The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.
Ah, the Lower East Side…
For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.
I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?
As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.
We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.
I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.
I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.
Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.
A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.
I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:
On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:
Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:
I love the idea that Nothing is Lost. The struggle that it should be so. I long for it, having often felt the vertiginous realistion that you can’t quite remember what used to be in a place before the regeneration kicked off and filled the world with its shiny ugliness, or the equally vertiginous feeling of being lost yourself amongst streets you once knew well. Have fought over. I think much of academia alongside planners and architects and politicians have no words for this loss, no sense of its meaning. I think too often their own positionality prevent them from ever knowing such grief, much less coming to grips with it.
So it needs voices like those found in the collaboration Nothing is Lost both to understand the tangled legacies of regeneration, and to ensure that development does not succeed in erasing what was there before. I could even imagine a world where this kind of work helps form the foundation for rebuilding an area together with its residents to create a place the steps fully into its own potential, conducive to a fullness of life and creativity and wellbeing.
So what then, did the Games bring to the East End? A degree of examination and scrutiny of the city’s true historical centre, its frayed edges, the backdrop to its most shameful statistics of poverty and conflict, a part of Glasgow with a deep-seated and firmly held distrust of its city fathers (and a long list of grievances to support it) did make its way past the boosterism and aggressive myth-making of the organisers….
I loved this beautiful collection of work in its awesome brown cardboard box, a surprise gift from Mitch Miller, later rushed home from Glasgow to Manchester with anticipation. It hurt me to tear it open and thus ruin a lovely object, but the contents were worth it of course.
Inside three booklets of words, photographs, drawings (and more words), and the incredible dialectograms that unfold to display complex drawings mapping out the interactions between people and the spaces they live in and create. I am more than a little obsessed with those at the minute — love them so much I have already given one away to someone from one of the communities depicted. They are too precious to hoard. Because look:
I have without shame stolen some of the photographs and quoted text from the website (where you too can obtain this beautiful thing). Alison Irvine, novelist and tremendous writer on Schipka Pass:
Schipka Pass. The name is no help. It gives no clue to the gaudy, ramshackle lane between the Gallowgate and London Road that was once a cut through and then an in shot housing an eclectic flea market. It gives no indication of the splendour of the surrounding tenements, long since knocked down. I google the name, Schipka Pass, and try to find out the lane’s roots. Folk on Glasgow chat forums say there’s a Schipka Pass in Bulgaria, the site of a battle between peasants and Turks in the 1700s, and speculate that someone associated with the lane in Glasgow had ancestors who fought there. I don’t even know how to pronounce Schipka, but follow Gary’s lead and use a hard ‘k’ as in Skipka rather than a Connery-esque ‘Shkipka’ as I’ve also heard it pronounced.
Her words capture the experience for those of us who could not be there, the flavour of place and feeling, the smell and sound of the bright caf or the muddy chaotic laughing park as people talk about their work, their homes, their memories. My favourite I think was the chapter on Schipka Pass. That might perhaps just be because it took on the legacy of trader Dick Barton (!). So for me, and I suspect for many, there was a whole other layer of utter delight every time I read the name and this music running through my head for the whole of it. It seems to match the pace of his son’s banter.
Chris Leslie’s photographs reminded me I knew Schipka Pass when I lived there, but only ever as a wasteland.
Schipka Pass – initially a hive of Victorian tenements and bustling back courts, a handy shortcut to get from the Gallowgate to London Road and eventually a flea market akin to Paddy’s Market, bizarrely and somewhat unfittingly named after a pass in the Balkan’s Russo-Turkish War of 1877.
In the latter end of the 20th century it was spiritual home to Dick Barton, who covered his flea market with handmade painted signs of football rants, messages of public safety (beware of yawning dogs) and urban myths of a brothel called Sheik-Ma-Tadger. Empty and dormant since the 80s all that survived was the Patrick Thistle-coloured painted boards. When a wallpaper shop went on fire for several hours in 2011 the whole street level of shops was demolished and then boarded up, leaving another huge crater scarring the East End landscape.
This captures only a small taste of the wealth to be found in these writings and photographs. I feel that the Sheik-Ma-Tadger brothel will of a surety make an appearance at some point in my own stories in its honour.
