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The 10+ Pathologies of Le Corbusier

A TOWN is a tool.

Towns no longer fulfil this function. They are ineffectual; they use up our bodies, they thwart our souls.

The lack of order to be found everywhere in them offends us; their degradation wounds our self-esteem and humiliates our sense of dignity.

They are not worthy of the age; they are no longer worthy of us. (Prologue – xxi)

Le CorbusierI should have read Le Corbusier (1887-1965) long ago. I thought I knew more or less what he was about, but not at all. Not until I read his words did I understand just how fiercely he declared war against most of what I love about cities, just how pathological a paradigm he created. I see him, now, in all of the great horrible, alien city centres I have known built upon destruction. David Harvey and Neil Smith argue rightly I think, that capitalism needs to constantly tear down and rebuild to keep expanding, so Le Corbusier can’t get all of the credit or blame. But I think his writings shaped urban renewal and regeneration in very fundamental ways, coming when they did, perfectly and emphatically justifying the destruction of all that had come before to build anew. Idealism perfectly suited to profit.

In this I think he is much like Friedman and Hayek (this trio together almost makes me like Hayek), creators of theory and ideology perfectly suited to justify the needs of capital expansion and the dubious moral and technical ground of business men. Thus cast aloft as victorious.

This is true of Le Corbusier, despite the fact he was the product of a slightly earlier age:

I think back twenty years, when I was a student; the road belonged to us then; we sang in it and argued in it, while the horse-‘bus swept calmly along…

— or perhaps that explains everything, perhaps because he was imagining something not yet seen and the pathologies are much more obvious to modern eyes. Except that planners still seem to mobilise many of them. I have tried here to summarise what I think they are, here are the 10 pathologies unrolled in Planning the City of Tomorrow (with two other revealing points):

1. Men are the pitiless masters of the pitiless universe.

Not the rapture of the shining coachwork under the gleaming lights, but the rapture of power. The simple and ingenuous pleasure of being in the centre of so much power, so much speed. We are a part of it. We are part of that race whose dawn is just awakening. We have confidence in this new society, which will in the end arrive at a magnificent expression of its power. We believe in it.

Its power is like a torrent swollen by storms; a destructive fury. The city is crumbling, it cannot last much longer; its time is past. It is too old. The torrent can no longer keep to its bed. It is a kind of cataclysm. It is something abnormal, and the disequilibrium grows day by day. (xxiii)

Natural forces, torrents and storms, power and more power, rahr.

My scheme is brutal, because town existence and life itself are brutal: life is pitiless, it must defend itself, hemmed in as it is on all sides by death. to overcome death, constant activity is necessary. (298)

Our cities themselves are in a struggle to the death:

And these great cities challenge one another, for the mad urge for supremacy is the very law of evolution itself to which we are subjected. (87-88)

2. Where the past is not quite dead, we must kill it. Gloriously.

Decorative art is dead. Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture. By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past. (xxv)

In these cases the only right of individual sensibility is to embody the collective will…a mathematical medium which must be deeply important to us, since it provides for the multitude a single outlook and a unanimous sensibility. With a cold and clear accountancy the + and — of an epoch are established. A way of thinking, of general application, arises. (52)

Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs. The great task incumbent on us is that of making a proper environment for our existence, and clearing away from our cities the dead bones that putrefy in them. We must construct cities for to-day. (244)

3. All the things must be straight:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.

He has this whole things about ‘The pack-donkey’s way and man’s way’, the wandering, idiotic path taken by the pack-donkey which defines our towns. He has a go at Camille Sitte — what he calls ‘a most wilful piece of work’ in its celebration of the picturesque and the curved line.

The circulation of traffic demands the straight line; it is the proper thing for the heart of the city. The curve is ruinous, difficult, dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing.

The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.

We must have the courage to view the rectilinear cities of America with admiration. (10)

He continues, drawing interesting political parallels between the political and the material:

The winding road is the result of happy-go-lucky heedlessness, of looseness, lack of concentration and animality.

The straight road is a reaction, an action, a positive deed, the result of self-mastery. It is sane and noble.

What becomes of a heedless people and their winding roads?

It is in this way that cities sink to nothing and that ruling classes are overthrown. (12)

It’s true that those on the other side of this battle tend to champion curves, variety, mystery, and all too often urban revolution. May we heedless people win in the end.

Check out this definition of culture as well, I think this is still operating in many a mindset actually, it is helpful to see it written down, to see it tied to a physical manifestation such as a straight line, a straight road:

Cities can be seen emerging from the jumble of their streets, striving towards straight lines, and taking them as far as possible. When man begins to draw straight lines he bears witness that he has gained control of himself and that he has reached a condition of order. Culture is an orthogonal state of mind. Straight lines are not deliberately created. They are arrived at when man is strong enough, determined enough, sufficiently equipped and sufficiently enlightened to desire and to be able to trace straight lines.  (37)

4. We Must Have Order and Exactness — all the Rest is Terror.

Whereas in walking through a city our minds can estimate the value or the uselessness of the suggested general development in the future, and can appreciate a co-ordinated and noble plan, our eyes, on the contrary…can only see cell after cell; and the sight of these provides a jagged, loose, diversified, multiplied and nerve-wracking spectacle; the sky is seen against a ragged outline and each house suggests, even by its very shape, some different order of thing. …

This is the critical point to which our analysis of the city brings us; the spectacle of individualism run riot, fatal and inevitable. A weariness arising out of chaos! There is, and there will be, no common standard until such time as a new age of discipline, wisdom and unanimity in the sphere of art, is born. (71)

It is almost impossible for me to find an ounce of empathy with this viewpoint. I feel it borders on actual pathology, obsessive-compulsive and horrifying. I cannot imagine viewing the world through this lens that fears everything I love:

The house, the street, the town, are points to which human energy is directed: they should be ordered, otherwise they counteract the fundamental principles round which we revolve; if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us, they thwart us, as the nature all around us thwarts us, though we have striven with it, and with it begin each day a new struggle. (15)

When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.

Order is indispensable to him, otherwise his actions would be without coherences and could lead nowhere. (22)

But the details of this development [of the city] involve the growth of individual cells (houses), each of which is an individual thing; this tends to a lack of coherence, and is a grave menace. (70)

This is life and death stuff to him, and only order can save us:

We struggle against chance, against disorder, against a policy of drift and against the idleness which brings death; we strive for order, which can be achieved only by appealing to what is the fundamental basis on which our minds can work: geometry. (93)

Especially regarding Paris, I don’t think he cares much for individual human beings:

Paris is a dangerous magma of human beings gathered from every quarter by conquest, growth and immigration; she is the eternal gipsy encampment from all the world’s great roads; Paris is the seat of a power and the home of a spirit which could enlighten the world; she digs and hacks through her undergrowth, and out of these evils she is tending towards an ordered system of straight lines and right angles; this reorganization is necessary to her vitality, health and permanence; this clearing process is indispensable to the expression of her spirit, which is fundamentally limpid and beautiful. (25)

and New York, he really hates New York:

New York is exciting and upsetting. So are the Alps; so is a tempest; so is a battle. New York is not beautiful, and if it stimulates our practical activities, it also wounds our sense of happiness. (60)

5. Geometry contains the only soul we have

…we shall come to consider as more important than the mechanism of the city, what we may call the soul of the city. The soul of the city is that part of which is of no value from the practical side of existence: it is, quite simply, its poetry, a feeling which in itself is absolute, though it is so definitely a part of ourselves. (58)

The power of Le Corbusier is here perhaps, the truth that there is indeed a poetry to geometry and clean lines.

The forms we are discussing are the eternal forms of pure geometry and these will enshrine in a rhythm which will in the end be our own, going far beyond the confines of formulae and charged with poetry, the implacable mechanism which will pulsate within it. (65)

6. Speed, we need more speed.

A city made for speed is made for success. (epigraph chapter XII)

Roads are not meant to connect people, as Cullen argues, but to separate them, to provide space for infrastructure and to facilitate the movement of cars:

The modern street in the true sense of the word is a new type of organism, a sort of stretched out workshop, a home for many complicated and delicate organs, such as gas, water and electric mains. (167)

And while he likes high speed trains connecting one city to another, Le Corbusier really hates the idea of public transportation on other scales:

The tramway has no right to exist in the heart of the modern city. (169)

7. We must rebuild the centre — but first, we must destroy

The centres of our towns are in a state of mortal sickness, their boundaries are gnawed at as though by vermin.

His words stand alone really, and my heart mourns the empty and soulless centres of too many cities, razed to the ground and recreated along these lines.

How to create a zone free for development is the second problem of town planning.

Therefore my settled opinion, which is quite a dispassionate one, is that the centres of our great cities must be pulled down and rebuilt, and that the wretched existing belts of suburbs must be abolished and carried further out… (96)

BUSINESS INEVITABLY GRAVITATES TOWARDS THE CENTRES OF GREAT CITIES (114 – yes, those are his capital letters yelling at you in the greatest factual error of the century)

Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.

WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE. The city of to-day is dying because it is not constructed geometrically. To build on a clear site is to replace the “accidental” lay-out of the ground, the only one that exists to-day, by the formal lay-out. Otherwise nothing can save us. And the consequence of geometrical plans is Repetition and Mass-production. (220)

8. Scientists can know everything, plan everything, see everything, and solve everything.

Statistics are the Pegasus of the town planner. They are tedious things, meticulous, passionless and impassive. All the same they are a jumping-off ground for poetry…(107)

I understand, now Cullen’s rant about statistics.

