Monday, June 29, 2009

The Commons

In a just world, the idea of wealth--be it money derived from the work of human hands, the resources and natural splendor of the planet itself--and the knowledge handed down through generations belongs to all of us. But in our decidedly unjust and imperfect world, our collective wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. There is be a better way--the notion of the commons--common land, resources, knowledge--is a common-sense way to share our natural, cultural, intellectual riches.

In this innovative animation, filmmaker Laura Hanna, writer Gavin Browning and video artists/animators Dana Schechter and Molly Schwartz examine the concept of "The Commons" as a means to achieve a society of justice and equality.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Toothpick city

Scott Weaver used over a million toothpicks to build a San Francisco model

Playing Against the Odds


Talent and dedication may not be enough to keep the girls of Middle School 61 in Brooklyn on the basketball court. Above, a textbook example of the structural and cultural barriers that prevent so many inner-city girls from participating in team sports.

In the suburbs, girls’ participation in sports is so commonplace that in many communities, the conversation has shifted from concerns over equal access to worries that some girls are playing too much. But the revolution in girls’ sports has largely bypassed the nation’s cities, where public school districts short on money often view sports as a luxury rather than an entitlement.

Coaches and organizers of youth sports in cities say that while many immigrant and lower-income parents see the benefit of sports for sons, they often lean on daughters to fill needs in their own hectic lives, like tending to siblings or cleaning the house. …

In the suburbs, girls play sports at rates roughly equal to boys. A 2007 survey by Harris Interactive of more than 2,000 schoolchildren nationwide showed that 54 percent of boys and 50 percent of girls in the suburbs described themselves as “moderately involved” athletes.

Urban areas revealed a much greater discrepancy. Only 36 percent of city girls in the survey described themselves as moderately involved athletes, compared with 56 percent of city boys.

Girls in cities from Los Angeles to New York “are the left-behinds of the youth sport movement in the United States,” said Don Sabo, a professor of health policy at D’Youville College in Buffalo, who conducted the study, which was commissioned by the Women’s Sports Foundation, a private advocacy group.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Tale of a Smarter City

“A city is more than just a collection of buildings, streets, parks, and people, and the many different entities engaged in many different trades.

Its a living environment of different cultures, peoples, ideas and systems that are interdependent yet all determine and shape the others identity.”

What's wrong with bringing in Higher Income Residents to the 'Hood?

In my previous post I discussed Gentrification and New Urbanism where the founder of New Urbanism, Andres Duany seemed to be in support of Gentrification. In an interview with American Enterprise in 2002, Duany ponders why there is a negative connotation with gentrification and bringing in higher income residents. Here is an excerpt of that interview:

TAE: You’ve complained that some poverty activists actually resist measures that reduce poverty.

Duany: Oh yes. There are, for instance many, many places where what the town needs most desperately is what is now derisively called “gentrification.” When I study most inner cities I see poverty mono-cultures. The arrival of some higher-income residents is exactly what they need, so it’s amazing that gentrification has become a negative term.

What smart urbanists want is to have a full range of society within neighborhoods. You need people who are CEOs, and people who are secretaries. You need school teachers, and you need somebody to deliver the pizza. Society doesn’t work unless there are all kinds of people around, in relatively close proximity. Any society that has only one income level is dysfunctional. And, by the way, the great thing about the American system is that everybody can actually aspire to rise to the level of “gentry.” We don’t have the generalized envy and resentment that you find in many other countries.

But “gentrification”—attracting the middle class back to poor areas—is sometimes resisted by certain local activists. Why? Because it threatens to break up their political coalitions, and their base of power. When I first ran across this I was just amazed. I was so naive. Why wouldn’t this poor area want middle class people moving in? I mean, you need the tax base. Now, I see selfish local bosses as the source of the resistance.

