Peter Kropotkin (is such a mighty beard required of all anarchists?) regales us with a sentiment that rings just as true today as it did in 1885:

It was quite natural also that the revival of taste for geography should direct the public attention towards geography in schools. Inquiries were made, and we discovered with amazement that of this science — the most attractive and suggestive for people of all ages — we have managed to make in our schools one of the most arid and unmeaning subjects. Nothing interests children like travels; and nothing is dryer and less attractive in most schools than what is christened there with the name of Geography.

Peter Kropotkin (is such a mighty beard required of all anarchists?) regales us with a sentiment that rings just as true today as it did in 1885:

It was quite natural also that the revival of taste for geography should direct the public attention towards geography in schools. Inquiries were made, and we discovered with amazement that of this science — the most attractive and suggestive for people of all ages — we have managed to make in our schools one of the most arid and unmeaning subjects. Nothing interests children like travels; and nothing is dryer and less attractive in most schools than what is christened there with the name of Geography.

When he said “Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost gave us the poet’s recognition that all infrastructure is intrinsically, unavoidably political. So when we begin hearing talk about raising a seawall around, well, some part of New York Harbor in order to deflect the next Sandy, we ought to immediately ask ourselves not just whether it is possible, but whether it is desirable, and who stands to benefit. My latest essay for 3QuarksDaily bemoans the magical thinking that underlies the one-stop-shopping mentality of the technological fix.

When he said “Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost gave us the poet’s recognition that all infrastructure is intrinsically, unavoidably political. So when we begin hearing talk about raising a seawall around, well, some part of New York Harbor in order to deflect the next Sandy, we ought to immediately ask ourselves not just whether it is possible, but whether it is desirable, and who stands to benefit. My latest essay for 3QuarksDaily bemoans the magical thinking that underlies the one-stop-shopping mentality of the technological fix.

Cities? What Cities?

So the three presidential debates have gone by and nary a mention of cities. Actually, this isn’t quite true - during the final throwdown, Mitt Romney mentioned that there were a lot of Chinese moving into cities. Chinese cities, that is. So I suppose American cities still came out 0-3 here.

Is this a big deal? It’s obviously ironic, considering where the debates occurred: Denver, Long Island and Boca Raton. Perhaps not our finest urban foot forward, but at the same time the debates didn’t occur in assorted cornfields, either. There has been plenty of hand-wringing in urbanist circles about this omission, though. Writing in New American City, Matt Bevilacqua is generally upset at the cold shoulder, while Kevin Baker of the New York Times took the opportunity to write a more partisan shakedown, accusing the Republican Party of not only lacking an urban policy, but of abdicating outreach to these voters for, well, generations now (Clyde Haberman having tested the waters for him a few days earlier). Finally, Curtis Johnson opined in citiwire.net:

How can anyone not see that the United States today is largely a mash-up of metro economies? How does any serious candidate for our highest office run around, or against, this reality? But listen carefully to the debates, read the press reports, analyze the spin of campaign artists. You’ll discover almost no mention of urban areas. It’s as if this reality is invisible, or if seen at all, irrelevant.

This brings to mind one of the great Oscar Wilde quotes, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Sure, one could argue that the candidates really wanted to talk about cities, but because our blessed Electoral College skews political influence towards the rural states, any candidate mentions urban areas to his or her peril. On the face of it, who can blame urbanists around the country for being miffed?

Well, I for one am relieved. Simply put, what good would have come of it? The debates are a dog-and-pony show, and while it might sound tempting to hear your work and/or passion brought up in such an exalted forum, would anyone have said anything substantive? It’s likely that any talk of US cities would have been folded into the larger rhetorical currents of jobs, economy and “freedom,” whatever that last item is. Certainly, in a forum whose most significant soundbites have emerged, respectively or together, as “Big Bird,” “binders full of women” and “horses and bayonets,” to expect nuance or engagement of the kind that urbanists value is a bit naive.

