19 November 2008

Somers Town, 25 Sept 08

quantum house

women's freedom & academy of dreams

The City is not a hospitable place for hippies, mystics, and idealists - they graitate west towards smaller towns like Totnes and Stroud. A few pagan shops still exist round Seven Dials, and there's a fortune teller in Selfridges, but by and large the City is about power more concrete than cosmic. Bless these women's groups in the pictures above, then! It was a two-storey building with this sterile, masculinist steel and granite facade more suited to an accountancy or law firm - but there they were, working on dreams of freedom regardless of the difficulties outside.

15 November 2008

Stoke Newington, 28 Sept 08

watch your skin


Watch your skin peel indeed - love this haunting intervention in the abandoned church in Stoke Newington's cemetery. The medium is fantastic: moss grown upon felt, we reckoned. Cheers to Caspar for the walk that morning and showing me around his neighbourhood - hope Berlin's treating you well these days!

Design Museum: Richard Rogers exhibition

A couple of themes struck me about the Richard Rogers exhibition at the Design Museum a few months back - absence and the nature of the architectural model; and microflats and confined urban living. The latter will be another post, something to discuss in relation to my own 250 sq ft dwelling. So here I will talk about:


I've mentioned the dissertation I wrote on the philosophy of dust - how, if you think about it far too much, dust is this really weird force in the domestic. Dust holds a mirror up to human dwelling, showing us back to ourselves as alien. Derrida was an influence here, offering ideas of absent presence and spectrality. And it's those sort of questions I want to ask about the architectural models displayed. What isn't there, and how is this a problem for architecture?

The idea came to mind when I was looking at this perspex-built model, and realised that there wasn't a speck of dust on it. Helen Lloyd at the National Trust has done a lot of research on visitor numbers, the dust they produce, and what this means for their conservation work. The Design Museum hae to be cleaning like maniacs to keep these models pristine (wonder if they pay living wage?). So what does this mean symbolically? It is an erasure of the traces left by people and time, when people-over-time equals life. It is a desire to elevate these models into the Ideal, to proclaim their forms as absolute truths like Platonic solids. It's a great big denial and repression of materiality, and when the practical outcome of the architectural design process is building stuff for embodied use, that's a fucking problem.

This is the big objection that, coming from a social sciences perspective, I have with architecture. It's not about fucking form. The arrangement of pretty shapes and lighting in space (whether in the model or the actual construction) is... method, means to an end. What actually matters is the effects of these forms: environmental impacts, the responses and feelings that buildings elicit from people, the social interactions they enable or proscribe. But the architectural model stops half way through that process, reifying what's secondary to built space (i.e. form) to the sole signifier. It's exactly a monumental arrogance on the behalf of the architect, this desire to deny the fact that every single person's use of the building is a form of interpretation and thus authorship, and to claim this creative generation for themselves alone.

To be sure, I know that architecture students are now trained to think seriously about inhabitation and use and radical architecture - and that's great. Sometimes the results aren't so abstract as to be incomprehensible and useless: even better! But these traditional models ignore all of that, and by being shown in this museum they're being called definitive architecture. NO.

This is a model of the Millennium Dome. What does it say? Everything it tells us is in the absences. The failure of the Dome project was that it was planned as a model (and reconstructed at 100x the scale as the same); that its contents went in because they seemed educational and a good idea in theory, and theory only. The model is white and sterile; the Dome was never planned as living breathing processual space, somewhere that could encourage culture rather than just displaying it dead and fixed. Was its handling of multiculturalism and Britain's hybrid and colonial history also pristinely white in the sense of racially normative? Sure there was PC, but that's not real inclusion. Planned as an unpeopled model, the only participation the Dome allowed was consumption, the only way we could express what we thought of the place was by where we chose to queue. And then they put this model in a museum like it is a good thing?

I want to look for people who are modelling and planning architecture in other ways than these perspex and plastic tombs, ways that bring what matters about the discipline (that is, staging social life) in from the beginning. Suggest things to me...