Science has given us the machine. The machine gives us unlimited power. And we in our turn can perform miracles by its means. (150)

… no one is going to make a politician out of me.

Economic and social progress can only be the result of technical problems which have found a proper solution.  (301)

9. We don’t need skilled craftsmen, we have mass production.

The mason dates…from time immemorial! He bangs away with feet and hammer. He smashes up everything round him, and the plant entrusted to him falls to pieces in a few months. The spirit of the mason must be disciplined by making him part of the severe and exact machinery of the industrialized builder’s yard. (176)

Down with skilled craftsmen and pleasure in workmanship and individuality in anything.

10. The best planners are regal, imperious and infinitely powerful, while democracy is just crazy and dangerous

And finally, that magnificent legacy left by a monarch to his people: the work of Haussmann under Napoleon III.

In order that our enthusiasm may not be tainted with cowardice and that possible support may be emboldened, it is essential, if we are to make a strong assault on compromise and democratic stagnation, to describe clearly the equipment which our forerunners have bequeathed us. (141)

The final plate of the book is a painting: ‘Louis XIV Commanding the Building of the Invalides’, its caption: Homage to a great town planner.

This despot conceived immense projects and realized them. Over all the country his noble works still fill us with admiration. He was capable of saying, “We wish it,” or “Such is our pleasure.”

Servants are Always Sulking

Nothing says more than Le Corbusiers addressing his reader as one of a class that has servants as a matter of course — this helps explain his views on democracy.

And once we get on to the subject of servants, we begin to see ho really free we are! One day a week we have to do for ourselves. If you like company of an evening, your servants sulk and there is domestic crisis. …

As for food, you maid goes to the local store and wastes a lot of time, and everything is very expensive. (214)

He goes on to talk about sulky servants coming on night shift, sulky servants asked to do a little extra polishing…sulky servants everywhere, except I am not quite sure where they are supposed to live.

What an opportunity for Capital!

He admits he is no good at sums, and no economist volunteered for the job of costing this out, but

The moral is that we must not say, “but . . . what immense sums would have to be sunk in all this expropriation and reconstruction,” but rather, “What an opportunity for capital for almost incredible amounts would be created by such an attempt at revaluation!” (295)

That about sums up one of the principal reasons this kind of thinking and this version of planning has become so ubiquitous. It also deeply disturbs me just how well this discourse sits alongside and uses so many of the same clusters of ideas as those of white supremacy, colonial mastery, misogyny and many another evil. They all seem to spring from the same well.

You put all of this together, and what do you get as the ideal town?

Le CorbusierLe Corbusier Le Corbusier Le Corbusier

His attempt to find soul and poetry through an architecture of mastery here create the landscape of my greatest fears, and one with elements that are eerily too familiar.

We shall leave the last word with Ivan Chtcheglov then, one of the situationists who took up this gauntlet and fought this concept of space to the death:

We leave to monsieur Le Corbusier his style that suits factories as well as it does hospitals. And the prisons of the future: is he not already building churches? I do not know what this individual–ugly of countenance and hideous in his conceptions of the world–is repressing to make him want thus to crush humanity under ignoble heaps of reinforced concrete, a noble material that ought to permit an aerial articulation of space superior to Flamboyant Gothic. His power of cretinization is vast. A model by Corbusier is the only image that brings to my mind the idea of immediate suicide. With him moreover and remaining joy will fade. And love–passion–liberty. (35)
‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ Gilles Ivain (aka Ivan Chtcheglov) Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958)

Gordon Cullen’s Concise Townscape

Gordon Cullen's TownscapeThis is a wonderful description of the components that make cities and towns work, from a point of view that celebrates urban life rather than fears it.

It makes you realise just how much written about the city is a literature of fear. But Cullen seems to get the point, I think:

A city is more than the sum of its inhabitants. It has the power to generate a surplus of amenity, which is one reason why people like to live in communities rather than in isolation.

Now turn to the visual impact which a city has on those who live in it or visit it. I wish to show that an argument parallel to the one put forward above holds good for buildings: bring people together and they create a collective surplus of enjoyment; bring buildings together and collectively they can give visual pleasure which none can give separately. (7)

This is the city as collective enterprise, a collective that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Like Capra’s theories of connection, a city is not just a collection of discrete things like streets and buildings, but rather embodies the art of relationship: how things fit together, the spaces created between them, how people use and live in buildings, but also move between them.

Gordon Cullen describes three primary ways in which our environment produces an emotional reaction key to the planner or architect:

I. Optics — how we see the environment: I love his description of serial vision — how the town reveals itself in ‘a series of jerks or revelations’, always negotiating the existing view and the emerging view. I love how he cinematically pieces the city together as we move through it, he writes:

Suppose, however, that we take over this linking as a branch of the art of relationship; then we are finding a tool with which human imagination can begin to mould the city into a coherent drama. (9)

II. Place – how we find and feel ourselves within the environment:

it is an instinctive and continuous habit of the body to relate itself to the environment, this sense of position cannot be ignored; it becomes a factor in the design of the environment…

it is easy to see how the whole city becomes a plastic experience, a journey through pressures and vacuums, a sequence of exposures and enclosures, of constraint and relief. (10)

And there is always a ‘here’, where you are, and a ‘there’, it is fascinating to think how we might shape these feelings, make people want to move and explore, fill them with wonder, excitement, peacefulness.

III. Content – ‘the fabric of towns: colour, texture, scale, style, character, personality and uniqueness.’ (11)

So much of this, of course, a direct response to Le Corbusier — who I am reading now, and only now realising just how he declared war on all of these ideas. Here is Gordon Cullen’s riposte, and plea for a new kind of design of spaces for life and living:

Statistics are abstracts: when they are plucked out of the completeness of life and converted into plans and the plans into buildings they will be lifeless. The result will be a three-dimensional diagram in which people are asked to live. In trying to colonize such a wasteland, to translate it from an environment for walking stomachs into a home for human beings, the difficulty lay in finding the point of application, in finding the gateway into the castle. We discovered three gateways, that of motion, that of position and that of content. By the exercise of vision it became apparent that motion was not one simple, measurable progression useful in planning, it was in fact two things, the Existing and the Revealed view. We discovered that the human being is constantly aware of his position in the environment, that he feels the need for a sense of place and that this sense of identity is coupled with an awareness of elsewhere. Conformity killed, whereas the agreement to differ gave life. In this way teh void of statistics, of the diagram city, has been split into two parts, whether they be those of Serial Vision, Here and There or This and That. All that remains is to join them together into a new pattern created by the warmth and power and vitality of human imagination so that we build the home of man. (12, New Delhi 1959)

What follows are wonderful sections collecting images and ideas around each of the three aspects.

Gordon Cullen's TownscapeOptics is brilliantly cinematic, trying to capture movement. Wonderful photographic montages show how a pedestrian moves through space, the changing views of the city, the changing feel of space, the momentary mysteries, the vistas, the partial and full closures, the gateways or walls that can frame infinity.

But the other two evoke a kind of poetry, a word invoking an idea, with pictures and text. My favourite words from the section on Place:

Possession: (and here he is talking about possession from a positive standpoint, a Lefebvrian standpoint where people creatively occupy space and make it their own through their daily lives) … Occupied territory, advantage, enclosure, focal point, indoor landscape, and so on, are all form of possession… (21)

here and there: The first category of relationships (pinpointing, change of level, vistas, narrows, closure, etc.) is concerned with the interplay between a known here and a known there. The second category will be concerned with a known here and an unknown there… (35)

Again this connects to narrative, to safety or excitement, to movement and adventure on the one hand, or a place that holds you, allows you to reflect or be at peace…

silhouette… By now we are all pretty conversant with the slab block building with its uncompromising roof line…whereas the tracery, the filigree, the openwork ridge capping all serve to net the sky, so that as the building soars up into the blue vault it also captures it and brings it down to the building. this capacity to net the sky is particularly rewarding in the fog and mists of England. (40)

I have been wandering the streets since then, staring up at buildings against the sky…

grandiose vista: …it links you, in the foreground at Versailles, to the remote landscape, thus producing a sense of power or omnipresence. (41)

In a sentence, what I hate about Versailles (and what have gone on and one about in ‘A Hatred of Gardens‘ and that little walk to Chatsworth. He continues with categories

handsome gesture, projection and recession, incident

fluctuation: … The typical town is not a pattern of streets but a sequence of spaces created by buildings.

undulation: Undulation is not just an aimless wiggly line; it is the compulsive departure from an unseen axis or norm, and its motive is delight in such proofs and essences of life as light and shade (the opposite of monochrome), or nearness and distance (the opposite of parallelism). (46)

Delight is exactly the word for this sentence and undulation itself

anticipation: We now turn to those aspects of here and there in which the here is known but the beyond is unknown, is infinite, mysterious, or is hidden inside a black maw. (49)

infinity: I love how he shows visually the difference between the sky and infinity, and how this sense is created through framing. I love how he values mystery.

the maw: Black, motionless and silent, like a great animal with infinite patience, the maw observes nonchalant people passing to and fro in the sunlight. This is the unknown which utter blackness creates. (52)


And then there is Content – he talks about a great levelling, changes in the city after WWII

