saul's average graduation rate is 95 percent, with 80 percent going on to college. Other students start their own businesses or are hired into skilled agricultural jobs right after graduation.

Amanda Forstater, a 2009 graduate, recently gave me a thorough and enthusiastic introduction to Saul. Students begin with an intensive summer program, which provides training and experience with the different areas of concentration. This helps incoming freshman select a major and understand the kind of work that will be expected of them. They usually have a particular agricultural career in mind -- from local farming to designing parks, managing athletic fields, and caring for animals.

Photo of students with a cow and sheepDuring the school year, students work on the farm each day. Freshman and sophomores spend one and a half hours, while juniors and seniors spend two and a half. The jobs increase in complexity as the students acquire more training. There is a farmer who lives on-site and manages daily operations.

Students are encouraged to take on leadership responsibilities in school activities, internships, and the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America, but renamed in 1988 to include all agricultural careers). Internships and job-training programs have been set up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the Philadelphia Eagles, Somerton Tanks Farm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, J. Franklin Styer Nurseries, the University of Pennsylvania School of Photo of students pruning treesVeterinary Medicine, and many other local and national organizations.

Saul has established a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) partnership with Weaver's Way Cooperative. This provides the neighborhood with local produce as well as education and employment opportunities. Students are closely involved in the process. They can also work for the school farm over the summer. It is common to see them operating tractors, milking cows, and growing produce year-round.

Saul students come from urban homes with little if any farming experience. The program is helping to reestablish links with agriculture that have been lost through years of migration to cities. Along with the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Saul is among the few urban agricultural schools in the country. Visits are encouraged, and based on Amanda’s glowing account, it's very much worth the trip.

(The first two photos were provided by Amanda Forstater. The photo of students pruning trees is from the W.B. Saul website.)


Public and Private Space

Photo of the Four Horses Fountain in MoscowHaving just returned from Russia, I’ve been thinking a lot about public and private space. The country has been experiencing rapid privatization since the early 1990s. Many aspects of urban life, from transportation to housing to recreation, are becoming less public.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Private space can encourage responsibility for quality maintenance. We’re usually more likely to repair and improve upon places we own than places we share with everyone.

According to the logic of privatization, public maintenance is best contracted to independent businesses. In a way this makes sense. It provides incentive for efficient work, and as long as high quality is a requirement, we should get intended results at lower costs.

So why do market efficiencies often result in low-quality public space? Strip malls, for example, or dilapidated waterfronts. I guess it has to do with our priorities, and how much we’re willing or able to pay. If public space isn’t valued, there will be little incentive for businesses to compete over insufficient funds allocated toward its maintenance.

We expect to pay more for higher quality cars and houses. But what about bridges, water, roads, and other public entities? Not that we should pay more than we get in return, but it seems that quality services indicate a well-functioning society. While I found the parks, trains, and streets of Moscow nicely maintained, I heard that some neighborhoods are filled with uncollected garbage, and that the metro system was built at the rest of the country's expense. It's important that the benefits of public investment are distributed fairly.

Supporters of privatization might argue that services should be purchased directly by those who benefit from them, so as to reduce the misapplication of public funds. In its most extreme form, this might involve gated communities providing their own infrastructure, tollbooths at every bridge and roadway, and people hiring private companies for protection from crime. This could be considered fair in the sense that services would be more closely related to the amount we pay. However, it is less fair that children from wealthy families should start out with such major advantages over other children in education, health care, and basic safety. While salaries in lower paying fields like teaching and the military might rise with private demand, their services would be controlled by those who could afford them.

Photo of Tsaritsino ParkIn looking for ways of maintaining public space, Russia’s experience with socialism could offer useful lessons. While there are many aspects of Soviet rule that didn’t work, there are others that continue to benefit city residents. These include accessible transportation, parks, and cultural resources. It will be interesting to see if Russia can draw selectively from capitalism without losing the advantages of its socialist legacy. At the very least, we can study these advantages and see if they might work in other cities.