14 November 2008

Choked up

The weather has been ropey this last week, and bang! look at its effects on the systems of the City. So it's been raining. It's bloody November, of course it's been bloody raining. But can we deal with it raining? No. People stop walking and cycling and take to their cars, they jump on buses for the shortest of journeys. So everything snarls up, King's Cross is essentially stationary, and buses don't go anywhere any more. I find this isn't terribly helpful... This is what I am looking at for 20 minutes at a stretch:

God forbid, I may just listen to certain of my friends and get a fucking fixie, hipsterrific as they are. I do not have the space in my teeny tiny flat for a bicycle, and nor could I possibly be restricted to clothing practical enough to ride in. But the way these guys talk about cycling: the way awareness extends in space and time as you slip through this shifting system of road-cars-pedestrians-destination-enironment-self; the physical challenge (and the phenomenal lean grace of their bodies, more real than anything gym-built); the speed and satisfaction... Their eyes light up, their speech is poetic, enthralled, persuasive. Perhaps there's something in it...


I have regressed to age fifteen and started reading legendary comic series Transmetropolitan. Been reading writer Warren Ellis's blog for years, of course, so it's about time I got round to his real stuff. Transmetropolitan tries quite hard to be cool, and of course it's essentially deriative - but this is postmodernity so does that matter? I think I like it. Worth scribbling about it here because Transmetropolitan - as the name suggests - is urban as hell. Urban like ur-city, or at least ur- like originary if your year zero was Bladerunner. There are other urban archetypes in Dickens, Le Corbusier, Ancient Greece - but yes, Transmetropolitan's doing all it can to capture a particular one. So let's take a look at it.

"I hate it here. I hate the way it smells (except when you get into a fully residential quarter where people are predominantly first-gen American: the way people express their culture in their cooking is one of the few good reasons for being alie). I hate the way it looks (except for that weird beauty that hits you in the eye eery other second). I hate the way it thinks (except when it buys this newspaper). I hate the things it does to itself (except when it lets me do them). I hate the way it loes me, and I hate the way it makes me feel. I hate it here... but God help me, I can't imagine liing anywhere else."

(Anti-)hero Spider Jerusalem just refers to it as 'the city', which fits this blog way too perfectly! The series seems to have quite a fixation on prostitution as proiding definitive urban background colour, too, which I need to unpack - that 'Sex and the City' post I promised. Of course it's essentially just romanticised misogyny, but the trope (common enough, think Sin City too) hints at a bigger about urban social relations too, I suspect... But first another trope of Transmetropolitan: drugs.

"You know, when I was a kid, we listened to music that made our parents' eyes bleed and took drugs that made us want to dance and fuck and kill things. That is the way things are supposed to be.
It was, therefore, in the spirit of honest investigation that I internalised a heroic dose of Space, the new social drug enjoyed by the young folk of today as part of the youth culture referred to as Supermodernity.
Supermodernity, apparently, is the experience of being between places; that is, not being in a real place at all, but waiting in transit between one place and the other. This is why SM/Space Culture music appears to us to be utterly silent. You hae to be on Space - slowed down, across places, in the one between ticks of the clock - to be able to hear it.
This is what they do for fun, apparently: suck up appalling volumes of a drug that traps you in an airport waiting lounge of the mind and doesn't let you go for approximately two hundred years while someone plays an antique handheld electronic keyboard in your ear."

First, what the fuck, a reference to the Marc Auge Non-Places: ...Anthropology of Supermodernity that is basically A. getting Terribly Upset about driving on the motorway? Unexpected... But also the suggestion that real cutting-edge spatial theorists ought to be hoovering up ketamine and the other space-time distorters (salvia, perhaps?). The eco actor-network theory of Tim Ingold is essentially based on the acidhead realisations of Gregory Bateson: 'oh shit, man, it's like, all connected! We better be nice to the plants and reindeer now...' So what would the results be for embodiment and architecture if working with disassociatives? Of course architecture students are always already doing these drugs by the bucketload, but is anyone out there integrating it with their practice? I want to know...

12 November 2008

New York, New York

Twelve days ago I went to New York for the first time. I didn't visit for the sake of the city at all - hell, I wish it didn't exist - oh, let's just say it separates me from someone, someone who's pretending for the moment that the City isn't the one true place to be. Nevertheless, this is enough of a someone that I would consider leaving my beloved City for his - so while I was there (and because I lack the money, and because I'm an anthropologist not a lousy tourist!) I was thinking about how NY operates as a place to live. A few comments on its urban space and architecture, to begin with:

The Bowery was one of the streets I liked the most, even as gentrification starts to go too far. (The less said about the hotel these days the better.) It let me take a satisfyingly evocative (cliched) photo, and still seemed to carry a few ghosts.

