Tag Archives: Built Environment

Summer Institute in Urban Studies 2014 – Some Reflections!

Elnaz Ghafoorikoohsar (SEED), Gwyneth Lonergan (SoSS) and Elisa Pieri (SoSS) reflect on their participation in the first Summer Institute in Urban Studies …

cities@manchester’s Summer Institute in Urban Studies took place last (30 June – 4 July) at the University of Manchester. The twenty eight participants – selected out of the 180 plus applicants – came from across the UK, Europe, Australia and North America, and brought with them a wide variety of research interests and experience. What united them was a keen interest in cities, whether in Europe, the United States, Africa, East Asia or the Indian Subcontinent.

Participants get to work!

The Institute provided an excellent opportunity for lively discussion on many of the pressing theoretical issues in urban studies today, including notions of urban assemblages, policy mobilities and the worlding of different cities, various forms of gentrification, sustainability, sustainable development, and climate change, and politics and post-politics in the city. Many speakers discussed the various methodological implications of studying the urban, and how to engage in academic practice that is ethically and politically responsible and accountable. Ultimately, we were interested in thinking reflexively about the future of urban studies and our role in the field. We were fortunate to hear presentations from leading urban studies scholars, both from within and from outside of the University of Manchester. These included speakers working outside of academia, in NGOs and in policy circles. Manchester’s own experience of post-industrial regeneration provided a case study, with a panel of speakers on this topic and a walking tour of East Manchester regeneration sites.

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The Institute also gave participants a chance to consider many of the challenges facing early career researchers, including interdisicplinarity, different publication formats and strategies, ethical dimensions of academic research and practice, and engagement with stakeholders outside of academia. A large component of the program was devoted to professional development – for example, effective teaching, and curricular development, writing funding applications, securing a post following completion of the PhD, and planning a career trajectory. Many participants found this career guidance especially valuable, as they had not received any such advice as PhD students. Moreover, with participants coming from a wide variety of countries, it allowed us to exchange information and ideas about the different national research cultures and expectations.

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The week was intense with participants enthusiastically engaged with all of the sessions, and we also enjoyed a friendly, sociable atmosphere.   The program allowed participants to explore issues with peers at a similar career stage as well as with more experienced academics, in a supportive environment. There was achieved through a mixture of both formal and informal opportunities for discussion and socialising. Many of these were classroom based, although highly varied, including a daily plenary as well as smaller workshops. Participants were expected to play an active role, completing preparatory reading in addition to chairing a panel, or acting as discussants. These activities were complemented by the walking tour, and the use of multimedia materials, including film, to stimulate discussion. An ‘official’ institute dinner was held at Yang Sing on the Thursday evening, but there were plenty of other opportunities for informal after hours socialising. Even as the Institute ended on Friday, there were already plans being made among many participants for future collaborations.

 

Can Manchester become a cycling city?

For cities such as Manchester to operate a fully sustainable transport system they must make cycling mainstream, say Dr James Evans and Gabriele Schliwa. Their study into how to make the vision a reality has policy implications for cities across the UK.

Manchester may be the home of British cycling, but does the city fully embrace two wheels?

A flat city home to Europe’s largest student population should, in theory, be a biking mecca. But the reality is some way off. Many would-be cyclists are simply put off getting on the saddle at all, even for the slightest journey, be it because of safety or security issues, practicalities, better alternatives or maybe just Mancunian weather!

However, as more people see both the economic and health benefits of cycling (and the nationwide boom shows little sign of letting up), so cities need to adapt and make cycling mainstream. If cities really want to fully embrace sustainability then cycling has to be a part of the mix.

For a city such as Manchester to see more cyclists on its streets it has to do a number of things – understand the needs of cyclists, experiment with solutions, and learn what works. This means bringing together partners already working on the ‘two-wheels good’ mantra.

It was precisely these elements which provided the framework for the Manchester Cycling Lab research project into the state of cycling in the city that we began a few months ago, thanks to funding from the Economic & Social Research Council.

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Ranked against the likes of London – or even a comparable city on the continent – Manchester would probably admit it has been slow to fully embrace the potential of cycling, while also underestimating cycling usage. At the same time there has been remarkably little research into cycle usage in the city compared to other forms of transport. There is a sense in which Manchester has to catch up.

There are lots of exciting initiatives already underway in the city. For instance the Velocity 2025 programme (http://cycling.tfgm.com/velocity/) aims to make cycling a mainstream, everyday form of transport via a network of newly-built or enhanced cycling routes within the next decade. And the Oxford Road Corridor development will ban all cars except taxis along a stretch of the road beside our own university, while at the same time improving pedestrian and cycle facilities.

So what exactly have we been doing? Our starting point was to identify the gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in order to facilitate the Velocity programme, working closely with Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and local businesses.

We then developed a suite of applied projects to address these needs using existing research capacity in the University – most notably in the form of our highly trained and motivated student body. The idea is to turn Manchester into a living laboratory for the study of cycling, harnessing the knowledge and capacity of the University to support a cycling transition.

Our portfolio contains about a dozen research projects, tailored to the knowledge needs of our key stakeholders, including a cost-benefit analysis for cycling investment in Manchester; an analysis of the potential to use bikes for delivery services; comparisons with cities such as New York and Berlin that have successfully invested in cycling; and smart planning for bicycle infrastructure.

For the latter project masters student Benjamin Bell is investigating whether Strava, a popular app which enables users to track and record their cycle journeys, can be used to understand where people cycle in Manchester. Early estimates suggest more than 12,000 people use Strava in Manchester, which accounts for around 6% of all cyclists in the city, a not insignificant number. We are sending out mailshots to further encourage the use of Strava by regular commuter cyclists to build up more representative data.

We set out to learn who already cycles in the city, which roads they use, and how often. We particularly wanted to test the extent to which Strava provided a realistic picture of Manchester’s most popular cycling routes and cyclist demographics. Is it representative of actual cycle patterns? We will be comparing our results with previous TfGMstudies and against real-life counts of cyclists on the same road segments.

Although the results are still coming in, the findings are already striking. For instance the vast majority (on average more than 90%) of Strava users are men. But does this reflect the wider uptake of cycling in the city? And those women who do use Strava tend to use more side roads and off-road routes to complete their journey. Surely a demonstration of very real safety concerns among women?

The questions ultimately posed by our study are long term. They are as much cultural and behavioural as physical. Can we change the actual mindset of vast swathes of the population and bring them around to the benefits of cycling?

As the Manchester Cycling Lab research portfolio shows, we want to compare our work with comparable cities. But in this regard Manchester needs to benchmark itself not just with other UK cities, but with those on the continent or in other developed nations too. Here our aim is to very much to be part of that wider policy debate about what cities like Manchester can and need to do to fully embrace cycling.

