19 November 2009

J'accuse: what use iPhone cities?

As far as the urbanist blogosphere is concerned, the 'networked city' made possible by the iPhone and its applications is the only thing worth talking about. The street as platform... The kind of program a city is... This is where the urban buzz is right now.

And this is a plea for moderation. Look, I know futurology is shiny and exciting, but let's put this in context. Research from Nielsen shows that 10.4 million Britons access mobile internet, which is to say over 80% of the population do not. 6.2 million people use smartphones, but this market is dominated by Nokia (44%) and Blackberry (19%), with the iPhone taking 3rd place with 17%, or about 1.05 million users. As Edward Kershaw, Nielsen's VP of Mobile Media says,

Whilst smartphones get all the media attention it’s important not to overlook what the vast majority of Britons are actually using. It’s easy to be blinded by the hype but this results in a distorted picture of the mobile market.

At a generous estimate, 1 in 10 Londoners use iPhones. This app-tastic networked interactive post-architectural futuropolis? Demographically it's white, it's rich and it's male. Now, that also happens to describe the architectural profession rather well, so it's perhaps not surprising that such a privileged perspective has come to dominate the discourse. But here's a comparison for you: the number of iPhone users in London is broadly similar to the 700,000 Londoners living in housing association properties, and the 750,000 Londoners living in overcrowded conditions.

Political bloggers may be doing a great job analysing affordable housing issues, but urbanists? Architecture bloggers? Hardly a peep. I find this deeply disheartening. Architecture school teaches the most extraordinary imaginative skills yet in such a socio-political vacuum, where the closest anyone gets to political analysis is debating whether Le Corbusier was a fascist. I know y'all want your pretty renderings featured in Wired magazine, but why not use that creativity to "augment reality" in a more progressive way than showing where's the nearest Tube station?

I live in a city of massive inequality, where millions of people are stressed and unhealthy and we struggle to imagine a way to exercise without spending £60/month at Fitness First. I live in a city where house prices are greatly determined by parents' fears of educational inequalities, and where my generation will be at the mercy of landlords for life; I live in a city where too many earn below the London living wage of £7.60 an hour. I live in a city that's fucking political, yet I read the leading blogs in this field and you'd never guess.

Now I too fail to blog about this a fraction as much as I should - do not get me wrong, j'accuse myself; I am the kid who wrote a thesis on the existential nature of dust and I got a bit excited about iPhones too. This is a polemic intended to energise myself as much as anyone else...

Anna Minton writes of the city as political and the urbanist blogo/Tweetosphere listens; plenty of academics are working on these topics although often it's crashingly dull. If technofixes are widely critiqued as a means of addressing climate change, why so much technofetishism in urbanist thinking? If you think an iPhone app can double voter engagement and make big developments more accountable, for god's sake shout about it. But hyperlocal advertising and information about the coolest coffee shop in the neighbourhood is just so much capitalist fluff, so much extra encouragement to consume; so not progressive.

Anthropologically, too, who's actually assessing the extent of the impact of this technocity on people's lives? Where's the empiricism in these blog posts? They all seem to be hypothetical or imaginative rather than ethnographic research of this technology in lived experience. Who's questioning the hype about how revolutionary these technologies are? And, among all this shiny, don't we risk losing sight of the actual, tangible, real spaces people are living in? Shitty bike lanes, muggings, litter and traffic congestion? That's why I liked the Bratton piece I linked to: at least it brought some materiality, some tactility back into this discussion.

In summary: where's the political, the empirical and the embodied in these 'networked cities' essays? One sentence mentioning a need to ensure that the wrong people (who?) don't control (how?) all that data does not incisive analysis make. Architectural theory loves its future cities, its fictional cities, its Ballard and Gibson and CAD and conceptualism. Imagination is great, don't get me wrong.

But imagination alone doesn't make the world a better place.

13 November 2009

The Empty Post Office

West Central District Office of the Post Office, New Oxford Street / High Holborn, London WC1. Empty 10 to 15 years.

With eight floors each apparently 4,400 sq m, that makes for about 350,000 sq ft of vacant space. It's surely one of the largest abandoned sites in London and you would think it ripe for redevelopment - many other offices in 'Midtown' (commercial property-ese for Holborn) have been rebuilt recently. But no. This former stop on the Post Office Underground Railway line (which ran from Paddington to Whitechapel) is now used for occasional art events, fashion shows and product launches. The rest of the time it sits empty.

I got inside in 2005 when it hosted the exhibition Küba by Kutlug Ataman. 40 old teevees in front of 40 old chairs, each showing video of a resident of the Küba gecekondu in Istanbul. 'Gecekondu' translates as 'arrived in the night'; these are shanty towns built on squatted land, and six million Istanbul residents live in one, a full half of the population. And do Küba residents have stories to tell. It's a neighbourhood of dissenters, of Kurds, of fierce loyalties and crime and community and the longing to be able to escape.

Source: Artangel

Still present, fenced off, were the postal chutes and sorting racks of the old post office.

