Category Archives: social

LA+ The Tyranny Issue

I’ve posted previously about the LA+ Journal, which has had previous issues focused on both Wild (reviewed here) and Pleasure in previous issues.  The current issue takes a radically different turn – with a focus on subjects around the broad concept of Tyranny.  Perhaps a strange topic for landscape architecture journal to tackle, and I had that reaction a bit myself, but it quickly became clear that tyranny is a much more radically complex idea than what comes to mind, and the social, economic, and spatial manifestations have direct relevance on urban spaces, their design, and their evolution.

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“From the first utopian impulse of Plato’s Republic to today’s global border controls and public space surveillance systems, there has always been a tyrannical aspect to the organization of society and the regulation of its spaces. Tyranny takes many forms, from the rigid barriers of military zones to the subtle ways in which landscape is used to ‘naturalize’ power. What are these forms and how do they function at different scales, in different cultures, and at different times in history? How are designers and other disciplines complicit in the manifestation of these varying forms of tyranny and how have they been able to subvert such political and ideological structures?

LA+ TYRANNY asked contributors to consider how politics, ideology, and technology manifest in our landscapes and cities in ways that either advance or restrict individual and collective liberty.

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The unique lens of tyranny is understood in recent cultural context early, in the essay ‘Blood on the Square’ by Steve Basson (8).  The concept of the square as free and ‘democratic space’ indicative of the historic connotation of the Greek Agora ‘political debate’ and at times the locus of “heroic protest” as seen in the US and abroad is contrasted with the square as a historical place for terror and exercising of oppression.  Examples of these public spaces being used for public executions, propaganda and military force, as well as new levels of surveillance through CCTV and policing and other means evokes dystopian visions of Bentham’s Panopticon and Orwellian visions of Big Brother.

The space, like any others, is available for both freedom and repression, and that a ‘pure’ public space is a myth.  As referenced by Foucault, the history of the public square as exceptional or positive is built on subjugated knowledge “…where historical contents have been buried or masked in order to preserve the privileged nature of a particular narrative.” (12)  The takeaway is that the square is not purely heroic, but is a ‘contested terrain’ and one that “… is virtuous and democratic but also grim and menacing.(13)  It also means that our power as designers is limited, because it is a dubious assumption that spatial organization could be employed to shape use in certain ways, and thus architecture and design “cannot create freedom in space” but rather from Foucault again:

“I do not think that there is anything functionally, by its very nature, absolutely liberating… the guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (13)

The theme brought up the previous essay is echoed in two subsequent writings.  First, Gandy’s “The Glare of Modernity” (15) explores some of the power dynamic through the tyranny of lighting, which has been employed as a “means of intimidation and control,” and has now become synonymous with ‘safety’ to the detriment of livability and health through ubiquity.  From a political perspective, Chang Tai Hung’s “Tianamen Square: The Grand Political Theater of the Chinese Communist Party” (20) explores the history and spatial configuration of this enormous public space in Beijing. While ostensibly the ‘People’s Square’ the narrative is more relevant to use of propaganda and designed with a focus on spaces not of comfort (no trees, benches) but of immensity and political power, referencing the communist “…contempt for leisure activities of the bourgeois…” while also avoiding the potential for spaces to be “subversive gathering spaces.” (22)  The events there are then not people-driven, but “highly orchestrated” and a spatial equivalent of “a scripted text” (24) where those in power fear the unscripted.

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A common theme arises around the activities of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement where places like Tahrir Square in Cairo, and Zuccotti Park in New York became well known, among many others as significant places of occupation and protest.  Erik Swyngdouw’s exploration in “The Velvet Violence of Insurgent Architects” (27) looks at these places of political protest and the participants as “radical imagineers” of a new urban future that can include spatial policies of planning, architecture, urban design against powers that are averse to disturbance. (28) The concepts around the Right to the City movement (both formal and informal are realized in these “tactics of resistance” (29) and that these insurgent architects become designers of a sort:

“While staging equality in public squares is a vital moment, the process of transformation requires the slow but unstoppable production of new forms of spatialization quilted around materializing the claims of equality, freedom, solidarity.” (30)

Another reference to the Arab Spring is from Mona Abaza’s “Memory and Erasure”, (32) which looks again at Cairo, Egypt but through a different lens of public / political art complementing the occupation of public spaces.  The process of art being used as part of protest, and the subsequent painting over by authorities was a subtext of the larger power struggles happening within spaces throughout the cities.