Is responsible maintenance of public space possible? Working on this would be a sound investment in our quality of life. Of course, the money for public investment has to come from somewhere. This is a question for economists, but it also has to do with where we place our values. If we care enough to improve upon the quality of our surroundings, we can make this happen. It will be important to figure out what improvement would mean and how to go about it. If we make this a priority, things could get better sooner than we think.

(Photo of the Four Horses Fountain by Miroslava De Abreu Coelho. Photo of Tsaritsino Park from Flickr user initsownway1701.)


Don't Miss: My Space @ NAC

There's another Whereblogger-authored post up over at Next American City's Daily Report...I'm a little late getting this one up, as it went live over a week ago, but later is better than never, as they say. The post takes a look at three Chicago-based urban planning non-profit orgs' attempts at interactive websites, and their various levels of success at engaging users. Below, a teaser, and here, a link. If you're so inclined, do take a look!

In cities—especially densely-populated cities, where open skies are a precious commodity—getting people to use public spaces isn’t usually a challenge. But getting people to talk about public space is another issue altogether. These days, the Internet is allowing planners and architects to reach out to Average Joe citizens to generate discussions about the built environment in new and increasingly creative ways; in Chicago, a number of recent public space-related initiatives have used the web to get people talking about the city’s public realm—with varying degrees of success.

This past week the Metropolitan Planning Council launched a region-wide search for Chicago’s best public spaces. Placemaking Chicago challenges Chicagoland residents from southeastern Wisconsin all the way down the lakefront to northwestern Indiana to send in photos and videos hosted at Flickr, YouTube, and their ilk, in order to determine the metro’s most enjoyable and successful public spaces. MPC is offering users various prizes, and winners will be determined by several rounds of judging, including an MPC-selected panel and a final public vote...

Once more with that link.

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


Networked Urban Politics

"Participation is war. Any form of participation is already a form of conflict", says architect and activist Markus Miessen, following Chantal Mouffe: "It is very important to envisage the task of democracy in terms of creating the institutions that will allow for conflicts between adversaries." Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist, has theorized on the notion of a "conflictual consensus", in which only a minimum common aim (democracy, equality, justice, etc.) needs to be settled and agreed upon within a society. The means for reaching this aim and even the meaning of the aim itself, on the other hand, can and should be disputable.

Miessen is more concerned with the spatial effects and possible materialization of these conflictual consensuses, particularly by way of everyday urbanisms: "When participation becomes conflict, conflict becomes space. Re-inserting friction and differences into both the scale of the institution and the city bears the potential of micro-political forces that render conflict as practice. In this context, participation becomes a form of non-physical, productive violence. Micro-political action can be as effective as traditional state political action."

- - -

Technologies that enable participation have become a staple of contemporary life, overcoming distance, economic limitations and even political constraints. Teens in Ciudad Neza are glued to their cell-phones just like their counterparts in Midtown Manhattan (though they might be planning a stickup instead of a cocktail soiree). ICTs have become so important to the functioning of societies that mobile phones are being handed out by governments along with food stamps and the One Laptop Per Child project seems demure compared to the aggressive downward pricing spirals of the netbook market. Today, 24/7 global connectivity is closer to practical reality than to some outlandish fiction.

- - -

From the nineteenth-century barricades to the revolts of 1968 to the social disruptions of the early 1990s, The Street was always an ideal escape valve for urban tensions and the preferred site of high profile (spectacular) political and social demonstrations. The Street was the perfect set for frictions. But if, as we’ve said before, The Street has systematically been loosing relevance, doesn't it make perfect sense that The Web take its place in this sense too?

- - -

The political perceptions and consequences of The Web and networked urbanisms differ intensely according to specific geographical contexts.

