Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

Looking Beyond the “Western World”

We in the so-called Western World, and the U.S. especially, have a tendency to think of the (so-called) modern world as originating with the Roman Empire. After all, democracy was created within the great Greco-Roman society of old and their cities were modern wonders, still influencing the architecture we have today (you can check your local civic structure for those iconic columns, for example). This kind of thinking however, is misguided and completely inaccurate. Cities have existed around the globe for a lot longer than just the fabled Rome, and in many ways actually embodied the idea of “civilization” far earlier than Pax Romana. At the same time, by not looking back at the ways that even Rome did things, we miss a lot of extremely valuable information that can affect our cities today.

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

There is always something to be learned by looking comparatively at cities, and especially cities of the past. I think it is important to consider that someone, somewhere may have grappled with the same issues you do, hopefully in a way that can inform your own decisions. Today this manifests in scholarly journals for academics and conferences where knowledge can be shared by a multitude of professionals worldwide. But sometimes it is necessary to look back, not just across, which is where archaeology becomes crucial to the urban studies equation. (Even comparatively recent cities sometimes require a bit of digging to reveal their secrets.) Indeed, discounting the fact that billions of individuals have come before you and may have considered these very same urban issues, can even be detrimental to development, setting a culture back decades or even hundreds of years.

In more ways than one, Rome is an excellent example of this issue. When the Roman Empire spread across Europe to England in the first century AD, it brought with it the design of fortresses and city structures which fuel this emphasis on Western civilization. After this occupation it was England that brought about the Industrial Revolution which went on to spread urbanization to an unprecedented degree around the world. What’s fascinating to consider, however, is that during that time between the Roman intervention, the eventual retreat, and the famous revolution, the urbanization of England actually virtually disappeared. After the cities were abandoned by the fallen empire, residents for the most part went back to more rural ways of life. It wasn’t until centuries later that the region built back up again to something resembling its Roman days, and then beyond.

The Roman Forum - Not so unique afterall?  (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The Roman Forum – not so unique afterall? (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The modern city structure, generally speaking, is typically attributed to Roman engineering. When we think of cities we often think of an orthogonal grid-plan layout with wide thoroughfares and public plazas – this is the island of Manhattan, most downtowns, and newer auto-oriented American cities like Phoenix, Arizona. Hippodamus of Miletus, the famed father of urban planning, is known for supposedly inventing this orthogonal structure as well as the public agora, having developed numerous towns and cities in Ancient Greece. However, the focus is too narrowly attributed to this singular culture in this one part of the world. In fact, orthogonal city structures were independently invented in all corners of the globe by the simple fact that regulation of the urban environment is easier for the people in power (giving them a way to regulate buildings and to view their domain), and also because a squared shape placed in the urban environment is a fairly logical structure. Boards of wood (or logs or bricks and so on) fit together conveniently in right angles in a more compact grid-like pattern rather than positioning a bunch of cubes in a circular formation (see the earliest cities for examples of this from our first days as city-dwellers).

Chang'an, China in the Tang Period. You can't get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Chang’an, China in the Tang Period. You can’t get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Along with the contemporary understanding of urbanism that is so often attributed to the Roman Empire, other modern conventions have also been equally praised as Roman inventions. Take plumbing for example – something which is as famously “Roman” as concrete (I’ll get to that later). In actuality, plumbing has existed since the early civilizations of the Indus Valley to the east. Toilets, too, go hand-in-hand with these pipes, and amazingly flush toilets were even around thousands of years before the English occupation – unlike in Western society where defecation in very unsanitary conditions was commonplace until the mid-19th century. How was it that it took this long for conditions in cities to improve, to push us into the contemporary urbanized world? It’s incredible to think that this back and forth of life-changing inventions could have been prevented with better communication and consistency between civilizations.

Roman public toilets - something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

Roman public toilets – something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

On the other hand, there is something which is valuable to look at when examining the Western origins in Rome. Where they didn’t technically invent other modern conventions, they did have a hand in the invention of one of the most influential materials on earth: concrete. Without it, virtually our entire contemporary society would be dramatically different than it is today. And I don’t just mean a lack of brutalist architecture, I mean a lack of skyscrapers, sidewalks, and yes, even our modern plumbing systems. But here’s something even more astounding – much like our haste to praise the Roman Empire, we have overlooked the history of the urban development and most notably the context of the recipe, as it were, of something so perfected by this ancient civilization. A recent article in Business Week details the findings of the UCLA Roman concrete research team (an interesting elevator speech for those guys to be sure), which explains how the simple addition of volcanic ash to the mix is the secret to the long-lasting structures still standing today.

