Race and Equity in Urban Nature

Posted by Dean Saitta on March 27, 2014
General, Intercultural City, Placemaking, Sustainability / No Comments

My title is that of a session at the recent Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s (RMLUI) annual conference, in which I was privileged to participate. The session was among those in a featured conference track on “Conservation in Metropolitan Regions.”  Other sessions in the track featured topics like “Framing an Urban Agenda for Nature”, “New Frontiers of Land Conservation”, and “Coalitions to Advance Urban Nature.”  An opening conference address by former Secretary of the Interior and Colorado US Senator Ken Salazar set the stage for the conference and for discussions within the various sessions.  Among his many good points Secretary Salazar emphasized the need to “put ideologies and jurisdictions aside” in creating an agenda for urban conservation that can be implemented in the United States and perhaps serve as a model for other countries.

1 Track PicParticipants in the Race and Equity session (myself excluded) were a group of charismatic, minority-culture conservation leaders.   Belinda Faustinos, Principal of BVF Consulting in Los Angeles spoke to the “nature deficit disorder” in minority communities. The relatively few parks and open spaces in these communities contribute to serious human health issues like childhood obesity. Belinda identified some successful, sustainable models for creating equity in access to urban nature, such as the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Coalition.  Roberto Moreno, Executive Director of the Alpine Mountain Sports Foundation, spoke about the overnight mountain experiences provided by his “Camp Moreno”, a collaboration with the National Park Service that introduces kids from minority cultures to public lands. An overriding aim of the initiative is to show inner city kids that public lands are welcoming, rather than dangerous, places.  Jo-Elle Mogerman, Vice President of the Chicago Zoological Society, spoke to the successes that she and her colleagues are having in increasing minority group visitations to the Chicago Zoo via more inclusive planning and marketing strategies.

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The annual RMLUI Conference is always a well-organized, informative, and inspirational meeting.  I was invited to participate in the Race and Equity session because of my involvement here at the University of Denver with our Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)equality (IRISE), in particular an initiative to study race and class-based inequality in access to open space along Colorado’s Front Range.  My contribution to the session was predicated on the notion that even where access to parks and open space is relatively equal, and conditions relatively safe, these places can still be unwelcoming to minority groups depending on how they are designed.  There is a significant literature suggesting that members of minority groups experience parks and open spaces in different ways in keeping with different cultural values and needs. My favorite texts include books by Setha Low and Julian Agyeman, and some useful studies of particular parks like Chicago’s Lincoln Park (e.g., see here).  The risks of cultural stereotyping notwithstanding, this work identifies different preferences among ethnic groups with respect to park attributes (e.g., water, trees, scenic vistas, etc.), developed vs. undeveloped (“wild”) space, and patterns of use (as individuals vs. in larger groups, for recreation vs. relaxation, with vs. without food, etc.).


Minimally, what emerges from this work are some important questions for planners and designers concerned about the cultural inclusivity of urban parks and open spaces.  Given a diverse user population, is there spatial sufficiency for different kinds of activities?  Is there sufficient differentiated or bounded space for accommodating cultural groups having, say, proscriptions against genders or ages mixing in outdoor settings?  Are there culturally appropriate facilities and amenities, especially around food?  Is there sufficient parking for minority groups who must rely on automobile transportation to get to a desirable park?  Encouraging car use in an agenda for sustainable urban living is problematic, but it could be the price we have to pay for parks that are truly culturally inclusive.

Minority groups can read other visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in a park’s landscape. Is minority group history appropriately recognized with monuments and other historical markers?   Less than 3% of all US National Landmarks are designated for women, Latinos, African Americans, or other members of minority groups.  That’s a pretty significant historical sites deficit.  Do place names and signage reflect, where appropriate, multicultural histories?  Even the quality of park vegetation is fraught with cultural meaning and significance.  Julian Agyeman notes how replacement of non-native short rye grass with native long grass wildflower meadows in a Bristol, England park discouraged use by Asian and African-Caribbean people because it provoked what Agyeman describes as a “residual fear of snakes in long grass.”  Thus, hewing too closely to a sustainability agenda that prioritizes native vegetation over “alien imports” can work against cultural inclusion.

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Intercultural Garden near the River Rednitz, Germany (click on image for credit)

Where can we turn for design models and practices that promote minority group interactions with nature? One source is the Intercultural Garden movement, which is geared toward better integrating immigrants and political refugees into European cities (for a detailed overview and analysis, see here).  Initiatives within the European Intercultural Cities Network provide other models and practices, such as installing specific plants and landscapes that resonate with members of particular cultural groups, zoning park space to meet the needs of particular groups (which can include hardscape surfaces without water features and greenery), and networking green spaces with infrastructure and amenities that connect different ethnic communities. Some urbanists (e.g., here) are now examining what appears to be a pan-human need for nature as shaped by evolved psychological predispositions (see also here), presumably in the interest of making urban parks better for everyone.  To the extent that Africa, and not Europe, is the continent where humankind’s psychological love and fear of nature first evolved, I often wonder what Africa can teach us about good intercultural placemaking and landscape design. Is there anything embedded in the planning and design of African cities and other built landscapes of both present and past that’s transferable to other contexts?

Insensitivity to cultural difference in mainstream design and planning practice is perhaps the second biggest threat to public space after neoliberal privatization.  Changing urban demography will almost certainly force us to better accommodate cultural difference.  In the RMLUI Conference’s conservation track session on “Framing an Agenda for Urban Nature” Bob Ratcliffe of the National Park Service rightly noted that the United States will very soon be a “majority minority” nation.  We will have to think about what this means for the land conservation movement, including practices for locating and designing open spaces.  Even the coveted Millennial generation that’s migrating to cities is more ethnically diverse than all previous generations.  If planning and design are not sensitive to cultural difference then we will not only exclude large numbers of people from public space but also limit opportunities for intercultural interaction and, by extension, the creativity and innovation that such interactions can foster.

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Three suggestions for planning intercultural urban nature follow from the above:

  1. We should think not only about the locational and political factors that impede equitable access to urban nature, but also about the culturally exclusionary aspects of design;
  2. We should focus on communities that need access to urban nature the most, and experiment with alternative, non-traditional forms of community outreach and consultation in acquiring information about cultural values and needs;
  3. We should cast widely across geographies, cultures, and disciplines for models and practices for doing urban nature equity work, where “best” practice means “culturally appropriate” practice. We might triangulate between ethnography, evolved human psychology, and archaeology to arrive at new models, and seek the right balance between designing with particular cultural uses in mind and more flexible uses that encourage spontaneity and intercultural interaction.
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RMLUI Conference Plenary Lunch Panel on “Planning the Future of the Rocky Mountain West” (D. Saitta)

Culturally inclusive planning for urban nature would also likely benefit from more diverse leadership in metropolitan planning departments.  The RMLUI Conference’s Plenary Lunch Panel discussion on “Planning the Future of the Rocky Mountain West” was striking for the lack of gender and ethnic diversity of participants, all of whom were leaders of planning departments in major cities between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.  Given the homogeneity of this color palette it’s only reasonable to wonder how sensitive metro planning departments are likely to be to issues around cultural inclusivity in access to urban nature.