Here in Spain — not quite the First World, but still — there is a bubbly enthusiasm over new technologies and the promise of what they might deliver: salvation from impending economic fallout, a new dawn of proactive citizenship, gaining a steadier foothold in the Developed Nations club (after the brick-setter, real-estate-speculator and tour-guide triad has been widely acknowledged to be a flop as far as development schemes go), etc. Lethargic institutions, burned-out public universities, covetous town halls and ailing private companies are all eager to jump on the digital bandwagon here. The government is lending money for laptops, funding mediateques and data centers, talking Citizenship 2.0, etc. Hopes are high and the atmosphere is cheery, but approaches remain largely superficial or are limited to insiders, specialists and bureaucrats.

This is not the case in the Third World.

- - -

My browser is stuffed with Tehran bookmarks. Just like Cuban bloggers sneaking into Havana hotels to post their thoughts and opinions on the web or massive reactions to government corruption cases prompted by unofficial on-line reports in China, web activists and connected common-folk in Iran are opening channels for a new understanding of urban (networked) politics — proving at the same time that networked urban realities are far from being pretty or easy to grasp. The Street (Web) resistance that is shaking Iranian cities along with our reductive and jaundiced perception of Iran (Remember the days when thanks to George W. Bush — and to a lesser degree, Sally Field — Iran rarely evoked something other than a helplessly closed and traditional society?) is one of those events that change people’s gut perception of history in the making. But there is an additional element here. Like the Obama election or the global response to the Swine Flu affair, the unfolding of these fundamentally urban episodes and our reactions to them cannot be separated from the presence of digital technologies.

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


Dharavi II: Does This Look Like a Slum?

This is Part Two in a series looking at Dharavi, a mostly informal township in Mumbai often referred to as Asia’s largest slum, and the government’s controversial plans to redevelop it. With billions of dollars on the table, tens of thousands of homes and businesses at stake, and the global spotlight shining bright, this case of contested urban space is worth a deeper look.

“Dharavi is a black hole – something we should be ashamed of.”
-Mukesh Mehta, “Slum in the Way of Mumbai’s Progress,” BBC News, 21 March 2007

“Asia’s largest sprawl of squalor – the Dharavi slum – breathed below.”
-Aditya Ghosh, “Final plan for Asia’s largest slum ready,” Hindustan Times, 07 February 2008

“Dharavi has always been a permanent eyesore to foreign travellers flying to India.”
-“Blueprint for a new Dharavi,” The Financial Express, 17 June 2007

Dharavi is almost universally branded as a massive “slum.” This terminology is taken for granted in most mainstream media accounts, government designations and the popular imagination. In fact, the planning authority for Dharavi is the state’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority.

Even in the legal sense, this term is an inaccurate generalization. According to Sharad Mahajan of MASHAL, an NGO that managed GIS mapping and data collection for the government’s official survey of Dharavi, the 59,316 "slum structures" counted in the survey occupy around 396 of 590 acres. The rest of the area includes government-owned properties (including buildings developed under previous upgrading schemes), a Tata power station, a BEST bus station, Mahim Nature Park, a cemetery, railway facilities, private industrial and residential buildings, and streets (many paved by the municipality).

Koliwada, a historical fishing village that existed before Bombay did and has historical documents attesting to that, was never a slum — a fact finally recognized by DRP authorities in early 2009, when they agreed to exempt the area from the redevelopment plan. Kumbharwada, a community of potters who migrated to Mumbai after a drought in their native Gujarat, were afforded "Vacant Land Tenure," a unique tenancy arrangement, in Dharavi by the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1932. There is also the Transit Camp, originally temporary structures built by the government for people displaced by infrastructure projects; decades later, this is a relatively well developed commercial and residential area. Matunga Labor Camp, has housed municipal sweepers for over 50 years. There are also chawls built by the Bombay Municipal Corporation prior to 1940. Many of these areas are now officially labeled slums, which seems legally questionable, even if it is permissible.

