- In Urban Media Ecology news, several recent studies reported correlations between characteristics of the built environment and human health. A study from the University of Kansas (in my birthplace of Lawrence) found that “neighborhoods that motivate walking can stave off cognitive decline in older adults“:
The researcher judged walkability using geographic information systems — essentially maps that measure and analyze spatial data.
“GIS data can tell us about roads, sidewalks, elevation, terrain, distances between locations and a variety of other pieces of information,” Watts said. “We then use a process called Space Syntax to measure these features, including the number of intersections, distances between places or connections between a person’s home and other possible destinations they might walk to. We’re also interested in how complicated a route is to get from one place to another. For example, is it a straight line from point A to point B, or does it require a lot of turns to get there?”
Watts said easy-to-walk communities resulted in better outcomes both for physical health—such as lower body mass and blood pressure—and cognition (such as better memory) in the 25 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment she tracked. She believes that older adults, health care professionals, caregivers, architects and urban planners could benefit from the findings.
- Another research paper from researchers at multiple institutions “suggests that street design may have a larger impact on public health than previously thought“:
By studying 24 California cities with an array of street design characteristics and their associated health data, the authors find that living in cities with high intersection density—a measure of compactness—significantly reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. A full-grid street pattern also is a factor in lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as compared with full treelike patterns.
- At CityLab, Richard Florida posted a roundup of recent research studies on the health benefits afforded by walkable communities:
If walkability has long been an “ideal,” a recent slew of studies provide increasingly compelling evidence of the positive effects of walkable neighborhoods on everything from housing values to crime and health, to creativity and more democratic cities.
Walkability is no longer just an ideal. The evidence from a growing body of research shows that walkable neighborhoods not only raise housing prices but reduce crime, improve health, spur creativity, and encourage more civic engagement in our communities.
- Another CityLab article by Emily Von Hoffman looked at what architecture is doing to your brain:
I spoke with Dr. Julio Bermudez, the lead of a new study that uses fMRI to capture the effects of architecture on the brain. His team operates with the goal of using the scientific method to transform something opaque—the qualitative “phenomenologies of our built environment”—into neuroscientific observations that architects and city planners can deliberately design for. Bermudez and his team’s research question focuses on buildings and sites designed to elicit contemplation: They theorize that the presence of “contemplative architecture” in one’s environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional “internally induced” meditation, except with much less effort by the individual.
- As part of a directed study this semester, I’ve been studying the role of communication infrastructure in urban design, and particularly the parallel developments of mass media and the modern metropolis. Urban explorer Bradley Garrett recently wrote a piece for The Guardian about the massive infrastructure of underground London, including not just tube stations but communication infrastructure including Britain’s deepest telephone exchange:
The urban exploration crew I had worked with, the London Consolidation Crew or LCC, had long graduated from ruins and skyscrapers – it was the city in the city they were after, the secrets buried deep underground where the line between construction site and ruin is very thin indeed. The Kingsway Telephone Exchange was the crème de la crème, more coveted even than abandoned Tube stations or possibly even the forgotten Post Office railway we accessed in 2011.
Kingsway was originally built as a second world war air-raid shelter under Chancery Lane. These deep level shelters were, at one time, connected to the Tube and citizens would have undoubtedly taken refuge here during Luftwaffe bombing runs. In 1949 the tunnels were sold to the General Post Office where they became the termination for the first submarine transatlantic phone cable – the £120m TAT1 project. The system, meant to protect the vital connective tissue of the city in the event of terror-from-the-air (including nuclear attack), stretched for miles. It only had three surface entrances and contained a bar for workers on their off-hours, rumoured to be the deepest in the UK at 60m below the street. Although the government employed a host of people to maintain the tunnels, Kingsway was a spatial secret of state – part a trio of the most secure and sensitive telephone exchanges in Britain, along with the Anchor Exchange in Birmingham and the Guardian Exchange in Manchester.
- These photos of subterranean communication infrastructure contrast with images of above ground cables covering the urban landscape, as featured in this io9 post, “photos from the days when thousands of cables crowded the skies“:
Before most cables ran underground, all electrical, telephone and telegraph wires were suspended from high poles, creating strange and crowded streetscapes. Here are some typical views of late-19th century Boston, New York, Stockholm, and other wire-filled cities.