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

By taking a simplistic look at an idealized past, or by not looking at it at all, we overlook the longer view of human habitation as well as the finer details of ancient urban life. Neighborhood layouts in Mesoamerica famously arrange their buildings around a central public plaza – across an ocean from ancient Roman society and their famed forum. Chinese cities were extraordinarily orthogonal, massive complexes occupied for thousands of years with wide roads and designated markets. And we now know that Angkor Wat was much larger than we previously thought stretching an incredible 13 square miles with giant reservoirs and orthogonal streets and canals. All of these components of cities are far more complex and even common than we tend to believe. What else can ancient, and non-Western cities teach us about urbanism? Considering the thousands of years we have been building and rebuilding cities around the world, the information could be infinite. By looking back at what has come before us more often, by looking beyond our modern Western hubris, we could find that the solutions to our problems can be as simple as adding a bit of ancient volcanic ash to our modern mixture.

The urban nerd's version of a conference souvenir

Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

 

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference here in Portland, Oregon. This year’s theme was, “reshaping suburbia into healthy communities”, a rather hot topic these days and one which has finally become a focus for more places than I had previously expected. Many cities have up until recently famously emphasized the revitalization of their downtowns, a point of contention for those concerned with the exurban regions. Where once the urban core was the dangerous home of (so-called) ghettos and the suburbs were the epitome of the (again, so-called) American Dream, the reverse is quickly becoming reality. It’s a startling trend – housing prices are rising in downtown regions whereas suburbs are in the decline, increasingly occupied by the disadvantaged populations previously living in the now-popular urban apartment blocks.

A session at the first IMCL Conference in Venice, attended by William H. Whyte and Fred Kent, no less! (Image from livablecities.org)

A session at the first IMCL Conference in Venice, attended by William H. Whyte and Fred Kent, no less! (Image from livablecities.org)

This conference, started in 1985 by Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard and Dr. Henry L. Lennard, aims to bring together a host of multidisciplinary professionals worldwide in order to exchange ideas surrounding livability in the urban realm (and was one of the first to do so!). Fifty conferences later it is still a far-reaching influential event bringing together mayors, policy makers, planners, architects, social scientists, and even lawyers. Though my mind is still reeling from five days packed with inspirational speakers, informative presentations, and the buzz of a few hundred professionals from around the world, the following are my top four highlights from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference.

1.) The Suburbs Can Change

I’m always skeptical of the suburbs (suburban skepticism?) in regards to them ever truly turning a new leaf towards walkability in a livable sense. Apparently, not only suburbs, but smaller sized towns and cities around the globe are putting an emphasis on revitalizing (or creating, for that matter) their downtown areas, in many cases emphasizing their historic heritage and creating local pride for their spot on the map. Where I live in Portland, Oregon, I’ll admit to having never ventured out to the suburban edge city of Hillsboro. It is accessible by train, but for a city-dweller like myself has never been an interesting destination. I was surprised then when Collin Cooper, the Assistant Planning Director of Hillsboro, illustrated what is possible when public space and a human scale is applied to an otherwise suburban city center. Another major speaker, Ellen Dunham-Jones (of New Urbanism fame), also presented a suite of examples of shopping mall retrofits in suburban neighborhoods, many of which are continuing to increase in density today. This and many other examples from small towns blew away my expectations of increasing density and creating urban cores where none existed before.

Hillsboro Civic Center and Plaza where many events are held (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

Hillsboro Civic Center and Plaza where many events are held (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

2.) Look at the Alternatives (transportation, that is)

One example of development in a small town did a great job of bouncing back after a natural disaster, but also integrated some unexpected elements into the space. After a major flood, the city of Yorkton, Canada, decided to turn what was once a street severely affected by the flooding into a mixed-use path with a retention basin and skatepark. That’s right – a skatepark! Gord Shaw explained that they took this opportunity to provide a safe, well-lit, and accessible place for youth to interact and get exercise. Rather than pushing skateboarders out of public spaces without a place for them to go to, they decided to take advantage of the new swath of land and encourage the healthy activity in a populated places. While some issues of cleanliness and drug use did arise early on, the community took ownership of this place and it is now a maintained destination for young families and the elderly community located nearby. I thought this was an excellent example of alternative transportation taken to its height – not only emphasizing the usual modes of bicycles and public transportation – but an all-inclusive alternative transportation policy.

