Why I Teach: Part 1: To Learn

Aseem Inam:  One of the best ways to learn is to teach.  And the best urbanists are always learning and growing.

As an #ActivistScholarPractitioner, I spend about 4-5 hours of research and preparation for every 1 hour of teaching time.  For example, I convert regular lecture courses into interactive seminars.  The idea here is that everyone—especially the students—contribute to collective learning, including mine.  To prepare for a 3-hour seminar, I invest about 12-15 hours of my time conducting research [so that I stay constantly refreshed and on top of things in the field], preparing a rough sequence and outline of topics to be covered, and incorporating plenty of provocative questions and discussion time for students to contribute their own personal experiences, existing knowledge, thoughtful ideas and provocative questions.  This pedagogical method builds confidence in students as they realize that they have much to offer to the evolving field of urbanism.

Such an approach has worked extremely well, for the most part.  I have received awards for excellence in teaching from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Southern California and University of Michigan.  More than the awards, though, what is extremely satisfying is to connect in powerful ways with urban practitioners [i.e. students], since I consider generating knowledge and creating paradigms to be perhaps the most powerful forms of practice.  The other source of not only deep satisfaction but also instant buzz in my head is the sense of collective learning.  For example, in my Theories of Urban Design seminar at the University of Michigan [which was constantly filled far beyond capacity by graduate students], we actually critiqued existing theories by pinpointing each theory’s unique influence on the field but also its lacunae [e.g. Does it only deal with urban form or does it also address the underlying processes that actually produce that form?].

In sum, as an #Urbanist who comes from the perspective of an #ActivistScholarPractitioner, I am always a student of cities.  AI

Students of the highly innovative MA Theories of Urban Practice program [of which I was the founding Director] of the Parsons School of Design in The New School in New York City.  The students organized a public symposium of their work in Brooklyn in 2015.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Students of the highly innovative MA Theories of Urban Practice program [of which I was the founding Director] of the Parsons School of Design in The New School in New York City.  The students organized a public symposium of their work in Brooklyn in 2015.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The best learning often occurs in the interaction between students and professors, such that both are open to be challenged and to new ways of thinking.  Source:  Matthew Sussman, The New School. 

The best learning often occurs in the interaction between students and professors, such that both are open to be challenged and to new ways of thinking.  Source:  Matthew Sussman, The New School. 

Planning for the Unplanned

Aseem Inam:  A friend of mine recently asked me about one of my books, Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities. The book examines a critical issue for cities in the 21st century: How do we deal effectively with crises? The April 2015 devastating earthquake and terrible human tragedy that affected Kathmandu and surrounding areas in Nepal brought to the fore the urgency of the issue. However, while most research and analysis of crises focuses on what went wrong [extremely valuable as that research is], I wanted to find out what went right; that is, what kinds of things do work in urbanism, why, and what can we learn from them.

The book examines the specific case of how large public institutions respond to crises in nimble and adaptive ways. I did a careful study of how local governments in Mexico City in 1985 and Los Angeles in 1994 dealt with rebuilding housing after the earthquakes. What is particularly interesting is that both these cities have long had poor images [e.g. traffic, pollution, crime, etc.]. These case study analyses, on the other hand, yielded surprising and valuable insights into the dynamics of urbanism, particularly in terms of their institutional effectiveness.

One counter-intuitive insight was that these public institutions were effective because they were bureaucratic; that is, they relied on established institutional routines and procedures, which were then adapted and applied relatively quickly to the situations at hand. Another insight was that the key actors were neither the leaders at the top nor the community groups at the grassroots; instead, they were the mid-level managers who understood both: the resources and procedures at the national level as well as the needs and conditions at the neighborhood level.

One of the most important lessons from the book is to learn to compare in an increasingly global and interconnected world. Fortunately, there are many efforts in comparative urbanism. Unfortunately, many of them can be fairly superficial [e.g. ideas about “best practices” that fail to taken into different political and economic structures] or viewed through a singular lens [e.g. one-size-fits-all ideas of “sustainability”]. To compare in a meaningful way, one has to carefully think about why we are comparing [e.g. purposes] and how we are comparing [e.g. analytical frameworks and research methods].

The comparative method is one of the most powerful ways of learning about urban practices from all over the world, to reflect critically on one’s own city, to be sensitive to the similarities and differences among contexts, and to collaborate across international borders. One critical component for comparative research and practice is to be multilingual, because language opens the door to local cultures and social norms that are essential for engaging with contextual differences. The other critical component for comparative urbanism is being self-aware, because even well meaning urban practitioners and scholars are often unaware how their values [e.g. middle-class or Euro American-centric] color how they perceive and act in different contexts around the world.

In these ways, comparative urbanism can be an extremely effective way for learning, for practicing, and for planning for the unplanned.  AI

The book, Planning for the Unplanned:  Recovering from Crises in Megacities, analyzes examples of successful housing rebuilding after earthquakes in Los Angeles and Mexico City, but also failed attempts at addressing critical economic development and air pollution challenges in both cities.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The book, Planning for the Unplanned:  Recovering from Crises in Megacities, analyzes examples of successful housing rebuilding after earthquakes in Los Angeles and Mexico City, but also failed attempts at addressing critical economic development and air pollution challenges in both cities.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Diversity Politics and Engaging Pluralism as Transformative Urban Practice

Nadia Elokdah:  My current research, a thesis in theories of urban practice, examines notions of identity, culture, and urban imaginary in everyday practices.

Cities are dynamic systems perpetually reproduced through negotiations and practices of myriad endogenous and exogenous actors and forces, as well as their interconnnections. In this regard, cities are active sites of collective imagination, invention and intervention. In these sites, there is perpetual urban transformation shaped by active engagement and lived experience.

There is a disconcerting pattern that has emerged in contemporary cities, which is the co-optation of diversity alongside reductionist notions of culture. The critique of this pattern lies in understanding how notions of diversity are wielded by power structures, such as city governments or anchor institutions. Rather than offering the city as an active and pluralistic platform, diversity is used as a veil to mask the actual and often complicated richness of pluralism.

In order to identify new possibilities of diversity, I am collaborating with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an arts and culture non-profit organization based in Philadelphia. My argument has three facets. One is the design of an interactive exhibition embedding identity within the urban realm, on display from February to April 2015 at Philadelphia City Hall. The second is a series of interviews. The third is a repositioning of actors from city departments, arts and cultural organizations, and small-scale, community based organizations as collaborators.

These actors can inform and support one another in multiple ways to activate and co-design spaces of plurality toward urban transformation. Key actors are positioned as intermediaries able to wield power to affect transformation beyond symbolic support. These actors are fundamental to bridging the gap between local, nuanced knowledge of grassroots or community-based organizations and top-down, reductionist practices often found in urban governance.

When thinking of cities as shaped by active engagement and lived experience, conversations involving multiple voices from multiple actors are possible. An important moment is when the formation of strategic alliances begins to emerge. If these alliances prioritize complex identities as foundations for diversity and cultural initiatives, they might be able to consciously move toward a practice of co-design using the urban imaginary as a vehicle for inclusivity of multiple voices and aspirations. The interactive exhibition is a prototype of this. The goal is a practice of co-design of multiple voices and aspirations and a pluralistic framework for arts and culture in urban governance.

