The Value of Scarcity

Urbanization is caused, at least in part, by scarcity. Certain resources are limited, and thus more efficiently used in a communal setting. Through urbanization, more people have access to these resources than would if settlements were less densely populated. This is true of everything from intangibles like creativity to more solid things like water and electricity, which are more cheaply and easily distributed to dense urban areas than rural places. Cities are often trumpeted these days as "the solution" to the challenge posed by global climate change because of this very phenomenon; as energy sources become more scarce, the efficiency of densely populated cities becomes the most viable way for developed nations to maintain a high standard of living while simultaneously reducing energy usage.

A recent article by Thomas Friedman gave me pause because of its implications for the scarcity of energy. Two weeks ago, Friedman wrote about a laboratory in the Bay Area that is optimistic about its ability to make cold fusion power a reality within the next decade. This claim has, of course, been made before, and as Friedman quips, such revolutionary technologies tend to be "20 years away and always will be." The successful commercialization of cold fusion would, at least in theory, solve the problem of the scarcity of energy once and for all; assuming that it were actually only ten years away, what would this mean for cities? How would patterns of urbanization change if energy were not an issue?

On the one hand, an endless supply of cheap, safe, clean energy would make currently-cost-prohibitive technologies like mag-lev trains and supertall skystrapers (we're talking about the kind of buildings that would make the Emirates blush) much more feasible. Mag-lev trains, in particular, would present an interesting challenge to cities by opening up an even more vast range of the exurban hinterlands to development. With the density-related benefits of energy rendered moot, how would urbanists need to re-think their arguments in favor of high-density urban cores?

On the other hand, it could be argued that the end of energy scarcity would make developed world-conditions in currently-developing countries much, much easier to achieve. This would be a massive economic boon to lower-income and impoverished people around the world, freeing up people previously locked into cycles with few or no opportunities for advancement, greatly accelerating the growth of the Creative Class across the globe. Innovation-intensive fields tend to encourage clustering, as Richard Florida has argued so thoroughly in his books, meaning that a massive shift like the advent of cold fusion power might actually be a boon to urbanism.

Whether or not cold fusion is possible within the foreseeable future, the idea that it is challenges some of the most basic tenets of urbanist thought. What might we learn about how contemporary cities work if we were to give such a seismic technological shift some serious thought? What value does the scarcity of energy -- or any resource -- have for cities?

(Photos from Where@FFFFOUND!. The originals can be viewed by clicking the photos.)


Thinking Outside of the Box on the National Mall

Submissions have just been unveiled this afternoon for six innovative entries in a competition to design the planned Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, a $500 million project scheduled to open in 2015. The six competing teams are: Devrouax & Purnell with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners; Foster and Partners with URS; Diller Scofidio + Renfro with KlingStubbins; the Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates and David Brody Bond with SmithGroup; Moshe Safie and Associates with Sultan Campbell Britt & Associates, and Moody Nolan with Antoine Predock Architect.

Above is a rendering of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and KlingStubbins's avant garde submission; a rendering of Moody Nolan and Antoine Predock's proposal is below. Looks like the Smithsonian -- a fairly traditional institution, when it comes to architecture -- is planning to give the National Mall a bit of archi-juice. And we thought the National Museum of the American Indian's building was a departure!

It's always refreshing when, once in a blue moon, all of the entries in a competition are genuinely interesting, no?

(Photos from the Washington Post.)

Rickshaws and Good City Form

There is no more recognizable symbol of urban India than the rickshaws that crowd and crawl through the city like yellow-and-black insects. Although the vehicles themselves are ubiquitous and uniform, each rickshaw has a small hand-painted sign on the back that says "Stop," and this comes in endless flavors — from Retro Bollywood to Arabic Chic to American Graffiti Besides the amusing redundancy (would anyone really not stop?), for me these signs represent diversity within order, surprise within standardization, the organic within organization. Within the regulated urban system that rickshaws conform to, these signs are an element of the unpredictable, something that doesn't quite make sense. Against the uniform structure of the rickshaws, they are individualized and reveal a human hand.

It seems to me these signs say something about good city form: about the need for a well-functioning, utilitarian system to make room for difference within the order, a touch of color and a human scale.

My delight at these signs reminds me of the fascination that many from the heavily ordered environments of the West have with habitats that emerged out of more informal, decentralized processes, of which slums are the most obvious expression in an urban context. It's simplistic to write this off as romanticism. Without minimizing the deprivations that most slum residents suffer, I think it's a natural attraction to places that are designed at a human scale, reveal individual creativity and give a sense of the distinctly local. Although there is clear, tacit order that any inhabitant would be attuned to, this is more organized chaos than top-down regulation. Just like rickshaws squeeze their way through the crevices of Mumbai traffic, space is tight but there's room for maneuvering — and you'd never get anywhere if you followed the rules.

