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.

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  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.

Is “Back-To-The-City” the New “White Flight”?

Posted by Dean Saitta on July 24, 2013
Denver, General, New Urbanism, Placemaking / No Comments

It’s a great question, posed by Richey Piiparinen in a post on his blog and re-posted to New Geography.  The question is prompted by Thomas B. Fordham Institute data showing that white folks are leading the human migration from suburbs back to the urban core.  For example, the percentage of whites in Philadelphia’s downtown zip code 19123 increased from 25% to 46% between 2000 and 2010.  A similar trend has been documented for Washington DC (zip code 20001) and Brooklyn (zip codes 11205 and 11206).

Piiparinen characterizes this  “white infill” as an inversion of the 1960s movement of whites out of the urban core to the suburbs.  This time, however, the consequence for the core is not urban decay but gentrification.  And for those non-white folks living in the core who are not displaced by gentrification there’s very little evidence that rejuvenation is raising their economic boats.   The poverty rate in Washington DC’s 20001 zip code, for example, has stayed at a constant 28% between 1980 and today, and the child poverty rate of 45% is twice what it was in 1990.


Piiparinen suggests that New Urbanists and other leading urban thinkers and “placemakers” have failed to consider this situation or, perhaps more commonly, have simply taken race- and class-based segregation as inevitable.  Alternatively, Piiparinen seeks a conversation about it.  When will we start talking about “equitable investment” in urban cores?  What might “real economic restructuring” capable of delivering social equity look like?  Do we have the collective will to “re-urbanize” in ways that prioritize “human and community capital” and create more opportunities for more people?

A couple of days after Piiparinen’s essay appeared in New Geography there was a story in The Denver Post about re-development  of the city’s historically black Five Points area. Clarkson Green is the first build-out of the Five Points Redevelopment Plan.  This residential project advertises single family homes priced from $696,000 to $735,000.  Townhomes will go for $475,000 to $525,000.  The target demographic for these residences–in keeping with the trend in other cities–is almost certainly the white folks who’ve been moving into the neighborhood.  According to Fordham Institute data the Five Points zip code of 80205 has one of the fastest gentrification rates in the country.  Between 2000 and 2010 the white population share increased from 29.2% to 56.2%.  At the same time, the area’s poverty rate in 2010 is estimated to have changed barely at all from the 31.5% recorded in the 2000 census. suggests that the Five Points poverty rate currently sits somewhere around 27.0%.  Various reports (e.g., here and here) substantiate the accuracy of this estimate. Colorado’s child poverty rate, like Washington D.C.’s, has also nearly doubled in the last ten years with Denver’s urban core leading the way (the child poverty rate for Five Points was 34% in 2000).


Clarkson Green Rendering

Thus, Denver is experiencing the same kind of white infill as other cities, with the same pattern of socioeconomic effects and non-effects.  Is this disparity on anyone’s radar screen?  Is there any more “collective will” in Denver to do something about the perpetuating inequalities?  Not really, if comments from Denver city councilman Albus Brooks at the Clarkson Green groundbreaking are any indication.  After acknowledging the area’s gentrification rate, Councilman Brooks avoids the implications.  Instead, he gives a shout out to retailers that “People are here, and they are ready to spend money.”

Trayvon Martin and the Psychosocial Impact of Gated Communities

Posted by Dean Saitta on July 16, 2013
General, Placemaking, Urban Studies / No Comments

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.

Is City Building an Art or a Science?

Posted by Dean Saitta on July 02, 2013
General, Placemaking, Sustainability, Urban Studies / No Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

If a City Existed in Ancient America Would Historians Notice?

Posted by Dean Saitta on May 11, 2013
General, Urban Studies / No Comments

Apparently not, according to Michael E. Smith in a review of the new Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History over at his blog Wide Urban World.  Smith argues—rightfully—that cities developed in many areas of Central and South America well before the time of the European conquest. And, that these indigenous urbanisms were substantial enough in their form, geographical reach, and cultural impact to warrant chapter-length treatment in any comprehensive compendium of cities in world history (if we understand “history” to include the entire time period of human existence on the planet and not just time periods for which we have written records). Yet, they go largely unrecognized and unappreciated by urban historians.

