LaHood: Not a Disastrous Pick, After All?

I don't know about you, but after Ray LaHood was tapped to serve as Obama's Secretary of Transportation, most of what I read around the urblogosphere was bad-news-bears. Urban policy wonk Ryan Avent questioned the decision over at Grist, as well as his own blog; over at WorldChanging, Alex Steffen wondered aloud wether Obama had used the position as a throwaway to appease Republicans; and transit blog The Overheard Wire took a padded swipe at the new Sec. Interested in getting the opinion of someone in the transit policy arena from LaHood's home state (which, luckily enough, happens to be my own), I checked in with a friend who's on the board of the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance, formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. He pointed me to an editorial piece in the org's latest newsletter, ModeShift, which paints a much sunnier picture of LaHood than I've become accustomed to reading. According to the ModeShift article, LaHood is a strong and vocal proponent of rails-to-trails programs, and has been twice-honored by the League of Illinois Bicyclists for his efforts on biking issues. So his mass transit record is still murky, but it sounds like LaHood's not all bad news. Just a bit of food for thought.

Edit: all that being said, I'm starting to wish that this Nadler fellow would have been given the nod.


Brief Interviews with Hideous Cities

Urbanism, like any field, has its own dogmas, orthodoxies and raging controversies. It's both art and science, it affects almost everyone on a daily basis (whether they realize it or not), and it overlaps with a vast array of related disciplines.

In short, urbanism has a lot in common with language.

People have been calling attention to this similarity for ages--Christopher Alexander's pattern language is a prime example--but David Foster Wallace may have unknowingly revealed the most useful facet of the relationship in his essay "Authority and American Usage," by probing the conflict between linguistic Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. Prescriptivists are those who believe in objective, fixed rules to guide the usage of language; Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to define a language by how people actually use it. DFW ultimately concludes that the English language depends upon the former group, although any would-be Prescriptivist must establish credibility before publicly defining what's right and wrong.

It turns out urbanism has its own versions of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: Professional planners, architects, academics, media and city administrators tend to develop consensus about what makes cities work. Density, mixed-use development, and transit become components of an urbanist orthodoxy; a freeway through a vibrant neighborhood troubles the urban Prescriptivist in the same way an "ain't" irks the English teacher.

Meanwhile, every urban dweller is routinely playing the twin roles of critic and planner in many small ways. Cities are created by the sum of individual choices to live in certain neighborhoods, shop at certain stores or occupy public spaces, and everyone forms an opinion about what's good and bad in their own urban environments. Urban Descriptivism would hold that these millions of collective actions and opinions are right, whether experts agree or not--even if those actions produce strip malls, car culture and isolation.

Urban Descriptivism is probably more interesting, and it's certainly easier. Robert Venturi and Reyner Banham have glorified the neon signs, freeways and sprawl of LA and Las Vegas, choosing to find beauty in those environments because they’re already there anyway. Venturi may have coined the Descriptivists’ mantra when he wrote, “Main Street is almost all right.” Their approach teaches us to treasure someone else’s trash, enhancing the urban experience without necessarily building anything.

Clearly, each extreme has severe flaws: One leads to hubris and utopian fantasies; the other ignores social pathologies in favor of intellectual entertainment. Hence DFW’s conclusion. We can’t assume those planning our cities are credible just because they’re making the plans. But we need rules and guidance—an entirely hands-off approach will create interesting cities with multitudes of serious problems.

Maybe this is why urbanists keep returning to Jane Jacobs. She reconciles these approaches in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by merging a Descriptivist’s eye for the way cities actually are (not how they should be) with a Prescriptivist’s desire to make cities better—by nurturing what’s already good in those cities rather than trying to recreate them. David Foster Wallace writes that every language needs its authorities; Jane Jacobs tells us that stepping outside and thoughtfully considering one’s surroundings are the first steps toward becoming an authority on the language of urbanism.

(Photos from Flickr users jamessmke and Roadsidepictures. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photos.)

Become a Whereblogger!