- Joseph Stromberg at Vox recently wrote about the “forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of ‘jaywalking‘”:
Auto campaigners lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them. They staged safety campaigns in which actors dressed in 19th century garb, or as clowns, were hired to cross the street illegally, signifying that the practice was outdated and foolish. In a 1924 New York safety campaign, a clown was marched in front of a slow-moving Model T and rammed repeatedly.
This strategy also explains the name that was given to crossing illegally on foot: jaywalking. During this era, the word “jay” meant something like “rube” or “hick” — a person from the sticks, who didn’t know how to behave in a city. So pro-auto groups promoted use of the word “jay walker” as someone who didn’t know how to walk in a city, threatening public safety.
- William Eric Rinehart at Sweet Talk asks: Did a change in rhetoric give rise to cities?
Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.
- Matt Stroud at The Verge recently wrote about the dream and the myth of the paperless city in Chicago:
But you can’t just flip a switch to reverse paper systems in place for hundreds of years, can you? Adobe first released its Portable Document Format nearly 20 years ago, yet many private companies, nonprofit organizations, libraries, law firms, courts — and yes, major city governments such as Chicago’s — have yet to embrace a world reliant on PDFs and devoid of paper records. Mayor Emanuel has agreed to change that. Or at least to try. In 2011, he announced plans to spend $20 million on efficiency improvements including changes to make the city less reliant on paper.
Will Mayor Rahm Emanuel change the way governments deal with paper? Or is the road toward a “completely paperless” government a long way off?
- At URBACT, Stefan Höffken and Chris Haller consider urban planning and the multi-dimensional communication era:
“Because urban planning has always been based on the gathering and exchange of information and – as a democratic process – on communication between different stakeholders, a change in the method of communication has a significant impact on decision-making throughout the process”
The quote at the beginning of this post was taken out of a paper by Stefan Höffken and Chris Haller, who set out to research how new medias were used for urban planning matters. They are refering to geographer Manuel Castells’ and Clay Shirky‘s work to describe the change from uni-dimentional communication towards a many-to-many exchange sphere that, so Shirky, is on the verge of becoming ubiquitous. Höffken and Haller provide interesting insights in how different tools can serve certain goals and complement each-other by surveying urban projects and institutions or civil society mobilizations on urban matters as different as Tulsa municipality and the Mediaspree campaign in Berlin.
- Emily Badger at the Washington Post reports that Uber is offering cities an olive branch in the form of their customers’ trip data:
The company plans to partner first with Boston, sharing quarterly anonymized trip-level data with the city in a model that Uber says will become its national data-sharing policy. The data will include date, time, distance traveled and origin and destination locations for individual trips, identified only by zip code tabulation area to preserve privacy. Once held by cities, this information will be open to records requests, meaning that the public (and researchers) will have access to it, too.
Such data could help cities keep tabs on Uber and, for example, which neighborhoods the company is serving. Uber says, though, that it’s primarily offering the data so that cities can better understand themselves.
- Rosie Cima at priceonomics recently wrote about a designer’s war on misleading parking signs:
Sylianteng first tried to redesign parking signs when she was living in LA and applying to grad school, in a project she called “To Park or Not to Park.” She reduced the usual jumble of signs and regulations to a single, holistic panel, which looked a lot like a Google Calendar – it was a grid of days of the week, broken into hours. The blocks of time when a parking spot was valid she shaded green, the blocks of time it was invalid she shaded red. She also simplified the rules she illustrated, working off the principle that people would much rather adhere to an overly restrictive regulation than get a parking ticket.
Her prototypes provoked a lot of commentary, discussion, and praise. She used this feedback to improve her designs. She printed out new prototypes, and taped those up. The feedback validated some of her central assumptions, among them: (1) a lot of current parking signs were very confusing, and (2) people didn’t care why they could or couldn’t park somewhere, they just didn’t want to be ticketed.
- At Tropics of Meta, South El Monte Arts Posse posted about mapping community narratives in El Monte and South El Monte:
The writing of social history needs to keep in mind the motivations and individual agency of the people participating in events as they happen. In interview after interview, people were aware of the larger structural forces, and yet made choices and actions in contradiction to expectations. Again and again we spoke with people who beat the odds, who pushed back against racism, and took it upon themselves to change circumstances and in many cases succeeded.