Source: Michael Bujkowski on Flikr

I'm in two minds about what should be done with this building. In such a crowded, overpriced town as London such an enormous space shouldn't be wasted – and it is a waste for it to be empty or only hosting Smirnoff launch parties; it's not often that it gets an exhibition like Kutlug Ataman's. But redeveloping it into an enormous office complex, no doubt with a privatised 'public' square and chain brand cafes and bars, so big that only faceless finance or bureaucracy occupies it? Can't get excited about that, either. (Quite puzzled why the Post Office hasn't sold it off already though, given that organisation's perilous financial situation and looming pensions deficit... If the building's as big as I think it is, it must be worth £100 million plus.)

Social housing would be better than boxy 'luxury' flats; what about an arts space, a new Barbican for the West End? But I am troubled too by this urge to fill it – what if there is a case to be made for its imaginative value as an empty vessel, a void, pure space? It would make no financial sense, but perhaps that gaping absence of capitalist real estate logic could be the point.

People should be allowed in, though. One or two at a time. Able to run around, and scream, and climb on things and slide down the mail chutes and explore. Space to think, to breathe, to play. No question that that's what the city needs.

12 November 2009

Still life with uncollected post & the lights left on

Last night's walk provided an apt case study for recent ideas about empty properties (see here and here) - albeit in a commercial rather than residential building. This shop, once Shoe Studio, sits - of all places - on Covent Garden itself, on the corner with James Street heading up to the tube. In terms of raw footfall, this site is surely as busy as Oxford Street. Yet, like much of Oxford Street, its landlord seems to have been struggling to attract quality retailers; the no-brand Shoe Studio went into administration in March 2009, and the shop has sat empty for eight months.

They left but failed to turn off the lights - with such irresponsibility is it any wonder the store failed? But, oh, what an aesthetic abandonment. The surfaces are so white and smooth yet the glass in the windows is dirtying slightly under the carbonate trails of the rain. Stripped of any saleable merchandise there is only the rectilinear calm of the shelving and its backlit glow into the night.

Are there ghosts here? Covent Garden has quite the history but this space is too antiseptic; without occupants you might call the shop disembodied but yet it never had a soul to lose. There's a sign on the windows promising 'new collection' but the doors are chained shut.

Related comment from Retail Week: Covent Garden's landlord has plans for rejuvenation (June 2009):

Many of the problems with the market stem from Covent Garden’s mass of smaller streets surrounding the main piazza and the dozens of landlords that have claimed a stake in the area since 1913 when the main estate was first sold off by the Duke of Bedford. Because there have been so many parties involved the retail offer has grown up relatively untamed, with a wide range of shops now occupying the streets.

Three years ago, Capco bought the Covent Garden Estate from Scottish Widows for £421m. Since then it has expanded its reach in the area to the point that the landlord now controls 750,000 sq ft of land around the market – which is most of Covent Garden. It is this huge dominance of the area, lacking since 1913, that gives Capco the opportunity to finally improve the offer. It has the luxury of being able to take a unified approach to planning the retail.

Minimum or Maximum Cities? A conference

Keen to go to the Minimum or Maximum Cities conference, held by the Min-Max-Cities group in the University of Cambridge's Architecture department. It's on Thursday 26th November 2009 in Cambridge and looks to be well worth the £20 registration fee and a day off work. They are asking:

What is the future for cities? Are they expanding at an ever-increasing rate or are they being abandoned and shrinking into oblivion? Are cities polluted, overcrowded and anonymous, or are they dynamic centres of innovation and culture? Are they sociable or anti-social?

...So one year on from the economic crash, how should we seek to reinvigorate our urban centres? Some welcome the current mood of caution as appropriate for hazardous times. Others argue a lack of belief in the benefits of an urbanised future is a cause for concern. So should the priority be to dampen expectations and settle for minimising potential problems? Or should we be more ambitious and experiment with new ideas and technologies that could maximise future gains? Are our creative talents best employed in seeking a 'minimum' city as a means to retrench, rethink and rebuild? Or is a 'maximum' urbanism the answer, based on expansive cities for a dynamic and globalised planet?

And the programme goes like this:

9.00 - Registration and coffee
9.30 - Welcome and Introductions

9.35 – 11.05 The Anxious City: The Dilemmas of Growth
"For the first time in history half the world's population live in cities, yet the celebrations have been distinctly muted. Rather than advancing civilisation, cities are said to be on "the edge of chaos", and bring out our "lurking paranoia". Some have claimed the roots of recession are spatial, and that sprawling cities point to a "whole system of economic organization and growth that has reached its limit". Just-in-time contemporary urban lifestyles are said to threaten the frail systems of a brittle society.
So how should we account the sense of exhaustion and limits that have become central features of western discourse on cities? Are cities today too dynamic and spiralling out of control? Or do they suffer from a surfeit of controls?" Is resilience a dynamic, positive message, or one that implies cities are vulnerable?

11.30 – 13.00 The Agile City: Local Ties versus Global Reach
"The ambition to travel further and faster has often been held up as a virtue. Not so long ago, there was enthusiasm for the idea that Jet Packs and Flying Cars could represent the future of urban transport. These days the outlook on travel is less clear cut. We seem less likely to dream about flying cars, than to express concerns about flying and cars. At a time when local accessibility rather than metropolitan mobility excites policymakers, fast citywide, regional or global connections seem less of a priority than measures to promote cycling and walking.
Expanding one's geographical range has often been associated with the positive ambition to broaden one's horizons. So is the new maxim of living more simply and more locally likely to prove inspirational enough to city dwellers?"