Where is looking to add some new international flavor to our blogging team. We're looking for bloggers based outside of North America who are interested in contributing posts about urbanism 3-5 times a month. If you're interested in becoming a Whereblogger, send a quick email with a bit of background info: who you are, where you're based, what you do, why you're interested in blogging for Where. But first, please read the following:

Two important qualifiers: to be considered, you must be able to write in reasonably clean English. Knowledge of Chicago Style or AP or what-have-you is not needed, but we like to keep language consistent around here, so unfortunately that rules out posts written in otros lengues. You must also actually live in a city. Small cities are ok (though as a general rule, bigger is better), and ultimately the quality of your writing is more important than your personal geography, but writing well about cities requires regular interaction with the urban environment. In other words, Farmer Brown-types need not apply.

Also, while there are several spots to fill (there's a max of 10 contributors, myself included, at any time; currently there are six of us) selectivity will be exercised. Building a strong team requires looking for quality over quantity, so there's no hurry to fill the roster for the sake of doing so. Ultimately, we're looking for people who can answer the question "Can you consistently produce well-written, thought-provoking blog posts?" with a confident "Yes." (And, of course, with whom we agree on that point.)

And while we're on the topic of contributors, I'm pleased to introduce you to another Chicagoan who will be joining the team today:

Drew Austin (Chicago) plans mass transit for a living and passes through his favorite Chicago building, the Merchandise Mart, five days a week. He grew up in Indianapolis but has since moved on to larger Midwestern cities. In addition to transportation, he's fascinated by public space, good architecture, bad architecture and urban morphology. He once wrote about those topics on a short-lived blog called The List of Dorms. His favorite grid-based city is, of course, Chicago, and his favorite grid-based game is Scrabble.

So, to wrap up, here's that email again if you are interested in joining the team Hopefully there will be a few more introductions to make over the next few weeks. Perhaps one of them will be yours.


Wherever you go, there you are.

It struck me the other day, while reading one of Springwise's increasingly frequent posts on the mass customization of travel, that the types of travel apps and sites being developed right now to personalize the urban travel experience could have a profound impact not just on how we visit cities, but on how cities themselves function, as well.

Urban travel has long been a two-sided coin, with time in a new city being divided (in different ratios, depending on the tourist) between the standard landmarks like the Empire State Building or the Forbidden City, and the day-to-day urban world that exists on the edges of guidebooks; think of Brooklyn back in the 1990s, or Beijing's fast-evaporating hutongs today -- places to which people are drawn to observe a quotidian rhythm different from their own: to experience the spectacle of the extraordinary-ordinary.

The Postcard City and the Real City are invariably pitted against each other in a battle for the urban tourist's limited time. But as cities grow bigger and bolder on our increasingly urban planet, it seems fair to assume that greater and greater numbers of tourists will make their way down the streets of cities that they do not call home; as such, the traditional landmarks and attractions will become more and more crowded, making the prospect of tooling around lesser-seen corners of the metropolis an increasingly attractive option for visitors.

The aforementioned trend blog has spotted some real doozies lately: a site that allows you to navigate cities by mood (Could Yelp-like testimonials about certain blocks, streets, parks, or even whole neighborhoods define or even change the mood of a given place?); another that uses personal data to create personalized guidebooks (Would the diversity of interests force travel publishers to re-think the meaning of the term "attraction?" I.E. cyclists' internationally competitive quests to speed up the steepest slopes could reboot the way a whole subculture navigates hilly cities like San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Guilin, and Lisbon); and another that helps you track down a hot scene at the last minute with crowdsourced GPS data (Anybody up for an impromptu, flashmob-style block party?)

By making wandering off the beaten path more enticing, the customization of the urban tourism experience has the potential to distribute visitors more evenly around the city than old-school printed-paper guides, with their restricted map insets and hyper-selective restaurant listings. But does this dispersal of small-time explorers legitimize or cheapen the Real City? It seems to echo ongoing arguments about gentrification; after all, while the presence of individual tourists at specific sites is fleeting, their combined influence can be very powerful over time. And, while the carving of initials into a famous landmark is a time-honored tradition (as old as the very idea of landmarks), tourists will soon be able to carve their very presence into a city in the unpredictable paths that they cut through it, shifting not only the way that other visitors, but the very citizens of the city in question, navigate and experience a place.