Perhaps then it’s more important, relatively speaking, to see whether cities make it into the platforms of the respective parties. Kevin Baker fillets the GOP here as well:

The party platform ratified [in Tampa] is over 31,000 words long. It includes subsections on myriad pressing topics, like “Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service for the Twenty-First Century” and “American Sovereignty in U.S. Courts,” which features a full-throated denunciation of the “unreasonable extension” of the Lacey Act of 1900 (please don’t ask). There are also passages specifying what our national policy should be all over the world — but not in one American city.

The Democratic party comes off a bit better, with several paragraphs recognizing the importance of cities, and a bit of lip service around the party’s efforts to make them more inclusive places. However, conventions have long since ceased to be the crucibles in which platforms are forged (Baudrillard had this nailed by the 1980s), and the content of the platforms is now largely dictated by the party’s nominee. So I think we can discount the importance of these documents with a certain degree of confidence.

So what is the rightful place of cities in the national political conversation? I would argue, given the current polarization and paralysis, none at all, or perhaps more diplomatically, as little as possible. Benjamin Barber, speaking at the Long Now Foundation in anticipation of his forthcoming book, If Mayors Ruled The World, makes the case:

Nation-states have made little progress towards this kind of global governance…they are quintessentially indisposed to cooperation and incapable of establishing public goods. If mayors ruled the world, [citizens] could participate locally and cooperate globally at the same time… a miracle of civic “glocality” that promises pragmatism before politics, innovation instead of ideology, practical solutions in place of sovereignty’s posturing.

Barber goes on to discuss how his original intention in writing the book was to propose the benefits cities could reap from collaborating directly with one another, but in the course of his research he found that cities were, in fact, already doing precisely this, and to great effect. Organizations such as C40, the Conference of Mayors and literally hundreds of others have been able to initiate far-ranging and effective actions without federal or even state-level permission or incentives. They have been able to share best practices for stormwater infrastructure management, inspire each other to implement bike sharing schemes, and even, in a somewhat intimidating display of transterritoriality, commit one another to climate action where nation-states have unconscionably failed. And yes, if one needs further proof of contrast, climate change went unmentioned during the debates as well.

After every encounter with mayors, Barber marveled at their pragmatism and non-partisan approach to matters both significant and quotidian; it didn’t mattermuch that picking up the garbage does not lend itself to giddy oratory, it had to be done, and the cost of not doing it manifests itself swiftly. It is also with a certain approval that he notes that the mayoralty is usually a “terminal elected position,” meaning that very few mayors use the position as a springboard for furthering their political careers. (Interestingly, Barber does not mention Tim Campbell’s work - perhaps because Campbell has already published?) Is it any wonder, then, that R.T. Rybak, Mayor of Minneapolis, has asserted that “city governments are the last standing functional form of government in the United States and possibly the world”?

Of course, cities are dependent on the surrounding state for plenty: defense, agriculture, infrastructure, etc. Barber is quite aware of this - as a case in point, he cites Norman Mailer’s secession plank when the latter rann for NYC mayor in 1969. And to push the example, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg may have stirred headlines with his ban on plus-size sodas, but “precious little of consequence is fully in the hands of the mayor and City Council. Pick an issue: new stadiums, garbage transfer stations, congestion pricing, development of the World Trade Center site — with all of them, and more, ultimate power rests in Albany. Sometimes a New Yorker has to wonder if the real mayor is named Sheldon Silver.” So there is still plenty of interdependence to go around; no one, it seems fair to say, is about to kick off a modern-day Hanseatic League.

Another way of asking what attention our political parties pay to cities is to wonder, what policies do not affect cities? The answer is, pretty much all of them. Indeed, Harry Moroz, in responding to Kevin Baker, makes precisely this point:

But Republicans already do articulate ideas about education reform, mass transit and innumerable other urban issues. While these may or may not be based on “fantastical theories,” they already compose an urban agenda that advocates less direct federal involvement in cities, that mostly opposes aid for state and local governments, that favors highways over mass transit and that leans heavily on charter schools as educational innovators.