13.00 – 14.00 Lunch & Exhibition
Exihibition Space - Paper City: Urban Utopias

14.00 – 15.30 Powering the City: Innovations in Energy
"From the impact of increasing oil prices to the benefits of investing in renewables and smart grids, energy has become central to the discussion on recovering from recession. And whether through 'passive houses', 'transition towns' or 'low carbon cities', the question of sustainable energy now figures prominently at all scales of architectural and urban thinking.
So how should designers view the elevation of energy efficiency as one of, or perhaps even the defining criterion of design quality? Does the current emphasis on localising supply and 'off grid' solutions mean that universal supply and scale efficiencies have had their day? Does the recent focus on altering individual behaviour represent a welcome broadening out of the concept of innovation? Or does it indicate that controls and regulations are taking precedence over discovery and experimentation?"

16.00 – 17.30 The Future City: Rewriting the Rule Book
"What might represent a way forward? From ‘slow cities’ to ‘creative cities’, and ‘liveable cities’ to ‘hungry cities’; from ‘aerotropolis’ to ‘postopolis’, and the ‘compact city’ to the ‘città diffusa’; there are any number of ideas out there that purport to represent a basis for the future city. But is what is on offer today ambitious, challenging and bold enough? Do the visionaries of today respect current rules and accept contemporary limits? Or are they the ideas of risk takers who are attempting to move beyond?
In this final session we invite three teams of aspiring urban visionaries to present and defend their min/max solutions for the future city. This is your chance to crit their ideas… and through doing so, to flesh out your own."

17.30 – 19.00 Wine Reception

11 November 2009

Urban Decline: Empty Homes

Following my previous post Urban Abandonment: Not Just Detroit which looked at urban decline in terms of depopulation, I now want to think in terms of abandoned housing. There is a lot more data for this metric, which helps!

Just last month Barbara Follet, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, was asked how many empty dwellings there were in England:

Ownership 2006 2007 2008
Local authority 42,870 40,960 36,940
Registered social landlords 30,170 30,770 29,240
Privately owned 675,120 691,590 717,840

David Ireland of the Empty Homes Agency notes that this overall rise of 3% suggests that 970,000 homes are empty across the UK as of March 2008, suggesting the million mark has probably been crossed by now if this trend has continued. Given total housing stock of about 24 million properties in the England and Wales, and 1 in 12 people this is a substantial problem.

In London an estimated 80,000 homes stand empty, with councils employing a wide range of grants and housing association take-overs to reduce this figure.

But so far these are only abandoned houses, not abandoned cities as we are seeing in the US. Without concentrations of vacancies in specific towns and districts, we cannot call this the same problem at all. The Empty Homes Agency, however, report that 937,000 homes or a city twice the size of Birmingham is located in areas of low demand for housing. They report that:

The Sustainable Communities Plan, published on 5th February 2003, provides the Government framework for a major programme of action that will, over the next 15-20 years, tackle the pressing problems of communities across England. One of the key areas forming the basis for the action programme is the tackling of low housing demand and housing abandonment: sustained action to turn round areas where housing markets have failed. Over the next three years, £500 million is being made available for some of the worst affected areas, known as Pathfinder market renewal areas, with the intention of reversing low demand by 2010.

There are nine Housing Market Renewal (HMR) Pathfinder areas:

Birmingham and Sandwell
East Lancashire
Manchester and Salford
Newcastle and Gateshead
North Staffordshire
Oldham and Rochdale
South Yorkshire

Other non-Pathfinder low demand areas include the Tees Valley and West Yorkshire, both of which should be getting additional support from the ODPM.

Questions to follow up include:

- What does Pathfinder involvement mean?
- Is it working?
- Many councils have Empty Homes Strategies that look good on paper. What have they actually done and achieved?
- Demolitions: where? To what extent? Local reactions.
- Socio-economic impact of current vacancies (perhaps a gap in the current discourse, which is fixated by solutions).
- National pattern of low housing demand, especially North vs. South: are some areas unlikely to be able to gain more residents, leading to a need for managed decline?
- Lessons from (or for?) the US

Links to follow up:
- Ipsos MORI surveys (c.2006) on scale and reasons for unoccupied homes
- Self-Help-Housing.Org for community-driven solutions and uses for empty dwellings
- Empty homes statistics by region since 1999
- Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on housing estates' improvements making them more popular with residents
- LSE CASE research on 'Low demand and abandoned housing in the north', some published in conjunction with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

10 November 2009

Cities and Ambition: the case of London

A friend linked me to Paul Graham's 2008 essay, Cities and Ambition. Its thesis:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.

What about The City of this blog - my city, London? What is the quintessential London ambition, what is this city’s message?

Graham is a little opaque. He calls London a city that cares about “hipness” or ‘knowing what’s what’. “So maybe,” he writes, “it has simply replaced the component of social class that consisted of being ‘au fait’. That could explain why hipness seems particularly admired in London: it’s version 2 of the traditional English delight in obscure codes that only insiders understand.” True enough - though it’s definitely not cool to call it ‘hip’, and ‘cool’ is pretty over too. Fashion? Being on trend? ‘Chic’ and ‘style’ are more Paris; London is about the ineffable it that is all the more it by remaining unspecified.

