Sunshine Recorder

Link: Cycling as an Eschatological Activity

I’ve been cycling a lot lately, the spandex, sunglasses and shaved-legs kind, yes, but also the get around town kind. To the coffee shop, to the store, to school—if I’m going someplace by myself I do my best to get there by bike.

One particular stretch I ride regularly has newly striped bike lanes—lanes that didn’t come without protest from a handful of residents on the busy street. Essentially, the question came down to whether streets are for cars and for bikes or just for cars.  The residents of the street thought that the street and its wide shoulder should be for the driving and parking of cars.  The many bike commuters who follow that street to get to the metro and Old Town Alexandria thought that the street should be shared by both.  The city sided with the cyclists and my rides are a little less harrowing as a result.  The conflict, however, raised a theological point.

The question of whether roads are for cars or for bikes or for both reminds me of St. Augustine’s City of God.  It’s a massive book, but at its core is the idea that there are two overlapping cities—the City of God and the City of Man.  The City of God is a city founded on peace and whose end is peace.  It is oriented toward the final coming of God’s kingdom.  The City of Man is a city that was founded on violence and is animated by pride, power, and greed—what peace it has is based on violence.  The residents of both cities interact in commerce, in space, etc., but at the end of the day they are working toward different ends.  Only one of those cities really has a future.

What is at play on the streets, with bikes and cars and buses, are essentially two cities, two different realities with differing values.  Sometimes the two overlap, but at the end of the day, the cyclists and the drivers are using the roads toward different ends.  Of course many people, like myself, use the roads in both modes.  I drive and I bike, but it wouldn’t take me long to choose if I could only have one.  In fact the only reason I keep driving my car in many instances is because of cars—if I could safely ride with my two year old on the main streets of the city I would do it.

When I drive a car I am participating in a fallen reality—the oil economy, the speed economy, the death economy.  It is the car that has made the suburb possible; it is the car that is responsible for over 30,000 deaths in the U.S. each year—the cost of velocity more than anything else.  Transportation—cars, buses, trucks—contributes 30% of the total carbon emissions for the U.S. each year.  I cannot imagine a place for cars in the coming Kingdom of God.

Bikes, however, are deeply sustainable.  We could go on riding them forever.  They can go fast, yes, but fast on a bike goes barely above a school zone speed limit.  They are healthy for both our bodies and the earth.  I hope to be riding bikes now and forever, even in the coming Kingdom of God.  When I ride my bike, even on the hard days of heat or cold, even on the days when I have to pull out my rain gear—I am doing so as an eschatological act.  I am living into the City of God—its values, its ends.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has often reminded us that the reason he is a pacifist isn’t because he thinks it will work better than war to bring the world peace or relieve the suffering of innocents.  He is a pacifist because he believes the call of Christ does not allow him to be otherwise.  To be a pacifist now is to perform an eschatological act—it is a commitment to live into the kingdom that is coming rather than the kingdom that is fading away.

When I bike I am living into something more hopeful and joyful, slower and more human than the world of cars and oil and traffic.  It is a small act of embrace of the world as it should be and will be.  With each pedal stroke I am getting my legs ready for the streets of the Kingdom that is breaking into the world.

(Source: gospelofthekingdom, via itsthom)

Link: On Hostile Architecture

New urban design aims to influence behaviour and has been criticised as an attempt to exclude poor people.

While not as obvious as the stainless steel “anti-homeless” spikes that appeared outside a London apartment block recently, the benches are part of a recent generation of urban architecture designed to influence public behaviour, known as “hostile architecture”.

Skateboarders are now attempting to subvert the benches in the way they know best. “We’re demonstrating today that you can still skateboard on it,” said Dylan Leadley-Watkins, as he careered to a halt after hurling himself and his board along one of the benches in Covent Garden.

"Whatever the authorities want to do to try to destroy public space, they can’t get rid of everyday people who can come through an area without having to spend money and do something that they enjoy."

The actions of skateboarders and those angered at the spikes – since removed after an online petition surpassed 100,000 signatures and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, joined in the criticism – come at a time when many argue that cities are growing ever colder towards certain groups.

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.

"A lot of defensible architecture is added on to the street environment at a later stage, but equally with a lot of new developments it’s apparent that questions of ‘who do we want in this space, who do we not want’ are being considered very early in the design stage," says the photographerMarc Vallée, who has documented anti-skateboarding architecture.

Others emphasise the value of environmental design in deterring criminal behaviour, and insist that thinking has long moved on from such crude solutions as stainless steel spikes.

"Spikes are part of an outdated fortress aesthetic not welcome in communities, where there is recognition that urban design needs to be inclusive," says Lorraine Gamman, professor of design at Central St Martins and the director of the institution’s Design Against Crime (DAC) research centre.

"If we wish to use design to reduce antisocial behaviour, then democracy needs to be visible in the crime-prevention design we put on our streets," she says. "I don’t have a problem with the Camden bench – whose aesthetics others have criticised – but I do have a problem that in many locations benches, toilets and dustbins appear to have been removed to reduce anticipated crime, at the expense of the law-abiding majority."

Innovations currently being developed by Central St Martins include “ATM art” – ground markings aimed at increasing the privacy and security of cash machine users.

Others have included projects related to graffiti ("Graffiti Dialogues"), anti-theft “Grippa Clips” for use in bars and cafes and the “Camden bike stand" , which make it easier for cyclists to keep their bicycles upright and lock both wheels and the frame to the stand.

Anger towards some of the blunter types of “defensible architecture” is growing. On Wednesday, activists poured concrete on top of spikes outside a central London branch of Tesco. The company said they were to prevent antisocial behaviour rather than to deter homeless people butagreed on Thursday to remove them.

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."

Rowland Atkinson, co-director of the Centre for Urban Research at the University of York, suggests the spikes and related architecture are part of a broader pattern of hostility and indifference towards social difference and poverty produced within cities.

"If you were being a bit cynical but also realistic, it is a kind of assault on the poor, a way of trying to displace their distress," he says. "You have various processes coming together, including economic processes that are making people vulnerable in the first place, like the bedroom tax and thresholds on welfare, but the next step seems to be to say: ‘We are not even going to allow you to accommodate yourself in the most desperate way possible.’ "

Link: A Dictator's Guide to Urban Design

Ukraine’s Independence Square, and the revolutionary dimensions of public spaces.

Ukraine is the size of Texas, but for the last three months its burgeoning protest movement has largely crowded into the space of 10 city blocks.

The name for the movement itself, Euromaidan, is a neologism fusing the prefixeuro, a nod to the opposition’s desire to move closer to the EU and away from Russia, with the Ukrainian (and originally Persian and Arabic) word maidan, or public square. And the term is about more than situating the demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). Ukraine may be located in Europe geographically, but many of the protesters also see Europe as an idea, one that ”implies genuine democracy, trustworthy police and sincere respect for human rights.”

The name speaks to an increasingly universal phenomenon as well: the public square as an epicenter of democratic expression and protest, and the lack of one—or the deliberate manipulation of such a space—as a way for autocrats to squash dissent through urban design.

Not all revolutions have been centered in public squares, but many recent ones have, including several in former Soviet states. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. Kyrgyz protesters seized Ala-Too Square from police in 2005, then promptly stormed the nearby presidential palace and ousted long-time President Askar Akayev. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 took place in the same Independence Square where protesters have now engaged in bloody clashes with government forces, wringing promises from President Viktor Yanukovych for early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution.

