Tag Archives: public space

The Importance of Residence: Willmott and Young on Bethnal Green

Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London is an incredible book, and I am just sorry I didn’t get round to reading it while working in East London though it has been on my list to read for what feels like forever. There are a number of critiques of the book, based primarily on the ‘rosy’ views of working class life. Looking backwards it is hard to tell of course, but it seemed to me it captures much of what continues to be good about working class life…and there is enough here to show that such closeness of community is many-sided and not to everyone’s taste. I thought back to Morrison’s writings on East London, which accentuated the narrowness of life, the gossip in those Mean Streets. I don’t know that either is wrong or right, they can sit together in the richness of how people experience life. For myself, it is always the generousness of my class that has impressed me. Anyway.

This is quite a stupendous piece of research. Amazingly I found a pdf of some of the original survey instruments (original link here, another copy of the docs here)… very cool. But what I love most is they seemed to have actually listened to people, rather than categorising them, and in their work to have explored the intersections of family, home and neighbourhood in quite brilliant ways.

This book is about the effect of one of the newest upon one of the oldest of our social institutions. The new is the housing estate, hundreds of which have been built since the war. In the last century people moved into the cities; in this they have been moving steadily out again, towards the countryside from which their ancestors came. (11)

They write too, that ‘We were least prepared for what we found in the borough’. Because what did they expect? The familiar tale of the ‘good old days’ now gone.  They believed old patterns of wide extended families and support networks had disappeared over the course of industrialization and modernisation undergone in East London, but instead:

We were surprised to discover that the wider family, far from having disappeared, was still very much alive in the middle of London. This finding seemed to us of more interest than anything we had been led to expect, all the more so when it transpired that the absence of relatives seemed to be as significant on the estate as their presence in the borough.

and the last line, a rather fascinating methodological note

We decided, although we hit on it more or less accidentally, to make our main subject the wider family. (12)

This is perhaps why I didn’t prioritise this book, being less interested in constructions of family and more in community and home. But I was terribly wrong about that. In addition to tackling the myth f the destruction of familial networks, they take on others. Bethnal Green’ 54,000 residents in 1955 were almost all working class, but only 8% of population found to be Jewish, ‘contrary to popular opinion‘. So on to what they did find.

Kinship in Bethnal Green

The begin with a review of earlier studies — Charles Booth among others, who described barefoot children, undernourished babies, young moths sick and hungry. The majority of these blamed poverty, blamed the poor, and above all men for spending money on things they shouldn’t, particularly nights down the pub etc. This is the image of the brutal working class man, tales of drunkenness and forced sex, bruises, pregnancies.

Even though we may think the accounts overdrawn, and distrust the representativeness of the families they describe, we cannot ignore the historical evidence, all the more so since the notion still survives that the working-class man is a sort of absentee husband, sharing with his wife neither responsibility nor affection…(19)

But you look at the evidence drawn from their interviews, it is the falling death rate that seems the biggest factor in families remaining families — 29% of those born before 1890 came from homes broken up before they turned 15 by the death of a parent, as compared to 2% from divorce or separation. That is a crazy figure. It was still 19% for those born between 1921 and 1933, compared to 1% divorce and separation.

It had never occurred to me before to think seriously of how young people died, to understand what that meant for the living. To remember how soon this all began changing.

Still — things were improving — despite people living longer, more housing was being made available. In 1931 there were 3 households to every 2 dwellings. 1941, 4 households to every 5 dwellings. More space, less hard wear of space. More comfortable spaces you might want to spend time in as opposed to down the pub. It never occurred to me to think of that much either.

Nor labour patterns and rights, but of course those were also definitive.

The spread of the five-day week has created the ‘week-end’, a new term and a new experience for the working man. (24)

You can see, of course, why I should love this book, bringing all these structural factors together to understand just what life lived within their constraints might mean. It is also full of those details you only get with qualitative work. Like the descriptions of the rise of cinema and wireless — a lovely section on the impact it has had on naming children! No longer names that have always been in the family. Aspirations were changing in other ways — work for example. Primarily for sons, but I love the snark in this reply:

I’d like him to take up chemistry. It’s completely unproductive and therefore well paid. (29)

Young and Willmott continue:

A sizeable minority of men in Bethnal Green take a very different view from white-collar people about the status of manual work, placing jobs such as company director and chartered accountant towards the bottom of the scale and manual jobs, like agricultural laborer, coal miner, and bricklayer, towards the top. These men regard business managers with disfavour because ‘They’re not doing anything. They get their money for walking around’ … Agricultural laborers, on the other hand, they value highly because ‘you can’t do without grub’; coal-miners because ‘without coal, industry stops’; and bricklayers because ‘you’ve got to have houses’. But even some of the men that take this view are anxious that their children should get as good a technical education as possible. (29)

That is one of the best statements of how the world should work I have ever read.