Cities like Berlin have achieved major increases in cycling levels in a relatively short time-frame with similar levels of investment to that proposed in Manchester. Their investment in cycling infrastructure, promotion and education is now really paying off, as any recent visitor would tell you. Let’s make people say the same about Manchester in 10 years time.

 *We would urge you to join us for two special events next month. The University of Manchester Bicycle Users Group (UMBUG) is celebrating reaching 1000 members with a special event at 4.30pm on Thursday April 3 outside University Place http://umbug.manchester.ac.uk/. Meanwhile Cities@Manchester is hosting an urban forum exploring the issues raised in this article on Tuesday, 8 April, 6-8pm at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.  http://www.cities.manchester.ac.uk/events/

This blog is also available at policy@manchesterhttp://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/

 

 

Digital Place Atmospheres: Architecture, Digital Visualisation and the Experience Economy

Monica Degen, a Senior Lecturer at the Sociology & Communications Department, Brunel University writes about her research and a talk at the University of Manchester on Wednesday 12 March

Monica’ work broadly interrogates the ways in which the senses structure and are structured by urban life and material culture (see also http://www.brunel.ac.uk/sss/sociology/staff-profiles/monica-degen). Her latest work (an ESRC funded project with Gillian Rose, Open University and Clare Melhuish, UCL) has been focusing the visualisation technologies by architects and explores the central role of digital architectural visualisations in place-making and urban regeneration initiatives, as cities re-invent themselves on a global stage. Computer Generated Images (CGIs) produced by architects and visualisers are used both as design tools, to help designers and clients visualise proposed designs and make decisions; and as communication devices, which project images of future places and what it will feel like to be in them to clients, planners and public audiences – mobilising emotion, opinion, participation, and action around large-scale projects. Hence they have a significant influence on the globalised working practices of architects, visualisers and construction professionals which effects material transformation of urban landscapes and everyday lived experience. CGIs can therefore be seen as an aesthetic and affective dimension of the way in which ‘software is writing cities’ (Thrift, 2001), which invites closer and more critical attention than they have so far been accorded by either social scientists interested in built space and social life, or by architects and architectural theorists interested in the implications of digital technology for architectural and urban design practice.

CGIs are all around us in different forms, but we rarely look at them closely, beyond the glossy and eye-catching surface which they present in the public realm. The paper she will present:  Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy focuses on one particular project, Msheireb Downtown in Doha, Qatar, masterplanned and designed by a mix of British and American architectural practices for Msheireb Properties. In particular she will argue that while CGIs may be viewed simply as a continuation of older forms of architectural representation and rhetoric, the digitality of these images also sets them apart in certain ways from past traditions of image production in architecture. Drawing on a two year qualitative study of architects’ practices we examine how digital technology enables the virtual engineering of sensory experiences using a wide range of graphic effects. We show how these CGIs are laboriously materialised in order to depict and present specific sensory, embodied regimes and affective experiences to appeal to clients and consumers.

The project was supported by an ESRC grant RES-062-23-3305, for more information see: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/osrc/research/projects/architectural-atmospheres

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collectivities matter: The ‘hidden’ geographies of urban energy deprivation

Professor Stefan Bouzarovski, Professor of Geography and Director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy, University of Manchester, writes about his research based on his on-going work on energy vulnerability and urban transitions  …

In the UK, the onset of winter regularly stokes public concerns about the social impacts of rising energy prices. Reports about the predicament of ‘fuel poverty’ – often described as a condition where households are unable to achieve adequate levels of energy services in the home – abound in the media and political debates. The extent to which the government needs to intervene in the market so as to lower energy prices has become a major talking point, and a bone of contention among political parties, utilities, and the government. Similar dynamics can be observed in other European countries – high electricity prices, for instance, recently became a key electoral issue in Germany; and widespread popular unrest over austerity and energy bills was one of the main reasons why the Bulgarian government was forced to resign in 2012.

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

The relationship between energy affordability and poverty is complex and contingent, involving multiple factors related to the energy efficiency of the home, everyday fuel consumption practices, residential occupancy patterns, as well as broader dynamics of power and recognition (Bouzarovski 2013). Yet many public discussions and media discourses collapse the issue to a limited set of state policies at the energy price-utility regulation nexus. The archetypal image that accompanies this reductionism is one of a pensioner sitting in front of a poorly functioning gas fire or electric heater. This is often contrasted with representations of wind farms or solar panels, whose allegedly high costs are pushing increasing numbers of people into fuel poverty.

In part, the prominence of pensioners and older people in media discourses on fuel poverty can be attributed to the political agency of this group, and the severe fuel-related hardship that many of its members face – a reality uncovered by a significant body of academic research (Wright 2004). However, the prioritization of older people over other groups in society has led to the marginalization of other households and individuals who are vulnerable due to their demographic, economic or residential circumstances. Further exacerbating the situation is the normative emphasis on private home tenure in many fuel poverty amelioration policies. The requirements of the UK’s Green Deal, for example, are intimately tied with property ownership, which means that this policy is generally outside the reach of households in the leasehold, private rented or social housing sectors. The main French fuel poverty policy (Habiter mieux) has likewise chosen to focus on homeowners living in rural areas, thus resulting in an approach that favours older people over other groups (Dubois 2012). As a whole, therefore, the current state of affairs confirms the argument made by a number of academics: that how and where fuel poverty is addressed by the strongly depends on the interrelation between dynamics of procedure and recognition (Walker and Day 2012). This is counter to earlier understandings that emphasize the distributional aspect of the issue (Boardman 1991).

The disadvantaged position of private rented and younger or more transient populations within current fuel poverty policy is further exacerbated by the regulatory and pricing mechanisms associated with the ongoing transition to a low-carbon economy. This emergent policy regime entails the re-allocation of environmental externalities away from fiscal systems onto final consumption, accompanied by a broader shift from income redistribution toward environmental taxation. Its consequences are particularly felt by fuel poor households, who may be subjected to, inter alia, increased prices for energy – either because companies indirectly pass the cost of ‘carbon taxes’ to the final bill, or due to direct levies on energy service-paying customers. In many European countries, such processes primarily affect households who use electricity for heating, as this fuel is seen as the best medium for passing on the cost of broader energy and low carbon policies onto the final consumer.