This explosion resembles nothing so much as a disturbed ant-hill with brightly enamelled ants moving rapidly in all directions, toot-toot, pip-pip, hooray. (57)

More categories and text:

juxtaposition, immediacy

thisness: Here and throughout the next fourteen pages we try to establish the idea of typicality, of a thing being itself…That character may be rich and very variously expressed — secrecy, entanglement, exposure, illusion, even absence…(62)

intricacy: This quality is perhaps least understood (or the least demonstrated) in present day building, which seems to stop dead at the obvious, the slab block, the gridiron of curtain walling, the banality of pastel-shaded surfaces giggling down from the sky. But the quality of intricacy absorbs the eye. It is an extra dimension… (65)

I had to stop reading there and have a bit of a moment. Giggling down from the sky. My heart fluttered.

propriety, bluntness and vigour, entanglement, geometry, relationship

And then we are back in the more solid world of prose, but I learned something about the changes in post-war Britain and how much I take for granted now that perhaps I shouldn’t:

Town squares, once the preserve of privilege, have since the wartime salvage of railings become public spaces. (97)

One of the war’s advantages was that the removal of many kinds of not strictly essential fencing had something of the effect of the removal of restrictions; they opened out prospects of a more freely flowing world. (123)

I also love that he pays attention to the most basic thing of all — what he calls ‘the floor’. This is the space that belongs to all of us as residents of the city, in my own words it is all truly public space. So it needs paying attention to, especially the ways that cars and increasing traffic have transformed it and

severely restricted the right of free assembly. To congregate, to be able to stop and chat, to feel free out of doors may not seem very important compared to the pressing needs of transport, but it is one of the reasons people live in town and not by themselves — to enjoy the pleasure of being sociable. Whereas the distinction between in and out doors should be one of degree and kind, it has now become the difference between sanctuary and exposure.

From the visual standpoint the greatest single loss suffered is neutralization of the floor, the space between buildings, which has changed from a connecting surface to a dividing surface. (128)

This is, I think, another of those things we take for granted now, that we should not. This includes a devastating, rather hilarious critique of what he calls prairie towns. More planning issues I haven’t thought about enough, like street lighting — so much that I did not know!

Recent (post-war) installations in Great Britain are based on the principle of silhouette vision or surface brightness of the road. To imitate daylight — whereby the road surface and objects on it are seen three-dimensionally and in colour — being economically impossible the alternative is to use a lower intensity of light, to reflect light off the road surface evenly so that any object on it is seen as a silhouette which the eye can interpret as man, dog, car, hazard, etc. (144)

That made me ponder a bit about the cinematographic use of light, about noir, the use of light and shadow, I thought about the Third Man in particular, thought about our lights today which I think now do better at showing things three dimensionally.

There were some awesomely creative ideas for living more outdoors despite the English climate, domes, personal and otherwise. Doors that slide. Clear roofs and ways to enjoy being outside even in winter, I loved it. And two potential field trips to what he considers town planning that worked — Well Hall Estate in Eltham built in 1915 and Redgrave Road, Basildon built in 1953. I rather want to visit both.

And his final message:

Even if you lived in the prettiest of towns the message is still just as necessary: there is an art of environment. This is the central fact of TOWNSCAPE but it has got lost on the way…On the one hand it has devolved into cobbles and conservation, and on the other it has hived off into outrage and visual pollution. (193)

From what base do we set out? The only possibly base is to set down the ways in which the human being warms to his surroundings. To set down his affirmations. Not the grandiose views on Art or God or the Computer, but the normal affirmations about our own lives. It may help to observe human response to living itself. (194)

This joins the cannon I’ve been reading on what makes us love the places we live in, from Gehl to Appleyard to Whyte on planning public spaces to Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia.

[Gordon Cullen (1961) The Concise Townscape. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.]

More on building social spaces…

and even more…



Wark on the subject of Constant

I like how that sounds like particle physics. But no. It’s planning and cities and architecture again. Just capturing a few thoughts of McKenzie Wark’s on Constant Nieuwenhuys, along with New Babylon — the spectacular and SF nature of New Babylon. To return to later through Constant’s own words and work. Because look at this:

2011 afb5

New Babylon’s beginnings (always I am bothered by these echoes of class and race, of doing for others):

It was Gallizio who set Constant on the path to his famous New Babylon project of unitary urbanism when the two of them were together in Alba. Gallizio, who was on the local town council, solved the problem of the town’s antipathy to visiting Romani, or Gypsies, by making some land he owned available for their camp. As Alice Becker-Ho writes, quoting from a 1569 text: “Their sojourns in particular villages are always sanctioned by the local squires or dignitaries.”27 Gallizio commissioned Constant to design a new kind of mobile architecture that might house them. Constant’s model was never built, but it set Constant on a new path. (162)


There follows an interesting juxtaposition — and makes Constant looks pretty good (though that often wasn’t too hard next to Trocchi to be honest, despite his occasional flash of brilliance). Still, this is hardly a viable infrastructure, though infrastructure it is.

For someone like Constant, the failure of Trocchi’s project sigma had less to do with Trocchi’s personal limitations than with objective necessity. The spectacle required a structural transformation which no mere passing of informations between disaffected hipsters could ever achieve. New Babylon placed its bets on changing the forms within which everyday life is experienced. Constant: “The culture of New Babylon does not result from isolated activities, from exceptional situations, but from the global activity of the whole world population, every human being engaged in a dynamic relation with his surroundings.”26 In an era that would become absorbed with the permutations of cultural superstructures, Constant’s obsession with infrastructure was a rare corrective. (310)

Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, Concert Hall for Electronic Music, 1958-1961
Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, Concert Hall for Electronic Music, 1958-1961

I like too the mention of van Eyck in this context, thinking about how houses connect and reflect the city and vice versa, I like thinking about thresholds. More to find.

The key architectural form for van Eyck is the threshold, which he imagines not as dividing one space from another, say public from private, but as connecting one possibility to another. Rather than an efficient division of space by function, he imagines a landscape of place, occasion, threshold, an architecture in which to tarry. As he writes in the Situationist Times, “a house is a tiny city, a city is a huge house.” The key is to think built form more in terms of time than space, a time that can’t be measured. For people who can linger there, the city enables times of full participation and rich experience. The city is when “associative awareness changes and extends perception, rendering it transparent and profound through memory and anticipation.” The urban malingerer becomes aware of duration. Here time acquires depth and subtlety, and “awareness of duration is as gratifying as awareness of the passing instant is oppressive. The former opens time, renders it transparent, whilst the latter closes time, rendering it impenetrable.”6 (315-316)

Aldo van Eyck Jacob Thijsseplein Asterdam 1954

But back to New Babylon, and Marx, and this mad idea for a utopia:

“Automated factories would be underground, the surface level is for transport, while up above stretches a new landscape for play, a massive superstructure of linked sectors, within which everything is malleable, changeable at whim. Considered vertically, as an elevation, New Babylon makes literal Marx’s diagram of base and superstructure. Its airy sectors are literally superstructures, made possible by an infrastructure below ground where mechanical reproduction has abolished scarcity and freed all of time from necessity. It is an image of what Constant imagines the development of productive forces has made possible, but which the fetter of existing relations of production prevents from coming into being.” (319)


My favourite insight is this one, seeing connections rather than borders — just a different way of seeing a line, and one that we need to encourage as much as possible I think:

“Rather than lines that make borders, Constant’s experimental geography proposes lines that make connections. His vast aerial sectors, the size of little cities, link up and spread out over the landscape like reinforced-concrete crabgrass. (324)

tumblr_n08d0sncaE1r6glo5o1_1280It is interesting to continue my thoughts of yesterday on how our ancestors chose to shape the landscape to influence the lives of those who lived in it. I compare these drawings to the great stone circles of the neolithic and wonder how much we have changed, and just how much has remained the same.


Excerpt From: McKenzie Wark. “The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International.” iBooks.


More on architecture, utopia and the situationists….


Aragon: Paris Peasant

93111Few books I have read so far evoke the experience of wandering Paris quite as much as this one — but is a Paris now gone, rebuilt beyond recognition. Part of the reason he wrote it — to document and fix in place the experience of a geography soon to be destroyed. But first, spring in Paris:

I had just reached this point in my thoughts when, without any warning, spring suddenly entered into the world.

It happened in a flash, one Saturday evening around five: everything is bathed in a different light and yet there is still a chill in the air, impossible to say what has just taken place. (7)

I felt just this way about summer this year, except I missed the moment of its coming, was away for the weekend and returning to London found it installed.

This description of watching women, however, is an unfamiliar experience, and I confess evokes scorn:

Instead of concerning yourself with the conduct of men, start watching women walk by. They are great patches of radiance, flashes of light not yet stripped of their furs, of brilliant, restless mysteries. No, I don’t want to die without having first gone up to each one, touched her at least with my hand, felt her weaken, willed that this pressure shall be enough to conquer her resistance, and then hey presto! (8)

But the obsession with planning and planners something else we share, and a path to be retrodden by the Sitautionists with little reference to this great early psychogeographer as far as I can find (they do write of him ‘We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards’*). This, in its first section, is a documentation of the destruction of the arcades:

The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and profession. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.