The Bowery hosts the New Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the very few bits of proper, committed new architecture I found in the city. (I didn't go even as north as Midtown, though, so I accept I may have missed a bit! Then again, no-one was trying to convince me that the Upper East Side was a happening place to see...) The rainbow 'Hell Yes' on its side didn't exactly 'fit' as such, but the building had a scale and a rhythm that worked well. I liked its texture, I liked its balanced imbalance, and it proided a fitting space for its gallery purpose.

One of the other rare bits of serious new architecture I saw in NY was Tschumi's Blue Building on the Lower East Side - I failed to get a decent picture, but thankfully the New York Times did. Apparently, "its contorted form has a hypnotic appeal that is firmly rooted in the gritty disorder of its surroundings." No no no! It's just a bog-standard tower block that happens to be wonky. It's a monolith of glass and steel that doesn't speak to any grittiness or disorder; it seeks to be a singular landmark rather than dispersed or multiple; it's blocky, aggressive, still fucking phallic. This longer review is more astute when it observes that the asymmetric form is all about maximising the square footage, i.e. capital-with-a-capital-C. If I gave a shit about the Lower East Side, perhaps I'd cry.

Oddly enough for America, New York's best buildings were its old ones, with their fragile rusty balconies and sense of speaking in harmony with their neighbours. I was surprised to find that the city had a facility for elegant decay, something I associate strongly with Mediterranean cities and perhaps Latin America. Paint peeled, graffiti layered on top of posters, the sidewalk fallen apart fit to break a leg... Unexpected, but quite beautiful in its anti-statist way. Sea air helps, too, I suppose. I'd thought Coney Island might have this quality but instead it was sadder than that, surrounded by housing estates and derelict land, an illustration of New York's segregation and deelopment rows. Shame. (Fucking enormous seagulls, too.)

Further commentary in another post regarding the 'suburbanisation' of New York and other suggestions as to why I didn't feel it was somewhere that worked very well. But as a teaser, I like this comment by Rocco Landesman, a Broadway producer:

But I think there has been a delibidinization of our city, I really do. ...In terms of public planning there’s been a kind of prudishness, a kind of social and political correctness that’s gone on.

Sex and the City, now there you go - and now that's such a topic for this blog, too!

7 October 2008

29 Aug 2008, 15:18

Also, I like this 'fuck you' response to the anti-flyering paint: more than one way to appropriate an urban surface for one's own purposes!

6 October 2008

City-related lectures at LSE this autumn

There are a thousand reasons why the LSE is brilliant, and one is the quality of its evening lectures. The full list is available here, but below are details of the best on urban and spatial topics. I'd like to attend them all, but that'll be easier said than done!

Tues 21 Oct, 18:30 - Running Cities: London in context
Sir Simon Milton, Prof. Ricky Burdett, Deyan Sudjic
What is the new administration's vision for London? Speakers discuss how to design and manage the powerhouses of the global economy, assessing London's development compared to the megacities of the world.
Simon Milton was appointed deputy mayor for policy and planning after serving as chairman of London's Local Government Association. Ricky Burdett, chief adviser for the London 2012 Olympics, and Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, are co-editors of The Endless City.

Tues 21 Oct, 18:30 - Disparity and Diversity in the Contemporary City: social order revisited
Prof. Robert Sampson & Prof. Paul Gilroy
A look at classic urban themes as they are manifested in the contemporary city, focusing on social reproduction of inequality, the meanings of disorder, and the link between the two.
Paul Gilroy is Anthony Giddens Professor in Social Theory at LSE. Robert Sampson is Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of sociology, Harvard University.

Tues 4 Nov, 13:00 - Big Ideas: Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson is one of Britain’s most renowned sculptors. He is internationally celebrated for his interventions in architectural space draw heavily for their inspiration from the worlds of engineering and construction.

