Archive for the Urban Studies Category

Is America’s Civic Architecture Inherently Racist?

I personally don’t think that it is. However, Denver Post Fine Arts Critic Ray Mark Rinaldi gives the opposite impression to thousands of readers via a recent opinion piece called “Did Diversity Miss the Train in Union Station Architecture?” The Union Station in question is Denver’s newly refurbished central rail hub, originally built in 1881 with some alterations in the 1890s. Mr. Rinaldi suggests that the station’s “neo-classical mix of styles” is off-putting to ethnic minorities, and hence discourages them from using this most central of Denver’s public places. Reader reaction was swift and abundant, numbering over 300 online posts. Respondents overwhelmingly condemn Mr. Rinaldi’s argument as uninformed, illogical, ridiculous, bizarre, crazy, idiotic, asinine, moronic, and in itself divisive and racist. Mr. Rinaldi himself is diagnosed as suffering from liberal stupidity, liberal self-loathing, liberal educational indoctrination, liberal superiority syndrome, and several other mental disorders associated with liberalism. Some readers liken the piece to a parody from The Onion.

Union Station, Denver (D. Saitta)

Denver’s Union Station (D. Saitta)

Assuming that Mr. Rinaldi’s article is on the level, his particular critique of Union Station redevelopment, combined with the apoplectic reactions of his readers, derails a potentially important conversation about the extent to which urban built environments are meaningfully constituted and interpreted by citizens, and the degree to which cultural diversity should matter in urban placemaking. More on this below, but first some additional background:

Denver’s Union Station is a mash-up of Romanesque, Classical Revival, and Beaux-Arts architectural styles. Located at the end of a terminating vista in Lower Downtown, the building is a marvel to behold. Mr. Rinaldi spent some time one weekend counting patrons and discovered that the user population for the station’s bars, restaurants, and other amenities is overwhelmingly white. This should come as no surprise for veteran observers of Denver placemaking. Upscale development rules in this part of the city, aided and abetted by the Downtown Denver Partnership’s interest in attracting Millennials. Mr. Rinaldi is certainly right that Union Station is “programmed” for people with money. And although Denver has a “growing middle class of minorities,” including “plenty of blacks and Latinos” who can afford to go there, Mr. Rinaldi goes a bit further to speculate that the station’s architectural renovation repels this demographic. The building’s “symmetry, arched windows, and ornate cornice and stacked stone walls” evoke European colonial empires fueled by slave labor. The rewired gilded chandeliers and polished marble symbolize an Old World that was elitist and exclusive. The whole scene harkens back to an early 20th century America rooted in ethnic segregation and class exploitation.

Mr. Rinaldi notes that there’s nothing in the station’s update that “nods” to an increasingly diverse and multicultural present. For example, there are

 …no interior walls in the bright colors of Mexico, no Asian simplicity in the remix. There are no giant sculptures by African-American artists bonused into the lobby, no murals on the basement walls.

There’s also no explicit nod to Native American (specifically, Cheyenne and Arapaho) people and cultures on whose ancestral land the station sits and whose ancestors were brutally displaced to clear the way for railroads in the West. Mr. Rinaldi doesn’t mention that particular omission, but he continues with this:

There’s no traditional Mexican restaurant, no soul food restaurant, no sushi bar, as if no one noticed that the Mexican-American, African-American, and Asian-American families that operate those places across the city are also our best food purveyors.

Denver's Union Station, Interior (D. Saitta)

Denver’s Union Station, Interior (D. Saitta)

Mr. Rinaldi rightly notes that there are many choices that the station’s owner, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD), could have made in rehabbing and programming the venue. He laments that none of the choices respect RTD’s diverse ridership, which is largely minority-based. He suggests that other choices—like a recreational facility, playground, day-care center, farmer’s market, cultural facility (e.g., museum), and some affordable dining options—might have made the place more appealing to a broader demographic. Mr. Rinaldi concludes with a couple of dramatic rhetorical flourishes: RTD has “created a monster of separation” that has “defined us narrowly, darkly, negligently.”

To his credit Mr. Rinaldi recognizes that this is a “dangerous” discussion. He acknowledges the risks associated with racially categorizing people based on skin color (coincidently, the subject of a special exhibit now showing at Denver’s History Colorado Center). If Mr. Rinaldi was looking to enter dangerous territory he certainly succeeded, as evidenced by the hundreds of overwhelmingly negative online responses to his column. He clearly struck a nerve. Interestingly, the 13 reader responses published as letters in two different print editions of the Denver Post (see here and here) are, in stark contrast to the online reactions, much more balanced in their evaluation. It seems as if Post editors were intentionally looking to reclaim and reset a potentially useful conversation that was never established online. The published letters are evenly split between six people who excoriate Rinaldi for his crude stereotypes about culture and his cluelessness about the purpose of historic preservation (e.g., it should be “authentic” and faithful to original construction), and seven people who compliment him for provoking thought or agree that the station’s renovation is a missed opportunity to create an inclusive, energized public space in Denver’s Lower Downtown.