(Image from Flickr user LondonSLR. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Posh to be Poor? Transportation

Over the last few years there has been a surge away from motorcar transportation towards public transportation and the bicycle. This can in part be attributed to the sustainable movement as well as the growth of our urban cores. In 2008, the number of people living in cities eclipsed rural dwellers for the first time. As cities become more dense, the efficiency of traffic becomes increasingly important and for residents, it becomes faster to take public transportation. Now, aside from public transportation, the bicycle is also seeing a boom in popularity as a primary mode of transportation for many city dwellers.

The bicycle is rapidly becoming the popular mode of transportation in large urban cores. It is cheap, you can find a decent used bike for 25 bucks that will get you around the city fairly well. Bikes are easy to maintain and aren't subject to expensive repairs as they age. No need to buy insurance either, or fill up on gas. These qualities make it a very attractive option for those who are strapped for cash. Also, it is environmentally friendly due to the lack of emissions and lower embodied energy than the automobile. So, this is an important turning point as people begin to look away from a more expensive, more convenient mode of transportation, to one that is significantly more affordable. In fact, New York city saw a 35% increase in people biking to work in 2008. Unlike public transportation though, biking has become a trend with thriving organizations such as Critical Mass advocating for increased ridership. It has become cool to ride a bike as demonstrated by the many celebs recently caught on 2 wheels. Lance Armstrong may have sparked a national movement toward road bikes, but the many bike messengers roaming our urban cores have sparked a fixed gear revolution. Once seen as tacky or radical, the bike messenger style has invaded western culture influencing clothing, style (messenger bag anyone??), and heck, transportation!

So why does this mean it's becoming posh to be poor? Well, because it's a move away from expensive transportation options, toward more affordable and accessible option. It's a move away from $30,000 SUV's toward $125 bikes (these are both averages of course.) Low income residence take public transit, they ride bikes, and they hop trains; 3 methods of transportation that will see a steep increase in 2009. As we enter into an age of frugality, where we find pleasure in the simple aspects of life, people will worry less about luxury and more about experience, an idea which has grown in prominence over the past few years.

Posh to be Poor? Introduction

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


A Space So Confined? Saving Grace of Impotent Hatred?

Whenever I happen to be in a city of any size, I marvel that riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos. How can so many human beings coexist in a space so confined without destroying each other, without hating each other to death? As a matter of fact, they do hate each other, but they are not equal to their hatred. And it is this mediocrity, this impotence, that saves society, that assures its continuance, its stability. Occasionally some shock occurs by which our instincts profit; but afterward we go on looking each other in the face as if nothing had happened, cohabitating without too obviously tearing each other to shreds. Order is restored, a ferocious calm as dreadful, ultimately, as the frenzy that had interrupted it.

E.M. Cioran, from the essay “Mechanism of Utopia,” included in his History and Utopia, translated from the French by Richard Howard.

* * *
This passage exaggerates a little, I think.

It does express—with zesty pessimism and gorgeous rhetoric—what seems to be a fairly common thought about cities as unhealthy pressure-cookers of human behavior.

Newspaper headlines about a recently released psychological study suggested that the “city hurts your brain,” though more scrupulous accounts noted that even this study didn’t actually find any evidence that urban environments harm cognitive abilities.

Still, there’s no question that living among lots of other people at close range can be very irritating at times.

But surely something other than cowardice explains why people living in big cities refrain from butchering their fellow citizens?

Cioran, the writer of the quote above, lived in Paris for almost his entire adult life. From my own very limited personal experience, I can’t imagine developing the thought Cioran did while living in Paris. But I can imagine doing so if I had lived in London—or at least parts of central London.

In any case, it seems to me that many people honestly enjoy living among lots of other people at close range in cities. Assuming that’s true, what explains it? How and why do people enjoy life in big cities?

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


Posh to be Poor?

I've been reading a lot of articles lately, and as wrong as it may sound, it seems as though poor is the new black in the Western World. Now I don't mean more people are becoming poor, because that's obviously true, but it seems that lately a lot of professionals have drawn inspiration from the condition. For example, the Times ran an article about architect Teddy Cruz and his social housing experiment in the Hudson River Valley. The development, which features a modern day mesh of architectural elements, draws inspiration and, at times, form, directly from favelas.