Back to Alison Irvine, her talks with Robert Kennedy, local boy made good and building an adventure playground from the ground up. Reminding me of how connected the very basics are in communities like ours across the world. This reminded me of the Black Panther breakfast programs — a startling contrast even as I thought it, yet one which holds.
Feed the children, he says. Help out the parents whose budgets during school holidays are burst because they’re having to find money for breakfast and lunch when in term time these meals are provided for free at school. (37)
Irvine talks with a man with a name that actually beats that of Dick Barton:
Raecher Hiscoe thumps the cover of one of the seats on his family’s Sky Dive. ‘That’s the skin,’ he says, in answer to my question. ‘We take the skins off, inspect the steel frames, repaint them as needed, repair any damage and then we reassemble them. Stick your head beneath the floors and get an idea of the layout.’ The ride is mostly packed away but I crouch and take a look.
We’re in a shed in Carntyne, hired by a group of travelling showpeople, including Raecher and his family, to enable them to open out their rides and do the maintenance and safety tests required for the start of the show season. Inside the shed, rides stand in their unlit, undressed state, half opened out, steel arms stretching towards cold corners.
The stories of Dalmarnock’s travellers, how lives and patterns and spaces have changed. Dalmarnock, that I only ever walked through once, knew mostly as a name in a list being called as I waited for my train. Which brings us finally to Mitch Miller’s dialectograms:
For me it meant going back to the work I had done on my own community, Glasgow’s travelling showpeople. ‘We’ form the largest minority group in the schools of Shettleston and Carntyne, and before the new housing that came to Dalmarnock, its largest group of residents. Yet this community – one that has been in Dalmarnock for forty years, and associated with the wider East End for nearly two hundred – has rarely been discussed, despite being directly in the path of Clyde Gateway’s redevelopments. As Alex James Colquhoun, the former Chair of the Showman’s Guild (based just over the river at Cambuslang) noted, not one member of the community made it into Commonwealth City the BBC Scotland documentary on the changes taking place in the Dalmarnock area. Not even the aerial shots that swept over Springfield Road, Baltic or Mordaunt Street or Dalmarnock Road itself captured a single one of the twenty or so yards that line Swanston Street, just a few metres away from all of these thoroughfares.
I can’t begin to capture the wealth of stories, drawings, photographs held here, but I loved them. Together I think they explore in a most beautiful and complementarily detailed way the connections between people and place going back over generations, the stories hidden in today’s empty spaces and fading advertisements, the grief and loss caused by decay, ‘slum removal’, ‘regeneration’. Above all the ignorance built into a profit-driven process with no understanding of the wealth that exists here or ability to ever see it, making hope so precarious for meaningful improvement.
Hearing resident voices, seeing with new eyes what was there and what is gone, exploring through drawings how people connect to each other and inhabit a space to render it place — all of this allows the complexities of everyday life to surface in areas shaped by the structural violence of poverty and discrimination. The kindnesses and community and individual violences these larger structures engender, the hope and the despair, the beautiful and the far-from-beautiful-but-hell-of-interesting (and itsn’t that often so much better)? All of the things that create meaning, and that do so in relation to one another as they grow up over time — it is this old forest growth that is cut down by development, to be replaced with standardized and regimented rows that grimly shine.
Above all, Nothing is Lost throws into high relief the understanding that people matter without judgments or reservations. An understanding that rarely connects with the slick promises of regeneration, which too often simply brushes them away.
In Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.
This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.
As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.
Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.
On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:
This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)
This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:
Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)
Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)
The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:
Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)
Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.
She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.
Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.
Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:
Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…
The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)
This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:
Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:
retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)
This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…
Density is Destiny
I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).
I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:
Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)
Which helps explain why
After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)
Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.
Setting the Agenda
The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)
How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.
But to give her credit, she made actual changes. She gives these wonderful examples from Island Press’s Urban Street Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials as some of the inspirations:
There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.
She hits it on the nose:
Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)
Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.
These are troubled histories. Like this one:
Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)
Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?
It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:
the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)
Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)
She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.
But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.
By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)
She gives this example
It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues. On the High Line, she writes:
…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)
She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the
urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)
Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.
Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:
Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)
The Battle for a New Times Square
Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.
Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)
In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:
The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)
Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:
These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)
Stealing Good Ideas
Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.
I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.
These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)
I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).
And then, the chapter title:
Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses
I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)
I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,
An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)
So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.