I’m inclined to accentuate the positive. Mr. Rinaldi’s piece is certainly clumsy in several regards, e.g., dropping ethnically themed restaurants into a public space does not an intercultural city make. His rhetoric is a tad overheated in places. His overall framing of the key issues with Union Station development could have been better. Still, I admire the courage it took to write something that makes such an inviting target for the trolls and troglodytes among us. As mentioned at the top of this post, at the very least Mr. Rinaldi challenges us to think about the meanings that public buildings and places have for people of different cultural backgrounds and life experiences. I would add public parks and other designed landscapes to the mix, as well as historic monuments and memorials. Humans are, as any anthropologist will tell you, meaning-making and meaning-detecting animals. We read visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in all of our cultural products. Even the most seemingly benign design choice can be loaded with positive or negative associations depending on the personal background and lived experience of citizens. We don’t need white people to point this out. Even non-white people, among them distinguished architects and planners, will tell you as much (e.g., see here and here). The planning and design stakes are especially high when it comes to urban places that are intended to be public. If, as some researchers suggest, there’s a correlation between racial equity and overall urban prosperity (for a sampling of scholarly views, see here), then it’s certainly reasonable to worry about racial inequities in access to, and use of, public space. The sooner that planners, developers, architects, and builders of all ethnic backgrounds realize this and achieve—as one Denver Post letter writer enlightened by Mr. Rinaldi’s piece put it—a “diversity awareness,” then the better our urban built environments are likely to be.

This essay was originally published at Planetizen. It was re-posted from here to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Learning From the ‘White City’

It’s not the White City that would likely come to mind first, i.e., Daniel Burnham’s spectacular grouping of neoclassical buildings at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, made famous by Erik Larson’s book. Rather, it’s a white canvas tent colony that appeared 20 years later and about 1,000 miles to the southwest, near the railroad depot (now a ghost town) of Ludlow, Colorado. Given the average American’s knowledge of Western history, Ludlow might as well be Nowheresville. The Ludlow Tent Colony was a striker’s camp of 200 tents occupied by coal miners and their families (about 1,200 people) during the 1913-14 Colorado Coal Field War. This episode of industrial conflict is arguably the bloodiest example of labor unrest in American history. The violence culminated in the deaths of two women and 11 children on April 20, 1914 when an armed force of coal company guards, professional strikebreakers, and hired mercenaries stormed the colony and set it ablaze. The women and children were trapped in a tent cellar and suffocated to death. Dozens of other people died in the 10 days of open warfare between striking miners and company men that followed. On April 30th President Woodrow Wilson called in federal troops to disarm both sides and restore some calm.

Top: Chicago's White City; Bottom: Colorado's White City (Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Chicago’s White City; Bottom: Colorado’s White City (Wikimedia Commons)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “Ludlow Massacre.” Although not widely known or taught in school the anniversary has provoked some significant national interest. Stories in The Nation and The New Yorker discuss the details and why the event still matters. Because I was one of the scholars who led the first-ever archaeological excavation of the tent colony I can’t let the anniversary pass without mentioning Ludlow’s relevance for contemporary urban planning and governance.

Ludlow Tent Colony (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

Ludlow Tent Colony, Street Level View (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

In his award-winning book Killing for Coal, Thomas Andrews reports documentary evidence suggesting that Colorado strikers nicknamed their settlement the White City because of the “gleaming canvas facades” of the tents, and “as an ironic reference to the dreamlike buildings that had housed the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.” Alternatively, the moniker could also refer to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, whose name translates as “White City.” The striking coal miners at Ludlow spoke a number of different languages, primarily Eastern and Southern European. The resident population included Serbs, Croatians, Poles, Sicilians, Tyroleans, Tuscans, Cretans, Macedonians, and others. In America some of these immigrants would come to be lumped together as “Italians” and “Greeks.” Mexicans, Spanish Americans, and even African Americans contributed to the ethnic mix. Life in the tent city for these people was far from ideal. They occupied the colony for 15 months, under extremely difficult economic conditions and through one of the worst winters in Colorado history (many historical photographs show the snow piled head high around the tents). The miners were striking because of low pay, dangerous working conditions, and non-enforcement of Colorado mining laws. Simply taken at face value there’s much to learn from this history that’s relevant for today. America’s coal miners (as the articles linked above demonstrate) are still struggling to deal with issues around workplace safety, fair compensation, entitlement to medical benefits, and other rights.

Detail of Tent Colony showing Medical Tent (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

Detail of Tent Colony showing Medical Tent (courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection)

At a deeper level, Ludlow’s history may also have something to teach us about intercultural urban planning and design. We explored several key questions in our research, including one about how the citizens of Ludlow used space, place, and the built environment as tactical resources in the conflict between Labor and Capital. Our investigation—which triangulated between historical sources, oral testimonies of descendant family members, and archaeological findings—established that the canvas tents were arranged to maximize security and impede surveillance of the interior by passers-by, especially coal company officials and professional strikebreakers. Camp layout, with its named streets, numbered tents, and prominently placed hospital, paymaster, and community facilities signaled a concern for personal health, family relationships, and civic order. Thus, the striking miners made a concerted effort to present a “civilized” face to the outside world as a way to combat early 20th century stereotypes about immigrants as unclean, ignorant, and naturally violent. We suspect that the colonists didn’t live in ethnically segregated areas of the camp. This is most directly evidenced by the surnames of the 13 individuals trapped in the tent cellar on the day of the attack: Costa, Pedregone, Petrucci, Valdez. The fact that these people died together in very close quarters almost certainly indicates that they lived together in very close quarters. Moreover, it’s almost certain (and this is suggested by archaeological findings) that that the social and economic networks that helped sustain the tent city extended well beyond it, and cut across other divisions of culture and class.