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Rodrigo Jose Firmino explores technology in his essay “Connected and Controlled: Surveillance, Security and Cities” (42) which looks at a more pernicious tyranny that effects most of us.  Expanding on Castells notion of the “informational city” with new technology and the Internet of Things, the essay posits a “Programmable City” where data is not just captured but utilized – taking advantage of the ubiquity and our reliance on smart technology to exert levels of control never before seen (with the exception of films like the Matrix and Minority Report). (44)

The appropriation of space by those in power through technology can also be utilized by the public who can be “empowered by the same kind of technologies that be used to destroy their liberties,” expanding on ideas of crowdsourcing, pop-up, or DIY cities.  (45)  Our living in the “maximum-surveillance society” means that these data are the most “powerful commodity in the informational smart city” (46) and become methods of control under the guise of safety, while also blurring lines between public and private spaces, ultimately concluding that Smart Cities perhaps lead more likely to dumb citizens.

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Taking the idea presented above for appropriation of the tools of those in power to fight against that power, Stephen Graham’s “Countergeographies” (55) provides a framework for complementing the traditional methods of protest with new ideas of “Cartographic Experimentation”.  A number of examples are explored, falling into categories of Exposure, Juxtaposition, Appropriate, Jamming, Satire, and Collaboration, the essay provide multiple ideas of new ways of engagement that are more “emergent, fluid and pluralized.”  These experiments are useful but limited, as the author mentions, because of their lack of legitimacy – as art and activism versus being mainstream and political, but that a new wave of activists can adapt and expand them into the lexicon of more traditional forms of protest.

A historical path taken by Fionn Byrne in the essay “Operational Environment” (62) touches on some of the military roots of site design, including Le Notre and Vauban’s spatial reactions of “ballistic trajectories” (64) and the more modern appropriation by landscape architects and planners of military aerial imaging for analysis and ecological planning ala McHarg and modern GIS.  This reduction of landscape and environment to “quantifiable data” as referenced by Waldheim leads to a methodology for militaristic problem solving, where “The force of the military’s technological, informational, and industrial apparatus is being set upon the environment, reducing nature to both a resource as standing reserve on the one hand and a technological-controlled, environmentally managed set of ecosystems on the other.” (66)

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A more site specific and compelling examination relevant to design in many was is the essay by Patrizia Violi in “Traumascapes: The Case of the 9/11 Memorial”. (70)   Taking one of the most visible examples of memorial in modern history as point of departure, Violi wonders the role of these places in “constructing, transmitting, and defining a collective memory,” and using the metaphor of memorial as text to show how

“historical memory is not something well defined once and for all, but rather something  that is changing continuously over time.  The actual events themselves are remembered differently, according to the different discourses, texts, images, symbols and gestures produced in relation to them.” (72)

Which is perhaps the dilemma of the legibility of any space, especially ones by which interpretation is a key element, telling a story requires framing (spatially and as a narrative) the elements of what are important, but also set up a sequence and path in which the story is told.  Using the 9/11 memorial and the chasms created by the designers are indicative of the idea of Index, as referenced to Charles Sanders Pierce, in which “…a sign that exhibits a direct, causal link to the actual event that produced the sign, and which the sign itself, in its turn, signifies.” In this way, using the voids of the towers and their “material traces of the past, with direct spatial links to it, and this endows them with a very unique type of meaning.” (73)

While the potential is there for connection of space and event, it is much to ask, the social and cultural functions of ‘trauma sites’ are more indistinct, as the author concludes: “We cannot expect a memorial to capture the complexity of an event of this magnitude, or account for the whole chain of events that follow the initial principal trauma” (75)