On the other end of the spectrum are environments manufactured at a grand scale, driven by the heavy hands of impatient capital or grandiose master-planning. These are sterile places with assembly-line fixtures and repeating forms, where the human hand is invisible and every movement is predicted by a sign.

Of course, this is an extreme, and the other extreme — anarchy — is equally undesirable. Although they may not carry out their ostensible role in directing traffic, rickshaw signs do give a clue about how to strike a balance in terms of what makes an efficient but rich urban element.

(Photos by Katia Savchuk.)


StimulusWatch and the Real American Housing Crisis

A couple of weeks ago, Drew posted about StimulusWatch, a site that lists all of the local projects in the United States that have been publicly announced as candidates for federal stimulus funds and lets the public vote on each project's merit. As luck would have it, my job involves researching construction projects, and I've been spending almost a month now combing through SW for several hours a day, looking for potential building projects. From what I've observed, it seems doubtful that the site will have any major impact on how stimulus dollars are spent ("Pork" is probably the most-used word in the very angry, uninformed comment sections no matter what state or city you're viewing). But SW does provide an opportunity for people working on the local level to gauge how their neighbors feel about a wide variety of public projects and services.

In the Energy category, for instance, one can see how effective the green movement has been on public opinion. Whereas a few short years ago Energy projects would undoubtably have been fewer in number and much lower in popularity, the Energy category seems to be one of the most popular, regardless of state or city, with the +/- ratio around half and half -- about the same as the ratio for Streets & Roads! Folks in small towns seem just as likely now to favor energy retrofits to their town hall and the addition of solar panels to school and library rooftops as urban and suburban Americans. People are still skeptical of hybrid vehicles, though, with many requests for money for hybrid or alternative energy-fueled municipal fleets meeting staunch resistance. But overall, the mainstreaming of energy efficiency efforts seems to have been a wide success.

It is seeing this shift that makes me hopeful that we can reverse what is undoubtedly the ugliest trend that I've noticed from coast to coast: the outright rejection of Housing projects. Items with "senior" or "demolition" in the title notwithstanding, Housing projects receive negative vote ratios so consistently that it's as if there was some sort of unspoken rule barring people from voting anything but "No." Even more disturbing than the negative vote ratios are the comments left by mostly anonymous posters at the bottom of each page. Affordable and public housing is called some terrible things, and there is more than anyone's fair share of racism, classism, and willful ignorance. Public housing in America, it is plain to see here, has still not recovered from the havoc wreaked by the slum-clearance-brought tower projects of the 1950s and 60s. Much like with Wall Street, American public housing is experiencing a crisis of confidence.

It would seem that, as much as we need the money to build units for the thousands of people who have lost or are about to lose their homes, it might not be a terrible idea to spend some of HUD's budget on increasing public awareness of the different kinds of housing available nowadays. Stigma attached to terms like "public housing" and "affordable housing" undoubtedly hampers efforts to create sustainable mixed-use communities, a contemporary goal of most major urban housing authorities, by keeping middle- and upper-income residents whose presence facilitates that integration at bay. The focus for housing advocates and agencies is no longer on concentrating poverty, but on economic integration -- and if it's not, it damn well should be. Without changing the conversation, attempts to tackle America's shortage of affordable housing will likely be uneven at best.

For anyone interested in transportation issues (Transit, Airports, Streets & Roads, Amtrak), Community Development, Energy, Housing, Public Safety, Schools, or Water infrastructure, StimulusWatch provides an opportunity to better understand the challenges facing those fields. Whether you're for or against the federal stimulus package, that opportunity shouldn't be missed.

(Photo from Flickr users TheeErin and andyandrew. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photos.)


Q&A with the “Mayor” of Opportunity City

MILWAUKEE, March 32, 2010 (IP*) – Ronald Dykes is executive director of Opportunity City, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting poverty in Milwaukee. Housed in what was once a sprawling steel fabrication plant in the heart of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the organization is generating lots of buzz in policy and academic circles across the country for its innovative initiatives.

Q. Opportunity City isn’t a city; it’s a non-profit group. Everyone calls you “mayor,” but your title is executive director. What’s up with the city shtick?

A. We are like a city. Inside this old factory space, we house staff for the 27 different anti-poverty programs that we run. A few are big programs; many are small. About 475 people work here, and we get about the same number of clients and visitors coming through every day. There’s a lot of human bustle in here. The office cubicles are arranged in blocks like a street grid. There’s a big thoroughfare we call Main Street, and there’s Coffee Alley and an area we call The Park where we have big staff meetings. And…

Q. So, you’re like a city because you’ve arranged your cubicles a certain way? That’s a pretty shallow metaphor isn’t it?