The symbolism of the public square gained new potency during the Arab Spring. An essayist writing in the heady days of the Egyptian revolution, shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011, eloquently explained how Tahrir Squarerepresented the broader repression of Egyptian civil society. The square wasoriginally built in the 19th century based on a “Paris on the Nile” design for Cairo, and renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square when it became a focal point for the Egyptian revolutions of 1919 and 1952:

Indeed, in the past few weeks Tahrir has became a truly public square. Before it was merely a big and busy traffic circle—and again, its limitations were the result of political design, of policies that not only discouraged but also prohibited public assembly. Under emergency law—established from the moment Mubarak took office in 1981 and yet to be lifted—a gathering of even a few adults in a public square would constitute cause for arrest. Like all autocracies, the Mubarak government understood the power of a true public square, of a place where citizens meet, mingle, promenade, gather, protest, perform and share ideas; it understood that a true midan—Arabic for public square—is a physical manifestation of democracy. A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy. 

In Tahrir this meant erecting fences and subdividing open areas into manageable plots of grass and sidewalks. To cite one prominent example: the large portion of the square that fronts the Egyptian museum was, until the 1960s, a grassy plaza with crisscrossing paths and a grand fountain. Here families and students would gather throughout the day; it was also a notorious meeting point for lovers on a date in the heart of the city. But in the 1970s, the government fenced off the area—and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot. Cairenes speculated that perhaps it was closed to allow for construction of the Cairo Metro or other infrastructure projects. Sometime in the past decade a sign appeared, announcing that a multi-level underground parking garage was being built. During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs—and the removal of the fence revealed that none of the promised construction had ever taken place. The area had been taken away from the public sphere precisely to avoid the possibility of large crowds congregating in Tahrir. Such was Mubarak’s urban planning legacy. 

Cairo’s layout also made Tahrir Square the perfect place to launch a revolution. Centrally located in Egypt’s largest city, Tahrir sits near the Egyptian parliament, Mubarak’s political party headquarters, the presidential palace, numerous foreign embassies, and hotels filled with international journalists to broadcast footage of the protests for audiences around the world. After Mubarak stepped down, large public squares in other Arab capitals became revolutionary battlegrounds as well.

For Libya, Tripoli’s main public square has come to symbolize the success of the country’s 2011 revolution. Originally named Piazza Italia under Italian colonial rule (Western European-inspired central squares are a common theme in this part of the world) and then Independence Square by the Libyan monarchy, it had been renamed “Green Square” after Muammar Qaddafi’s political ideology. Libya’s transitional government promptly renamed it Martyrs’ Square after those who died fighting Qaddafi’s regime in Libya’s civil war.

But these public spaces don’t always survive the revolutionary moments that make them famous. Bahrain’s most prominent public square (or circle) met the same fate as the uprising that once filled it. After demonstrators marched to Manana’s Pearl Roundabout in March 2011, the Bahraini government retook the circle in a bloody crackdown, then tore up the grass with backhoes and demolished the central Pearl Monument to reassert control.

In many ways, France pioneered the conscious use of urban design for political purposes. Paris in the early 19th century was essentially a medieval city, suffocating from overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Baron Haussmann’s urban renovations under Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s gave the City of Light a modern sewage system, beautiful suburban parks, and a network of train stations. He also took the opportunity to demolish unruly lower-class neighborhoods, banish their impoverished inhabitants to suburbs, and replace their cramped, narrow alleys with spacious, grand boulevards. In the event of an uprising, like those that took place in 1789, 1830, and 1848, French authoritieshoped the wider streets would be both harder for revolutionary Parisians to barricade and easier for columns of French soldiers to march through to suppress revolts.

Similar calculations are still made today. In 2005, Burma’s ruling junta moved the government from Yangon, a sprawling metropolis of 5 million people, to the new inland capital at Naypyidaw for security reasons. Isolated from other population centers, Naypyidaw is populated mostly by government functionaries and military officials who spend as little time as possible in the eerily desolate city. Burmese officials claim almost a million people live there, although the true population is likely far, far lower than that.

When the Saffron Revolution erupted two years later, in 2007, the large-scale protests that rocked other Burmese cities never took hold in Naypyidaw, and the country’s military rulers remained in power after a brief but brutal crackdown. Even if the city’s population had been large enough for demonstrations, where would they have taken place? Broad boulevards demarcate the specially designated neighborhoods where officials live, with no public square or central space for residents, unruly or otherwise, to congregate. A moat even surrounds the presidential palace. One journalist described the city as “dictatorship by cartography.”

Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, meanwhile, relocated his seat of power to Astana, a capital deep in the Kazakh steppe filled with futuristic architecture to dazzle visitors. Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to the past for inspiration: In 2008, he revived the Soviet tradition of massive military paradesin Moscow’s Red Square to project strength. Not blunt enough? Saudi authorities use Riyadh’s Deera Square to carry out official public beheadings.

Others are more subtle. In Pyongyang, the austere, imposing capital of the world’s last totalitarian state, conformity oozes from every hulking mass of concrete. Only the most loyal North Koreans areallowed to reside in the city’s many identical apartment blocks, a common characteristic of Stalinist urban design. North Korea’s largest city isdefined by the “large monuments of questionable taste [that] dot the cityscape … linked by absurdly wide Haussmannian boulevards and colossal public squares devoid of an actual public.” The abundant public space exists solely to glorify the state and the Kim regime’s personality cult.

If too much public space can be a bad thing, then China’s Tiananmen Square is the worst offender. The world’s fourth-largest square can paradoxically be considered “the opposite of a public space,” wrote Tim Waterman and Ed Wallin their book on landscape architecture. Tiananmen’s “totalitarian scale dwarfs the individual and forces them to feel subservient to the power of the state. It is a space best suited to parading troops and weaponry, not to active citizen participation in the daily life of a metropolis.” The 1989 tank-led suppression of pro-democracy activists occupying the square serves as a stark reminder of how mass demonstrations can fail.

Not all authoritarians are as adept at urban design. Romanian autocrat Nicolae Ceauşescu’s grandiose redesign of Bucharest in the 1980s obliterated one-fifth of the historic city to install a sprawling mess of concrete structures, including the world’s largest parliamentary building, which dominates Bucharest’s skyline. None of this stopped a massive crowd from turning against him during a speechin Revolution Square in December 1989. Days later, he was captured, convicted, and executed by firing squad.

In Cairo today, three years after the fall of Mubarak, the army appears to be pursuing pre-revolution normalcy. Crowds returned to Tahrir Square last summer and demanded the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. He is currently on trial for inciting murder and using violence against protesters, while General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew Morsi, is expected to seek the Egyptian presidency. He will probably win.

Tahrir Square is now empty. Workers are busily erecting 10-foot-tall gates, adorned with spikes and painted in Egypt’s national colors, around the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution and the epicenter of the Arab Spring. Public squares can be cradles for democratic movements but, to paraphrase Tsiolkovsky, one cannot live in a cradle forever. Will Ukraine’s maidan meet a similar fate?

Link: Emerging from the Ruins

This is adapted from Marshall Berman’s last public lecture, delivered at the City College of New York on May 2, 2013. Marshall died on September 11, 2013.

Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.” — Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

My city of ruins
My city of ruins
Come on rise up! Come on rise up!

— Bruce Springsteen, from The Rising (2002)

I would like to begin with a little time travel: first, back to the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s—and particularly the South Bronx of the 1970s; then, back to the Bible, back to the sixth century BCE, back to the first destruction of Jerusalem, and the start of its renewal; then a final leap into a twenty-first-century Manhattan that is full of echoes of both. I’m not going to talk now about the horrors of 9/11, or of Boston, or about the vulnerability of New York Harbor. I pay homage to the people of those places. But I’m going to focus on a distinctive landscape of ruins, an amazing, dreadful landscape that came to define the South Bronx, and for many people to define New York, for the last decades of the twentieth century. Those ruins were one of New York’s great negatives. I want to try to do what Hegel says: look the negative in the face.

The ruin was a process. It began in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the center of the Bronx was blasted and bulldozed to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. But the ruin grew far beyond anything anyone could imagine. In the 1970s there were waves of fire; in a decade the Bronx lost more than 300,000 people. Life stabilized only at the century’s end. The Bronx is still New York’s poorest borough, but its vast empty spaces are full of people again. Its population has risen, close to its 1950 peak. We will focus on the years when it was down. I invented a word for this process: URBICIDE, the murder of a city. Did I really invent it? Once you said it, it seemed obvious enough. But how do people in a murdered city live?