Ok, here's my beef. I do not belief that bringing in higher income residents into poor urban neighborhoods is the only way to improve neighborhoods. I believe you can generate the same results of improving the living conditions of a poor neighborhood by improving their access to jobs, education and healthcare. I do believe it is important for young people, especially young people in poor urban neighborhoods to have role models. And having an economically diverse and socially diverse neighborhood is a great way of producing various role models for young people to model themselves after. We know that in some urban neighborhoods the lack of proper role models is severely lacking but I believe with better access to opportunities, role models can be created from within the neighborhood rather than imported.

Poverty mono-cultures as Duany points out are prevalent within inner-cities and a lot of times these cultures unintentionally help reinforce their own social and economic barriers. Other times these poverty mono-cultures are products of historical trends and current lack of access to opportunities. Whether their problems of poverty mono-cultures are self imposed or they are being generated externally, it is social and economic barriers that keeps the community in poverty. If the barriers are removed then the community can create its own economic and social stratosphere and will not have to depend on an outside force to do that for them.

I truly agree that is not healthy to have one income neighborhoods as Duany points out above. However for a neighborhood to be truly stratified where a CEO can live in the same neighborhood as his secretary, then that CEO is going to have to be willing to go to the same neighborhood church with their secretary. The CEO is going to have to let their kid go to school with their secretary's kid and when the kids get older have both kids allowed to date. If the CEO chooses to live in that same neighborhood but still partake of all the trappings of CEO such as private schools, country clubs, etc... then the secretary and her family will slowly be pushed out of the neighborhood or will not benefit from any of the social interactions of living next to a CEO.

As far as local activists against the moving in of higher income residents because it will destroy their power base - well, I'm sure it's true in some instances but in most instances these activists are fighting for a neighborhood that's in fear. For every example of where gentrification succeeded in not permanently displacing the poor and not significantly raising property values past the median home value of that city, I can point out five other examples were gentrification did the opposite and the people who had the least continued to struggle.

Let me be clear, I'm not against the upper class moving into urban neighborhoods, we all know cities could desperately use their property taxes - to help the poor. I just don't believe that adding the upper class to neighborhoods will create an economically stratified environment unless everyone shows some sacrifice and participation to create a truly diverse neighborhood. The answer for every urban neighborhood can not be add higher incomes and condos. To me it is the equivalent of every East Coast state legislating casinos to cash in on gambling. Eventually there will be not enough gamblers. And eventually there will be not enough high income residents to spread across our metropolitan regions to save our neighborhoods.

So while I do agree partly with Duany that high income residents should be added to some urban neighborhoods, I firmly believe that better living conditions can be created within neighborhoods internally and that the removal of economic and social barriers can generate better living within urban neighborhoods.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gentrification and New Urbanism

The Daily Kos ran an article this week called A Tale of Two (Segregated) Exurbs which was a critique of an article titled A Tale of of Two Exurbs which was published in The American Prospect Magazine. The Daily Kos goes one step beyond The American Prospect article in explaining the difference between the two exurbs, one which is sprawling exurb and the other a compact exurb designed by the founder of New Urbanism, Andres Duany.

The issue the article has with the Duany developed New Urbanist exurb is it's susceptibility toward the big "G" word, gentrification. The author feels like I often feel that the theory of New Urbanism is a great but the implementation often results in displacement of the lower class or rapidly increasing property values. Although I do have to say that I dont necessarily agree with this for the article's specific example of Gaithersburg, Maryland which I do feel is economically and socially diverse.

While I think the article's example is flawed I do believe it's message and intent is worth discussing. Here's a swipe from the article:

"Gaithersburg was designed by Duany Plater-Zyrbek, the nation’s leading firm in New Urbanist urban design. New Urbanism is kind of like a good, liberal-minded person’s vision of an urban utopia: mixed-use land zoning, local neighborhood stores and shops, extreme walkability, eco-friendly, and on and on. In short, New Urbanism is the urban planning/urban design alternative to suburban sprawl. A pretty good alternative, at least in theory.