A. Well, if you’d let me finish…We don’t just look like a city; we act like one in some important ways. We intentionally created Opportunity City to try to capture the agglomeration effects that flow from the concentration of resources and functions in cities. Everyday, there are lots of low-income people here. Everyday, there are lots of people in here helping them directly or indirectly. In house, we’ve got people working on solving child care, transportation, housing, food and health care problems for individuals. We’ve got labor market analysts, administrators and support staff, employment recruiters, job trainers and representatives from apprenticeship programs working with individuals and on policy-level changes. There are also policy designers, grant writers, program evaluators and various academic interlopers. They’re all here, everyday. In close proximity. Trouble-shooting problems. Bouncing ideas off each other. Able to shout over the cubicle wall to get help. Coordinated complexity happening in close quarters is not a bad description of what a city is, and it’s what we are doing at Opportunity City.

Q. Agglomeration effects. Coordinated complexity. Fancy talk. Please tell us in plain English what the hell you’re talking about.

A. It’s simple, really. It’s just what I said a second ago: if you can get a lot of people working closely together on a set of related problems, you can be more effective at solving problems, at being productive. Density and proximity make it easier, more likely for people to problem-solve effectively in real-time. That’s the essence of these concepts. They’ve been at the heart of understanding why people and firms locate in cities.

Q. For a non-profit, you seem very well funded indeed. Where does all the money come from?

A. We’ve been blessed with very extravagant donations from a few wealthy benefactors in town. Our policy innovations have attracted grants from national foundations. And, of course, we’ve been fortunate to get funding from the new federal block grant programs for workforce development and affordable housing.

Q. You sound excited. Knowing the history of anti-poverty efforts, aren’t you setting yourself up for disappointment?

A. First, hold on a minute. Anti-poverty efforts often get a bad rap they don’t deserve. Social Security keeps lots of elderly folks out of poverty. If that’s a failure, give me more. The Earned Income Tax Credit has helped millions of low-income working families make work pay enough to afford housing and groceries. That’s a success story in my book, and so is the fact that many low-income folks have gotten good jobs through some of the better job training and placement programs. So, no, I don’t think we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. In fact, this is one of the most exciting times in American history to be involved in the fight against poverty. Thanks to the new national health care program, every American now has affordable health insurance. This is a huge boost to low-income people. And there’s the new Skill Net program. Under this program, every American worker gets financial help to keep their job skills up-to-date and, when a job is lost, gets decent wage insurance payments to bridge over periods of unemployment without having to plunge into poverty to qualify for help. For struggling low-income workers, this new program will help keep them attached to jobs and prevent them from cycling in and out of poverty and low wage work.

Q. You like what the Obama administration has done to help fight poverty. Understood. But what are you doing locally at Opportunity City?

A. What the feds are doing is really important to our efforts. Because federal efforts will help keep many low-income families and workers from falling back into poverty so easily, at the local level we can focus on harder problems like helping people with few skills and little-to-no job experience get jobs and rebuilding distressed neighborhoods. That’s what we’re doing at Opportunity City.

Q. Nice generalities. Any specifics?

A. Sure. We’ve just launched an experimental program called Project Search and Employ. Basically, the program aims to create a group of companies with a strong profit incentive to recruit poor people with few job skills and successfully place them in real jobs with good wages and benefits. It works like this. There’s a big pot of money—all from a very generous private donor—controlled by a team of investors. The investors are a bunch of experts—experts in things like training workers, analyzing businesses, understanding industry sectors and supply chains, poverty policy, mentoring and coaching, and program evaluation. What they do is invest in proposals to create what we call search and employ companies or SECs. The SECs—each using different strategies, but all working within the same set of very high poverty census tracks—go out and find poor people who don’t have much work history, but are able to work, and hire them for a job with the SEC that involves them being trained for a real job. The SEC job is real enough, too. The recruits get paid a decent wage and benefits, and pay taxes and can be fired at the will of the employer. Anyway, if and when the SEC gets the recruit a real job—not with the SEC—then, our investors pay the SEC a big bonus. And if the recruit stays employed long enough, they get an even bigger bonus. If the SECs don’t get people good jobs for long enough, they’ll fail as businesses. Even though a program like this will work best when the labor market improves, we’re excited to get started on it because it not only gives a lot of poor people jobs right away—the SEC training jobs—but it also incentivizes lots of creative thinking about how to turn low-skilled people into stable employees.

Q. Profit from poverty. Isn’t that morally yucky?

A. Don’t try to be cute. The profits come from increasing employment and reducing poverty.

Q. Fair enough. What else are you doing?

A. Running programs is not all we do. We also try to push larger systems—like schools, chambers of commerce and city governments—to do things that help fight poverty. For example, we’re trying to create a fairly dense walkable low-income neighborhood where there are currently lots of boarded-up houses and very few businesses. To do this, is going to require help from everybody. We’ll need good schools. Grocery stores and other businesses willing to look with fresh eyes on the economic prospects in low-income neighborhoods. New zoning ordinances allowing for mixed use. And more.