In the early 1950s, we read that our neighborhood, and many other working-class immigrant neighborhoods very like it, had been chosen for destruction. People more than a few years younger than me can’t imagine a world without highways; clover-leaves are built-in, as much as anything green or glass or neon. They don’t know how many of the world’s grandest highways were built directly through the most densely settled and populated places. The South Bronx was one of those places. Sometime in the next few years, the papers said, hundreds of buildings were going to be torn down and thousands of people were going to be pushed out, to build a new highway. Officials said exact locations weren’t yet known. They also said we all should be grateful: we were being told early so we would have plenty of time to get out.

There was a big protest meeting at Taft High School, and my father took me. I said I couldn’t believe “our government” would do this. My father said governments had all sorts of people inside them. The one to watch out for was Robert Moses. Moses was in charge of many city and state agencies, and he knew how to manipulate federal money. He had a great radio voice (remember, these were “radio days”), and he would routinely say things like, “You don’t like it? It’s a big country. Go to the Rockies! Your friends don’t like it? Take them along.” Many accounts of the wreck of the Bronx may have placed too much stress on Moses because he was so flamboyantly vicious. But his projects got built because they expressed a total elite consensus, both on what to build and on how. The way to build was this: draw lines from point A to point B, obliterate everything in between. Moses knew how to do that.

In Robert Moses’s drive for total control—highways, bridges and tunnels, recreation, housing, not just the building but the planning—the question of what we needed, and when and where, was ignored

The man leading the fight against the highway had a name with a magic all its own: ROOSEVELT. He was F.D. Roosevelt, Jr., a congressman from the Upper East Side. I was thrilled by the name. My father took me to the big meeting at Taft. But the hero didn’t show up. He was supposed to speak at 7 p.m. Then they said his car was stuck downtown, but don’t worry, he’ll get in a cab. Other people came on, two guys played harmonicas. Then it was eight. My father said, “We’re going home. Roosevelt’s dead, we’re gonna have to move.”

Thousands of people were forced to move. Thousands more, like us, felt they had to. In the spring of 1955 we moved to West 237th Street, still in the Bronx, but on the 1 train. It was very green; there were the remains of forests. My sister and I missed the old neighborhood, but our parents were happy in the new one. They had a room of their own—we’d all slept in one bedroom before—and they would walk in the woods hand in hand. The whole episode would have been a perfectly ordinary “move to the suburbs,” at a time when millions of people were making that move—except that six months later, my father died of a heart attack. Our family crashed and plummeted. Our life was shattered, in a place where we hardly had a life. People even had a hard time getting to our new house, to mourn with us; mostly they didn’t come. I became obsessed forever with the destruction of cities.

In our old nabe, the expressway project got underway. Eventually my life also got underway. We had moved; I was going to Bronx Science, then to Columbia. But I kept going back. One big assembly point for construction was an overpass at the Grand Concourse and 174th Street. There was what was once a vest-pocket park, now a storage dump, that offered a spectacular view. It attracted many of Robert Moses’s victims. They were older than me, often involuntarily retired; their homes and jobs no longer existed. “That bastard,” they said, “we’ll get him someday.” Over the years, more and more road was blasted out, with tremendous craters; for the first time, in this very dense city—the South Bronx was the city at its densest—you could see for miles and miles, both east and west. Enormous equipment, steam shovels and bulldozers, huge trucks and rock-drills and pipes—stuff we’re used to today, but seemed from another planet then—were spread out where streets used to be. The view evoked the dazzling perspectives of Piranesi, which I was just learning to see in my fine arts course. One of the project’s ironies: it brought a new but real beauty into the Bronx even as it tore the Bronx apart. But this, of course, was only the first stage in the Bronx’s ruin. It left thousands of people feeling like victims, sometimes depressed, sometimes enraged, but always more helpless than they had thought they were. There would be more people like them down the road.

A decade later, movements arose against Moses, especially against his highways, and I played a small part in them. Jane Jacobs was the star; she generated forms of community protest that were central to the time we call “the Sixties.” But Moses had decades to build on an unprecedented scale. He could access immense amounts of federal money, move millions of bucks from project to project and department to department, without explaining himself or showing anybody “the books.” In his drive for total control—highways, bridges and tunnels, recreation, housing, not just the building but the planning—the question of what we needed, and when and where, was ignored. These activities were his, he had to create the whole package, he didn’t want to share. He oozed contempt for people who were “small,” who only thought of themselves and their lives. “Boardwalk businessmen and gossiping housewives” was one of his tags. Ironically, he led people to identify with those housewives and boardwalk businessmen. The 1960s halo around words like “community activism,” which finally stopped his megalomaniac planning, was a romance of the small. It helped many neighborhoods stay alive, but it came too late for the South Bronx.

[…] After college I got a fellowship for two years in Oxford. In Europe, I continued to follow my obsession with city destruction. I got to know people who took me through neighborhoods in London that had been bombed by the Nazis; they talked about how people had—or hadn’t—recovered. I met some of the creators of the British Labour government’s welfare state and the first-ever National Health Service. I felt sick of America, but they were so passionate about how America, Roosevelt, the New Deal, the skyscrapers of New York, had inspired them. This made me think something that I can see, after a career as a teacher, is hard for a twenty-year-old to think: I thought, “My God, my parents were right.” I saw where I wanted to go. I wanted to keep studying for a while, but then I wanted a job in the public sector in New York. I loved the city; I wanted to grow old here, to teach kids from neighborhoods, to bring up my own kids here. But also I wanted to work for the public and work to give people an education that was their right. I was lucky: forty-six years ago I got a job here, at the City College of New York, and I haven’t let go.

I knew New York and all American cities were going to need help. Since the New Deal, Democrats have worked to give cities federal money while Republicans have worked to undermine them. In the late 1960s, the beat got more brutal. By Nixon’s formula, if cities were losing population—and, in the age of highways and suburbia, most of them were—they would lose money for police, fire, hospitals, mass transit, schools. The idea was to impoverish cities, while enriching the suburbs around them. This would nourish political extremes and polarize the country. I loved the late 1960s, but life got weird. Our supposedly conservative president was cultivating and proclaiming nihilism. As Patrick Buchanan, then a Nixon White House aide, put it: “If we tear the country in half, we can pick up the bigger half.”

The Bronx in this period came to embody the smaller half. It plummeted. Here’s an example: violence. Life in the 1960s, and more or less continuously till the 1990s, grew more and more violent. New York now has about 500 homicides a year, more or less the amount it had in 1930, when the police began keeping track; but in the years around 1990, it had over 2,000. The Bronx was hit hardest. In about five years, it became the poorest borough, the most violent, the most doped up, the most afflicted with arson, the most homeless, the most undernourished, the most widely infected with a great range of diseases. Financially, by the 1970s it was “redlined”: on their maps, banks drew red lines around the areas they wouldn’t lend to, so landlords could not get loans to renovate their buildings. The South Bronx was on the wrong side of the line.

In the early 1970s, arson became a spectacular growth industry. Buildings throughout the borough were burned intentionally in an effort to recoup much of their lost value. In 1976 Roger Starr, city housing commissioner, later New York Times urban affairs editor, proposed a plan he called “Planned Shrinkage.” The city, he said, is divided into neighborhoods that were “productive” and others that were “unproductive,” a drag on the tax base. We have to eliminate the unproductive. This meant to “stop the Puerto Ricans and rural blacks from living in the city.” If we turn off water, electricity, sanitation, and stop making repairs when systems break, we can drive the unproductive out. In the past, the urban system took “ the peasant … and [turned him] into an industrial worker.” But now “there are no industrial jobs,” and it is our task to “keep [this man] a peasant.” We must “reverse the role of the city” as a world-historical force.