I conclude the thesis by addressing a critical question: How can actors better navigate current power structures for urban transformation, while offering expanded notions of what constitutes valid knowledge of the urban? This necessarily becomes a project of making inclusive urban epistemologies while expanding and deepening urban practice.  NE

The “We Went Looking for Home but We Found” interactive, bi-lingual exhibition asks attendees to contribute to the discourse of urban transformation through questions such as, “How does your identity shape the culture of Philadelphia?” Mapping the relations between various stakeholders demonstrates which voices included in decision making and how power structures negotiate.  Source:  Nadia Elokdah

The “We Went Looking for Home but We Found” interactive, bi-lingual exhibition asks attendees to contribute to the discourse of urban transformation through questions such as, “How does your identity shape the culture of Philadelphia?” Mapping the relations between various stakeholders demonstrates which voices included in decision making and how power structures negotiate.  Source:  Nadia Elokdah

Understanding the city of Philadelphia as perpetually transforming allows for critical analysis of current systems of urban governance while also creating openings for new possibilities. Putting in conversation unlikely allies moves toward processes of inclusion and co-design of pluralistic frameworks for arts and culture and diversity politics. Source:  Nadia Elokdah

Understanding the city of Philadelphia as perpetually transforming allows for critical analysis of current systems of urban governance while also creating openings for new possibilities. Putting in conversation unlikely allies moves toward processes of inclusion and co-design of pluralistic frameworks for arts and culture and diversity politics. Source:  Nadia Elokdah

Embodying The Transformative Potential of Urbanism

Aseem Inam:  How does one symbolize urban transformation?

That was the creative challenge for designing the cover of my book, Designing Urban Transformation.  Does one go with the common techniques of either showing a city skyline, or a public space, or an abstract design?  Since my argument in the book is uncommon [i.e. more critical and much deeper and than most approaches], I wanted to embody urban transformation with the same multifaceted complexity that cities themselves represent.  Urban transformation in fact occurs in many different ways and takes multiple guises, including unexpected ones.

I worked with an excellent team, my TRULAB collaborators Namkyu Chun and Matt DelSesto, my editor at Routledge, Nicole Solano and the art director at Taylor and Francis, Sally Beesely.  The basic idea was to focus on one of the most compelling examples of contemporary urban transformation, the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi.  The project is deceptively banal.  On the face of it, it is simply a low-cost community-based sanitation infrastructure project and it has been presented as such multiple times.

However, a deeper analysis via the conceptual shift of “beyond practice:  urbanism as creative political act” reveals a much more compelling narrative of urban practice.  Within an incredibly challenging context of extremely poverty, violence and gender discrimination, the Orangi Pilot Project has not only dramatically improved the urban fabric and health conditions of an informal settlement, but has also mobilized the community and contributed to vital improvements in housing, health and entrepreneurship.

The background image is of a woman making and selling incense sticks, one of the beneficiaries of the Orangi Pilot Project’s entrepreneurship program.  The foreground diagram is the hand-made map of the lane-by-lane alley-by-alley sewage system that has benefitted an astounding one million people and counting.  This black diagram also evokes the intricate jaalis [i.e. windows with delicate stonework] of the Mughal architecture of South Asia. The colors of the cover—the white main title text, the orange font of the author’s name, the pink of the spine and back cover—are taken directly from the colors of the background photograph.

To understand how this all works together as a multilayered embodiment of remarkable urban transformation, the cover is best appreciated as a full spread, as seen in the image below.  AI.

The full spread of the cover of Designing Urban Transformation shows how the background image and foreground image [which spills over onto the back cover] work together with the placement of the texts and their colors.

The full spread of the cover of Designing Urban Transformation shows how the background image and foreground image [which spills over onto the back cover] work together with the placement of the texts and their colors.

There is no silver bullet

Drew Tucker:  Our investigations into the current state of urbanity revealed a long term strategy by the state, public and private actors towards urban solutions. We conducted intensive, urban forensic investigations into these social, policy based, and economic projects only to uncover that they more often compounded seemingly intractable problems in their wake. Modern urban ‘solutions’ in the U.S (our primary site of investigation), slum clearance and urban renewal, displacement as housing policy, and gentrification, have by and large sought to solve problems of urban form, in lieu of function, through social exclusion, creative destruction, and out of scale development. While their intentions were often, in the beginning, well meaning, divisive politics, moralism, and economic competition more often than not, led them astray.

We can now clearly identify a new set of urban solutions on the horizon: smart cities, New Urbanism, Place Making, tactical urbanism, Market Urbanism, Sustainable/Resilient Urbanism, etc. These emerging practices are not for the most part problematic in and of themselves, it is simply that they are overburdened in their task: to provide a concise, complete, and ultimate solution to urban problems. Urbanists are asking too much of these methodologies. Each of them are only a part of the puzzle, and as such, each can only address its particular paradigm of interest. More importantly, urbanity is a process of expanding, intense spatial change. A process that acts upon both the social and physical environment through “a historically situated and geographically unevenly distributed condition, characterized by interdependencies, unpredictability, mobility, differences, speed and intense affects.”  How could any theory or set of theories control for the fluidity of urban change? How could any set of methodologies purport to be the solution to the true wicked problem of urbanization? Rather, shouldn’t we instead develop a similarly fluid set of strategies and tactics to address the mercurial nature of urbanity? Shouldn’t we accept a certain level of shared social precarity and abandon market based solutions whose success is inherently dependent on a level of transference of precarity onto a marginalized group in exchange for an increased economic security for another?

This lesson is especially important for us as we begin to leave (or decide to stay) in New York City and to seek out the physical spaces where we will practice. Personally, I have learned to take a good hard look at how my city, Louisville, is courting new urban trends as solutions to entrenched, historical urban frictions. In some ways, for Louisville, any urbanism is good urbanism, but in many other ways, these urban trends will further complicate (or ignore) entrenched issues of racial segregation, infrastructural deterioration, and economic disparity. What I know now is that my practice, as it impacts Louisville, must add a level of depth to these well meaning ideals; my work must engage a broader element of research, a deeper level of commitment mediation between marginalized and privileged communities, and offer reflexive, embedded, and pragmatic interventions that speak to both of these communities.  DT.

Multiple intersecting urbanities:  Love @ The Garage Bar in Louisville, Kentucky.  Source:  LuAnn Snawder Photography via Flickr and Creative Commons 

Multiple intersecting urbanities:  Love @ The Garage Bar in Louisville, Kentucky.  Source:  LuAnn Snawder Photography via Flickr and Creative Commons 

A verb, not a noun

Drew Tucker:  In the Fall of 2012, over thirty prospective graduate students traveled across the globe to take part in an incredible experiment. Many had just months earlier finished their undergraduate degrees in a myriad of different disciplines: geography, philosophy, film production, urban planning, architecture, design, and fine arts; others were more experienced professionals, already in the field, and feeling some tension between what they had imagined their personal practice would be, and the reality of that work on the ground. What they all had in common was a desire to study in a city like no other, New York City; a city that Aseem Inam explains by saying, “no extrapolation can be made, it is an anomaly.” Also, these students were on their way to become the first cohorts of Parsons the New School for Designs two new groundbreaking urban programs; the Theories of Urban Practice and Design & Urban Ecologies programs. These programs, housed in the School of Design Strategies, would attempt something completely new to academia in the United States, the simultaneous unveiling of two programs, both transdisciplinary in make-up, and focused on actual real world interventions in the urban environment. While each program has its own benefits and methodologies, students from each group quickly formed a network of camaraderie and co-production that drove their research, and deliverables to new heights.