Where People Live

Housing was always an issue given its scarcity, and there follows a long, and brilliantly detailed exploration of how and where people live. After marriage, if the new couple have no home of their own yet, they most often live with the wife’s parents — mother and daughter have a long term bond, can manage in the house together by custom. Willmott and Young write:

Their tenancy is the most valuable property-right many working-class people posses: where the property is privately owned, the rent is low and controlled by law. (33-34)

People inherited tenancies from their parents, sometime going back three generations. This was one of the positive aspects of remaining at home after marriage, but as Young and WiIlmott make clear, most people ‘don’t want to live with them, they want to live near them‘ (35). They include a brilliant quote from Sheldon’s, ‘The Medicine of Old Age’ about similar community in Wolverhampton:

The fact that no less than four per cent of the sample had children living actually next door is astonishing; and there is no doubt that this proportion would have been higher but for the general housing difficulties since 1939, for the opinion was frequently expressed by both generations that this is the best mode of life for the old people, since it enables them to preserve their independence and the married children to lead a separate life, while at the same time ensuring that help is at hand when needed. (36)

This study showed twice as many women as men living in same house with their parents, and twice as many in the same street or block. They talk about the matrilocality of the English working class, and spatially at least this is well born out. (37) They include brilliant little pieces of description of the neighbourhoods they are visiting, and the feel of life there, like their visit to:

a four-roomed house in Minton Street in the middle of the borough. The other houses (but not the two pubs, obviously newer) were all built in the 1870s, of brick which has become a uniform smoke-eaten grey. They are nearly all alike in plan; on the first floor two bedrooms, and on the ground floor a living room, a kitchen, and a small scullery opening on to a yard which has a lavatory at the end of it and patch of earth down one side. Many of the yards are packed with clothes hanging on the line, prams, sheds, boxes of geraniums and pansies, hutches for rabbits and guinea-pigs, lofts for pigeons, and pens for fowls. the only difference between the houses is the colour of the curtains and doorsteps which the wives redden or whiten when they wash down the pavement in front of their doors in the morning. Dilapidated but cosy, damp but friendly, in the eyes of most Bethnal Greeners these cottages are the place, much more so than the huge blocks of tenement buildings standing guard, like dark fortresses, over the little houses . On the warm summer evening of the interview, children were playing hop-scotch or ‘he’ in the roadway while their parents, when not watching the television, were at their open windows. Some of the older people were sitting in upright chairs on the pavement, just in front of the doors, or in the passages leading through to the sculleries, chatting with each other and watching the children at play. (38)

The mother is usually the one who helps get her daughter her own place after marriage — she is the one with connections through the rent collector and through friends. She knows who has died or who is moving out, if she is a good tenant the rent collector can assume her daughter will be too. This means empty apartments go to those from the local area due to this web of connections. Some charitable trusts who owned housing in the area had it as official policy that family gets first chance at flats opening up, in others while not official, that was generally the way things worked. Willmott & Young note too, some of the other arrangements that can be made to reduce animosity over flats where they are scarce, such as letting part to a family who also needs it etc.

This was very different from how the council operated, which is rather fascinating. Willmott &Young noted that at the time of writing the council owned a third of dwelling in the borough and that was increasing. The council worked off of lists not personal connection, and early version of today’s points and priority need. Preference was given to ‘slum’ dwellers and those with high need, and it is easy to see the argument for this, but also you can see what might be lost. In 1957, it was still true that

Bethnal Green suffers from a serious housing shortage. In time, we can hope, it will be much less acute… (42)

Mothers and Daughters

From the above, it is clear just important relationships are. Willmott and Young note the amount of time daughters spend with their mothers, and mothers with their daughters, how it makes no sense to talk about the household as such, particularly given how many meals people share. Again they quote Sheldon on Wolverhampton:

‘In at least 40 per cent of cases they must be regarded as part of a family group, the ramifications of which bear little or no relation to architectural limitations. (48)

I rather love how the family overflows and engulfs the limits of brick walls in that sentence.

There is a multitude of ways listed in which mothers and daughters help each other, but I found this sentence about work quite fascinating:

Part-time work is plentiful in Bethnal Green, both in the small local factories and in the tens of thousands of offices which have to be cleaned in the nearby City, and women are therefore less in need of help from relatives than they would be in many other places. (54)

This would change, I suppose, but it seems to me I have not read much at all that really looks at these employment patterns and the independence such work must have provided. While also being rather shit work.