That year New York was pressed close to bankruptcy. Congress passed a bill to give the city a loan that would keep it solvent. President Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, eventually signed the bill. But first he said he was going to veto it; it didn’t matter to him what happened to New York, and he believed New York’s fate meant nothing to “the people of America.” TheDaily News, a paper that had always supported Ford’s party, dramatized the moment in one of the great headlines in the history of mass media: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”

Around this time, something happened to me that had great impact on my life as a man and a teacher: I started reading the Bible again. I’ve never believed in any god. But I came to believe that if I was going to grow up, I had to find ways to connect the parts of my life: myself as an adult, with education and a PhD, with myself as a child, in a now-nonexistent part of the Bronx. The stories that haunted me then and that still haunt me are about cities. Biblical cities—Jerusalem, of course, but also the pagan cities that surround it, Tyre, Babylon, Damascus—are seen as always vulnerable, their existence tenuous. They can be great, but are not solid. They are always potential ruins. Those destroyed cities seem to have looked a lot like the 1970s South Bronx.

Here is the Book of Lamentations, from Jeremiah’s time, the late fifth century BCE, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, in 587–586 BCE:

How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations! …
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her …
The roads to Zion mourn,
for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate …
Her foes have become the head;
her enemies prosper …
All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength… .
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”

From ancient times to today, the experience of seeing your city in ruins is one of the dreadful primal scenes: this is urbicide.

A great source of pain is the contrast of today with yesterday. “How lonely sits the city that was full of people.” The clashes of desolation and glory that are so vivid in the Bible felt close to home. In a country with a president who said the destruction of New York meant nothing, the question “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” was a question in current events.

Much of my work as a writer, over the past several decades, has been about what it means to be modern. My last chapter in All That Is Solid Melts into Air is on the Cross Bronx Expressway. But reading the Bible, I realized there were important things that modernism often left out. When I saw the Bronx in ruins, I saw how modern life, itself full of ruins and the terror of ruins, was still biblical. I didn’t think the Bible was special in offering divine solutions to human problems, but it was special in saying very clearly what the problems were. Modern rhetoric often talked as if mankind had transcended troubles that we really hadn’t transcended at all, that were still there for us to face.

The early literature of urbicide is a literature of ordeal. The ancient Jews, like the Greeks, traced urbicide to their gods. But Jewish writers ask another question that is harder to find in Greek culture (Euripides’s Trojan Women is a rare exception): Were the gods right to do such a thing? Or were they wrong? Some Jewish writers think the people are being punished; they were bad and they deserve to suffer. Others think it is an outrage, a violation of the laws of decency by “the judge of all the earth”—this is Abraham, protesting against God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet Amos discovers God is planning to kill all the Jews. He confronts him and says, “But Israel is so small”; he seems to make God ashamed of himself. Job protests, too, but God blows him away.

The prophets indict God but also indict the Jews, their own people. Not only do they worship pagan gods (remember that “golden idol”), they all run after money, honors, pleasure, success, and stain their hands with the people’s blood. The rich lay house to house, field to field, so there is no place for the poor in what is supposed to be their own land. Meanwhile, all the poor people seem to want is to imitate the rich, to change places and enslave their enslavers. People of every rank, from high to low, oppress and ruin. They forget their covenants, not only with God, but with each other.

This is the beginning of social criticism and one of the beginnings of democratic thought. Most ancient literature on democracy comes from Athens. But the Bible is also a primary source. The prophets horrify us with visions of destroyed cities. But then they rain magical poetry down on us and make us believe we can change the world. Take a song by Second Isaiah, a song read every Yom Kippur. He is singing to people who feel imprisoned, even if they also are economically doing well. He says they can do morally better: liberate the captives, open the prisons, share your clothes, feed the hungry, satisfy the desire of the afflicted. Acts of empathy will bind people together and give them the collective power to rebuild their ruins, “to raise the foundations of many generations.” Till the 1970s I never noticed the urban ending of this song: “And you will be called the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

(Source: fluidstaccato)

Link: Wal-Mart: An Economic Cancer on our Cities

Excerpted from “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design” by Charles Montgomery, published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. 

Most of us agree that development that provides employment and tax revenue is good for cities. Some even argue that the need for jobs outweighs aesthetic, lifestyle, or climate concerns—in fact, this argument comes up any time Walmart proposes a new megastore near a small town. But a clear-eyed look at the spatial economics of land, jobs, and tax regimes should cause anyone to reject the anything-and-anywhere-goes development model. To explain, let me offer the story of an obsessive number cruncher who found his own urban laboratory quite by chance.

Joseph Minicozzi, a young architect raised in upstate New York, was on a cross-country motorcycle ride in 2001 when he got sidetracked in the Appalachian Mountains. He met a beautiful woman in a North Carolina roadside bar and was smitten by both that woman and the languid beauty of the Blue Ridge region. Now they share a bungalow with two dogs in the mountain town of Asheville.

Asheville is, in many ways, a typical midsize American city, which is to say that its downtown was virtually abandoned in the second half of the twentieth century. Dozens of elegant old structures were boarded up or encased in aluminum siding as highways and liberal development policies sucked people and commercial life into dispersal. The process continued until 1991, when Julian Price, the heir to a family insurance and broadcasting fortune, decided to pour everything he had into nursing that old downtown back to life. His company, Public Interest Projects, bought and renovated old buildings, leased street-front space out to small businesses, and rented or sold the lofts above to a new wave of residential pioneers. They coached, coddled, and sometimes bankrolled entrepreneurs who began to enliven the streets. First came a vegetarian restaurant, then a bookstore, a furniture store, and the now-legendary nightclub, the Orange Peel.

When Price died in 2001, the downtown was starting to show signs of life, but his successor, Pat Whelan, and his new recruit, Minicozzi, still had to battle the civic skeptics. Some city officials saw such little value in downtown land that they planned to plunk down a prison right in the middle of a terrain that was perfect for mixed-use redevelopment. The developers realized that if they wanted the city officials to support their vision, they needed to educate them—and that meant offering them hard numbers on the tax and job benefits of revitalizing downtown. The numbers they produced sparked a eureka moment among the city’s accountants because they insisted on taking a spatial systems approach, similar to the way farmers look at land they want to put into production. The question was simple: What is the production yield for every acre of land? On a farm, the answer might be in pounds of tomatoes. In the city, it’s about tax revenues and jobs.

To explain, Minicozzi offered me his classic urban accounting smackdown, using two competing properties: On the one side is a downtown building his firm rescued—a six-story steel-framed 1923 classic once owned by JCPenney and converted into shops, offices, and condos. On the other side is a Walmart on the edge of town. The old Penney’s building sits on less than a quarter of an acre, while the Walmart and its parking lots occupy thirty-four acres. Adding up the property and sales tax paid on each piece of land, Minicozzi found that the Walmart contributed only $50,800 to the city in retail and property taxes for each acre it used, but the JCPenney building contributed a whopping $330,000 per acre in property tax alone. In other words, the city got more than seven times the return for every acre on downtown investments than it did when it broke new ground out on the city limits.

When Minicozzi looked at job density, the difference was even more vivid: the small businesses that occupied the old Penney’s building employed fourteen people, which doesn’t seem like many until you realize that this is actually seventy-four jobs per acre, compared with the fewer than six jobs per acre created on a sprawling Walmart site. (This is particularly dire given that on top of reducing jobs density in its host cities, Walmart depresses average wages as well.)

Minicozzi has since found the same spatial conditions in cities all over the United States. Even low-rise, mixed-use buildings of two or three stories—the kind you see on an old-style, small-town main street—bring in ten times the revenue per acre as that of an average big-box development. What’s stunning is that, thanks to the relationship between energy and distance, large-footprint sprawl development patterns can actually cost cities more to service than they give back in taxes. The result? Growth that produces deficits that simply cannot be overcome with new growth revenue.