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Monks Mound, Cahokia

An argument like Smith’s can also be made for North America. If Mesoamerica is Mars to urban historians then North America is Neptune—a place that lies even further beyond the orbit of world urbanism. As previously discussed on this blog (as well as by Smith himself), North America has good examples of both near-urban and fully-urban phenomena.  The ancient city of Cahokia (dating roughly AD 1100-1200) in the Mississippi Valley got some run recently in the pages of Science magazine with a consequent mention in Atlantic Cities.  This sprawling metropolis of huge earthen mounds and clearly differentiated public space attracted tens of thousands of people and created an impact felt hundreds of kilometers away.  The Mesoamerican archaeologist John Clark is quoted in the Science article as saying that if you found Cahokia in the Mayan lowlands its urban status would not be in doubt; indeed, “it would be a top 10 of all Mesoamerican cities.”  And, as reported in a Science sidebar, even earlier mound building cultures of the  lower Mississippi Valley may have had a role in actually shaping the origins and development of the great Central American civilizations described by Smith.

In short, for Smith urban history

…covers the entire world, through time from the earliest cities to the present. If we really want to comprehend cities and urbanism, a broad perspective is essential. Archaeologists have long appreciated the value of an inclusive comparative framework, and scholars of contemporary urbanization are starting to look to ancient and pre-modern cities as a source of ideas to better understand cities and their problems today and in the future.

This goes for me too, and probably John Clark as well. Smith suggests that scholars of “world history” are not yet clued in to what we can learn about urbanism from the cities of ancient America.  They’d be well-advised to get a clue if they’re interested in better understanding the city’s role in imperial expansion, its virtues as a socially integrating and culturally creative force, and its limitations as a sustainable form of human settlement.

Placemaking Resolutions for 2013: Lifestyle or Life?

Posted by Dean Saitta on January 27, 2013
General, Intercultural City, New Urbanism, Placemaking, Urban Studies / 1 Comment

My title is inspired by an excellent New Year’s Eve 2012 piece posted on New Geography by Richey Piiparinen (also posted here) that questions the “livability” focus of much urban development over the last few years. More about that below. First, here are the highlights of some other turn-of-the-calendar reflections and recommendations from leading urbanists:

Brent Toderian at Planetizen calls for more “holistic” thinking about placemaking, and urges rejection of the false choices presented by those who counterpoise, for example, smart growth and historic preservation, or beautiful and affordable design.  Most importantly, he urges that placemakers pay more attention in the coming year to population diversity and the issue of homelessness.

Cristiana Strava at Polis emphasizes sustainability as the key to better city living, including investment in public transport and community gardens.

The Black Urbanist urges that we spend some time thinking about how to best maintain places that are already great, like old homes, markets, and recreation centers.

Fred Kent at the Project for Public Spaces urges that we make 2013 the “Year of the Zealous Nut”: a new breed of engaged citizen who is passionate about their community.  He recommends an agenda that (1) re-centers transportation so that it helps to builds communities, (2) strengthens local economies through dynamic public markets, (3) builds neighborhoods with centers that are true multi-use destinations, and (4) advocates for a new architecture of place.

The Placemakers at Placeshakers and Newsmakers suggest that in 2013 communities will be best served by Tactical Urbanism. They urge an incremental approach to  development and the development of better methods and tools for measuring livability.

Mike Lydon, another blogger at Planetizen, is also keen on Tactical Urbanism (he’s one of the movement’s leaders), identifying it as the best trend of 2012 and something to push for in 2013. He channels Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton’s philosophy of placemaking:

“Too often, cities only look to big-budget projects to revitalize a neighborhood. There are simply not enough of those projects to go around. We want to encourage small, low-risk, community-driven improvements all across our city that can add up to larger, long-term change.”