- Arwa Mahdawi at The Guardian reports on neighborhood rebranding in London:
Similar semantic shifts are being attempted, with varying degrees of success, throughout the rest of London. Intrepid developers have discovered “Tyburnia”, an undervalued stretch of real estate between Paddington Station and Hyde Park. Meanwhile, the “Knowledge Quarter” is an attempt to rid King’s Cross of its association with prostitution by emphasising the new preponderance of cerebral institutions there. You could call it “brain-washing”. The Knowledge Quarter, incidentally, is one of 21 “Quarters” in London; there are also a dozen or so new “Villages”. Neighbourhood rebranding is often the linguistic leg of gentrification and, as such, follows a predictable pattern: “Villages” assert their legitimacy by emphasising community, while “Quarters” lend a gravitas to whatever noun they follow. Both have a cleansing effect on the associations that came before them.
- At NextCity, Nathan C. Martin considers why art, not Google, could revolutionize WiFi:
Remember a few years ago when television went digital and everyone had to get adapters or new TV sets? When that happened, what once were television channels became simply channels, a bulk of empty bandwidth that could host any variety of transmission. The Federal Communications Commission named it Super WiFi. The policies to regulate it are yet to be written, and a chorus is imploring the FCC to leave a large part of the spectrum open, or “unlicensed,” instead of auctioning it off. Those advocates tend to refer to the spectrum in spatial terms — a group of Stanford University economists likened the spectrum to a public park, a resource everyone should have access to. Mary Ellen Carroll speaks of it similarly. “It’s like public land,” she says. “It’s like Yosemite.”
- Finally, Emanuel Maiberg at Motherboard looks at homelessness in SimCity, and whether it is a bug or feature:
SimCity’s homeless people are represented as yellow, two-dimensional, ungendered figures with bags in tow. Their presence makes SimCity residents unhappy, and reduces land value. Like many other players, Bittanti discovered the online discussions when he was searching for a way to deal with them.
At first, players wondered if they were having so much problems with the homeless in their cities because of a bug in the game. Like many of 2014’s big-budget games that launched in broken or barely-functional states, SimCity originally would only work if players connected to EA’s servers, which repeatedly crashed under the load of players. It seemed possible that the homeless problem in SimCity was simply a mistake.
“Has anyone figured out a easy way to handle the homeless ruining those beautiful parks you spend so much money on?” asks one player on EA’s site. “Create jobs, either through zoning or upgrading road density near industry, that helped me a lot,” another player suggests.
- Writing for The Washington Post, Emily Badger argues that “it’s time to give up the most loaded, least understood word in urban policy: gentrification“:
The definition matters, in other words, not purely for linguistic nit-picking, but because we seldom talk about gentrification in isolation. More often, we’re talking about its effects: who it displaces, what happens to those people, how crime rates, school quality or tax dollars follow as neighborhoods transform. And if we have no consistent way of identifying where “gentrification” exists, it then becomes a lot harder to say much about what it means.
This is all very academic, but there’s a corollary lesson for laymen: Whatever point you’re making about “gentrification” is undermined by the fact that the word has no clear, singular meaning.
- Badger cites a recent post by Richard Florida at CityLab that suggests “no one’s very good at correctly identifying gentrification“:
It’s clear that “gentrification” is still a vague, imprecise and politically loaded term. We not only need better, more objective ways to measure it; we need to shift our focus to the broader process of neighborhood transformation and the juxtaposition of concentrated advantage and disadvantage in the modern metropolis.
- Reporting on a recent symposium on gentrification that took place in Philadelphia, Sandy Smith at Next City addresses the problem of definition while suggesting 3 ways communities can take control of gentrification:
The panelists who participated in a discussion on “Gentrification, Integration and Equity,” hosted by Next City on Dec. 3rd, had definitions that varied widely, and not all of them agreed that it was a bane. But the issue of better-off residents moving into low-income neighborhoods, no matter how one defines or slices it, does call for cities and communities to come up with ways to counter the ill effects and develop alternative, inclusive visions for redevelopment.
- Meanwhile, Pete Saunders at The Corner Side Yard has identified the types of gentrification:
Spurred on by the recent debate on the impact of limited housing supply on home prices and rents, thereby “capping” gentrification, (taken on fantastically by geographer Jim Russell in posts like this), I decided to do a quick analysis of large cities and see how things added up. The analysis was premised on a couple observations of gentrification, one often spoken and one not. One, gentrification seems to be occurring most and most quickly in cities that have an older development form, offering the walkable orientation that is growing in favor. Two, gentrification seems to be occurring most and most quickly in areas that have lower levels of historic black populations.