“Today the Boulevard Haussman has reached the Rue Lafitte,” remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces forward by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from the Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra before finally emerging diagonally on to the Boulevard des Italiens. …It seems possible, though, that a good part of the human river which carries incredible floods of dreamers and dawdlers from the Bastille to the Madeleine may divert itself through this new channel, and thus modify the ways of thought of a whole district, perhaps of a whole world. We are doubtless about to witness a complete upheaval of the established fashions in casual strolling and prostitution… (14)

What could give you a better sense of being in this this passage than

…the noise, whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opéra. (22)

Or the flows and experiences of it than:

At the level of the printer who prints cards while you wait, just beyond that little flight of steps leading down into the Rue Chaptal, at that point in the far north of the mystery where the grotto gapes deep back in a bay troubled by the comings and goings of removal men and errand boys, in the farthest reaches of the two kinds of daylight which pit the reality of the outside world against the subjectivism of the passage, let us pause a moment, like a man holding back from the edge of the places depths, attracted equally by the current of objects and the whirlpools of his own being, let us pause in this strange zone where all is distraction, distraction of attention as well as of inattention, so as to experience this vertigo. The double illusion which holds us here is confronted with our desire for absolute knowledge. (47)

He describes a visit to a tawdry brothel of two rooms, sad and almost sweet — it can’t quite reach sweet as this is a man who sees all women in each individual woman and therefore can see no woman truly. It brought to mind a visit to Tombstone’s Birdcage with its own tiny two rooms side by side and its own sad reality of dingy walls and uncomfortable beds as compared to literary and cinematic representations of such houses of ‘pleasure’ in the wild West — raising the similarities between this representation and that of Paris and of the Moulin Rouge. A false romanticism that this thankfully pushes to one side.

He shares the notices put up to organise protest — text and notices are sprinkled throughout, an early collage:


He describes what this place has meant to a group of people, to a movement

…believe it or not it’s the Restaurant Saulnier. Its two floors, ground and mezzanine, fill the space between the Baths and the transversal corridor that emerges right opposite the entrance of the lodging house. A gift of the gods, this restaurant: I have absolutely nothing to say about it, having eaten there a hundred times. The great quarrels of the Dada movement (you may have heard of the Dada movement?) used to adjourn to this place under something resembling a flag of truce, so that the combatants, who had just spent two hours at the Certa defending their reputations, could discover in a plate of cold meat evidence of the height of morality, the height of fashion… (70)

A quick digression into American cinema and stories of sartorial fashion and race:

Don Juan acquired the taste for this caramel-and-whipped-cream footwear after seeing his first Hollywood film. He scoured Paris to find something similar, and it was at a shop in the Quartier Saint-Georges specializing in tailors’ misfits and undelivered orders that he finally ran to earth this pair of shoes that a Negro, in a moment of glorious extravagance, had had specially made for him, but which a combination of bailiff, cocaine and sheer nonchalance had obliged him to dispense with. (71)

And a return to the Certa:

IMG_2479It was while I was sitting here one afternoon, towards the end of 1919, that Andre Breton and I decided that this should henceforward become the meeting place for ourselves and our friends, a choice motivated partly by our loathing for Montparnasse and Montmartre, but partly also by the pleasure we derived from the equivocal atmosphere of the passages. (74)

All gone.

This is not without an immensity ego of course — this great rambling documentation and discourse published in installments, he had time to receive complaints about the contents as he finished the next installment and writes a description of their contents:

You do them an injustice: what will happen to their rights in the great struggle against the Boulevard Haussman Building Society? What on earth would the lawyers think if by some misfortune they should read your mishmash of inventions and real facts? ‘There’s a bunch of people we can forget about,’ is what they would think. And each of your epithets could bring down the total of the compensation figures a further notch. (85)

We bump thus against the common misconception amongst intellectuals that writing and description are in themselves somehow struggle. You could at least demand that they do no harm, but Aragon is careless of that, his words in print come before the needs of the current residents of the passages. I think of the two women he describes in their two tawdry rooms, receiving his attention for money and finding some sort of connection if he is to be believed — were they just cast into the streets? We’ll never know, his compassion does not extend that far, if it were ever genuine to begin with.

And then that section is done and dusted, we hear no more of it as we move on to philosophies and a drunken night-time adventure in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Which contains much of interest I shall return to in a future post.I can’t really bear to do it here.
In many ways it makes a mockery of this earnest description of all that is about to be destroyed in the name of progress under some vague impression of solidarity. Perhaps that impression is my own and gives him too much credit — or destroys what little he has. Perhaps the term human aquariums in itself sets him to be always observer, though to be sure he does get himself wet. It is not a position I admire very much, but one which is all too familiar.
*’Our goals and methods in the Strasbourg Scandal’ Internationale Situationniste #11 (Paris, October 1967). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.



Emergence - Steven JohnsonNabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of pop science applied to the world and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to read it. Somehow I was convinced by its shortness, and the blurb from J.G. Ballard – ‘Exhilarating’.

This is a bit Ballardian. Though it has no car crashes, sharp angles or sex symbol references.

In August 2000, Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced he had trained slime mould to travel the fastest route through a maze. Pretty amazing.

More amazing was that it turns out slime mould does not have a few cells that order all the rest around as had previously been assumed, but that given the right conditions, its components–often happily trawling about on their own doing what they do–each put out a call to join together and take advantage of opportunity and thus collectively do what they could not on their own. If you can use such human words to describe a very different process.

Which you probably shouldn’t. Just as you probably shouldn’t use that process as more than a broad metaphor to think about how things other than slime mould work, especially things as complicated as human beings.

So when this books was very broad I found it thought-provoking, and the narrower it got the higher my frustration.

I did  like the breadth of what it drew on, going from slime mould to ants to Engels writing about Manchester – and I liked that it provoked me to think something slightly new about this classic with a quote I hadn’t noted in my own reading:

I have never elsewhere seen a concealment of such fine sensibility of everything that might offend the eyes and nerves of the middle classes. And yet it is precisely Manchester that has been built less according to a plan and less within the limitations of official regulations–and indeed more through accident–than any other town. Still…I cannot help feeling that the liberal industrialists, the Manchester “bigwigs,” are not altogether innocent of this bashful style of building. (37)

But Engels went on with Marx to look at some of the things structuring this apparent accident, principally capitalism and the exploitative hierarchies it creates. How some of this emergent behaviour interlocks with these structures is what is actually what I find most interesting, and discussing ’emergence’ as though this emerging takes place on a blank canvas rather than into a world of structural inequality and oppression which act to shape it is deeply problematic. I would like a dialectical understanding of such things, how horizontal emergence articulates with structure. Maybe changes it for the better.

This book doesn’t do that.

The fact that it doesn’t do that makes it possible for Johnson to note hopefully that Al Gore is a fan of complexity theory! And in the same paragraph to describe corporate mantras of bottom-up intelligence and also the organising of the radical antiglobalization movement protest movement. Isn’t it all fascinating.

The science stuff is fun though, like the fact that ant colonies follow a lifecycle over 15 years (well, Arizona carpenter ants do — and I know those large bastards well with their amazing foraging lines that change every night, stripping a new plant of everything and leaving others alone). This, despite the fact no ant lives more than a year, thus the puzzle of:

The persistence of the whole over time–the global behaviour that outlasts any of its component parts–is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems. Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. (82)

This reminded me of the corruption and violence of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. But we are not ants. I like the fact that the Sim city game failed when the people were made too smart, instead they had to be dumbed down, fixated on one thing. Like ants.

Sim city may play with a form of emergence, but it is still limited by programming and the extent of its programmers imaginations of what cities are.

For most people, the sight of their first digital town sprouting upscale neighborhoods and chronically depressed slums is downright eerie, as though the hard math of the digital computer had somehow generated a life-form (88).

That was slightly infuriating, but I was raging as he continued in that vein:

Neighborhoods are themselves polycentric structures, born of thousands of local intersections, shapes forming within the city’s larger shape. Like Gordon’s ant colonies, or the cells of a developing embryo, neighborhoods are patterns in time. No one wills them into existence single-handedly; they emerge by a kind of tacit consensus : the artists go here, the investment bankers here, Mexican-Americans here, gays and lesbians here. The great preponderance of city dwellers live by these laws, without any legal authority mandating that compliance (91).

I did my PhD on this shit, and the multitude of books that tear this thinking into pieces are easily found in the case of the U.S. How dare he ignore years of racial covenants, and discrimination of all kinds, the immense amount of hate and violence that has gone into disciplining people of colour and people of different sexualities into their own neighbourhoods where at least they can feel safe.

Laws mandated compliance with racial segregation until 1953 in the US, the planning profession’s obsession with homogeneity and separation of land-use has been policy for a hundred years, and unofficial policies and blatant discrimination still exist. We cannot forget the legacy of violence and issues with race and definitions of ‘American’ as white and etc. resulting from the conquest of the US and slavery that are even now being fought out in Ferguson and Baltimore and cities all over the country.

There is a lot more wrong with this idea, but in a nutshell: patterns do naturally emerge, but American cities at least do not reflect any such ‘natural’ patterns arrived at through tacit consensus. The idea would be laughable if it did not write off and deeply insult centuries of struggle by people of colour, poor people, lbgtqi communities to live where they choose with some level of dignity. That still hasn’t been won.

This is why I hate using an idea emerging from slime mould, and other such biological marvels, to say ‘this is how cities work.’ To explain what is created by human beings. It simplifies and ignores what doesn’t fit. Sadly our cities, our slums, our uprisings are all things we have actively created and fought over.