In Sarasota County, Florida, for example, Minicozzi found that it would take about three times as long for the county to recoup the land and infrastructure costs involved in developing housing in a sprawl pattern as compared with downtown. If all went well, the county’s return on investment for sprawl housing would still be barely 4 percent.

“Cities and counties have essentially been taking tax revenues from downtowns and using them to subsidize development and services in sprawl,” Minicozzi told me. “This is like a farmer going out and dumping all his fertilizer on the weeds rather than on the tomatoes.”

The productive richness of the new Asheville approach becomes even clearer when you consider the geographic path taken by dollars spent at local businesses. Money spent at small and local businesses tends to stay in a community, producing more local jobs, while money spent at big national chains tends to get sucked out of the local economy. Local businesses tend to use local accountants, printers, lawyers, and advertisers, and their owners spend more of their profits in town. National retailers, on the other hand, tend to send such work back to regional or national hubs, and their profits to distant shareholders. Every $100 spent at a local business produces at least a third more local economic benefit and more than a third more local jobs. The arrival of a Walmart in any community has been shown to produce a blast radius of lower wages and higher poverty.

Price, Whelan, and Minicozzi helped convince the city of Asheville to fertilize that rich downtown soil. The city changed its zoning policies, allowing flexible uses for downtown buildings. It invested in livelier streetscapes and public events. It stopped forcing developers to build parking garages, which brought down the cost of both housing and business. It built its own user-pay garages, so the cost of parking was borne by the people who used it rather than by everyone else. All of this helped make it worthwhile for developers to risk their investment on restoring old buildings, producing new jobs and tax density for the city.

Retail sales in the resurgent downtown have exploded since 1991. So has the taxable value of downtown properties, which cost a fraction to service than sprawl lands. The reborn downtown has become the greatest supplier of tax revenue and affordable housing in the county—partly because it relieves people of the burden of commuting, and partly because it mixes high-end lofts with modest apartments. All of this, while growing what one local newspaper emotionally described as, “a downtown that—after decades of doubt and neglect—is once again the heart and soul of Asheville.”

By paying attention to the relationship between land, distance, scale, and cash flow—in other words, by building more connected, complex places—the city regained its soul and its good health.

Link: "Rebel Cities" by David Harvey

In his latest book the radical geographer David Harvey examines the idea of the “right to the city” and looks at ways in which urban populations around the world can reclaim the spaces that couldn’t work without them, but which they rarely control.

Icon You talk about how Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, has reshaped the city, Manhattan most of all. He uses the positive-sounding slogan: “Building like Moses, with Jane Jacobs in mind.” But you ask: “What do you do with the people who have to be moved on?” Are you arguing for more static cities? Part of the dynamism of cities is that people move in and out.

David Harvey But who is moved and who is priced out? I don’t see eminent domain [compulsory purchase] being used on Park Avenue or in Mayfair. I see eminent domain being used in regard to vulnerable populations who are advantageously located. The land is considered high value and it should go to its highest and best uses, to become office spaces or high-rise condominiums instead of living spaces for ordinary folk. There is an inherent class bias in the way in which spaces in the city are allocated. Why should we accept a system where the people who move on are the most vulnerable and the people who stay wherever they like are the one-percenters?

Icon What does “the right to the city” mean in this context? And who are you referring to in New York?

David Harvey The people who build and sustain a city should have a right to residency and to all the advantages they’ve spent their time building and sustaining: simple as that. The people who come into New York City at 6 o’clock in the morning to wake the city up, and who live on $30,000 a year, have a right to the city they’re waking up. It’s not just a right to the existing city, but a right to actually transform the city so that we don’t end up with consumer palaces for the rich and high-end condominiums in the centre of the city. A lot of minority groups are moving out of the New York metropolitan region entirely, to upstate New York or out to small towns in Pennsylvania, because they can’t afford the metropolitan region any more.

Icon You use El Alto in Bolivia as an example of an engaged city, where different groups have had to work out how to live together. But when you say, “You have to show up to things or otherwise you’ll get shafted”, this implies a friction that people in older cities are no longer used to, and don’t much like. Is it possible to reintroduce it?

David Harvey In the last 30 years we’ve been through this process of – I use Sharon Zukin’s phrase – “pacification by cappuccino”. It’s perfectly true that people have a non-conflictual life and to the degree that they have a non-conflictual life they disengage with a lot of what’s going on around them. But suddenly everyone gets agitated and people start talking to each other, who didn’t talk to each other before. Then things settle down and there’s a nostalgia for when we had this great togetherness but nobody can really think of a reason for it to exist again. A conflictual city is always a much more engaging kind of thing. The big problem is to have a conflictual city where people are not killing each other. You don’t want to find decapitated bodies outside the front door when you go out in the morning. The ethnographies done in El Alto showed that the solidarities, which existed, were around conflictual forms of engagement. That’s what kept everybody talking to each other.

Icon What about the rate at which urbanisation is speeding up – what kinds of stresses are being applied to these new urban populations?

David Harvey I don’t want to universalise too easily: the situation in New York was very different to the situation now in Mumbai. In the last 50 years we’ve moved from a situation where about a quarter of the world’s population is urbanised, to now when it’s 50 percent or more. It’s been a dramatic, dramatic reorganisation of global populations, including the sudden growth of massive cities – anything up to 20 million – such as São Paulo, Mumbai.

On the left, there was the lone voice of [urban theorist] Mike Davis who was constantly writing about these things. And I thought: why in the face of this massive transformation of daily life isn’t the left thinking about what kinds of politics will come out of this? What kinds of mechanisms of government and repression are going to be constructed around these massive populations. These huge populations, which are suddenly appearing, are very disruptive; they’ve been shunted off the countryside, they’ve been pushed in from elsewhere. It’s not as if the government sets up structures and then welcomes the migrants; governments are perpetually trying to catch up.

Icon China is making cities on a scale we’ve never seen before. You point out that in the 20th century, the US built homes to get the economy out of slumps, but it can’t do that any more – there are just too many empty houses. Are you worried about China ending up with empty cities?

David Harvey The Chinese are building whole cities and they’re looking for people to live in them; it’s a sort of pre-emptive urbanisation they’ve engaged in. But there are a lot of struggles going on. Even the official reports show a doubling of incidents of various kinds, and a lot of those incidents are over the displacements. There’s a great deal of instability and agitation among the population about urbanisation, as there is in the factories: Foxconn [the electric components company that manufactures Apple products and has seen a spate of suicides and protests over working conditions] and the rest of it. At the same time, they’re absorbing vast amounts of surplus capital and labour through this huge urban project, which is likely to lead to overproduction. On the other hand, the Chinese also have a surplus in their budget so they can recapitalise a lot of this. However, a lot of the municipalities are very indebted so you may see a debt crisis at the municipal level in China in the next few years.

Icon How are older cities changing? How successful are their attempts to reinvent themselves?

David Harvey A lot of older cities have effectively gone under. We see “shrinking cities” in Detroit and Buffalo; in eastern Germany and also in Japan. Detroit no longer has the industrial base it once had, so it has a lot of housing which is no longer needed. It may be that the shrinking cities are going to have some alternative form of urbanisation. You see a city in this country like Manchester, which is reinventing itself. It’s not a shrinking city like Detroit; it’s coming out of its 1980s de-industrialisation. Throughout Europe, there’s been a model of entrepreneurial cities trying to turn themselves into growth poles for their region.

I was in Spain, maybe four years ago, and I rode the high-speed train. I was going through these cities and counting the construction cranes, in Madrid and Valencia and Seville … At the time I said, “But this is crazy,” and everyone laughed and said, “Yes it’s crazy, but we can’t do anything about it.” Now we’ve got the problem.

Icon What’s the most pressing thing for urbanists to be thinking about now?