This is also echoed by Nicholas Pevzner in “Trees and Memory in Rwanda” (78) where he connects the forest and remnant trees as symbols of ecological devastation, war and economic disasters throughout the country.  In particular the unintended memorialization a the Umuwmu tree, a species of Ficus that were typically planted near houses and are sacred.  These lone trees and groves left now are reminders of houses burned down through strife, a subtle way of remembering past, “symbols of atonement as well as victimization” (81)  Another poignant example in the essay was the use of trees in conflict between the Israeli people (who plant pine forests on lands in attempts to claim land) and the Palestinians who plant olives to mark ownership.  The battle of lands plays out in Israeli’s bulldozing Olive groves, and Palestinians using arson to burn pine plantations.  Both stories show the role of landscape not as innocuous field of war, but as part of the strategy.

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One of my favorite essays was an enlightening take on the structure of the refugee camp, ‘Emergency Landscapes’ by Jim Kennedy, (84) who is a shelter and reconstruction professional, and his experiences with informal settlements.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes guidelines for these camps, but “neglect to take into account the rapidly evolving landscape built upon the camp by the inhabitants themselves, and the complex economies and social networks which expand into these landscapes.” (86) The quidelines themselves were designed for short term (natural disasters) but are insufficient to handle long(er) term occupations of many months or years, which is more common in areas where armed conflict makes early return impossible. So residents have taken the blueprint and using the “malleable materials” people “build barriers, food stalls, paths, roads” and other spaces.

This process is not always democratic or ad hoc, but is often used to create power dynamics with camps of the haves and have-nots, with processes that limit access, create walls and other enclosures to privatize spaces, and create better conditions for some at the expense of others.  Without an “idea of what is a good camp” the question of these longer-term occupations will always be fluid, and Kennedy sees a role for landscape architects in both analysis through observation and research of the morphology (shape), operations (use) and performance (good or not?) of these spaces, as well as to establish and “inform incremental, cumulative, and mosaic approaches.” (89)

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‘The Rise of Stateless Space’ by Casey Lance-Brown (92) delves into the amorphous “pockets of absence… where the rule of law is questionable,” those “contested spatial zones [where] the normal laws and standards of protections no longer apply.” (94)   Using the examples of Border Patrol zones in Mexico, the focus of policing certain zones against smugglers, which moved illegal activities to more hostile and remote areas, which led to more deaths and also more extensive ecological destruction, disruption to wildlife, and other impacts.  Layers of “spatial ambiguity” (96) can be smaller scale or global, with DMZs and contested territories, but remind me of further readings on Heterotopias and Terrains Vague, that  expand these notions and provide interesting perspective on the role of the state and the variety of interactions with less control that are compelling to thing of in terms of emergent urbanism.

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Some final essays I thought were less engaging, including a rather flat book review of ‘Architecture and Armed Conflict’ by Nick Mclintock (100) and  ‘The Tyranny of Speculative Urbanism’ by Christopher Marcinkoswki, (104) where he makes the case that tyranny exists in the development of speculative urbanization due to the exploitation of ‘vanity pursuits’ through real-estate developments.  Through examples, many from Africa, he shows that typically urbanization is often regarded in a positive frame as growth (good), however, it is used in nefarious ways in not really creating places of real worth but as a way to generate capital or to generate global competitiveness instead of addressing real issues that regions should be focusing on.  While it is clear that  urbanization is not neutral, this isn’t really new ground on which to tread, as criticism of misguided eco-cities has been kicking around for a while, and green inspired development for even longer.  In concept it is somewhat interesting, but the essay itself doesn’t really come together beyond a few examples, nor did it really elevate to the magnitude befitting the tyrannical.

On that same note, after reading the collective works, the closing essay ‘The Innocent Image’ (114) where Richard Weller offers a cranky argument about the overly photo-shopped project imagery, comes off as tired, and also doesn’t really fit the frame of this issue in terms of focus.  The tyranny of ‘Planet Photoshop’ doesn’t match that of the urgency that the rest of the journal holds.