High rates of household electricity use, however, are disproportionately present in cities, as is non-private housing ownership. This means that the emergence of new energy-related forms of deprivation and inequality is inextricably tied to the planning practices and spatial morphologies that define urban areas. But the lack of adequate policy to address such difficulties is supplemented by an almost complete absence of research on the topic. It remains unclear, for example, how the socio-spatial patterns created by the lack of adequate energy services in the home – and the broader inability to access infrastructural networks – map onto existing geographies of segregation. The agency of built forms is of particular importance in this context, as an additional determining factor to conventional poverty-inducing dynamics (such as incomes and prices). Also unclear is the manner in which the background context of ‘austerity urbanism’ is influencing dynamics of domestic energy deprivation, both via the exacerbation and deepening of existing inequalities, and by ‘residualizing’ and moving the responsibility for the delivery of fuel poverty policy away from conventional support structures.

It should also be noted that the city of today is a site of far-reaching demographic and cultural change. This involves new forms of friendship, kinship and community affiliation under the influence of processes such as the ‘second demographic transition’ (de Kaa 1987). How one conceptualizes and practices collectivity in the built environment of city thus becomes paramount; this is both because new forms of inequality are closely linked to communal forms of residence (houses in multiple occupation, apartment buildings), and due to the opportunities for alternative practices of sustainable living offered by innovative joint housing arrangements.

The ‘hidden’ geographies of deprivation that arise at the interface of energy use, collective living and urban formations are one of the main research themes of the newly formed Centre for Urban Energy and Resilience at the University of Manchester. We intend to break new academic and policy ground in addressing the numerous unknowns that exist in this research domain. During the past week, for example, we organized a stakeholder roundtable on energy efficiency, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupancy in London, and a workshop on energy vulnerability in European cities in Brussels. Watch this space!

References

Boardman, B. 1991. Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth. London: Bellhaven.

Bouzarovski, S. 2013. Energy poverty in the European Union: landscapes of vulnerability. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.89/abstract.

Dubois, U. 2012. From targeting to implementation: The role of identification of fuel poor households. Energy Policy 49: 107–115.

De Kaa, D. van. 1987. Europe’s second demographic transition. Population Bulletin 42: 1.

Walker, G. and Day, R. 2012. Fuel poverty as injustice: Integrating distribution, recognition and procedure in the struggle for affordable warmth. Energy Policy 49: 69–75.

Wright, F. 2004. Old and cold: older people and policies failing to address fuel poverty. Social Policy & Administration 38: 488–503.

Sustainable City Betrayed?: Calgary’s Neoliberal Sustainability Politics and Its Consequences

Byron Miller  from the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary and currently Guest Professor, Institut für Umweltsozialwissenschaften und Geographie, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, writes about how Calgary continues to wrestle with the issue of “sustainability” …

Over the past decade Calgary, Alberta, like many cities around the world, has promoted a wide range of sustainability initiatives as part of what While, Jonas and Gibbs have termed a “sustainability fix.”  There are certainly good reasons why Calgary might turn toward a sustainability agenda.  Long considered the poster city for urban sprawl in Canada, Calgary ranks as the Canadian City with the largest “ecological footprint,” the highest degree of socio-spatial income polarization, and one of the largest infrastructure deficits. Its politics, moreover, are dominated by fierce anti-tax sentiment, despite low tax rates.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the concept of “sustainability,” the need for Calgary to address its ecological, social, and fiscal issues has been clear for some time.   

To grapple with the perceived deterioration of quality of life in Calgary, the City began an extensive two-year “city visioning” process in 2004, called imagineCalgary.  Over 18,000 Calgarians participated in the process, which produced a surprisingly progressive and detailed document focusing on needed improvements in five systems: the built environment and infrastructure, the economic system, governance, the natural environment, and the social system.  imagineCalgary was adopted by City Council as an advisory document and laid the foundation for a new municipal development and transportation plan, dubbed “Plan-It,” which was prepared between 2006 to 2009.  

Plan-It was envisioned as a means to enhance the environmental, fiscal and social sustainability of the city and, indeed, it called for substantial changes in growth and development patterns to enhance transit service and walkability and to reduce the fiscal costs of growth.  The social aspects of early versions of the plan were dramatically weakened, largely due to restrictions contained in the provincial government’s Municipal Governance Act, and to avoid an anticipated backlash from the development industry.  Planners pressed ahead on the environmental and fiscal agendas with reports detailing the cost savings associated with Plan-It.  Public relations stressed not only cost efficiency of the plan but also consumer choice, particularly the provision of more mobility options, more neighbourhood facilities and services, and stronger local businesses.   

That city officials and politicians would anchor their arguments in the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, cost efficiency, and consumer choice was not particularly surprising.  What was surprising was  the extent to which these neoliberal political tropes were adopted by many citizens and citizen organizations, including many that had been involved in the imagineCalgary process.  Indeed, many citizens’ organizations adopted the same neoliberal tropes, often for purely strategic reasons, to make their case for the sustainability agenda of Plan-It. Perhaps most  surprising of all, Plan-It was passed unanimously by City Council after early indications it would be defeated by a wide margin. The strategic adoption of neoliberal tropes to counter the anti-planning arguments of the development industry ultimately proved successful, but at what cost?  Quality of life, environmental, social justice and use-value arguments were largely abandoned, as were critiques of the federal and provincial governments’ underfunding of basic city functions such as public transit and social housing. Today, a concerted development-industry counter-attack that seeks to weaken the implementation of Plan-It relies on the same tropes and appears to be gaining traction, at the same time the provincial government further cuts funding to cities. The dynamics of Calgary’s planning politics raises questions about the merits of short term strategic adoption of neoliberal discursive tropes.  It also points to the role citizens play, unwittingly or not, in the reproduction and perpetuation of neoliberal hegemony.   To twist the words of Peck, Theodore and Brenner just a bit, “[citizens]… are not merely at the ‘receiving end’ of neoliberalization processes, imposed unilaterally from above.”

Why Detroit matters? Taking lessons from the motor city.

This is the sixth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Jacob Morris-Davies chose to write about Detroit …

Consider this, in 1940 you show Henry Ford this picture of Michigan Central Station, you say, “This is 2013, what do you think caused such a thing to happen?” To be frank his response would probably be along the lines of “the bomb”, “the apocalypse” or “the collapse of civilization”. Back then Detroit seemed indestructible, a freight train with unlimited momentum, but a train can only keep moving with tracks laid in front of it.

The transformation of Detroit over the last half century has been, to say the least, radical. What was once an industrial giant, the great manifestation of the American Dream, is now but a shell of its former self. Murder rates at ten times the national average(1), an alarming population decrease (it has halved since the 1960s)(2) and to top this all off on the 18th of July 2013 the city filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy(3). Why has this happened? Well that’s a complicated question, but an important one none the less. However, the question that should be on every economist, political scientist, sociologist and geographer’s lips is this. What happens next? Why? Because, if you think what’s happening to Detroit is unique, you’re wrong. At present, it may be exactly what’s around the corner for cities all over. If that’s to change, well, we better start paying attention.