A series of urban investigations into the city of New York allowed us to begin to understand the complex political economic, social, and cultural ecology into which we were becoming integrated. Our investigations included site based forensics on the acquisition of property for immigrant populations and their political organizing efforts; the history of urban homesteading and its possible re-imagining as a fair and affordable housing strategy; strategies for measuring current and future forced displacement due to gentrification; urban gardening as an anti-recidivism urban resilience strategy; cooper square and expanding community land trusts; reconceptualizing the history of the commons; street vendors as diffused architectural solutions in times of crisis, and many, many more. Each of these projects was physically situated in one or more boroughs in New York City, and each one worked directly with an on the ground community group to produce an actual real world urban transformation. We quickly learned that the designer does not have the luxury to just critique but instead must “ask powerful questions” of the frictions within the city. This implicates and positions them as actors in a process of participation and risk; not simply as observers. They openly engage as embedded agents of social processes, giving legitimacy to these interventions.

Over the two year engagement, something interesting happened. We stopped being geographers, architects, and designers; we stopped being academics. We stopped wanting to be urbanists. Our theories and practices became fluid, constantly developing, site based methodologies. We began to work from coexistence with one another toward a co-production of urban praxis. We learned that conflict can be agonistic rather than antagonistic. In the end, we stopped trying to fit ourselves into static categories, rigid methodologies, and combative political ideologies. Instead we created convivial tools towards civil engagement. We developed participatory methods of cogeneration. Our ethic became collective, democratic action, toward the realization of a common liberatory urban good. We began to act as the sans-culottes an “irresistible force...a strategic alliance that recognized a common “revolutionary project” as we worked collectively to participate in La Cite.  DT

Perpetual Renewal:  An intensive workshop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan that probes the true nature of supposedly finalized projects such as urban renewal and creates further opportunities for truly equitable outcomes in the redevelopment of land.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Perpetual Renewal:  An intensive workshop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan that probes the true nature of supposedly finalized projects such as urban renewal and creates further opportunities for truly equitable outcomes in the redevelopment of land.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Should We Love or Hate The High Line?

Aseem Inam:  The world famous High Line elevated park in New York City is simultaneously celebrated and vilified.  The High Line is a 1.45 mile-long public park built on a historic freight railroad line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side.  The celebrations and vilifications of this park occur through five major narratives:  the High Line as historic preservation, as exemplary design, as public policy, as a lack of community participation, and as contributing to gentrification.

The historic preservation narrative highlights the way in which local government and neighborhood businesses considered the abandoned elevated railroad tracks as eyesores to be demolished and eradicated.  In the past, the historic preservation movement in the United States has had a commendable, yet sometimes peculiar, attitude:  old structures—sometimes regardless of their value—should be saved and almost frozen in time.  The heroes of the narrative of exemplary design are the landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller, Scofidio and Renfro.  In fact, the High Line is frequently held up as an outstanding example of landscape urbanism, which sometimes overlooks the fact that such notions of “nature” in the city are manufactured, and that the real challenge is the effort and cost of maintaining such “natural landscapes” in a dense urban setting.

As a narrative of public policy, the High Line is increasingly viewed as a “best practice” to be emulated by local governments all over the world.  The challenge with this narrative is the common occurrence of copying ideas and projects without truly understanding significant contextual differences and similarities.  A less publicized yet persistent narrative, especially at the local level, is the apparent lack of community participation in the design, implementation and maintenance of the project.  The Friends of the High Line, the powerhouse non-profit behind the project, has sought to make amends with the local community through public programming and outreach efforts in recent years.  The fifth narrative and probably the sharpest critique is that the High Line has contributed significantly to the gentrification of the neighborhood, which includes increases in property values, construction of luxury condominiums and the emergence of expensive commercial and retail businesses.  However, thus far no studies of the High Line have produced the empirical evidence necessary to establish such a causality or correlation.

Each of these narratives remains insightful, yet incomplete.  For example, the recent spate of critiques views the High Line as a cause or a significant contributor to gentrification.  There are several critiques to be made of this critique.  One is that the first public offensive in this direction was launched by an opinion piece in The New York Times written under the pseudonym Jeremiah Moss, which already reduces the credibility of the author.  Scholars have also joined this public discourse, claiming that it is an example of the neoliberal transformation of our cities.  However, neither of these present any compelling empirical evidence tying the gentrification process to the High Line.  In general, while there is a legitimate concern about gentrification, there is also an over-simplification and misunderstanding of what gentrification actually entails and the different causes that lead to increases in property values.  The concern here should be much more about the devastating effects of profit-driven development that is inherent in the capitalist city and that we are all part of.

Many of these narratives also miss several critical aspects of the High Line as an example of urbanism.  First, for anyone who has spent some time there, it can actually be quite a wonderful place to walk, to eat lunch, to people-watch, to see the city, or to do other activities in a public space.  The park design embraces the urbanity of Manhattan.  Second, what is a common criticism is instead a compliment.  Many New Yorkers complain that there are too many people in the High Line, especially tourists.  But we want lots of people in our public spaces; in fact, isn’t that one important sign of their success?  In addition, tourists are human beings too and visitors are integral to the lifeblood of cities.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, what is missing from many of these narratives is what I call radical humanism, which views our humanity as a source of inspiration and a course of action.  One of the most compelling aspects of the High Line is how two apparently ordinary citizens, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, set about to save the old elevated railroad tracks and repurpose them.  At the time, they had no significant funding, no political contacts, no training in landscape or urbanism, and no experience in the field.  The story of how they brought the issue to the public eye, how they generated creative ideas for its adaptive reuse, how they built political coalitions, how they harnessed private resources, and how they doggedly pursued the project in the face of enormous challenges is truly inspiring.  At the end of the day, the narrative of the High Line is also a narrative of how human beings are capable of transforming cities through tremendous effort, creativity, and perseverance.

Thus, to pass critical judgment on the High Line we must better understand the complex nature of the spatial production and reproduction of cities.  Such a deeper understanding also opens up possibilities for fundamental and positive urban transformations.  For example, projects such as the High Line are as much ongoing processes as they are spatial products.  The notion of city as flux suggests that part of our task to design and manage these processes as much as it is to design and manage places.  The concept of the consequences of design points to the fact that there are always political and economic consequences of intervening in the material city [e.g. projects that manifest themselves as form, space or infrastructure].  We would do well to actually design such consequences, rather than view them as accidental after-effects.  Finally, the practice of urbanism as a creative political act is one in which politics is not just the capital “p” of formal political institutions and dynamics, but also the everyday politics of the city in which the contested nature of the allocation of resources, land as a speculative commodity and the social dynamics of communities are vital.