Ludlow Monument Inscription and Plaque (photographs by D. Saitta)

Ludlow Monument Inscription and Plaque (photographs by D. Saitta)

Archaeological work at the Ludlow Tent Colony helped win National Historic Landmark status for the site in 2009, a significant accomplishment. A 2013 Colorado Historic Preservation Award honored our work and the heroic efforts of our partners, the United Mine Workers of America and the National Park Service. Pooling expertise to enhance our understanding of American history is one thing. Producing lessons for contemporary urban planning, however, is quite another. What can excavation of a 100 year-old tent colony located on a 40-acre piece of remote, sunbaked and windswept Colorado prairie possibly teach us?  It’s a challenge for sure, but this is how urban historians have to think if they’re to wring as much contemporary relevance as possible out of their subject matter. Even granting the significant scale differences between Ludlow and, say, Denver, socially integrative principles are socially integrative principles no matter what the settlement scale. How those principles shaped the built environment at a culturally diverse community like Ludlow under very difficult political and economic circumstances is, in my view, a fascinating research question. It’s one that demands a lot more work: only 5 percent of the colony has been systematically investigated by archaeologists.

Coal Field War Project Staff and Students within Excavated Tent Location, 1998 (photograph courtesy of Colorado Coal Field War Project)

Coal Field War Project Staff and Students within Excavated Tent Location, 1998 (photograph courtesy of Colorado Coal Field War Project)

Still, at the very least Ludlow provides a useful foil for discussing several aspects of the contemporary urban condition that are of scholarly and popular interest: spatial segregation of ethnic groups, gentrification, racial profiling, and the cultural values and practices that reproduce these conditions. The Ludlow strikers overcame their social and ethnic differences to maintain a long strike in a makeshift community under conditions of serious economic deprivation, systematic corporate harassment, and uncooperative weather. When Colorado State Senator Helen Ring Robinson visited the colony during the strike she was impressed by the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie she observed among the colonists.  She noted that:

Among the women, particularly, and many of the children…this long winter had brought the nationalities together in a rather remarkable way . . . I saw the true melting pot at Ludlow.

What particular shared values and identities allowed Ludlow’s diverse immigrant groups to come together in that “rather remarkable way”? What sort of “tactical urbanisms”—including the symbolisms and meanings associated with colony organization, the distribution of community amenities, and signage—reinforced these shared values and identities and promoted cross-cultural solidarity? What does Ludlow teach us about the ideologies and materialities required for planning and managing an inclusive, sustainable city in an Urban Age plagued by ethnic unrest and environmental distress? Is there anything here that our modern day politicians—especially mayors and city councilors—could stand to learn? This blog is centrally committed to the idea that an understanding of city building in the past can (and should) inform city building in the present. In this cause, as in every other realm of human endeavor, we are limited only by our individual and collective imagination.

Another version of this essay is posted at Planetizen.

Does the Aspen Ideas Festival Offer Any Compelling Ideas for Improving City Life?

The ideas at issue are presented in the short video featured in this recent CityLab story. Several “Leading Voices” in today’s conversation about cities were asked this “Big Question”: What’s the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

AspenFestPicGeoffrey West says it’s time to recognize the prominence of cities and urban life in the future of the planet. Alissa Walker says we need to make cities more walkable. Jeff Speck says we need to “restripe” cities to make them more “equitable” for cars and pedestrians. Jennifer Pahlka says we need to get cars out of cities altogether and develop better mass transit. M. Sanjayan says we need better ways to connect city-dwellers back to nature.

None of this is all that inspiring on the face of it. However, embedded in the video are a few excellent observations that might generate more creative thought about what’s needed for urban improvement beyond what we’re already investing in the area of transportation. For the punch line, please visit my Planetizen blog.

This piece was re-posted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Manifesto for an Intercultural Urbanism

I’m pleased to have been invited to write for the urban planning website Planetizen. In keeping with the theme of Intercultural Urbanism my inaugural essay briefly describes the philosophical and practical commitments of an approach to urban planning and design that’s sensitive to cultural diversity in ways of being and building. The essay is inspired by the “diversity deficit” in contemporary  thinking about urban planning that’s been noted by several influential mainstream urbanists. There’s already a strong literature that can serve as a guide for addressing this deficit.  I argue that we need to renew the conversation about cultural diversity and its implications for planning theory and practice, a conversation that’s fallen off a bit in the last 5 years.  Casting widely across cultures, histories, and disciplines for planning concepts and precedents is essential if we desire a more comprehensive agenda for dealing with the many urban challenges that currently bedevil us. You can read the complete essay here.

Has Urbanism Lost All Meaning?