Q. Now, it’s your turn to hold on a minute. Isn’t “walkability” code for gentrification?

A. It can be, sure. But first you need to understand that walkable neighborhoods can really help make life much easier and more affordable for low-income people. Think of the transportation costs and life-hassles you can avoid if child care, schools, grocery stores, places of employment, government offices, parks and transit stops are located within walking distance. The gentrification concern comes in because more and more of what we used to call yuppies like this stuff too and are willing to pay a premium to live in such places and drive up costs for everybody. But our plan is keep these neighborhoods affordable for the people who already live there. And we’re doing that with a range of programs including generous low income housing tax credits, land trusts, and value-latching which taps into any rise in property values to pay for programs that keep housing affordable. We’ve structured all this so that, over time, property values will be able to return to their real market values but only as long as the neighborhood maintains enough affordable housing capacity, too.

Q. You’re smiling. How is that possible with all the misery, all the failure of the American Dream you see every day?

A. Yes, poverty is terrible. And, yes, it’s heartbreaking to see what it does to people. But as I said before, this is a very promising moment for America. There’s a new sense that we’re all in this together, and a new willingness to work for the common good. For me, in the context of the fight against poverty, it’s especially wonderful to see Americans rediscover the natural strengths of cities, to see cities once more as the engines of growth and opportunity they are.

Interview confabulated, condensed and edited by Dan Lorentz.

*IP is an acronym for Imaginary Press, a wire service providing factually dubious news and feature stories to credulous media outlets worldwide.

--- --- ---

This will be my last post as a regular Where contributor. My experience here has inspired me to continue to blog about city issues, except that now I want to concentrate on a more local project. In mid-April, I hope to launch My Athens, a blog about my new hometown, Athens, Georgia. [Note: This note and the note it’s embedded in are true, unlike most of the fiction that precedes it.]

(Photos--in the order they appear--from Flickr users craigallyn, opendemocracy, Matthew Shelley. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Earbud Urbanism

I was walking down the in downtown Chicago recently wearing my white earbuds, loud tunes pumping out of my iPod into my head, and it got me thinking. When you have earbuds in, it's almost as if the music is inside your head. It overtakes your thoughts. Ok, maybe not completely, but it would be hard to deny the fact that what we listen to affects our mood and our perception of our surroundings.

On this walk, I started to become aware of how many people were walking around with one of their five senses -- hearing -- completely disconnected from their environment, and I thought to myself: how does this disconnection alter our perception of the urban condition as we experience it? I wonder how many urban designers take into consideration the fact that people are walking around detached from their environment, being highly influenced by a source that the designers themselves cannot control. Personal technology is taking over how we interpret our surroundings and changing the way we feel about places, and this should be considered as we move further and further into interactive technologies.

So, imagine: your music is playing in your ears, and you're walking down the street with a certain demeanor dictated by the recent events in your life, the weather, and of course your music; what's the last thing you notice? Advertisements. Ironically, the ads placed all around the city to get you to buy devices with white earbuds are suddenly ineffective, blending into the grey zone of focus deprivation caused by the mood enhancing device sending electrical waves to your brain. In the end, it is the corporation, the large companies that build and control our urban experiences. Storefronts are often completely detached from the context of the buildings they are plugged into, creating a street level experience dictated more by the corporate retailers than the architect or planner. So it is fair to say that these businesses have a significant stake in our urban experience, and will not keep pumping money into failing advertising mediums but will instead resort to new mediums, capitalizing on our newfound technological dependency.

I can imagine, in the near future, holding your electronic device up to a window display and downloading music from a record store. The technology is already here; its just a matter of how that tech is eventually used as a marketing tool that will change the way we experience the city and our daily life. Instead of billboards, there will be giant digital displays. Using the technology showcased in the Mini ad a while back, called "augmented reality,"  these displays will reflect you as you walk by, but will project a certain brand of clothing onto your image, detecting your body size and instantly altering the clothing image to fit you using a complex algorithm. These displays will show you in real-time with a Snickers and a Coke in your hand asking "Why Wait?"

So I wonder: how much of what we experience is predetermined by a planner, an architect, or a corporation, and how much of it is dependent on sources we create and introduce ourselves? My guess is that we will increasingly be adding our own sources and corporations will tap into this and use it to promote their agendas, thereby creating a new urban condition.  Earbud Urbanism, anyone?  

(Photos from Apple and Designboom. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


The Magic Bus?

Photo of Green Bus to Green AcresThe recent plans for metropolitan Paris include many interesting ideas for using trains to integrate outlying neighborhoods into the city. They also helped change my perspective on urban transportation.