How on earth did this happen?!?!

There are multiple possible explanations for the decline of Detroit, none of which are sufficient in themselves, here are just three of the main contributing factors.

Globalisation

Just as we saw the shift from city based economies to a national economy in the United States in the 19th century, the 20th century saw the rise of the global economy. Lower wages in East Asia have led to the decline of American industries across the country. Detroit is no exception.

Corruption

In the past 80 years five Detroit mayors and four country executives have either been sent to prison, were subject to federal probes, or were removed from office.(4) Giving out contracts to family members and creaming off taxpayer dollars are just the tip of iceberg. The political class in Detroit have contributed to the debt the city now sees itself in through irresponsible governance and outright Al Capone style tactics, yes that has even included the occasional murder.

Urban planning

Detroit is too big to function in without a car and contains too few people to justify such a massive land area. This is a map from the early 2000s(5), Detroit’s population has fallen even more since then but the point still stands. It is too spread out to function as a city. You cannot function in Detroit on foot, it’s impossible. But doesn’t everybody have a car? No, not in the Motor City. This has reduced social mobility, fuelled racial segregation and divided the city’s population geographically and socially.

But, whats going to happen now?

Here are three possible futures for Detroit, although we may not see these changes for many years, it is the actions of today that will determine the path the city takes.

It will be saved

The optimist in me believes that with the right intervention Detroit can be saved. By this I mean the city revitalised and re-populated. For jobs to be created and its crime rates reduced. For its image to be restored, to become a city in which people want to live again.

The 2009 auto industry bailouts were just the beginning, getting Detroit back on its feet is not just a matter of economics. No matter how many jobs are created its image and structure will not fundamentally change. The way working, living and moving interact in Detroit would have to be flipped on its head completely. People need to live in the city, at present over half of Detroit’s police force live outside of the city limits!(6) If the police force don’t want to live in their city, why would small business owners, young professionals or entrepreneurs? It would be a massive project, but not out of the question, large-scale top-down lead redevelopment would be the answer, the city is too far gone for private revitalisation such as gentrification to work.

Ruralisation

This is happening as we speak. Locals are turning huge areas of abandoned and unused land into farms, to grow food for themselves and for selling on. It is conceivable in the near future the city limits could become a sort of rural/urban hybrid.

In fact this is nothing new, only to a large urban area. Regions such as County Durham in the UK have transformed in a similar fashion since the decline of the coal industry in the UK. Small villages centred around mines are slowly changing into rural commuter villages, who is to say this will not be the future of Detroit?

Collapse 

There is of course the third option, complete and utter collapse. This may seem extreme, something to far in the future to be taken seriously right now, but isn’t that the arrogance of all civilizations that have fallen? Not to sound overly dramatic but why do we think we are any different, maybe this is the death of the industrial city?

We are already seeing people tour the derelict areas of Detroit, calling themselves urban explorers and place hackers.(7) This too is also not new, think about Rome, Athens, Giza; human beings seem to have a fascination with exploring the ruins of past civilizations. That is not to say it has not made its mark in history through its industry, music and culture but the physical place of Detroit may in the 21st century cease to be.

Why does it matter?

You may ask why does this matter in the whole scheme of things, isn’t Detroit a one off case? Maybe, but probably not, it’s more likely the first of many. It’s not the only city out there with issues in planning, corruption, social division and industrial decline. Detroit should be taken as a lesson of what can and will happen unless city authorities, governments and businesses act now to ensure the long term prosperity of the urban areas they inhabit. Just as Urbanization and Suburbanization defined past generations it is conceivable that ruralization or the process of collapse will define the next. Detroit is the perfect case study for the future, whatever that may be.

What happens to Detroit is not just of consequence for Americans, urban decline such as this is a global problem and somewhat ironically one of the main regions that may be affected is East Asia. In recent years China for example has been organising its various provinces into specialised economic zones each centered around cities based on certain types of industry.(8) At the moment, it’s working well for them to say the least. However, in 20-50 or 100 years when Africa becomes a competitor, what then? Will they have the exact same problem on their hands as Detroit? Cities with one purpose in mind cannot last and adapt.

What is being urban anyway? What makes a great city? Why do we live in cities in the first place? Are cities not more than a group of people centered around one purpose? Detroit raises the questions, should cities be more holistic? Should they always serve multiple functions? Do they need a purpose other than just being?

Detroit was defined by its auto industry, why are we defining the places we call home, where we live and die in service of a single economic function? Should cities not be places we would live regardless of the work available? Many think so, many think cities can bring out the greatest and most beautiful elements of humanity. Because cities can have their own function which cannot be defined by any one factor, cities can have a purpose of there own, just by being.

Have a look at Richard Rodgers master plan for Shanghai(9), it approaches how cities are organised in an entirely different fashion. He suggests the overlapping pathways, connections and intersections of people, ideas and events make cities what they are. Not its icons, its industry or its history, but instead the way in which its inhabitants interact.

Why are these flows of interaction important? Well, because the cities of the future are being designed today. Cities must be economically and ecologically sustainable if they are to, but should they not also be socially sustainable? Detroit is at present none of these things, but why this is, where it’s going and what will works to fix it are questions that need answering to help plan our cities of the future.

What happens next? Collapse or re-birth, adaptation or abandonment, consolidation or ruralization, I do not know. But I do know this, understanding what is happening in Detroit now is essential to understanding how we should plan cities of the future. I will be watching; so should you.

References

(1)   – http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/detroit/crime/

(2) – http://www.freep.com/interactive/article/20130723/NEWS01/130721003/detroit-city-population

(3) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23369573

(4) – http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/23652333/from-then-until-now-a-look-at-detroits-80-year-corruption

(5) – http://growingcities.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/detroit-reassembled.html

(6) – http://tcf.org/blog/detail/reinventing-detroit

(7) – http://detroiturbex.com

(8) –  Wei Ge, (1999) Special Economic Zones and the Opening of the Chinese Economy: Some Lessons for Economic Liberalization, World Development Vol. 27, No. 7, pp. 1267 – 1285,

 (9) http://www.richardrogers.co.uk/Asp/uploadedFiles/Image/1950_Shanghai%20Masterplan/RSHP_A_JS_1950_L_E_MP.pdf]

* http://zfein.com

** http://www.survivefrance.com/profiles/blogs/panic-in-detroit

Vacant Lots Cost Philadelphia $90 Million a Year!