David Harvey Capitalism is in a great deal of trouble, so the models of urbanisation we see are either in a great deal of trouble, or they will be. We have to think about an alternative model of urbanisation which is going to take us away from accumulation for accumulation’s sake and production for production’s sake.

Icon How does global warming affect urbanisation? What kind of cities should we be living in?

David Harvey We cannot diminish our use of cheap fossil fuels without transforming the suburbs and the suburban lifestyle. If the suburbs were poor, we’d simply say: get out of here, we’re going to remodel all of this. But we’re dealing with an entrenched interest, which doesn’t want to change the suburban lifestyle even if it’s sympathetic to the question of global warming.

If you want to see all the problems I’m talking about in exaggerated form, go to China. There’s no question about the environmental consequences of the form of urbanisation they’ve had until now: they had to stop the traffic in Beijing for two weeks before the Olympics. The Chinese are very aware of it so they’re taking up the question of air quality and water quality. What is a slow creeping set of problems in Britain, in China is dramatically posed. And the Chinese also have the possibility of saying, well, we’re going to find an anti-capitalist version of this. I doubt they’re going to do it, but they still have the possibility of doing it.

"Oblivion" by David Maisel

Certain spatial fears seem endemic to the modern metropolis, and Los Angeles defines this term in ways that no other American city can approximate. This amorphous skein of strip malls, gated developments, highway entrances and exit ramps, lays unfurled over the landscape like a sheet over a cadaver. Surely the earth is dead beneath the sheer weight and breadth of this built form?

In this series from Los Angeles, I am using images that underscore the cyborg nature of the city and its environs as a way to explore a kind of contemporary oblivion, a series of sites that are both place and non-place. Themes of development as a kind of self-generating, self-replicating force that exists outside of nature are encoded in these images, which view Los Angeles as both a specific site and as a more generalized condition. The inversion of tonalities in these works is a simple act that defamiliarizes the images. It also subtly refers to other ways of imaging- like the X-Ray, which sees within the structure of an organism or body- or other modes of seeing – like the flickering negative images in an atomic blast, when the shadow world is revealed and released.

In its frenzy to expand, the city creates topographies of alienation, fear, and despair. Indeed, Los Angeles is emblematic of an idea of modern space that is linked to an increasing sense of collective societal anxiety. The invention of radical concepts of urban space was a theme central to the early twentieth century avant-garde, who called for modernity to escape from the constraints of history. We now know, in ways once thought unimaginable, that we cannot escape history. These aerial images describe a potentially desecrated urban fabric, even as they transcribe the commonplace. Indeed, in the post-9/11 age we now occupy, chaos and catastrophe seem implicit in the urban aerial view. To surveil and record the city from the air seems nearly to approach an act of civil disobedience. The images cannot help but serve as portent or prophesy of some future conflagration.

Is this the reason for the unease, the hint of claustrophobia and synesthetic terror that these pictures elicit? Or is it the endlessness of the expanse, the multiplying nothingness that fills frame after frame, the city metastasizing ceaselessly, which causes a sense of rising dread?

Our perceptions are contingent on the positions our bodies occupy in space. The sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark split open the domestic structure of the home, peeled it apart and let us occupy the void he created. For those making their homes within the urban galaxy of Los Angeles, an entity with neither limit nor center, is there any space remaining that can serve as psychological refuge or sanctuary? From above, in these aerial views, we see encrypted within the city’s code the elements of our own vulnerability: an oblivion that is at once stately, magnificent, and potentially lethal. How do the city’s inhabitants adapt to these aspects of the modern metropolis? As Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, “social anxiety…is just the maladjustment to change. But who has anticipated, or adjusted to, the scale of change in Southern California in the last fifteen years?”

The urban dweller of Southern California now exists in what Davis terms the fastest growing metropolis in the western world, “with a built-up surface area nearly the size of Ireland, and a GNP bigger than India’s.” Left to navigate this terrain of anxiety and estrangement, with a pattern of urbanization the critic Peter Plagens calls “the ecology of evil,” the citizen of this alien landscape may begin to ponder some of the elemental design questions of our time…Where is home? Where is our safe haven? How can we move towards such a place? Perhaps by forming such questions, we can begin to imagine the process of creating their answers. In the interim, these images imply an incessant search for sanctuary that never ends.

Link: Forensic Topology

In the 1990s, Los Angeles held the dubious title of “bank robbery capital of the world.” At its height, the city’s bank crime rate hit the incredible frequency of one bank robbed every forty-five minutes of every working day. As FBI Special Agent Brenda Cotton—formerly based in Los Angeles but now stationed in New York City—joked at an event hosted by Columbia University’s school of architecture in April 2012, the agency even developed its own typology of banks in the region, most notably the “stop and rob”: a bank, located at the bottom of both an exit ramp and an on-ramp of one of Southern California’s many freeways, that could be robbed as quickly and as casually as you might pull off the highway for gas.

In his 2003 memoir Where The Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World, co-authored with Gordon Dillow, retired Special Agent William J. Rehder briefly suggests that the design of a city itself leads to and even instigates certain crimes—in Los Angeles’s case, bank robberies. Rehder points out that this sprawling metropolis of freeways and its innumerable nondescript banks is, in a sense, a bank robber’s paradise. Crime, we could say, is just another way to use the city.

Tad Friend, writing a piece on car chases in Los Angeles for the New Yorker back in 2006, implied that the high-speed chase is, in effect, a proper and even more authentic use of the city’s many freeways than the, by comparison, embarrassingly impotent daily commute—that fleeing, illegally and often at lethal speeds, from the pursuing police while being broadcast live on local television is, well, it’s sort of what the city is for. After all, Friend writes, if you build “nine hundred miles of sinuous highway and twenty-one thousand miles of tangled surface streets” in one city alone, you’re going to find at least a few people who want to really put those streets to use. Indeed, Friend, like Rehder, seems to argue that a city gets the kinds of crime appropriate to its form—or, more actively, it gets the kinds of crime its fabric calls for.

Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to the high incidence of bank robbery in Los Angeles, not least of which is the fact that many banks, Rehder explains in his book, make the financial calculation of money stolen per year vs. annual salary of a full-time security guard—and they come out on the side of letting the money be stolen. The money, in economic terms, is not worth protecting.

Special Agent Cotton plays a minor role in Rehder’s account of bank crimes in Los Angeles, and through her I was able to meet Rehder to discuss his book, which offers an unexpected perspective on contemporary urbanism. Often overlooked or even deliberately dismissed by architects and urban planners, this view of the built environment is how FBI special agents, counterterrorism officials, and other local law enforcement officers see the city, how it looks to someone intent on preempting, solving, or otherwise detecting criminal activities.

In literature, of course, the detective is a well-known trope for a method of obsessively close attention to the details of the built environment—the detective story as applied urban hermeneutics—and this can be seen everywhere from Paul Auster and Alain Robbe-Grillet to whatever thriller is currently topping the airport bestseller list. But in the world of architecture and urban planning, it is altogether too rare that this particular, if fictionalized, point of view on how humans take advantage of the built environment as a spatial opportunity for crimes of various types is taken seriously as a critical perspective on urban form.

It is no less true that FBI special agents and other police officials tasked with solving burglaries also have their own version of this interpretive expertise—a body of spatial knowledge through which they hope to more thoroughly and accurately understand the city than do the criminals they are trying to track. They analyze a work of architecture, for instance, not for its aesthetics or history, but for its security flaws or ability to record evidence. This is spatial knowledge in at least one specific legal sense: burglary is an explicitly spatial crime, insofar as it requires the perpetrator to enter an architectural structure illegally, thus differentiating burglary from mere theft or robbery. Put another way, burglary requires architecture—with the effect that solving certain burglaries can often take on the feel of an architectural analysis. In this regard, Rehder’s memoir, though by no means theoretical, is a compelling example of what might happen if we were to ask an FBI agent what he or she thinks of the city, and how the design of the city itself might inspire—perhaps even require—certain crimes.