Finally, the various folks who write at Atlantic Cities take a slightly different tack by identifying urban trends that they hope will die in 2013. I’m mostly struck by Sommer Mathis’s suggestion that the term “pop-up” be abandoned as a descriptor of tactical urbanist interventions. She suggests that the term produces too many lame experiments and, more importantly, communicates a certain triviality of purpose that can conspire against efforts to turn “short term action into long term change.”

Living Walls, Atlanta

Living Walls, Atlanta (Sten Lex)

Looking at this variety of recommendations it’s clear that tactical urbanism is one of the urbanisms that enjoys great popularity at the moment.  And that’s why of all the end-of-year stuff I read I like Richey Piiparinen’s piece the best.  First, anyone who references David Harvey immediately gets my attention, in this case Harvey’s observation (contained here) that– in the ongoing competition to gain status as desirable (i.e., livable) cultural and consumer centers– cities must

“…keep ahead of the game [by] engendering leap-frogging innovations in life styles, cultural forms, products and service mixes…if they are to survive.”

Tactical Urbanism’s pop-up parks, cafes, galleries, gardens, and street art are an important set of strategic attention-getters.  I’m actually sympathetic to the idea that such tactics can be as important as investments in housing and transportation in improving livability or what others call “vibrancy.”   Carol Coletta, director of ArtPlace, eloquently frames the idea in the following way:

“I think you can do temporality with regularity. Some temporary events are so powerful that they stay in the memory for a long time, and spark the imagination.”

And where imagination is sparked, permanent changes that enhance livability and vibrancy can follow.  But Piiparinen usefully asks “Livability” for whom?  And at what cost?  Too often the focus is not on a cross-section of the urban demographic but rather on a select group of folks; namely, the “creative class” of high-valued consumers with disposable income.  Consequently, current urban interventions—tactical or otherwise—too often reproduce the divide between amenity-rich and amenity-poor neighborhoods.  And at the end of the day they might not do much to give a city (or the neighborhoods within it) an edge in creative class competition. Harvey notes:

“Many of the innovations and investments designed to make particular cities more attractive as cultural and consumer centres have quickly been imitated elsewhere, thus rendering any competitive advantage within a system of cities ephemeral… Success is often short-lived or rendered moot by parallel or alternative innovations arising elsewhere.”

Rio de Janiero

“Paraisópolis”, São Paulo

The constant search for new “sensory and savory experiences” amounts, for Piiparinen, to a “Willy Wonka Urbanism” that’s serves the pleasure of a relative few and signals what Harvey calls “the triumph of image over substance.” Playing off of Harvey, Piiparinen suggests that

“…there are problems with such city building: it’s too often defined by the ephemera, or that “transitory matter not intended to be retained or preserved”… The ephemera aren’t building blocks to economic growth, but instead represent America’s tendency to fix hard structural deficits with the airy promises of the pleasure principle…I would argue that now more than ever we need less fantasy in city building than we do reality…”

Stop the Violence, Chicago

Stop the Violence, Chicago (Metropolis Coffee)

Piiparinen’s reality is about “affordable housing, mobility, education, and jobs.”  His analysis converges with that of others whose ideas we’ve highlighted on this blog. Neeraj Mehta similarly questions who creative placemaking is for, an account that we previously discussed here.  This question certainly informs just about all of the posts  in my continuing commentary on an important and controversial infill development in Denver. Piiparinen’s recommendation for urbanism in 2013 is certainly compatible with those of other resolution-makers, especially Toderian on demographic diversity.  His parting shot hits the nail on the head:

“…perhaps it’s time for city leaders and citizens alike to take stock in how cities are being made, and for whom the making is focused. In fact maybe it’s time to drop the “livability” gimmicks that define Willy Wonka urbanism–or to squeeze “the style” out of “lifestyle” so as to expose the highest priority, the highest necessity: which is life.”