Graham also detects the ghost of a message that one should be more aristocratic, as too in Paris, New York and Boston. (Class itself is of course ‘version 1’ of the “obscure codes” Graham believes we Britishers love.) It would be easy to write off such a statement as a USian stereotype of this country, but there’s a certain truth to it - how many super-social creative venture-starting party kids are doing so funded by a nice little inheritance and a recognisable surname?

The modern London aristocratic is about being that multi-faceted word, ‘smart’. Smart as in well-presented, knowing the codes of double cuffs and just how much you can bend the rules with your haircut. Smart as in well-educated (always paid for, through fees or catchment area house prices), and appearing informed and intelligent in a manner with some autonomy from the question of whether or not you actually are. And smart in the Tatler sense: the politically acceptable word for posh.

Yet ‘being smart’ or ‘having it’ - these are good things to do in London, but could we say they’re this city’s message? I don’t think so - I don’t think London has one message, not in any soundbiteable sense.

It is of course very white to talk about a city having one message: newsflash, Graham’s (or my) middle class white sensibilities can hardly speak for the many and various dreams and desires of a hamlet in Surrey, let alone those of a metropolis. The process by which a city gains an ‘image’, however - that amalgam of representations of history and population and economy and cultural production - that sociocultural process is pretty white- and middle-class dominated. And we’re certainly talking about image here, rather than a genuine belief that the average person in LA really is more celeb-oriented than one in NY. A city’s ambition is instead the beliefs we don’t think we hold but believe those around us do.

So, problematic as the idea is, perhaps we can talk about New York and Los Angeles and Boston/Cambridge having images. Why? Because the US is big enough, with enough big and distinct cities, for like-minded people to cluster. You want a tech job you go to the tech city; you want a sunny eco lifestyle you go to the sunny right-on city. It is at least conceptually possible. Britain? If you want an interesting job, you probably have to move to London: it’s the only city big enough to offer a substantial choice of employers and industries.

I’m a social researcher. In London I could work for a think tank, or government departments or quangos or NGOs, or I could work in public sector market research or in a strategy-oriented consultancy. In Southampton I’d have to work for the Office of National Statistics, or leave. My friend’s a theatre reviewer. Here she can go to see comedy, or musicals, or big West End actors doing Shakespeare or serious Polish avant garde things they prefer to call ‘bodywork’. There’s a dozen gigs a night needing reviewing, and a hundred newspapers or magazines to review them for. Try starting that career in Manchester...

One probably could, of course. It’s not that the rest of the country is a cultural wasteland, it’s just that London believes it is - and that’s what the London-centric national media tells us all. In this culture London gains a monopoly on imaginative possibility - it’s the place you go if you want to make something happen in your life. Even if you’re not quite sure what that something is yet, you can probably do it there. Paul Graham says that New Yorkers want money, Washingtonites proximity to political power, and Berkleyites to live better. Does London have such a clear ambition? Probably not. Instead, the city is just an urban glamour, a dream, an illusion of possibility.

But that is why London is interesting: it could be anything.

7 November 2009

So Human: goodbye to the Waterloo footway poem

Posted 7 October 2009:

Update, 7 November 2009:

Apparently this poem - Eurydice by Sue Warren - is now gone, painted over by Network Rail last weekend. Read more at Time Out: they're calling it 'cultural vandalism'. As the artist says,

"This work was commissioned by the BFI and The Arts Council and, therefore, was installed using public money. Railtrack have defaced something they did not pay for without any consultation either with the BFI, the architect Bryan Avery or with me."

"...damp city streets, their sodium glare
of rush hour headlights pitted with pearls of rain;
for my eyes still reflect the half-remembered moon..."

5 November 2009

Urban abandonment - not just Detroit?

Inspired by Jo Guldi's post Bulldozing Your Neighbours: Development Plans in the Rust Belt, her longer piece at the Commonweal Institute and a general buzz around this topic in the US, I want to do some thinking about urban depopulation - in the UK.

The urban population is expanding. Cities now contain over 50% of the world's population, and 90% of UK residents live in urban areas. Nationally it's a story of growth, up from 79% in 1950 and forecast to increase another few percentage points by 2030. But is that growth evenly spread? I very much doubt it.

Post-industrial Detroit has seen its population halve (some nice representations of this at the Map Scroll blog). Zero demand leads to near-valueless housing, demolitions, and whole streets being abandoned. So what about Britain's post-industrial cities, the ones that really aren't my City, the ones the national media don't report on? I'm sure I've heard something about terraced streets in Manchester being demolished, of vacant housing in towns I couldn't even locate on a map (Burnley? Wolverhampton?). What's this story? I want to find out.

An ONS 'People and Migration' report on The UK's major urban areas provides the closest thing to hard data: population decreases between 1991 and 2001 in Liverpool and Glasgow (both -2.6%), Greater Manchester (-1.6%), Tyneside (0.7%), and West Midlands (-0.5%). It's based on Census data and has quite a lot of methodological detail, giving a suggsetion of how to dig down to census sub-division level to see trends at a neighbourhood rather than city scale.

The problem is that the ONS website isn't user-friendly, and I haven't so far come across any decent datasets on housing demolition or vacant housing (and I'm going to have to work to get the population change by district). So, to start with, a call for information - are any academics working on this for the UK? Where'd I find the statistics I need? Where should I be looking?