When you look beneath the surface at the parts considered "slum areas", the term seems equally problematic. Does the ICICI bank on 90 Feet Road count as a slum structure? What about the Sri Siddhi Vinayakar Temple, the 120-year old Dharavi Mosque or St. Anthony Church? Kala Killa, a fort built by order of the Governor of Bombay in 1737? The three-story Gurudutta Gym, home to one of Mumbai’s champion bodybuilders? The London-trained cosmotologist’s clinic, blood and X-ray labs, cyber cafes, lawyers’ offices? The air-conditioned stores selling gold jewelry and high-end electronics? The schools, the bakeries who stock stores across the city and 13 Compound, Mumbai’s unofficial but main recycling center? The offices of countless NGOs and associations of every creed and culture? The streets that look like the old city of Jodpur or any small town in India or Tokyo minus a few decades? With more than 80 distinct neighborhoods, over 600,000 people, and a "GDP" of USD 500 million, by all measures this slum looks suspicously like a city of its own.

This is not to say that Dharavi is without serious problems. Many parts of Dharavi are overcrowded and suffer the effects of a lack of provision of basic civic services and amenities. Many structures use recycled materials, reflecting owners’ poverty and lack of access to finance. Dharavi needs support to develop. But it should be obvious by now that the label "slum" is inappropriate.

"Slum" is not a neutral descriptive term, but a highly affective one. Sometimes – as in the quotes I introduced with – the biases are clearly spelled out. Even when there are no blatant stereotypes, "slum" is always shorthand for blighted, dirty, dysfunctional, unacceptable. The myth of Dharavi as a uniform slum is reinforced by cliché imagery of sprawling corrugated tin roofs and garbage-choked lanes, repeated on the government’s websites and presentations and most mainstream Indian papers. Rhetoric and images evoking Dharavi’s scale (“largest slum in Asia,” “sprawl of squalor”) further dehumanize it and inflate the “threat.” Middle- and upper-class Mumbaikers have no reason to dispute the term, likely never having set foot in Dharavi.

This is not a neutral misunderstanding — packaging Dharavi as one big slum serves a clear purpose. Although there is no single actor behind it, the PR campaign that brands Dharavi as such is so masterful that the inaccurate and loaded term is assumed to be a fact by most and has provided unquestioned justification for the government’s developer-driven redevelopment plan.

(Photos by Katia Savchuk. Photo collage of Dharavi and Tokyo by Matias Echanove (www.airoots.org/www.dharavi.org).)


The Urban Path

Human navigation is a key component in the organization and form our cities take on. Whether we choose to walk, bike, take public transport, or drive, we are making choices that shape our experience of the city and that will transform the city itself over time. Two great examples of this are taking shape in New York right now: the opening of the High Line park and the pedestrianization of Times Square. Both show how infrastructure and space can be transformed over time based on the alternating use and neglect of transient spaces. As we move forward in a period of increasing transportation curiosity and alternate means of transport, these physical experiments become very relevant and thought-provoking. Everyone is eagerly anticipating billions of dollars for infrastructure investment and reconfiguration, but what kind of infrastructure changes should we really seek? Wider bridges and highways, more bike lanes, light rail, pedestrian access?

Alongside these physical experiments lie also a set of mapping or tracking statement experiments which aim to bring attention to the ways in which people use space and how they use that space. One is the Contrail project which aims to apply a line of chalk behind bikers, like a constant skidmark tracing their path throughout the cityscape. On a large scale this could reveal some very interesting patterns as well as draw attention to the number of bikes that actually occupy the roads. It might even encourage people to break out the old two wheeler and go for a spin. In addition to this hack like experiment there is an increasing amount of gps devices floating around our city sidewalks and roadways, all of which can generate useful information about how our current infrastructure is being used. Hopefully, when it really comes time to invest, the powers that be will heed these experiments and gather appropiate information to make informed decisions about the ways in which people will move over the next 50 years...

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


Dachas and Local Agriculture

Photo of a Russian dachaAccording to Dmitri Orlov, Russian dachas (cottages outside of cities) helped people make it through the economic upheaval of the 1990s. Apparently, many were able to supplement their diets with food produced on small agricultural plots. Even given long winters, food products could be cured to last until spring.