Millennial Urbanology

Posted by Dean Saitta on December 03, 2012
General, Sustainability, Urban Studies / No Comments

Like the question about what constitutes good urban placemaking, the question about the lifestyle tastes and desires of the particular demographic that creative placemakers seek to attract—the Millennials—is a major preoccupation for urbanists.  Yesterday’s Denver Post, for example, contains an op-ed piece by Neal Peirce that notes the widely reported Millennial desire for “urban communities with active street life, entertainment, and stimulation.”  Peirce uses Jeff Speck’s recent book Walkable City as an entry point for arguing that the cities we need to create must be—you guessed it—walkable, bikable, green, and public transit-oriented (for a summary and review of Speck’s book, go here).

One of the advantages of teaching urban studies to a college audience is that we can take something of the pulse of what Millennials want in urban places.  In future posts I’ll report what I learned about Millennial tastes this past academic term from having my students analyze contemporary urbanism in Denver. Denver is one of the cities—along with New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, and Minneapolis—that  Peirce says is making good progress toward creating active and sustainable urban environments (see also here).

The in-class preparation for urban fieldwork includes playing and discussing the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s Urbanology game, as well as discussing films like Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized [Note: Urbanized took us three class meetings to finish watching because of the animated discussion it stimulated. We kept coming back to its themes throughout the course of the term. I should write something up about this soon]. The Urbanology game asks players to make choices about urban issues, producing some quick findings based on the choices. The player assumes the role of a decision maker and answers questions to determine the priorities of his or her city. By answering “yes” or “no” to 10 questions like “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?” players build a future city that best matches their indicated desires and needs. Then, the player is told what real city most closely approximates their values as an urban decision-maker.

In a previous post I discussed the results of Urbanology game-playing by my Fall 2011 class.  The top two values for that group of Millennials were Livability (investments in security, recreation, and individual comforts), with 38% of the mentions by students, followed by Health (investments in general physical well-being) with 26%.  Sustainability was the third most frequently mentioned value, at 22%.  These results would seem to be consistent with Millennial tastes as defined by Pearce and others.  Perhaps predictably, these Millennial values differed from my own Baby Boomer values. In the twenty times I played the game Sustainability (investments in “greening” the city) was identified as the top value 30% of the time, with Lifestyle (investments in arts, sports, culture, and tourism) a close second at 25%.  At the time I explained this Student-Instructor difference by appealing to generational factors: at this point in my life I’m much more interested in the quality of the urban community that will be inherited by my middle school-aged son, and much less interested in the individual personal comforts and amenities we might reasonably expect to be of great interest to college-age Millennials. Curiously, however, Student and Instructor values produced the same list of real cities, albeit in a different rank order.  The top city for students was Berlin with 30% of the mentions, followed by Toronto with 27% and Shanghai with 26%.  My list was topped by Shanghai with 25% of the mentions, followed by Berlin and Toronto with 20% each.

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 this list in 2012 were decidedly different from 2011.  In 2012 Sustainability was identified as the top value with 35% of the mentions, followed by Livability at 23% and Lifestyle at 15%.  Health dropped off to 12%.  I played the game another ten times and the results were consistent with the first time I played. Shanghai is still my top city with 30% of the mentions, with Sustainability and Lifestyle sharing top-spot value honors with mentions of 30% each. I’m not sure what to make of these numbers.  Minimally, they suggest that my values as an aging Boomer are understandably stable, while those of my young Millennial charges—also understandably—are a bit more in flux.  The latter might imply that we shouldn’t be too confident of our ability to predict what Millennials want in an urban setting.

For reasons discussed in my original post, results of the Urbanology game can leave you scratching your head.  They raise student (and Instructor) suspicions that the game is “rigged” in a way that guarantees certain results. Yet at the same time students really enjoy playing it.  One student comment on the anonymous end-of-term course evaluation captures, I think, the consensus of the class about Urbanology’s virtues:

The Urbanology game fit 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.

The game clearly puts students in touch with compelling urban questions and conundrums that they’ve never thought about before, as well as with 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., getting away from having to answer “yes/no” to difficult questions).   If nothing else the game is  a terrific conversation starter about the kinds of choices and compromises that have to be made in designing and developing a city.   More bankable insights about what Millennials want, however, come from putting  them into the field to study what urban planners and architects are actually doing with infill sites and public spaces like urban parks.  More on that to come.