Link: Dwarf Fortress, SimCity's Evil Twin

The great lesson of SimCity, the fact the game was built to display, is the delight of city life, of urbanity in general. Even failing cities are beautiful in SimCity. Their streets are straight and well kempt, their deserted building zones are clean and peaceful and full of possibility. The colors are bright but not garish: the water blue, the land a flat green, the roads a soothing gray. The view the player has of them is from exactly the right height: close enough to see the bustle of the cars and trucks, the charmingly repetitive irregularity of the buildings, but too distant to see crime, pollution, frustration, or failure as anything more than slightly disheartening abstractions. It looks a bit like an animated tourist map, complete with color-coding, oversized landmarks, and a peculiarly American inattention to parking. The public mood can plummet, but there is never any depiction of the human suffering endemic to even successful urban areas. Pollution is tracked, but it has no long-term consequences.

Even when you are starting the settlement of the area entirely from scratch, what you are founding is always, and can only really be, a city, even when it has the population of a village. The vast fields and relative isolation and independence of rural life are essentially impossible to create in any sustainable way, and there is never any sense of a natural world displaced by the arrival of the metropolis. And though something reminiscent of suburbia can arise, it is an oddly antiquated, citified version of it, without the isolated residential enclaves and diffuse, distant commercial centers that often characterize it these days. It’s a vision of the city as existing somehow independent of its inhabitants: a city of buildings, not people; a city serenely, joyously inhuman.

More fundamental than this, though, is the very particular worldview that animates all the SimCity games. The world Wright gives his players is one defined by a constant flickering interplay between progress and equilibrium, a gentle utopia of possibility. Decay is never a real threat. His cities never die, and if left to their own devices they pretty much go on as they were. The closest thing to failure is a genial sort of rut, an inability to make the city grow and progress the way you’d like; excepting perhaps the aftermath of a nuclear power plant melting down, there’s never an irreversible collapse. Without extreme, juvenile levels of incompetence, you can’t fail to make or maintain a city, you merely fail to make that city great. It’s a commonplace that many urban planners found their vocation in childhood games of SimCity—and this at least rings true, for the game is nothing if not inspirational. Its world is infinitely soothing, its consistent message one of safety, surmountable challenge, hope, and stability.

The appeal of such fictional peace does have its limits, as it turns out. One can begin to suspect that all thriving cities look pretty much the same, that even the most successful equilibrium is simply boring. The popularity of “disasters”—the calamities, ranging from fires and airplane crashes to, in the more baroque later versions, locust swarms and U.F.O. attacks, that the player can purposely inflict on his city, or allow to occur randomly—bespeaks this creeping boredom. But it points as well to a desire to demonstrate the strength and elasticity of the world’s stability. These disasters are designed to be manageable. There is a never an unfixable problem, never a ruin that can’t be cleared and rebuilt. It is an almost comically American vision, a pure product of the Reagan dream: zero history, infinite future.

The best answer to SimCity, and its only challenger as the most interesting simulation game, is just across the way from it at the MOMA exhibition: Dwarf Fortress. It is not so much SimCity’s monstrous offspring as its gifted, maniacal, extremely worrisome younger brother. Officially titled Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, this bizarre, brilliant game by a Texan named Tarn Adams (working almost entirely on his own) has been a public work-in-progress since 2006, in which time it has, according to a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile of its creator, been downloaded about a million times. If SimCity is the video game as toy—inviting, open-ended, and subtly but unmistakably limited—Dwarf Fortress is the video game as folk art masterpiece: eccentric, over-the-top, and oddly affecting.

Beautiful and Terrible: Aeriality and the Image of Suburbia

Los Angeles is preferentially seen from a height — from a freeway overpass or a descending jetliner — the hapless observer going under, down to a carcinogenic sea. From above, the city looks like a collection of absences: the absence of hierarchy, of a center, of authenticity. Ultimately, we’re absent too, wrapped in reveries of another Los Angeles more adequate to the demands of our desire. As Norman Klein has argued, projecting our absence on the indifferent landscape below necessarily makes Los Angeles a site of willful forgetting. [1] Klein calls this problem “erasure,” and he locates it within modernism’s regimes of subordination, displacement and the substitution of memories.

In early 1950, William A. Garnett began flying over six square miles of former lima bean fields 23 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. What he photographed from an altitude of 1,000 feet became an emblem of suburbia on precisely those terms of erasure.

This is how I described it in the opening pages of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir:

In 1949, three developers bought 3,500 acres of Southern California farmland. They planned to build something that was not exactly a city.

In 1950, before the work of roughing the foundations and pouring concrete began, the three men hired a young photographer with a single-engine plane to document their achievement from the air.

The photographer flew when the foundations of the first houses were poured. He flew again, when the framing was done and later, when the roofers were nearly finished. He flew over the shell of the shopping center that explains this and many other California suburbs.

The three developers were pleased with the results. The black-and-white photographs show immense abstractions on ground the color of the full moon.

Some of the photographs appeared in Fortune and other magazines. The developers bound enlargements in a handsome presentation book. I have several pages from one of the copies.

The photographs celebrate house frames precise as cells in a hive and stucco walls fragile as an unearthed bone.

Seen from above, the grid is beautiful and terrible.

Garnett’s assignment between January 1950 and May 1954 was to photograph the building of a suburban tract of 17,500 houses called Lakewood, one of the nation’s first postwar planned communities. When he began, there was a readymade perspective from which the house lots could be viewed. Aerial photography by the mid-1920s had already acquired an aesthetic that substituted “brutal honesty” (to use William Langewiesche’s term) for the complexity of experience on the ground. [3] The immensity of the landscape, its relative sameness, and its rapid commodification made the abstractions of aerial photography a necessary part of subdividing a presumed paradise.

From the air, suburban Los Angeles appears to have no history, no boundary and no human dimension. When Garnett photographed Lakewood — the foundations in rows, the house frames casting skeletal shadows — pattern as a substitute for narrative was already a cliché of aerial photography.

"Building Brasilia" by Marcel Gautherot

The fiftieth anniversary celebrations for the capital city of Brasilia in 2010 were an occasion for many to comment on its operational and design deficiencies, as well as those of the Brazilian government itself. In an earlier piece about the anniversary we noted how demographic shifts have challenged the city’s original master plan. These sorts of discussions, while necessary, tend to obscure the city’s ambitious, Utopian origins. Brasilia’s designers, urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer, had shaped it to embody the most progressive political, social, and aesthetic concepts. A new book of photographs by Marcel Gautherot, “Building Brasilia,” that documents the city’s construction and early years, evokes these ideals with great power. Gautherot was a Paris-born photographer who trained as an architect and worked as an ethnographic photographer in the 1930’s, traveling within Mexico and Brazil to document traditional cultures. After serving in the French army in Senegal during World War II, he returned to Brazil and began a photography practice. There he crossed paths with Niemeyer, who would begin working with Costa on plans for the new city in 1956. At Niemeyer’s encouraging, Gautherot visited Brasilia repeatedly as it was under construction from 1957 to 1960, and then again several times in the 1970’s. While the bulk of his photographic oeuvre is comprised of ethnographic work, Gautherot’s photographs of Brasilia offer a thorough, cohesive portrait of the new city.

Link: The Neighborhood Effect

25 years after William Julius Wilson changed urban sociology, scholars still debate his ideas. Is anyone else listening?

Jacqueline lived in one of the most toxic environments in urban America. If you’ve seen The Wire, HBO’s series about crime and punishment in Baltimore, you can picture daily life in her neighborhood on that city’s West Side. Drug dealers. Junkies. Shootings. Her high-rise housing project felt like a concrete cell. Jacqueline, a single mother with a sick child, was desperate to escape.

Then she got a ticket out. In the mid-1990s, Jacqueline volunteered to participate in a far-reaching social experiment that would shed new light on urban poverty. The federal government gave her and many others housing vouchers to move out of ghettos—with a condition. Jacqueline (a pseudonym used by researchers to protect her privacy) had to use the voucher in an area where at least 90 percent of the residents lived above the federal poverty line.