The dirty little secret about Duany and New Urbanism is the design’s susceptibility to gentrification. A quaint little town with a thriving local economy is undoubtedly a hot commodity among young, affluent white folks. An influx in affluent folks typically precipitates raises in rents and property values, often resulting in lower-class displacement. Such is the potential effect of New Urbanism. It’s actually a little more than mere susceptibility to gentrification—Duany has been quoted in interviews pondering "What’s so bad with gentrification?" He even argued that the arrival of higher-income residents is what some urban communities need.

But there’s something peculiar—or, suspicious—about a discussion of New Urbanism (an urban design susceptible to gentrification) that fails to mention racial or class diversity (a major casualty of gentrification). In our quest for walkable, eco-friendly built environments, are we willing to concede racial diversity?"

Now I know this will look like I'm beating up on the theory of New Urbanism...again. I really want to like New Urbanism, I really, really do but all of it's greatest examples seem economically exclusionary and not very diverse. As you can tell from looking at this blog, I love cities and urban places because of their diversity, hodgepodge of ideas and it's quilted layers of history. New Urbanism seems like a whitewash of that. As for Duany's quote about importing wealth and not creating wealth in cities, I'll get to that in another post.

I have scratched my head over this issue several times but keep drawing blanks. Is there any way to create a New Urbanist project in an urban area while mixing low income residents with higher-income residents. Or can the goal of new Urbanist project help reconnect or foster growth from within the community without having to lure some outside force to "improve" the neighborhood.

Maybe New Urbanist projects are a victim of their own success. The problem with gentrification is that you can not stop it. Once a neighborhood tips towards being trendy the escalation of newcomers as well as the character of the neighborhood is dramatic. The only neighborhoods where an outside culture comes in that does not create instant gentrification are artist communities. While these communities eventually become gentrified it may take decades before long time residents feel pressured out by property values and the character of the neighborhood is never fully fact artists often enhance the positive qualities of neighborhoods.

Whatever the solution is we can see that there is a trend between New Urbanist projects and gentrification. Let's hope New Urbanism does not become our generation's new Urban Renewal projects.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Spanish Artist SpY's Guerrilla Urban Art

Swiped from Design Ideas Daily

Spanish artist SpY has refined his subversive urban art interventions over decades of work converting conventional spaces into extraordinary places. He is an international sensation that adapts his work to whatever process and materials a situation calls for, from giant posters and billboards to small-scale transformations.

Many of his works revolve around alterations to ordinary objects, tweaks that at first may not register as passers by catch glimpses of them out of the corners of their eyes - but that upon closer inspection call our everyday urban environment into question.

Years as a graffiti artist, prior to starting his guerrilla art installations, taught SpY the power of subversion - which he has taken to new levels by transforming ordinary objects into extraordinary works of thought-provoking contextual urban art.

DC Graffiti in Adams Morgan

From Robert Gandy of the Baltimore Examiner:

"When asked about what "urban art" meant to them, people on a hot summer's street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC gave a breadth of answers showing a range of ideas. In typical DC fashion, those that did not outright ignore the question shouted answers as they hustled past. "Graffiti, I guess" said the woman with a bundle of sunflowers. "Outside," grunted a DCPD beat cop. "Too thick a question," said a woman in a light blue dress. Ryan Feurtardo said it "is fantastic art. Can be real creative." Jon Kenney and Caroline Leoni said it was "free expression. Do-it-yourself" art. Leoni added, "It's mixed media," and pointed to political graffiti in an adjacent alley.

I think DC has better graffiti and Urban Art pieces then the ones below that were taken from the article. It's a little boring. To be honest though I can't remember seeing any great tag pieces anywhere in the Distinct. Have any of you seen any great graffiti tags in D.C.?

Detroit Graffiti

This editorial and photos was taken by Dylan Reid from the Spacing Toronto Blog. It's amazing how many abandoned high-rises Detroit has. In the first picture below you can see trees growing on the roof tops.