On New Year’s Eve 2013 the staff at Atlantic Cities (now City Lab) ran a story about “Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014.” These buzzwords included popular favorites such as “placemaking”, “smart growth”, and even “gentrification.” Readers were urged to use some of the concepts much more carefully and reject others altogether. Why? Because they lack meaning or are too “jargony”, “wonky” or—god forbid—“academic.” Halfway through 2014 it doesn’t appear that much of the advice from the vocabulary police and translators of “academic-ese” at City Lab has been heeded. I think that’s a very good thing.

1. City labTopping City Lab’s Rethink List is the “worst offender” of all: “urbanism.”  Sommer Mathis opined thusly:

At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and -ism, meaning a “distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement,” a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it’s frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues…or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning.”

In an earlier City Lab piece from 2012 Kaid Benfield anticipated Mathis’s argument by likewise suggesting that the concept of “urbanism” had exhausted its utility. He also opined that the word was stifling creative thought about cities and their planning. Benfield said:

…as a lover of words and language, I am always thinking about their meaning and best use. And I now believe it may be time to send “urbanism” to the same literary retirement as “vibrant.” [e.g., see here]…My first problem with urbanism is that in some circles it has taken on the air of a cult, providing a verbal badge of identification. The word carries an assumption not just that adherents love and promote cities but also subscribe to a growing code of written and unwritten precepts and rules about how our built environment should be organized – starting but not ending with density, gridded streets, mixed uses, priority to pedestrians rather than drivers, and so on…Just as the principles of smart growth have gotten stale, so have the overlapping principles of urbanism. Overly familiar vocabulary can lead to overly familiar thinking.

But perhaps an even bigger problem with “urbanism” is that the word is ridiculously overused…It comes in a bewildering variety of forms—old, new, sustainable, tactical, landscape, pop-up, accidental, adaptive, emergent, Latino, recombinant, magical, integral, green, military, “true,” everyday, postmodern, guerilla, mobile, even an oxymoronic “agrarian” strain, and more [emphasis added]. Various versions of the label are used to justify everything from illegally spray-painting public property to development in places that no sensible person would honestly consider “urban” unless they have drunk gallons of metaphorical Kool-Aid. I could define urbanism in my own way and probably be perfectly comfortable with the result. But communication is about using words in ways that are not just personal but understood in common, and this one has now splattered all over the map, including in ways that I find troubling.”

I appreciate aspects of Mathis’s and Benfield’s arguments. I agree that vocabulary is important and that we need to be precise and vigilant in our use of words. I also agree that inter-subjective agreement about the meaning of words has value given that city building is a collective undertaking. But both Mathis and Benfield push things a little too far. Benfield’s complaint (and perhaps Mathis’s as well) appears to be with a particular strain of urbanism; i.e., New Urbanism.  The word urbanism itself doesn’t imply a single “ideology” or “set of principles” for city building. Indeed, I find the various versions of urbanism that Benfield identifies in the highlighted part of his quote above to be quite meaningful, useful, and even liberating.

YuriUrbanThere’s nothing ridiculous about the variety of urbanisms that compete for the hearts and minds of city-lovers today (see Yuri Artibise’s engaging book for one attempt at stock-taking).  They privilege different entry points to understanding the city. They alert us to different causal powers or forces that shape the city.  In so doing they help explain why the city looks the way it does. They implicate different structural barriers to change and improvement. Comparing urbanisms allows one to critically evaluate their underlying epistemologies, theories, practical consequences, and ideologies (plural!). Comparison helps clarify their distinguishing features and emphases, their irreconcilabilities, and the possibilities for synthesis. Comparison identifies contradictions and blind spots in our thinking and inspires new thought about how to resolve the contradictions and fill the blind spots. Particular concepts of urbanism can usefully serve the purpose of pointed social criticism. They can also serve the interests of minority urban cultures. Jarrett Walker at the Human Transit blog suggests that “dominant cultures routinely co-opt and corrupt the words that the minority needs to think about itself and its situation.” We’re currently seeing this, I think, with the term gentrification. And as David Diaz explores in his book Barrio Urbanism, today’s New Urbanism very much co-opts the values and language of a much older, more widespread, and vastly underappreciated urbanism. Such alternative urbanisms—and the critiques of conventional “ways of doing” that inform them—are more important now than ever before.

The concept of urbanism is also essential to our vocabulary if it’s understood as a process rather than a product. If we’re looking for words to jettison, then urban planning—a word that neither Benfield nor Mathis nor other City Lab staffers recognize as problematic—might be the better choice.  I’m struck by the distinction between urban planning and urbanism that’s made by Barcelona architect Itziar Gonzàlez. Jeb Brugmann describes Gonzàlez’s distinction in the chapter on Barcelona’s Gràcia District in his book Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World. For Gonzàlez, urban planning:

…starts from the premise that “we want to reach this goal.” Urbanism, in contrast, asks “how do we reach this goal?” [Gonzàlez] draws a picture of a boat on a large sheet of paper. Then she shows the boat being buffeted by strong winds, just like the pressures a city faces during its redevelopment, which threaten to push its vision off course. “To reduce the pressure of the winds on the boat,” she argues, the planner makes the boat bigger and bigger. In other words, the project becomes less responsive to local values and priorities. It increasingly focuses on the needs of the boat. In contrast, she explains as she continues her paper illustration, ”urbanism is adding and developing solutions for all the different interests.” She draws each interest as a little boat. “Urbanism is getting lots of little boats moving in a similar direction.”