It’s unlikely that Jacqueline had heard of William Julius Wilson, but the experiment that would change her life traces its intellectual roots in part to the Harvard sociologist’s 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged. Wilson upended urban research with his ideas about how cities had transformed in the post-civil-rights period. Writing to explain the rise of concentrated poverty in black inner-city neighborhoods after 1970, he focused on the loss of manufacturing jobs and the flight of black working- and middle-class families, which left ghettos with a greater proportion of poor people. And he examined the effects of extreme poverty and “social isolation” on their lives. The program that transplanted Jacqueline, Moving to Opportunity, was framed as a test of his arguments about “whether neighborhoods matter” in poor people’s lives.

Twenty-five years after its publication, The Truly Disadvantaged is back in the spotlight, thanks to a flurry of high-profile publications and events that address its ideas.

Researchers who have followed families like Jacqueline’s over 15 years are now reporting the long-term results of the mobility experiment. The mixed picture emerging from the project—”one of the nation’s largest attempts to eradicate concentrated poverty,” in the words of the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson—is feeding a broader discussion about how to help the urban underclass.

Families that moved to safer and better-off areas “improved their health in ways that were quite profound,” including reductions in obesity and diabetes, says Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economist who is principal investigator of the project’s long-run study. They showed less depression, Katz says, and “very large increases in happiness.” Yet the program failed to improve other key measures, like the earnings and employment rate of adults and the educational achievement of children.

At the same time, two sociologists influenced by Wilson are publishing important new books that mine extensive data to demonstrate the lasting impact of place on people’s lives. The first, published in February by the University of Chicago Press, is Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.Among his many findings, Sampson shows that exposure to severely disadvantaged areas hampers children’s verbal skills, an effect that persists even if they move to better-off places. That handicap is “roughly equivalent to missing a year of schooling,” according to research he conducted with Stephen Raudenbush and Patrick Sharkey.

The second book, Sharkey’s Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, forthcoming in January from Chicago, explores how neighborhood inequality spans generations. Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, writes that “over 70 percent of African-Americans who live in today’s poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods are from the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s.” In other words, “the American ghetto appears to be inherited”—a finding with implications for policy.

But as scholars break new ground, is anybody listening? Not since the early 1960s has poverty received so little attention, says Christopher Jencks, a Harvard professor of public policy. Among sociologists, he says, optimism that they will make a political impact has waned.

Even Wilson, perhaps the best-known scholar of urban ghettos, has seen his political influence decline. I caught up with the professor in Washington one recent morning before he gave a speech about The Truly Disadvantaged at a symposium held by a progressive think tank. Wilson is a youthful 76-year-old with a neat mustache, a trim build shaped by 10 hours a week of exercise, and a clinically precise speaking style honed over decades of talking to the press about combustible topics. Sitting in the lobby of a hotel not far from the Capitol, Wilson recalled how he once had a direct line to the president as Bill Clinton’s informal adviser. Whenever he e-mailed policy advice, he says, Clinton would respond with a handwritten note within two weeks. On affirmative action, for example, Wilson recommended using the term “affirmative opportunity.” The next thing he knew, Clinton was in the news discussing “affirmative opportunity.”

Wilson influenced the current president, too. Barack Obama has said that he “was inspired to apply to Harvard Law School because he heard a presentation by William Julius Wilson on the devastating effects of de-industrialization on poor urban blacks, and wanted to get himself into a position to do something about it,” according to The New Republic. Wilson discussed issues of race and class with Obama and served as an adviser to his 2008 presidential campaign. Yet Wilson has had no direct contact with the president since he took office.

When I ask whether that bothers him, Wilson declines to discuss it. But another prominent sociologist, Douglas S. Massey, is blunt. “We feel kind of marginalized,” says Massey, referring to scholars of social issues. The Princeton professor finds it ironic that “you elect the first black president, and he doesn’t want to raise racial issues and downplays those issues.”

Link: A City Where Everything Is a 15 Minute Walk Away

Another day, another proposal for a new Chinese city. The 1.3 square-kilometer Great City, designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill will be a massive new development that is completely sustainable, affordable, and, most strikingly, car-less. The masterplan, which has been planned for 80,000 people, will be built around a massive transit hub at its center, with all destinations to be within a few minutes walk, a planning innovation that would make “Great City” China’s (and the world’s?) first pedestrian-only city.

Before drawing up blueprints, Smith and Gill had to find the perfect setting for this new, 320-acre green city. They discovered a plot outside the city of Chengdu with plenty of buffer landscape including forests, valleys, and bodies of water to integrate into the city. After delineating local farm land for its preservation, the designers meticulously drafted plans that partitioned the site into several zones, reserving 15 percent of the land for parks and green spaces, dedicating 60 percent to construction, and saving the remaining 25 percent for roads and walkways.

As for environmental factors, Great City will certainly live up to its name. The development is expected to use 48 percent less energy and 58 percent less water than a comparable town its size. It should also produce 89 percent less landfill waste and 60 percent less carbon dioxide. In addition to these features, the city will employ “seasonal energy storage” which can carry over waste summer heat and convert it to power for winter heating and hot water.

The key to Great City’s green success, of course, is not just solar panels and parks, but also its urban planning. The distance between any location in the hyper-dense city to another will be only a 15 minute walk (or less). This eliminates the need for cars, as the town is also built around a mass transit hub that connects to Chengdu and surrounding areas in minutes. The surrounding green buffer is laden with pedestrian and bike paths that weave in and out of the landscape and through the city core.

The project, expected to be finished by 2021, will hopefully become home to about 30,000 families, totaling 80,000 people. “Great City will demonstrate that high-density living doesn’t have to be polluted and alienated from nature,” says AS+GG partner Gordon Gill, “Everything within the built environment of Great City is considered to enhance the quality of life of its residents. Quite simply, it offers a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Link: Unlivable Cities

China’s megalopolises may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.  

In Invisible Cities, the novel by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, Marco Polo dazzles the emperor of China, Kublai Khan, with 55 stories of cities he has visited, places where “the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells,” a city of “zigzag” where the inhabitants “are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day,” and another with the option to “sleep, make tools, cook, accumulate gold, disrobe, reign, sell, question oracles.” The trick, it turns out, is that Polo’s Venice is so richly textured and dense that all his stories are about just one city.

A modern European ruler listening to a visitor from China describe the country’s fabled rise would be better served with the opposite approach: As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it’s wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China’s first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei — he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that ”only the name of the airport changes.” Or, as China’s vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, “It’s like a thousand cities having the same appearance.”

Why are Chinese cities so monolithic? The answer lies in the country’s fractured history. In the 1930s, China was a failed state: Warlords controlled large swaths of territory, and the Japanese had colonized the northeast. Shanghai was a foreign pleasure den, but life expectancy hovered around 30. Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minorities largely governed themselves. When Mao Zedong unified China in 1949, much of the country was in ruins, and his Communist Party rebuilt it under a unifying theme. Besides promulgating a single language and national laws, they subscribed to the Soviet idea of what a city should be like: wide boulevards, oppressively squat, functional buildings, dormitory-style housing. Cities weren’t conceived of as places to live, but as building blocks needed to build a strong and prosperous nation; in other words, they were constructed for the benefit of the party and the country, not the people.

Even today, most Chinese cities feel like they were cobbled together from a Soviet-era engineering textbook. China’s fabled post-Mao liberal reforms meant that the country’s cities grew wealthier, but not that much more distinct from each other. Beijing has changed almost beyond recognition since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, but to see what Beijing looked like in the past, visit a less developed part of China: Malls in Xian, a regional hub in central China famous for its row upon row of grimacing terracotta warriors, look like the shabby pink structures that used to dot western Beijing. Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north.For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.