Weds 12 Nov, 18: 30 - Desiring Walls
Prof. Wendy Brown
In this lecture, Professor Wendy Brown will draw on discourse analysis, psychoanalysis, and feminist theory to examine the desire for walls in the context of eroding sovereignty. Why the current proliferation of nation-state walls, especially amidst widespread proclamations of global connectedness and anticipation of a world without borders? And why barricades built of concrete, steel and barbed wire when threats to the nation today are so often miniaturized, vaporous, clandestine, dispersed or networked? Why walls now and how are they to be understood? While acknowledging variety in the explicit purposes of the new walls, this project argues for comprehending the recent spate of wall building in terms of eroded nation-state sovereignty. Above all, the new walls consecrate the boundary corruption they overtly contest and signify the ungovernability by law of a range of forces unleashed by globalization.
Wendy Brown is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thurs 13 Nov, 18:30 - Our Urban Future: the death of distance and the rise of cities
Prof. Edward Glaeser
Improvements in transportation and communication technologies have led some to predict the death of distance, and with that, the death of the city. In this lecture Professor Ed Glaeser will argue that these improvements have actually been good for idea-producing cities at the same time as they have been devastating for goods-producing places. What, then, does the future hold for our cities?
Ed Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard.

Tues 18 Nov, 18:30 - The Politics of Mobility
Peter Hendy
Sprawl versus dense? Public transport versus private car? This debate will outline how London's transport strategy shapes - and is shaped by - environmental policy, quality of life and political imperatives.
Peter Hendy is commissioner of Transport for London.

28 September 2008

What I've been working on in these weeks away from this blog - this is the introduction to my Masters dissertation entitled Dust: Disturbing the Domestic:

I first started thinking about dust when lying on the sofa in my flat, procrastinating on putting together a dissertation proposal. Eyes casting around for things to do other than study, I noticed that an enormous amount of dust had gathered under the table. Where trapped by chair legs it was forming dustbunnies, tangles of an oddly purpleish fuzz and hair that were a prodigious size seeing as I had swept only a couple of days previously. It didn't seem fair. I had to be the one to blame – my previous flat had been excessively dusty too, but that was clearly due to sharing it with two engineering-student boys. Now, living alone, this dust had to be my responsibility – yet I was neither balding nor scrofulous, and my flat's soft furnishings were not becoming threadbare. Where was this material coming from? I was disturbed.

The problem of dust was clearly a more interesting question than any possible dissertation. How frequently did I need to clean in order to prevent dust, daily? But that would be silly. The dust was quite a pleasing colour and safely out-of-the-way, so perhaps I should just leave it? After all, dust wasn't really yucky – it just sat there quietly – and cleaning to avoid my dissertation was clearly procrastination to be discouraged. I had thought I lived in every inch of my tiny flat, yet on reflection dust marked all the spaces in which my presence was absent, the out-of-the-way places my feet didn't tread and my body didn't occupy. Dust sat in corners, under the bed, and on top of the cooker hood, while the rest of the flat acquired discarded clothes and coffee stains, traces instead of use. And paradoxically this dust marking all the places I wasn't was nonetheless made of me, made of my skin and made of hair no more dead than that attached to my head. It suggested a sort of hidden embodiment-apart-from-the-body, dispersed over space and time. The accumulation of dust was like the accumulation of the past, which must at some point become suffocating to the present – housework the only thing preventing the transformation of the home into a nightmarish haunted house. What if dust could be sentient, like the animated soot particles in the film I'd watched recently, Spirited Away? This stuff was weird, intriguingly so.

I decided I wanted to do some serious thinking about dust.

12 August 2008

I live(d) in Blade Runner

Nothing special for the photograph today, but it gestures at something so central to my mythology of the City. For six months 06/07 I lived in Clerkenwell (aka sexy warehouse architect land) in a big council highrise full of more yuppies than council tenants. The area was... odd, actually, despite the hype. It was a little lacking in basic necessities such as a decent supermarket, hell, even just a newsagent open when I wanted the Sunday papers. A little too quiet after hours; it had City looks, but not City buzz. It didn't really feel homely, but nor did it feel anything else.

But one thing made up for all that. Up on the sixth floor balcony, walking towards my flat's front door, I had this view - the Barbican towers, their dark jagged concrete forms disjunct on the skyline. Not so close (about a kilometre away) and, on a sunny day, not so foreboding - but still a gift because they let me pretend, just for a few seconds as I walked towards the door, that I was living in Blade Runner. In my heart, that is what the City is about.