More to follow...

29 October 2009

The urban jungle

Top of Brick Lane // side street off Kingsland Road.
September 2009

24 October 2009

'Epidemic obesity' and the challenge for urban design

This follows on (belatedly) from a BLDGblog post looking at the potential for urban design to limit the transmission of epidemic disease. In essence, sit people greater-than-sneezing-distance apart and they're less likely to infect each other with flu. Reading this I started to think about what might be seen as the defining 'epidemic' of modern times: obesity. How do the spatial requirements for combating this epidemic differ from other diseases?

The obesity-as-epidemic theory refers in the broadest sense to the social character of being seriously overweight. It's rooted in analysis of the massive longitudinal Framlington Heart Study dataset (15,000 people since 1948), carried out by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. This dataset not only covers people's health outcomes but also their behaviours and friends & family networks, making it a powerful resource to understand the social transmission of ill health.

Christakis & Fowler's finding: people don't get fat in a vacuum; instead, obesity spreads from person to person. People have thought for a while that bodyfat has a substantial social life, rooted in the norms we learn about how to eat and what food means; cultural representations of ideal and non-ideal bodies; comfort eating, exercise and dieting as a means to virtue... But that was a sociological hunch, whereas now the Framlington data offers statistical evidence that this 'epidemic' metaphor might really be valid. Not only do children learn unhealthy eating habits off parents (and their peers) but, says the theory, an increased prevalence of overweight people around you makes it more likely you will be fat / gain weight / not be able to lose weight.

That's the theory. While the pattern it describes is pretty rigorous, it's not unproblematic to medicalise obesity as a disease in this way (something discussed more below). At this point in the discussion, though, public health policy operates upon the population rather than the individual, and under this lens obesity isn't bodily experience or personal narrative but yes, epidemiological. So, using this public health framework, how would we engineer the city to avoid the spread and transmission of obesity?

People tend to approach obesity as a problem of calories in versus calories out. Under this schema we would first need a city that increases exercise and activity levels. This means walking and cycling, and promoting this through such things as the Paris Velib scheme, tolls to discourage cars in the city centre, school 'walking buses', not selling school sports fields for housing development, and so on. Investment in suburban public transport could switch people's commutes from a car journey door to door to a bus or train ride - and walking to/from the station at each end. Buildings get designed with more stairs, fewer lifts, and showers for cyclists and runners. Council-owned gymnasiums get subsidised so they're free to use - and so on.

Calories in? Public health interventions here would act upon school dinners, and ensure poorer areas of housing were properly served with supermarkets and fresh-food grocers, not just fried chicken shops. You tax fatty food, sugar, processed stuff; subsidise British and/or organic farming better than current EU agricultural policy. The urban environment loses its billboards advertising junk food, and gains allotments and public farming co-ops with egg-laying hens clucking free. The public health case seems clear, and (alongside economic stimuli) urban design would seem to play as central a role in tackling this epidemic as it has historically in tackling more familiar infectious diseases such as typhoid or TB.

The problem is that 'calories in less than calories out' doesn't work as a strategy for diminishing obesity. It's counterintuitive and you won't believe me, so I'll direct you towards the fantastic discussions of peer-reviewed scientific research on this front on the NYTimes' science & health blog. It's not the place to go into it all here, but in short the factors driving obesity are A Lot More Complicated than food and exercise. Obesity still shows epidemiological patterns of transmission, but the vectors are much more complex.

So what does this mean for the 'urban hygiene' thesis sketched above that suggests 'epidemic' obesity can be tackled by urban design and spatial organisation in an analogous method to combating other infectious diseases? Basically that it's not going to work. Now, walkable cities and access to affordable fresh food are still social goods and by all means need promoting - but not necessarily because they're going to make fat people thinner. (They should make the population healthier, but that doesn't mean people will lose weight.) Instead the more rigorous solution might be to start thinking about obesity as the symptom rather than the illness.

The symptom of what? Poverty, and more than that, social inequality. At some point in the last century the West passed a tipping-point where food became sufficiently abundant that the poor could afford enough of it to get fat. Poverty being in these societies a largely relative state (even in governmental definitions such as income <60% of average), in more unequal societies the poor feel poorer - and are fatter. Why? Because, as humanity overlays biological nature with social meaning, food is about a hell of a lot more than calories or 'fuel'. It's about sociality, comfort and indulgence. Even those with very little can afford access to 'luxury'-marked foods that are rich with fat and sugar and highly pleasurable. The problem is not the food. It's the social structures that make people feel bored, and demoralised, and of little self-worth, and consequently likely to turn to over-consumption for some relief. Even rhesus monkeys do this: "Essentially, eating high-calorie foods becomes a coping strategy to deal with daily life events for an individual in a difficult social situation."

Under this improved understanding obesity is still 'epidemic' - because low social mobility reproduces the same conditions of inequality for the subsequent generation. And, as the famous Whitehall Studies of civil servants show, it is specifically inequality that is the problem, rather than simply low social status: the lower-ranking civil servants weren't poor, but they still had more heart disease, obesity and mortality than higher-ranking staff. Is urban design still able to act on this issue as it can upon epidemics? Yes... Maybe.