Another prime example is seen in the press that a group of British artists received when they essentially hijacked a vacant multi-million dollar mansion. Late last year, the artist collective Da! moved their group into 18 Upper Grosvenor Street, one of London's more exclusive neighborhoods. They lived and worked here for at least a month with no word from the owners and no word from the cops. I can see this becoming a trend in America, with so many mansions going into foreclosure or sitting on the open market. Perhaps there will be a slight role reversal, where the homeless end up taking over these huge mansions because nobody can afford them or to maintain them. I mean, you can already get 3000 sq ft of 1920's craftsmanship for under 100k in Detroit, why even waste your time with money anymore? Just move in! Some cities are even working on programs to move the homeless into foreclosed homes, according to Fox News. If you want a mansion for nothing, now just may be your chance.

Finally, one of my favorite artists/designers just released a transportable abode for the homeless. I know this has been an ongoing project in every architecture school in the world for the last 50 years, but nobody does it quite like James Westwater. There is something compelling about his project, "homeless chateau," and the idea of living in a rectangular prism in an abandoned warehouse. How different is this from living in a warehouse loft? Having neither heat nor electricity would be rough, but you're not paying $3000 a month. Anyways, I'm not really suggesting these are real lifestyle choices that will become widely popular anytime soon; I'm simply suggesting these ideas are growing in popularity.

In order to dig further into this idea that we are being inspired by the conditions of being poor -- conditions that will increasingly affect the middle class worldwide -- I will investigate 3 divisions of urban planning which directly connect to choices in lifestyle and are dictated by income. Those divisions are Transportation, Food, and Shelter. Over the next 2 weeks I will dive into each category and explore the trends that are leading to a more frugal lifestyle for citizens of big cities.

(Photo from NYT, Gurdian, and James Westwater. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


A call to (urbanist) arms

The new year is a perfect excuse to picture ourselves starting over. This year in particular promises to be cathartic, with the end of the Bush era and probable (if only temporal) end of freewheeling capitalism and impending social disasters and the dawn of Obama and everything else that’s cooking these days.

With all the doom and excitement building up, I find it really difficult to concentrate on architecture or urbanism. It just seems daffy worrying about how pretty or ugly buildings are, and simply frustrating having to remind myself of how ineffective and near-sighted the usual strands of planning and urbanism are in times of crisis, how thinking about place and space always seems to fall back to second or third tier when emergency sets in.

It’s quite difficult to justify a focus on architecture and urbanism at times like these, particularly when the “disciplines” (the general sets of understandings, and tools and consents encasing practices) are so terribly stuffed with vagueness, superficiality, piecemeal solutions, and detachment.

But just when I’m about to get depressed again, I whisper to myself, “for new social relations there must be new space and viceversa…,” and then, like after reciting one of those little bedtime prayers that never failed to keep me safe and sound and sleeping like a log when I was a kid, I feel better.

Lefebvre takes me back to Mayakovsky too, with his beautiful bald head and crazy eyes and his poems and drawings of the city dissolving onto napkins and paper bags at the same time Petrograd itself was dissolving into rubble and smoke and chaos and newness. And Lunacharski singing of the days when the streets were filled with the roar of politics and revolution and urbanism.

Or in a somewhat more contemporary and much less boisterous tone, Gottdiener, confirming that:

“Just as other commodities, (space) represents both a material object and a process involving social relations. Unlike other commodities, it continually recreates social relations or helps reproduce them…it is, therefore, simultaneously material object or product, the medium of social relations, and the reproducer of material objects and social relations.”

So maybe, just maybe, its a good time to start thinking and talking explicitly of urbanism and architecture again, as the fundamentally social and political endeavors they are.


Wanted: Best Books for Introduction to Urbanism

Let’s say you have a friend who wants to know what you’re talking about when you toss out phrases like “multiuse zoning,” “sprawl,” “density,” “urban infill,” “interconnected street girds.” Your friend also wants to know why you care about all this.

Let’s also stipulate that your friend doesn’t want to listen to yet another lecture from you on the subject.

What books would you recommend to this friend of yours?

Post your suggestions—any number of them—as comments to this post. Try to include a sentence or two about why you’re recommending a particular book.

