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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.”