The City is Bananas

Today I finally caught up with my friend Astrid. We found some coffee then went hunting for banana skins - no really. Astrid runs London Bananas, a photoblog dedicated to the urban banana. A new(ish) resident of the City, she writes:

"When I arrived I noticed something straight away: there's a lot of banana skins around.
I see them everywhere. They're languishing on doorsteps, hanging out in the middle of the road, dangling off street signs, peeking out of piles of garbage, reclining in the middle of the sidewalk, riding the bus for free....
Eventually I managed to get a camera and started documenting these bananas in situ, partially because I thought it was funny and partially to assure myself that I wasn't making it up."

Here's one of her photos:

Why's this belong here? Because, like people on BoingBoing, I'm loving the game of 'guess where?' these photos inspire. Taken at banana-height perspective often without much background context, these pictures challenge my micro-knowledge of the City. I know where Astrid lives, works, goes drinking - but have I been concentrating? Can I place that shopfront, those railings, that advertising hoarding? I want to be able to do so: I want to know my City intimately, not (just) as theoretical structures and systems but like the palm of my hand. (Like my own body...)

And simultaneously London Bananas also functions as a guide to someone else's City, her paths and the traces these leave in her mind; a little awareness of the things she sees that I never do, that is, banana skins.

7 August 2008

Decorating the City

I love my shitty motorola camera-phone - sometimes it chooses to focus on things, sometimes it chooses not to. We shall pretend, please, that this random variation makes my photos on this blog more artistic, and that it's nothing to do with being too slothful to find/carry/use a proper camera!

By Old Street tube, 4 Aug 08. The tag -ACK (the first letter was damaged) made out of the genius new medium of plastic cups stuffed into wire net fencing.

20 Apr 08, probably East London. Stencilism by now outweighs spray-can graffiti, or at least the good stuff - wonder who to blame for that?! It still looks great, but yet is something of the soft & easy option, I think...

29 Jan 08 - pure Dada.

Gower Street, 28 Feb 08

Foucault wept.

Tate Modern 'Global Cities' exhibition

The Global Cities exhibition at the Tate Modern last summer was not a raving success. Rem Koolhaas talked bollocks about slum dwellers being 'more free' in their architectural choices because they weren't constrained by Evil Conservative Planners - the fact that they're constrained by lack of money and materials, which likewise generates stylistic uniformity, didn't seem to occur to him. Graphs appeared without scales or quantification, statistics without context and sometimes flat out wrong (a 10 km square is not the same as 10 square km, oh innumerate curator). And most of the video works were vague, uncontextualised, and a bit dull.

But I found some pictures on my phone of the cool stuff, so I thought I'd post them:

Nigel Coates (2007) Mixtacity
An artistic reading of urban planning for the Thames Gateway - brilliant because at first the only weirdness seemed to be that the buildings were made of biscuits & rolls of thread; then, as you looked further east, the buildings themselves got stranger and stranger, but so gradually that it all seemed plausible.

A plywood model of the residential density of a city, possibly Mumbia. Pretty but essentially meaningless, given that there's no scale attached. And can the city's borders really be so sharply defined, moing from ultra-dense to barely populated in the space of a kilometre or less? I doubt it. So what's the point of such an impressionistic rendering?

Not sure who this was - Planet of Slums is a Mike Davis phrase, but he wasn't a contributor. But as a signpost of increasing class segregation in the city, it's apt - makes me think of the vitriolic battles over hipster appropriation of Brooklyn, New York.

6 June 2008

Ur-points: Sim City

If it hadn't been for a childhood spent in a darkened room, hunched in front of genius early computer game Sim City, would I have ever got so interested in cities, their patterns, and the forces that shape their operation? The variables one could control in Sim City (taxes, land-use zoning, transport and so on) always functioned linearly-enough that the algorithms behind the game were semi-visible, making it (after enough practice) easy enough to build the optimum-functioning city. So after having built a profitable, thriving city, I had to seek new challenges - to design a city optimised for education, or low pollution, or of lots of separate small communities. This sounds not so far from the challenges of real urban planning, but when I tried to implement the Chicago school models of urban zoning I learnt about in GCSE geography, they never really worked. Sometimes I would get bored, and attack my cities with wave after wave of floods, fires, aliens, volcanoes... Or take profit-making to its logical conclusion and construct an ultra-dense city of arcologies, each holding thousands of Sim-residents - and ridden with crime, and so watched over by a thousand police stations...