Street in Gràcia District, Barcelona (Wikipedia)

At the time of Brugmann’s writing Ms. Gonzàlez complained that urban planning was still substituting for urbanism in Barcelona. It likely continues to substitute in many other cities worldwide. The challenge to urbanists working for positive change in the city is to get an accurate assessment of “little boats”—or, the interests of community stakeholders—and their implications for designing the built environment. Interestingly, “stakeholders” and “built environment” are two other buzzwords identified by City Lab staffers as needing rethinking or replacement. The cynicism of their arguments is palpable, and their critiques unpersuasive. That’s why I like the work of folks who champion urbanisms that put cultural diversity and difference first in our re-imagining of the built city. They focus on identifying and working with different interests instead of assuming they don’t exist, ignoring them, caricaturing them, or declaring that they don’t matter because they’re outnumbered by a dominant majority interest. We need to understand, accommodate, balance, and integrate majority and minority interests if we’re going to build better, more livable, and more sustainable neighborhoods and cities. I think we already have some pretty good concepts for achieving that goal, and these include the many variants of “urbanism” that currently surround us.

It’s in that more charitable spirit that I’ll give the last word of this essay to the final commenter on City Lab’s New Year’s Eve story, John Anderson. Mr. Anderson provides a thoughtful, optimistic, and convincing position on language use that simultaneously legitimizes an “academic” perspective on the urban issues that currently bedevil us:

I can understand why folks who wordsmith for a living would want to overhaul the lexicon every year. Over exposure to some terms probably causes irritation—a buzzword rash perhaps. The discussions of the built environment that take place at the level of the neighborhood, the corridor, the municipality, or the region are already dumbed down significantly for lack of a common technical vocabulary. [City Lab] does a good job of writing about these issues with a little more depth than say, USA Today, but there is plenty of room to do more with the words that are available.”

Blogging the City

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.

1 Prog Cities

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.

2 C Leo

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.

3 ColumbiaMerton

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.

4 UrbanOasis

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.

5 Anabel

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  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.

Draft Urbanism: Art in the Cityscape

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:

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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 reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Trayvon Martin and the Psychosocial Impact of Gated Communities


Tim Lane

In March 2012 Better Cities and Towns posted an article by Robert Steuteville suggesting that a “poorly planned, exclusionary built environment” was a factor in Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman.  Steuteville posited that gated communities create fortress mentalities characterized by paranoia and suspicion of anyone who looks out of place within the walls.   Steuteville implied that if the site of the Martin shooting—The Retreat at Twin Lakes—had been more walkable then the Trayvon Martin tragedy might have been averted.  In a post on this blog I noted, using data from a couple of Denver neighborhoods, that even highly walkable communities have their issues with crime and personal assaults.

Yesterday, in recognition of the Zimmerman trial verdict, Atlantic Cities re-posted an essay by Sarah Goodyear from April 2012 that was originally prompted by the Steuteville piece.  Goodyear reported that available research is inconclusive about whether paranoia and suspicion are promoted by life behind the gates. There’s better evidence that gates do not deter the kinds of crimes that are experienced in other kinds of communities. However, Goodyear quotes a bit of a UN Habitat Report suggesting that gating does have broader social impacts. According to the report,

[The] significant impacts of gating are seen in the real and potential spatial and social fragmentation of cities, leading to the diminished use and availability of public space and increased socioeconomic polarization. In this context, gating has been characterized as having counterintuitive impacts, even increasing crime and the fear of crime as the middle classes abandon public streets to the vulnerable poor, to street children and families, and to the offenders who prey on them. Such results also tend to broaden gaps between classes insomuch as wealthier citizens living in relatively homogeneous urban enclaves protected by private security forces have less need or opportunity to interact with poorer counterparts.

Reader comments on the re-posted Goodyear piece include a few different takes on the issue.  Here in Denver, “chris1059” acknowledges that, while no community is perfect, there are certain virtues to gated living:

When I moved into my gated community a couple of years ago, my wise neighbors were quick to note that this community would not make me safer from crime. I knew that. However, an enormous benefit of the gated community is that is drastically reduces nuisance traffic in the neighborhood. Fewer ice cream trucks, door to door brush salesmen, etc. A Mormon missionary the other day was quick to point out to me after interrupting my dinner that the court has given him an exemption from the word “soliciting”, so the gates don’t keep the Mormons out. But a 90% reduction in other nuisance traffic is well worth the extra money I paid for my house.

Alternatively,  “dfasfgl” in Los Angeles describes the downsides of gated living in a way that offers qualified support for Steuteville’s argument:

I live in a gated community. Unfortunately it is a decidedly working class gated condo complex in Culver City…The only people who aspire to live here are our neighbors in Inglewood. But the people who live here have a weird paranoia anyway. Mostly it is my elderly neighbors. Boredom slowly creeps into insanity while they sit on their couches growing more wrinkles. They have nothing better to do all day except spy on their neighbors and freak out and make some drama at the sight of a stranger. When that is over they yell at the children about making too much noise. Poor Trayvon would never have been shot if he climbed the fence to cut through my condo complex. But if he hung his laundry out to dry, they would make him wish he was dead.