When do I like playing with an idea such as emergence? When it does not seek to explain, but rather shifts our frame, maybe makes us see things in a different way. Notice what we hadn’t before. When metaphor opens up insight.

There are manifest purposes to a city…But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices. Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers…Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination…The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements (108)

Again, still a bit problematic in its simplifications, but the idea of the city as a giant centre of information storage and retrieval is quite cool, fun to play with and think about.

I also liked the recognition that in studying communications and discourse these days, ‘We need a third term beyond medium and message’ (161). We need something that gets at how we are filtering things, accessing them. The web really has opened things wide up, but how are people being channeled, how do they figure out where to look and what is worth looking at?

Near the end Johnson gets to the question of what this can do for politics. Same issues as raised by what this can do for cities — things aren’t just emerging onto a level playing field so how emergence deals with existing structures of domination is the real question. That what makes its embrace by the right-wing who are anti-big-government in everything but the monopoly of force, and by the radical left so different.

In fact, the needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentrations of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available. (224)

Possibly true, but the capacity of capitalism to co-opt so much demands of us much more of a stretch in our thinking about how this actually can create a positive change in the world that goes to scale.

Jan Gehl – the Study of Public Life

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public LifeJan Gehl’s How to Study Public Life had many strengths and a few weaknesses, but for delving into the nitty gritty of how to study public space and the way people use and shape it, both in outlines of practice and a bibliography of others who have done so, this is a great place to start.

I also love that they connect public life with public space, it is not a study of one separate from the other.

A common theme in many of these studies — we really screwed up when we started large-scale planning:

Public life and public space were historically treated as a cohesive unit. Medieval cities grew little by little in accordance with changing needs, in contrast to the rapid tempo of modernism’s large-scale planning (3).

So how do we study what is working and what is not to improve our cities and public space?

You start with the basic questions of how many, who,  where, what, and how long?

There is a great chart of the continuum of ways that we move through space for pleasure and for need — which you may not be able to read here, but the book is full of these beautifully designed charts and graphics that help you think through how you might design a space:

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life

A list of different kinds of studies you can adapt to your city, and the primary tools you can use:

  • Counting
  • Mapping (of activities, people and places) Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Tracing (how people move across a delimited space)
  • Tracking (shadowing to see how people move through space)
  • Looking for Traces (trails, paths worn through grass)
  • Photographing (time lapse photos are so so cool)
  • Keeping a diaryJan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Test walks

There is a great chapter on all of the different people who have looked at these issues over time, and the source for most of what it is on my list for future reading…it is quite inspiring to see the faces and read some of the words of those who have fought for more liveable cities, ones built around the needs and actual lives of people and that are allowed to emerge from the bottom up rather than being built for motives of profit or static and powerful ideals of how we should live, what cities should be like.

This list is very male, and entirely white so it needs some broadening. It is unable to capture the impact of race for example, shown so clearly in all of its terrible effect in Elijah Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy for example. It also doesn’t engage at all with theorists like David Harvey or Henri Lefebvre, so important to understanding how capital works to shape cities from above. Funnily he does bring up Sorkin’s book Variations on a Theme Park and mentions Mike Davis as well, but never engages with their key arguments around capitalism and privatisation.

This perhaps explains why Gehl can gaily talk about his work as a consultant for cities like Sydney and London, and particularly the work he did on NY’s Times Square and Cape Town in preparation for the World Cup without also mentioning the huge struggles happening in these places over the question of the right to the city, and the ways in which regeneration of public space that he contributes to has dovetailed with its securitisation, privatisation and mass displacement of the poor and people of colour. So damn frustrating because to do this work well we have to deal with those larger issues, if only to minimise their impacts. At least, in all of those countries listed about where class and race are still huge issues (and perhaps they are not in Copenhagen, I am no judge). If we don’t, we contribute to the social and racial cleansing of our cities, if only by driving up land values and forcing more and more people out of these areas. Ideally we need a fundamental transformation putting social and racial equality along with the right to the city of all residents above the demands of capital and real estate profit.

With that larger critique said, the actual pages and pages of case studies were great (though the whole of this is a little Gehl heavy establishing him within the canon and sometimes repetitive with it, but fair enough), not only as ways to think about and study public space, but as pointers to what makes public spaces work or not — and how planners so often get it completely wrong. These were a few of my favourites.

Good Places to Stand – ‘These studies clearly show what was later described as the edge effect: the fact that people were more likely to stay at the edge of spaces.’ (84)

This naturally means that when a space is too big and open people still hug the edges and the places that are at a more human scale. If only the planners of the Olympic Park had read this.

Who Walks, How Fast, When? – This showed the importance of people taking their time in a space in terms of the feel of it, dawdling made possible by warmer weather in our countries (the opposite in Tucson where heat drives people off the streets): ‘…streets are experienced as more lively in summer than in winter — even when an equal number of people are on the street’ (87)

Many Good Reasons (Studying activities and excuses for being in public spaces)

It was clear early on in the process that people do not always have an obviously practical reason for being in public space. If you ask them directly, they might tell you that they are in town to shop or run errands. The many good reasons and sensible arguments made for being in public space often prove to be rational explanations for activity patterns that weave together errands and pleasure. in this context, rationally explained behaviour can cover stays in public space for the purpose of looking at people and public life in general. (90)

Action Research (from empty stretch of gravel to active playground in one day) — this was a marvelous project to inject life and space for women and children into high-rise social housing (one of the places in this book gender is specifically addressed), where 50 residents and 50 students built an enormous and wonderful adventure playground in an empty stretch of gravel between the high rise and some lame sand boxes.

Diary Method — two students spent 24 hours on a street writing down absolutely everything that happened! I am impressed and have some strange wish to do this myself. But I know a number of places, entire cities really, where writing down everyone’s actions would have immediate (and dangerous) consequences. This points to the privileges of working in Denmark I think.

Measuring Fear and Apprehension — sadly not about class or race issues — these don’t exist in these studies as I say — but an interesting way to study the impact of traffic on public life

Active or Passive Facades

‘most of what we take in visually is at eye-level, and in relation to buildings, it is primarily the ground-floor level that catches our eye. Numerous studies have pointed to edges, the transition between building and public space, as significant for how many and which activities take place.’ (104)

Going from 43 to 12 Criteria — a checklist for assessing public space qualities! I love checklists…

(Gehl, Jan & Birgitte Svarre (2013) How to Study Public Life. London: Island Press)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…






Nabeel Hamdi’s Small Change

8739095A wonderful book on creating place — it resonated so much with all I have learned in years of working and planning with community, and it is so good to see so much of it thoughtfully consolidated and codified. Especially in such different contexts.  It calls to some extent on popular education figures I know like Freire and Illich, but to a much greater extent on figures from the development and planning world who I do not yet know and am looking forward to meet.

My principle critique is how this deals with neoliberalism — and I do not join the voices who critique this kind of approach as in itself neoliberal. I think this is how change has to happen, with people owning it, transforming themselves as they transform their lives and take power over their communities. That said, it is up to us I think to help people see how this connects to more fundamental overturnings of unjust power relations. He has this lovely quote from Calvino (I don’t much like the rest of the book):

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

We hope to create places that allow us to achieve our dreams. Instead, looking at the barren but massive new developments occurring in London (and elsewhere), it seems clear that the desires of capital are to erase the city of all that does not maximise profit — and thus erase the city itself. And us. We live our lives within these larger forces, and our lives are destroyed by them — so we cannot allow this small scale work to be coopted, rather ensure it is feeding the resistance against destruction. I won’t get started on his example of selling water.

Still, for early steps, for nuts and bolts, this is good (if this work is accompanied by a constant critical questioning of why this is our reality, how did it get this way, what is preventing us from changing it, how ultimately do we create lasting change):

development, like all human processes, needs designed structure with rules and routines that provide continuity and stability and that offer a shared context of meaning and a shared sense of purpose and justice. To these structures we ‘give up some of our liberty in order to protect the rest.’ The question facing practice is: how much structure will be needed before the structure itself prohibits personal freedom, gets in the way of progress… xvii – xviii

This is always the tension I think. I like the idea of ’emergence’ that runs through everything. Inspired by studies of slime molds which aren’t perhaps the most inspiring of creatures, I do love this idea of horizontality and networking and allowing things to emerge from the collectivity as they are needed (and have written about Emergence by Steven Johnson where much of this thinking comes from here — it contains many of the same issues I have with Hamdi and more…). At some point, of course, these horizontal emergings will run smack into the wall of hierarchical power which is rarely on the side of true ‘progress’. And they will have to fight. I believe they can, they are not necessarily subsumed into another level of support, bribed and coopted by such power that often made their organising necessary in the first place. But they can be. We are right to be cautious.

Still, back to what I liked and the thoughts driving the book:

intelligent practice builds on the collective wisdom of people and organizations on the ground — those who think locally and act locally — which is then rationalized in ways that make a difference globally. In the language of ’emergence’, ‘it’s better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements and let the more sophisticated behaviour trickle up.’ In this respect, good development practice facilitates emergence, it builds on what we’ve got and with it goes to scale. xviii

And I love thinking, have been obsessing over, the importance of dense networks in all aspects of life and health.