The High Line is not perfect; no project ever is.  It possesses many strengths and many weaknesses.  To learn from the High Line, we must engage with the multifaceted nature of urbanism and continue to propose alternatives forms of practice, intervention and transformation that benefit more and more people.   AI.

The High Line attracts crowds of visitors, workers and residents and embraces the urbanity of Manhattan in its design.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The High Line attracts crowds of visitors, workers and residents and embraces the urbanity of Manhattan in its design.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Workers from surrounding office buildings come to work, meet and have lunch on the High Line, included this secluded spot at the south end.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Workers from surrounding office buildings come to work, meet and have lunch on the High Line, included this secluded spot at the south end.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Artists and food vendors have small stalls to exhibit and sell their wares.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Artists and food vendors have small stalls to exhibit and sell their wares.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

People enjoy the details of the High Line, including specially designed benches, water features, paving patterns inspired by the former train tracks and a palette of landscapes.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

People enjoy the details of the High Line, including specially designed benches, water features, paving patterns inspired by the former train tracks and a palette of landscapes.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Chaos Is An Order We Don't Understand

Aseem Inam:  There is a popular perception of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America as being “chaotic.”  This is not only true of visitors from Western Europe and North America, but also the western-educated elite from these regions.  What this popular perception embraces is the dictionary definition of chaos as “a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order.”  This seems to imply that things like housing, transportation, markets, electricity, water and the material city [i.e. urban fabric] of the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America are abitrary, haphazard and will presumably lead to increasing entropy.

Such a perception can have serious consequences.  First and foremost is a somewhat condescending attitude towards these cities, most often reflected in the still commonly-used term—at least in the popular discourse—“Third World.”  What this attitude often suggests is that not only is there nothing much of significant value in those regions of the world, but that there is nothing much to be learned from them either.  [In recent years there has been a trend amongst some urbanists and scholars to swing the other way and to romanticize and fetishize the cities of the so-called “Third World,” especially their informal settlements, without a more in-depth and sophisticated understanding.]

The second consequence, which to some extent derives from this implicitly condescending attitude, is that prescribed strategies and policies view the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin American as “problems to be fixed.”  The proposals for fixing these problems tend to emerge out of the specific contexts of urbanists, academics and international institutions based in New York, Washington DC, London, Brussels, Paris, and so forth.  [There are exceptions to this, most notably the pioneering urban theorizing of Jennifer Robinson and Ananya Roy].  For example, the World Bank continues to promote market-based individual property rights in Latin America as a significant component of urban development.

The reality is that when it comes to cities, chaos is often an order that we don’t understand.  For example, for many years, U.S. cities were judged—and designed—by historic European standards, with their historic cores, civic centers, and grand boulevards.  The books The Image of the City, Learning From Las Vegas, and Architecture of the Four Ecologies began to shift the way we understood post-World War II American cities, by trying to understand them on their own terms.  Similarly, we need to understand the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America on their own terms, eschewing the overwhelmingly colonial imprint and perspective established by the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal and others.

What makes this task all the most interesting is that some of the oldest cities in the world are located in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which means they have evolved over millenia.  Furthermore, what makes the order of the material city in these regions particularly unique is the presence of informal settlements, which are entire neighborhoods and mini-cities built entirely from scratch.  They are examples of stunning resourcefulness of those with lowest access to financial and material resources.  In that way, even with their myriad problems, they are beautiful testaments to human ingenuity.  It would serve us well to better understand these ancient, highly complex and continuously evolving cities to better harness their true potential.  AI.

Chaotic or orderly?  Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, which is where thousands of clothes are still washed by hand everyday and is considered to be the world's largest outdoor laundry.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Chaotic or orderly?  Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, which is where thousands of clothes are still washed by hand everyday and is considered to be the world's largest outdoor laundry.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Developing future-oriented histories of urban renewal

Matt DelSesto:  Transforming cities requires understanding their histories—not just with a fixation on the past, but with an eye towards the future.  This is especially true with the history of urban renewal in US cities because many of these “historic” plans are still active and have a significant influence on the structures and people of urban neighborhoods today.  In a recent project with land-access advocacy organization 596 Acres, I participated in the creation of a map of urban renewal plans in New York City that highlights present impact of urban renewal plans and supports future action.

In NYC, urban renewal plans were mostly written and revised by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the organization that has has the 150+ plans on paper files.  We set out to collect data from every plan including plan area, date adopted, the planned disposition.  Our request for access to the agency records was granted in 2012 and we opted for the right to inspect these records instead of having the agency make copies for us at 25 cents per page (see more on the Urban Reviewer “About” page).  596 Acres volunteers went to the HPD offices several times a month (for about one year and a total of more than 100 hours) to collect that data from the plans that were made available.  We knew that we wanted to make this data more accessible to the public, but the final outcome was flexible, open-ended, and uncertain until near the end of the data collection when 596 Acres partnered with SmartSign and Partner & Partners to create urbanreviewer.org.

One of the significant connections between past and present revealed on the map is that a startling number of vacant lots owned by the city today were also lots slated for demotion and clearance as part of urban renewal plans.  In other words, HPD categorized a neighborhood as “blighted,” promised redevelopment, began demolition, and in many cases never actually got around the the “renewal.”

Today, New Yorkers can use Urban Reviewer to find the urban renewal plans in their neighborhood, and in some ways, continue the work that city officials began.  Where lots are vacant and city owned the Urban Reviewer tool links to the 596 Acres online organizing platform, encouraging users of the site to take action about the future of their neighborhood.

In the process, I realized that the Urban Reviewer would continue to be a changing tool as New Yorkers interact with the website, especially because each urban renewal plan has a distinct format and history that changed people’s lives in very different ways.  As the site was launching in June, I saw that in some ways the website was potentially just beginning.  We have already revisited some of the plans for clarification, heard from individuals who want to help build out content for plan pages, and now 596 Acres has launched an Urban Reviewer exhibit within the "Spontaneous Interventions" residency at Governors Island for August 2014.

Urban Reviewer shows that history matters because through history we learn how cities have been shaped and who wields the power to shape them.  An urban history aimed at designing urban transformation can seek to understand how the city has been shaped in a way that supports future transformative urban actions.  MD.

Above is the home page of the Urban Reviewer website.  New York City blocks impacted by urban renewal are in bold.  The site has references, essays, and an “about” section that situates the work within a larger context.   Source:  www.urbanreviewer.org

Above is the home page of the Urban Reviewer website.  New York City blocks impacted by urban renewal are in bold.  The site has references, essays, and an “about” section that situates the work within a larger context.   Source:  www.urbanreviewer.org

Urbanism, Practice and Power

Aseem Inam:  When it comes to transforming cities in profound ways, architects, landscape architects, urban designers and city planners can be often impotent.  We lack the power, in general, to make a profound difference to society and more specifically, to shape cities.  We rarely matter in the world of urban power relations and urban exclusion.