Remember these are supposed to be books you’d recommend to a curious, non-expert friend with only a limited amount of time he or she is willing to devote to the subject—so think of concise, introductory-level books and keep your list short.

Next month, after soliciting advice from my fellow Where contributors (including any of their own suggestions), I’ll post a list of the top recommendations.

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


Barack & Jane

Spotted on Beyond DC, a video of President-elect Obama from a town hall-style gathering back during the election season in Toledo, Ohio. Not only does he speak at length about the importance of building strong cities and metropolitan areas in the economic recovery process, he starts off by praising Jane Jacobs, calling The Death and Life of Great American Cities "a great book." Kind of amazing to see and hear; certainly gives this urbanist hope for the future. Now let's see if he delivers. Ten days to go...


Thoughts on How Cities Change

Photo of Triphammer Falls at Cornell University in Ithaca, NYThese ideas came to mind while reading Bruno Latour (especially), as well as Donna Haraway, Matthew Gandy, Sarah Whatmore, and Eric Swyngedouw. I’d like to write them out before I forget, and I wonder if they are useful for considering how cities change.

Main idea: Cities change through socio-political relationships between living and nonliving things.

Elements interact and combine to bring about different outcomes, as when molecules come together to form a human being (the outcome doesn’t have to be consciously pursued), or when humans construct a building to provide shelter Photo of Rolling Home, by Charles Miller(the combined elements don't have to be completely attached). These combinations are based on more or less cooperative social relationships. In other words, elements participate in diverse forms of associative groupings.

The building materials in the example above don't have a choice in the matter, which is where the political (power relations and governance) comes in. It is through politics that combined action takes place. Power is based on the ability to incorporate necessary elements to realize objectives.

Photo of Martin Luther KingFor example, the winner of a democratic election comes to power by communicating a vision that attracts the most voters. Power can also be taken by force, as when people combine with superior weaponry to accomplish their goals. Groups form through communication, cooperation, and coercion. They exist at many levels, and are not limited to people. Nonhumans communicate nonverbally. The sound of a rockslide tells animals to make way. Flowers attract pollinators with pleasing colors and scents. Nonhumans also cooperate and dominate, even if not through conscious decisions. They interact with or without humans through social and political processes.

These ideas seem useful for understanding how cities change over time, and for finding ways to direct this change toward a common good. Mutually beneficial relationships tend to be the most lasting. Photo of kids playing in a fountainHowever, using wood to provide shelter isn't beneficial to the trees that get cut down. This is where it is necessary to prioritize. While our survival depends on a degree of anthropocentrism, we can still work to understand and reduce harm to others as much as possible. This is an ethical responsibility, and it strengthens our wellbeing. We can develop innovative policies and technologies that result in cohesive solutions to urban problems. The more people and things that benefit from these solutions, the more likely they will sustain.

The authors mentioned above have changed the way I think about cities. While this is not a summary of their ideas, it is very much inspired by them. They helped me look at nature (including cities) as interactive processes of change. I hope others will share their thoughts or add things that I’ve missed.

(Photo of Triphammer Falls from Panoramio user dmcguirk; "Rolling Home, Rockaway Beach, New York, 1933" taken by Charles Miller and scanned from a postcard; Photo of Martin Luther King from blakehuggins.com; Photo of kids playing in a fountain from jandtenterprises.com)


Notes about the Future of Urban Journalism, Part 4

Is this the post-newspaper future of local news?

What might a good, post-newspaper local news organization look like? What content would it offer? How would it be staffed and funded?

As market resources dwindle and online news consumption increases, producers of local journalism will experiment with a variety of forms. It’s possible we’ll all be getting our local news from bloggers. It’s possible newspapers—looking and acting like magazines—will survive as a viable form. It’s possible local public radio stations will become the primary local news organizations—with radio, Web, print and video offerings.

I don’t know enough about how online advertising works, about the costs of news production or the habits and preferences of news consumers to predict what’s likely to succeed newspapers. But I do know cities will suffer if there’s no good local journalism of the right scope, depth and frequency.

I also know I’ve been daydreaming about what the future of urban journalism might look like. Here are some highlights.