This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:
Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)
I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:
In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)
When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.
Nuts and Bolts
I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:
But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)
Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.
But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.
Her last lines.
There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.
If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.
I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.
Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
[Sadik-Khan, Janette and Seth Solomonow (2016) Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. NY: Viking.]
This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed… We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. (3)
He’s talking about Jane Jacobs there, The Death and Life of American Cities. This made me want to like this book, as did the following two sentences.
What works in the best cities is walkability.
Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. (4)
But really, there are three main points here: (1) walkability is good, primarily in the ways that it supports the real goal of planners — (2) to increase property values, while also (3) improving quality of life for those who are moving back to the city or currently live in the suburbs and are driving too much, i.e. white middle-class people.
There are two broad currents in planning, the first is planning for justice and equity, the second is planning for property values and quality of life for those who can afford it. This is in the second strand, which I rather hate with every fiber of my being
This is the kind of book that in its erasure of issues of equality and lack of any acknowledgment of the results of past patterns of unjust development, disinvestment, exploitation and discrimination becomes a manual for extending the privileges of one (white, middle-to-upper-class) group while erasing everyone else (the poor and people of colour) from the city neighbourhoods they currently inhabit.
I walk cities, walkability is the most important city characteristic to me. Yet to make anything in this book useful to those who care about making neighbourhoods better for those who currently live there, to ensure that planning interventions do not increase displacement and segregation, an awful lot of the framing needs to be discarded. Every time Speck talks about the ways in which interventions to make a city more walkable improve property values, it is clear that issues of gentrification and displacement must be grappled with for those who do care about equity.
When it keeps to analysis of the actual physical streetscapes and built environment, much of this is useful:
Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscapes with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. (4)
Or looking at the four main conditions of walkability:
Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe… Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban street into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces… Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound. (11)
It is in parsing out what these mean that the trouble lies — especially around ideas of safety and comfort as they are shaped by historic patterns of racism, sexism and discrimination. You won’t find any of those complexities here.
But guess what you will find? For Speck, walkability is marketable. He quotes Joe Cortwright’s ‘Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities’, which I suppose would be useful to look at. Likewise William Frey, whom he quotes:
A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. (35)
Bright fucking Flight. This is the planning whose entire goal is to attract people back to the cities from the suburbs without a thought to issues of community participation, equity, social justice, eradicating poverty, improving people’s lives through improving the city they live in or even a thought to all the talent languishing in the city deprived of quality education and jobs and hope — all the things that brought me to planning in the first place. This is the planning that fills me with nausea. I am ignoring it to focus on what is useful.
As an outline, the steps to a walkable city are useful and it is definitely a good list — the white devil is in the details.
The 10 Steps to a Walkable City:
THE USEFUL WALK
1. Put cars in their place.
This was full of useful evidence to prove that cities have been built for cars, and that wide lanes, multi-lanes, enormous left-hand turn lanes and cutting down all the street trees actually make people drive faster and more dangerously. Speck also lays out the evidence for ‘induced demand’, if you build it, the cars will come and traffic will not improve. Common sense, or research pioneered over 30 years by Donald Appleyard among others, has yet to hit the Department of Transportation. If Speck’s book can help that process of realisation in such departments and city governments, I might be glad he wrote it.
I do love this quote of Bernard-Henry Lévy on our autocentric lifestyle:
a global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode. (102, from American Vertigo)
2. Mix the uses.
I like mixed uses. But then Speck makes comments about how
city properties often come burdened with a whole range of utility issues, easements and access challenges, not to mention pesky neighbors. Local banks, until recently all too willing to finance condo clusters on the periphery, shy away from investing in new apartments downtown.
‘pesky neighbors’ has been code for poor people, immigrants and people of colour since the 1930s and 40s with the federal governments’ Home Owners Loan Corporation and Real Estate industry guidelines that gave rise to redlining back when deeding your house to be for Caucasians only was widespread and encouraged. Speck continues:
This contemporary version of redlining is a significant reason that downtown housing often cannot be built without municipal support. (107)
…most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns. Most American cities have too much affordable housing downtown. Or, more accurately, too much of their downtown housing is affordable, since everyone but the poor was able to join the suburban exodus. (109)
He doesn’t mention that despite this ‘fact’, many cities are in an affordable housing crisis where affordable housing is needed by a majority of city residents including teachers and firefighters, that he conflates the poor with people of colour long discriminated against in any attempt to join the suburban exodus, that such redlining might have contributed greatly to generations of poverty, or that affordable housing is now being erased from all downtowns and nothing built to replace it. Millions of people currently homeless and with not even a fraction of the shelter in existence necessary to house them even for a night also go unmentioned.