Questioning Creative Placemaking

Posted by Dean Saitta on November 19, 2012
General, Intercultural City, New Urbanism, Placemaking, Urban Studies / No Comments

Placemaking talk is everywhere these days.  So too is “creative class” talk.  Richard Florida—formulator of the creative class concept—combines them in a recent essay for Urban Land.  Many people are on board with the notion that quality of place has something to do with urban vitality and creativity.  We aspire to urban settings that are appealing and animated, inspire innovation and risk-taking, and stimulate the economy by producing new businesses.

Complicating these discourses, however, is the undeniable fact that social and economic inequality is at record levels in the United States.  As Florida himself notes, American society is becoming increasingly class divided. Only about one third of American workers are employed in the creative class fields of science, technology, business, management, health care, law, arts, culture, design, media, and entertainment.  The other 66% are employed in personal care, retail sales, and food service.  Their ranks are expanding and, as Florida also notes, there’s a powerful racial dimension to this class division.

Creative Class Share of the Workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

For cities, deepening social inequality is translating spatially as increasing residential segregation. As summarized by Emily Badger, a recent Pew Research Center Report on “The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income” found that

In 1980…85 percent of census tracts in America were either predominantly middle-class or mixed-income (this is a pretty impressive number). As of 2010, that figure had fallen to 76 percent. Today, considerably more upper-income Americans live in neighborhoods where the majority of their neighbors are upper-income, too (18 percent, up from 8 percent in 1980). And lower-income households are increasingly clustered in the same neighborhoods, as well (28 percent, up from 23 percent in 1980).

At the same time, the Pew Report notes (page 13) that

Looking at the trends from 1980 to 2010, it is also clear that residing in a majority upper-income tract has not reduced the exposure of its residents to neighbors who are lower income. In 1980, the average majority upper-income tract was made up of 7% lower-income households. By 2010, the typical majority upper-income tract had 10% lower-income households.

Thankfully we have observers like Neeraj Mehta, Research Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, to remind us of what these social and spatial patterns mean for the placemaking enterprise.  Last month he had a nice post in Next City framing the key questions that all creative placemakers (and not just those who work their placemaking magic through the arts) should ask:

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? It is traditionally excluded people? Is it poor people? New people? People of color?

“Hot tub parklets are dandy, but for whom are we building them?” (Mehta, Next American City. Image credit: Paul Krueger on Flickr)

Mehta suggests that creative placemaking should benefit not just cultural creatives but also low-income communities and communities of color.  Florida, in his Urban Land piece, implies that creative placemaking depends on accommodating these economic and ethnic differences:

Creative-minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, to trade views and spar over issues. A person’s circle of closest friends might not resemble the Rainbow Coalition—in fact, it usually doesn’t—but creatives want the rainbow to be available.

But while Florida extols the virtues of “accessible diversity” as a means to stimulate creativity he says some things about the desired physical quality of creative places  that may not square with the goal of culturally-inclusive placemaking:

Authenticity—as in real buildings, real people, real history—is key. A place that’s full of chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain nightclubs is seen as inauthentic. Not only do those venues look pretty much the same everywhere, but they also offer the same experiences you could have anywhere.

It seems to me that “authenticity” can easily serve as code for the kinds of upscale restaurants, retail outlets, and other amenities enjoyed by white, middle-to-upper class culture. And, it can easily price people of color out of urban settings where their involvement is otherwise required if creativity is to be stimulated.  At the very least such establishments often manifest a set of visual symbols or “cues”—Mike Davis might use the term “archisemiotics”—that signal who’s welcome in a way that can work against social mixing.  The chances of encountering The Rainbow is undoubtedly higher in places that judiciously meld “authentic” creative class desires with the “value alternatives” required (if not altogether desired) by the majority urban underclass.