Finally, Bill Fulton, president of The Civic Canopy, suggested in the RMLUI Conference’s conservation track session on “Collective Impact: A Model for Collaborative Problem Solving” that it might be time to shift the premise for social action in conservation from an individual rights paradigm to a community rights paradigm.  An individual rights paradigm nicely served national independence movements in the late 18th century. But it has perhaps exhausted its utility in the current context where sustainability of the larger whole is in serious question.  Julian Agyeman nicely describes how the “transcendental” ecological sensibility received from that earlier era turns on problematic distinctions or binaries between humans and nature, native and alien, individual and society, “us” and “other”, etc.  Alternatively, an intercultural ecological sensibility that rejects prevailing binaries will better serve cultural difference in urban nature planning for an increasingly cosmopolitan 21st century world.

Spare The Bear, For Sustainability’s Sake

Posted by Dean Saitta on February 18, 2014
London, Placemaking, Sustainability / No Comments

One of the joys of teaching and researching urban issues in London—at least for some of us—is experiencing pub culture and partaking of its liquid assets.  Thus it was with great concern that I read an article in yesterday’s New York Times detailing the threat to pub culture posed by shifting cultural tastes, escalating real estate prices, and predatory takeovers of “locals” (as England’s distinctive neighborhood pubs are known to regular patrons) by large independent companies.  One out of every 5 locals in Britain have disappeared over the last 20 years.  They’ve been turned into private residences, markets, and other uses.  The pub is an iconic, tradition-soaked setting for much that is good in British social life, especially in very small communities.  Brandon Lewis, Parliament’s Community Pubs Minister, is quoted by the Times as saying that pubs serve as “the focal point for fund-raising for the community, for the local football club, for the dance class, for the moms’ coffee morning.”  Thus, their increasing extinction rate doesn’t bode well for community sociability and possibly other cultural institutions. One might even identify the disappearance of locals as a serious challenge to community sustainability.

The Old White Bear, Hampstead, London (D. Saitta)

The Old White Bear, Hampstead, London (D. Saitta)

The Times story profiled one pub at risk, The Old White Bear in Hampstead, a village that’s part of the north London borough of Camden.  The Bear has occupied its spot on Well Road for 300 years.  It was recently bought by a group of developers and closed its doors on February 2.  My wife Martha and I know it well, because Hampstead was our base of operations for two terms teaching study abroad in London (in 2004 and 2008), and a research trip last year to study post-Olympics regeneration in the capital and intercultural urbanism in Leicester.  I’m sure that there are stories to be told, as one Times reader did, about the “less salubrious impacts of pubs on local communities.” However, some of our fondest memories of England are of enjoying a pint (or two) in the wonderfully rustic and atmospheric Bear while waiting to pick up our young son Joe from Heathside Preparatory School (visible right above the rim of Martha’s glass in the picture below) just up the New End road.

A Toast to The Bear (D. Saitta, M. Rooney)

A Toast to The Bear, from The Bear (D. Saitta, M. Rooney)

Fortunately English law, through the Localism Act of 2011, allows citizens to petition to have a pub designated as an “asset of community value.”  Two thousand petition signatories have allowed The Old White Bear to be so designated, and the Camden Council has so far refused permission to turn the building into a private residence.  The developers have vowed to fight, and The Bear’s future is uncertain.  On this side of the pond we’re hoping for the best, and we toast one closing night patron’s ode to a venerable community asset:

“Let’s be brave, let’s be bold,

Let’s believe in this White Bear of old;

Raise a glass and say,

We close tonight, to return another day.”

Inequality in the Provision of Access to Urban Open Space

Posted by Dean Saitta on January 20, 2014
Denver, Intercultural City, Placemaking / No Comments

For a reason articulated a bit more specifically below, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is an appropriate day for my first post of 2014. Our new Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of Social (In)equality (or, IRISE) at the University of Denver is seeking a Post Doctoral Fellow for a two year position dedicated to studying inequality in the provision of access to open space.  The position begins September 1, 2014, and we’re actively soliciting applications.  A position description containing complete details is at the end of this post, and also available here.


The IRISE Fellow’s research should focus on the relationships between racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequality and decisions about the location, funding, and protection of public open space in the metropolitan United States. As we’ve argued many times in posts for this blog, Denver is an excellent city for studying the relationship between minority group interests and the quality of our built environment.  Denver tends to rank highly in terms of availability and accessibility of parkland, but there are worries that the city is slipping.  The IRISE Fellow might examine how open space legislation and its conservation partners have developed priorities for distributing funds in the Denver region and the extent to which such funding has rectified, ameliorated, or aggravated inequity in access to open space. Or, the Fellow might analyze bond measures or federal sources of funding, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, for their impact on open space accessibility. Other research foci are welcome, depending on the candidate’s interests and skills. I’m personally interested in how the planning and design of urban parks and other open spaces can discourage use by minority groups even where access is relatively equal.  There’s a small but growing literature on intercultural parks (e.g., see here) suggesting that minority cultures easily read visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in the landscape.  Is minority history marked in urban parks?  Are place names and other signage a turn-off to minority groups?  Is there spatial sufficiency for conducting a variety of outdoor activities? Are culturally appropriate facilities and amenities available?  Is space activated in a way that attracts minority group interest?


Rendering of City Loop Project (PORT Architects)

Denver’s city government and citizenry are currently very concerned with how we “activate” our urban parks.  The biggest issue right now concerns redevelopment in City Park, Denver’s largest.  The “City Loop” project proposes to replace a decaying playground with 13 acres of skate parks, rain gardens, spiral slides, kiosks, and other amusements circumscribed by a half mile long, brightly colored “kinetic” plastic tube that bends, folds, inflates, and twists into a variety of programmed spaces and enclosures.   The proposal has prompted great debate among citizens in adjacent neighborhoods worried about traffic, noise, loss of open green space, and maintenance costs.  Many are concerned that the city’s desire for something novel and even iconic in parkland activation will produce a “Disneyfied” landscape that’s disconnected from the park’s environmental and historical context and corrosive of any sense of urban place.  Some are concerned that close proximity of City Loop’s plastic structures and anticipated noisy activities to the park’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument will violate the dignity and contemplative quality of that solemn space.  Mostly, citizens are concerned that there’s been almost no community involvement and consultation in the City Loop planning and design process, something that’s prompted development of a Stop City Loop website.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument, City Park, Denver, 20 January 2014  (D. Saitta)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument, City Park, Denver, 20 January 2014 (D. Saitta)

Other Denver parks are undergoing redevelopment and more are targeted (e.g., Civic Center Park is a longstanding source of concern). There are compelling questions about community access and participatory decision-making where all of Denver’s parks and open spaces are concerned.  These questions beg historical, archival, and ethnographic research in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment. Actively promoting collaborative, integrative thought is the purpose of our Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the study of urban open space, and the orienting mission of IRISE generally.