These days, of course, I have read de Certeau and I know all about the importance of practice, I know about performed spaces and subaltern geographies and more. But still, those early days spent simulating cities force me to acknowledge the pleasures of the god-view, make it seem so easy to slip into pastel-coloured dreams of total knowledge, and order, and discipline, all for the welfare of the population...


The city stinks today, a cloying retch of decay. I believe it is only a type of tree pollen, but it still hints at the possibility of a dead body rotting in a flat overlooking the street, the dark & disgusting unknowns that might hide behind every wall in this space... It blends into the honk from the fishmongers - real dead bodies this time, blended with a slight hint of unwashed pussy... Jeez, when I dream of an embodied city I do not want my thoughts to go in this direction!

31 March 2008

HEFTED, or, Thinking Like A Sheep

The best upland sheep in Britain are 'hefted', a phenomenon where they are instinctually attached to a certain area of land. They know this land intimately: where's best to go when a storm hits, where the natural salt lick is found, and how heavily to graze the ground. This territorial knowledge is passed on from mother to lamb, and it's strong - Cumbrian farms may have a "landlord's flock" that has to be sold to stay with the farm, as if moved elsewhere the sheep will just walk over the fells back to their 'heaf'.

I find it interesting that this instinct was man-made - by shepherds in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the Acts of Enclosure, lowland grazing ground was divided into fields all owned by one person or another, but the Cumbrian fells were left as unfenced common-land. This provided a communal grazing resource, with rights given to
farmers to graze their sheep on individual sections. But the sheep could easily stray for miles - so the shepherds taught them to stay put. Through breeding their own flocks, and rearing lambs in exactly the same places year-on-year, farmers have maintained this hefted instinct for hundreds of years. These sheep belong.

This isn't a rural affairs blog, I know! But give me time and I'll explain why it's an interesting way of thinking about the spatial.

1. Foot and mouth disease in 2001 was disastrous for this way of farming. It disrupted traditional patterns of moving sheep between high and low ground, and a couple of seasons of lambs were born un-hefted - making them a liability to keep on the rugged fell-land. Consequences: this is really interesting for thinking about the timescales and durability of tradition. On one hand, hefting produced by shepherds 250 years ago has lasted. On the other, it's so easily disrupted...

I can also see a really good PhD proposal here! About the problems of government intervention into rural life not properly understood, and competing spatial knowledges - hefting versus the language of proximity and contamination of foot & mouth management. (When, in fact, there were other strategies for stopping foot & mouth, such as inoculation...)

2. Really good article in the Independent yesterday about declining rural people and ways of life:
Another country: whatever happened to rural England? - Richard Askwith

I then want to cross-reference it with this one in the Times: Are you hefted? If not, that's a pity - Ben Macintyre

The point of intersection: what about people being hefted? What would that entail?

There are clearly some similarities to the Welsh concept of hiraeth, longing or homesickness - the same instinctual desire to be in a particular place, and feeling rooted there. But hiraeth is a word more often used by sentimental Americans tracing their genealogies - I think 'hefted' is more rigorous. The Independent article mentions a farming woman, 83, who has only ever spent one night off her farm, and never been further than Exeter. Now that is being hefted.

I love and adore the City, and City life and streets and space, and refuse to take any future path that leads away... But that's not being hefted, that's not enough. I wasn't born here (few in the City are: it's a destination aspired to & chosen), my parents and grandparents before me weren't born here, and I keep moving between neighbourhoods of the City in search of a better flat! Perhaps the only heft I can claim is at the scale of England itself, not just in terms of inherited roots, but an instinct that's expressed very much in terms of relations to the landscape (the heath, the birch trees, the moor...) And a great-uncle, the last of the family to farm, who does indeed keep sheep on the the uplands of the Dales...

24 February 2008

WalkScore: Quantifying urban experience

WalkScore is a piece of genius that quantifies a neighbourhood's 'walkability'. Enter your street address or postcode, and it uses shop and amenity data from Google Maps to give your specific address a walkability score out of 100.