It's a lot harder to design out social inequality than it is to put some bike lanes in, that's for sure. For example, do you mix up housing sizes & tenures so rich live next door to poor - is that leveling and pro-equality? Or does it daily remind some people daily of much less they have, and would they be better off in areas of more homogenous income/class where similarity might facilitate greater community? How'd you spatially plan school catchment areas to enable equality of educational opportunity for all - and yet not bus kids halfway across the city, disrupting both social groupings and pupils' ability to walk/cycle/exercise their way to school?

Urban design is important for tackling social inequality, of that much I am sure. It produces the spaces in which different people interact and meet, it sets up the lived, experienced context for ideas of the public and the social commons and solidarity within the social collective. But the specifics of what you design and build and where, as means by which to tackle social inequality (and its symptom, 'epidemic obesity') - it seems a lot more difficult than the urban hygiene of sewers and clean water that beat epidemics of old.

23 October 2009

This Is Not A Gateway, 23 - 25th October 2009

This Is Not A Gateway is a forum for urban discussion - planning, architecture, art, protest. They have an incredibly useful event listing for city-related talks, exhibitions and so on in the capital, and also an annual festival - which is this weekend, the 23rd - 25th October.

Here is the full festival programme; below a selection of the most interesting events. Most are based at Hanbury Hall, 22 Hanbury St, E1 6QR - or elsewhere in the East End. In chronological order...

Denitza Toteva: Integration Through Gardening: Perspectives From Berlin
Friday 23 / Hanbury Hall 11:00- 12:00
Re. my previous post on What If Projects and their appropriation of vacant land for community gardens and 'plant rooms':
Can intercultural gardens play a role in urban integration? Exploring community gardens in Berlin and London. The discussion also examines the conceptual framework of integration in different political contexts. Speakers include Nina Pope (Artist) and Alexander
 Vatchev (Gardener).

Tomorrow's Thoughts Today Productive Dystopias, Or... An Architecture Of Unintended Consequences
Friday 23, 20:00 - 21:30 / Hanbury Hall
Can we conceive of an alternative practice where current power structures of patronage and regulation are channeled, subverted or engaged in new ways? And how might dystopian visions paradoxically offer a productive way of approaching the urban question? Panelists: Tomas Klassnik (Klassnik Corporation), Elena Pascolo (Urban Projects Bureau), Austin Williams (Future Cities Project), Finn Williams (Common Office), Karl Sharro (ManTowNHuman) Alex Warnock-Smith (Urban Projects Bureau, AA) and Amin Taha.

Fugitive Images Should Socially Engaged Artistic Practices Generate Social Cohesion?
Saturday 24 12:30-13:30 / Rehearsal Room
C.f. my recent post on I Am Here, the photographs on a Haggerston council estate - and Mango's comments about whether this was genuine community engagement or just Stuff White People Like...
A discussion about the emergence of socially and politically engaged artistic practices. A close look at their motivations, aims and methodologies as well as potential problems. Panelists include, Marsha Bradfield (Artist, Educator and Curator), Dave Beech (Free Art Collective) and Mark Davy (Director of future\city). Chaired by Bill McAlister (Director of ICA 1970-1990)
Also a tour of I Am Here at 11:00 on Saturday 24, meeting at Suleymaniye Mosque, E2 8AX.

This Is Not A Gateway: DIY Urbanism / Influencing The City: Legalities Of Space
Saturday 24 14:00-15:00 / Rehearsal Room
Do cultural and political movements only produce change when they are translated into law? Is law not an arena urbanists should know significantly more about and participate within? What research are lawyers undertaking within the urban field? The discussion explores a spectrum of examples that highlight how law has been employed to propel urban change and the ways urbanists can take better advantage of the opportunities it provides. Speakers include Bill Parry-Davies (Lawyer) and Elizabeth Fonseca (Environmental Quality Manager)

Olivia Tusinski, Sommer Spiers: Urban Regeneration: Views From Above & Below
Saturday 24 14:00-15:00 / Main Hall
Case studies in urban regeneration, taken from neighbourhoods in Istanbul and London, will be examined against a backdrop of prevailing trends of privatisation of urban land, entrepreneurial governance, and political aspirations to retain/attain ‘global city’ status.

David Knight - Birth Of Autonomous London
Sunday 25 13:30-14:30 / Hanbury Hall
An immersive, fictional presentation covering the Birth of Autonomous London: the taking of the waterways, permitted development traveller cities, sewage line thoroughfares, radicalised ‘development corporations’.

Gavin Grindon, Anna Feigenbaum: Creative Resistance Research Network
Sunday 25 17:00-18:00 / Main Hall
Discussion and screening to launch the CRRN; a collective research project investigating street praxis, dissolving artists, improvisational militancy, politics of invisibility and space reclamation. CRRN facilitates a conversation about the potential of the street as a site for radical politics.

Film: A13 Road Movie by Rayna Nadeem & Stuart Shahid Bamforth (Dekko Productions)
Saturday 24 11:30-12:30, 16:30-17:30 / Library
Sunday 25 11:30-12:30, 16:30-18:30 / Library
A13 Road Movie is a documentary that uncovers some of the complexities along the road that connects the city to the infamous Thames Gateway. Billy Bragg, Tory MP David Amess, Pakistani restaurateurs, vicars, Ford union reps, Tilbury dock-workers, West Indian allotment-holders, and lay-by burger van proprietors, provide testimony to the history, the myths and the folklore of this much-travelled route from the East End to the Essex coast.