The surprising bit here is that if you haven’t found my argument deficient thus far, then the GOP’s attitude towards cities actually isn’t all that objectionable - although we still need to define what a city’s duties towards its citizens are. But one thing is clear: whether or not we are prepared to admit it, we are, in the words of the post-Structuralists, “always-already” talking about cities. And as the demographic continues to skew towards greater urbanization, this will only ever become more true. So, urbanists, we’re probably better off doing a little less hand-wringing and a bit more sleeve-rolling.

The visual and journalistic rhetoric of refugee camps, as produced and consumed by the West, follows a well-known script. However, a far more compelling and humane way to view these camps is as prototypical urban types. The various ways in which we define the urban, such as population density, non-agricultural economic activity, and reasonably well-defined boundaries, are conditions that are here amply met. And when one considers the ways in which people artificially conjure cities (consider a company town, built for the sole purpose of extracting a natural resource), then why shouldn’t we consider refugee camps to be cities? My latest article at 3QD explores why accepting this as reality might even be beneficial for everyone involved.

The visual and journalistic rhetoric of refugee camps, as produced and consumed by the West, follows a well-known script. However, a far more compelling and humane way to view these camps is as prototypical urban types. The various ways in which we define the urban, such as population density, non-agricultural economic activity, and reasonably well-defined boundaries, are conditions that are here amply met. And when one considers the ways in which people artificially conjure cities (consider a company town, built for the sole purpose of extracting a natural resource), then why shouldn’t we consider refugee camps to be cities? My latest article at 3QD explores why accepting this as reality might even be beneficial for everyone involved.

What happens when you build cities to for only one reason, and that reason goes away? What if that city is full of scientists and engineers building nuclear warheads? 
One of the decided advantages enjoyed by central planning is the ability to, in the words of Captain Picard, “make it so,” and thereby create – or wreak – change on a grand scale. The Soviet Union offers many examples, but the consequences of one such phenomenon continue on: the so-called “closed cities” that were devoted to the research and manufacture of military equipment and, most importantly, nuclear weapons. Over at 3QuarksDaily, my latest article examines the murky past and even murkier future of these deliberately designed conurbations.

What happens when you build cities to for only one reason, and that reason goes away? What if that city is full of scientists and engineers building nuclear warheads?

One of the decided advantages enjoyed by central planning is the ability to, in the words of Captain Picard, “make it so,” and thereby create – or wreak – change on a grand scale. The Soviet Union offers many examples, but the consequences of one such phenomenon continue on: the so-called “closed cities” that were devoted to the research and manufacture of military equipment and, most importantly, nuclear weapons. Over at 3QuarksDaily, my latest article examines the murky past and even murkier future of these deliberately designed conurbations.

As we helplessly hurtle towards the next inflammation of the Olympic Games, some notes on the effects of the Games on the built environment might be in order.
Given that cities are, by their very nature, already crowded places, something must give when, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, the immovable object of the city meets the irresistible force that is the Olympic Games. My new article for 3QD looks at the long-term consequences after the Olympic hurricane blows through town. Eviction? Check. Gentrification? Check. Sustainability? Oh, yes: check.

As we helplessly hurtle towards the next inflammation of the Olympic Games, some notes on the effects of the Games on the built environment might be in order.

Given that cities are, by their very nature, already crowded places, something must give when, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, the immovable object of the city meets the irresistible force that is the Olympic Games. My new article for 3QD looks at the long-term consequences after the Olympic hurricane blows through town. Eviction? Check. Gentrification? Check. Sustainability? Oh, yes: check.

In the second part of my look at skywalks and the urban fabric for 3QuarksDaily, we go beyond the US and examine a few instances of how the developing world has embraced this urban typology. Whereas Mumbai has fallen prey to many of the same planning foibles as its American counterparts, designers in São Paulo have approached skywalks as a way of densifying the connectivity within some of the most difficult urban terrain - informal settlements.