I've always favored streetcars, trains, and subways. Maybe it's the poetic qualities alluded to by Mario, or that they move so many people efficiently, with fewer negative ecological impacts than gas-powered autos. It's also nice to be able to relax on the way to work instead of negotiating rush hour traffic.

However, trains aren't available in many areas and new systems require massive political and economic backing. While I agree with Burnham, Brendan, and others who encourage planners to think expansively, small changes can generate momentum behind larger changes. When it comes to public transit, we might start with the city bus.

Buses generally lack the poetry of railways. This may be why there hasn't been a Bus Named Desire or a Soul Bus. I tend to associate buses with congestion, exhaust, delays, noise, and advertisements. They kind of look like giant loaves of Wonderbread. These impressions aren't necessarily justified, but I think they're fairly common. At the same time, bus systems are less expensive and more flexible than trains. If we can make them more appealing, they might become a popular alternative to private vehicles.

Photo of San Francisco streetcarsImprovements to buses can take many forms. Assuring that they're ecologically friendly is essential, and may be less prohibitive than laying new train tracks in dense urban settings. As for delays, programmed traffic lights and dedicated lanes might allow buses to pass quickly through congested streets. There could also be smaller buses with more frequent and extensive routes. Comfort should be a top priority, along with wireless Internet, as found on Google's buses. Great artists and designers could be commissioned to turn buses into beautiful parts of the urban environment, like the vintage streetcars of San Francisco.

Photo of Corgi 1:50 scale Green BusCompared with the rail projects proposed for metropolitan Paris, improving buses can be accomplished swiftly by local government. So why not make them as efficient as trains, comfortable on the inside, and attractive on the outside? This may help reinvigorate public transportation and lead to more expansive change.

(Photo credits: Green Bus to Green Acres by Frank H. Jump; San Francisco streetcars by Will aims to rage; Corgi 1:50 scale Green Bus from JB Diecast)


Grand, Gai Paris

Ten years ago I was eighteen and living alone (off of my parents) in Paris. Ah… youth, treasure only gods may keep… Anyhow, Paris was a dream city; not the darkish, seedy Baudelarian urban dreamscape, or even the fleeting Benjaminian fancy. New Millenium Paris for me was a fleshy and flushed Disney-musical-featuring-Julie-Andrews kind of day to day rêverie: absurdly lovely and innocuous. I remember early morning strolls and limestone and birds chirping and leaves turning red and buttery pastries that literally melted in your mouth. Since I was eighteen, I had to feel alienated too, so I wore black all the time and grew my hair long and put on a sullen face every time I went out. I listened to Fiona Apple and sat on bridges alone for hours till my ass froze. That was pretty much it.

I guess for the untrained eye it’s really difficult to notice how Paris can be alienating. First, just because it’s so f-ing beautiful. Second, because central Paris is caught up in a solipsistic detachment that only fluctuates between the gentle, romantic silliness of Amélie Poulin and the voluptuous, tragic silliness of Juliette Binoche in Trois Couleurs: Bleu. Third, because for all of its rocking political heritage, Paris seems convinced it has done enough for the improvement of mankind, content with milking the glories of yesterday and keeping the nasty spots well hidden under the rug. Those daily demonstrations on the Place de la République were just a great big hoax to me, particularly when my famille d’accueil kept a picture of the long-lost family country estate hung over their kitchen table, and they excused themselves for how rundown the street had become since all those “blacks” moved to the neighborhood, or when friends they had over for dinner tried to convince me that the very best thing that could’ve ever happened to us Mexicans would have been to spare Maximilian and remain a French protectorate. Never mind the horrid soirées rallye, pure pre-revolutionary pop.

Paris is patrician, classist, and reactionary to the pretty core, and Parisians know it. It has to be one of the most seamlessly segregated cities in the world. So, even though M. le Président’s call for a “Grand Paris” has tinges of boldness, the plot to make metropolitan Paris (tout compris, meaning the burning banlieus too) more sustainable, livable and equal by way of architectural and infrastructural Grands Travaux amounts to little more than Sarkozy trying to get his game back after loosing the title of young, brazen, charming guy-in-charge to Obama, or simply following Barack's lead of announcing great things and then scaling back. In the long run, marrying Carla Bruni might have a greater impact on the collective conscience of the French.

It's not that the proposals are necessarily poor or perverse in themselves. It's not that green belts and vegetable growing buildings and "urban substance stimulatrors" and techno-infrastructural corridors and a polycentric café-centered urban culture are necessarily bad things. Heck, some of the proposals are indeed quite poetic (even explicitly, calling for "poetic" tram-oriented transport to complement high-speed transit). It's just that in Paris, poetry is more than often a trap.