Practice, then, is about making the ordinary special and the special more widely accessible — expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility with vision and common sense. It is about building densely interconnected networks, crafting linkages between unlikely partners and organizations, and making plans without the usual preponderance of planning. It is about getting it right for now and at the same time being tactical and strategic about later. (xix)

I also find quite useful these precepts he gives us to remember and to guide practice (and to support those of us who work this way naturally in defending such practice in the face of those who much prefer structure, plans, controlled process and etc):

Ignorance is liberating

Start where you can: never say can’t
– ‘can’t because’ has to become ‘can if’, if we are to avoid paralysis given all the obstacles in the way (133)

Imagine first: reason later
we are too often confined by our own experience — ‘Practice, and in particular practitioners who are outsiders, can reveal these other worlds and, in so doing, can disturb people into reconstructing their situation, bringing them to a new awareness of and, therefore, power that increases their freed — which is what development is all about.(134)

Be reflective: waste time

Embrace serendipity: get muddled

Play games: serious games

Challenge consensus
Consensus gains the passivity of people not their active participation. It is in this sense exclusionary and encourages independence rather than interdependence. In encourages non-participation. (137)
— He quotes Kaplan — ‘creativity and life are the result of tension between opposites…[where] harmony is attained not through resolution bet through an attunement of opposite tensions… (138)

Look for multipliers
— Consensus planning looks for common denomibators. Instead, look for multipliers…ways of connecting people, organizations and events, of seeing strategic opportunity in pickle jars, bus stops and rubbish cans and then going to scale. It means acting practically…and thinking strategically… (139-140)

Work backwards: move forwards

Feel good

I particularly love that he challenges the consensus model. We are different, we do not always have to agree to work together or let important issues be subsumed or relegated to the future because we are a minority.

I also like this idea of outsider as catalyst for change, and how this change connects to wellbeing.

We have learnt that development is ongoing, a process in which occasionally and from outside, some form of intervention is useful to open up opportunities, to facilitate access to resources, to act as a catalyst for change. there is no beginning and no end, no single measure of progress, no primacy given to any one set of values, at least not on paper. Human wellbeing is as important to economic growth as growth is to wellbeing. We find that trust and mutual respect now feature as criteria with which to judge the appropriateness of projects. Interdependence, not dependence, is what we seek, between people, organizations and between nations. (15)

It is clear that process is more important here, a very interesting critique of planning and its modernist heroes, a support for those of us who oppose these kind of schemes:

The problem with these thinkers was not that they had a totalizing vision or subscribed to master narratives or indulged in master plannning. Their problem was not that they had conceptions of the city of the social process as a whole. Their problem was that they took the notion of thing and gave it power over the process. Their second flaw was that they did much the same thing with community. Much of ideology that came out of Geddes and Howard was precisely about the construction of community, in particular about the construction of communities that were fixed and had certain qualities with respect to class and gender relations. Once again the domination of things seemed to be the general flaw… (46, quoting David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference)

I also like a snippet of Sennet, who I have never really struggled with (and my short-lived embarcation on one of his books was a bit of a struggle), but he discusses three forces that challenge mutual respect: unequal ability, adult dependency and degrading forms of compassion. ‘Respect,’ says Sennet, ‘is fundamental to our experience of social relations and self.’ (50)

I feel like that is one of the things poor people always fight for and never get and so this is the most obvious thing in the world, but few others understand it, much less respect people who are not of their class (or skin colour or gender or sexuality or…).

There are some interesting developments of different forms of community:

community of interest — issues of common concern or common advantage

Community of culture — more homogenous, shared values and beliefs, often need to be disturbed ‘in the interest of reshaping power relations…in our search for equity in gender relations, in democratizing government, in our emphasis on participatory planning and our notion of what makes good governance’  (68)

Community of practice, work — sharing a joint purpose over time becomes a bond — Capra notes the more developed and sophisticated networks are, the more resilient and creative. Hamdi writes ‘The sense of a city being alive resides in its communities of practice, as does its intelligence. (69)

Communities of resistance (term from West) created in face of external threat, times of social unease, or dominance

Communities of place

1. all communities spatial, but in cities this is more through networks, porous and not confined

2. place assumes more importance than space, particularly for vulnerable like elderly or disabled — security and accessibility precedence over use value or identity

3. there exists a relationship between place and identity, where place is often appropriated to empower community, coded

4. spatial sense of community can change over times of day and over time more generally

And I like these problematisations of the constant use of the word community, often masking its complexity:

Whatever the type, community is mostly an ideal in development that we evangelize, something good and worthy…but community can be as much a part of the problem as a panacea. (70)

The treatment of local areas as communities of homogenous interests, said Lisa Peattie, way back in 1968 ‘can result in severe damage to the interests of the weakest inhabitants’. There is an emerging consensus that we bypass the notion of community altogether in favour of a more direct link between household and civil society. (72)

Which means our work is to create an architecture of possibilities — I quite love that idea, especially in thinking how public life and public space come together:

As we set about planning we are, by now, cautious of pre-emptive community-building. Instead, we seek to build an architecture of possibilities in the broadest sense of the term and give this shape, spatially and organizationally. Later, we may attach to it rules or codes of conduct which we will develop with others… (73)

It is again working through how we balance structure and freedom, such a difficult thing but so rewarding when done right. Nabeel Hamdi quotes Capra again here:

The designed structures are the formal structure of the organization (city)… the emergent structures are created by the organizations’ (city) informal networks and communities of practice… designed structures provide the rules and routines that are necessary for the effective functioning of the organization…Designed structures provide stability. Emergent structures, on the other hand, provide novelty, creativity and flexibility. They are adaptive, capable of changing and evolving…The issue is not one of discarding designed structures in favour of emergent ones. We need both. (97 quoting Capra  The Hidden Connections)

More lessons about taking time, building slowly and surely …

Instead, in practice, we need often to act spontaneously, to improvise and to build in small increments. First, spontaneity, as a quality of practice, is vital because most problems and opportunities appear and disappear in fairly random fashion and need to be dealt with or taken advantage of accordingly. (98)

…and creating a community of learning that transforms those involved:

The community-based action planning workshops and events we had adopted served to offer an early insight into the organizational capabilities of community, the responsiveness of planners and government authorities to ideas, the appropriateness of standards, the potential for partnership and the resistance those in charge to adapt. They explored the willingness of people and their local organizations to disturb their habits and routines. They are vehicles for learning and for identifying institutional capabilities and training needs, as much as for getting organized, getting going and solving problems. (100)

So we return to practice, and these final thoughts capture for me what practice should be for committed intellectuals and ‘experts’:

the art of making things possible, of expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility in ways which make a tangible difference for now and for later, making expert knowledge more widely accessible, turning it all into common sense and common sense into experts’ sense, coupling knowledge with power (Shovkry), creating opportunities for discovery (Chambers), finding creative ways of making one plus one add up to three or even more. (116)

Practicing is about opening doors, removing barriers to knowledge and learning, finding partners and new forms of partnership, building networks, negotiating priorities, opening lines of communication and searching for patterns. it means designing structures — both spatial and organizational — and facilitating the emergence of others, balancing dualities that at first seem to cancel each other out — between freedom and order, stability and creativity, practical and strategic work, the needs of large organization and those of small ones, top and bottom, public and private. (116)

The goal of becoming wise…I wish we taught more students this way, they are instead content to be clever. But then, so are most of their teachers.

This cycle of doing and learning, learning and doing, acting and reflecting involves a kind of ‘activist pedagogy’ which is systemic to becoming skilful and wise. The purpose them of teaching, given this setting, ‘is fundamentally about creating the pedagogical, social, and ethical conditions under which students agree to take charge of their own learning, individually and collectively, to create their own knowledge, much in the same way as later, in practice, we would expect people to take charge of their own development (127)

(Hamdi, Nabeel (2004) Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities. London: Earthscan.)


Topophilia (pt 1)

4462961I’d seen Yi-Fu Tuan mentioned  a number of times, but it was still whim that led me to pick up this book because I thought it might help with some of the ways I’ve been thinking about how human beings connect to places. This particularly in a still unfinished response to some of Doreen Massey’s work on the politics of place, which to me mirrors many of the problems in capitalist development and also sadly in Planning and Geography both. I saw this

Topophilia is the affective bond between people and place or setting. Diffuse as concept, vivid and concrete as personal experience, topophilia is the recurrent theme of the book (4).

So it was surprising, and a little delightful I confess, to go from there bounding off through some social biology like this:

Ultraviolet rays are invisible to man, though ants and the honey bees are sensitive to them. Man has no direct perception of infrared rays, unlike the rattlesnake… (6)

I am easily distracted by thinking of how much in the world we are missing, all the things out there that we cannot see or feel or smell. I am easily impressed by rattlesnakes, have loved them ever since we were little even though we invariably killed them when they came too near the house. But it is interesting to think of the biological bases for our perceptions.

It turns out that this is a sprawling book that unearths various academic disciplines, art and poetry to examine from different viewpoints our connection to land. I’m still considering what ties it all together, it is not at all obvious, so this reads something like a collection of my favourite bits. Which it is, but in that sense it mirrors the book itself.

The first half in particular took me back to my old undergrad sociology and anthropology days raising no small degree of nostalgia with section headings like ‘harmonious whole, binary oppositions, and cosmological schemata,’ and citations of Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss. There were stories of remote tribes and how they related to the world. A man emerging for the first time from the Amazonian rainforest and unable to judge distance, like Dougal from Father Ted (who had no such excuse) unable to tell what was small and what was just far away. He also calls upon Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, poets Eliot, Sandburg and cummings.