The Greenville, South Carolina Swamp Rabbit Trail, another great example of a hugely successful suburban trail presented at the conference (From greenvillerec.com)

The Greenville, South Carolina Swamp Rabbit Trail, another great example of a hugely successful suburban trail presented at the conference (From greenvillerec.com)

5.) Even Portland has its Problems

The conference was in Portland, as is the main office for the IMCL Council, because it is known as exemplifying the livable cities concept in its walkability, public space, and urban life. The conference of course had many speakers from Portland and nearby, including the recently elected Mayor Hales, Metro President Tom Hughes, and the always enthusiastic Michael Mehaffy. But more important than what Hillsboro is doing or the tours around the parks in the Pearl District is what Susan Anderson, Director of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, had to say about our “dirty little secret”. Much like suburbs outside the reaches of the city, accessible only by car and filled with cul-de-sacs (and so on), there are regions within cities which also contain all the ills associated with what this conference was all about. Portland has a very small, accessible downtown region and even the areas across the river have their own economic corridors and concentrated centers – to a point. That point for us is east of 82nd Street. In a city famous for its walkability, as Susan stated in her presentation, this is literally the point in Portland where the sidewalk ends. And that’s not okay. Even as a city famous for exemplifying livability concepts, there is always more to do to reshape the city towards a more inclusive livability standard.

Image from Susan's talk on where the sidewalk literally ends at 136th Ave. (Image from www.friends.org)

Image from Susan’s talk on where the sidewalk literally ends at 136th Ave. (Image from http://www.friends.org)

4.) The Focus is our Future

Looking toward the future (as I am apt to do), there is another thread of livability which should be emphasized in the suburbs (and elsewhere) as perhaps the biggest issue we need to resolve – the health of our children. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard has put considerable time into this cause (via books and her website) and focused on children during her talks at the conference. Like the notably livable Scandinavian countries, we need to realize that an emphasis on children is an emphasis on everyone. Regardless of whether or not you have children yourself, we can all benefit from the impact that designing for children brings (slower streets for example). Another key speaker, Dr. Richard J. Jackson (author of Designing Healthy Communities and famous for the PBS series of the same name), also focuses heavily on children’s relationship to the built environment and the psychological issues that come with issues of suburban development and isolation. As a doctor, he links this to the rising obesity rates in children as well as the overprescription of antidepressants. The link between the built environment and health is stronger than once thought, and if we are to create a better future, we need to start by building better cities.

 

The urban nerd's version of a conference souvenir

The urban nerd’s version of a conference souvenir

 

Overall, the conference provided a bit of everything – some inspirational motivation, some harsh realities, and some real examples of what can be done when cities (and suburbs) really put their priorities on livability for all. As this was admittedly my first conference, I can safely say that I’m hooked. Give me interdisciplinary collaboration and communication anytime! I think I speak for everyone there when I say the experience was invaluable for education and connectivity, and I look forward to seeing the progress in the suburbs and continuing the conversation at the next one. 

Map showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture globally (In different time periods. Original here.)

Urbanism is Weird

From economics to urbanism, I believe every contemporary topic can be looked at through the lens of human history (which is why I prefer to retain the “Anthropologist” part of my urban title). After all, what better way to start discussing human systems (i.e. cities) than with humans? While anthropology is the study of man, it must include our origins – namely our evolution from our fellow members of the animal kingdom. In fact it is often crucial that we remember most importantly, when it really comes down to it, we are animals. As much as we’d like to ignore this fact sometimes, it is indeed our reality, and has significant implications for the way we create our built environment.

Unfortunately, no, this is not what Anthropology is like.

Unfortunately, no, this is not what Anthropology is like.

To begin with, Biology

To discuss this, we need to begin with biology. In the study of natural science, we find that all animals evolve to occupy their very specific niche within the natural (or more recently, man-made) environments. This can mean something as simple as being nocturnal where others are not, or vice versa, but it can even mean something as specific as being active only during twilight – that is, only during dawn and dusk (also known as crepuscular). In the rainforest, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of species which never even touch the forest floor. Their niche is so far up in the trees and so completely sustainable within that space that they never need to venture below, nor would they last long if they did. Their physiological systems are such that they adapted to their physical environment and climate and only that niche within it, be it treetops, the ocean, the atmosphere, or the desert (etc.) in order to fit within the larger system.