This is the fourth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Ceri-Ellis Kenyon chose Philadelphia …

If you’ve ever found yourself strolling through Lower North Philly (not that I’d recommend it!) you’ll have noticed that there’s not much to see – literally. The abundance of vacant land and boarded up property leaves you feeling thoroughly depressed. It’s a far cry from the booming 1950s when John McWhorter stumbled across and photographed this vacant lot, a rarity in those days but all too commonplace now.

Over the past 20 years, vacancy has spiralled out of control.  A recent study found that Philadelphia has the highest vacancy per capita of any US city.  Combatting the issue of vacant property has been at the forefront of government agendas for decades now. Why? Because these tracts of vacant land dispersed throughout the city cost Philadelphia an estimated $90 million a year in delinquent taxes and policing charges alone!

So, what have the politicians done to improve things? Well, they’ve thrown lots  of money at the problem but, as is often the case, they’ve mostly ignored the needs of the local people. No surprises then that, far from getting better, things have continued to decline.

‘Wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia…’

I’m sure Bruce (Springsteen, of course!) had something quite different  on his mind when he wrote this song back in the 1990s but his lyrics seem more relevant than ever in today’s downtown. The Philly streets are literally “wastin’ away” as the population plummets and vacancy and crime rates soar.

Vacant land reflects vacant soul

Philadelphians know which areas of town not to venture into at night, or even by day for that matter, but why? A bunch of empty houses? That surely seems crazy…

…But, empty houses and barren land lead to social issues; crime, poverty, gang warfare and drug use. A recent Forbes survey ranked Philadelphia as the 5th most miserable city in the USA. Any stats based on averages are going to paint a gloomy picture but Philly isn’t all bad. We’d love to argue with the ‘experts’ at Forbes but there is, in actual fact, overwhelming evidence that vacant land and crime go hand in hand. Ken Skinner’s “Clean and Seal” programme is the city’s latest attempt at tackling the social blight associated with vacancy. Skinner, Chief of The Department of Licences and Inspections, has joined forces with the City Redevelopment Authority to employ a 48 strong team to secure the entrances to empty property and deserted land, in an effort to keep out the thugs and keep the neighbourhoods clean.  This temporary measure is an uphill battle as 300+ properties and lots are added to the vacancy inventory each year!

Lower North Ghost town

Lower North is without doubt the most desolate area in Philly. In terms of land use (commercial, residential, recreational etc.)  “vacancy” is the third largest category in the district. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Lower North was home to a thriving community of Black African Americans, attracted to the area by an abundance of brick yards, coal yards, tobacco plants and textiles workshops along Glenwood Avenue. Economic crisis in the 1950s left many Lower Northerners permanently unemployed as manufacturing jobs became few and far between. This triggered an epidemic of vacant land, an increase in crime and a decrease in population, which has continued every year since. In the 1990s, Philadelphia experienced the 3rd largest population decline in the history of urban America.

Lower North is an urban graveyard; 47% of the Lower North population are living in poverty, 13% of property is vacant and the district has 45 so called ‘ghost parks’. The only remaining ‘assets’ in Lower North are Temple University, 19 bus routes, 2 regional rail stations and its proximity to the city centre. The fact that two of the four remaining assets are transport infrastructure says it all…

So far, the problem has only been exacerbated by those in high Philly society. Ex-mayor Ed Rendell promised to rejuvenate Lower North and was voted into office by a majority black vote, desperately hoping for change. But Lower Northerners suffered anguish and humiliation at the hands of Rendell, who focussed solely on the city centre, deeming Lower North a problem unworthy of  attention.

Double duped as Street turns his back too…

Hot on the heels of Rendell; came Street and his ambitious plan to commandeer The Neighbourhood Transformation Initiative. His ingenious idea, to simply demolish 1400 vacant properties in Lower North was supposed to attract private investment. Instead, as most of us  could have predicted, it transformed vacant property into nothing more than vacant land! His typically political heavy handed approach caused nothing but backlash among the surprisingly tight knit community of Strawberry Mansion (which is hardly surprising when you consider Street’s plan to demolish their entire century old neighbourhood!). His  approach meant he ‘succeeded’ in demolishing a mere 800 of the planned properties at a  cost of $81 million and more importantly, he demolished the trust and vote of an entire community.

The Master plan, change may be just around the corner!

A committee of Philadelphian planners, community leaders, business owners, non-profit organisations and elected officials are currently working to piece together a blueprint for the redevelopment of the neglected Lower North. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 scheme hopes to pull together the expertise needed bring about change and rescue Lower North once and for all. David Fecteau, the brains behind the idea, chaired community meetings throughout July and August to gauge public opinion. What did he want to know? “Who’s happy?”… Seems nice!

Fecteau claims that unused industrial land could create up to 200 jobs and that ex residential areas could be re-moulded into community gardens and green space. Maybe! Of course, as a development tycoon he would say that, wouldn’t he Could this be just another example of the all too familiar pattern of planning betrayal in Lower North? If so, it has not weakened the residents of Strawberry Mansion’s burning desire for something to be done…finally. Community leader Judith Robinson announced that ‘redevelopment which avoids gentrification and subsequent displacement is welcomed’. The agenda for PlanPhiladelphia2035 is definitely optimistic and so far so good. The community meetings have established hotspot areas of unhappiness and have fuelled ideas and debates about the future land use. Could this be the answer to Lower North’s prayers? Watch this space…

Sowing the seeds of change

Clearly these large-scale, top-down approaches to redevelopment in Philly have largely failed. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 project is the first integrated approach and therefore the most likely to succeed. Hallelujah!

In typical Philadelphian fashion, small scale initiatives to decrease vacancy abound in many neighbourhoods throughout the city. Urban farms have sprung up on ex industrial sites all over the place, the most popular of which, GreensGrow, is in Kensington. The area reaps the social and economic benefits of urban farming and GreensGrow puts the vacant land to good use. Could the land in Lower North be suitable for an urban farm? Could it reduce the levels of crime and antisocial behaviour experienced there?

We’re constantly bombarded by green action group lobbying about transformation of urban land into green community space, but is this what Lower North needs? Research from The University of Pennsylvania found that over a period of ten years, the area surrounding a fenced public garden experienced a significant reduction in crime. Apparently, fences and neatly mown lawns deter criminals in these areas. Could this work in Lower North?