Demolition Denver: What Matters in Urban Renewal?

Posted by Dean Saitta on December 11, 2013
9th and Colorado, Denver, Placemaking, Sustainability / No Comments

The demolition in question is the campus of the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Denver. We’ve been chronicling this development, and the struggle between developers and citizens over what it should look like, since June of 2011. The story goes back farther than that, however. Plans for redevelopment have been in the works since 2003.  The site has been completely abandoned since 2007.  The campus has seen three would-be developers come and go. There have been break-ins and vandalism.  Graffiti artists have made their mark.  Last July 22 the campus was officially designated as a blighted urban renewal area by the Denver City Council.  The section now being demolished is a 6.74 acre piece destined for luxury residences, a deal that was closed in June 2013.  The fate of the rest of the site—22 acres intended for mixed use commercial and office development—is still undetermined.  Developers are currently submitting plans. The Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) board—a volunteer citizen’s group responsible for sharing information with the public—hasn’t met for several months as things sort themselves out.

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University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Campus, Looking Toward Architecture of the Central Quad (D. Saitta)

As quoted in the Denver Business Journal, Denver City Council president Mary Beth Susman asserts that the local neighborhood and the city share a common vision of “mixed use development that has density and walkability.”  The Council-approved development plan calls for promotion of a “diverse, sustainable neighborhood economy.”  Denver Urban Renewal Authority executive director Tracy Huggins says that “everyone is very much aligned about overall objectives.”

Citizens in adjacent neighborhoods have a website that articulates what they want a bit more specifically. Elements include a mix of unique local restaurants oriented around a year-round indoor farmer’s market.   A local brewery.  Retail that provides higher end fashion and furnishings. A luxury/boutique hotel. Businesses dedicated to marketing, design, technology, and financial services.  Art studios and venues.  In short, the desire is for an upscale urban village offering a distinctive—and by all indications pretty exclusive—live-work-play experience.  Aspirational models include Denver’s tony Cherry Creek neighborhood (“where Denver comes to shop, sip, and be seen”), which is located just a stone’s throw away.  Other suggested models draw on elements found in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, Seattle’s Pike Place Market, San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market.

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“Crime, Art, Fetish” (D. Saitta)

The plan for urban renewal at 9th and Colorado is an irresistible topic because—as we establish in our series of posts—issues of race, class, culture, historic preservation, corporate ethics, citizen activism, city council politics, and urbanism (specifically New Urbanism) collide in some particularly interesting ways.  As implicated above, the scales have clearly tipped to favor the desires of a particular demographic with the time, technical means, and political influence to shape the conversation.  One vanquished developer frustratingly described that demographic as One Percenters.  That’s not entirely accurate, but it’s an effective partial framing of the issue.  Certainly, public CBHD meetings—routinely scheduled during working hours—haven’t attracted much class or ethnic diversity.  Other forms of outreach to potentially affected groups have been non-existent.  Public dialogue hasn’t considered sustainability in its sociocultural sense.  It’s clear from census data that there are people and families in the local neighborhoods who might appreciate some affordable options when it comes to housing, eating, and shopping. Thus, Councilwoman Susman might know what the city wants, but I’m not so sure she knows what the citizenry wants—in all of its messy, complicating diversity.

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Building Demolition (D. Saitta)

My personal view is that one Cherry Creek shopping district is more than enough for this part of Denver.  Denver has enough microbreweries to secure its place on that particular Top Ten list for years to come. I’m sure the aspirational development models identified for other cities have their virtues. But it would be good to know how effectively they connect to place and how effectively they appeal to class and ethnic diversity.

In multiple posts on this blog (e.g., here) we’ve advocated for an approach to Health Sciences campus redevelopment that (1) reflects—in both substance and architectural style—the site’s history as a medical research facility, and (2) welcomes the burgeoning ethnic diversity of urban cores. The first of these considerations prescribes—drawing on “healthy city” and “heart of the city” metaphors—an identity-establishing signature building, the adaptive reuse of a few more historically significant existing structures, full enclosure of the proposed central Quadrangle to create a more intimate and pedestrian-friendly public space, and better and safer pedestrian and bicycle connections to the playing fields of adjacent parks (children, like class and ethnic “others”, have been conspicuously missing from the public discussion).  The second consideration prescribes—drawing on intercultural city ideals—a critical mass of value shopping alternatives, at least a little “hard” public/plaza space (including parking lots) where “informal economies” can be encouraged and supported, and housing to accommodate not only multi-generational families but also the varied living arrangements that characterize a broader swath of cultural and economic diversity.

When the next developer for the Health Sciences Center campus is selected, it would be good to renew the conversation about development by asking–of a much wider community of stakeholders—the question that one campus graffitist poses below:  What matters?

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What Matters? (D. Saitta)

Is ‘Sustainable’ Urban Placemaking Elitist?

Posted by Dean Saitta on November 12, 2013
Intercultural City, Placemaking, Sustainability / No Comments

Jamaal Green thinks so.  Playing off of a recent post by Kaid Benfield, he suggests that mainstream sustainability advocates must “move beyond a consumptive conception of cities that’s based on attracting a preferred social elite, whether they be footloose millennials or middle class families.”  Too often ignored are current residents who typically have limited options about where to live and can be easily displaced by the force of gentrification as newcomers move in.  The benefits of gentrification don’t readily trickle down.

Green’s message is important.  There’s still a dearth of voices addressing the “equity deficit” in our thinking about sustainable urbanism.  Some other standouts are Richey Piiparinen, who usefully asks of the urban “livability” trend: for whom, and at what cost?  Like Green, Piiparinen suggests that the focus falls disproportionately on the coveted group of “cultural creatives” having disposable income.  Consequently, current urban interventions—tactical or otherwise—too often reproduce the divide between amenity-rich and amenity-poor neighborhoods.   Similarly, Roberto Bedoya detects in creative placemaking practice a blindness to the social and racial injustices at work in society.  He challenges placemakers to become more aware of “the politics of belonging and dis-belonging,” noting that “before there is the vibrant street one needs an understanding of the social dynamics of that street.” Neeraj Mehta builds on this theme, asking:

For whom are we trying to create benefit when implementing our creative placemaking strategies?…Which people do we want to gather, visit, and live in vibrant places?  Is it just some people?   Is it already well-off people?   Is it traditionally excluded people? Is it poor people? New people? People of color? ….We need to create an explicit pro-equity agenda to our creative placemaking efforts, be explicit about who benefits from the beginning, put it in our logical models and include it in our measurement.