Husbands and mothers

Another amazing description:

Once arrived in the Hanbury’s front room, most of the guests stood about rather stiffly, holding glasses of beer and sniffing the pickled onions. The Buxtons, that is the bridegroom’s family, were grouped by the window, looking disdainfully at the chipped china dogs on the mantelpiece, the worn linoleum on the floor and the pictures of country scenes which did not quite conceal the damp patches on the wall-paper. (62)

Things liven up though.

You’ll be happy to know that the study found sons to regularly check in on their mothers, it tended to be once a week, and it was often them dropping by on their own. Nice.

The Kinship Network

These are broad, reinforced by regular meetings, but often the mother/oldest sister at their centre, and they tend to dissipate after their death.

The Family in the Economy

More on the many jobs available — it is hard indeed not to think of them as better days:

You do not have to live in Bethnal Green, you only have to take a bus down the main street to notice that this is a place of many industries. You pass tailors’ workshops, furniture makers, Kearley & Tonge’s food warehouse, and near to Allen & Hanbury’s big factory. The borough has by itself a more diversified economy than some countries. But the borough has no frontiers: it belongs to the economy which stretches down both banks of the Thames. At its heart is the largest port in the world, which lines the rives for nearly twenty miles from London Bridge to Tilbury, and supports on every side a web of interconnected industries… (89)

More on immigration, some things don’t change.

Because the East End is a port, and near to the Continent, it is the place where for centuries foreigners have landed to escape from war and persecution in Europe. (89)

Immigration’s connection to employment, though becoming more tenuous

The Huguenots most famously, notes still hand-loom weavers in 1939 and the closure of the last Huguenot silk firm in 1955. Furniture, however, once a spin-off of this trade, still strong though showing signs of winding down…

Several chapters on they have another great story about the Huguenots, where a local resident showed them a document written about the time of the Revolution, some kind of petition to the Governors of the French hospital in Hackney (!) to employ, and treat, his granddaughter. Amazing. But I digress.

Despite this winding down of the furniture trade (though that was still existing in pieces when I worked there), they can still write:

East London is less vulnerable because it has many industries to lean on, and while it cannot avoid being harmed by a general contraction in trade. (91-92)

And they note that those in Bethnal Green able to take the job of their choice. It’s political leanings are no surprise:

Every constituency in East London returns a Labour member to Parliament and every council is controlled by the Labour Party, Bethnal Green regularly electing a complete slate of Labour Councillors almost as a matter of course, The people share their politics; they speak the same language with the same accents; they work with their hands; they have, in short, the same kind of life. These deep-lying bonds between members of a class are also bonds between members of the family. (94)

See? Good old days. Hard to imagine this as Labour now.

One change for the better? Things aren’t quite as openly racist as they used to be:

But for most people the Council is not the prize it was. Security does not now matter enough to offset the low pay. Mr Sanderson, a dustman, explained how far his job had sunk…

Things have got so bad that they recently started about a dozen black men. They’re got the rough and rebel from everywhere. One of the black men was sweeping roads with a cardboard box with eyeholes over his head. The foreman asked him what he was doing that for and he said “Well guv’nor, it’s cold.” If it’s a bad winter, they’ll pack up, go home, and make rum.” (96)

The docks a different story (though probably not in the matter of casual racism), ‘It is a matter of pride to belong to a docker’s family‘. (97) I love this story, though I can’t honestly tell if its racist or not:

There were many well-established families — in a nearby dock, one of these was…known as the ‘Flying Eighteen’, a group of brothers and uncles with legendary sensitivity to the ‘jungle drum beats which let them know a ship was coming up the Thames’. (98)

They always got there first. This closeness of community and family surely has its downside. The study looked at how unions and industries gave preference to members’ sons — Transport and General Workers’ Union, Billingsgate for fish, Covent Garden and Spitalfields for fruit and veg, and Smithfields for meat.  Printing, bookbinding and paper workers the same.

Kinship and Community

Willmott and Young meet some of these challenges head on, at least in terms of the wider white working class:

Since family life is so embracing in Bethnal Green, one might perhaps expect it would be all-embracing… Far from the family excluding ties to outsiders, it acts as an important means of promoting them… The kindred are, if we understand their functions aright, a bridge between the individual and the community… (104)

They give this amazing, cinematic description of Mrs ‘Landon’ doing her half-hour morning’s shopping and telling the name and background of everyone they pass. By her own record of who she saw in a week in the street that she considered herself to ‘know’, there were 63 in total, and 38 were the relatives of someone else she knew. It is in the street, the shop, the pub that people meet each other, NOT in the home, which remains private. But I think much more happened then in public that would now be considered things best kept private.