Cities are shaped by a sometimes-bewildering variety of actors and institutions:  families, politicians, companies, local government, national agencies, utilities, private investors and real estate developers.  For example, in the United States, the dominant private sector actors tend to be financial institutions, which set the terms for urban investment;  major corporations, which influence urban growth through decisions about location and productivity;  and large developers, who build extensive pieces of cities.  In the U.S. public sector, the major players are the federal government, which sets tax, subsidy and regulatory policies; and the large state agencies that create highways, airports, and other regional infrastructure.  These actors tend to have relatively singular purposes:  to make profits, or to generate tax revenues, or to promote efficient transportation.

A close examination of the shaping of cities throughout history provides further evidence of influential actors who were neither architects, nor urban designers, nor city planners.  Cities have been shaped by military engineers, such as those who laid out the early British port cities of India;  by administrators, such as the medieval lords of England, France and Spain, who planted hundreds of new towns in their territories;  by religious orders, such as the Franciscan missionaries in Spanish Mexico;  and by paternalistic industrialists and social reformers.  Today, city-design-and-building processes are marked by conflict, cross purposes, and negotiation.  Paradoxically, those who often have the greatest ability to adopt a forward-looking comprehensive view of a city—i.e. urbanists—are those who in practice tend to have little actual influence in this processes.

One understanding of power is to act effectively and to influence outcomes.  Is the presentation of stunning architectural drawings enough to act effectively?  What difference do radical new three-dimensional forms, in-and-of-themselves, make to a city?  Is the preparation of sustainable neighborhood plan persuasive?  Does designating various land uses, such as residential, industrial or mixed-use, strengthen community?  What power do these types of practices possess, not just in the often self-referential and self-congratulatory realms of architecture, urban design and city planning, but in the invisible structures and long-term processes that actually shape cities?

As urbanists, one of the first steps in becoming far more effective is to realize how little power we actually have to shape cities.  A critical and questioning eye for the nature of power relations, institutional structures, and decision-making processes in cities is essential.  Another step is to understand history in broader and deeper ways.  For example, a study of the legal abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century is a study of the use of political savvy in extremely challenging and complicated sets of circumstances.  Yet another step, is to draw inspiration from philosophical movements such as Pragmatism, which helps us ask questions about consequences as much as about intentions:  What actual impact will our proposals have on the city?  Finally, as urbanists, we also have to act as citizens and human beings who actively engage with cities on a daily basis, whether it is through constant activism, political advocacy, or even small acts of volunteerism.

The questions that all urbanists must struggle with are these:  Do we have the types of knowledge and skills to truly make a difference in cities, and perhaps even more importantly, do we have the kind of courage and sacrifice it takes to make those differences?  AI.

The recent protests calling for radical reform around the world are examples of courageous citizen initiatives and grassroots movements that can lead to fundamental change in cities.  Source:  Time magazine, December 11, 2011.

The recent protests calling for radical reform around the world are examples of courageous citizen initiatives and grassroots movements that can lead to fundamental change in cities.  Source:  Time magazine, December 11, 2011.

Urbanism of Democracy

View of the Town Hall from the south, with the offices and residences to the left, the public library with the large windows in the middle, and the vertical tower of the council chamber in the background.  Between the office / residential block and the public library are grass-covered steps spilling out from the garden courtyard.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

View of the Town Hall from the south, with the offices and residences to the left, the public library with the large windows in the middle, and the vertical tower of the council chamber in the background.  Between the office / residential block and the public library are grass-covered steps spilling out from the garden courtyard.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Aseem Inam:  How does one represent and symbolize the urbanism of democracy?  I have long been interested in this question.  My research on Town Hall at Säynätsalo by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish architect and urbanist, focuses on what forms the urbanism of democracy might take.

The Town Hall derives its presence from a number of sources:  its paradoxical domestic scale, it sensitive relationship to nature, in its extraordinary details, and its role in the surrounding urban context.  Primarily, the Town Hall is a non-monumental monument.  Aalto had a specific humanizing intent in his projects:  “It seems to me that there are many situations in life in which the organization is too brutal:  it is the task of the architect to give life a gentler structure.”  Thus, the civic piazza or atrium around which the elements are grouped is, in reality, neither.

Any sense of public or formal space is neutralized by what is presented as a domestic garden.  What is more, whereas the exterior masses announce a substantial and impressive building, the architectural character of the interior court is decidedly small scale and domestic.  Upon climbing the relatively monumental granite staircase, the monument itself disappears.  Having made the architectural representation of dignity and significance, so that one may step out of the forest and climb into the palace of local government, Aalto then allows the observer to find herself back in a world of recognizable intimacy of house and farmyard.

In person, one is stunned by what a gem of craftsmanship the Town Hall truly is.  After extensive renovations a few years ago, the palette of materials—brick, wood, glass, copper, grass, water—is warm and engaging.  The two most remarkable spaces are the courtyard garden in the center and the council chamber in the tower.  The garden, covered with lush vegetation, is imminently accessible to the public.  The council chamber is symbolically elevated yet modestly—and beautifully—clad in the warm hues of brick and wood.  These two spaces symbolize the collective while being viscerally welcoming.

Another key component of the Town Hall is the public library, which is one of the most under-appreciated institutions of an urban democracy.  Free and accessible to all, the library represents a place of knowledge as well as gathering.  For example, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I found that one of the only places that the homeless were actually welcome is in the central public library.  At Säynätsalo, the library wing faces the south with large windows framed elegantly in wood flooding the interior with natural light [see image above].  On the inside, the beautiful elegance of the building is echoed with the white painted walls, wood floor and furniture [also designed by Aalto], and light fixtures inspired by industrial forms.

Of course, democracy is a complex and challenging phenomenon.  The processes by which the forms of the urbanisms of democracy are produced are equally—if not more so—important.  A key question in this discussion is how do we conceptualize, operationalize and experience democracy.  The Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey talked about democracy in radical terms, including being simultaneously the expression of individuality, the protection of common interests, and as social inquiry.  More recently, my friend Mark Purcell wrote a thoroughly intriguing book, The Deep Down Delight of Democracy, in which he advocates the reframing of democracy as a personal and collective struggle to discover the best in ourselves and others.

I find this notion of democracy as a collective struggle to discover the best in us as individuals and as societies to be quite compelling.  A critical analysis of Alvar Aalto’s work at Säynätsalo can offer us captivating clues as to how that struggle may be expressed in the material city.  AI.

A view of the delightful contrast of the brick-clad tower of the council chamber with the grass-covered courtyard garden, with a fountain and sculpture in the middle.  A series of meeting rooms and offices surround the hallway filled with natural light on the left.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

A view of the delightful contrast of the brick-clad tower of the council chamber with the grass-covered courtyard garden, with a fountain and sculpture in the middle.  A series of meeting rooms and offices surround the hallway filled with natural light on the left.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The Decent City

Aseem Inam:  I was honored to be part of a special by-invitation-only conference organized by the Social Science Research Council [SSRC] in Brooklyn on “The Decent City.”  Many of us were puzzled by the title, which felt simultaneously vague and not aspirational enough.  Ira Katznelson, President of the SSRC explained it thusly:  “The term is meant to imply a site of reflection, research, and policy in a zone between more utopian reflections on the one side, and highly-focused instrumental policy considerations on the other.  Substantively, it connotes cities in which built environments and the organization of space diminish and soften various dimensions of inequality and promote relations among diverse populations that are neighborly.”