Experience says the creation of such hybrid settings—at least here in Denver—is not going to be easy. For example, the exercise in placemaking  at 9th and Colorado that we’re following on this blog has generated great local resistance to accommodating the sorts of value shopping alternatives that attract “The Other.”  This, despite the fact that ethnic and class diversity in the trade area is palpable.  Specifically, 16% of residents in the primary zip code in which the 9th and Colorado development is located are in poverty. This puts the area in the low to middlin’ range of urban poverty if we accept Pew Economic Mobility Project definitions of low poverty (less than 10% of the population live in deprivation) and high poverty (more than 30% of the population live in deprivation) neighborhoods.  The three Denver neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the 9th and Colorado site together contain around 10% lower income households, a number that’s consistent with what the Pew Residential Segregation Report (quoted above) considers typical for the nation as a whole.   Thus, better-heeled citizens in the re-development area have exposure to income (and ethnic) diversity but they’re still not keen to pay much placemaking attention to it (nor are their elected city councilpersons).  Interestingly, I’ve noticed that the most vocal local opponents to the kind of development that might attract social diversity are people who work in the arts and other creative class industries.  Thus, the “tolerance for strangers” that Bonnie Menes Kahn (referenced by Florida in his Urban Land piece) says is an important hallmark of cosmopolitan culture doesn’t seem particularly well-developed in this part of Denver.  Nor is it likely to be well-developed elsewhere in the city: Denver’s overall Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) rose 21 points between 1980 and 2010, a rate of increase exceeded only by three cities in Texas:

Richard Florida has done great work to track the growing social and economic inequality of American society. Now, creative placemakers need to acknowledge the existential reality of the urban underclass when devising their schemes, and not simply that group’s potential to serve as a conceptual foil for the creative pleasure of cultural elites. By now it should also go without saying that all community stakeholders–including those representing the urban underclass–should have a place at the table when discussing placemaking alternatives. Neeraj Mehta nicely articulates the challenge:

We need to create an explicit pro-equity agenda to our creative placemaking efforts [and] be explicit about who benefits from the beginning… It’s really an issue that all of us working on ways to build stronger, healthier communities should be willing to ask, over and over again.

George McGovern and Colorado’s “Tent City” on the Prairie

Posted by Dean Saitta on October 23, 2012
General / No Comments

The many obituaries of the American politician George McGovern published in the aftermath of his death last Sunday mention that he earned a PhD in History from Northwestern University. But other than that they offer precious few details about George McGovern’s life as a historian and scholar.  My colleague Jonathan Rees at Colorado State University-Pueblo fills the gap with an appreciation of McGovern’s historical work (“George McGovern: Historian”) posted yesterday to the Historical Society Blog.  McGovern’s 1972 book The Great Coalfield War (co-authored with Leonard Guttridge and published in the year of McGovern’s candidacy for president of the United States) is a seminal text for understanding the 1913-14 southern Colorado coal miner’s strike. This 15 month-long strike culminated in perhaps the most dramatic example of open class warfare in American history, the infamous Ludlow Massacre.

Ludlow Tent Colony, View from Railroad Tower Looking East

Between 1997-2007 I researched the Colorado coalfield strike as Co-Director (with my fellow anthropologists Phil Duke and Randy McGuire) of The Colorado Coal Field War Project. This project was generously supported by grants from the Colorado State Historical Fund.  It included the first-ever archaeological investigation of the most important of the miner’s strike camps, the Ludlow Tent Colony or, as it’s described by some locals in southeastern Colorado, the Ludlow “Tent City.” Ludlow was the largest of a dozen such strikers’ camps.  It was strategically located on windswept prairie at the mouth of a canyon that led up to the coal mines. Ludlow consisted of about 200 tents and housed around 1200 people.  Our archaeological work produced several key insights about striker life at the colony: how the occupants organized their built environment, how they provisioned themselves, and how they survived one of the worst winters in Colorado history.