- The Guardian recently profiled Jan Gehl and “his battle to make our cities liveable“; Oliver Wainwright considers this approach to “liveable” cities and asks, “will all our cities turn into ‘deathly’ Canberra?“:
Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds. It is what a city looks like when it is left to politicians to plan.
It is neither a new nor unusual phenomenon, but this year it proves to be particularly timely: the term gentrification was coined exactly 50 years ago, in the prescient writings of Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass. “London may acquire a rare complaint,” she wrote in 1964, after studying the rapid change of places like Notting Hill and Islington, from neighbourhoods of blue-collar workers to desirable havens for the middle-class urban gentry. “[The city] may soon be faced with an embarras de richesses in her central area – and this will prove to be a problem.” The idea of the inner-city becoming desirable and overpriced was unthinkable at the time. But 50 years on, we have exceeded her worst nightmares.
- In a post at the Jacobin blog, Anthony Galluzzo considers how the mainstream media’s “fucking hipster” show mocks hipsters in the service of capital:
[Marxist geographer Neil] Smith offers a dry, but emphatically structural account of this process, which he first theorized in the late eighties with Soho and the Lower East Side in mind. Gentrification has since become central to neoliberal urbanization generally, and New York City in particular, under the developer-driven Bloomberg administration.
But why bother with “dry” and “structural” when you can tune-in to the “fucking hipster” show?
Unlike Smith’s rigorous Marxian analysis, most popular accounts from the spurious creative class mystifications of Richard Florida to standard issue conservative populist diatribes forget the larger forces and primary movers in this process, which is instead reduced, metonymically, to the catchall figure of the hipster.
On topics ranging from the capitalist dynamics of gentrification to the casualization of employment among ostensibly middle class Millennials, the “fucking hipster” show beats staid structural analysis every time — even for many members of the self-identified Left.
We should retire “hipster” as a term without referent or political salience. Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.”
The anti-hipster censure here includes a healthy dose of typically American anti-intellectualism, decked out in liberal bunting, subtle homophobia, and recognizably manipulative appeals to white, middle class resentment, now aimed at the lazy hipster, who either lives on his trust fund or, more perniciously, abuses public assistance, proving how racist templates are multi-use tools.
Our power elites’ rhetorical police action becomes increasingly necessary as large swaths of the people lumped under the hipster taxon slip into the ranks of the long-term un- and underemployed. Once innocuous alternative lifestyles could potentially metamorphosize into something else altogether. Better to frame “alternative lifestyle” in terms of avant-garde trend setting without remainder, providing suitably rarefied consumption options for Bloomberg’s new bourgeoisie, as they buy locally sourced creativity on Bedford Ave.
- Anti-homeless features in urban design became a trending media topic earlier this month after pictures of anti-homeless studs in London were shared on social media. The Mirror reports on the background and the eventual removal of the spikes:
Metal spikes designed to stop homeless people sleeping in the doorway of a London apartment block have been removed, after almost 130,000 people signed a petition calling for them to be taken out.
Pictures of the metal studs outside flats in Southwark Bridge Road were widely shared online last weekend, sparking outrage on social media.
Many criticised the spikes as inhumane, and compared them to those used to stop pigeons landing on buildings.
- An Atlantic article by Robert Rosenberger looks at how cities use design to drive homeless people away:
It has been encouraging to see the outrage over the London spikes. But the spikes that caused the uproar are by no means the only form of homeless-deterrent technology; they are simply the most conspicuous. Will public concern over the spikes extend to other less obvious instances of anti-homeless design? Perhaps the first step lies in recognizing the political character of the devices all around us.
An example of an everyday technology that’s used to forbid certain activities is “skateboard deterrents,” that is, those little studs added to handrails and ledges. These devices, sometimes also called “skatestoppers” or “pig ears,” prevent skateboarders from performing sliding—or “grinding”—tricks across horizontal edges. A small skateboard deterrence industry has developed, with vendors with names like “stopagrind.com” and “grindtoahault.com.”
An example of a pervasive homeless deterrence technology is benches designed to discourage sleeping. These include benches with vertical slats between each seat, individual bucket seats, large armrests between seats, and wall railings which enable leaning but not sitting or lying, among many other designs. There are even benches made to be slightly uncomfortable in order to dissuade people from sitting too long. Sadly, such designs are particularly common in subway, bus stops, and parks that present the homeless with the prospect of a safely public place to sleep.
