Category Archives: Building Social Spaces

The Urban and non-Urban Delights of Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth is quite wonderful in terms of the interesting, the beautiful, the strange. Its cult 60s upper floor brutalist diner.

Aberystwyth

Its interior decoration.

Aberystwyth

Its basement of books.

Aberystwyth

Its splendour of shop windows.

Aberystwyth

Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.

Aberystwyth

Its gangsters or the sweeney or the owners of the funicular railway?

Aberystwyth

The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura

Aberystwyth

The view heading back down on the funicular railway:

Aberystwyth

A genuine welsh choir

Aberystwyth

A site of the first protest for the survival and revival  of the Welsh language.

Aberystwyth

The city itself charms, it is amazing the difference paint makes to pebbledash, which I can never find other than utterly grim when left unpainted. I care not how it weathers rain. The streets wind, open up on new vistas. There are a scattering of large stone buildings, some old beamed things. This old pub still has this small area in front of it expanding the public space of the street — once common here, or so the plaque says. Such a brilliant space.

Aberystwyth

And again I am reminded the importance of paint, but also the bow windows and the variegated surface, the light and shadow and interest this creates.

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

Beyond the castle rises Pen Dinas Hill Fort, built around 400 BC. Every town should have one of these. As we climbed, we were also able to look down on preparations for a day of horse racing. And we met the loveliest dog.

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Oslo Streets

Oslo is a lovely city, a wonderful city to wander — we didn’t realise how big it was until we took the ferry out to the Viking ship museum (zomg the viking ship museum, amazing), but it feels human size, liveable. I think partly it is because only a short walk from the center you reach areas where you find things like this:

Oslo

I’ve not been to a city with quite this shape — a yard or second road and houses tucked in behind them. It creates variety, interest, surprise — all the things Cullen and Alexander described as key to an interesting human environment. The above picture isn’t the most picturesque, but the only shot that managed to capture some of the contrasts, and just how cool a space this is.

Then there are the old streets of wooden houses. But I have already sung their praises.

There are balconies that seem well used, cafes spilling out onto sidewalks, coloured lights and tables and chairs inviting you to enjoy any summer evenings you can manage. Lots of street furniture too, in pallet style though I am fairly certain that is not cheap pallet wood upcycled.

It is also almost all mixed use and plenty of small shops, like this fruit and veg vendor protecting his wares by a small sacrifice to the birds. There are parks and green spaces all over.

Oslo

There is a museum dedicated to Labour — we walked up the Akerselva to the old working class neighbourhoods to get there (I confess, they don’t really feel working class any more).

Oslo

Lots of cobbled streets still. I love them, though I love them more since I stopped wearing heels.

The museum itself is small, nice, not quite enough about Labour and a little too even handed in describing the workings of capital, but we’re biased. It was worth a visit, and had we not gone we would have missed these splendid waterfalls in their entirety. They appeared nowhere in my admittedly quick search for weird and wonderful things to see — that turned up the mini bottle museum (closed), but not this beauty?

Oslo -- Akerselva River

This was the centre of Oslo’s industry, the museum had an exhibition on of paintings of the Aker. These waterfalls once powered sawmills, later textile factories. A vision of it as it once was below:

Oslo -- Akerselva River

Heading out towards the Munch Museum we passed what felt more like the current environs of the working class. Nice, I love these balconies, with their built in window boxes.

Oslo

There is street art everywhere, here off of Tøyengata we found a beauty, along with an impressive diversity and some old buildings and cracked walls and lots of tags and stores that sell everything with brand names you don’t recognise that made me feel right at home.

Oslo

Perhaps what I loved best was how massive luxurious modernity was squished into its own small section — though modern building is spread through out the city. This ‘landmark area’ still felt more vibrant and interesting than say Salford Quays (though we didn’t venture in), but they’ve actually done very interesting things with long narrow buildings lines all up in a row. I like them confined this way.