The wide array of voices that are not typically part of landscape architecture discourse is perhaps the best part of the journal.  I kept a list as i was going, and the diversity includes geography, architecture history, humanities, sociology, urban management, semiotics, art, urbanism as well as landscape architecture, to name a few.  It’s a type of dialogue that is outside of the landscape architectural mainstream (with the exception of academia) and it’s good to get perspectives I’d equate more to a broader Urban Studies focus woven into LA discourse – reinforcing the plus of the LA+ brand.

A series of illustrations woven throughout the journal that explored a variety of topics in visual form – which although sometimes interesting, did little to add to the content in meaningful ways.  Aside from that, some may struggle to find the links to practice of landscape architecture, and there are definitely a few essays that maybe float to those fringes, but most included illuminate a multitude of perspectives beyond theory and provide solid fundamental issues relevant to practice.  And that is what a journal should do, ably demonstrated by LA+ as it has emerged, now the third issue, as a unique voice in the landscape architecture and urbanism discourse.   This one is a dense read, but compelling and relevant.

Go here to order your own copy today.

Campy

Azure Magazine shows off some ideas from Toronto-based Lateral Office on the concept of camp (outdoor, not kitsch) as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.  Through simple model, diagram and illustration (which are fabulously monochromatic, btw) they outline a proposal of modern outdoor [not necessarily recreational] living.

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A short description:

“Co-founders Mason White and Lola Sheppard considered architecture at its most basic form – in the wild – to dream up Make Camp, a series of five concepts responding to the particulars of varied terrains. Installed at the Chicago Cultural Center as scale models on a 3.6-by-4.3-metre landform, they display modern ideas for campsites. Ideas presented include zero-footprint, suspended tenting; a high-tech experience; and a completely off-grid style. Each proposal is accompanied by a user manual, which describes the recommended gear, season, territory and camper for the approach.”

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images via Azure

PE 1: Parallel Genealogies

As mentioned, it would be worth while to explore some essays of the Projective Ecologies book, and what better way to start than with the introductory essay by Reed and Lister, Parallel Genealogies.

The terms ‘ecologies’ and ‘ecosystems’ are co-opted for a variety of uses today beyond event these, which could lead to the eye-rolling misappropriation and leave us scrambling for a different term.  The word/concept is by nature cool.  It sounds cool, it’s integrative and connective, holistic and systemic, so of course it will be integrated into the lexicon to describe such things as media ecosystems, startup ecosystems, digital ecosystems, and others, predominately in the tech world.  Our gut reaction is to say ugh and come up with something new – resilience, regenerative, biophilic, etc. that hasn’t been corrupted, but ecology, in the true sense and applicablility, is still a valid construct.  I say rather than abandon it, we take it back.

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H.T. Odum. Energy and Matter Flow through an Ecosystems, adapted from Silver (p.25)

The parallel genealogies of the title are woven around ecology, and the interconnections between the natural sciences, the humanities and design.  These are broken down in turn, evolving the concepts from scientific roots of ecosystem and population ecology, through the connections of ecology to environmentalism which has led to it’s more popular usage.  The crux is a shift from, linear, deterministic ‘climax’ models to more of a focus on “open-endedness, flexibility, resilience, and adaptation… ecosystems are now understood to be open systems and behave in ways that are self-organizing and that are to some extend unpredictable. ”  In that vein (25):

“…change is built into living systems; they are characterized in part by uncertainty and dynamism.”

This makes it more difficult to understand, but infinitely more interesting, as things change and move in systems, leading to conceptual metaphors like mosaics which are compelling to scientists and lay-people (especially designers).  The application of ecological principles – beyond mere observation – implies the agency of humans, thus making our impacts become impossible to ignore.  We also tend to want to act in healing degraded areas, which requires sufficient data to make the correct course corrections.