Is it naïve to assume that the introduction of green space will solve all social and economic issues in Lower North? Green space alone is not enough. Redevelopment needs to take place and must happen now! The work of PlanPhiladelphia2035 is a step in the right direction, but to succeed we need real commitment from those in power and enthusiasm for the project from the communities themselves. Appearances can be deceiving and there is still a strong community spirit beneath the desolate face of the Lower North. The residents deserve better and we must learn from past failures and work together to rejuvenate Lower North and turn it back into the thriving community it once was.

Here are some useful links if you’d like to find out more…

PlanPhiladelphia2035 Lower North plans: http://phila2035.org/home-page/district/lower-north/

An Accessible news bog site for Philadelphia: http://philly.curbed.com/tags/top

An Academic article evaluating Street’s Neighbourhood Transformation Initative:

http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~sys502/arcview/Projects/Phil_Housing/Phil_Nbhd_Initiative.pdf

Lower North District’s Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Philadelphia#Neighborhoods

A news article expressing concern around Fecteau’s ulterior motives: http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2013/08/05/consultant-to-major-developers-advocates-clearcut-strategy-for-city-planning.php

Information about Ken Skinner’s clean and seal programme: http://articles.philly.com/1993-09-30/news/25985242_1_houses-seal-tin

A news article about the reduction of crime in ‘greened’ areas: http://grist.org/list/2011-11-23-turning-vacant-lots-into-parks-reduces-violent-crime/

We’re Number 1! We’re Number 1! Tampa Has the Highest Homelessness Rates in Mid-Sized Cities in the United States of America

This is the third of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Joshua Hall chose to write about Tampa …

Homelessness is a problem which affects cities on many different levels. It tugs at the heartstrings of those people fortunate enough to have a stable home and livelihood whilst it also costs the local government, and therefore the tax paying citizens, in attempts to rectify the problem.

However, shock horror; the local government in Tampa doesn’t always try to solve the problem through correct channels. Instead scandal has reared its ugly head as social services director Sam Walthour has been sacked for paying Port Authority Chairman William Brown around $600000 to fund his bug-infested, unfit for purpose trailer park for homeless people to squat in. If this wasn’t shady enough, the money came directly out of the Tampa homeless recovery project fund!

Now, with the pitiful pair of Walthour and Brown out of the picture, things are potentially looking brighter as Mayor Bob Buckhorn has pledged to set aside 2 million dollars for helping the homeless in 2014. The mayor also stated that he hoped to abandon the woeful homeless recovery project and focus instead on distributing the money to various NGOs, which aim to provide both food and shelter for the homeless people of Tampa.

This silver lining of course does not eradicate all problems for the poor souls in Tampa who are left homeless. In fact the pledge made by Mayor Buckhorn was made in September 2013 but only two months earlier  the city  passed an  ordinance  allowing police officers to arrest homeless people if they were seen sleeping in public. The ordinance further stated that ‘storing personal property in public’ was also worth criminalizing.

Police in New York have been seen to provide shoes for homeless people out of their own generosity whereas in Tampa they are instructed to arrest them.

Police in New York have been seen to provide shoes for homeless people out of their own generosity whereas in Tampa they are instructed to arrest them.

Luckily in every area of the world people will stand up for justice; this is the same in Tampa. When the key protests come from elementary school children, you begin to realise the severity of the situation. . These school children handed out flyers and paraded banners stating ‘homelessness is not a choice’ and ‘sleeping is not a crime’. I love the juxtaposition between those two statements. The first symbolises the harsh reality of the situation, telling the government that these people are already being punished enough by society.  Punishing  them further is just ludicrous; the second has a reinforcing impact. The children are, quite simply telling it how it is, which is why it is almost laughable to think that the homeless face being  imprisoned for something as basic as sleeping.

Standing up for justice; young children protest against the 4-3 vote passing the ordinance to imprison homeless people.

Standing up for justice; young children protest against the 4-3 vote passing the ordinance to imprison homeless people.

Just imagine for a moment you’ve decided to run 5km on a on a warm, sunny Sunday in the summer. You stop in the park, tired at the end of your run and decide to have a few moments of shuteye to recover. You then wake up in prison. Ridiculous but possible in Tampa!

There comes a time when human compassion is needed in tough decision making and I feel this should be the time. In mid-2012 a study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Tampa, of all mid-sized cities in the US, had the highest number of homeless individuals at 7419. Now picture all those people being put in prison. Some might enjoy prison – after all a warm bed, a roof and regular meals might be the answer to their dreams yet in the grand scheme of things it is not the answer. But what are the alternatives for the government?

It is all very well to criticise the laws but if there is not an obvious solution then what can be done? If we look at the facts regarding homeless shelters in Tampa, it makes the problem seem even bleaker. Although there are plenty of shelters available in Tampa across the various counties, the nightly stay averages between $10 and $42. This is too expensive for most homeless people. Think back to any time a homeless person has asked you for money when walking past. The vast majority of the time the only money in their cups will be loose change, a galaxy away from $42. I understand the need to charge those staying in the facilities in order to keep the shelters running, but it is likely that many of the previously mentioned 7419 people could not afford to access them. So where does the government turn if the NGOs can’t help.

Across the United States there are many initiatives in place to tackle homelessness. A lot of these efforts rely on the principles involved in rescue missions, which aim to get people off the street. For example, the rescue missions in Nashville have an 11 million dollar budget each year but ultimately this project tries to get people off the street only if they undertake rehabilitation programs lasting as long as a year. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee they will  stay  off the streets.

Similar models for lesser amounts of money, such as ‘Housing First’, remove people from the streets immediately, working on the belief that a person is best equipped to reintegrate themselves into society if they are housed first. This framework was first introduced in New York in the 1990s and studies revealed that most that completed ‘Housing First’ pathways programmes remained in housing  5 years after they were initially taken in. Therefore you can see how homelessness can begin to be eradicated and in areas with more homeless people than in Tampa, so it begs the question: why are these ideologies not being implemented here? To me it seems that investing in a project such as ‘Housing First’ would make a lot more sense, especially from an ethical point of view, than passing laws to put homeless people in jail. However what I see as right and wrong is not always logistically feasible.

A simple model of how Housing First aims to get people off the street through a series of progressive steps.

A simple model of how Housing First aims to get people off the street through a series of progressive steps.

The local government of Tampa are not ignoring these measures and the fact that Mayor Buckhorn has pledged to invest is a sign of wanting to change the fortunes of the homeless. Really, the problem is that Tampa does not have the necessary resources in place to undertake a large scale operation to get their citizens off the street. If Tampa had the funds for an 11 million dollar a year rescue mission they would surely implement it. No area wants to be renowned as being top of the negative impact charts for rates such as homelessness especially with the state pride that occurs in the United States.