Some of his biases can be seen in an uncritical passage on resistance to granny flats:
They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college friend of mine from Los Angeles put it succinctly: “We are afraid that nine illegals will move in.” (111)
Nothing could make more clear where Speck is coming from. In response Speck notes they will rather
introduce affordability in a dispersed rather than a concentrated way, avoiding the pathologies that sometimes arise from the latter. (111)
As if the pathologies lie in poor people rather than the forces which maintain their concentrated poverty. I suppose he simply joins a long tradition of blaming poor people for poverty here.
3. Get the parking right.
Ah, Donald Shoup from UCLA, stop subsidising things, raise the cost of everything. It makes some sense, until you start thinking about how this will impact people differently. Then questions of equity come to the fore and it is harder for me to support without a lot more thought on how equity will be addressed in a city so car-dependent as LA. I’ve sat through Shoup’s classes, so I know that he failed to impress me on that. Still, better transit, less parking.
4. Let transit work.
I agree. If only he had stopped there, but instead he waxes poetic on improving public transit:
In some of these locations, the bus is destined remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, the poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.
If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. Or, more accurately, while certain rescue routes must remain — from the old-age home to the health center, for example — the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. Those few line should be earmarked for a higher level of service… (155)
The loser-cruiser? Yet this is in fact the current approach of transit experts, it’s why courts have found LA transit, for example, to be racist and discriminatory and put them under a decades long injunction to improve bus routes serving South Central.
In Europe public transit is seen as a right, as an essential part of a city for ALL of its residents. I think it might be better to start there. There is also, of course, a long tradition of work around environmental justice in the US around improving cities that begins there as well.
We return to planning for property value rather than public good. On Bus Rapid Transit versus trains:
… the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if transit might leave? (157)
I don’t even have words for that sentence, and the pathologies of development it describes.
THE SAFE WALK
5. Protect the pedestrian.
6. Welcome bikes.
I’m all for protecting pedestrians and welcoming bikes, but yet again, we see planning for profit:
In contrast to widened roads and other highway “improvements,” new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate. (194)
THE COMFORTABLE WALK
7. Shape the spaces.
I did like this:
Traditional, walkable urbanism is grounded in figural space. It believes that the shape of the spaces between buildings is what matters, because this is the public realm — the place where civic life plays out. (216)
8. Plant trees.
THE INTERESTING WALK
9. Make friendly and unique faces.
Not faces of diversity and enjoyment of space, faces of buildings and parking structures. Again, back to profits, though I have no objection at all to less parking, and what parking exists to be hidden:
Enlightened developers…know that hidden parking boosts retail sales and property values. (238)
10. Pick your winners.
I like this list. My critique is really a critique of an entire point of view that makes improving property values the goal of planning. In that sense, this book did manage to give an outline of how to create a walkable city, but also highlighted very different ideas of who the city is for, and where the interventions will do most to push out and displace current residents without a larger vision and planning process around justice and equity.
For more on building social spaces and better cities…
The entrance to the Biosphere II…
I remember this from my childhood, the great experiment to see if we could inhabit space under domes, live completely contained lives under glass. The great (although flawed) experiment here, here! Just outside of Tucson!
They couldn’t do it the way we hoped, the way I had read about in those Daw paperback novels with the yellow spines and the library’s mark of the atom, but the Biosphere II experiments taught so much…I remember the faces of the eight scientists who lived here for two years as seen through this glass. Way back between 1991 and 1993, way back.
I also remember them being a bit too celebrity-like, especially the women, looking at this picture I can see why I might have thought so.
Yet all these years and I had never managed to visit — I even drove all the way up here once with my friend Samantha, but it was too expensive. Worth it? Yes, but too expensive when we just didn’t have the money. Too many things are that way in this country, rather damaging to many of the potential scientists out there. But I digress.