Artists exhibiting in Hanbury Hall:

Constantin Demner - WALK Intervention in public space in East London, UK, using the language of street art to bring local history to life in the imagination of passers-by.
Isidora Ilic - Youtopia A video that explores the theme of leaving and searching for a utopian place. Questioning artificially built towns and constructed countries such as Milton Keynes and Yugoslavia.
Ben Elwes - It’s Nice To Know That Some Things In Life Are Certain A reflection upon advertising methods within urban environments, their increasing scale, sophistication of psychological strategies, and technologies employed in urban spaces, to target consumers.

See you there?

22 October 2009

iPhones and the (inter)face of the city

A provocative statement from Benjamin H. Bratton:

An experiment: one half of all architects and urbanists in the entire world should, as of now, stop designing new buildings and new developments altogether. Instead they should invest the historical depth and nuance of their architectural imaginations into the design and programming of new software that provides for the better use of structures and systems we already have. It is a simple matter of good content managment.

This quotation begins Bratton's article iPhone City (v.2008) which addresses the topic of urban 'interfaciality': the ways in which we interact with and influence the urban environment. He reminds us that mobile phones are the new computers - more widely owned, and offering more radical possibilities than 'PC + internet' in terms of bringing information into the real spatial environment, into being a part of where-you-are-now. Architects and planners, as the shapers and organisers of urban space, consequently need to engage as much with technological interfaces as with physical ones.

In more down-to-earth language, they shouldn't just be building more public loos but also designing iPhone apps that tell you where the nearest public loo is (with/out babychanging, wheelchair access or a drinking water fountain), as well as some kind of SMS messaging service that lets people tell the council when the toilets need extra cleaning or graffiti scrubbed off the walls. And how about micropayments to encourage private businesses (shops, cafes etc) to open their loos up to the public, or a localised version of TheyWorkForYou.com that lets you quickly tell the council that where you are right now is a public space inexplicably lacking a loo, and needing one built (or a bike rack or a cashpoint or a pothole mending)?

On this interaction of geography and technology, Bratton writes:

Like children learning a new skill, we learn by gaming how to strategize and modulate bodily gestures with environmental spaces, to control nearness and remoteness at once, both as individual passengers of the city and as social groups in emergence. We learned to point & click, to touch & pinch, and are learning to wave & poke. The richness of this appears in the details. As computation becomes a more pervasive ingredient in the fabric of the habitat, the advent of locative media sugegsts the need for an urban operating system(s) that can weave together the multitudinous computational events into a graceful, programmable pattern.

Bratton's iPhone City (v.2008) reminded me of the Urban Tick blog. Here Fabian Neuhaus (of UCL CASA) talks about mapping the rhythmns of daily life - be that by time-lapse photography, GPS route tracing, or (here is the connection!) using an iPhone.

This post on Layar illustrates really well these ideas of technological 'interfaciality' with the city. Essentially Layar is an application which visualises geo-data provided by a wide range of sources: Twitter, Flikr, Open Street Map, even Wikipedia. Though crude, it's an early attempt at overlaying virtual information over the iPhone's camera image of the space in front of you - here, then, the possibility of substantialising 'the cloud' of digital data; of making the virtual immanent and real.

What I really like about Bratton's article is his focus on the materiality of this interface; it is this that's critical in closing that gap between real and virtual:

"Enclosed in sensate glass, the iPhone interface and hardware blend into what the user perceives as a single dynamic form or field. ...The iPhone GUI is filled with things not metaphors; it's a tactile movie shell to be pushed and pulled as real, rubbery stuff. The iPhone GUI seems illuminated from within, not as a layer but as an organic expression; it has faciality. This tangibility and this anthropomorphology are what makes it work, socially and psychologicaclly, as an interface to the world directly, not to the network indirectly; to the real not to the iconic."

28 September 2009

I Am Here (in a Haggerston council estate)

Back in May I went for a walk round the Regents Canal. The building below stood out: brightly marked as condemned a target for regeneration, yet nothing actually generating there - nothing, in fact, happening since April 2007. It is set for demolition in 2011, so what a strange four years for its remaining residents.

That's what Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennell thought too. They live there, and have been documenting the Haggerston estate in a programme they are calling FLAT (see http://haggerston-kingsland.blogspot.com/. This is what they did:

Boarded-up and half-empty housing estates have become familiar landmarks in the contemporary urban landscape. Their façades function as projection screens for collective fears and fantasies of troubled and dangerous environments that may lurk behind. This perception is all the more emphasized when rapid redevelopment encircles such estates with new luxury loft apartments and live–work spaces.

I Am Here intervenes in this dynamic of preconception and projection, replacing the 67 bright orange boards – which have covered the windows of empty flats in Samuel House since April 2007 – with large-scale photographs of residents on the estate.

"I am here", echoing the signs around the estate that inform you that "You are here". Perhaps critiquing this representation of 'here' as a geometric diagram, as if that's ever what being-in-place was really about. Claiming subjectivity, "I" - an assertion, an ownership, the right to the city - for all the people who aren't on the map bar a little red dot labelled "You".