It could be suggested that the 2 million dollars pledged to fight the problems of homelessness in Tampa in 2014 should be invested in a project model such as ‘Housing First’ but it is unlikely to make a huge difference, as the budget required for that sort of operation is far grander than is available. As a result, the problem with homelessness is likely to rage on in Tampa, with more harm than good done given current policies. It remains to be seen whether the 2 million dollar investment will be utilised effectively as no full template for its application has yet evolved. With the very penal laws putting homeless people in jail simply for sleeping in public and thus criminalising them, many homeless will find it hard ever to turn their lives around, particularly when applying for jobs or housing in the future. Until the policymakers change the laws, and try instead to help those in need rather than punish them, the homeless people of Tampa are set to keep suffering until promises made are delivered within a cohesive and sustainable plan.

Endnotes and sources in order of use:

http://tbo.com/news/politics/social-services-director-fired-20130919/

http://tbo.com/news/tampa-council-wants-city-to-spend-more-on-homeless-20130919/

http://moorbey.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/11881/

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/nypd-boots-homeless-man-photo-145219581.html

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/07/22/2335261/tampa-criminalize-homelessness/

http://abtassociates.com/AbtAssociates/files/77/77fdb6fa-6e6b-4524-8b5a-8e68c68caca9.pdf

http://www.examiner.com/article/tampa-passes-new-ordinances-on-homeless-despite-protests

http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/solutions-for-homelessness.html

http://www.homelesshub.ca/Resource/Frame.aspx?url=http%3a%2f%2fps.psychiatryonline.org%2farticle.aspx%3farticleID%3d84342&id=25399&title=Pathways+to+Housing%3a+Supported+Housing+for+Street-Dwelling+Homeless+Individuals+with+Psychiatric+Disabilities&owner=48

Detroiters: Back in the Driving Seat

This is the first of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Amy Barron chose to write about Detroit …

Detroit is the focus of a stereotype. After years of decline, together with the repetitious drip feed of negative media attention; riots, white flight, dereliction and deserted neighbourhoods have become emblematic of the city. Today as the city faces rejection from government and global press, Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands, nurturing innovation, initiative and creativity.

Detroit; the city that put the world on wheels; the throbbing heart of American culture, soul and industry; the sprawling metropolis; the epitome of the American Dream. During its 1950s heyday, the ‘motorcity’ thrived, providing an accommodating, dynamic and cohesive urban hub; a centrifugal force for the global automobile trade whilst functioning as a magnet attracting social and economic capital that saw the population rocket. So, what went wrong? I hear you cry.

Well listen up America, there’s a lesson to be learnt. After the initial auto-industrial success, it was the failure of the American government to recognise that the Asian auto-manufacturing expansion was upon them and America was effectually bitten on the ass by its competitor. This ultimately caused the start of the cardio-collapse of the heart of American auto-industries, unable to stay ahead of their efficient Asian opponents. This slow death of the motor giants eventually caused the inner-city commuter highway vestals to become clogged with poverty as the rich fled and suburban arteries were drained of talent as the skilled relocated elsewhere. The eventual outcome was a population plummet, leading to a lower tax base. Crime rates spiked and public service networks crumbled. The rust belt of the American mid-west was rapidly corroding and Detroit was the ‘buckle’. The media willingly jumped on the bandwagon and the drip feed of negativity began to infest the city. Events reached their pinnacle when Detroit hit the headlines as it became the largest city in the US to file for bankruptcy. Investment was deterred and the endless cycle of decline had seemingly begun.

So, how do you remake a city and perhaps see it prosper once more? Seemingly an impossible task? Well, providing there is more to life than generalised statistics and headline-grabbing  quotes, I-and Detroit-argue ‘hope is not lost’. Believe it or not media, through the dereliction and destitution; human nature prevails, inter-connections are materialising, and community clusters are beginning to form. Whilst the data presented may well hold elements of truth, surely daily community interaction, cohesion and a dense urban texture are equally important qualities which define urban life. The Detroiters are innovating their way out of this problem, so why should the very real, happening, positive efforts be brushed under the carpet?

All too often the city is portrayed in a negative light. Rarely reported is the surviving stock; the green sprouts of hope emerging at grass roots level. The winds of change are blowing through the streets of Detroit with more force than ever as ‘a neighbour helping neighbour’ ethos is spreading generating a strong ‘shared responsibility for a shared place’ attitude. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes; revitalised and ready for flight, young maverick entrepreneurs are surfacing, thrusting forth new innovative ideas which will regenerate, renew and rejuvenate.

Although Detroit may, in some respects be teetering on the precipice, it still has the safety harness of ‘community strength’ to hold onto, pulling it back from the brink. Realising the difficulties they are facing, many residents are calling on inner resources and imagination, taking issues into their own hands. All sectors of society-young, old, groups, and individuals-are pioneering positivity impacting across the social, economic and environmental spectrum. Could Detroit be a leading beacon in showing the rest of the urban world the path to overcoming these universally experienced problems? With progress in green transportation, sustainability, business incubation and community cohesion; the future looks promising. Detroit is moving forward, starting where it matters; at the heart and with the people.

Sixty four year old John Ratov is only one of the thousands of people across Detroit who have become self-appointed community activists. A former inmate, Ratov now spends his time serving others by giving rides, delivering lunches and visiting the pitiably lonely. Not only is Ratov actively improving the lives of his fellow citizens but his ‘community spirit’ is rubbing off onto others such as 52 year old Renee Miler who met Ratov at a local soup kitchen and now also helps saying; ‘’it’s just the right thing to do’’. Together they continue building an ever expanding human life support machine for the city.

Not only is this ingenuity occurring on an individual level, but also at a collective level. Organised by several local charities, with ‘booming dance music, flaming BBQ grills, and a stocked food tent for thousands of homeless’ Detroit hosted it’s ‘Red carpet backyard surprise BBQ!’ The idea was simply to give struggling Detroiters a holiday meal like the rest of America would be eating that day. The party was a huge success with the food line snaking through the park as far as the eye could see. Instead of the streets feeling bare and cold, they were full of life, laughter and love with thousands of homeless folk uniting in celebration as the festive mood set in and spread through the crowd with a shared sense of place and belonging. This is the precise way a community should unite, by helping one another. It engenders the reconnection of the fragmented city scape and improves Detroit for the greater good.