Fellow attendees included Ricky Burdett, Diane Davis, Susan Fainstein, Gerald Frug, Edward Glaeser, David Harvey, Robert Sampson, Richard Sennett, Michael Sorkin, Thomas Sugrue, Lawrence Vale, and others.  Several of them are considered to be the leading urban thinkers in the United States and have had an enormous influence on the fields of urban design [what I prefer to call urbanism], urban economics, urban history, urban law, urban politics, urban sociology, and urban theory.  I was asked present my thoughts in the area of design, defined broadly.

Several aspects of the conference were remarkable.  By limiting the number of invitees to about 40, we were able to engage in serious discussions in the conference room, during coffee breaks and over lunch.  In addition, the wide range of expertise—and indeed, wisdom—allowed for the freedom of crossing disciplinary boundaries, which were in fact some of the best exchanges of ideas.  This effort is part of the SSRC’s new initiative to generate leading-edge research on design and urbanism; human heterogeneity, toleration, and inter-group relations; and inequality’s spatial dimensions.  By the end of our discussions and debates, what appealed to me most about the idea of “the decent city” is a focus on analyzing and producing the everyday banality of the city, rather than a sometimes excessive obsession with the extreme or the spectacular.

One clarifying aspect of these stimulating discussions was how many social scientists and even designers tend to view the structures and spaces of cities as settings [almost akin to stage sets] where more important activities occur [e.g. economic exchange, political expression, social interaction].  The other view is close to environmental determinism, which many architects and landscape architects still hold dear and in which the design of the built form generates certain types of behaviors and activities.  Recently, the most extreme example of this has been the Bilbao Effect in Spain, which has been shown by serious scholars to be actually false.

My argument for the role of design in the “decent city” was two-fold.  First, it was to include but also to move beyond typical notions of visual representation and the production of three-dimensional objects.  In terms of urbanism, what is particularly compelling is the notion of design as an engaged practice; that is, a practice that engages directly with the complex social, political and economic processes of the city.  Second, it was to leverage the creative abilities, interdisciplinary thinking, and action-orientation of urbanists to help transform the underlying structures of the material city.  Examples of this would include making the design process more radically democratic, and helping design the public policies, land use regulations, and financing mechanisms that exert great influence on urban form and its consequences.

Overall, it was a great conversation and I applaud the SSRC for its bold initiative and inclusive process.  I looked forward to further progress such that we can better understand and design “The Decent City.”  AI

What does the “decent city” look and feel like?  Stuyvesant Town in the heart of Manhattan, designed and built as affordable housing for soldiers returning to New York City after World War II.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

What does the “decent city” look and feel like?  Stuyvesant Town in the heart of Manhattan, designed and built as affordable housing for soldiers returning to New York City after World War II.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Urban Gardens as Infrastructure of Democracy?

Matt DelSesto:  While sustainability is sometimes applauded unquestionably—for example, the appearance of urban gardens, municipal rezoning for urban agriculture, farmers markets or green business practices—the Pragmatist framework proposed in Designing Urban Transformation encourages us to ask deeper questions about sustainability and the future of our cities.

It seems that each day our cities are becoming more green and sustainable:  governments promote sustainability agendas; researchers add to lists of green best practices; and businesses market their environmentally friendly products.  At the center of this sustainability wave is the urban agriculture movement, which is increasingly noticeable in the material form of cities.  Urban gardens grow from vacant land, farmers sell produce in public space, and trendy organic restaurants are multiplying.  A major argument of research that I cam currently completing in the Graduate Program in Urban Practice at Parsons [i.e. Remaking Urban Society:  Gardens as Infrastructure for Democracy], concludes that this “sustainability wave” is failing to fulfill its potential.   In practice, sustainability has failed to fundamentally change the structures that serve our daily lives.

For example, sustainability initiatives are revealed to be superficial through the “designing for consequences” framework described in Designing Urban Transformation because they often fail to make any substantial difference in the lives of people who most need healthier food and environments—the urban poor.  Or, through the lens of “urbanism as a creative political act,” it becomes clear that sustainability is not fundamentally challenging the business-as-usual politics that dilutes potentially effective action.

To shift sustainability practice based on insights in the book, rather than try to define and categorize sustainability with endless systems of metrics, we can ask:  What can sustainability be?  For example, in what ways could urban gardens become an infrastructure for democracy?  Or how might gardens actually be design strategies to remake urban society through coordinated civic action?   The good news is that we do not need to start from scratch to answer these questions.  There are a number of emerging practices and organizations that have begun to investigate precisely these questions in our evolving 21st century cities.  MD

The Boston non-profit organization, The Food Project, recently built a 10,000 square foot green house that also functions as a public space, where events and education workshops are frequently hosted with neighborhood residents.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

The Boston non-profit organization, The Food Project, recently built a 10,000 square foot green house that also functions as a public space, where events and education workshops are frequently hosted with neighborhood residents.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

The green house in the first image above was constructed as part of a larger neighborhood civic initiative to engage residents in the transformation of public space, including the mural in this image, which is down the street from the green house.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

The green house in the first image above was constructed as part of a larger neighborhood civic initiative to engage residents in the transformation of public space, including the mural in this image, which is down the street from the green house.  Source:  Matt DelSesto.

What is the point of the World Urban Forum?

Aseem Inam:  This blog post is going to be longer than usual, but I think you’ll find it interesting, so bear with me.

The recently concluded World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia was absolutely the gathering of urbanists this year in the world.  The cross-section was remarkable:  politicians [e.g. ministers, mayors], policy makers [e.g. international, national and local bureaucrats], corporations [e.g. businesses capitalizing on the rapidly urbanizing world], academics [e.g. researchers, professors, students], non-profits [e.g. activists and advocacy organizations], and citizens [e.g. local residents and school children from Medellin].  It was quite an experience to give a talk or be part of a panel that included this rich cross-section, which led to truly fascinating dialogues.

There were three principal highlights for me.

One highlight was the buzz generated by our URBAN@NEWSCHOOL team.  The university had a booth near the entrance of the main pavilion, plus we had regular presentations at the booth about faculty research, student work, and academic programs.  This constant activity attracted lots of people, to whom we distributed material about urban initiatives in strategic design, public policy, international affairs, liberal arts, and the social sciences.  People were genuinely interested in all the exciting things that we are doing globally as well as at our campus in Manhattan.

A second highlight was talking about my book, Designing Urban Transformation, in the Urban Library.  The hall was packed to the point of being standing-room-only.  Even though many audience members were not native English speakers, I made it a point to communicate clearly and slowly verbally combined with images and simple text in my slide presentation.  The question and answer session was excellent, and spilled over into the hallway after the formal session was over.  I was touched that people not only found the ideas in the book to be valuable, but also saw how these ideas could help illuminate and address concrete challenges in their own cities and countries.

A third highlight was running into people from all over the world who knew me or knew about my work, including people from Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Greece, India, Italy, Korea, UK, USA, Vietnam, and other countries.  Of course, I was also able to interact with many others from other countries.  This is more than about just building a professional network; instead, it is about nurturing a community of practice, which is a deeper and long-term set of interactive and collaborative relationships in which people not only share similar interests but also similar values towards cities.