The London spikes provide an opportunity to put a finger on our own intuitions about issues of homelessness and the design of open space. Ask yourself if you were appalled by the idea of the anti-homeless spikes. If so, then by implication you should have the same problems with other less obvious homeless deterrence designs like the sleep-prevention benches and the anti-loitering policies that target homeless people.
- In the Guardian, Ben Quinn writes that anti-homeless spikes are part of a wider phenomenon of “hostile architecture”:
In addition to anti-skateboard devices, with names such as “pig’s ears” and “skate stoppers”, ground-level window ledges are increasingly studded to prevent sitting, slanting seats at bus stops deter loitering and public benches are divided up with armrests to prevent lying down.
To that list, add jagged, uncomfortable paving areas, CCTV cameras with speakers and “anti-teenager” sound deterrents, such as the playing of classical music at stations and so-called Mosquito devices, which emit irritatingly high-pitched sounds that only teenagers can hear.
The architectural historian Iain Borden says the emergence of hostile architecture has its roots in 1990s urban design and public-space management. The emergence, he said, “suggested we are only republic citizens to the degree that we are either working or consuming goods directly.
“So it’s OK, for example, to sit around as long as you are in a cafe or in a designated place where certain restful activities such as drinking a frappucino should take place but not activities like busking, protesting or skateboarding. It’s what some call the ‘mallification’ of public space, where everything becomes like a shopping mall.”
- Following last month’s post of David Graeber’s views on “bullshit jobs,” this Salon interview with Graeber discusses the failed forecast of universal leisure time:
Right after my original bullshit jobs piece came out, I used to think that if I wanted, I could start a whole career in job counseling – because so many people were writing to me saying “I realize my job is pointless, but how can I support a family doing something that’s actually worthwhile?” A lot of people who worked the information desk at Zuccotti Park, and other occupations, told me the same thing: young Wall Street types would come up to them and say “I mean, I know you’re right, we’re not doing the world any good doing what we’re doing. But I don’t know how to live on less than a six figure income. I’d have to learn everything over. Could you teach me?”
But I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better. I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.
- In an article for Al Jazeera, Sarah Kendzior surveys the politics of gentrification and the perils of hipster economics:
Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.
That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.
In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.
Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.
- At Mute, Dominic Pettman writes about the rise of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) in higher education, and how commodification affects the value of learning:
In the pedagogic trenches, MOOCs are considered a symptom of wider economic patterns which effectively vacuum resources up into the financial stratosphere, leaving those doing the actual work with many more responsibilities, and far less compensation. Basic questions about the sustainability of this model remain unanswered, but it is clear that there is little room for enfranchised, full-time, fully-compensated faculty. Instead, we find an army of adjuncts servicing thousands of students; a situation which brings to mind scenes from Metropolis rather than Dead Poets Society.
For companies pushing MOOCs, education is no different from entertainment: it is simply a question of delivering ‘content.’ But learning to think exclusively via modem is like learning to dance by watching YouTube videos. You may get a sense of it, but no-one is there to point out mistakes, deepen your understanding, contextualise the gestures, shake up your default perspective, and facilitate the process. The role of the professor or instructor is not simply the shepherd for the transmission of information from point A to point B, but the co–forging of new types of knowledge, and critically testing these for various versions of soundness and feasibility. Wisdom may be eternal, but knowledge – both practical and theoretical – evolves over time, and especially exponentially in the last century, with all its accelerated technologies. Knowledge is always mediated, so we must consciously take the tools of mediation into account. Hence the need for a sensitive and responsive guide: someone students can bounce new notions off, rather than simply absorb information from. Without this element, distance learning all too often becomes distanced learning. Just as a class taken remotely usually leads to a sea of remote students.
Marshall McLuhan was half-right when he insisted that the electronic age is ushering in a post-literate society. But no matter how we like to talk of new audio-visual forms of literacy, there is still the ‘typographic man’ pulling the strings, encouraging us to express ourselves alphabetically. Indeed, the electronic and the literate are not mutually exclusive, much as people like to pit them against each other.
- Pettman also quotes Ian Bogost’s comments on distance learning:
The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that’s what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn’t online education per se, it’s the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.