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Do we possess, or can we possess, adequate information to counterbalance the human-impacted changes in climate that have (Katrina, Sandy) and will influence millions?  We can’t not act, but with what information and certainty?  As the authors point out, the concept shifts “toward complex system thinking is to realize that we cannot manage whole ecosystems; rather, we can manage ourselves and our activities… [which] will have profound implications for the way we design.” (27)

The second genealogy focuses on the humanities (which i would maybe broaden to include many social elements) in solidifying our connections to the natural world.  Similar to deterministic linear ecological models, the way we live and govern ourselves, as in the text, quoting Botkin: “our management practices must adapt themselves to this new scientific understanding of the world – that principles of order, control, and limits will eventually doom the very things we want to protect.” (29)

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Our connection to nature, or the wild, is slipping somewhat in an age of hypercommunication and technological fascination, which is maybe an extension of our overcoming the fear of the wild by naming, and then taming what we once feared.  Or maybe we just stare at phones too much.  In perhaps a counterargument to the naming of places, is the idea of experience, as argued by Neil Evernden, in The Social Creation of Nature’ where “…he argues for qualities, as opposed to nameable things, that might describe that which exists beyond human control.”  (30)

“Wildness is not ‘ours’ — indeed, it is the one that that can never be ours.  It is self-willed, independent, and indifferent to our dictates and judgements.  An entity with the quality of wildness is its own, and no others’s”

And finally with design, and the historical origins of ecological planning traced in the modern sense to McHarg in the 1960s (but built on many, many others before him).  The quantitative as a design strategy was, and indeed still is, somewhat of a foreign concept, that has weathered the art v. science debates, but did galvanize a concept of designing with nature that still evokes joy when spoken aloud.  The language of the ecological – still vivid today – evokes visions that easily spur design intention.  R.T.T. Forman gave a new language to landscape architects, thinking about “matrices, webs, and networks… characterized by adjacencies, overlaps, and juxtapositions.”  This took us beyond the simple overlay into the concept of change and flux, or as mentioned “Adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility, which became understood as the hallmarks of ‘successful’ systems.” (33)

The examples start to emerge, with no perfect exemplar but many worth studying for elements or processes worthy of emulation.  The work of Haag, Hargreaves, and numerous earthwork artists used the armature, language and symbolism of nature into works, and also left (gasp) things unfinished somewhat, with slight references to indeterminacy, which dovetailed so well into the best aspects of landscape urbanism theory.  Thus the spatial fields of  Koolhaas/OMA  at Parc de la Vilette, or the work of Desvigne and Dalnoky, which “set out strategies in which growth, succession, and careful editing of newly planted urban or industrial forests could be seen to reintroduce environmental dynamics into sites and projects that had erased – or at least significantly dampened – ecological effects.” (36)

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It’s not a hands-off ecological succession, but strategic ‘curation’ that works for the ecological and the cultural, and the binary notion of nature and human.  This led nicely into works by Allen, Corner, and further competitions such as Downsview Park, Freshkills Landfill, and others to solidify an interdisciplinary, graphically rich, and temporally based approach to landscape architecture.  While the framing of it and subsequent labeling as landscape urbanism may have not stuck in it’s original sense, the literature of LU is the best that’s come out of the profession in a decade.  My opinion is the book we’re reading is the next iteration (or maybe continuation) of that concept.

Beyond the theoretical, the shift toward application of these projects (not just competitions but works being built) offers a validation of the action-oriented approach that connects ecology, humanity, and design in ways that have rarely been accomplished.  New approaches, ecological awareness, understanding of hybrid and novel ecosystems, the role and result of humans as parts of these system –  coupled with new technology – leads to a new urban ecological paradigm.  The book, and this first essay, continues the conversation, “toward a more rigorous, robust,  and relevant engagement across the domains of ecology and design – one to be fully explored in the coming years.” (38)

I’ll probably skip next the Corner essay as it has been covered extensively (but feel free to comment or guest post welcome!) – and jump to Hight’s essay on Designing Ecologies.  Stay tuned and comment on your thoughts on this essay below.

Rebel Cities Pt. 1

David Harvey is somewhat of a urbanist hero, and after reading reams of his work in grad school studies, I was  really excited to nab a copy of this 2012 book ‘Rebel Cities’ online for free download in PDF format.  The subtitle of this book is ‘From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’, and with that Harvey evokes the work of Henri Lefebvre and a wealth on interesting scholarship on the modern interpretation of public space, freedom, and how these related to the modern metropolis.