Three Es Sustain

The Three E’s of Sustainability: Environment, Social Equity, and Economy (Wikipedia)

Julian Agyeman takes up this challenge most comprehensively in his recently published book Just Sustainabilities.  Agyeman usefully considers both the physical and symbolic character of the urban built environment.   The “complete streets” and “transit oriented development” agendas are rooted in middle class visions, values, and narratives.  They can signal something very different to people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other urban underclasses. Newly established bike lanes and pedestrian zones can breed resentment when biking and walking—historically the primary transportation options for low-income people—become fashionable for people of greater means. Their appearance can also increase anxiety because they often portend gentrification and displacement.  Other celebrated sustainability initiatives like community gardens and urban farms can remind non-white citizens of the oppression their ancestors experienced under plantation and share-cropping systems, when sometimes all that’s really desired by residents is a simple, affordable grocery store.  Even equally accessible urban parks and other public spaces can signal cultural and sub-cultural inclusivity or exclusivity depending on signage, amenities, and whether adequate space is available for different kinds of outdoor activities. Agyeman describes various bottom-up and top-down placemaking initiatives in cities like Boston and Bogota that are more congenial to the needs of urban minorities and underclasses, and exemplify “shared narratives of equity and justice.”

Certainly, there can be some significant overlap between mainstream sustainability agendas and explicit pro-equity agendas.  In the Sustainable Cities post that provoked Green’s critique Benfield embraces a broad notion of sustainability that reflects concerns well beyond pollution and resource consumption.  He notes that cities must be made to work for all people given a rapidly diversifying urban demographic. Benfield admits that some tactical urban interventions are frivolous and self-indulgent (see also here).  He has also written about the dangers posed by commercial gentrification to minority businesses in suburban areas that attract immigrants. He has written positively about the rejuvenated South Lincoln (Mariposa) neighborhood in Denver, and its developer’s use of a “cultural audit” to solicit a broad spectrum of community opinion about desired features and services.  The Project for Public Spaces channels both Mehta and Bedoya in articulating the challenges facing inclusive placemaking. The new MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning report on Places in the Making takes equity concerns to heart where it problematizes the concept of “community” (typically invoked far too casually in most platemaking discourse; for a Denver example see here), urges greater attention to the “right to the city,” and advocates a more “nuanced” understanding of political power and social capital. New Urbanists acknowledge the need to better engage with working class and minority groups.

“La Alma de la Mariposa” Mural by Jeremy Ulibarri (left) and “Mestizaje” sculpture by Emanuel Martinez (right), Mariposa Development, Denver (D.Saitta)

“La Alma de la Mariposa” Mural by Jeremy Ulibarri (left) and “Mestizaje” sculpture by Emanuel Martinez (right), South Lincoln Neighborhood, Denver (D.Saitta)

Tactical urbanism has its virtues.  The Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) interventions celebrated by Places in the Making attract attention and spark the imagination.  And where imagination is sparked, permanent changes that enhance livability and vibrancy can follow.   But not everyone has the time, resources, freedom, or interest to experiment with LQC.  The approach is no substitute for a more substantive focus on questions of housing, transportation, and affordability that prioritize social equity and the accommodation of cultural difference.  Advancing the equity agenda requires changes to planning theory and practice that, in Agyeman’s terms, are transformative and not simply reformist.  In this regard, Bedoya usefully recommends that placemaking practices be informed by critical race theory as well as more conventional spatial planning and economic development theories. Learning from history also helps.  Failure to do so risks—as Green notes—reproducing earlier forms of urban renewal that resulted in the marginalization, containment, or displacement of our most vulnerable citizens.

Blogging the City

Posted by Dean Saitta on October 22, 2013
General, Urban Studies / 1 Comment

1 LogoCroppedThe Society for American City and Regional Planning History  (SACRPH) held its biennial meeting in Toronto earlier this month.  I was delighted  to have been invited by SACRPH’s incoming president, Joe Heathcott (whom I first met courtesy of his appearance in the film The Myth of Pruitt-Igoe) to chair a session on Scholarship Blogging: What? Why?  The purpose of session was to bring together scholars who use blogs as platforms for working on research projects.  At issue were the merits of blogging as a medium for disseminating research, developing projects, and achieving other outcomes. In this post I’ll report a few of the takeaway messages of this very stimulating session.

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Pierre Clavel organized the session. He blogs at Progressive Cities.  Pierre uses his blog to archive and analyze documents related to progressive neighborhood planning in American cities since the 1970s.  Many of these planning efforts are the stuff of repressed history, especially where they focused on the redistribution of resources to poor neighborhoods and the opening of city halls to wider public participation (e.g., Harold Washington’s work as mayor of  Chicago or Ray Flynn’s work as mayor of Boston).  These initiatives have been unreported and/or unremembered by scholars and mainstream media alike. Progressive Cities collects and preserves their historical record.

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Christopher Leo blogs at Christopher Leo.  Chris is a senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg and a former journalist.  He tackles another kind of visibility problem as concerns research on the city.  That problem is limited public access to the scholarly literature about cities.  Chris accurately notes that academic publication systems almost guarantee a minimal readership for scholarly work. Blogs can be a solution to that problem, especially when they combine the best of the academic and journalistic enterprises. Chris not only seeks to make good academic research more widely available, but also to demonstrate its value to the planning professions.  Moreover, he uses his blog to provide reading material for students and to challenge them to delve into urban issues much more deeply than they ordinarily might.

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Kenneth Fox blogs at the Merton-Columbia Project.  Ken is working to develop a concept of “blog publication”, a corollary to the notion of “oral publication” promoted by sociologist Robert Merton beginning in the 1950s. Like Pierre and Chris, Ken wants to get rarely studied material into the public realm. In this case, the  material is from the Robert Merton papers held by  Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Robert Merton Literary Estate.  A central objective for the blog is to engage current activists and researchers in dialogue about theories of urban social structure and development. In his presentation Ken reminded us of the importance of carefully adhering to permission conditions if blogs are to succeed in providing archival material for wider study.

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LaDale Winling blogs at Urban Oasis. A historian on the tenure track at Virginia Tech, LaDale is a younger scholar who has been blogging since 2004.  For LaDale blogs have several virtues.  Echoing Chris Leo, they are a way to create, maintain, and disseminate a personal body of academic work.  They are also a way to create an online scholarly identity–something that’s especially important in a world where everyone and everything can be googled. Most importantly, blogs allow a scholar to actively shape the identity that others encounter on the web.