Oslo

With wonderful plazas, a parade for each day we were there, some of the best public art I’ve seen as well as awesome (often anti-fascist) graffiti and stickers, I enjoyed Oslo immensely, despite the rain. Just reminded us of home I suppose.

Oslo

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Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s vision of Social Capital

Putnam Bowling AloneRobert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) is the great classic of social capital, referred to in almost everything that is dealing with community and connection.

Everything.

Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this

1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous  threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)

So what is social capital?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)

This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:

Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)

And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.

Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)

This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:

Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)

I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.

Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:

our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.

So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:

Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)

But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:

The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.

The Great Declines

Declines in Political Participation

I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between

social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)

And Putnam does find a decline.

Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)

Declines in Civic Participation

Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):

bowling-alone-23-728(p 54)

On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)

Declining religious participation

I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.

Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)

…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)

The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)

Yep.

Informal Social Connections

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)

I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.

Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)

Despite this,

we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)

Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —

These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)

And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.

Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy

The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…

Reciprocity, Honesty & Trust

There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)

This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.

Small Groups and Social Movements

Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.

Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)

Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)

Why the Decline?

Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)

Pressures of time and money

Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.

Mobility and sprawl

First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.

Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)

A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:

Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)

Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)

He looks at commuting:

Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in  community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)

Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)

He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)

Technology and Mass Media

Television

Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)

So What? Why We Should Care

Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)

That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.

  1. social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.
  2. … greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy … everyday business and social transactions are less costly.
  3. … widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fate is linked… Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others… (288)
  4. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals.
  5. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individuals’ lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. (289)

Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)

There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.

child welfare and education:

— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)

healthy and productive neighborhoods,

Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks

economic prosperity

support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc

health and happiness

huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)

democratic citizenship and government performance

higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…

The Dark Side — Babbitry

Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?

So, social capital.

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Ground Control: Anna Minton

Ground Control by Anna Minton is a great summation and ordering of the neoliberal features of current planning and development in the UK, and how they have developed since the 1970s. It quite brilliantly gets at the main features of planning and housing policies, ordering them in ways that makes a wealth of detail comprehensible while also highlighting its egregious effects on individuals, their communities and society as a whole.

It is a pleasure to read, but not pleasant reading if you know what I mean. Nothing infuriates me more than the privatisation and destruction of housing and the constant increases in control, security and surveillance. Over and over again you see the looting of the public sector and land belonging to all of us by the private sector, facilitated by politicians and planners and academics as well. Not that academics have power, but write the kind of theory that people in power want to hear and watch that shit fly.  Above all, the promotion of profit as the highest and best use, and the purpose of government to facilitate that. So while the Olympics in East London were billed as a benefit and income generator, it turned out as we ‘cynics’ expected all along.

According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee less than 2 percent of the Olympic budget has ended up coming from the private sector. (xvii)

When things began to fall apart in the economic downturn, the Wellcome Trust made a £1 billion bid for the development to explore a more full community use for the land. They were rejected, and Minton writes:

It is amazing that despite the utter collapse of the commercial case for the Olympic development the bottom line remains the only consideration the Olympic decision makers are prepared to consider. (xix)

She describes the rise of large corporations becoming community developers, which explains why so many new builds have so little possibility of generating community. This rise of what she calls ‘Tesco towns’, where a corporation building superstores builds customer’s homes along with it through its regeneration subsidiary Spenhill. It has built homes, schools, and public places in Gateshead, Kirby , West Bromwich Bradley Stoke, Shepton mallet, Seaton, Bromley-by-Bow, Woolich, Streatham.  (xxxv)

A book in itself to explore our new company towns. But I am reminded of that book I have seen on a colleagues shelf, Tescopoly, and am resolved to steal it. Borrow it. Whatever.

Then we have the Docklands as the birth of an idea — land amassed with the support of the state and sold off (cheap) to a developer. It is no longer public but private. New ‘luxury’ residences sit under rigid control alongside bars and restaurants in gated, high-security communities.