I confess I wasn’t too impressed by the presence of a lawn in a place studying sustainability, but I love the futuristic style.
It’s at it’s busiest between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, so we were able to walk through at our own pace rather than on the tour. I’m sure we missed some things that way, but I think I might have preferred it, we had more ability to avoid other people. Best of all, we were able to climb up to the higher dome that served the original inhabitants as library — until they no longer had the calories and the oxygen to make it up the stairs. They are some stairs, I hate how much I can feel the altitude now when I come home:
The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:
Looking over the new soil experiments (called the Landscape Evolution Observatory) where the old agricultural section used to be, the desert pyramid, one of the lungs:
A sense of the inside:
Back down a floor to the original crew quarters, it now hosts some awesome exhibits — a crazy mix up of science, science fiction books and film, casts and models and stamps. They include methane ice worms, the flower shaped ecopolis sitting sustainably (perhaps) on the ocean. But first one of my favourite things — the Lunar Greenhouse Habitat.
Another experiment with a closed system (much smaller — much of the Biosphere’s appeal is just the scale at which the experiment was conducted), growing plants using hydroponic systems on carbon dioxide from human waste and respiration, along with other inputs from composting, harvesting and other waste. Very cool. The plants they are growing here? Cow peas, lettuce, sweet potatoes and basil, with a recent decision to include strawberries (these are from NASA’s approved list, for more from NASA on space gardening, go here).
Humans have been thinking about this for a while, though I think if flights of imagination in fiction were allowed, this timeline might stretch back much further than 1960 — I shall have to look into that.
They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:
The Soviet space stamps (made me all nostalgic for one of my favourite exhibitions of all time, on Soviet Cosmonauts in London’s Science Museum)
Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:
A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’
I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves
‘We are not gardeners’ said one of the employees in the rainforest dome. The first experiments were to see how much could be grown, how to keep things alive. Now they watch to see what dies and what survives, attempting to trace the complexities of ecosystems by leaving things alone unless they threaten the structural stability of glass and metal.
I don’t know if I could do that, I love gardens. I also loved walking in the belly of the beast, seeing how things worked underneath in the service tunnels — somehow this is where it felt most spectacular, came most alive in giving a sense of what it would be like to live and work in such a domed world.
Here we experienced sudden immense blasts of wind:
More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):
The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:
The lungs from outside:
There was an awesome, if small, display on the Arab falaj, or irrigation system, that works much like acequias (I think this is some of the heritage that Spanish settlers brought with them to the Southwest if I am not mistaken). Ingenious in their engineering, they also define town planning, with the Mosque closest to the water source to ensure the water’s purity.
The last stop is at the ocean section, where they tried to create a coral reef and failed quite spectacularly. I think, above all, this huge structure of overwhelming aspiration has taught us a great deal of humility. My favourite story — octopi (I prefer this to octopuses, say what you will) had smuggled themselves into Biosphere II hidden in the coral, and emerged to hunt at night. It took some time before staff realised why the other inhabitants of the ocean habitat were disappearing. Algae has essentially now taken over — this bears some relation to the actual situation of our reefs — and these bare rocks and scummy windows stand as a reminder of how we have no idea to recreate all the things we destroy.
We are very far from any possibility of survival on another planet. Best we take care of this one — Biosphere I — and so it is scary to me that the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were rarely mentioned here in either videos or displays, though they serve as a focus for all of the research. It showed just what scientists have to do in the face of denial from the highest levels, and that’s only going to get worse.
Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.
Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.
I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:
These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces
But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.
It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…
And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:
Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.
These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .
I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.
This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.
I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:
There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…
Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:
Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.
More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:
Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.
Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.
Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl
There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.
I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.
I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.
A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.
George Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.
I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.
Species of Space
It opens with this:
In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.
In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)
There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.
This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…
Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)
I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.
Perec gives us this, a gift:
Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.
An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)
Is this partly what I love about writing?
From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.
A few other banalities:
We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)
Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:
What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …
Placid small thought no 1
Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)
That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?
From there to the apartment.
I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)
The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’
I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:
Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)
From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.
The final section:
We don’t think enough about staircases.
Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)
I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.
We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.
The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)
I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.
He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)
On to the neighbourhood.
Death of a Neighbourhood
What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)
A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:
Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)
On to the Town. On to the countryside.
I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.
For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)
That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.
On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.