There’s a fabulous, ambitious online news site. Most of what you got from a local newspaper, you’ll get here: news and feature stories about all things local—politics, business, crime, culture and sports. You’ll find obituaries and weather forecasts, too. Photos. Video clips. It’s updated 24/7/52. What you won’t get here is national and international news from wire services. This is all local. The site is uncluttered, easy to read and navigate, and contains only a few discreet, non-up-popping ads. Every article and every photo are easy to print, and there’s free access to the archives. This site is the news organization’s flagship site, and it links to all the content described below.

A real newspaper for Sundays. For old-fashioned newspaper readers, this is the real thing: news printed on paper, available at newsstands or delivered to your door. While this paper contains a summary of the week’s news, its serious fare is mainly devoted to providing in-depth analysis and background on major local issues. But Sunday reading can’t all be serious, which is why the paper contains lots of cartoons and other interesting and fun stuff to read. All the paper’s content—except for the peppermint scent of its entertainment section—is available at the flagship site, too. The paper is free, although there is a charge for home delivery.

An audio-visual department. Which produces audio and video supplements to the news content, but also creates stand-alone documentaries about local places, people and issues. The digital documentaries—some of which use computer generated animation—are also used at public forums sponsored by the news organization and are broadcast on local radio and televisions stations.

E pluribus, opinion. There is no official editorial position of the news organization. But there are plenty of regular columnists and invited commentators. Most of these opinion writers are locals, but experts from outside of the community are frequently asked to comment on or provide advice about local issues. Site editors frequently post collections of downloadable background materials and links to hot opinion topics.

A city guide like you’ve never seen before. This guide doesn’t list restaurants and bars. It doesn’t describe local shopping districts. It’s a power guide, and what it does is explain the city’s formal (government) and informal (lobbyists, interest groups, activists, opinion leaders) power structure. It summarizes the key issues facing the city, and profiles the major people and groups involved with those issues. The guide offers lots of advice from battle-tested activists—locals and outsiders—about how to get city hall to listen. It’s available in print and online. Both versions are free, and the print version is mailed to every registered voter in town.

Users contribute content and feedback. While the professionally produced content is carefully distinguished from content produced by users, user-generated content and feedback is everywhere. Comments on articles. Polling on issues. Ranking of articles. Frequent requests for story and photo ideas. Posting of user generated photos and video clips. Reports on what local bloggers are saying. As part of the opinion pages, there’s a “soap box” section that allows anyone to post comments about anything of any length, subject only to minimum civility standards.

It’s funded a lot like public radio stations are. Generous local philanthropists and hugely successful membership drives provide the bulk of funding. The online news site and the Sunday paper both run ads, but the number and size of the ads are minimal in compared to current commercial newspapers and their Web sites. Firewalls separate the revenue side from the editorial side. Everybody involved with this news organization regards local news as a vital public service, not a moneymaking enterprise. (Yes, there’s a bit of snobbery about that.)

Produced by city-loving professional journalists. Because it takes a lot of resources and expertise to reliably produce good journalism—and this includes everything from news briefs to in-depth articles, from photos to info graphics—this news organization employs professionals. But not just any professionals. Apply here only if you have some talent, and can honestly claim at least these three things: 1. Cities baffle and intrigue you, and you want to figure out how they work; 2. You like complexity, but you really like explaining complicated things in an accessible and witty way; and 3. You love cities, even if it’s sometimes a tortured love.

* * *
Well, that was my latest daydream about a possible local news organization in a post-newspaper world. I’d like to know how others see the future of urban journalism. Please add your predictions, your daydreams as comments to this post.

This is the forth--and final--part of a series of posts about the future of urban journalism. Read the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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


The Topography of Community

Found during a routine aimless wandering through Wikipedia: a map of the boundaries of every commune (municipality) in metropolitan France. So interesting; I couldn't help but share.

Making Over Slumbai

When I first heard of the Mumbai Project, a series of articles tracking the progress of various urban projects in the city in the Hindustan Times – one of India's main papers – I was pleasantly surprised to hear of citizen engagement in the city's development. Launched in 2007 and revisited these past two weeks, the feature follows issues like airport redevelopment, transport projects governance and other facets of “Mumbai’s makeover.”