When placing animals in manufactured habitats, we therefore take into serious consideration what that animal is supposed to be in – what their environment is based on their niche in the natural world. Gerbils like to dig because they’re normally making burrows in sandy soil, and so we give them lots of bedding in their cages for them to do so, and so on (and as a former gerbil owner, I can attest to this). The question then is: why isn’t this the same for humans and the design of our habitats? Personally I think it can be summarized in this lack of anthropological context. If we think of ourselves as inherently different from animals, then we tend to pay less attention to this concept of environmental determinism – or the effect of the environment on the inhabitants. While controversial (for many reasons) it is still a serious thing to consider at least as a partial reality when examining the built environment and its effect on humans.

Homo sapiens sapiens

When considering the history of mankind (and its lead up to urbanism), we also need to contemplate the history of the world, if only for a moment. In the approximately 4.5 billion years the earth has been around, mammals have only been evolving since about 160 million years ago (the middle Jurassic Period). Thinking in this scale, it is mind-boggling to realize that modern man (anatomically modern humans, or homo sapiens sapiens) have only been around for the last 200,000 years. While we evolved through other members of the genus homo before this, and of course primates before that, this was when we really started to stand out in the animal kingdom. Narrowing the gap even further, however, we find that humans only began displaying the behavior common to contemporary man about 50,000 years ago – literally a blink in the span of history thus far.

Timeline of Human Evolution (Still from The Smithsonian's interactive Timeline)

Timeline of Human Evolution (Still from The Smithsonian’s Interactive Timeline)

And then there’s urbanism. While exact dates for the origins of urbanism vary on location and even the definition of urbanism (another topic for discussion!), generally speaking the first settlements started showing up at around 9,000-7,000 BCE, or about 11,000 years ago. Up until this point, humans had lived their entire evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers – typically groups of 10-50 moving from place to place taking advantage of the resources in one area before moving on to another. We never stayed in one place for long because we were utilizing our niche as animals able to track and hunt local game, gather fruit and nuts, maybe boil some tubers, and make tools and clothing. By changing our location we were able to exploit the abundance of that particular place and then allow it to replenish as we moved to another. This meant there was a lack of permanent structures, heavy objects (due to travel), and luxury goods (like pottery, or you know, iPhones). The big shift came during the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution. One of several notable revolutions in our history (digital revolution, anyone?), a diverse set of circumstances eventually led to humans becoming more dominant and (literally) putting down roots worldwide.

A member of the San tribe, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer groups today (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

A member of the San people, one of the last remaining hunter gatherer groups today (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Urbanism is Weird

And this brings me to the major point. Taking the timeline listed above, if we were to look at the history of the world as a clock, we’d see it wasn’t until ten seconds to midnight that humans began walking this earth. Further, in those last ten seconds it was only in the very last millisecond that we started using agriculture and settling down in cities. When viewed through the lens of anthropology (and science more generally), urbanism is absurd! And this is coming from an urbanist! How did we get to this point of rapid expansion and dense living when literally all of our history up until this point was spent in small roaming family bands foraging for fruit?

In a word: agriculture.

In more than one word, there are several theories as to why we started living our lives in exactly the opposite way that we had been all that time. In the Fertile Crescent in what is now the middle east, cities seem to have started forming in connection with the cultivation of the land there. In this period of human history, mankind was asserting dominance over other animals and even driving some to extinction. Perhaps the sudden abundance of people pushed them to settle in singular locations at last? Maybe cultivating seeds was an accidental discovery made independently over time and only became easier to utilize when sedentary? Then again, maybe the discovery of cultivation (grains in particular) incentivized ancient man to settle and switch tactics for feeding their people. (And still others think it could have been large gatherings that necessitated food surplus and therefore permanent settlements.) Either way, after utilizing these excesses that agriculture brought them, mankind was officially headed down the path to urbanization (and world domination), nature be damned.*

Map showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture globally (In different time periods. Original here.)

Map showing approximate centers of origin and spread of agriculture globally (In different time periods. Original here.)

Everything we do is new

A recent article at The Atlantic Cities sums this up nicely: cities are like nothing else in nature. We humans are literally in control of our own environment at this point. Everything we do is outside the realm of an environmental niche. While we do have a fairly standard human scale as well as states of being that evolutionarily we seem to favor (making a street like a “room” is a good example), we no longer have an ideal state that we “naturally” fit in and can therefore attempt to emulate as we create our surroundings (our proverbial hamster cage, as it were). Our environment is truly our own creation and this is incredible once you realize the scale of human existence (nevermind how much we’ve done in the last century). We are making our own niche in the world. We invented these cities we inhabit. And most importantly, we have the power to make these new, weird, and unnatural things wonderful places to live in.