Despite Roland Castro's and the rest of the teams' good intentions, even the grandest of urban desgin schemes wouldn't be enough to pull Paris together. Not by a long shot. More than an urbanistic version of Paris je t'aime, what planning in the city needs is a François Bégaudeau-type urban antihero. The genius of Entre les mures is that it demonstrates that good intentions never cut it. There are no truly appalling conditions shown in the film. No poverty porn. The setting is a decent, modern, clean, multiculty high school (no graffiti or obtuse racial prejudice or vicious decay one can fight against and prove oneself against and overcome. This is no Stand and Deliver, certainly not Dangerous Minds), and the students are clearly well fed and surprisingly well-dressed. The teachers seem to be doing pretty okay too. Still, there is an unbreachable divide between the two groups, growing deeper by the minute as the movie rolls on. The kids find it impossible to cope with life, and the teachers can't do anything about it. Nothing. They are left to themselves, to their false yearnings and comings of age and their fake (urban) tribal belongings and their sense of needing something else but not knowing where to find it or even where to start looking. We're not faced with a purely outward, practical, spatial, functional problem here; but rather an all-encompassing malaise, a case of cultural exhaustion. It's not only that Paris is broken and divided: the real problem is that it's children are lost.


Rustbelt to Weedbelt

SO did anybody catch the article last week in the Economist about the legalization of marijuana in the states? If not, I'm amazed because it burned through the blogosphere like a wildfire in July after a severe drought. The article, or issue rather, was no doubt spurred on by severe drug wars going on in Mexico and South America right now, the Economist offers reasons why marijuana should be legalized and regulated in the States. Now I"m not going to offer my opinion on this because frankly I don't have one, I could really care less either way. However what really interests me, are the consequences of marijuana legalization on our urban fabric, particularly that of the Rustbelt city and other inner city locations.

We all know Urban Agriculture is the big thing these days, hailed to save our urban youth by offering values, safe havens, and job training. My question is, what will happen to these urban farms when we legalize marijuana. I don't know the answer, and I am not implying there is one answer, I just think it's an incredibly interesting question, and so I thought I would poss it to the community here at Where. I mean, the inner city has historically been plagued with drug crime and addiction but perhaps the legalization of marijuana could offer a way out? I mean, the urban farms, the knowledge of agriculture is already there, and certainly the abandoned lots are there, and the drug colonies are there. On the other hand, maybe it would be a terrible thing leading people to dependency and bigger addictions. Either way it's a compelling situation to ruminate on. Rustbelt - Weedbelt. Discuss.

(Collage created by author from online media. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


A Planner's Fetish

What do tourism and slums have in common? Besides the recent "Reality Tours" trend, not much! That's not what the Government of India thinks, though. This year, its national survey department has apparently decided to combine data collection on domestic tourism with that on housing conditions and slums. This means a surveyor "may be visiting you to collect data on your various travels," and "you may be also asked about housing conditions and slums."

So, are they going to ask a middle-class Indian about his last trip to Goa and the condition of his spacious flat in a Mumbai suburb, and then about the needs of slums (in which he's never set foot)? Or are they going to approach a slum household and ask them about their next weekend getaway destination? According to the notice announcing the survey, the government will use this data for planning. I can only imagine the enlightened policy India is in for.

My Indian colleague thinks that this comical combo was the result of a misguided cost-cutting measure, but I think it also says something about the relationship between statistics and planning more generally.

Like most of us in the mainstream, which rational thought has steadily colonized since Descartes, planners have a fetish for numbers. They're easily digestible. They sound important. And supposedly they don't lie. Except that statistics are not neutral, and what you ask determines what you get. If you only ask middle-class Indians about slums, you're going to get a very skewed picture. In fact, even asking about "slums" implies that such a characterization is accurate, even though the term is problematic because, among other reasons, it has strong connotations and imposes a false dichotomy on what is really a complex map of spaces and levels of informality.

Statisticians don't really measure truths, so much as create them by deciding what to ask and of whom. Although the questionable assumptions behind surveys are rarely as egregiously obvious as in this case, surveys are never just a technical exercise — and planning shouldn't be either.

(Thanks to Indu Agarwal, who made my morning when she showed me the notice.)

(Incredible India image from www.indian-tourism.us.)


The Living...The Built...The McDonald's Parking Lot

You may not agree with TS Eliot’s statement that every age gets the art it deserves, but it’s hard to argue that we don’t—to some extent—get the cities we deserve. In fact, a city may be human culture’s most perfect expression of collective will, a direct and tangible product of millions of individual decisions multiplied by thousands of days. Certain forces, people and institutions tend to exert disproportionate influence on the way cities evolve, but by and large the masses make the cities, and without all those people cities would not even be cities.