Again we have another  brilliant description of urban space:

The streets are known as ‘turnings’, and adjoining ones as ‘back-doubles’, Surrounded by their human associations, the words had a glow to them, ‘In our turning we‘, they would say, ‘do this, that, or the other.’ ‘I’ve lived in this turning for fifty years’, said one old man proudly, ‘and here I intend to stay’. The residents of the turning, who usually make up a sort of ‘village’ of 100 or 200 people, have their own places to meet, where few outsiders ever come — practically every turning has its one or two pubs, its two or three shops, and its ‘bookie’s runner’. They organize their own parties…some turnings have little war memorials… (109)

They mention a woman had lived in the same courtyard all of her 62 years, spoke of newcomers with only 18 years residence, shocked to hear the council thought of her court as a slum. Imagine.

Another quote from J.H. Robb Working Class Anti-Semite…I don’t quite know what that is about, will have to look it up, but the quote is a good one:

There is a further localism within the borough. People are apt to look for their friends and their club within a close range. The social settlements draw nearly all their members from within a third of  a mile, while tradition dictates which way borderline streets face for their social life. The main streets are very real social barriers… (110)

So in looking at what holds community together, they write:

The interaction between length of residence and kinship is therefore the crux of our interpretation. Neither is by itself a sufficient explanation. (115)

But above all it is place.

In ending this chapter…If we are to pick out one conclusion, it is the importance of residence.

Marriage, changes of life, all of it

A special cast is given to all these adjustments and readjustments by the fact that they are played out within a limited physical space.  (117)

What better way, they say, to study the importance of residence than to look at what happens to this thick web of connections when there is a change? So on to part two — the new council estate at ‘Greenleigh’, now the truth can come out of the name — the Debden Estate. Why did I think it was the Becontree Estate? Dear oh dear, but it matters not. That will be saved for part 2.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

Zaragoza Cityscapes

I liked Zaragoza, and for the first time in a long time felt properly hot. The old part of town with narrow streets kept cool and shaded by the unbroken rows of several-story buildings on either side. The ways that they suddenly opened up into small plazas, most of them filled with tables and chairs for food and drink, somewhere to sit for those who bought nothing. Wonderful public spaces, full of generations. The way that this old town centre was still so residential, full of life and children and a mingling of different kinds of people. We only found the wealthy area by accident on our last day, it relied more on trees for shade, and everyone wore the same well-groomed discontented faces. I didn’t like that part so much.

We were privileged to dine at Montal, delicious food and the best of brilliant post-viva company, and it gave a better sense of these old  residences with their open colonnaded centres stretching up two stories. They are so lovely. I explain them badly, so one individual picture.

Zaragoza

Too lovely for such a terrible hierarchy of aristocrats as once were found here. We were let down into the cellar to see the museum of the great leaning tower that once stood in this little plaza, there are hundreds of drawings of it, interspersed with gated doorways beyond which sit dusty bottles of wine.

The Museum of Goya is nearby, he lived here for a time and there is such a collection of his prints as will amaze you. They are wondrous, able to rip your heart out. We started in the print room as advised, and that was undoubtedly the very best way to experience the museum.

Roman ruins, the basilica, a river and ancient bridge, the mudéjar architectire and Aljafería, the graffiti…I did very much like this city.

 

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The Urban and non-Urban Delights of Aberystwyth

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

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Its interior decoration.

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Its basement of books.

Aberystwyth

Its splendour of shop windows.

Aberystwyth

Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.

Aberystwyth

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

Aberystwyth

The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura

Aberystwyth

The view heading back down on the funicular railway:

Aberystwyth

A genuine welsh choir

Aberystwyth

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

Aberystwyth

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

Aberystwyth

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

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

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

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Oslo Streets

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

Oslo

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

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

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

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

Oslo

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

Oslo

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

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

Oslo -- Akerselva River

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

Oslo -- Akerselva River

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

Oslo

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

Oslo

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

Oslo

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

Oslo

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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

 

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Janette Sadik-Khan: Streetfight

Janette Sadik-Khan StreetfightIn Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.

This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.

And yet.

As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.

Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.

On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:

This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)

This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:

Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)

Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)

The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:

Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)

Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.

She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.

Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.

Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:

Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…

The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)

This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:

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

Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:

retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)

This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…

Density is Destiny

I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).

I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:

Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)

Which helps explain why

After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)

Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.

Setting the Agenda

The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)

How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.

But to give her credit, she made actual changes. She gives these wonderful examples from Island Press’s Urban Street Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials as some of the inspirations:

None

There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.

She hits it on the nose:

Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)

Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.

These are troubled histories. Like this one:

Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)

Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?

It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:

the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)

Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)

She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.

But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.