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The session was very nicely discussed by Anabel Quan-Haase, an Associate Professor of Information and Media Studies and Sociology at the University of Western Ontario.  Anabel writes at sociodigital.info.  Like the other panelists, she sees blogging as an excellent tool for disseminating knowledge.  She agreed with LaDale about the relationship between blogging and personal identity.  In Anabel’s words, blogging helps to “write oneself into being.”  However, contributing to a community is also important.  To accomplish that goal a blog doesn’t need a huge audience.  Bloggers should be aiming for a particular niche, and they can succeed even if the space they establish lies in the “long tail” of a readership’s distribution.

As a first-time SACRPH attendee I wasn’t sure what to expect from the session. I certainly  expected participants to be supportive of the blogging enterprise.   Ladale Winling has already posted some of his takeaway lessons at Urban Oasis:

One of the things this panel illustrated for me is that academic (certainly historians’) concerns about blogging have not changed much since 2004 when I started blogging. The main one is about taking time away from writing for publication. The second one is about putting ideas out that will be swiped by someone else. Both of these have to do with the publish or perish standard we have adopted for tenure and tenure-track positions, as well as tenure-track hopefuls. If there was a third, I would say it was about the issue of feedback and community.

No one on the panel seemed much concerned about having their blogged ideas stolen. As demonstrated above, the panelists are keen to use their blogs as a way to more widely disseminate scholarly knowledge about the city, especially knowledge that, for whatever reason, has been purposely forgotten or simply fallen between the cracks.  Whether there are any institutional rewards for scholarly blogging—e.g., whether the work will be valued by university tenure and promotion committees—is another matter.  There seemed to be general agreement that blogging is something younger scholars need to carefully balance with more traditional forms of writing; they need to find the right level of “digital engagement.”   But blogging is writing, and LaDale notes in his post how his blogging invigorates his scholarship.  I have to agree.  Writing regularly for Intercultural Urbanism has certainly liberated and sharpened my thinking about the city.  It has also created numerous opportunities—like Joe Heathcott’s invitation to chair the Scholarship Blogging session at SACRPH—that I never would have gained if I limited myself to traditional forms of writing in and for my academic discipline.  And echoing Chris Leo, blogging has helped me better focus my teaching while giving at least a few of my students the sense that their writing about the city really matters (e.g., see here and here).

Yonge Street and Dundes Square, Toronto (D. Saitta)

Yonge Street and Dundas Square, Toronto (D. Saitta)

Toronto is a great place to have a conference about cities.  SACRPH was one of the more stimulating interdisciplinary conferences that I’ve ever attended.  And the Scholarship Blogging session succeeded in sponsoring a fruitful discussion of its subject across the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, and urban planning.  Still, participants were puzzled that the session wasn’t better attended given today’s “tectonic shifts” in how information about the city is being gathered and disseminated.  This was especially puzzling given what I took to be the most compelling discussion topic that percolated throughout the SACRPH conference over its three days. That topic concerns the relative merits of Big Data Generalizations vs. Particular Narratives of Place as a way to understand the life of a city.   Aggregated Big Data (e.g., individual transactions gathered from smart phones, credit card purchases, and other sources of information) invite all sorts of interesting studies of consumer choice and human behavior as they relate to urban planning.  But at the end of the day there’s no substitute for the individual, place-based, thickly described narrative that documents city life in all of its sensory glory: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels, the chance encounters, the brushes with human difference.  A well-attended SACRPH roundtable discussion on The Physical City: Social Change and Urban Space noted the important role that blogs played in sharing information, connecting strangers, and building community during the Occupy Wall Street insurgency.  Some Occupy-focused blogs–like Peter Marcuse’s–offered very useful suggestions to those of us in other cities about what it takes to sustain an urban movement.  Several other SACRPH sessions highlighted the importance of place-based narratives for humanizing and, where appropriate, politicizing that which Big Data risks dehumanizing and depoliticizing.  Throughout the conference assembled crowds seemed to favor these fully experiential approaches to studying city life, educating planning professionals, and formulating urban policy.  If that’s truly the case, then blogging is one of the best ways to advance those understandings of the city that SACRPH attendees seemed keenest to develop.

Millennial Urbanology, 2013

Posted by Dean Saitta on October 13, 2013
Placemaking, Sustainability / No Comments

Understanding the preferred tastes and desires of the particular demographic that contemporary urban placemakers most seek to attract—the Millennials—is one of the planning profession’s major preoccupations.  One of the advantages of teaching urban studies to a college audience is that it allows one to take something of the pulse of what Millennials want in urban settings. This is best done by putting students in the field to study real urban environments. Denver is terrific for that. But some online game playing can also be useful as a warm-up.

The game in question is the  BMW Guggenheim Lab’s Urbanology game. The game seeks to teach players something about urban sustainability by asking them to give “yes” or “no” answers to a series of urban policy questions. It then produces some quick-and-dirty findings about the governing values implied by the answers, and identifies a real city that best matches those values. The eight values at issue are Affordability, Health, Innovation, Lifestyle, Livability, Sustainability, Transportation, and Wealth. Questions include items such as “Will you double the cost of public transport to fund its conversion to a carbon-neutral system?” or “Will you pay for a free bike service in your city”?  Working with such yes/no dichotomies is not ideal, but it’s also not unreasonable as a starting point for conversation.


I’ve assigned the Urbanology game to the 25 or so students who typically enroll in my Culture and The City course every fall term. I ask students to play the game at least 10 times and report any patterns in the results. The game changes a bit from year to year as players suggest new questions for the 10 question mix that’s randomly generated for each run of the game.  I like to think that new input from  players in different places worldwide improves the game by making the question mix increasingly sensitive to a player’s real values and preferences.  This could be too much to ask of an online game like Urbanology, but one can hope. What follows is what I’ve learned over the last three years of game-playing.

The top value for my Fall 2011 class of Millennials was Livability (investments in security, recreation, and individual comforts), which received 38% of the mentions by students (see Table 1 for the value comparison data for all three years of game playing). Health (investments in general physical well-being) came in second with 26% of the mentions.  Sustainability (investments in greening the city) was the third most frequently mentioned value, at 22%.  These values translated into a list of city preferences that had Berlin at the top of the heap with 30% of the mentions, followed by Toronto with 27% and Shanghai with 26% (see Table 2 for the city comparison data).  These results dovetail with what many observers have suggested are clear Millennial preferences for walkable, mixed use, and transit-oriented cities.  Indeed, Paul Krugman makes the case for Berlin as a desirable model for America’s urban future in a 2008 New York Times column that’s part of my course reading list.  Toronto is also a reasonable preference for anthropology students given its reputation as one of the more successfully intercultural cities on the planet.  On the other hand, Shanghai is a bit of puzzler only because I (and my students) don’t know much about it.