This walked a thin line for me as I hate it when people gaily argue we are all the same, but I think he managed to stay on the right side of it — teasing out processes, ways of thinking, methods of making sense of the world that peoples around the world hold in common rather than the content of our understandings. Something I find useful though it can be by no means definitive. Like this one, which I particularly liked:

Generally speaking [my partner usually attempts forlornly to shut me up when I start a sentence like that], we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. The visitor’s viewpoint, being simple, is easily stated. Confrontation with novelty may also prompt him to express himself. The complex attitude of the native, on the other hand, can be expressed by him only with difficulty and indirectly through behavior, local tradition, lore, and myth (63).

I think he misses here the role that art can play, the different ways in which a photographer/ painter/ writer/ self-aware person might compose scenes, layer history and character and experience on top of them. But I like to think about how we experience place when we’re not thinking about it, which this attempts to capture. He argues the vistor’s ‘evaluation of environment is essentially aesthetic…The outsider judges by appearance, by some formal canon of beauty. A special effort is required to empathize with the lives and values of the inhabitants (64).’

He is not initially writing about modern redevelopment here, but captures in a nutshell its purpose of attracting visitors and its ugliness as it discourages such empathy — and goes on to cite the work of Herbert Gans’ study of Boston’s West End, a much-loved neighbourhood demolished for urban renewal.

There is a section on changing views of mountains, and this:

A great Alpine tourist, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich, made nine extensive trips through the mountains between 1702 and 1711. He was a botanist and a geologist. He made barometric measurements of height and theorized on how ice moved but he also gave a reasoned catalogue of Swiss dragons, arranged according to cantons.

A beautiful fragment from Thomas Traherne:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars (98).

He reminded me of how we have lost our awe and fear in face of the wilderness — because nature no longer exists in the raw overwhelming power it once did. We have for the most part confined it to parks and preserves, big and wondrous as they are we are still aware of their boundaries and their vulnerability in our minds. He writes ‘As a state of the mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities’ (112). I have to think about that.

I laughed when I read ‘The Sudan is monotonous and niggardly [! a word that dates this as surely as the all male pronouns] to the outsider, but Evans-Pritchard says that he can hardly persuade the Nuer who live there that better places exist outside its confines’ (114). Evans-Pritchard, what a dick. Only proving the point that it is often where we are raised that defines our aesthetic sense of a good place to live — and we desert dwellers often suffer for it. Yet sadly it still doesn’t stop people stealing the land.

There is a wonderful section that looks at the relationship between the natural world and how we depict and recreate it through art, words, gardens. He writes:

Only roughly do painted landscapes image external reality. We cannot depend on the visual arts to provide us with clues as to how particular places looked in the past; nor can we depend on them for what the artists personally delighted in, but we can take painted landscapes to be special structurings of reality that for a time enjoyed a measure of popular acclaim (122).

The contrast between Chinese landscapes and others:

…the Chinese have never developed linear perspective with the mathematical rigidity that for a time found favour in European painting. Perspective existed but from shifting standpoints. There is no single horizon. Elements in the landscape are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of a picture (137).

I love his discussion of cathedrals, in medieval times surrounded by clusters of buildings, never really meant to be seen in its entirety:

…to see the cathedral from a distance would diminish its impact of bulk and verticality. The details of its facade would no longer be visible. The medieval cathedral was meant to be experienced; it was a dense text to be read with devout attention and not an architectural form to be merely seen. In fact some figures and decorations could not be seen at all. They were made for the eyes of God (137-138).

From cathedrals to gardens — it’s like he knows my favourite things. Clearly there is a relationship here with traditional Chinese landscapes:

The Chinese garden evolved in antithesis to the city. Poised against the rectilinear geometry of the city are the natural lines and spaces of the garden. In the city of man one finds hierarchical order, in the garden the complex informality of nature, Social distinctions are discarded in the garden where man is free to contemplate and commune with nature in neglect of his fellow human beings. The garden is not designed to give the visitor a certain number of privileged views; seeing is an aesthetic and intellectual activity that puts a distance between the object and the observer. The garden is designed to involved, to encompass the visitor who, as he walks along a winding trail, is exposed to constantly shifting scenes (138).

How liberating these must have seemed to Europeans, and he captures their gardens perfectly:

The garden was for show: it glorified man. From the royal bedroom at Versailles the Sun King of France could gaze down a long central vista, which was made to seem even longer by the flat sheets of water and the sentinel of trees. Such a show of human will in formal design left no sense of nature or of the divine.

… emphasis is put on the increasing tendency to see the garden as an environment for the house, the garden as a place of controlled aesthetic experience from a limited number of standpoints. The garden caters primarily to sight. .. the habitual use of the eyes leads us to appreciate the world as a spatial entity of well-defined lines, surfaces and solids. The other senses teach us to perceive the world as a rich unfocused ambiance (140).

I am loving thinking that through, turning it over in my mind. Tuan then looks at how this translates into language, which is rather fascinating I confess, though I am wary of such generalisations:

The cosmos of premodern man was multistoried; nature was rich in symbols, its objects could be read at several levels and evoke emotion-laden response. We are aware of ambiguity in language. The language of ordinary discourse, and a fortiori of poetry, is rich in symbols and metaphors. Science, by contrast, strives to remove the possibility of multiple readings. A traditional world has the ambiguity and richness of ordinary and ritual speech. The modern world, on the other hand, aspires to be transparent and literal (141).

Again it is a shutting down of meaning, of richness into clean definitions. This reminds me of Voloshinov and especially Bakhtin’s celebrations of the carnival of language and how that continues always, but often in opposition of those who would seek to control and kill it.

I feel that there is so much in here that offers a particular insight to a particular problem, roughly like a cloud forming I feel what it might mean for our lived spaces and how we experience them — how they experience us. Do they encompass us, hold us, are they forced to frame our greatness like a backdrop or inspire others with an awe of our power over them. Do they control our points of view, our interactions with others, or do they allow us to relax, look and wander, feel respite from the presence of people. I still struggle with this book as a whole, want to move on to something a little more concrete. This is far too abstract for the intensity of connection I feel, and I know others feel, for certain places and the struggle that invariably arises over that under capitalism.

It was also particularly rich in the final sections on the city, so those will fill a future post

Open Occupancy v Forced Housing — racism and the early rhetoric of the right

contentIt was 1963. The sheer quantity of outspoken and arrogant white legal and housing experts giving away just how racist U.S. society is make this book worth reading. That’s never pleasant reading. However, much as racism has grown more subtle over the past fifty years it is quite extraordinary to see just how much of this rhetoric is being recycled by the tea-party and other freedom-and-rights racist quasi-libertarians. Open Occupancy sounds much nicer than Forced Housing, but these terms were coined to replace what doesn’t sound so nice: The ability to freely discriminate vs. the right of all people to live where they can afford. That hardly sounds completely antithetical to the American dream and the American way, but this entire volume with one exception is arguing that is so.

It opens with some congratulations from Norman P Mason, commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration from 1954-59 and administrator of the US Housing and Home Finance Agency from 1959-61. No need to think too hard about just how racist policies became so enshrined in both policy and day to day practice of government agencies.

1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School
1971 Dean Alfred Avins founder of Delaware Law School

The introduction from editor Avins sums it all up nicely:

The short of the matter is that anti-discrimination legislation in practice is a grave infringement on property rights, subject in administration to incurable abuses, and most important, helps only the Negroes who do not need it (26).

I think I heard Sarah Palin going on about that not too long ago. In sadly familiar rhetoric, he argues that discrimination doesn’t exist, but if it does Negroes are to blame given their unreasonable demands and low-class natures. He’s got lots of people to back him up on that.

There is a short, very unexpected piece from Charles Abrams, writer of Forbidden Neighbors and champion of ‘Forced Housing’. He has clearly chosen to try and win support for increased federally funded public housing—allowing the racists around him to connect the dots for themselves that new builds might stem the invading black flow into their pristine white neighborhoods—and doesn’t even engage with the absurdity of most of the arguments made here.

A delightful piece on restrictive covenants claims not to take sides on their public enforcement given the Supreme Court decision, but lauds them as private agreements. Elmer M. Million quotes some delightful stuff from the Burkhardt v Lofton case (63 Cal. App. 2d 230, 146 P.2d 720, 724-25 (1944)) with its arguments for the rights of the majority:

Racial restrictions have been employed in the development of countless residential communities and have very generally been considered essential to the maintenance and stability of property values. Non-Caucasians are and always have been just as free to restrict the use and occupancy of their property to members of their own races as Caucasians have been. The fact that the members of the Caucasian race have freely availed themselves of this right throughout the nation, even though those of non-Caucasian races have not, is most satisfactory proof of the public policy of the nation with respect to this phase of the right to contract. No doubt public policy changes and develops with the times, but these changes must have their sources in the citizenry and not on the decisions of the courts or the pronouncements of publicists and politicians (92-93).