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In the Preface, Harvey mentions stumbling upon a poster from a group from Paris called The Ecologistes “…a radical neighborhood action movement dedicated to creating a more ecologically sensitive mode of city living, depicting an alternative vision for the city.”  This vision was:

“It was a wonderful ludic portrait of old Paris reanimated by a neighborhood life, with flowers on balconies, squares full of people and children, small stores and workshops open to the world, cafes galore, fountains flowing, people relishing the river bank, community gardens here and there…”

Utopian visions aside, the 1960s was a time of massive change for Paris (and the rest of the world), which was when Lefebvre published ‘The Right to the City’ with, as mentioned by Harvey, an eye towards creating ‘an alternative urban life that is less alienated, more meaningful and playful but, as always with Lefebvre, conflictual and dialectical, open to becoming, to encounters (both fearful and pleasurable), and to the perpetual pursuit of unknowable novelty.” (x)

Looking forward to digging in more.   Read it?  Haven’t but want to and create a bit of ongoing dialogue?  Something conflictual and dialectical?

Let me know.

Essay in ‘Atlantis’ Magazine

I am happy to report that a recent essay was published in ‘Atlantis’ Magazine, which is published by Polis and collects writings that make “…the link between students, academics and professionals besides the Polis activities. This magazine is our medium to keep you as member up to date about everything going on in the urbanism & landscape architecture world.  The issue 22.4 discusses concepts around the ‘Urban Landscape’ and features contributions from a wide range of authors.

The essay “Land- ‘scape’ / Land- ‘space’:  Pedantic, Semantic or just Anagrammatic” is a tongue-in-cheek play on words that carries with it a more serious message.  The dialogue around landscape urbanism has been called pedantic, and the splitting of hairs could be dismissed, particularly by those uninformed and who disagree with the concepts, as mere semantics.  The anagrammatic is purely a place on words.  The content, revolving around an exploration of the terms ‘landscape’ and ‘urbanism’, and more specifically the parallels of the anagrammatic terms ‘space’ and ‘scape’ begin the discussion. 

 

Using definitions from JB Jackson’s essay ‘The Word Itself’, the parallels between space and scape are delineated, as Jackson’s cultural reading of landscape as “…a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence.” (Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, 1984)  This expands our idea of landscape beyond scenery and greenery to encompass a more broad understanding of ‘context’. 

Urbanism is also investigated, starting with Wirth’s 1938 essay ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’ and tracing the divergence of urbanism as ‘study’ to that of action.  I claim we need to differentiate between the study of urban areas and the design and planning activities. This will allow us to operate in a shared space for dialogue:

“Thus study equates to urbanism (of which there can be many types of study), and practice equates to disciplinary modes and interdisciplinary contexts, such as urban design, architecture, landscape architecture and planning (of which there can be many types of solution). The distinction allows us to avoid binary argument because there are infinite types of study and methods of solving problems – each driven by the unique context. Dialogue and critique can still operate – but there will more transparency and it won’t be summed in an either/or proposition. The complexity of urban areas in our contemporary world is too immense for only one of two solutions”

The end along with a call for more clarity in writing about these terms, specifically the need for clear definitions when discussing terms.  We are too loose with terminology today, and the overall impact and reach of our discussion suffers from this. Whichever way you choose to interpret and intervene the urban conditions, there needs to be shared understanding of fundamental issues, because, as I mention: “In the end, no discussion or argument (binary or otherwise) is worth much if it happening around vague language…”

Comments and discussion, with clear definitions, always welcome.

Check out the entire magazine online here, or click to download a PDF of the article here.

Shrinking Cities: Detroit’s Agony (1990)

A clip that spawned a lot of conversation within our reading group, from 1990, Diane Sawyer reporting on ABCs Primetime Live, in a series called ‘Detroit’s Agony’ – which looks at Mayor Coleman Young’s legacy, and plays on Detroit as ‘the first urban domino to fall…’ [More after the video]

The shock of ‘Devils Night’, guns, drugs, and violence has changed to a different narrative in 20+ years, but not necessarily one that is any more positive – at least in terms of media coverage.  Is Detroit still the end of the road?  Is this just a continuation to the story?  Is what we are witnessing now is the continuation of the city as ruin?  Interesting history, if only one of the media itself and it’s framing of issues both then and now.