By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)

She gives this example

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

It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues.  On the High Line, she writes:

…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)

She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the

urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)

Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.

Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:

Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)

The Battle for a New Times Square

Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.

Times Square  by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)

In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:

The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)

Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:

These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)

Stealing Good Ideas

Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.

I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.

These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a  sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)

I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).

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

And then, the chapter title:

Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses

It opens.

I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)

I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,

An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)

So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.

This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:

Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)

I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:

In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)

When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.

Nuts and Bolts

I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:

But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)

Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.

But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.

Her last lines.

There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.

If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.

I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.

Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.

For more on building social spaces and better cities…

[Sadik-Khan, Janette and Seth Solomonow (2016) Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. NY: Viking.]

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Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

IMG_5070

These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

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Kevin Lynch on Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityI love that LA is one of the case studies in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (see his broader arguments in parts 1 and 2). It was almost disconcerting realising that this was written in 1960, when LA was such a different place. Bunker Hill still there, Pershing Square still a proper landscaped square not a barely functional ugly unwelcoming space covering a parking lot. But this is also a city I know very well through personal experience and study, so could bring both to bear, and this offered a good perspective on the limitations of the book.

This description of (white, professional) views of downtown are also startling:

The general image is remarkable for its emptiness east of Main or Los Angeles Streets, and south of 7th Street, except for the extension of the repeating grid. The central area is set in a vacuum. This L-shaped center is liberally sprinkled with remembered landmarks, chief of them being the Statler and Biltmore Hotels… But only two landmarks were described in any concrete detail: the ugly, black and gold Richfield Building and the pyramided top of the City Hall (35).

Wow — first, city hall makes sense but the Statler Hotel? Not a landmark I would have given, and one now torn down (for the story, see the great blog from Paradise Leased).

hotel-statler

Second, the Richfield Building ugly? I confess I didn’t actually know this as the Richfield Building, but I did know the building itself and quite love it:

Richfield Building, Los Angeles

Third…this is such a white view of downtown LA — as Lynch himself shows later. So to look at the white map of downtown LA:

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles

Kevin Lynch Los Angeles from interviews

In describing the areas, Lynch writes:

Bunker Hill is not as strong an image, despite its historical connotations, and quite a few felt that it was “not in the downtown area.” Indeed, it is surprising how the core, in bending around this major topographic feature, has succeeded in visually burying it (36).

I suppose that made it much easier for them to tear it down, that and the way it was full of poor people and people of color, which as later findings on LA seem to show means such areas are erased from mental maps of those in power. I am still mourning Bunker Hill.

Kevin Lynch Bunker Hill

Then there is the shock of Pershing Square being a decent public space….though given his list of its uses, it’s very clear why the city council should have destroyed it.

Pershing Square is consistently the strongest element of all: an exotically landscaped open space in the heart of downtown, reinforced by its use as an outdoor political forum, camp meeting, and old people’s rest. (36-37)

Pershing Square LA

So now we get to why I should bring race into things (if you were not already on board with that and wondering):

Broadway was perhaps the only path which was unmistakable for all…Although conceded to be the core, if anything is, yet Broadway was not a shopping area for most of these middle-class persons. Its walks are crowded with the ethnic minorities and lower-income groups who living quarters ring the central section. the subjects interviewed regarded this linear core as an alien one, looking at it with varying degrees of avoidance, curiosity, or fear. They were quick to describe the status differences between the Broadway crowds, and those to be seen on 7th Street, which, if not elite, is at least a middle-class shopping street. (38)

Yes, Lynch did, in fact, only interview professional white folks working in the downtown core. It is the ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘lower-income groups’ whose living quarters form the ’emptiness’ of the white maps, their streets the ‘no-go’ areas. This is a vision of the ‘other’ with a vengeance, the alien. It is not one that is taken up or questioned. It is just left there. Broadway is highlighted as a landmark mostly because it was the corridor for street cars rather than buses — streetcars! The destruction of public transportation networks and fear generated through racism…a pretty good explanation of what happened to LA.

What is curious, though, is that even for these white respondents fearful of Broadway, Olvera Street was special. That surprised me, but perhaps its mixture of genuine history and culture with a facade of touristy Mexican-ness rendered it palatable. Lynch writes of the courtyard at its South end:

Not only is this small spot visually very distinct, but it is the only true historical anchor-point in the city and seems to generate a fierce attachment (39).

Interesting.

He continues:

When asked to describe or symbolize the city as a whole, the subjects used certain standard words: “spread-out,” “spacious,” “formless,” “without centers.” Los Angeles seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole. An endless spread, which may carry pleasant connotations of space around the dwellings, or overtones of weariness and disorientation, was the common image. Said one subject: “It’s as if you were going somewhere for a long time, and when you got there you discovered there was nothing there, after all. (40-41)

This note on trying to find something to hold on to is interesting.