Human culture produces cities, and cities in turn influence those cultures. Eliot thought the same about art, and art’s cultural role is more limited than that of cities. Does this mean that subpar cities are created by subpar cultures, and can one expect crappy cities to foster even crappier human relations in their streets and buildings? Are planners, architects and other creators of the built environment to blame for the desolation of downtown Detroit or for me not knowing my neighbors?

Probably not. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof made this unexpected yet intuitive point in his 1987 commencement address to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design:

“Cities are amalgams of the living and the built, always tidying up, never finished. Their agenda is colossally overburdened, its charge near impossible to rein in. There is no way in which design alone will breathe life into a dying enterprise, any more than a vibrant sense of community can be attributed in earnest to the act of design.”

Kostof’s speech—at least that part of it—amounts to a call for more piazzas. That is, more free spaces where human activity can run its course, whatever that turns out to be. The life and energy teeming within cities is bound to find its own way, perhaps guided and elevated by the Burnhams, the Olmsteds and the Koolhaases but never steered by them.

The most vibrant public space near where I live happens to be the neighborhood McDonald’s. Although there’s a beautiful, expansive park only two blocks away, a large group of elderly gentlemen are congregating in that McDonald’s from morning until evening on any given day of the week, usually having nothing more than a coffee. During the summer, they bring their own chairs and hang out in the parking lot. The place is full of people every time I pass by. I opt for the big park when I want to get out of the house, but for some variety of reasons many others find the Golden Arches to be a suitable piazza of sorts. I can tell you this much: They aren't there for the food.

Many view McDonald’s (and parking lots) as the worst American culture has to offer, and more than a few planners would raze every McDonald’s in sight given the opportunity. Builders and planners can only build and plan, though. They can’t actually add the people or dictate the uses of their creations. Ultimately, I think, we do get the cities we deserve because, to a great extent, we are those cities.

(Photo from Flickr user brtsergio.)

Introducing Urbanism: Top Books for Curious Novices

In January, I asked Where readers and contributors what books they’d recommend to introduce the basic concepts of urbanism to curious, non-expert friends. I asked for a short list of accessible, concise books.

Since the initial query more than 30 titles have been suggested. Because I was already familiar with only a handful of the books, I headed to the library to get better acquainted with at least some of the other suggestions.

Based on that library visit, on posted comments from readers, on behind-the-scenes advice from Where contributors and my interpretation—from my own very amateurish (and American) perspective—of what counts as “accessible” and “concise,” here are five books about the basics of urbanism that I’d now recommend to relatively clueless, but curious friends.

Almost all of the links in this post connect to Google Book Search.

The Top 5

1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961). At about 450 pages, “concise” is probably not the most apt description of this book. But, as this is the single best written, most accessible, most compelling book I’ve ever read about cities, I’m willing to forsake the concision criterion even in my first recommendation. If you want to know what can make cities pleasant, safe and interesting places to live, read this book. If you want to read one of the best non-fiction prose stylists of our time, read this book. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. As one Where reader put it: “It’s a great book for explaining why we care about all of this.”

2. The Option of Urbanism by Christopher Leinberger (2007). While not as fun to read as The Death and Life of Great American Cities or The Geography of Nowhere (see below), this slender volume briskly highlights difference between drivable sub-urban development and walkable urban development, and does a good job of explaining the benefits of walkable city neighborhoods. It’s good primer on the basics of density, zoning and the hidden subsidies fueling drivable sub-urban development.

3. The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler (1993). This book is an exploration—and excoriation—of the rise of suburbia and sprawl. It also explains how the more traditional patterns and places of city life and country life are superior to the “geography of nowhere.” Accessible and ferocious.

4. Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz, with Norman Mintz (1998). According to a Where reader, this book is “in the spirit of Jacobs” and discusses “how existing cities can be improved with citizen participation in contrast to destructive master plans.” The book is filled with lots of specific ideas about how to improve downtown areas, all of them lavishly illustrated with real life examples from successful efforts in dozens of cities.

5. How Cities Work by Alex Marshall (2000). Squarely aimed at the lay person, this book seeks to discover what forces shape places and cities—and finds that one of the most powerful forces is political choices, particularly those having to do with transportation policy. A Where reader gave this recommendation: “It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it’s a good snack, possibly the kind that could interest a person in a larger meal.”

A Tall Stack of Other Suggestions

Many other titles were suggested. They’re all listed here in no particular order, with quoted comments—when available—from the Where readers and contributors who recommended them.

Cities of Tomorrow by Peter Hall is “a great history of urban planning, knowledge of which is essential for understanding modern cities.”

The Last Landscape by William Whyte “focuses on the benefits of relatively dense urban form.”

Good City Form by Kevin Lynch is a “very engaging overview of urban history and theory” with “compelling ideas for developing vibrant cities.”

The Granite Garden by Ann Whiston Spirn “introduces thoughtful ways of improving the relationships between cities and the ecosystems in which they’re built.”

Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden covers the sociology and history of suburbia. “It's written in a way a layperson…can understand.”

Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess “does a nice job” explaining “exactly why urban design matters.” It may not be a simple primer, but “a few of the chapters are perfect intros to the subject.”

The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999 by Ray Suarez is an “excellent introduction to the challenges experienced in aging, post-industrial cities, including Chicago, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.”

Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America by Gwendolyn Wright is “an essential resource for understanding the social movements and political processes that have shaped urban/suburban cultural landscapes.”

The Culture of Cities by Louis Mumford is a “great classic” by an “exceptional writer.” The book includes introductions to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes, two influential early modern urban planners.

Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson “does a great job of explaining how we ended up with the urban landscape we have,” and is “very accessible, too.”

The Power Broker by Robert Caro, while “not short at all, reads like a novel” and “illustrates the state of city administration and urban planning during the past century better than anything else I’ve ever read.”

Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas and “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill are good to read together because Koolhaas’s book “provides an essential perspective on why contemporary urbanism discussions are where they are today,” and Mill’s essay is a “classic for anyone who wants to learn about living with other people, things and places.”

Who's Afraid Of Niketown? by Friedrich von Borries “investigates the contemporary effect of global corporations on public space and urbanism.”

Books, essays, articles by J.B. Jackson because his “short, easily digestible” work “looks at cities and other environments in such a different way,” and “inspires people to think beyond the clichés.”

Psychogeography by Will Self is an “interesting anecdotal urbanist book.”

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon is “longish,” but provides historical perspective on urbanism issues.

The Essential William H. Whyte as a substitute for the out of print City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte.

"Junkspace" an essay by Rem Koolhaas.

A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb by Philip Langdon.

Poetics of Cities: Designing Neighborhoods that Work by Mike Greenberg.

The Living City: Thinking Big in a Small Way by Roberta Gratz.

To Scale: One Hundred Urban Plans by Eric Jenkins.

American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto by Sudhir Venkatesh.

Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh.

(Photo from Flickr users danlorentz and docman. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Posh to be Poor? Greed is Over

With the economy on a historic downturn, unemployment reaching record rates, and foreclosures littering the nation, it's easy to see that the poor will be growing in numbers, perhaps exponentially. So if an increasing number of people are becoming poor, then it might be time to look at how to live well with little. In western society, people live beyond their means, which has been a large component of this economic downturn, so it's about time we look at how to live and be happy within our means. You don't need a lot to live well, it's true, many have already realized it and many more will soon be forced to realize it as foreclosure rates increase and the economy crashes. Money doesn't buy happiness, as Dan Gilbert illustrated at Ted when he showed that a paraplegic and a lottery winner were equally happy 1 year after their life changing event. So if it doesn't take money to be happy, and an increasing number of people are becoming poor, then perhaps it's time for designers to look at how to live with less. Which brings me to the conclusion that poor is popular in 2009; many, many trends and movements in the last decade have tended (WORD CHOICE) away from the exclusive and toward the community. These new communities have been rewriting what it means to live happily, and how one might lead a fulfilling life with much less than is currently being consumed by the average member of western society. The purpose of this series has been to analyze transportation, food, and shelter, and show how we can achieve each with less money.

Could it be possible that we are at a turning point in history, where no longer are guided by the strife for riches? The rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer, but today, the system has broke down, it isn't working. The bankers, whom we unwittingly trusted, took our money and flushed it down the toilet. Is it possible that the people of the modern will will seize to live on credit, and revert to concrete value?

In every Kanye West album I find a line, a lyric, or a song that I feel really resonates with the times. On "Graduation" it was "Stronger" with lyrics such as "I ask, cause I'm not sure, does anybody make real shit anymore" and now on "808's and Heartbreaks" the song "Welcome to Heartbreak" where Kanye says,

"My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs; he said his daughter got a brand new report card, and all I got was a brand new sports car...Dad cracked a joke and the kids laughed, but I couldn't hear em all the way in first class, chased the good life my whole life long, look back on my life and my lifes gone, where did I go wrong? "

You can say a lot about Kanye that one could argue makes this point irrelevant. His clothing can cost more than 10 grand on any given day, and he's flashy, for sure, but his work consistently shows, more than others, an understanding of the times. This song is really addressing value. He valued material possessions his whole life, and chased the dollar, now he's looking back and realizing there was more to life than that. This isn't a new theme, but the fact that it has penetrated the infamously popular hip-hop scene, from the most in-touch artist, is perhaps a sign of the times. There will always be those who always need more things, more money, more credit, but I believe that the majority, the masses, are beginning to sway away from possession and toward experience, away from the riches and toward the modest.

Posh to be Poor? Introduction
Posh to be Poor? Transportation
Posh to be Poor? Food
Posh to be Poor? Housing

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