What then is the larger point of the World Urban Forum?  Actually, there are several points.

One is to escape the authoritative “know-it-all” attitude that some academics and practitioners adopt towards cities and to instead genuinely learn from one another.  For example, I found it enlightening to learn about women’s housing cooperatives in Central America, about how disaster assistance efforts in Haiti can lead to community development, how a systematic attempt at universal standards in transit-oriented development actually reveals deep contextual differences, and how a decades-long movement of informal workers in India has led to not only major shifts in urban policy at the national level but also to a growing international movement of research and solidarity in informal urbanisms.

Another point is to actually immerse oneself in the buzz and excitement of such a momentous gathering.  I was guilty of being jaded by the many booths and presenters that mouth predictable platitudes about “sustainable cities,” “resilient cities,” “smart cities,” and so forth, without much to show for it in terms of action and impact.  Yet, there was also genuine debate and dialogue, and it was particularly inspiring to see how some had accomplished so much with so little access to power and resources, at least in the beginning [e.g. Self Employed Women’s Association, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, We Effect - Swedish Cooperative Centre].

A crucial point is to get to know another city first-hand, in this case, Medellin.  Medellin has become the “it” city of late, the darling of urbanists all over the world.  There has been considerable publicity about its supposed turnaround from a center of drugs and violence to a city of significant investments in public facilities and spaces.  What I saw was extremely impressive:  the fact that public investments were targeted primarily to some of the poorest neighborhoods combined with a high quality of design and development is truly unique.  For example, the Metrocable system that connects the barrio informale of Santo Domingo Savio with the Acevedo metro station, which enables residents to more easily access social, political and economic opportunities in other parts of the city.  And it seems to run quite well.

There are legitimate critiques to be made of the World Urban Forum:  lots of important-looking officials generating lots of hot air with important-sounding declarations, international bureaucrats going through the motions of studies and proposals, and a sprawling set of spaces at the Forum in Plaza Mayor that sometimes felt too loose and detached.  There was also a striking disconnect in the choice of the keynote speakers.  On the one hand 84% of the world population and 97 out of the 100 fastest growing cities are in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and around 50% of the world's population is female.  On the other hand, the keynote speakers at the Forum were dominated by white males from North America and Western Europe.  This mirrors how current geographical and intellectual centers of knowledge and action regarding the future of cities do not always reflect actual on-the-ground realities, contexts and experiences of the vast majority of the world.

Overall, though, the World Urban Forum was a wonderful opportunity to learn, connect, communicate, debate, and create on a truly global stage.  I returned to New York City from Medellin mentally and intellectually reinvigorated.  AI

The Metrocable from Acevedo metro station up to the hills of the low-income neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The Metrocable from Acevedo metro station up to the hills of the low-income neighborhood of Santo Domingo Savio.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

From More Accessible to More Meaningful

Maggie Ollove:  Sitting around the table were 15 well-intentioned people. My outsider group came to this little city on the shore to offer the resources needed to host a public event about resilience that would coincide with the launch of post-Hurricane Sandy projects. Looking across at me were representatives of several organizations and people with a mix of intentions and hopes for this project. But they shared something undeniable: everyone at the table lived and worked on the eastern side of town. The west side of town, the side that fell across the train tracks was completely unrepresented.

A few days later, my team and I walked into a church on the west side to attend a very crowded community meeting organized by local pastors. Sitting in the pews, we listened to this group of neighbors introduce themselves one by one and identify themselves as concerned citizens. Concerned for the gun violence, the gangs, the drug trade, and the divide between east and west. The momentum and want to unite the east and west was obvious at both meetings, but still the two sides held two meetings with overlapping goals but little cross-communication. 

Public outreach and community engagement projects trying to engage many people can become inherently problematic. Louder, more persistent voices can easily drown out the quieter, the inclinations of the organizers can too strongly influence the final outcome, or aligning with one group can distance another. For many reasons, community engagement is tricky, yet vital to the success of many projects. This sometimes results in the direction of a project to be determined solely by those with the inclination, time, or patience to attend meetings, and those who do not or cannot left out. 

However, by leveraging the breadth of technology and design, traditional notions of public outreach can be unlearned and rebuilt so unheard voices are engaged in meaningful, long-term ways. People are accessing information at unprecedented rates. More than ever, an active constituency is online and willing to engage with and explore new platforms and formats. This provides great opportunity and potential to amplify online platforms and tools to create accessible, inclusive, and transparent feedback mechanisms that engage meaningful dialogue.

A recent article in the Washington Post opinion section bemoaned President Obama’s inability to turn the giant youth following he had built during his campaign into a more engaged citizenry in his time in office. The author also condemns the millennial generation for its ‘inability to remain attached to a cause. While this may be so, millenials repeatedly prove there is potential to engaged them both online (Facebook, instagram, twitter) and off, (Occupy Wall Street, Sandy recovery) even if only temporarily. Yet, why was Obama (among others) not able to continue this excitement? 

Form letters and on-line petitions are tools translated from a pre-internet age, with little criticality given to how to leverage the possibility for open-source data, geo-located mapping systems, and social networking sites. Using these tools and platforms to re-design our understanding of community engagement can create outreach that more directly and specifically speaks to individuals or sub-groups (such as pro-Obama millenials). And this has the possibility to not only improve infrastructure and services based on more informed feedback, but also create a loyal, long-term constituency. With internet access  to an increased number of people a reality for a majority of people, we can now dive deeper to ask questions such as, ‘how might we develop a platform that strives to engage senior citizens in designing public parks to take accessibility into account?,’ ‘what are the biases and assumptions we’ve built into our platforms and how can they be questioned/leveraged?’ or ‘how might we track the progress of different community-based groups with overlapping missions, so they can work together and not separately?’ Rigorous and nuanced questions, such as these, can help transform digital outreach from more accessible to more meaningful.   MO

Interesting websites:  

City Talk Denver
Democracy Lab 
Community Planit

Source:  Maggie Ollove

Source:  Maggie Ollove

Source:  Maggie Ollove

Source:  Maggie Ollove

Complex Relationships

Namkyu Chun:  I am not a urbanist and trained as a fashion designer. However, while exposing myself into diverse professional and academic communities, I found that both practices share many similarities. If fashion design is a field that deals with spaces on top of human skin, urban designers or urbanists work with spaces on top of ground. The difference in scale matters, but I argue that both fields are spatial design that has to embrace complex multilayered relationships of physically and emotionally sensible factors. As Ian Hodder refers in his book Entanglement, accumulation of this diverse mix of entanglements, or relationships, generates bigger and stronger opportunities. In other words, if practitioners of both fields become more aware of the relationships that surround them, they will begin to see more potential by reconnecting existing relationships. To explore the promising future, the role of both practitioners has to be redefined in active dialogues with other communities, and I strongly believe TRULAB offers a great perspective to rethink what we see now.  NC

Source:  Namkyu Chun

Source:  Namkyu Chun

The Place to Be

Aseem Inam:  At this moment, as an urban scholar-practitioner-activist, New York City is definitely one of "the places to be."  I recently gave a talk in Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States.  Los Angeles is moving forward in so many ways [e.g. see previous blog post]:  building new public transit, investing in parks and bike lanes, populating downtown with new residents, attracting bright young talent, and more .  Yet it is missing something:  a critical mass of ideas, people and movements that is so crucial to urban transformation.  Furthermore, the positive changes being proposed and carried out still feel timid and from within the system.