Self-identified urbanist “k_bee” urges cautions against invoking this kind of “spatial determinism” and, alternatively, emphasizes the role of culture in conditioning how people think both within and beyond the gates:

Our built environments are shaped by our cultures, not the other way around… What we need to talk about are the mentalities and fears that suggest we are in danger, that inform our ideas of who may be dangerous to us, that tell us what steps seem necessary for personal protection, or that teach us we need to have the absolute right to self-defense without any duty to retreat. How do those mentalities produce certain modes of living? How do they affect the way we perceive and use public space, and how we choose to encounter our neighbors?

These are excellent questions.  But we can allow the causality to go both ways without succumbing to a crude spatial determinism.  In a response to “k_bee” commentator Josh Michtom suggests that

You’re surely right that the growth of living arrangements that put people at a remove from others is caused by culture, but it also reinforces attitudes across generations…As the years pass, the realities of [these] people become more abstract, and for children the abstraction is all the greater. The result is a whole class of people who see danger in the unknown in a way that is fairly disconnected from reality. It is a view of the world that sees more peril and more need for aggressive self-defense than I think is warranted, a view that makes stand-your-ground and concealed carry laws feel more necessary than they otherwise might, and a view that can lead an arguably well-intentioned neighborhood watch volunteer to shoot an unarmed teenager.

For her part, Sarah Goodyear concludes that we will likely never know if the built environment played a role in Trayvon Martin’s death.  However, that particular jury is still out.  Assuming a reciprocal relationship between built environment and culture–or between place and psychology–might usefully frame future inquiries into the issue.

Urban Sustainability and Social Justice

There’s an “equity deficit” in our thinking about urban sustainability.  Mainstream green theory is long on environmental justice, but much shorter on social justice.  Sustainable development agendas largely serve middle-to-upper income populations at the expense of lower income people of color, immigrants, and refugees.

1 JustSustain.640These are some of the basic claims that anchor Julian Agyeman’s terrific new book, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice.  Agyeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.  He writes an excellent blog called Just Sustainabilities. Agyeman speaks of sustainability in the plural because he believes—reasonably so—that there can be no universal prescription for sustainable urban practice.  Rather, policy and planning must be tuned to the increasing ethnic and class diversity of urban areas, or what others have called “cities of difference.”

The book is efficiently and cogently organized around three key themes, with a chapter dedicated to each: (1) Food, (2) Space and Place, and (3) Culture.  Agyeman suggests that each theme is under-theorized and under-researched as an aspect of Just Sustainabilities.  He does a masterful job synthesizing recent literature and case studies that relate to each theme, and adds original material that enriches our thinking.  There are many takeaways from this book. I focus here on just a few cautionary tales from each chapter that speak to equity deficits and illustrate how even well-intentioned efforts to plan and build for urban sustainability can have significant unintended consequences.

For Agyeman, the equity deficit in the “locavore” food agenda—one that emphasizes local and organic foods, farmer’s markets, and the desirability of community gardens—is that it doesn’t yield affordable, healthy, and culturally-appropriate food for low income populations.  The local is always heterogeneous, riven by power (and other) differences.  Thus, we err in thinking that community gardens in “food deserts” will be welcomed by everyone. Agyeman usefully considers the cultural symbolism of such initiatives. He suggests  that community gardens or “urban farms” can remind non-white citizens of the oppression their ancestors experienced under plantation and share-cropping systems. Alternatively, what’s really desired by many inhabitants of food deserts is the same sort of basic, full service grocery store that’s available to the inhabitants of food oases.  Agyeman channels Branden Born and Mark Purcell’s notion of the “local trap, the assumption that the local is inherently good. He reaffirms their conclusion that the local food movement confuses ends (a more sustainable and socially just food system) with means (a system of localized food production and consumption). In so doing it fails to adequately serve minority and low income populations.

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Urban Farm, Chicago (Wikimedia Commons)

Mainstream placemaking can produce an equally compelling equity deficit.  The “complete streets” and “transit oriented development” (TOD) movements are geared to middle class visions, values, and narratives. They especially resonate with the much-coveted “Millennial” demographic. However, these agendas can signal something very different to people of color.  Newly established bike lanes and pedestrian zones can breed resentment when biking and walking—often the only available transportation options for low income people—become fashionable for people of greater means.  More importantly, bike lanes and pedestrian zones can increase anxiety because they often portend gentrification and displacement.  In reading Agyeman I was reminded of citizen comments about the local light rail line that emerged from a Better Block project in the historically black Five Points neighborhood of Denver. The Welton Street light rail line connects Five Points to the rest of the city and, to that extent, is welcomed by many residents. For others, however, it creates an internal boundary that must be carefully navigated in order to access a public park. That is, the rail line is viewed by some as “gating by other means.”  The specter of social exclusion is also raised by New Urbanist infill developments designed to pedestrianize streets by concealing or eliminating  surface parking lots.  This effectively eliminates spaces where “informal economies” can develop; economies that—by and large—benefit minority populations. Agyeman describes various bottom-up and top-down place-making initiatives in cities like Boston and Bogota that are more congenial to the needs of urban minorities and underclasses, thereby exemplifying “shared narratives of equity and justice.”