Table 1 Values

Game-playing by my 2012 class of Millennials generated the same three cities, but in a slightly different order.  Berlin got 31% of the mentions, followed by Shanghai at 27% and Toronto at 23%. Interestingly, the urban values generating the 2012 city list were decidedly different from 2011.  In 2012 Sustainability received 35% of top value mentions,  followed by Livability at 23% and Lifestyle (investments in leisure activities including art, sport, tourism, and culture) at 15%.  Health dropped off to 12% of the mentions.

Table 2 cities

In the most recent run of the game this fall Sustainability continued its upward trajectory as the most frequently identified student value, with 42% of the mentions.  Lifestyle is also trending upward, with 17% of the mentions.  Livability rebounded with an increase after dropping the previous year.  Health continues to decline as a reflected value.  One student asked a very good question about the difference between Livability and Lifestyle.  After a short discussion the class decided that it makes sense to talk about Lifestyle as implying an urban amenities focus and Livability as an urban rights focus, such as the right to public space.   Interestingly, the 2013 exercise produced a clearer separation among cities.  Berlin continued its rise to  33% of the mentions, with Toronto and Shanghai leveling off at  25% each.

For reasons discussed in previous posts on this subject (here and here), results of the Urbanology game can leave you scratching your head.  They raise suspicions that the game is “rigged” in a way that guarantees certain results. Yet at the same time the addition of new questions seems to be producing results that make more sense with each passing year.  The increasing student interest in Sustainability certainly parallels the spreading sustainability discourse on my campus.  The results of my own game-playing are certainly making more sense (see tables 3 and 4).   In 2011 and 2012 Sustainability and Lifestyle were neck and neck as my top values, followed by Livability as a distant third.  Mysteriously (for me) these runs produced Shanghai as my top city  followed by Berlin and Toronto in a tie for second place. The 2013 results  brought a huge change: Livability is my going-away favorite with 40% of the top value mentions, with Berlin appearing as my top city 50% of the time I played the game. Given my values Berlin makes much more intuitive sense to me than Shanghai, and Livability certainly tracks my deepening intellectual interest in the Right to the City.

Tables 3&4Obviously, you can’t take Urbanology’s results  too far.  But at the very least one virtue of the game is that students  enjoy playing it.  A student comment on the anonymous end-of-term course evaluation in 2011 captures, I think, the consensus opinion of students in all three classes about Urbanology‘s virtues:

The Urbanology game fits the class well. It was a useful tool and timed well as it was used early in the course, and was very fun and stimulating.

Urbanology clearly puts students in touch with compelling urban questions and conundrums that they’ve never thought about before, as well as their own personal values and politics.  They express a near unanimous desire to see the game developed in such a way as to add more complexity, context-sensitivity, and nuance (i.e., moving away from having to answer “yes/no” to difficult questions).   The game-playing results reported above may suggest that evolution of the existing game by question addition could be accomplishing that.  If nothing else the game is  an excellent conversation starter about the kinds of choices and compromises that have to be made in designing and developing the contemporary city.

This essay was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective on October 15, 2013.

Whither Civic Center Park, Denver?

Posted by Dean Saitta on September 05, 2013
Denver, Placemaking / No Comments

Denver’s Civic Center Park is one of America’s best preserved legacies of the early 20th century City Beautiful movement.  Opened in 1919, the park has had its ups and downs over the years.  In the last decade over $15 million of city money has been spent to repair and restore its historic structures, and activate the space with amenities like pop-up food courts, summer movies, and art projects.  Central to these efforts is the work of the Civic Center Conservancy.  In 2012 the efforts were rewarded with the park’s designation as Denver’s only National Historic Landmark.

Food Trucks in Civic Center Park (D. Saitta)

Food Trucks in Civic Center Park (D. Saitta)

Despite the monetary investment and landmark status, Civic Center Park has some serious problems.  The crime rate between January and June of this year was up 35% compared to the same period in 2012.  Arrests are up 515%. An outbreak of gunfire at mid-day last August 15 claimed no lives but left dozens of bystanders shaken. A front page story in the Denver Post  was featured by Planetizen.  This has re-focused attention on a space that many citizens still perceive as dangerous and actively avoid.

Who’s to blame for the situation? The accusations fly, and reader comments on the Post story identify multiple culprits.  The gangs.  The drug dealers. The homeless.  The Occupiers of Denver.  The complacent police.  The politicians.  Commenter “GenePH” summarizes the bulk of opinion on this count:

How can one clean this place up when bleeding heart liberals are running the city (and the state!, and don’t forget the federal gov’t involvement…Remember when Rudy Giullani [sic] became mayor of NYC and cleaned up Times Square? They said it couldn’t be done. He did it.

“Pilgrim1620” expresses a rare dissenting view, seeing the problems as…

…a result of “conservative” policies that fail to recognize that something has to be done for homeless people, and that superficially doing nothing still has huge spillover costs such as into the criminal justice and healthcare systems… It started with the de-institutionalizing of the mentally ill during the Reagan years, that was supposed to get them into less expensive community living – but that was then not followed up with the necessary funding for community services, with results such as that people who aren’t taken care of in relatively low-cost settings, end up running up bills of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for temporary stays in jails and hospitals…

What’s to be done?  More and better surveillance is one option that’s been implemented.  This is manifested by the installation of 14 new security cameras in high activity locations. The mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, promises more policemen on patrol. Other ideas floated by public officials include piping classical music into the park and adding free WI-FI.

Surveillance Camera, Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, Denver Post)

Surveillance Camera, Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, Denver Post)

Post readers suggest more dramatic solutions.  Many parallel this one from “broncosfanfromwaybak”:

 Bus all the bums weekly to Limon. Pay Limon to keep them as long as they can. Bus them back to Limon after they’ve made their way back to City Park. Simple.

A voice the wilderness, “fablyone”, asserts that the homeless are people too, and have a right to the city:

…If people are obeying the law, they have every right to be in a public park even if they don’t look prosperous and non-threatening. It is reasonable to ask the police to do their jobs. It’s insulting to suggest that only certain groups should be encouraged to enjoy our common areas. If you want a fashion show, go to Washington Park.

A few folks remind us that the problems go with city living, and that we should let things run their course.  From “FrozenFlower”:

OMG, what is happening down at Civic Center Park. I almost tripped over it. Oh, it’s reality.  You mean our lives and lifestyles aren’t perfect? Oh wow. This must be heartbreaking for all the people just finding out.

And from “gmc80111”:

Not to worry. Given the current political climate, it’s just a matter of time before things get straightened out. It will be fine, relax.