Minton writes:

‘…every former inner-city industrial area is trying to emulate this model, from the waterfronts of Salford Quays and Cardiff to the controversial demolition programmes of the old industrial northern cities.’ (5)

God forbid, but I stare at Salford Quays and can see the truth of it for myself.

The very particular form that this has taken in this country is fascinating though, as it is quite different from the states. Beginning in the the 1980s and the rise of the quango — the Urban Development Corporation, or UDC. A very clever way for conservatives to bypass the power of local (powerful, Labour) authorities — essentially giving developers who generally dominated the UDCs power of planning & economic development, power to buy land using compulsory purchase and sell land & spend public money without debate required. Elected figures too often seemed to be a rubber stamp and an air of legitimacy, but the real teeth in planning and public processes were removed.

Thus we have the Docklands — eight and a half square miles assembled and developed with no public debate in the face of immense local opposition. It sits there today, a place that in its form goes against everything I believe quality public and city spaces — spaces that promote wellbeing, conviviality, interchange and a sense of belonging to a wider society — should be.

Minton got some great interviews, this is so telling:

In the late 1980s it was like the Yukon gold rush in the whole Docklands area. Places such as Limehouse were totally overheated and developers were building orange boxes and practically giving away  free Porsches with them. It was exciting, but it was frightening. Then the whole thing went belly up. (12)
— Bob Barlow, marketing consultant with Barratt Homes and others

In 1992 Canary Wharf Estate went bankrupt, in spite of all the public subsidy. I’ve heard Canary Wharf’s ‘success’ in generating profit billed as a success story, instead I think of just how much public taxpayer money went into building such a space for international capital and insanely wealthy individuals who have chosen to put walls and gates between themselves and the local community. There’s ExCel just down the way, I’ve written about that terribly bleak space too, just one of the spaces along the Thames that are all privately owned — like ExCel, with its exhibition centre, six hotels, 2000 homes on ‘one hundred-acre ‘campus” on the old Royal Victoria Dock.  It sits above Canning town, it’s hard to reach from the community, it makes protesting the arms fairs happening there harder. (13)

Of course that in itself is not entirely new — Minton notes the controls and the gating of the old Bedford Estate, particularly along the border with Camden (remember when Camden was full of poor people? Damn.). They:

used uniformed ex-prison officers to patrol their enclave and when a fight over entry into the area broke out, leading to a death, the coroner is recorded as saying that government conduct was “disgraceful in allowing these squares and place places to be closed to the public.” (20)

Leading to a death…unthinkable for so many years, but I think we are returning to those kinds of times once again.

Still, there is something different about what is happening now, about this huge shift in the twenty-first century towards the creation of large private estates — shopping centres and office complexes that no longer sit on public streets. A very clever way of stripping local authority assets. Much of this was made possible in 2004, when a new act of Parliament changed the definition  of ‘public benefit’ to make economic impact rather than community impact more important.

Didn’t see New Labour getting rid of that now did we.

Minton’s tells us that the best place to look for how space will be managed and run, the feel of it, is in the ‘Estate Management Strategy’. Management is all important.

“Insurers like to see developers taking as many measures as possible to avoid a claim and they’re taking an increasing interest in risk controls being put in place in developments”, Gloyn says [Bill Gloyn, chairman of European real estate at Aon]. The consequence is that the private estates are far more ‘risk averse’ than the public parts of the city. This creates a very different atmosphere and public culture, which is now at the heart of all new developments. (33)

It doesn’t matter whether your taste runs to these developments or not, Minton says (I wonder honestly who does like them, but I know I am not hanging out with people from the city):

The real problem is that because these places are not for everyone, spending too much time in them means people become unaccustomed to – and eventually very frightened of – difference. (36)

BIDs and privatisation

We move to take a look at my new home of Manchester and New Labour’s love affair here — putting this city on the cutting edge of the introduction of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and growing privatisation.