Have you too been fooled into believing Detroit has being deserted by the young? Well, think again. ‘I am Young Detroit’ is a social venture initiative promoting and publishing positive change occurring in Detroit. Social entrepreneur, Andy Didorosi is one of many who are determined to make a difference.  After reading ‘Detroit’s light rail is dead’ Andy bought a bunch of buses and founded ‘The Detroit Bus Company’. This was a huge success. Not only are the buses environmentally sustainable hybrids but Andy added his quirky artistic edge making them ‘public party buses ‘reinforcing the young imaginative flair so many Detroiters possess. With service hours rapidly expanding, cool areas in the downtown are valuably reconnecting. I am captivated and amused by Andy and found myself continually impressed by his ambitious nature when reading more. The world could really use a few more Andys ready to give it a shot!

Where is Amsterdam?

Professor Erik Swyngedouw at the University of Manchester reflects on how the current city of Amsterdam is different from the one he used to visit in the late 1970s and early 1980s and what that might say about the new geographical co-ordinates of political possibilities.

Amsterdam takes a very special and privileged position in my intellectual trajectory. As a young and radical planning student in Belgium in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stale, dogmatic, antiquated and plainly stifling intellectual and cultural environment that characterized much of academic and urban life in my native Belgium at the time contrasted sharply with the exuberantly liberating, exhilarating and radical thought and associated urban practices that came in as a whirlwind from the Netherlands and, in particular, from Amsterdam.

street-jordaan

Je kan er boeken kopen You can buy books there
Die je hier heel zelden vindt that you rarely find here
Je kan er langs de grachten lopen You can stroll along the canals
Je haar los in de wind Hair loose in the wind
…. ….
Je bent er vogelvrij You are free as a bird there
Omdat er alles kan Because everything is possible there
Zo dichtbij en toch zo ver is Amsterdam So near and yet so far is Amsterdam

(Amsterdam by Kris De Bruyne – 1975)

As Kris De Bruyne sung in his ode to Amsterdam, it is a place where you can buy books you rarely find here (in Belgium at the time), where one could set thought free. And he was absolutely right. Amsterdam in those exiting times was for me a place worthy of an odyssey. Many a times, I ventured onto the Brussels-Amsterdam train to scout out the new ideas, to browse the censored thoughts freely available on Amsterdam’s bookshelves, to feel the winds of change, to touch the freewheeling and radical air in which Amsterdam bathed. Provo had staged its early situationist urban performances in Amsterdam, later the ‘Kabouters’ marched into the city-government, white bikes roamed the street, new lifestyles were experimented with, squatters questioned capitalist housing politics and budding neoliberal forms of urban renovation. A truly emancipatory and progressive political movement was engulfing the urban world, and Amsterdam was its cradle. Many of the thoughts and perspectives that would mature in my later academic work found their early hesitant and embryonic formulations in the cafes, bookstores and intellectual engagement with Amsterdam’s young left intellectuals and activists.

Thirty odd years later, and after many returns to my beloved Amsterdam, I feel increasingly alienated by the city, a whiff of nostalgia to a lost dream and a melancholic dread permeates my body and mind when drifting along Amsterdam’s streets and canals. Sure, it still is a great city, a global cosmopolitan urbanity that feels like a village. The quirky sites and unexpected corners are still there, but the city’s soul, its mojo seems to have decamped. Amsterdam today is boring, uninspiring. Creative and progressive intellectual thought – although still brewing in some of the remaining interstices –  stifled, xenophobia rising, neoliberal austerity visibly present, new forms of uninspiring urbanity – like Amsterdam Zuidas –  became stale ruins even before their completion. Urban life seems cosy (at least for most), insular, self-referential, inward-looking. The sense of exuberance, of endless possibilities, of nurturing egalitarian freedom sustained by a solidarity-enhancing mode of being-in-common seems to have been replaced by technocratic management, the bio-political dominance of accountancy spreadsheets, the tyranny of the commodity-form, and a sense of collective impotence. Nothing seems possible anymore other than, at best, the humanitarian management of the excesses of the neoliberal nightmare. It does not take great foresight to see that the tensions, conflicts and spiralling inequalities that brew beneath the cobbled surface will soon and possibly violently explode again. Rarely do I hear Amsterdam’s urban intellectuals prefigure such dystopian futures. The few who do signal the unsustainability of today’s neoliberal political-economic hegemony, like Ewald Engelen’s relentless and incisive insistence on the perverse politics of neoliberalism, are shouts in the wind as much as Paul Krugman’s continuous lament of the American variant of the elite’s pursuit of neoliberal recipes. Unfortunately, on both sides of the Atlantic, the elite’s ears remain deaf for the warnings of such eminent scholars whose alarm signals they do not wish to register.

gebouwengrachtenamsterdam2-hboogertfeb2008

I wonder where my Amsterdam is. I wonder whether the civic democratizing urbanity that has characterized Amsterdam’s urbanity throughout the centuries still slumbers underneath the elegant cobbled streets, in the after-rooms of the grand bourgeois houses and their neatly gentrified facades, in the immigrant neighbourhoods, or whether the spirit of Amsterdam has now forever decamped to the more exciting urbanities of Berlin, Barcelona, Istanbul, Madrid, Cairo, Sao Paulo, Sofia, Athens, or Thessaloniki, names that stand for me today for the cities that animate emancipatory desires, that ooze a spirit of possibility, where creative progressive thought and practice is actively experimented in. These are the names today of the places where citizens, city-dwellers, have become insurgent architects, where new forms of urban being-in-common are experimented with, where the powers-that-be shiver as the multitude takes to the streets and squares and stages performing new egalitarian modes of being-in-common. The city as a political polis, where insurgent citizens demand and stage the right to urbanity, the right to co-produce the city, seems to be alive and kicking in those places, but sadly moribund in Amsterdam.

Isn’t the most eloquent manifestation of this death of the urban the fact that the most radical recent guerrilla intervention in Amsterdam was the unauthorized placement of a copy of the Wall Street Bull by artist Arturo DiModica on Amsterdam’s Beursplein (Exchange Square), just a little while after the site was cleared off a small coterie of Occupy! activists, too small in numbers to even itch the powers that be or attract international attention. Is the Charging Bull’s presence – the triumphant symbol a victorious capital-financial order – not one of the most tell-tale signs of the symbolic re-appropriation of urban space by the 1%. While the square was cleared of its protesters, the unauthorized intrusion of the Bull was quickly legitimized and approved by the city administrators. Amsterdam’s elite made quite clear to all what the Beursplein and city politics stand for. Poor Amsterdam. I do long for the Amsterdam that helped me think and act as young and budding progressive intellectual, and which is undoubtedly still lurking somewhere. In the meantime, I think I shall keep going to Madrid, Istanbul, or Athens. See you there.

This blog was initially posed at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam (http://urbanstudies.uva.nl/blog/urban-studies-blog-series/urban-studies-blog-series/content/folder/where-is-amsterdam.html)