In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes
And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)
And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.
Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:
The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad
The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters
The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated
The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors
The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships
The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms
factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)
Followed by another disquieting paragraph
Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)
Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.
In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are
‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.
an autobiographical order (141)
The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….
the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)
Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!). There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a friendship across years and miles.
A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.
From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:
In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)
He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.
To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)
A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.
Question your tea spoons. (210)
He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.
A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.
A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.
All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.
I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.
[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]
I love that LA is one of the case studies in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see his broader arguments in parts 1 and 2). It was almost disconcerting realising that this was written in 1960, when LA was such a different place. Bunker Hill still there, Pershing Square still a proper landscaped square not a barely functional ugly unwelcoming space covering a parking lot. But this is also a city I know very well through personal experience and study, so could bring both to bear, and this offered a good perspective on the limitations of the book.
This description of (white, professional) views of downtown are also startling:
The general image is remarkable for its emptiness east of Main or Los Angeles Streets, and south of 7th Street, except for the extension of the repeating grid. The central area is set in a vacuum. This L-shaped center is liberally sprinkled with remembered landmarks, chief of them being the Statler and Biltmore Hotels… But only two landmarks were described in any concrete detail: the ugly, black and gold Richfield Building and the pyramided top of the City Hall (35).
Wow — first, city hall makes sense but the Statler Hotel? Not a landmark I would have given, and one now torn down (for the story, see the great blog from Paradise Leased).
Second, the Richfield Building ugly? I confess I didn’t actually know this as the Richfield Building, but I did know the building itself and quite love it:
Third…this is such a white view of downtown LA — as Lynch himself shows later. So to look at the white map of downtown LA:
In describing the areas, Lynch writes:
Bunker Hill is not as strong an image, despite its historical connotations, and quite a few felt that it was “not in the downtown area.” Indeed, it is surprising how the core, in bending around this major topographic feature, has succeeded in visually burying it (36).
I suppose that made it much easier for them to tear it down, that and the way it was full of poor people and people of color, which as later findings on LA seem to show means such areas are erased from mental maps of those in power. I am still mourning Bunker Hill.
Then there is the shock of Pershing Square being a decent public space….though given his list of its uses, it’s very clear why the city council should have destroyed it.
Pershing Square is consistently the strongest element of all: an exotically landscaped open space in the heart of downtown, reinforced by its use as an outdoor political forum, camp meeting, and old people’s rest. (36-37)
So now we get to why I should bring race into things (if you were not already on board with that and wondering):
Broadway was perhaps the only path which was unmistakable for all…Although conceded to be the core, if anything is, yet Broadway was not a shopping area for most of these middle-class persons. Its walks are crowded with the ethnic minorities and lower-income groups who living quarters ring the central section. the subjects interviewed regarded this linear core as an alien one, looking at it with varying degrees of avoidance, curiosity, or fear. They were quick to describe the status differences between the Broadway crowds, and those to be seen on 7th Street, which, if not elite, is at least a middle-class shopping street. (38)
Yes, Lynch did, in fact, only interview professional white folks working in the downtown core. It is the ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘lower-income groups’ whose living quarters form the ’emptiness’ of the white maps, their streets the ‘no-go’ areas. This is a vision of the ‘other’ with a vengeance, the alien. It is not one that is taken up or questioned. It is just left there. Broadway is highlighted as a landmark mostly because it was the corridor for street cars rather than buses — streetcars! The destruction of public transportation networks and fear generated through racism…a pretty good explanation of what happened to LA.
What is curious, though, is that even for these white respondents fearful of Broadway, Olvera Street was special. That surprised me, but perhaps its mixture of genuine history and culture with a facade of touristy Mexican-ness rendered it palatable. Lynch writes of the courtyard at its South end:
Not only is this small spot visually very distinct, but it is the only true historical anchor-point in the city and seems to generate a fierce attachment (39).
When asked to describe or symbolize the city as a whole, the subjects used certain standard words: “spread-out,” “spacious,” “formless,” “without centers.” Los Angeles seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole. An endless spread, which may carry pleasant connotations of space around the dwellings, or overtones of weariness and disorientation, was the common image. Said one subject: “It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all. (40-41)
This note on trying to find something to hold on to is interesting.