In the second part of my look at skywalks and the urban fabric for 3QuarksDaily, we go beyond the US and examine a few instances of how the developing world has embraced this urban typology. Whereas Mumbai has fallen prey to many of the same planning foibles as its American counterparts, designers in São Paulo have approached skywalks as a way of densifying the connectivity within some of the most difficult urban terrain - informal settlements.

Walking has been much in the news lately, or rather, how little Americans seem to be doing it. It’s obvious that walking is good for individual health, but what should perhaps be even more emphasized is the importance of walking for the overall health of the urban fabric. So, in addition to asking ourselves the question of how we can get people to walk more, we also ought to consider equally beneficial ways for designing the built environment, such that all this walking will bring about a result for society. Walking may be an end in itself, but if it is only considered as such, we forego the opportunity that it is a means as well.
In the first of a two-part article for 3QD, I look at what got in the way of our walking here in the United States, and how designers and politicians are only now looking at re-weaving our fragmented streets.

Walking has been much in the news lately, or rather, how little Americans seem to be doing it. It’s obvious that walking is good for individual health, but what should perhaps be even more emphasized is the importance of walking for the overall health of the urban fabric. So, in addition to asking ourselves the question of how we can get people to walk more, we also ought to consider equally beneficial ways for designing the built environment, such that all this walking will bring about a result for society. Walking may be an end in itself, but if it is only considered as such, we forego the opportunity that it is a means as well.

In the first of a two-part article for 3QD, I look at what got in the way of our walking here in the United States, and how designers and politicians are only now looking at re-weaving our fragmented streets.

A good statistic can rapidly become the victim of its own success. It’s easy to parrot cocktail-party facts such as the contention that more than half of us (whoever ‘we’ are) now live in cities (whatever a ‘city’ is). Things get a bit dicier when those same facts are posited as future trends.
Using this as a backdrop, this month’s 3QuarksDaily column looks at the large number of arable-land transactions that have occurred in recent years. What are the consequences of leasing out 15% of your country’s agricultural land for peanuts? What does this mean for global supply chains, and the rural-urban divide? It would seem another absurdist triumph for late-stage capitalism, but I somehow manage to end on a hopeful note nonetheless.

A good statistic can rapidly become the victim of its own success. It’s easy to parrot cocktail-party facts such as the contention that more than half of us (whoever ‘we’ are) now live in cities (whatever a ‘city’ is). Things get a bit dicier when those same facts are posited as future trends.

Using this as a backdrop, this month’s 3QuarksDaily column looks at the large number of arable-land transactions that have occurred in recent years. What are the consequences of leasing out 15% of your country’s agricultural land for peanuts? What does this mean for global supply chains, and the rural-urban divide? It would seem another absurdist triumph for late-stage capitalism, but I somehow manage to end on a hopeful note nonetheless.

Sometimes you have to do everything yourself. Sometimes you just want to. From NPR:

[Marcin] Jakubowski says the experience of making his own tractor transformed him and he set about designing and building affordable alternatives to industrial machines. The documentation and design is made available for free online as part of his Open Source Ecology project.
Jakubowski plans to prototype several dozen machines, including a wind turbine, cement mixer and sawmill. He refers to them collectively as the Global Village Construction Set.

It’s always amazing to me how we are constantly reinventing the wheel. And at some point we may even get around to asking folks in the “global South” how they’ve been managing to do it all this time. Nevertheless, perhaps this kind of re-cognition is a necessary, if not key feature of resilience.

Sometimes you have to do everything yourself. Sometimes you just want to. From NPR:

[Marcin] Jakubowski says the experience of making his own tractor transformed him and he set about designing and building affordable alternatives to industrial machines. The documentation and design is made available for free online as part of his Open Source Ecology project.

Jakubowski plans to prototype several dozen machines, including a wind turbine, cement mixer and sawmill. He refers to them collectively as the Global Village Construction Set.

It’s always amazing to me how we are constantly reinventing the wheel. And at some point we may even get around to asking folks in the “global South” how they’ve been managing to do it all this time. Nevertheless, perhaps this kind of re-cognition is a necessary, if not key feature of resilience.