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Welton Street Light Rail Line and Temporary Denver B-Cycle Station, Five Points, Denver (D. Saitta)

Agyeman offers a framework for thinking about culture from the standpoint of difference rather than diversity, and interculturalism rather than multiculturalism.  The concept of difference is the more expansive one, going beyond race and gender to include culture, class, religion, age, dis/ability, and sexual preference. It has been put to nuanced and provocative use by a number of urban thinkers. Interculturalism, for its part, goes beyond respect and tolerance for cultural differences to the active promotion of cultural interaction, cross-fertilization, and hybridization.  Agyeman notes the leadership of European Intercultural Cities Programme activists in promoting intercultural planning.  That these folks are ahead of the curve is evidenced by what I witnessed firsthand as a participant in the 2012 Venice Seminar on Intercultural Placemaking.  Urban parks—to take just one example of a public space whose planning can benefit from an intercultural perspective—create and reproduce equity deficits if designed and maintained without attention to social difference.  Agyeman summarizes how different cultures and ethnic groups, as well as ethnic sub-cultures, use parks differently. For example, they differ in terms of user group size, activity preferences, and inclinations to modify space to fit particular needs.  This section of the book nicely reinforces and complements Setha Low and colleagues’ wonderful work demonstrating that people easily read cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in urban landscapes; e.g., they will avoid landscapes where their group’s history is absent or erased, or where available facilities and diversions have limited appeal.  Taken together, Agyeman and Low offer a nice set of recommendations to make parks (and, perhaps, other public spaces) more welcoming of both inter- and intra-cultural differences.  These include giving more thoughtful attention to local histories, cultural symbols, accessibility, spatial adequacy, amenities, rules and regulations, architectural details, and even place and street names.

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An Intercultural Amenity? City Park, Denver (Wikimedia Commons)

Achieving urban places conducive to cultural interaction and cross-fertilization depends, for Agyeman, on changes that are transformational and not simply reformist.  The urban planning and design professions must be transformed in ways that not only put Just Sustainabilities on their agenda but also diversify the ranks of practitioners.  Likewise, we need to develop more innovative methods and strategies for soliciting broad-based citizen input about sustainable development options. Throughout the book I was reminded of David Harvey’s famous essay about another kind of “trap”, the communitarian trap.  The communitarian trap assumes that neighborhoods are intrinsic and equivalent to “community.”  Harvey shows how deployment of the concept of “community” can effectively marginalize and silence resident minority and low income people, especially those lacking the time to participate in public meetings with developers and planners and/or the technological means to engage in conversations with their neighbors on social media (again, this is nicely illustrated by development debates here in Denver).  Agyeman and others (e.g., Talja Blokland) effectively substantiate Harvey’s insight by showing how a dominant picture of community is defined by the historical narratives that residents tell about a place, and that this picture can be selective, partial, and exclusionary.

In short, there’s lots to think about if we want to build cities that are culturally-inclusive and sustainable in the most comprehensive sense of that term. Julian Agyeman brings great passion, intelligence, and imagination to the task, and nicely primes the pump for the rest of us.


Is City Building an Art or a Science?

This question has been considered by multiple urbanists over the last few years.  Some of the more visible conclude that an urbanism grounded in science rather than art—that is, one that is quantitative, predictive, and law-like rather than qualitative, aesthetic, and context-based—best serves the project of city building today.  Santa Fe Institute scholars Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West opened the door with their paper in the British journal Nature back in 2010. Their “complex systems” analysis revealed that cities manifest some universal features that are determined by population size. Size predicts variables like the average income of citizens, the number of patents per capita, and other aspects of urban socioeconomic productivity, interdependency, and creativity. Size also predicts levels of violent crime, the number of people with AIDS, and annual tonnage of carbon dioxide emissions.  Bettencourt and West conclude that population size determines 85% of a city’s character, with the remaining 15% determined by other factors such as local history, geography, and culture.

1 NatureFig

From Nature, Volume 467, 21 October 2010, page 913.

In September 2012 Richard Florida called for a better science of cities via an interview with Planet of Cities author Shlomo Angel. Angel suggests that we need a better understanding of global norms in how cities function, and not just those of a particular subset of cities that, though worthy, are entirely inappropriate as comparatives.  Around the same time, Stephen Marshall appealed in Urban Design International for more science in urban design education, meaning greater attention to the testing and validation of design ideas, critical assimilation of findings from disparate sources, and better dissemination of findings.  He suggests that even taken-for-granted, Jacobsian ideas about the desirability of mixed use, short blocks, architectural variety, and high density—characteristics that enhance urban aggregation and vitality—should be subjected to rigorous testing.

2 Universe of Cities mapweb

Map of the 3,646 cities with populations of 100,000 or more in 2000. (From Planet of Cities via Atlantic Cities)

Earlier this year William Solecki, Karen Seto, and Peter Marcotullio, writing in Environment Magazine, asserted that it’s time to turn from urban studies to urbanization science.  They urge us to look beyond the surface appearances of cities to the fundamental laws that underlie them.  They suggest moving away from the study of cities as places to the study of urbanization as a process.  Understanding the processes by which cities develop and change across time, space, and place will, in their view, allow us to better understand the requirements of sustainable urbanism.