Shrinking Cities – Readings

A class this term at Portland State involves a reading and conference on ‘Shrinking Cities’. Led by professor Ellen Bassett, a group of a dozen students from PhD and Masters in Urban Studies and Urban and Regional Planning reading and discussing four diverse texts, along with a range of other writings on the subject. 

  :: Detroit Race Riots – 1967 –  image via Brittanica

Our first book is “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” by Thomas Segrue.  Originally published in 1996, this book has won a number of awards for history, and continues to provide an overview of the connections between racial and economic inequality as played out in the post-WWII urban landscape of Detroit.

Other books include Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon, Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City by Howard Gillette, Jr. and Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber.

This is By no means a comprehensive overview of the subject, but the aim of the group is to discuss the social, economic, political, and spatial phenomena at work in a number of US Shrinking Cities, to better understand this issue.  Stay tuned for some thoughts over coming weeks, and if you have suggested readings to include, that would be very welcome.

Science of Pedestrian Movements

 An interesting article from the Economist on ‘The Wisdom of Crowds‘ echoes much of the seminal research of William Whyte (City), Edward T. Hall (The Hidden Dimension), and others that have closely studied the behavior of pedestrians and other users of public spaces. The interplay of cultural habits that tells us to step right or left to avoid collisions on a busy street can lead to a certain inherent poetic ‘choreography’ when viewed. There are different theories on how these actions are coordinated, and the article focuses on new scientific methods for predicting and studying pedestrian movements. 
:: image via The Economist
 As Jane Jacobs mentioned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities this urban realm is likened to a ballet:
“It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

It was interesting, in this context, to remember my recent travels to Europe, namely London, where traffic on the roads occupies the left lane, but as mentioned in the article, there is not a correlation between this and pedestrian movement. While they mention that London follows pedestrians on the right, that is an oversimplification, as it doesn’t necessarily follow, at least in my experience. Many people follow the walking to the left, which is culturally learned in the UK, mirroring the driving, but the influx on many non-locals that have their own rules often leads this to degenerate into chaos. Thus there is not a typical rule of thumb – and you are therefore required to be much more actively engaged in the surroundings to navigate successfully.

London Pavement Parkings – (image by Jason King)

As mentioned in the originally referenced article, culture is less important in this process as is habit and repetition: “Mehdi Moussaid of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, this is a behaviour brought about by probabilities. If two opposing people guess each other’s intentions correctly, each moving to one side and allowing the other past, then they are likely to choose to move the same way the next time they need to avoid a collision. The probability of a successful manoeuvre increases as more and more people adopt a bias in one direction, until the tendency sticks. Whether it’s right or left does not matter; what does is that it is the unspoken will of the majority.”

The importance of this sort of study (sorry thought, as mentioned, this not a ‘youngish field’) has long been known in urban realms. It is being rediscovered by other sciences and disciplines (seems like everyone wants to study the city now!) such as physics, who are using modeling in the context of crowd safety, particularly in a more multi-cultural world, to better understand what has long been studied the old-fashioned way – by watching people in person or through video.

While thinking of people in similar terms of particles may be helpful, as people are governed by many rules – there is somewhat of a wildcard element in human behavoir as people act as “particles with a ‘will'”, doing sometimes unpredictable things and non-linear behaviors. The issues with modeling are obvious, when you take into account the sheer number of variables at play even in the most simple pedestrian-to-pedestrian interaction. The article mentions this in the context of a study between Indian and German pedestrians, where the direction is also complicated by cultural spatial rules as well:

“Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians. Trying to capture every element of pedestrian movement in an equation is horribly complex, however. One problem is allowing for cultural biases, such as whether people step to the left or the right, or their willingness to get close to fellow pedestrians. An experiment in 2009 tested the walking speeds of Germans and Indians by getting volunteers in each country to walk in single file around an elliptical, makeshift corridor of ropes and chairs. At low densities the speeds of each nationality are similar; but once the numbers increase, Indians walk faster than Germans. This won’t be news to anyone familiar with Munich and Mumbai, but Indians are just less bothered about bumping into other people.”