Finally, “dzerres” is alone among Post commenters in suggesting that the park’s problem is not people, but rather design:

This whole “park” concept is wrong for this area. What we need is a piazza where festivals, parades, displays, concerts, booths, political rallies, sports rallies, all those kind of big events with lots of people can take place. Right now all the plantings, the grass, the winding paths and roped off areas are a huge distraction and don’t work. The whole central area should be pavers with easy access to booth anchoring bolts, electrical outlets, built in speaker platforms, security access or ticket access points and limit the plantings and the trees to the perimeters. Big European cities all of plazas or piazzas where people can gather…. Civic Center Park as it is now configured is just a big obstacle course to walk and see anything (except the bums, the hookers and the drug dealers). Stop wasting money trying to make this a park and make it a Square for people, events, concerts, starting or end points to parades like the Parade of Lights and the Stock Show Parade. As the trees die off don’t replace the ones in the middle – they get in the way of the view and just have bums sleeping under them anyway. Don’t waste water on flowers and grass that people just trample anyway. The problem AND the solution is so obvious!

Interestingly, using redesign to remedy the problem is among the most successful strategies identified by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.  The Center’s policy guide Dealing with Crime and Disorder in Urban Parks notes the limitations of “traditional” policing strategies such as increased foot patrols, sweeps, undercover stings, and other forms of surveillance.  Instead, it highlights the successes brought by modifying physical layout, re-aligning footpaths, trimming foliage, and improving lighting.  Involving neighbors and other stakeholders, and providing better services and shelter for transient and homeless populations also brought success.  The report suggests that a mix of strategies is required, and that the success of any particular mix depends on local context.  Of course, a National Historic Landmark like Civic Center can only be re-designed so far lest it lose the quality that made it a landmark in the first place.

DDP Meeting

Downtown Denver Partnership Dinner

Clearly, the Civic Center Conservancy has its work cut out for it.  It not only has to secure the park, but it also needs to better connect the park to the commercial core and surrounding residential neighborhoods.  In brainstorming about the latter, the Conservancy might avoid taking stakeholder outreach advice from another civic organization, the Downtown Denver Partnership.  DDP is the entity that keeps tabs on development in the central core area just to the north of the park.  DDP’s new “City Build” project aims to create better urbanism in Denver by targeting involvement from the coveted Millennial demographic.  They might be careful what they wish for.  City Build will start soliciting Millennial ideas with a nice dinner on fine china for 150 people later this month…in Civic Center Park.  One assumes there will also be classical music to keep the undesirables at bay.

This essay was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective on September 6, 2013. For previous posts about Civic Center Park see here and here.

Remembering the “White City”

Posted by Dean Saitta on September 01, 2013
Intercultural City / No Comments

Today’s edition of the Denver Post contains an op-ed piece I wrote about the work we’re doing here in Colorado to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Great Coalfield Strike of 1913-1914, especially the Ludlow Massacre. I’ve blogged about this historical event a few times before (most recently here), focusing on its lessons for building community in today’s increasingly multicultural society.  Happily, the contemporary relevance of the Strike was the Post’s primary interest when I inquired if the paper would publish a Labor Day weekend article about our work.


Here’s the section of the op-ed that dovetails with my interest in urban anthropology:

The Ludlow story even has implications for urban planning and governance, especially as it concerns the growing multiculturalism of American communities.   Two dozen languages were spoken in Ludlow’s “White City”, a description of the striker’s camp that likened its canvas tents to the gleaming stucco facades of Daniel Burnham’s neoclassical buildings at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (and that served as inspiration for the design of Denver’s Civic Center Park).   How did the Ludlow strikers overcome their cultural differences to maintain a long strike in a makeshift community on a desolate piece of prairie under conditions of serious economic deprivation through one of the worst winters in Colorado history?  What shared values and identities allowed Ludlow’s diverse immigrant population to re-build their community after it was devastated on April 20, 1914?  Does Ludlow teach us anything about how to create and manage an inclusive, intercultural city?

I hadn’t been aware of the connection that the striking miners drew between Ludlow’s Tent City and Chicago’s White City until I read Thomas Andrews’ fine book about the Coalfield Strike, Killing for Coal.  Tom is one of my colleagues on the Ludlow Centennial Commemoration Commission.  Evidence that the term was used to describe the  striker tent colonies is found in oral interviews preserved by the Huerfano County Ethno-History Project (e.g., here).

The connection between the gritty tent city and the gleaming tourist city is certainly loose. However, it’s a useful entry point for discussing several aspects of the contemporary urban condition that currently bedevil us.  As I note in the last paragraph of my Post piece, in making the tie between past and present we’re limited only by our imagination.

Draft Urbanism: Art in the Cityscape

Posted by Dean Saitta on August 14, 2013
Denver, Intercultural City, Urban Studies / 1 Comment

In a previous post I evaluated the architectural installations of Denver’s Biennial of the Americas exhibition of Draft Urbanism.  In this post I examine the billboard art.  More than 30 artists, poets, and philosophers contributed pieces covering a 10 square mile area of the city, each annotated with a museum label.  According to curator Carson Chan the outdoor exhibition re-sensitizes us to the metropolitan experience.  It turns the city into a “space of inquiry”, and invites the public to examine it with “fresh, discerning eyes.”  It provides an opportunity “for a communal reckoning of our shared environment.”

Denver’s billboard artists reflect on many dimensions of the contemporary urban condition.  Accordingly, the Architectural Record opines that the artwork “feels scattered, both geographically and thematically.”  But I think this depends on how you interact with it.  Certainly, there are some compelling themes that connect the various pieces.  And, in my experience, these themes are often enriched by the location and immediate context of the particular work.  Minimally, the distribution of the art invites citizens to physically visit parts of Denver where they might not ordinarily venture. Indeed, this might be the most important accomplishment of the exhibit.  This experience in turn suggests that the problems of the contemporary city are going to be a lot tougher to solve than these guys, this bunch, and the advocates of these paradigms, think.

My survey begins with this billboard from Douglas Coupland that’s located on what the Architectural Record calls “a lonely stretch of road in an industrial area north of downtown.” That road is Brighton Boulevard:

1 Detroit

Welcome to Detroit, by Douglas Coupland, 5055 Brighton Boulevard (D. Saitta)

 As described by the exhibition’s curators, Welcome to Detroit is a

Reaction to Detroit’s long term deindustrialization and depopulation—as well as a chilling foreboding [of] new meanings for a city whose twentieth century raisons d’être have largely vanished. Coupland’s slogan functions as a welcome sign much like those one would find entering other cities of speculation like Las Vegas and Reno, as well as a welcome sign into a new and unmapped era in human history.  He says “Think of Detroit as one million primates needing 2,500 calories a day sitting on a cold rock in the middle of the North American continent, with nothing to do all day. It is an unparalleled crisis of purpose, and Detroit just happened to get there first—but sooner or later we’ll all be there.”