"Detroit must be some kind of graffiti artist heaven — there are almost endless amounts of deserted, empty walls across the city in neglected streets and abandoned factories and buildings, and a City government that must have much bigger priorities for its limited resources.

...Detroit has one thing other cities don’t have — entire high-rise buildings that are deserted — and it has developed to a high art a form of graffiti that uses the windows of buildings."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Urbanism: Very Misunderstood

Frank Gruber of the Huffington Post wrote a reflective article about why New Urbanism is so misunderstood as he is about to take part of the 17th Annual Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). The article gives a great refresher to those that are not familiar with the concept of New Urbanism and then dives into the opposing critiques that some have over this relatively new concept.

Gruber states:

"Well, to begin with, New Urbanists are attacked from both sides of America's cultural divide. Chances are, if you mention New Urbanism to group of forward thinking, contemporary design professionals, whether architects or planners, they will roll their eyes. To them New Urbanism, because so many of its practitioners make their livings designing new towns and developments outside of existing cities, is a facilitator of sprawl, not a solution. Then, because many of these towns and developments feature traditional architecture, New Urbanism is hopelessly nostalgic.

But if you find yourself among a group of conservatives or libertarians, such as Randal O'Toole of the Independence Institutes's Center for the American Dream, and who writes for the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and you mention New Urbanism, you'll just as likely unleash a denunciation on the grounds that New Urbanism aims to thwart the natural desire of Americans to live in a single-family house on a cul-de-sac. "

My view would definitely fit within the former and certainly do not agree with the latter half of that quote. Sometimes I feel bad for the New Urbanists because I feel their concepts gets co-opted by others who dub bad developments as "New Urbanist" projects to get them approved or sell. On the other hand though, the founders of New Urbanism have built more New Urbanist projects in suburban locales than urban ones. Whether this is just a function of suburban locales having more funds to do a New Urbanist project or just fewer obstacles to get the project done, could be the reason for this disparity.

While many contemporary design professionals think New Urbanism is a facilitator of sprawl, I somewhat disagree. As a planner who's districts covers urban, suburban and rural locales, I think New Urbanist projects can be a positive influence for suburban developments. No matter how much as planners that we dislike sprawl, it is going to happen. I'd rather have a suburban development that is centered with a focus and a grid pattern than an amorphous blob of tract housing that lacks any focal point.

My main beef with New Urbanism is implementation. It's great to have guiding principles but actually putting them in place deals with political, social and economic issues that New Urbanism tends to try to duck away from. My belief is that the bad urban form or our cities and suburbs comes from populations always trying to seek separation from others who have different political, social and economic values. The built form of where the people who seek separation reflects that. Unless we deal those barriers first we will always have communities who seek to rid sidewalks, build streets for cars over the needs of people and seek land use layout that fortify inhabitants from the outside world rather then welcome it. Until that happens you will always have those who state the natural desire for Americans is a suburban cul-de-sac.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tales of a City Planner


City Planners tend to be the Jack or Jill of all trades and masters of none them. I know a lot of professions say this but I think this holds especially true for city planners. We have to know a little about architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering, historical preservation, sociology and cultural history. Knowing all these different fields of study often puts us in contact with a wide range of professionals, community groups, liaison groups, activists and semi-government institutions. Now getting all these different entities that sometimes have conflicting interests to cooperate for a common purpose can be difficult. But do you know who often presents the most difficulties in cooperation…your own government.

That’s right, this tale of a city planner will deal with the cooperation (or lack thereof) of the local government. One of the most challenging issues to deal with is when we have complete unison from the community and all it’s stakeholders to move forward on a particular project and one of your local government agencies refuses to budge or even listen to your concerns. Why would one government agency just totally ignore another government agency from the same government, you ask? Let me back up here a second.