It turned out, however, that the articles exclusively summarize the perspective of the upper classes, who demand that their streets are smooth, their airports efficient and their city "world class." Never mind that that the majority of Mumbai's residents – 55% of whom live in slums – would be calling for a toilet, clean water and a secure place to live, if given such a platform. This exercise in citizen engagement unflinchingly makes clear who counts as a citizen, whom the city's "makeover" is intended to serve — and who is in the way.

This bias is unambiguous in the December 22 feature, which examined why reconstruction of pavements had not proceeded apace: “The reason? It’s more like 5 lakh reasons – that’s how many encroachers are currently hogging your pedestrian space across the city… With nearly 5 lakh encroachers, including hawkers, having made the city’s footpaths their permanent home, pedestrians are left with no space to walk on.” The header states that, "Encroachments by hawkers, squatters continue to plague pedestrians.” Clearly, the important question for an investigative piece on this subject is why pedestrians are troubled, not why so many people lack proper homes or spaces from which to sell goods conveniently to those same passers-by. The article quotes a municipal engineer as saying, "We had a huge demand for better footpaths from...citizens.” It is clear that those families forced to squat on the pavements do not fall under this definition of "citizen."

In "Tug-of-War Clogs Loo Project" on December 16, the series highlighted stalls in a state project to construct public toilets due to conflict over whether corporate or community-based interests would build and manage the toilet blocks. While the state handed the project to community-based organizations, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) wants private firms to construct the 227 toilet blocks. The article focused exclusively on this agency's misguided aim of building "five-star toilets" at the expense of community-managed ones. R.A. Rajeev, Additional Municipal Commissioner at the BMC, is quoted as saying: "We do not want to present the city as ‘Slumbai’. We need to construct toilets in a manner that reflects the changing culture of the city." Considering that most of the city's population continue to live in slums, and that these are the people who most need public toilets, this statement is laughable. The fact that community-constructed and managed toilets are more sustainable, more affordable and better managed has been demonstrated in India. The article also neglects to mention the fact that Mumbai's regional development agency has separately embarked on a community-based sanitation scheme in partnership with one of the pioneers of community-managed toilet construction, based in Mumbai. In fact, they didn't interview a single community organization or anyone lacking a toilet.

On December 22, the series examined the progress of a project to revamp the city’s drainage system to reduce flooding. The header was: "Slums still crowd areas around city's 150-year old drains, and unmapped utilities snake underground, delaying ambitious plans for flood-free monsoons." Slum dwellers would probably like more than anyone for the city to address its flooding problems, which can prove fatally dangerous. Slum residents – who often inhabit low-lying and flood-prone areas, have structures that are least resistant to rain and flooding and have little money to rebuild their homes – are most vulnerable to flooding. This article paints slum dwellers as obstacles to the goal of flood reduction, instead of portraying them as citizens who would also benefit from the project and presenting slum improvement and flood reduction as two sides of the same development coin.

The tone of the Mumbai Project highlights the frequency with which infrastructural and beautification projects are formulated in a way that pins city development against the shelter and livelihoods of the poor. Poor people who live in cities in the developing world often carve out space for themselves to live and work in the crevices of the urban infrastructure – along railway tracks, near airport runways, near sewage drains, on city pavements – because these are available spaces to set up shelter in the absence of formal housing options or vacant land while remaining close to the central city. When infrastructural projects emerge, these communities thus seem to "get in the way."

Mumbai does need infrastructural improvement – for everyone's sake – but this should be part of an approach that understands infrastructural upgrading and housing options for poor people as part and parcel of the same mission.

Otherwise, a perspective that portrays the poor as obstacles to development leads to demolition for the purpose of transforming the city to fit the needs and aesthetics of the upper classes. In some cases this is feasible with pure force, and in other cases, as with those slum dwellers who can prove themselves eligible for resettlement under certain policies, eviction takes place under a defined procedure and people are relocated elsewhere. Although Mumbai is relatively progressive for resettling those who fall in the second category, and this could theoretically be a win-win solution if proper accommodation in serviced and well-connected locations is available, most resettlement sites are peripheral and threaten to become "vertical slums." In the end, this is still a way of clearing populations who are "in the way" out of central urban space in order to reshape the city for its high-end users.

(Images from the Hindustan Times and Beaten Paths).