Another frequent theme was that of relative age. Perhaps because so much of the environment is new or changing, there was evidence of widespread, almost pathological, attachment to anything that had survived the upheaval.
Yet they kept tearing things down. Bunker Hill was just about to go…Another thing I am so sad I never saw:
In Los Angeles, on 7th Street at the corner of Flower Street, is an old, two-story gray wooden building, set back some ten feet from the building line, containing a few minor shops. This took the attention and fancy of a surprising number of people. One even anthropomorphized it as the “little gray lady.” (81)
In Los Angeles there is an impression that the fluidity of the environment and absence of physical elements which anchor to the past are exciting and disturbing. Many descriptions of the scene by established residents, young or old, were accompanied by ghosts of what used to be there. Changes, such as those wrought by the freeway system, have left scars on the mental image. (45)
LA as a city of ghosts.
In looking at the specifics of how the city space works, Lynch writes:
…more abrupt directional shifts may enhance visual clarity by limiting the spatial corridor… one was prevented from sensing the vacuum in which central Los Angeles is placed by the grid shifts which close off the outward view. (56)
Once again, let us remember that the ‘vacuum’ consists of the homes and neighbourhoods of poor people and people of colour. Maybe I shouldn’t be, yet I remain astonished at the lack of self-reflexivity in these statements. The degree to which the book and this kind of scholarship is rendered shoddy by a lack of questioning such constructions, and the reality that as part of a privileged group, Lynch is completely unable to see, much less understand, how other groups move through and understand the city he is studying. To end with perhaps one of the most insightful points Lynch makes (without quite realising it I think):
The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)
More on building social spaces…
and even more…
Where the first part of The Image of the City looks at the big picture of how and why human beings need to be able to read their cities, and how they find their way through them, Kevin Lynch in Chapter III goes on to the nitty gritty, as he analyses physical, perceptible objects and their relation to imageability. Lynch classifies these into five types of elements:
Paths: … the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves… For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image.
Edges: …the linear elements not used or considered as paths… the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts… some edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related…
Districts: …the medium-to-large sectiosn of the city, conceived of as having two-dimensional extent, which the observer mentally enters “inside-of,” and which are recognizable as having some common, identifying character.
Nodes: … points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter … they may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another. Or the ndoes may be simply concentrations… a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. (47)
Landmarks: …another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external (48).
The visual drawings of each can be found in the margins (I quite love the use of the margins in this book, they make reading this unique to most books on cities)
More on how these all work:
These elements are simply the raw material of the environmental image at the city scale. They must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form. (83)
And this…oh this is an aside for Lynch, but opens up so much in terms of how people move through space and those boundary lines of race, class, age…so much.
The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)
I loved this about the various maps that people drew, how the progression of physical things didn’t change even if they experienced them in very different ways:
However distorted, there was a strong element of topological invariance with respect to reality. it was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretched or compressed, large forms so changed from their accurate scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable. But the sequence was usually correct, the map was rarely torn and sewn back together in another order. (87)
That would be so interesting to dig more deeply into, understand how individual relationships to the city and its various communities might impact these maps.
The larger goal that Lynch is attempting to reach with this work:
We have the opportunity of forming our new city world into an imageable landscape: visible, coherent, and clear. It will require a new attitude on the part of the city dweller, and a physical reshaping of his domain into forms which entrance the eye, which organize themselves from level to level in time and space, which can stand as symbols for urban life. (91)
The common hopes and pleasure, the sense of community may be made flesh. Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a place, remarkable and unmistakable. (92)
It is interesting to think about how the ‘sense of community may be made flesh’, how by organizing an environment and providing clear markers in it, people’s quality of life and relationships might also be transformed.