New York City is filled with amazing activist and advocacy organizations that have made remarkable strides in affordable housing, alternative modes of transportation, public spaces, and policy advocacy.  Occupy Wall Street is one of the best things to happen to American cities in a long time because of the way it mobilized people and brought much-needed attention to use of public space, income inequalities, and uneven power structures.  Organizations like Common Ground, Transportation Alternatives, Friends of the High Line, and Center for Urban Pedagogy have made significant impacts on the city and continue to do so.  What makes the critical mass of their impact possible is the density and connectivity of the city, which fosters increased contact, exchange of ideas, and effective collective action.

What makes New York City even more exciting is a remarkable group of scholar-practitioners -- my colleagues at Parsons The New School for Design -- who are reinventing urbanism through a series of extraordinary pedagogical initiatives.  While we have had our struggles in establishing new approaches and new programs in Urban Practice and Urban Ecologies, the truly unique quality of thinking that is prevalent here became crystal clear to me in a faculty meeting, of all places.  A discussion about methods for 21st century urbanism was exceptionally cogent and inventive in terms of the right mix of critical analysis, technological tools, engaged research, and meaningful experimentation that combine to unleash radical change.  I marveled at the depth and creativity of thinking of my colleagues, which challenges and furthers my own ideas.

And there is even more.  The same day as the faculty meeting, I was invited to a gathering at the Ford Foundation of activists, practitioners, policy makers, and scholars as a prelude to the World Urban Forum to take place in Medellin, Colombia in April 2014.  The two most impressive  aspects of the event were the quality of the people in terms of their experience and achievements, and the fact that the best speeches about the future of urbanism were by two politicians:  the former mayor of Barcelona and the former mayor of New York City.  Even if one disagrees with some of the policies of these former mayors, one had to admire how much each mayoral administration had accomplished while facing extremely challenging circumstances.  New York attracts many such stimulating gatherings of people from all over the world.

In short, I truly love being here at this moment, in the place to be.  AI

How does the Graduate Program in Urban Practice at Parsons engage with New York City?    Source:  Vimeo.

Materiality matters

Aseem Inam:  Many of my fellow scholars, practitioners and activists increasing believe that the materiality of the city -- in terms of four-dimensional form, including time -- matters little.  They believe that what matters most are the underlying economic structures or political processes that give rise to the form of the material city.  While such structures and processes are absolutely critical to how cities are actually shaped, form also matters [although not in the overly-deterministic way that some conventional urban designers, architects, and landscape architects might think].

One of the most significant ways in which form matters is in the everyday experience of the city for all its citizens.  People relate to the city in visceral ways through its materiality:  the experience of its spaces, the colors and textures of its surfaces, the tactile qualities of its sidewalks and streets, and degrees of comfort or stimulation that a city's spatial layout provides.  Another significant aspect is the symbolism that form embodies and is perceived by citizens.  For example, while public institutions are supposed to be democratic and accessible in our cities, the actual public buildings -- such as city halls, legislatures and courts -- tend to be overly monumental and even intimidating.

What matters ultimately is the overall materiality of the city, more than the discrete forms of individual buildings and spaces.  An excellent illustration of this are the recent interventions in Los Angeles, where a series of spectacular and beautiful projects appear to make the city more urban in their intensity and intimacy, as the images below indicate.  However, each one of these -- the Los Angeles Cathedral, the Grand Park, the Americana at Brand, and Robert Graham's sculpture "Dancer's Door" framing a view of City Hall -- unfortunately do not add up to a more continuously urban experience.  The materiality of the city is indeed much more than a series of isolated projects; what matters is the quality of its overall fabric, much of which is usually made up of the seemingly mundane and the banal [e.g. housing, offices, shops, streets, sidewalks] rather than the spectacular.  It is this materiality we should pay the greatest attention to.  AI

The Los Angeles Cathedral, as viewed from its courtyard.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The Los Angeles Cathedral, as viewed from its courtyard.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

A view of one of the gardens of Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

A view of one of the gardens of Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The outdoor Americana at Brand shopping mall, with housing above it.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

The outdoor Americana at Brand shopping mall, with housing above it.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Robert Graham's sculpture "Dancer's Door" frames a view of City Hall from the Music Center Plaza in Los Angeles.   Source:  Aseem Inam.

Robert Graham's sculpture "Dancer's Door" frames a view of City Hall from the Music Center Plaza in Los Angeles.   Source:  Aseem Inam.

Can Words Transform Cities?

Aseem Inam:  Words can be powerful.  Words can inspire [e.g. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech], move [e.g. Pablo Neruda's poetry], and spark debate [e.g. Is "sustainability" a meaningful term?]. But can they actually transform cities?  I believe so.

I make such an argument in my research, written work, and my projects.  In my first book, Planning for the Unplanned:  Recovering from Crises in Megacities, I craft a compelling argument through empirical field research about the ways in which urban crises are opportunities for redesigning institutions and redesigning cities in ways that are more responsive to the needs of their citizens.  In Designing Urban Transformation, the argument is multifaceted.  First, I analyze the term "urban design" and propose that it is overly narrow and even outdated due to its obsession with three-dimensional form and project-oriented architecture at the cost of engaging with the larger systems and longer processes that actually produce cities.  Second, I propose calling the practice of city-design-and-building processes and their spatial products "urbanism," a term which can now be embraced as embodying nothing less than transformation.  Third, I demonstrate how this can be done by drawing lessons from critical analyses of case studies from all over the world (e.g. Brazil, Egypt, France, Spain, U.S.).  These are all words written in a book.

How can such words transform cities?  One is through a reading and interpretation of the book itself.  There are examples of books such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, who was voted recently--albeit in a non-scientific poll--to be the most influential urban thinker.  Of course, her book took a few decades to become truly influential.  Another way is through public discourse and dialogue that is generated by the book, which is one reason I so enjoy talking about the book and engaging in conversations.  The challenge in such talks is that people tend to prefer a relatively simple and fairly upbeat "take-away" message from the talk.  I argue instead for deeper and more sophisticated thinking especially since cities are such large, complex and constantly changing phenomena.  A third way is to test and further develop the ideas that words represent through on-the-ground strategies and projects.  I do this through experimental studio projects, such as one in the Mexicantown area of Detroit at the University of Michigan, another near Chinatown in Boston at MIT, and most recently, in the Guarapiranga area of Sao Paulo.  I'm happy to report that they have all been excellent experiences and we have learnt a lot about the true nature of urban transformation.  AI

Inam-Vila_Rubi_favela-2014.jpg

Photo of Vila Rubi favela / communidade [i.e. informal settlement] in Guarapiranga, Sao Paulo.  Source: Aseem Inam.