Clauson & Buck in ‘Constitutionality in Illinois’ write ‘antidiscrimination legislation in private housing is at war with our most fundamental notions of property rights’ (123). Joshua A. Fishman in ‘Some Social and Psychological Determinants of Intergroup Relations in Changing Neighborhoods’ (fancy, huh), throws a little anti-Semitism in as well, just in case you were worried this is just about black people:

In many ways modern American suburbs epitomize basic American cultural values and aspirations. The Jewish middle class and the rapidly growing Negro middle class eagerly pursue these values and aspirations, and this pursuit inevitably leads them to suburbia. However, their presence in suburbia is inimical to the status needs and values of many who are (or who can more easily pass as) “old American.” In fact, their presence is often inimical to the very image of what a suburban community should be like. Jews and Negroes represent the city and all of the dirt, grime, haste, sweat, and unloveliness of city life. Thus, their arrival not only lowers the status value of a neighbourhood, but for many it also cancels the suburban image of a suburb. As long as flight to uncontaminated areas is possible and feasible, it will be resorted to (136).

It’s hard to read that kind of bullshit really, though in a way you’re glad that they wrote it down so it’s there, impossible to pretend it didn’t happen. That Fishman has some insight into the more prevalent suburban mind-set is borne out by the violence, the malevolence of local publications and the white flight further and further out that I’ve been studying. This theme is continued by Armstrong et al in ‘Interracial Housing and the Law: A Social Science Assessment’. They begin their assessment by declaring that many previous social science assessments have been unduly influenced by their author’s attempts to promote desegregation, then follow that up with some of the worst pseudo-science I have read in a very long time. They didn’t quite reach the stage where they were measuring cranial capacity and talking about brow ridges and genetics, but very close. They argue both that integration hurts Blacks (in terms of morale, self-esteem and actually procuring housing) as well as for the many good reasons whites have for not wishing to integrate. They write:

the inmigration of lower-class Negroes brings with it the disabilities which attend the increased presence of a group collectively characterized by inordinately high rates of delinquency, crime, sexual immorality and communicable disease…. The deterioration of the standards of local schools, the increased incidence of delinquency and crime, greater public health hazards, regular exposure to a group which, because of conditions prevailing in its subculture, is characterized by lax sexual morality, broken homes and minimal academic aspirations, would seem to provide, in general, sufficient rational motive for white flight (147).

Wait, there’s more! They write ‘Sociologists have long appreciated the fact that men are animated by a disposition to seek out those they fancy similar to themselves’ (147). The old birds of a feather argument, social science at its very finest.

There’s a whole section of transcripts from a debate in the BRITISH HOUSE OF LORDS from May 14, 1962 on how races just shouldn’t mix and legislating such a thing is doomed to failure – very relevant to the American situation. Lord what’s-his-name (several of these) and Viscount pie face (two of these plus a Lord Chancellor) weighing in for British racism and using the American experience to support their arguments. Then lots of short pieces on two court cases currently being argued.

They also include an interesting short article on ‘An Analysis of Possible Impact of Anti-Discrimination Legislation on the Home Building Industry’. Of course they argue it will be mayhem, no builders will want to build if it might be integrated. Given the ways that the industry has changed from a ‘small scale craft operation’ to a very ‘large scale assembly line production’ where ‘90% of new housing construction is being provided by a handful of builders over 250 homes per year’ (sic) (287). Given the scale of their operations, integration could cause a fall in their selling prices making it impossible to recoup the large upfront costs of tract development. Author R.J. Anderson believed that this would cause a downturn in the industry, forcing builders to build on a smaller scale and hedging their bets using smaller, scattered plots so as not to tie up large amounts of cash and risk bankruptcy should a person of colour buy into his subdivision. Of course, in hind sight builders managed to find plenty of ways not to integrate, but this underlines the importance of their finding such ways.

All in all, a quite infuriating but informative glimpse into the 1960s era white racists of real estate.

Mapping Decline: St Louis

3045503Colin Gordon (2008) University of Pennsylvania Press

So many maps! And they are so beautiful! And also damning, I loved them. I wanted more about the process of mapping itself, because so few academic geographers and planners really wield maps like this. So I was a little disappointed that this didn’t involve some thinking through of what the process of mapping teaches us, especially given the title.

What it did do was masterfully describe the growth of St. Louis and its spectacular decline, and it balanced fairly beautifully a big picture view of the policies that caused it along with enough of the intricate detail to judge how it all happened. It describes the period from 1940-2000, bringing this story somewhat into the present which is also rare. He also does a far better job of combining policy and planning analysis with acknowledgment of race: ‘The plot of this story, in St. Louis and elsewhere, is irretrievably racial in its logic and its consequences’ (11). Also that

This is a story that can be retold, with local twists and variations, for virtually nay American metropolis in the modern era. Local, state, and national policies encouraged economic and demographic flight from increasingly poor, and black, central cities. Sprawl and political fragmentation made these cities–and the larger urban (35) areas they anchored–increasingly difficult to govern or finance. The modern urban crisis was a direct consequence of public policy, not an unfortunate social ill that persisted despite public policy.

He opens with ‘Local Politics, Local Power’, a look at the wildly fragmented political mosaic of counties, cities and jurisdictions that make up St. Louis (233 incorporated municipalities in a 12-county area? Jesus). It’s so different than that of L.A. which I know best, but with the same effect — the carving up of an urban area into smaller sections allowing wealthy white areas to insulate themselves and their wealth from the rest.

This pattern of governance in greater St. Luis was accomplished quite purposefully; it was, in Terrence Jone’s apt phrase, ‘fragmented by design’. This fragmentation in turn, facilitated and invited a prolonged pattern of local piracy as political units sought to maximize local wealth and tax bases while minimizing any claims that might be made on them (45-46)

Here too, he examines the politics of the growth machine, the movement to the suburbs of whites and wealth, cities left with no tax base for their poverty-stricken populations.

Next Collins looks at the “‘The Steel Ring’: Race an Realty in Greater St. Louis,” an examination of both the local, state and federal polices that led to intensive segregation, and the real estate industry, which he sees as lying at the heart of it. St Louis was one of the cities that legislated racial zoning, when that was struck down it turned to race restrictive covenants (which, like L.A., heightened during the first great migration of African Americans from the South during WWI). One neighbourhood purchased their street and streetlights from the city so they could impose uniform deed restrictions, but most simply formed those ubiquitous neighbourhood and homeowner associations. Interestingly, Collins writes:

As with most such settings in St. Louis, the local improvement association was more a consequence of the covenant than it was a cause; the boundaries of the neighbourhood were determined by the willingness of homeowners to sign the covenant. (80)

After restrictions were outlawed, these restrictions continued on as art of policy.

The FHA, as Robert Weaver…noted in 1948, had ‘turned the agency’s operations over to the real estate, and home finance boys.’ Four years later the NAACP scored what it viewed as an ‘extension of racial discrimination and segregation abetted and furthered by a government agency backed by billions of dollars of insurance secured by taxpayers’ money’ and concluded bitterly: ‘We are breaking down the ghetto in old housing only to see federal funds being used to establish impregnable ghettos in new, desirable suburban developments’ (From memorandum re: FHA Underwriting Manual (n.D.), NAACP Papres pt 5, reel 4:0945).

I like this pithy statement: ‘African Americans did not, in the logic of the HOLC, live in residential areas; they invaded them and compromised them’ (92).
Some of the data Collins managed to get and map is truly awesome.

On to zoning! The most boring thing on the planet, but yet also one of the most devastating. Because this is what it does:

Exclusive and fragmented zoning in the suburbs erased any semblance of residential diversity, sorting the white middle class into income-specific single-family enclaves on the periphery and leaving African Americans, the elderly, and the poor to filter into older and higher-density housing stock (much of it unprotected by zoning)in the central city (112)

A 1926 court case challenged zoning, and the law in question on nuisances was actually struck down by an Ohio judge, stating ‘in the last analysis the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life’. The Supreme Court agreed, but allowed it as part of a bigger plan for land use. Through zoning for large lots, single family homes, minimum square footage and the like, lower-income people were kept out.

I think my favourite chapters were around Urban Renewal and the definitions of blight, and some of the data Collins was able to get hold of is amazing. Also profoundly profoundly depressing as he charts the passage of the multiple and often overlapping programs under which urban renewal was carried out. There are volumes to be written on the changing and highly political uses of the term ‘blight’, ‘blight’ as verb, as risk, as disease, as something that even if not yet present can loom and threaten and justify another huge tax break to yet another corporation. And of course, it always invoked the presence of Black people. It helped ensure that ‘renewal’ focused on the destruction of community, the tearing down of homes to build for commercial use and ‘economic development’. Almost no onewas rehoused or given compensation as homes came down to make way for freeways and landmark projects like malls, hotels, and stadiums. Taxes were shifted entirely into financing the loans required to construct such projects through TIF (Tax-increment financing), essentially stolen from schools and other essential city services. And at the end of the day, only 1 of 12 projects financed through TIF was even breaking even in terms of what the site had been earning before development and what after.

To conclude, Collins writes: ‘Wile its central thread is private property, this is not a story…of private markets and private choices. What gives this story its plot, and its sorry ending, are the many ways in which private and public policies shaped or frustrated those choices’ (221). The solutions he believes is to ‘displace local fragmentation with some form of regional governance’. This will help ease competition between local areas, help increase density and improve services, can approach the topic of tax sharing. Here is where my greatest critique comes in, because this book does so much but doesn’t take the next step in trying to answer why public policy took the turns it did. It doesn’t really get at the multiple ways that this preserves the unique privileges of wealthy whites in exclusive areas and how they have fought to increase those privileges, nor how it serves the interests of large corporations and real estate developers lobbying at all levels of governments. These are the interests that must be overcome to reverse any of it, and there is not much sense of how to go about that.