Ludlow Tent Colony, Street Level View

Several of our research findings are relevant to the concerns of this blog. In keeping with the commitments of an “Intercultural City” there was no apparent ethnic segregation of families within the colony (24 different languages—mostly eastern and southern European—were spoken in the southern Colorado coal camps and mine shafts). Based on the stratigraphic positioning of artifacts within cellars dug beneath the tents it appears that colony residents attempted to forge solidarity through the everyday use of certain shared items of material culture. For example, use of plainware ceramics seems to have been preferred over finely decorated Victorian teawares, as the latter would have signaled different social statuses and/or social-climbing ambitions.  In other words, strikers sought in their daily practices to emphasize a shared working class identity. The tents were arranged  to maximize security and impede surveillance of the interior by passers-by, especially coal company officials and professional strikebreakers.  A concerted effort was made to present a “civilized” face to the outside world as a way to combat early 20th century racist stereotypes about immigrants as unclean, ignorant, and naturally violent.  The tent city as portrayed in historical documents and photographs evince concerns for health, cleanliness, family, community, and civic order.  Our archaeological excavations also suggest that contemporary state militia reports may have purposely over-estimated the amount of weapons and ammo–the number of WMDs, if you will–possessed by the strikers as a way to exaggerate the threat that they posed to public safety and, by extension, justify the militia’s assault on the colony on April 20, 1914.  In short, our archaeological work supplements, enriches, and even corrects the established historical record of the strike.

Family at Ludlow

Like Jonathan, I had a personal encounter with George McGovern at the April 2004 fundraiser for the Bessemer Historical Society. After the event Phil Duke and I ferried the Senator back to his hotel along with our significant others. The five of us had drinks in the lobby lounge.  We talked a bit about Ludlow. But mostly we talked about the 1972 presidential campaign. As Jonathan notes, it was hard to stay away from that topic and, like Jonathan, we were treated to some of the Senator’s favorite reflections about his opponent (“I would rather be me right now than Richard Nixon“; and “Nixon was incredibly intelligent, but completely amoral”). The Senator was accommodating and gracious throughout the evening.

George McGovern at Ludlow Memorial Service, June 29, 2008 (D. Saitta)

In 2008 I again met up with Senator McGovern when he visited the Ludlow Tent Colony site to speak at the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) annual June memorial service remembering victims of the Ludlow Massacre. That day I had the honor of batting lead-off for a line-up of speakers that included Senator McGovern and the fiery United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts.  The June memorial service is never for the faint of heart, and it was especially energized with McGovern and Roberts in the house.  Cecil can wave the union flag and excite a crowd like no one else.  But McGovern was no slouch.  I recall the Senator giving us a taste of what Jonathan, in his Historical Society Blog post, describes as the “barely concealed anger and pro-union language” of McGovern’s original dissertation about the southern Colorado coalfield troubles.  The dissertation served as the basis for The Great Coalfield War, but was sanitized in 1972 for a polite election year readership.

Me and the UMWA’s Bob Butero at the Ludlow Memorial Service, June 28, 2009

Senator McGovern’s historical scholarship is significant because it paved the way for more recent Ludlow histories (e.g., the books by Scott Martelle and Thomas Andrews) and historical archaeologies (e.g., my book and a collection of essays edited by Karin Larkin and Randy McGuire).  The 2009 listing of the Ludlow Tent Colony as a National Historic Landmark testifies to the quality of this accumulated scholarship and McGovern’s original pathbreaking text. Many plays, films, poems, and novels about the Colorado Coal Field Strike have been similarly inspired by McGovern’s scholarship.  This creative work is just as important as traditional scholarship for communicating the lessons of history, sensitizing us to human difference, expanding the scope of who counts as part of “us”, and furthering moral progress.



While driving home yesterday I heard a National Public Radio piece about Senator McGovern’s death that included a clip in which he said that “I’ll go to my grave believing America would be better off had I been elected.”  I suspect that’s true, but we’ll never really know for sure. Certainly, we can be much more confident that the practices of social history and public history are far better off—more inclusive, more democratic, more humane—because of the work of George McGovern: politician, historian, scholar, gentleman.