It would be interesting to do a lit review of cultural spatial studies, building on the work of Hall, to see if these have been updated, and if we have learned anything new in the past 20 years, since The Hidden Dimension was published in 1990. The world has changed dramatically and is much more global, thus it makes sense that even this sort of revolutionary study, while still somewhat applicable, will have changed due to a changed world. This goes as well to updating Whyte’s classic video studies of public spaces (i.e. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces), which are great but extremely dated and not reflective of a much more culturally rich society. A screen shot of one of the videos shows a different environment than what exists even 20 to 30 years later. This doesn’t mean his data are any less relevant, but that we must continue to engage in further study to learn more.

A research agenda that looks at these phenomena, how we use spaces, how we react and incorporate multiple cultural viewpoints, and more is vital to our continual understanding of proxemics, pedestrian movement, crowd dynamics, and more. This can be done by incorporation of more scientific modeling of typically non-urban disciplines, such as the complex modeling processes in physics. It is, to me, much more interesting to envision this study through updates of the seminal urban research studies, which would be a worthy endeavor in our ever globalizing world and our constantly diversifying cities.

This post originally appeared on THINK.urban on January 05, 2012.

The Real

In contrast to the previous post of the ethereal, an amazing collection from Nigel Christian’s blog ‘This City Called Earth‘ which, in his words:  “combines my sociologist’s interest in theories of urbanisation, globalisation and post-nature with my photographer’s love of street portraiture and the hard beauty of the built environment.”   The expansive group emerges by Christian collecting submissions from around the globe on his Flickr group of the same name, and will definitely leave you mesmerized by their beauty and diversity – sort of like life.

(Aerial view of Jodhpur)

(Relaxing in Portugal)
(Industrial area in Tacoma)

I could post about a million of my favorites – here’s a few more… check it out for yourself and visit the site or flickr for citations and credits….

 (Street scene in Tokyo)

  (Unknown) – haunting image, no?

All images via This City Called Earth. 

Black Rock City

An interesting article making some strange connections between the land of free spiritedness that is Burning Man, specifically the arrangement of the temporary settlement ‘Black Rock City’ with the ideology of New Urbanism.  I can’t think of two uniquely different mind-sets and approaches, so find the connection to be somewhat comical – but am keeping an open mind.  So read for yourself… and determine perhaps if that next vacant town square surrounded by walk-up townhouses would benefit from an iconic super human sculptural icon that regularly is set aflame?  Maybe it would be a Waldheim effigy?  Who knows.

:: image via NY Times

A snippet:

“One of the many ways in which Black Rock City epitomizes thoughtful city planning, Mr. Garrett said in a 2010 interview, is that people are responsible for managing their own waste. (“Leave no trace” is a Burning Man mantra.) Another is that cars are sidelined, thanks to a layout that makes walking and biking far less onerous than driving. In that approach Mr. Garrett had allies among the New Urbanists, the town planners sometimes labeled reactionary for promoting quaint enclaves like Seaside, Fla. He also had a soul mate in Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner, who is responsible for closing some streets to vehicular traffic”

I was interested in hearing that Rod Garrett, who was asked to lay out the plan – and his experience as a landscape designer… creating something both flexible yet keeping a tight footprint with an awareness to the overall ideas of circulation.  A quote from a obit on Garrett, who recently passed away, comes from Yves Béhar, “…design professor at California College of the Arts and a 5-year veteran of the Playa himself, described Mr. Garrett as “a genius”, explaining, “A circular temporary city plan built around the spectacle of art, music and dance: I wish all cities had such a spirit of utopia by being built around human interaction, community and participation.”
 
:: image via SFist

All this does really make me want to go to Burning Man… maybe a travel fellowship.  Read here:  “A Vision of How People Should Live, From Desert Revelers to Urbanites