The piece works pretty well, especially on the increasingly dark and threatening day when I visited, and when framed against the backdrop of Denver’s remaining industrial center.

Playing on the theme of urban dystopia, Pia Camil’s Rise to Ruin is located on an even more isolated stretch of north Broadway, adjacent to the gated and barbed-wired scrapyard of an electrical supply company:

Rise Into Ruin, 10 West 49th Street at North Broadway (D. Saitta)

Rise Into Ruin, by Pia Camil, 10 West 49th Street at Broadway (D. Saitta)

According to the curators Pia Camil’s practice explores

…the urban ruin—including photographs of halted projects along Mexico’s highways.  The image shows the opposite side of the billboard; that is, the backstage, riddled with chaos, detritus, and deterioration.  Camil’s work, however, is imbued with a sense of hope, something that is reinforced by the vibrant colors.  The phrase “rise into ruin” suggests the cyclical nature of the world, the phoenix that rises from ash to become, inevitably, ash again. 

In a stretch of west Denver’s Federal Boulevard that’s dominated by automobile service and pawn shops, Brazilian artist Ricardo Domeneck offers Continental Scar Tissue, a poetic commentary about history that riffs on the American urban grid. The billboard’s message is reinforced by the name of the auto service shop that’s located right below it:

Continental Scar Tissue, 1025 Federal Boulevard (D. Saitta)

Continental Scar Tissue, by Ricardo Domeneck, 1025 Federal Boulevard (D. Saitta)

For the curators,

Domeneck’s poem follows a precise measure like downtown Denver’s city grid. It traces both the geography and history of the Americas, mixing the current locale with his native Brazil, illustrating subtle tensions.  In the first two stanzas Domeneck jumps from one location to the other, juxtaposing landscape, histories, and cultures.  With this hopping from one to the other, the trail of tears from the Araweté  tribe can be located in São Paolo as well as in Colorado ski resorts, as if this violence can be seen and felt just about anywhere…By the time we reach “Centennials for the Americas” the poem slowly drifts out of a specific location to the idea of America, claiming that the transcendentalist thinkers Emerson and Thoreau are dead.

A couple of blocks east of this site, on Decatur Street in a food delivery company’s gated and barbed-wired parking lot, is a piece by Dmitri Obergfell called Free Money.  The slogan “The Golden Age Was The Age When Gold Didn’t Reign” is taken from a radical 20th century movement called the Situationist International, and was originally written in graffiti throughout Paris fifty years ago. In this early 21st century iteration it appears in conjunction with a burning sports car:

Free Money, 860 Decatur Street (D. Saitta)

Free Money, by Dmitri Obergfell, 860 Decatur Street (D. Saitta)

For the exhibition’s curators Obergfell’s critique is clear:

Cars are a symbol of status and freedom in America. Nevertheless, they are also a necessity—in Denver, as in other American cities like L.A., an automobile is a basic requirement to navigate the urban landscape. Obergfell, then, seems to be calling for a change in the system of values—perhaps proposing that our values are entangled in places where they should not be.  But questions arise: does reproducing text originally hand-painted on walls validate its claims when it is printed as a billboard slogan?  Does it subsume it into a culture of consumption and spectacle?

The class divisions and racial segregations produced by consumer culture and speculative capitalism—inequalities that are very effectively reproduced by even the (theoretically) egalitarian urban street grid—is captured by Isabella Rozendaal in her New Orleans 2011, on Champa Street in central Denver:

New Orleans 2011, 2600 Champa Street (D. Saitta)

New Orleans 2011, by Isabella Rozendaal, 2600 Champa Street (D. Saitta)

For the curators, Rozendaal’s piece

… takes the innocuous, a road sign at an intersection, and charges it  with the political.  Every city is replete with clues as to how it can be read, and Rozendaal’s photo—which has the name of the city where it was taken—exposes New Orleans as a city clearly divided by racial and religious lines…Rozendaal reveals the store of information that is hidden in plain sight but crystallized when reexamining everyday objects through art.

This particular piece is enhanced by its location in a vacant lot at the precise juncture of three electoral precincts within the Five Points neighborhood.   It draws additional strength from the opposition of a rehabbed apartment building to the right of the billboard and the dilapidated houses directly across the street on the left.

Also in central Denver, the Canadian artist (of Turkish descent) Erdem Taşdelen’s Postures in Process reflects on another aspect of today’s urban condition, the popular uprisings occurring worldwide in response to government efforts to privatize public space.  The piece is inspired by the insurgency in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.  Looming (appropriately) above a gated and barbed-wired Enterprise Car Rental lot on (appropriately) Broadway, Taşdelen’s work presents a string of adverbs that describe the strength and fortitude of those who are protesting the privatization of public space in Turkey and elsewhere:

Postures in Protest, 2209 Broadway (D. Saitta)

Postures in Protest, by Erdem Tasdelen, 2209 Broadway (D. Saitta)

Finally—and staying with the theme of popular insurgency—there’s this remembrance, from Steve Rowell, of the early 20th century working class struggle at Ludlow, Colorado. I’ve occasionally written about the Ludlow Tent Colony—now a National Historical Landmark marking the 1914 killing of striking immigrant coal miners by the state militia—on this blog because of what I take to be its relevance for theorizing, and tactically implementing, intercultural city ideals.

Ludlow, 4707 Brighton Boulevard (D. Saitta)

Ludlow, by Steve Rowell, 4707 Brighton Boulevard (D. Saitta)

For the curators,

Ludlow is now a ghost town and a sense of conflict and desolation is apparent in the photograph of a man [actually, a Colorado militiaman] inside an odd-shaped grave [actually, the tent cellar where the bodies of 13 suffocated women and children were found after the colony was burned in a militia effort to break the strike], with one hand jutting out…Nearly a hundred years later, Rowell reminds us that this struggle is still present. Rowell…aims here to convey a site of memorial through an economy of means.

Ludlow is located on Brighton Boulevard just a few blocks south of Welcome to Detroit. Thus, it brings us back to the industrial heart of north Denver, and the related themes of urban struggle, ruin, and renewal.  Like the other pieces, it draws power from its evocative context and/or associations.  In this case, the piece is squeezed into a small, dark, cellar-like space between a Latino grocery store (there was a significant Latino presence in the southern Colorado coalfields both during and after the troubles of 1913-1914) and the fenced-in house next door.

In conclusion, there’s lots to like in Draft Urbanism’s city-wide exhibition of artwork. There’s certainly lots of meaning for one to construct for oneself.  Citizens and urbanists alike are richly rewarded by seeing the city in this way.

This essay was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective on August 15, 2013.