To continue on to how one might actually plan for this, beginning with the improvement of paths, which are
the most potent means by which the whole can be ordered. The key lines should have some singular quality which marks them off from the surrounding channels: a concentration of some special use or activity along their margins, a characteristic spatial quality, a secial texture of floor or facade, a particular lighting pattern, a unique set of smells or sounds, a typical detail or mode of planting. (96)
Methods might include emphasizing nature of street to get somewhere with perspective, using a gradient and then there is this:
Where the journey contains such a series of distinct events, a reaching and passing of one sub-goal after another, the trip itself takes on meaning and becomes an experience in its own right. (97)
I think he captures the joy brought by traversing certain streets fairly well here. I particularly love the analogy with music he brings to bear:
There is a final way of organizing a path or set of paths … It might be called “melodic” in analogy to music. The events and characteristics along the path–landmarks, space changes, dynamic sensations–might be organized as a melodic line, perceived and imaged as a form which is experienced over a substantial time interval. (99)
On nodes he writes, that they are
the conceptual anchor points in our cities. Rarely in the United States, however, do they have a form adequate to support this attention… (102)
They need to be places, with some defining characteristics. So on to his list (yay lists) of qualities of urban design that create successful places:
Singularity or figure-background clarity: sharpness of boundary…closure…contrast
Form Simplicity: …in the geometrical sense (105)
Continuity: continuance of an edge or surface … nearness of parts (as in a cluster fo buildings); repetition of rhythmic interval … similarity, analogy, or harmony of surface…
Dominance: …of one part over others by means of size, intensity, or interest
Clarity of Joint: … high visibility of joints and seams… clear relation and interconnection
Directional Differentiation: asymmetries, gradients, and radial differences which differentiate one end from another…
Visual Scope: qualities which increase the range and penetration of vision…transparencies…overlaps… vistas and panoramas… articulating elements… (106)
Motion awareness: the qualities which make sensible to the observer…his own actual or potential motion…
Time Series: series which are sensed over time … or truly structured in time and thus melodic in nature (107)
Names and Meanings: non-physical characteristics which may enhance the imageability of an element.
Below are the visuals corresponding to the first 7 of these elements, to be read down the left side and then down the right:
Kevin Lynch continues:
In discussing design by element types, there is a tendency to skim over the interrelation of the parts into a whole. in such a whole, paths would expose and prepare for the districts, and link together the various nodes. The nodes would joint and mark off the paths, while the edges would bound off the districts, and the landmarks would indicate their cores. It is the total orchestration of these unites which would knit together a dense and vivid image, and sustain it over areas of metropolitan scale. (108)
A good reminder, one often forgotten. Ultimately, he argues
…the function of a good visual environment may not be simply to facilitate routine trips, nor to support meanings and feelings already possessed. Quite as important may be its role as a guide and a stimulus for new exploration. In a complex society, there are many interactions to be mastered. in a democracy, we deplore isolation, extol individual development, hope for ever-widening communication between groups. If an environment has a strong visible framework and highly characteristic parts, then exploration of new sectors is both easier and more inviting. if strategic links in communication (such as museums or libraries or meeting places) are clearly set forth, then those who might otherwise neglect them may be tempted to enter. (110)
This aspect of planning and urban design is coming to the fore now, I think, which is really something to celebrate. Like Lynch, however, many of those writing don’t really pay much attention to power, capital, inequalities, racism and fear … those tricky things. So these remain ideals, potentialities opened up though with little sense of how to make them reality. Lynch does, however, note how the city is full of many very different people, and so its designers have to create places that allow for wide differences in how people organize their city. I do love, for all my critique, that Lynch’s principal solution is that designers must provide their cities richly with the different imageable elements that people can organize according to their wishes. Can’t be too specialized or orchestrated, you don’t want people to feel that one path dominates, multiple paths and adventures must be left open.
He ends with idea that not only do planners need to build more eligible cities, but also that people need to be taught to read them better, to really see them. He advocates programs
teaching him to look at his city, to observe its manifold forms and how they mesh with one another. Citizens could be taken into the street, classes could be held in the schools and universities, the city could be made an animated museum of our society and its hopes. (117)
Something about this section strikes me as rather patronising in its wording, yet I love the idea, and particularly love thinking about how the city might in fact be an animated museum of our society and its hopes. People should think about their cities, it is an important part of having more power over them.
Two final notes of interest, first, this almost throwaway comment on the underground:
The subway is a disconnected nether world, and it is intriguing to speculate what means might be used to mesh it into the structure of the whole. (57)
The increasing size of our metropolitan areas and the speed with which we traverse them raise many new problems for perception. (112)
I think it has, it does. He doesn’t get into the ways cities have been built for cars, but that is clearly inimical to the kind of planning and design he is thinking about.
One final post on LA specifically, a little more discussion of class and race, and on to the next book from my reading list:
and for even more on building city spaces…