*Note: Not everyone became urbanized. Some hunter gatherer societies still exist today (!Kung and San to name a few) and some societies happily became sedentary foragers staying in place but never utilizing large-scale agriculture (Pacific Northwest and regions in Japan in particular).

Bryant Park in NYC, after Whyte's alterations (via PPS.org).

Urban Green Space: Past, Present, and Future

Turkey’s ongoing developments in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul could not be more pertinent to my personal research, but also have important ramifications for all of us and the future of urban design. Two years after the Arab Spring events we are witnessing another similar uprising in a large urban plaza filled with protestors of varying backgrounds seeking potentially disparate outcomes but gathering in the same place nonetheless. The difference with this situation, however, is the root cause of the demonstrations: a top-down redesign of one of the most important green spaces in the city. Politics of Turkey aside, the privatization of this park was clearly enough for not only an environmental occupation but also the massive gatherings we are still currently witnessing regarding what has been called totalitarian oversight of their daily lives. The fact that a park was the last straw for number of different groups has sparked a discussion once again on what public space (in this case green space) means for the people as an area for refuge and as an agent for change.

Photo of original Gezi protests in Istanbul - Look familiar? (Source here)

Photo of original Gezi protests in Istanbul – Look familiar? (Source here)

 

While green spaces are heralded as the mark of a successful city, grassy retreats within the urban boundaries were basically nonexistent in the earliest cities, and even some areas of the world today. One of the earliest known cities excavated so far – Çatalhöyük – is actually in the heart of Turkey, beautifully preserved (comparatively speaking) from around 7500 BCE. This city was more of a compound than anything with no open spaces whatsoever – just a mass of buildings huddled together on a hill. The 5,000 – 10,000 inhabitants moved through the city via the tops of the buildings made accessible by ladders and stairs through holes in the ceilings creating a complex maze of rooms and passageways.

Perhaps the earliest city, Catal Hoyuk (During & Marciniak 2006:177)

Archaeological diagram of Çatalhöyük (During & Marciniak 2006:177)

 

Interestingly, for the most part traditional Islamic cities deviated only somewhat from this original design. Green space within these cities is typically sparse and the emphasis is instead on the streets (they eventually added) as the catch-all public space. Walled compounds surround distinct neighborhood units that were even closed off at night isolating their individual urban alleys (like more verticle and compact cul-du-sacs). Mediterranean cities, too, opted for an emphasis on streets but add the Italian staple, the piazza, to its public space repertoire – spaces still otherwise devoid of green space.

Typical neighborhood in Fez

Typical neighborhood in Fez (Bianco, 2000)

Fast forward a bit, and eventually green spaces emerge around the globe in the form of private and semi-private gardens, foraging and grazing grounds in England, or in the form of hunting lands (massive areas reserved for the leader’s sport). But the stereotypical “park” which we have all come to enjoy was really still an anomaly until around the Victorian era. What began as “promenades” to meander among the social elite in sometimes very strange (read: gender bending) ways, eventually became a desirable space for the common man. Cities like New York preserved semi-natural areas inside their borders like Central Park and the Olmsted era of fresh air really kicked off the park-frenzy, especially in the U.S.

Since that time, the role of green space in cities has seen its ups and downs in various ways. In the case of public housing, a simple green square within the otherwise crowded complex of apartments was believed to increase the health and wellbeing of the poor population. Advocates of this social improvement through design claimed that providing this amenity would decrease crime and provide a space for children to play and avoid the otherwise dangerous inner city environment. The fact that this did not work (generally speaking) is important to consider – it is clear that a park does not a safe space make. In reality, it may be the case that green space without very strict maintenance and even possibly programming, can create a more negative environment. Whyte spoke of this when he helped redesign Bryant park changing it from one of the most crime-ridden green spaces in NYC to one of the most celebrated today – through better design of the space.

Bryant Park in NYC, after Whyte's alterations (via PPS.org).

Bryant Park in NYC, after Whyte’s alterations (via PPS.org)

 

So, in general, design seems to be win-some and lose-some depending on the situation (as is always the case). But for some people the creation and accessibility of green spaces was not only done to increase livability on a local scale but to improve their entire country’s population. In the 1930s, during a time of extremely low birth rates in Sweden, planners, led by a husband/wife duo consisting of a child psychologist and economist, created what is now known as the “Swedish Model”. Not only did they provide social welfare on a massive scale, but they also prioritized adding parks to their cities and encouraged adults to spend time outdoors and increase their leisure time (maybe have a few kids…you know…). A similar change also happened in Denmark whereas what was once considered a culture that would never eat at cafes outside or stroll down a pedestrian street is now infamous for their Strøget and street life. For decades these Nordic countries carried the highest levels of happiness, starting at a young age with excellent childcare, maternity leaves, and an emphasis on hobbies and free time with their budding next generation.