Another frequent theme was that of relative age. Perhaps because so much of the environment is new or changing, there was evidence of widespread, almost pathological, attachment to anything that had survived the upheaval.

Yet they kept tearing things down. Bunker Hill was just about to go…Another thing I am so sad I never saw:

In Los Angeles, on 7th Street at the corner of Flower Street, is an old, two-story gray wooden building, set back some ten feet from the building line, containing a few minor shops. This took the attention and fancy of a surprising number of people. One even anthropomorphized it as the “little gray lady.” (81)

Kevin Lynch - The Grey Lady

Lynch continues:

In Los Angeles there is an impression that the fluidity of the environment and absence of physical elements which anchor to the past are exciting and disturbing. Many descriptions of the scene by established residents, young or old, were accompanied by ghosts of what used to be there. Changes, such as those wrought by the freeway system, have left scars on the mental image. (45)

LA as a city of ghosts.

In looking at the specifics of how the city space works, Lynch writes:

…more abrupt directional shifts may enhance visual clarity by limiting the spatial corridor… one was prevented from sensing the vacuum in which central Los Angeles is placed by the grid shifts which close off the outward view. (56)

Once again, let us remember that the ‘vacuum’ consists of the homes and neighbourhoods of poor people and people of colour. Maybe I shouldn’t be, yet I remain astonished at the lack of self-reflexivity in these statements. The degree to which the book and this kind of scholarship is rendered shoddy by a lack of questioning such constructions, and the reality that as part of a privileged group, Lynch is completely unable to see, much less understand, how other groups move through and understand the city he is studying. To end with perhaps one of the most insightful points Lynch makes (without quite realising it I think):

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

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Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityKevin Lynch — he’s been on my list of folks to read forever on architecture and cities and space, and with reason as The Image of the City is rather brilliant. He writes:

Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time. City design is therefore a temporal art… At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surrounding, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences. (1)

I love this nod to the overwhelming — and mostly pleasurable — nature of the city, the ways it works in both space and time, and like Lofland, Whyte, Cullen, Gehl and others, he is clearly writing as someone with an appreciation for city life. It is a life that is in many ways collectively constructed:

Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are consonantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own… No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature. (2)

In The Image of the City, Lynch’s focus is primarily looking at what he calls the ‘legibility’ of the cityscape — how we read cities and how understanding that can help us (re)build better cities. Why is legibility key?

A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He can establish an harmonious relationships between himself and the outside world…(4)

I love this quote even more…

a distinctive and legible environment not only offers security but also heightens the potential depth and intensity of human experience. Although life is far from impossible in the visual chaos of the modern city, the same daily action could take on new meaning if carried out in a more vivid setting. (5)

This is not to go against the many authors who write about the unknown, Lynch emphasises that this not to deny the value of labyrinth or surprise, but under two larger conditions — where there is no danger of losing basic

orientation, of never coming out. The surprise must occur in an over-all framework; the confusions must be small regions in a visible whole…. Complete chaos without hint of connection is never pleasurable. (6)

Another important qualification, the power of human beings to shape the urban environment:

The observer himself should play an active role in perceiving the world and have a creative part in developing his image. He should have the power to change that image to fit changing needs… what we seek is not a final but an open-ended order, capable of continuous further development. (6)

So to understand how this all works, he book tries to get at the ways people understand and read cities, the

‘public images,’ the common mental pictures carried around by large numbers of a city’s inhabitants… (7)

I love maps, and so found this a fascinating way to examine people’s relationships to the urban form, splitting it into useful divisions to be examined:

The mental maps that are shared of streets and landmarks. These are analyzed in terms of identity (its recognition as a separable entity), structure (the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and other objects) and meaning (for the observer, whether practical or emotional). (8)

Above all in understanding legibility is this:

imageability: that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. (9)

A highly imageable (apparent, legible, or visible) city in this peculiar sense would seem well formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the eye and the ear to greater attention and participation. The sensuous grasp upon such surroundings would not merely be simplified, but also extended and deepened. Such a city would be one that could be apprehended over time as a pattern of high continuity with many distinctive parts clearly interconnected. The perceptive and familiar observer could absorb new sensuous impacts without disruption in his basic image, and each new impact would touch upon many previous elements. He would be well oriented, and he could move easily. He would be highly aware of his environment. The city of Venice might be an example of such a highly imageable environment. (10)

Venice again, but I think this is definitely how a city works best, and this imageablity is the center of his study of Boston, LA and Jersey City. What follows is a really interesting way of mapping out perceptions of the city through surveys and interviews. The maps are brilliant:

Kevin Lynch - Boston

Particularly interesting is the look at problems, as in the ‘Problems of the Boston image’ (p 24 — though you won’t be surprised to find that Boston has fewer problems than the other two):

Kevin Lynch Problem of the Boston image

 

This marks what Kevin Lynch describes as the

confusions, floating points, weak boundaries, isolations, breaks in continuity, ambiguities, branchings, lacks of character or differentiation. (25)

Of course it beats both Jersey City and Los Angeles hands down as a memorable, enjoyably walkable and legible city. I do myself have a great soft spot for Boston. I thought I’d go into more detail on LA in a second post, as it is my own city after all. It also highlights Lynch’s limitations, but there is much to be mined from the book.

First, what development has done to the US city centre:

There is the same piling-up of blank office structures, the same ubiquity of traffic ways and parking lots (34).

This has made them almost indistinguishable from one another, Lynch notes Jersey City as the least distinguishable of all — funny that what people most loved about it was the view of New York’s skyline on their horizon.

Common themes between the cities:

…people adjust to their surroundings and extract structure and identity out of the material at hand. The types of elements used in the city image, and the qualities that make them strong or weak, seem quite comparable between the three…

In terms of broad themes, the key favourite aspects of all cities were  space and views:

Among other things, the tests made clear the significance of space and breadth of view (43) … there was an emotional delight arising from a broad view, which was referred to many times. …

Natural landscapes:

The landscape features of the city: the vegetation or the water, were often noted with care and pleasure. (44)

Also a deep sense of the spatialities of class (race is not discussed at all, except in an oblique way, a truly blindingly un-scholarly way which the post on LA will deal with more)

Quite as apparent is the constant reference to socio-economic class: the avoidance of “lower class” Broadway in Los Angeles, the recognition of the “upper class” Bergen Section in Jersey City, or the unmistakable division of Boston’s Beacon Hill into two distinct sides.

Space and time:

… the way in which the physical scene symbolizes the passage of time… (45)

So in broad strokes, there is a lot to think about here… the next post gets into the nitty gritty of design elements and physical space.

[Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press]

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Lyn Lofland: Aesthetics & Cosmopolitanism of the Public Realm

lyn-lofland-public-realmI end these series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm on a positive note (also see posts one, two and three). She bases her book based on the ‘root assumption … that the public realm has social value.’ (229) I will wrap up with her look at the aesthetics of city spaces, as well as the positive aspects they bring to our lives and to our societies as a whole.

First, aesthetic pleasures:

By aesthetic pleasure, I am referring to the experience of enjoyment occasioned by certain (mostly) visual qualities of the built environment. (78)

It is interesting that Lofland’s own analysis of the city’s cuilt environment and spaces doesn’t really intersect with those of Alexander, Cullen, or Sitte with whom they share much in common, but it is a good list.

Perceptual Innuendo:

…the pleasure that arises from glimpsing a small piece of the built environment, a glimpse that suggests that an interesting, exotic, weird, enticing, possibly enchanting social world exists just outside one’s range of vision. (80)

Unexpectedness:

There is research suggesting a fairly strong preference for urban places that are “familiar”…for some individuals at least, the opposite of the quality of familiarity — unexpectedness– seems also to appeal… the issue becomes not one or the other, but how much of one, how much of the other… (81)

Also note the fact that a very fat cat named Tidly used to live in London Paddington’s lady’s loo!

Whimsy: Fanciful, frivolous, eccentric street furniture or sculpture — she uses Prince Albert Memorial as an example, I confess I am slightly unsure of its suitedness.

Historical Layering/ Physical Juxtaposition: Again London is a prime example, ancient buildings alongside modern.

Crowding/ Stimulus Diversity/Spectacle: Self-explanatory

These are the aesthetic pleasures of the city, but Lofland also argues there are interactional pleasures in the ways that  people populate the built environment. I like this list too…

Public Solitude: often described negatively, but if so many people seek it out, surely might be because it is enjoyable, being surrounded by the hum of conversation, being part of a crowd

People-Watching: catching glimpses or snatches of conversations about other people’s lives the ways perceptual innuendo aloows glimpses of anticipated elsewheres

Public Sociability: found in secondary interactions, regular pubs or cafes etc

Playfulness/Frivolity/Fantasy: humour, flirting etc

In many ways this list is a bit similar to the list of things campaigns have directly attacked about public space. Which is interesting.