Vomitous.

Thus was the Free Trade Hall made into part of a national hotel chain and removed from public life — now I know to mourn. Picadilly Gardens the same. The centre of Manchester is run by Cityco since 2000, in the fashion of a BID though they took over before BIDs were introduced here. Like in the States (I write about them, and they are so much more in your face there), their primary interest in keeping the area ‘clean and safe’. This is entirely about customer experience and about business bottom lines, not community. At least, not about the whole community. BIDs are clearly set up for consumers, Minton quotes another BID manager:

…The whole business of BIDs is moving the problem on, either by putting homeless people in a hostel or making sure they go somewhere else. (57)

In 2002, David Blunkett as home secretary introduced the ‘wider police family’, broadening who could exercise police powers. (45) Minton writes, that the:

flipside to clean and safe is control and zero tolerance. (48)

It is the promotion of the view that people ‘doing nothing’ in a space are suspicious or dangerous. (53) The opposite of what people who actually study public spaces have shown to be true. So we come to the best quote from a Bid manager:

We probably are a bit controlling in your terms, but we want quality control… There’s a trade-off between public safety and spontaneity. What you want is a few surprises, I agree with that, so we add in unpredictability with lighting schemes and water features, anything that adds to the quirkiness of what happens when you walk around as a consumer. We make huge efforts to import vitality. (54)

It really is the best quote. It really explains why those spaces are completely dead inside. Minton notes, however, that BID’s face less opposition here, due partly to tangled nature of the partnerships involved. For example in Manchester the founding chair was from Cityco and head of Brintwood — then Manchester’s biggest property developer — and the current chair is joint chief exec of Argent, the company redeveloping Picaccadilly Place. But the council is also represented. (56)

Defending Space

In the 1970s Britain first moved towards policies on ‘defensible space’ — established by Oscar Newman whose ideas were adopted by Essex County Council in the Design Guide of 1973. They drew on lessons from 3 public housing projects in NY — I mean, really? And then over the last decade we’ve seen the government initiative ‘Secured by Design’ (62, 72), spearheaded by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 1998 as a crime-reduction project. Same as ‘Crime Prevention through Design’ or CPTED in teh States. Still blaming poor people’s behaviour for all the world’s problems and thinking punitive architecture can fix it. Still, insurance companies love it and provide lower premiums when its used, as do security agencies.

So everyone uses it. More gates. Minton describes them as a stereotype of  luxury living. God, I suppose they are, but it wasn’t always…She gives the depressing example of St George’s Hill of Digger fame, which was the first gated development in the 1920s. Is now a golf course and country club. Is now full of absurdly expensive hi-tech homes marketed at men just like other gated communities.

Renewal…

This breaks my heart more than anything, streets of row houses demolished for profit only, communities broken up. Oldham is her example. It’s infuriating and desperately sad. If a building is listed it can only be knocked down if it becomes a danger to the public — good reason to let it become so.

Again we are back to that 2004 Compulsory Purchase Act — allowed economic well-being alone as a justification for purchase and redevelopment. (93) Profit rules.

She gives the example of Wainman Street, here in Salford as one of these places identified by Brendan Nevin, academic and architect of the Pathfinder Policy to ‘restructure housing provision in some older industrial cities.’ (97) Houses were emptied out of people who wanted to live in them through the 2000s, demolished to create land for redevelopment. Pathfinder has been shown to benefit only developers who get control over wide areas of empty land and councils who get government funding for the program, no one else. Definitely not the families who want to keep their homes. New Labour ran with it.