Ah, Stroget. (via www.visitcopenhagen.com)

Ah, Strøget. (via http://www.visitcopenhagen.com)

 

Right before the uprising in Turkey, however, Sweden also had its own series of riots spurring from the immigrant neighborhoods that otherwise have a really nice assortment of green spaces to spend (a little too much?) leisure time in.  Articles on this odd event for the happy country have picked up on this issue of green space design and its lack of positive effect on disgruntled youth. Is this an issue of design not having the desired effect on social welfare (like our own public housing in the 60s)? The overall state of the global economy is still reeling from the recession, and indeed Scandinavia generally has not been exempt from this. It could also be an issue of culture and indeed the immigrants there (as elsewhere) have expressed their difficulties with merging with an otherwise fairly homogenous culture (though 15% of Sweden’s population are immigrants, mostly refugees increasingly from Syria).

The intersection between what is a protest in Turkey against top-down regulations, and a top-down creation of green space creating a happier culture in Sweden lies in the dichotomy of the outcomes, I think. Sweden may be experiencing a lack of contentment on the part of recent immigrants despite the benefits they receive, including the green space they have nearby, and they are doing so via riots. But also, Turkey may be experiencing a cultural revolution born out of the attempt of their government to create a more “modernized” public space without the consent of their people. What Sweden did in the ‘30’s was essentially social engineering for a positive cause – a sweeping alteration of the culture purposefully done to improve the wellbeing of Swedes with success. Turkey’s recent attempt at altering the built environment has instead been met with massive bottom-up resistance as the people themselves want to take the design of their city – and their culture – into their own hands in order to better their own lives. Both involve top-down initiatives in different time periods surrounding public green space, but while one has potentially succeeded and recently failed (or is being criticized) decades later, the other may not even get to experiment at all if the people have anything to do with it.

What we may be witnessing is the birth of a new era – a contemporary culture that wants to take control of their environment, which will no longer allow a government to redesign the city – their city – without their consent. The Right to the City was heralded in the Occupy Movement for their use of public space to protest their grievances and evictions were seen as stifling the right to gather as such. However, The Right to the Entire City may actually be more important to urban design in the future; if you want to design something, you might want to talk to the People first.

 

For more on these topics:

On green space globally: Gardens, City Life, and Culture: A World Tour (2008)

Within the same book: “Swedish Mid-Century Utopia: Park Design as a Tool for Social Improvements”, T. Andersson

On public housing: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – a documentary on public housing of the same name in St. Louis

A street in Jakriborg not too disimilar from already existing neighborhoods in other Scandinavian cities (source: http://blog.smallstreets.org/post/15325308564/lets-visit-a-car-free-village-built-from-scratch)

Carless Urban Design

Along with the recent discussions on developments without parking spaces, it was news this week that Los Angeles has approved a plan for a district without any mandatory parking requirements (you can read the full Streetsblog.org report here). Other auto-related news has surfaced recently regarding the heart of the matter – not only the space that automobiles occupy in the urban environment, but the impact they have on the rising number of pedestrians flocking to city centers and the lack of responsibility placed upon the drivers involved in these “accidents”. While Streetsblog.org calls this “motor vehicle violence” in their Weekly Carnage coverage, The Urban Country describes the absurdity of putting the blame on the pedestrians who may be wearing dark clothing or listening to headphones.

trimeteventsafe

The safety campaign by Portland’s local transportation agency. Apparently I should also be carrying a flashlight when I walk around.

As a person who is a pedestrian most of the time (though all of us are “pedestrians” at least some of the time), I am made aware that my relative small size and dark brown winter coat is not conducive to standing up to cars – especially in dark and wet Portland in the winter. I’m a compulsive sign-follower, never venturing out until I’ve literally looked both ways twice and know I have enough time to get across before that dreaded flashing hand appears on the pedestrian crossing signal. However, I know as much as any urban anthropologist that this is obviously not the way streets have worked since the earliest cities were created thousands of years ago. As a researcher, I comprehensively view streets as a component of public space – as they have been and technically still are. Streets are a multipurpose place for the transport of goods and services in all shapes and sizes, formal celebrations, impromptu play, and socio-political demonstrations. Mikael Coville-Anderson of Copenhagenize Consulting sums this up brilliantly in his TED talk “Bicycle Culture by Design” where he describes the manufacturing of “jaywalking”. As time has progressed, streets have become more and more specialized to each particular form of transportation and even Copenhagen has very specific (though very nice) cycle tracks with their own traffic gadgetry.