So what does this concept of 'walkability' entail? They say:
Walkable communities tend to have the following characteristics:

* A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a discernable center, whether it's a shopping district, a main street, or a public space.
* Density: The neighborhood is dense enough for local businesses to flourish and for public transportation to be cost effective.
* Mixed income, mixed use: Housing is provided for everyone who works in the neighborhood: young and old, singles and families, rich and poor. Businesses and residences are located near each other.
* Parks and public space: There are plenty of public places to gather and play.
* Accessibility: The neighborhood is accessible to everyone and has wheelchair access, plenty of benches with shade, sidewalks on all streets, etc.
* Well connected, speed controlled streets: Streets form a connected grid that improves traffic by providing many routes to any destination. Streets are narrow to control speed, and shaded by trees to protect pedestrians.
* Pedestrian-centric design: Buildings are placed close to the street to cater to foot traffic, with parking lots relegated to the back.
* Close schools and workplaces: Schools and workplaces are close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.


However, their algorithms are not this complex. (That'd be some pretty hardcore GIS!) Instead, they're working off Google Maps to assess the distances from a particular location to its nearest amenities, then combining these figures and finally ranking that location's cumulative walkable accessibility from 0 to 100, bad to good. This means it doesn't actually address most of the criteria of 'walkability' above. So is it any use - does it provide any assessment that makes real-life sense when compared with our own detailed, lived knowledge of places?

I'm impressed. I currently live in the City's northern inner suburbs in a nameless locale not quite part of half a dozen districts. My address gets a walkability score of 60, which I think bang on. 24-hr petrol station & grocery store 500m up the hill; a medium size Tescos 10 minutes walk a way, as is the tube. Bus stop outside the door, tailors and dry-cleaners 100m away, bank and library and coffee shops (aka civilisation) about 15 minutes up the hill and down again. Of course there are innumerable chicken'n'chips and pizza takeaways in walking distance - or should I say fat-arsed waddling distance? re. issues of obesity and food poverty - as easy access to cheap fried grease make up the very fabric of the City's 'burban fringes! But 60% walkable? I think so. Day-to-day maintenance is by-and-large local & walked - but for work, pleasure, socialising it's straight on the bus into Central.

Does me good. First place I've lived in this City that I've remained in for more than six to nine months...

...Though damn, yes, I still miss the yuppie student brat pad I shared in Bloomsbury a while back, affordable courtesy of a friend with a daddy who was 'something in mineral extraction'. Not quite up there with LSE's Russian oligarch-spawn and their penthouses in Covent Garden, but not miles away either... Walkability score 95% + Soho in 12 minutes = bliss.

Grew up on the edge of the City's commuter belt in a supposed market town that was more one big dormitory 'burb. Now, it's clear that Google Maps doesn't provide such good shops/amenities tagging outside the City - the library's not tagged, the sports centre's not tagged - and, more generally, there's a problem that newsagents don't seem to get tagged, when they're the standby saviour shop for residential areas. So perhaps the WalkScore for my childhood home of 5% is a little harsh - but shit, it felt that cut-off from any life, so I do not criticise too far!

My friend Ash: "I say keep hating your hometown: it encourages aspiration."

WalkScore currently works for the UK, the US and Canada - with more countries to be added soon. So give it a shot and tell me - how's its alogrithms compare to your subjective feel for your neighbourhood's walkability?

17 February 2008

Starting point I

Raban 1974 Soft City
Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mold them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living.
(p. 2)

Both the villagers and the media sophisticates watched themselves living; they were all actors, and their performances were subject to a continual critical scrutiny. The studied gesture, the hand cupped around the igniting tip of the cigarette, the flounce of the caftan, the muddy stride across the Green, these were part of a calculated repertoire. To be part of the city, you needed a city style - an economic grammar of identity through which you could project yourself. Clearly this was something to be learned; an expertise, a code with clear conventions. If you could not get the surface right, what hope was there of expressing whatever lay beneath it? ... Some people dealt so finely in its niceties that they li
ved out a kind of vulgar poetry.
(p. 54)

Most of my acquaintances there had no real precedents for the life they were leading; they wanted to be 'in London' without knowing where London really was. And so they conspired to build a metropolis as glamorous, witty and up-to-date as the place they'd imagined as sixth formers in some small town or suburb.
(p. 55)