3 Sao Paolo Air Pollution

Air Pollution over Sao Paolo, Brazil (From Environment Magazine, Volume 55, Number 1, Page 12)

This interest in urban processes and laws is most recently expressed by Bettencourt in the American equivalent of Nature, Science.   He notes that successful theories in science are not about the form of things but rather about their function and process—how and why things change. He offers a metaphor of the city as a “social reactor” that evolves according to a small set of basic principles. These principles, in order to pass muster as science, must be quantifiable.

These appeals for more science in Urban Studies have provoked varied responses (for a representative sample, see the comments section of Eric Jaffe’s Atlantic Cities  piece about the work of William Solecki and colleagues).  Many respondents applaud the call for greater systematization of the field. Some see the search for universal laws as a refreshing break from the more popular focus on local, place-based design.  However, at  least as many folks are unimpressed. These critics wonder what’s really new here, given that a concern for laws and quantification hallmarked the Chicago School of urbanism and, later, 1960s urban geography.  Both frameworks for understanding the city were subsequently found wanting.  Other critics accept the correlations established between population size and its dependent variables, but note that correlation is not causation.  Some suggest that these findings are essentially trivial, arguing that we already know that people accomplish much more in groups than they do individually.  Still others say that we don’t need to scientifically test Jacobsian ideas about city building because their application in the real world has already proven successful in many places.

Given that humans are evolved organisms it would be surprising if the city, as a human construction, wasn’t subject to scaling forces, even to a significant degree like 85%.  But the remaining 15% that’s subject to culture and context can be decisive.  Certainly, the built form of urban spaces within which human interaction takes place–depending on how they’re designed–can make a big difference to the character, quality, and social inclusiveness of the interaction.  That is why, for some observers, city building is best viewed as a healthy mix of art and science.  As reported here, the Portland, Oregon urban designer Michael Mehaffy suggests that

…urban design theory and urban design practice could have a relationship like that of life science research and medicine. A doctor doesn’t spend all of his time in a research lab, but he relies on scientific knowledge to guide his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The art comes in the form of tailoring diagnoses and prescriptions for each individual patient.

A Country of Cities author Vishaan Chakrabarti speaks to the qualitative design side by appealing for more comparative research on urban form especially as it concerns density:

“Questions remain about the morphology, or formal characteristics, of a hyperdense city.  This is a relatively new arena, and we can draw great lessons from international cities such as London and Vancouver as well as emerging urban areas like New Songdo City outside of Seoul and Beirut’s new waterfront…New York, San Francisco, and Chicago provide fine examples of clustering hyperdense towers on grids of streets, but this is by no means the only way that hyperdensity can or should be planned. With rapid urbanization worldwide, experiments in hyperdense morphology will continue, and questions about best formal qualities of intense, vertically dense, transit-based cities remain open-ended.

5 chakrabarti.800

From A Country of Cities (SHoP Architects)

Of course, it’s also possible to go overboard in emphasizing form and design.  Zaheer Allam and Zarrin Allam offer a critique of what happens when aesthetics are celebrated and commodified to the point that they become “invasive.”  As part of a manifesto for city-building in a world—like today’s—where everything threatens to look the same they suggest that

We are neglecting vibrant contextual elements and hence constructing a generic world lacking humane facets of design.  Would it not be a tragedy if Paris, Venice and Barcelona all looked similar? Would we not mourn the vibrancy of Parisian streets around the Eiffel Tower, the romanticism of Venetian waters and the monumental Sagrada Familia that dominates the skies of Barcelona? Do we really want a world that is basically a mirror image of the US?

Similarly, do we really want a world—and an Urban Studies—that is overly driven by nomothetics, where a concern for process supplants a concern for place, or even people?  Interestingly, in an SFI working paper Luis Bettencourt admits that science alone is insufficient for meeting the challenges of city-building, and implicates the need for attending to history and local culture in design practice.  For Bettencourt, the complex systems approach

…says nothing about…the elementary choices in planning such as the shapes of streets or neighborhoods, houses and buildings, specific uses of space, zoning, etc. …Both urban history and fundamental scientific concepts about how complex systems are created and evolve suggest [that planning should be developed locally by individuals, organizations, and communities]…The planner cannot possibly know in practice all the myriad ways in which people would like to develop urban spaces over the history of a city. Better choices are usually made by agents with more specific information, adequate to their goals and aspirations, so far as these are constrained not to limit similar choices made by others and their integration across urban scales. Thus, ensuring general constraints…together with basic rules at the local level, such as those inspired by vernacular architecture over many centuries now, or by some forms of new urbanism or generative design, may provide a practical model for planning, especially in cities that are largely built informally anyway…

This is prudent advice and a good place for me to stop.  But I’ll give the last word to Daniel Latorre who, in commenting on Solecki et al.’s  call for an urbanization science, articulates what I take to be the most pressing need in Urban Studies today. It’s something that is absolutely crucial if cities are to achieve the kind of social inclusion that allows them to achieve their full socioeconomic potential:

What the understanding of urbanism needs is a more mindful cultural awareness of the [diverse] communities of practice that contest, battle, and cooperate in myriad idiosyncratic, political, [and] irrational ways…the map is not the territory.