Perhaps the earliest city, Catal Hoyuk was a dense grouping of buildings with no roads. Travel would have occurred via the rooftops. (During & Marciniak 2006:177)

Perhaps the earliest city, Catal Hoyuk was a dense grouping of buildings with no roads. Travel would have occurred via the rooftops. (During & Marciniak 2006:177)

It seems as though this is an issue which can be approached in a myriad of ways. In a place like Portland, as well as other major cities in the United States, the goal for progressive planners is to work towards the Danish or Dutch ideal: separated or protected bike lanes of some sort, bright swaths of paint on the pavement for each mode, and traffic lights with bicycle signals to give them a head start on the streets. This modern approach always includes an increase in pricey technology which unfortunately has the tendency to slow down progress if funding is cut short or can create delays if new symbols or pavement treatments need to be approved by the government. But what about the alternative? Could a reversal of modernism ironically be the solution for the future?

A typical street in Poundbury (source: http://www.poundbury.info/)

A typical street in Poundbury (source: http://www.poundbury.info/)

Interestingly such a thing has already been experimented with in a number of ways around the world. Venice, Italy is of course an already existing city which was constructed with the typical medieval European design: roads and bridges are built mainly for pedestrians or beasts of burden and only seldom for wheeled transport, let alone the modern automobile. Cars are parked before entering the city by necessity, making it a truly unique urban experience. While other European cities like Paris widened their roads and cleared out dense (and to be fair, disease ridden) areas of the city, Venice prevailed. Still others, like those in Scandinavia, at least retained their “old towns” where a section of the city is carless by necessity and becomes very popular with tourists.

A street in Jakriborg not too disimilar from already existing neighborhoods in other Scandinavian cities (source: http://blog.smallstreets.org/post/15325308564/lets-visit-a-car-free-village-built-from-scratch)

A street in Jakriborg not too disimilar from already existing neighborhoods in other Scandinavian cities (source: http://blog.smallstreets.org/post/15325308564/lets-visit-a-car-free-village-built-from-scratch)

On the other hand, there have also been newly constructed cities and neighborhoods designed with the past in mind. Poundbury in England, built by the Prince of Wales and Leon Krier of New Urbanist fame, is still accessible by cars but employs all the people-friendly concepts (and architectural styles) of an old English town, including a lack of traffic signals. Though not perfect or without its criticisms, Poundbury is an excellent experiment in “traditional” design for the modern world. Jakriborg in southern Sweden, as described here by the Small Streets blog, is a fairly recently constructed neighborhood near the town of Hjärup where most residents don’t own a car and park them on the outskirts of town if they do. This sort of development is no stranger to Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries (as well as other places) where housing developments sometimes are constructed of a dense area of houses with parking on the outskirts to encourage a more cordial and safe mixed-use area within. (For more on alternative Scandinavian housing, check out this book (and others) by Jan Gehl of Gehl ArchitectsLife Between Buildings: Using Public Space).

A Dutch sign indicating the presence of a Woonerf street (source: http://streetswiki.wikispaces.com/Woonerf)

A Dutch sign indicating the presence of a Woonerf street (source: http://streetswiki.wikispaces.com/Woonerf)

On a smaller scale, woonerf streets and pedestrian streets have been introduced to already existing cities in various locations (sometimes, admittedly, unsuccessfully). Woonerf streets (a Dutch term, pronounced voo-nerf) incorporates all possible modes of transportation in one area without any delineation for each individual mode. The sidewalk is therefore not raised and parking is even barely marked (and certainly not with paint). You’ll find no traffic gadgets here, aside from a street sign announcing your arrival in a mixed-use street. The spaces typically do not apply to the entire city, of course, but they do exist in areas where the democratic use of space is at its highest: where sidewalk chalk takes precedence over your commute time. Pedestrian streets (or malls, to harken back to the origin of the term) are also typically an afterthought, retaking the street after years of automobile use. StrØget, the famous pedestrian street of Copenhagen, is one such popular place. It is in fact one of the largest pedestrian-only city streets and was originally snubbed because, surely, no Dane will walk around to stores or eat outside in inclement weather! Lo and behold, however, it is today a standard for all malls and used as an example in experiments here in the U.S. (though very few have been successfully enacted and retained). When cars must be included, another option for cities is perhaps the most unthinkable – where traffic jams prevail, you can always simply remove all of the traffic lights and street signage. Yes, you read that right. Here’s the oft-cited video of an area in Somerset County, England:

Whether the solution is to more harshly punish those who hit pedestrians with their vehicles, or to move to an entirely car-free town or neighborhood to escape it altogether (at least when closer to home), it’s clear that something indeed needs to be done. Most of these examples, I’m sure you’ve noted, come from other countries outside the U.S. which have clearly experimented more extensively with alternatives to the standard car-centric street. America’s love affair with the car probably started with the less compact construction of the earliest cities of the colonies, and the emphasis on the wide open country – longer distances mean longer travels and wider roads mean an easier transition to steel horses. And of course, in places like Detroit (in this economy especially) the manufacturing of cars in America is another strong tradition. In Denmark, the bicycle lanes heralded today were made possible only by protesting the atrocity of deaths on their streets via automobiles. A lot of this is often talked about as being outside of the US’s capacity for change, much like the original Danish pessimism and is potentially caused by this stark reliance we have on cars in the already existing built environment and city codes. Whatever the cause, whatever the solution, the United States will have to incorporate better solutions into our streetscapes and culture if we are to create more harmonious (read: less harmful) cities for the future.

The Politics of Cities

[Originally written by Jason King]

An interesting OpEd in the October 9 issue of the NY Times, with the somewhat blunt and provocative title – “Republicans To Cities: Drop Dead” by Kevin Baker – showcases the focus of the campaign, particularly those on the right, towards suburban and rural issues, even with a specifically anti-urban bias.  The long and short of that isn’t necessarily that of a lack of urban agenda, but could be more closely related to class and race issues – the typical far of the urban issue.  As mentioned in the article – the shift to cities began in the Post-WWII era, with the shift away from the suffering of the Great Depression, to a new urban renaissance in the middle of the century which also galvanized the connection between urban issues and democratic politics.

As mentioned, “The cities, which had been places of horrible suffering during the early years of the Great Depression, became alluring again, attracting the dynamic if volatile new mix of rural poor, black, white and Hispanic. By 1950 almost two-thirds of all Americans lived in urban areas.”  This shifted again with deindustrialization, white flight (and even black flight), and the pendulum swinging back to cities as loci of social and environment dysfunction.  The republican agenda had been galvanized in the suburbs and hinterlands of the United States.

We are again seeing the resurgence of cities, as “the American economy began to reinvent itself in cities, as they became cleaner, greener, safer, more prosperous, more fun.” leadng to over 4/5 of the population living in urban areas, and at least 1 in 12 people living in cities over 1 million people.   So in a contentious election, one would think this major bloc of voters would garner the attention of more than one party, but it seems difficult for Republicans to understand, even tough for them “the national Republican Party still can’t seem to get past its animus toward the very idea of urban life,” as Baker mentions.

So do the Democrats have an ingrained edge due to a legacy of focus on urban issues?  Pretty much.  As Baker mentions, there doesn’t need to be an explicit urban agenda from the Democrats, because they “embody” the urban agenda.   This doesn’t exempt critical analysis of either side regarding the neglect of cities, the irony of the Republican abandonment of the urban votes, is that there still has been a fair amount of criticism of Obama, perhaps the first truly urban president, and his inability to thrust urban issues into the limelight.  Many have been disappointed with the results, and the titles of the articles mirrored as “Obama to Cities: Drop Dead” – (a familiar refrain, no?).  While maybe the focus on cities has not been a sharp as predicted, the implication that the Democrats are inherently pro-city is reflected in the fact that cities are places of diversity, which is right in the wheelhouse for Democrats, but something Republicans still have a hard time coming to terms with and more importantly, engaging in a meaningful dialogue with young,ifemale, and non-white citizens.

The urban agenda perhaps is complex – and that makes it difficult for either side of the political sphere to parse – but we’re going to have to be able to elevate this to a more vital plank in the platforms or talking points in debates, because the shift is inevitable.  Cities are here to stay, and the urban political agenda will be more and more common, as Baker concludes: “…as urban areas continue to grow, they become more and more intertwined with what were once distance suburbs, making ‘urban’ issues all the more pertinent to everyone.”

Square Pegs & Round Holes

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’.  There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional  theory > hypothesis > testing  mode of  deductive reasoning.     A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy'” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.

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Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model.  They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:

“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”

There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.

There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability.  These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us.  From the article:  “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”

The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues.  Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues.   What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study.  As the authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”