Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Urban (D)evils

The grid system America is so famous for is not just a way to organise streets and houses efficiently. New York’s former alleyways and cobblestoned winding ways were described by Charles Dickens as ‘all that is loathsome … narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth’ as Michelle Legro writes on Brain Pickings. She summarises: ‘Where streets converged, so did humanity, proof positive that right angles could mean the difference between utopia and bedlam.’ So organised streets and houses at right angles, neighbourhoods as clearly defined angular forms, reflect civility, progress, a raised humanity. Winding alleyways and dark narrow streets are still symbolic of danger and evil and make us think of Jack the Ripper and other urban devils.

But similarly, in apocalyptic/zombie/dystopic movies, the grid system features as a barren, abandoned wasteground. There’s nowhere to hide, the wide open spaces and open access provided by the predictable pattern of the grid is a labyrinth but not one that might work in your favour. In the dark and unpredictable streets there just might be something hiding in the dark, but on the expanse of the wasted grid, the evil to fear is free to come from all directions and free to appear en masse. It’s an interesting split that illustrates some pop culture fears and how those change to suit the built environment, the set.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Places one can go to without having a reason to go

Source: Van Grunsven, M. ‘Het Einde van de Buitenwijk’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 16.12.2010, pp. 50-53.

It appears that change is afoot in what Americans want out of their home environment. Van Grunsven collects and proffers ideas that centre on a new desire for walkability. ‘People want a return to a walkable environment’ with more social amenities, and an increased sense of community and place. (p. 51) Even those suburbs that are based on a city model are in higher demand, and rents are higher than in the typical, empty, sprawled suburb. (p. 53) Additionally, people want public spaces, places you can go to without a consuming impulse as the impetus, for in modern suburbia there are no places to go to without having a reason to go there (drawn from James Kustler’s TED Talk in 2004). (p. 51)

I like this sudden desire for walkability, and with it an accompanying aimlessness; to be able to go somewhere, without having a reason; to wander. Indeed, wandering is inherent to walking. In the suburbs, where the only mode of transport is a car (even where buses are available, people will choose cars) wandering is not really an option. To wander through the suburb itself would offer little surprise as each corner you turn looks similar to the corner you’ve just come from, while an aimless drive does not offer the immersion into place that an aimless walk does.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Real Rural in the City


Lisa M. Hamilton has gone around California and photographed rural life, seeking out the ordinary and the everyday of the Californian countryside. Funnily, these scenes now decorate San Francisco's public transport system (BART trains) in an "ad-art campaign". The Real Rural website explains, '[t]he idea is to actually insert these rural places and people into the city, alongside their urban counterparts.'

I like the idea of bringing the rural space into the urban space, especially when it is done in a way where the photographs may almost become windows out of the confined train carriages, depicting a native yet strange scene. Often, it is only when you are reminded of the opposite that you begin to see and understand what is around you more vividly. (Someone has said this more eloquently but it escapes my mind at the moment) In bringing these images of the rural into the urban space, I think you can feel the essence of the city more urgently and see it more clearly.

Just imagine sitting on the London underground, where, instead of dull ads selling phone contracts or dating websites, you were surrounded by photographs of rolling hills, open skies and wide grasslands. How would that affect your experience of your commute?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Occupy Reroots the Urban Space

Stahl, K. A. ‘How the Occupy Movement Changed Urban Government’, The Atlantic Cities (http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/02/how-occupy-movement-changed-urban-government/1130) Accessed 07/02/12

Kenneth A. Stahl sees the Occupy movement as one that re-establishes the value of place in the city. He views the city as increasingly moving away from the specificity of place, and instead moving towards a mobile, global idea of space. The city space, as used by the global companies, is not valued for its specific spatiality. Competition from other cities means that companies could potentially just as easily settle for, and in, another city. So city officials do whatever it takes to make the space more desirable – the bums are moved on, tax breaks, zoning, etc. This is also done to draw in a shopping crowd, away from suburban malls, and these shoppers are termed “mobile consumers”; the city must work to keep them and ply them with amenities. The logic behind these “mobile consumers” and also the mobile global industries, is that 'they are all presumed to be freely mobile and indifferent to particular places, and whether they stay or go depends on whether they are plied with the right package of incentives and disincentives.’ Stahl compares this to the tactics used to get the “undesirables” out of these areas as well, which is an interesting idea as similar tactics are used to control all levels of traffic. So benches are shortened so they cannot be slept on, to make the space less attractive to homeless people and more attractive to consumers.

On the whole, these tactics seem to be quite successful, but that is where Stahl points to the Occupy movement’s success. The moment a group re-establishes the value of place, and solidifies the locality to the place, a mild package of incentives and disincentives loses all power and effectiveness: ‘This logic breaks down, however, when an individual or group of individuals refuses to treat a specific public space with indifference, when, in other words, it decides that a particular place is critical to its being, its identity, or its conception of community.’ If people tie themselves to a specific place, whether Occupy to Wallstreet, or a group of homeless people to Tompkins Square Park (1991), the gospel of mobility is shattered: 'In establishing flimsy tent-cities in actual urban spaces and refusing to leave, the Occupy protests mocked the idea of mobility peddled by urban officials. More than that, they implicitly advocated the notion that urban areas are places bound up with the identity of local communities, rather than disposable products in a global marketplace.’

Indeed, I think I agree with Stahl that one of the effective elements of the Occupy protests is the stasis they introduce into the middle of the seemingly mobile city environment. The tent city forms roots into the pavement and blocks the well-worn path that the “mobile consumers” both on an industrial and domestic scale travel, and disregard, daily.