There is a popular belief out there that government agencies group together to conspire grand plans of its own desires. Nooo. Local government agencies are run like autonomous agencies that fight each other for funding from the golden faucet like newborn pups fighting to get milk. In fact you may be saddened to know that a lot of times government agencies have no idea what the other agency is doing or if they are replicating the same work. Agencies work a lot like families. There are some family members that you are really cool with. Then there are family members you avoid and when they ask you to do something, “you’ll get back to them.”

But you really can’t explain to the public that the reason their request got denied is because another agency doesn’t agree with your position or just flat out ignored you without making government look incompetent. Because if you do, they will look at you like you are an idiot….”what do you mean this government agency wouldn’t allow you to do it…you are government!” *Sighs* If only it were that simple.

In defense of other agencies, Planners are usually the only agency who consistently coming up with new ways on how to do other people’s jobs. For example, to employ New Urbanist principles, a public works agency would to have make changes ranging from minor to radical on how they regulate their traffic policies and safety. This could possibly require increased planning for individual projects and the elimination of boilerplate comments for that agency. If you work for public works you most likely feel that your current process for regulating traffic is fine and why change your process for the wacky whims of a planner to make communities walk better.

And you know, we get it. We wouldn’t want some other agency telling us how we should do our jobs. All we ask is for a little cooperation. The job of planner is not typical, it is wide ranging. We can not only just focus on traffic or just open space or just land use. We have to focus on the whole picture…which means we may aggravate more then a few agencies. Although some of them are cool, you know who you are, “
you’re cool.”

So how can we make other agencies cooperate more to ultimately achieve our wishes or the community’s wishes? Well there is no silver bullet but I believe that as planners we probably have to take the step of being more accessible and transparent to…our own government. And by that I mean we have to show how recommendations are tied into a bigger picture and show that there is community support. Whether this is done by a Facebook page or a blog, we as planners have to do a better job in selling the message. The reason for that is that our message is complicated. We can not “boilerplate” our comments. The solution for one failing solution may worsen the problem for another failing intersection.

To add on to planners’ complicated message, we are the clearing house for messy government problems and random citizen inquiry. We may not be able to fix the problem but we probably know somebody who can fix the problem…with a little cooperation. Well, I hoped you enjoyed this tale of a city planner and please feel free to let me know if you have had any similar experiences and how you have dealt with cooperation in your profession. And as always,

Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sex Advice from Urban Planners

This swipe was taken from an article from in 2006.

Here are some selected gems:

I'm moving out of my scummy bachelor pad and I want my new apartment and neighborhood to be chick-friendly. What should I look for?
Use ArcGIS (Geographic Information System software) to map out the spatial distribution of female residents in your age group in that area. Choosing an area with a high concentration of women will not only meet your immediate needs, it will also provide easy access to future girlfriends in the event that you find one and she dumps you.

My boyfriend can't seem to find my g-spot. What are the best positions to make sure he's hitting it squarely?
If you aren't able to figure out the spatial configuration of your partnership, try drawing conceptual plans of the two of you in various positions. That should be effective and make you laugh.

How can becoming an urban planner help me get laid?
Urban planning opens the door to the exciting male-dominated world of architects, builders and engineers. Merge those parcels. And for men, saying you're an urban planner is at least cooler than being an accountant.

How can I get an urban planner to go home with me?
Talk shit about Wal-Mart, brag about your frequent public-transport ridership and drop phrases like "spatial morphology."

How can I delay my orgasm, besides going slow and taking breaks?
Recite the twenty-one principles of New Urbanism in your head over and over again.

Read the whole article, here.

John Pugh's Street Murals

John Pugh works on a large scale in public and residential areas and his paintings can be seen all over the world from New Zealand to Hawaii - with many telling a story of the area where they are positioned. Pugh is used to people's amazed reactions when they pass his murals.

He said: 'They say "wow did you see that. I thought that was real." 'Public art can link people together and stimulate a sense of pride within the community. 'These life-size illusions allow me to communicate with a very large audience. 'It seems almost universal that people take delight in being visually tricked.' Pugh is currently working on a mural for a police station in California and also one for a recreation centre in Calgary, Canada.