There are, of course, the new HMOs, or Housing in Multiple Occupation: ‘bedsits with high concentrations of economic migrants… Often they clash with the poor, mainly white population…” (108)

In London almost everyone I knew lived in this kind of housing of course, but here up North it’s just coming into its own. Just one of the horrors of the Private Rented Sector. There are bad conditions:

Following the buy-to-let boom, there are now hundreds of thousands of landlords who have not had to pass any tests of competence, demonstrate any knowledge of landlord or tenent law, or prove their honesty, financial probity or absence from criminal convictions, let along have any experience of property management. (111)

There’s Right to Buy — only had impact it did because councils not allowed to reinvest money made through sales back into council housing, combined with the buy-to-let mortgage that really came into its own under New Labour– buy-to-let now makes up a third of the private rented sector. (117) This created huge added costs to councils to provide statutory duties to those who find themselves homeless. By 2005, it was common practice that many of these empty investment rental apartments were leased back to the council as temporary accommodation as they scrambled to find housing for homeless to whom they had statutory duty to house. At exorbitant prices you can be sure. More transferal of money from the public to the private sector.

The Civil Society

The impact of all of this on society can hardly be underestimated. Minton starts with the fear of crime —  looking at where it comes from, and how it increases for those living behind gates. Thus, while it ‘arises from a multitude of complex reasons, underpinned by the emotional state of the individual’,  eventually it turns on trust. Gates tend to dissolve trust, and shutter people away from identification with the larger world.  (132)

There’s a lot on ASBOs here which helped me understand them better — they are very English, emerging from the Labour government’s Antisocial Behaviour White Paper of 2003,  what a travesty. Of course this connects to broken-window theory, which I hate with a great passionate hatred.

Turns out Manchester was the ASBO capital of Britain, with Cityco particularly enthusiastic in this regard. Salford too declred a Respect Action Area…so a lot of focus on the impacts here.

Minton tells us about a mother in Salford describing how her kids can’t go into kebab shops or play on the street. There is nothing in Salford to do for youth, and pubs tend not to be open to people under 21. That shocked me, so I’ve started noticing just how many set age limits above the national ones. A number of them.

A final thought on the crux of it all

So many of today’s fractures in civil society have come about as a result of the single-minded approach to extracting the maximum profit from the places we live in, through policies on property.  (177)

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Public Art of All Kinds, NY

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

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…

New York

New York

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?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

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.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

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.

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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.

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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:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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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:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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Nothing Is Lost: Irvine, Leslie and Miller on Glasgow’s East End

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….
–Mitch Miller

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.

Nothing is Lost Nothing is Lost

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.

Chris Leslie -- Nothing is Lost Chris Leslie Nothing is LostAs Leslie describes it:

The 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.

Mitch Miller Nothing is Lost

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.

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Janette Sadik-Khan: Streetfight

Janette Sadik-Khan StreetfightIn 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.

And yet.

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:

futurama
I have seen the Future, Futurama. New York World Fair, 1939 “the world of Tomorrow”.

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:

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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

Streetfight -- Pearl Street Plaza
Pearl Street plaza in DUMBO, one of New York City Department of Transportation’s first place-changing projects, in 2007. (NYC DOT — Ryan Russo, p 81)

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).

Bike share? Very cool. Safety in numbers of pedestrians and streets that require constant attention and vigilance from those driving them? All good.

And then, the chapter title:

Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses

It opens.

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.]

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Speck on Walkable Cities — But Who Will Walk Them?

13538794Jeff Speck opens Walkable Cities with this:

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)

and then

…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…

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Biosphere II

The entrance to the Biosphere II…

Biosphere 2

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.

Biosphere 2

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:

Biosphere 2

The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:

Biosphere 2

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:

Biosphere 2

A sense of the inside:

Biosphere 2

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.

Biosphere 2Another 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).

Biosphere 2

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.

Any such garden would almost certainly have to be buried underground — I love how much thought has already gone into what would be required to live on the Moon, or Mars.

They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:

Biosphere 2

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)

Biosphere 2

Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:

Biosphere 2

A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

‘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:

Biosphere 2

More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:

Biosphere 2

The lungs from outside:

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

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.

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