To move on to the value of the public realm itself beyond the aesthetic. Lofland looks at the wealth of literature (cites Fischer 1982, Wellman and Wortley 1990, Berger 1977) on the value of the parochial realm, of ‘community’, neighbourhood, kin and friend networks, organisations, which all testify to

our certainty that the parochial realm gives us a degree of physical and emotional safety; enlarges, while still containing, the world of our growing young; provides us with affirmation of our personal worth; and “mediates” our linkages to the powerful nation-state. (229)

She notes in addition the feminist critique of the dangers of the city for women, but cites Elizabeth Wilson (1991: 7,10) on what the city provides in addition:

The city offers women freedom . . . Surely it is possible to be both pro-cities and pro-women, to hold in balance an awareness of both the pleasures and the dangers that the city offers women, and to judge that in the end, urban life, however fraught with difficulty, has emancipated women more than rural life or suburban domesticity. (230)

Lofland also argues that city generates cosmopolitanism, that it

produces — by its very nature — a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility … (231)

The idea of cosmopolitanism, has, of course, been much studied since 1998 and the best of it getting at this kind of dynamic rather than simply the mobilities and diversity of privilege. Lofland loves lists almost as much as I do I think, and makes what she calls an ‘Inventory of Utility’ (231) or 6 uses or functions of the public realm — another very useful list:

  1. An environment for learning
  2. Respites and refreshments — places to sit and rest, drink, enjoy
  3. A Communications Center — places to meet, talk
  4. The “Practice” of Politics — builds on Sennet’s arguments around public space and how they build citizenship
  5. The Enactment of Social Arrangements and Social Conflict — public dramas and spectacles
  6. The Creation of Cosmopolitans: ‘claim that city living — by itself — generated tolerance and civility, that city living — by itself — created cosmopolitans … one of the linchpins in the argument that cities are good places to live.’ (237)

She then digs deeper into this idea of cosmopolitanism and what facilitates it, looking at both the negative and positive tolerances that are generated in city life. To start with what studies seem to show are the negative tolerances and the ways that they are generated:

  1. People share a larger bounded space but not the smaller pieces of it (238) — Robert Park’s descriptions of urban mosaic where people remain almost invisible to each other
  2. People physically share smaller spaces within the larger space but segregate themselves from one another symbolically.  (238) Visible in preindustrial city, where classes for example shared space but did not interact

I need to think more about those. This is not just indifference, but self-segregation, even if at a small scale …. I don’t think this has to be part of how people react to the public realm, but rather reflects the divisions in the larger society, particularly the US. On to what generates positive tolerances:

  1. Diverse people are not segregated into homogeneous enclaves and are forced to settle whatever conflicts arise among them without recourse to centrally imposed instruments of order. (239)
  2. People have mastered the complexity of the urban environment sufficiently to move through it with a high degree of psychic safety. (239) … the mastery of shorthand methods for accurately interpreting who people are and what they are up to allows urbanites to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner … and thus allows them to confront the heterogeneity of the city with a minimum of distrust and fear.
  3. The levels of community closest to the actor (the home, the immediate neighborhood) are secure and nonthreatening. (240) People have to be able to withdraw to safety.
  4.   People are able to control the character and quality of their contact with diverse others. This can’t be forced.
  5. People possess certain demographic characteristics. those characteristics themselves generating a capacity for tolerance. (240) The literature talks about these demographics being highly educated, high status, single, childless… this seems wrong to me, very wrong, I mean look at the conviviality of working class neighborhoods. But researchers tend not to come from those neighborhoods, and they aren’t all convivial I suppose. Dearborn in the 50s for example. Anyway.

An interesting list. More interesting is the way that cosmpolitanism as a positive force emerges not from those relationships more privileged by most social scientists, but from fleeting public ones:

The learning of tolerance, the creation of cosmopolitanism may require the existence of and repeated experience with “nonintimate,” “noncommunal,” relationships. Limited, segmental, episodic, distanced links between self and other may constitute the social situations that both allow and teach civility and urbanity in the face of significant differences. And this assertion brings us to the matter of the public realm. (242)

Also interesting is the list of potential ideal conditions for the creation of cosmopolitanism, what Lofland calls a ‘highly regulated urban anarchism’

  1. City should be small and compactly settled, pedestrian or mass-transit oriented, people share public realm in pursuit of everyday activity
  2. Degree of segregation of people and activities minimized
  3. Differences between people must be seen by them as ‘meaningful’ — they must be encountering people with whom they disagree, disapprove, or fear mild fear .. the city must have a hard edge as opposed to DIsneyland city
  4. This hard edge cannot be felt to make public space feel so dangerous, people do not venture into it (243)

I like the emphasis that it cannot be a fully safe space, that it has to be full of strangers and challenging to people’s prejudices, that it has to minimize segregation and homogeneity…

All in all, I found this an immensely useful and thought-provoking work that I hope to think through further…

[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)

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