From the air, the landscape surrounding Moscow is different from anything I've ever seen. Instead of almost grid-like plots covering most of the land, there are clustered houses, arranged organically, surrounded by small gardens. I think these might be dachas (see photo from Google Maps below).

On a recent train trip, I saw what I think were dachas more closely. I wonder if it is typical for them to be located near train lines? The majority had small agricultural plots. The countryside was a mix of cottages, forests, and heavy industry. Many of the industrial sites were abandoned. There were a few decaying cottages, but most appeared to be in use.

The woman from whom I rent my room is a retired chemist who lives at her dacha year round. So I guess dachas must help many pensioners supplement their incomes by renting out apartments in the city. In our place there are two students and a family of five living in three rooms.Satellite photo of Russian dachas

Dachas are places for recreation and holidays as well. Their ownership seems less exclusive than summer cottages in the U.S. I'm not sure how they were distributed in the past, but they are very common and apparently not limited to wealthier citizens.

A Washington Post article on sprawl surrounding Moscow mentions the possible threat to dachas posed by expanding suburbs. Maybe people will choose these new developments, and small-scale food production will be replaced by giant agribusinesses. Are dachas to become relics from the past, like some of the industrial sites in the countryside?

With today's economic and ecological concerns, small farms could be part of our future. Hopefully this will happen by choice rather than necessity. It would be tough to establish them on private land, and experience with agriculture is increasingly uncommon. But foreclosed or abandoned properties in rural, suburban, and even urban areas might be used. There's no reason we can't learn to produce food. Not everyone will have time for this, and I don't think global agricultural trade should come to a stop. Still, Russia's experience with dachas appears to show that local agriculture can work.

Credits: Photo of a dacha from Vsam1.ru. Aerial photo of the outskirts of Moscow from Google Maps.


Making the Best of the Airport City

Whether Mother Earth can cough up the fossil fuels needed to keep the airline industry flying is a matter of debate (and one that we really should be debating). While airports are primarily significant in their relationships with each other, the ground-level impact that an airport can have on a city is massive. John Kasarda has even coined the term “aerotropolis” to describe the economic activity that develops around airports.

Unfortunately, urban transportation systems fail to accommodate the aerotropolis. The problem makes sense in light of the transportation challenges that an airport creates for a city. Airports must lie far from the urban core by necessity—a dense urban core actually increases the likelihood that an airport will have to be more remote.

Meanwhile, though, successful international airports have spurred the construction of large-scale office parks, hotels, malls and even casinos. In Chicago, the O’Hare area is second only to the Loop in job concentration.

Chicago provides a perfect example of the aerotropolis’ accessibility conundrum. An old city with a historically strong center, Chicago now strikes a delicate balance between the transit-oriented past and the automobile-dependent present. In the midst of its shift toward the latter, Chicago happened to build the largest airport in the world (more recently surpassed by Atlanta’s airport). Another half century since O’Hare’s construction, Chicago still has a largely radial transit and road network that both center on the Loop and link the airport to the rest of the city with just a few spokes.

Not that Chicago’s planners are to blame for the situation. After all, most of the metropolitan area’s transit infrastructure predates O’Hare, as does much of the city’s residential and commercial development. A hundred years of booming development can’t be reproduced overnight. Furthermore, an airport-generated commercial area still needs to have the actual airport at its center, and airports don’t offer accessible or vibrant public spaces like many downtowns can. An airport is likely to generate a sprawling and automobile-dependent aerotropolis, and to some extent that’s unavoidable.

How to integrate the aerotropolis into the metropolis, then? Considering Chicago’s example, a dual-centered metropolis offers an opportunity to create a vibrant and dense corridor between the two hubs. The rail transit network in Chicago, as mentioned above, focuses on the Loop but connects it to O’Hare via the Blue Line. The path between the two offers an easy commute to either employment center and features exciting, walkable neighborhoods and commercial areas that have thrived since before the airport even existed. Thus, the aerotropolis may affect cities negatively in certain ways, but that second central business district might also produce distinct advantages for parts of those cities.

(Photo from Flickr user Wouter Kiel.)