24 September 2009

Urban-related lectures at LSE, Autumn 2009

Cities and the Environment
Urban Age with the Ove Arup Foundation Cities and the Environment series
Speaker: Peter Head, chair: Ricky Burdett

Date: Wednesday 14 October 2009
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building

By changing patterns of urban behaviour, cities can meet the challenges of climate change. How can advanced technologies help create sustainable cities and self-sufficient urban form?
Peter Head is director of ARUP. Ricky Burdett is Centennial Professor of Architecture and Urbanism and Director of Urban Age at the LSE.

Beijing Inside Out: Caochangdi
the James Stirling Memorial Lecture on the City organised by the LSE Cities Programme in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the Center for Architecture, New York
Speakers: Robert Mangurian, Mary-Ann Ray

Date: Monday 19 October 2009
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building

The speakers examine the problems and possibilities of one of many dynamic new urban villages redefining the city of Beijing.
Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray are both Stirling Lecture Prize-winners and principals of StudioWorks Architects in Caochangdi.

The first Legacy Games: the physical and socio-economic transformation of East London
a Cities Programme and London Development Agency Legacy Now Team public debate
Speakers: Andrew Altman, Councillor Paul Brickell, Professor Ricky Burdett, Roger Taylor

Date: Tuesday 10 November 2009
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building

This event explores the planning and physical development of the Olympic Park after the 2012 games as well as the wider socio-economic benefits the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are bringing.
Andrew Altman is chief executive of the Olympic Park Legacy Company. Paul Brickell is executive member for Olympics and public affairs at Newham council and chief executive of Leaside Regeneration. Ricky Burdett is director of Urban Age at LSE and principal design advisor to the London 2012 Olympics. Roger Taylor is director of the Host Boroughs Unit.

Cities, Design & Climate Change
Urban Age Understanding Cities series
Speakers: Professor Saskia Sassen, Professor Richard Sennett

Date: Tuesday 17 November 2009
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building

With cities contributing upwards of 75 per cent of global carbon emissions, urban design is increasingly important when planning for climate change. This discussion examines the creative urban design solutions coming out of the world's cities.
Saskia Sassen is Robert S Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Richard Sennett is professor of sociology at LSE and NYU.

26 August 2009

Following up my recent post on New York's High Line elevated urban park, it turns out that the shiny hotel overlooking it is inhabited by flashers. Exhibitionists cannot resist displaying themselves in the floor-to-ceiling windows to the busy park below - and, the Standard being quite a fashionable hotel, it seems to attract quite an attractive class of naked person, see pictures here in the Daily Mail.

This is exactly what I mean by the sexualised city: these practices of display and the gaze, and the importance of physical bodies in inhabiting urban space. Fuck any western preoccupation with subjectivity being some mental state!

22 August 2009

The City in High Heels - New Methods in Urban Studies

Men cannot understand the urban surface. Sadly they design most of it, but paths trodden in Converse allow no appreciation of the myriad textures and challenges of the different pavements in this City. Sturdy flat shoes stride onwards unimpeded, unthinking - let's trip this shit up.

I propose a high-heeled method for this exploration, this opening up of that which is in plain sight. As high as you can, please - 5" does nicely - as this walk must take on both altitude and danger. One needs to walk in something that makes the very practice of walking rather difficult. Perverse? But that is the point - to complicate walking in the richest social-science sense of 'to complicate': to make multireferential, contradictory, challenging. For this purpose Balenciaga's legendary high-heeled hiking boot would be ideal:

The first lesson of this methodology is fetishistic. We wish to expand the notion of the erotic from mere genital origin into the very fabric of the city itself. On an elementary level, the very concept of hiking boots with a 5" heel is perverse. Good. Then, to walk in such shoes lengthens the leg and forces a certain sashay into the hips. In such a heel the buttock is tightened, the body tautened; there is a physical awareness and an awareness of the eyes of others, especially the admiring glance from those gentlemen who have a kink for these things. One no longer merely walks but struts - the stroll becomes a passegiata, a promenade, and the role of pedestrian spaces for style and display and flirtation is brought to the fore. The possibility of an erotic encounter is trodden into the city with every step.

The second lesson of this methodology is about disability. To be sure in high heels one restricts oneself voluntarily, so it hardly offers meaningful insight into the urban experience of people with mobility problems. Nonetheless the pavement is transformed into a place of hazard - and the pedestrian now aware of the slightest irregularity. Gaps between paving slabs; tree roots; this particularly slipperty type of tarmac. Uneven paving slabs offering just enough of a step to trip you up. Uneven kerbs, sloping streets, metal gratings and un-flat manhole covers - even frequent changes of pavement surface or inexpertly patched tarmac become a problem. Give yourself a balance impediment, restrict your stride length, and suddenly such things as these become real obstacles - furthermore if you trip and fall it is not so easy to recover. Accessible distances become another issue, the long walks at Bank tube station exhausting in a way the Converse-clad cannot see. High heels offer a chance for empathy with those who find it hard to walk, and spotlight all the places where the pavement is exclusionary. High heels tell us what to change to make these public spaces really public for all.

Under this methodology all New York is hell - the city cannot mend a pavement for shit. In one particularly epic pothole a high-heeled friend did in fact fall and break her leg - transforming voluntary impediment into real disability for some months. This, you understand, is why it is important to wear stilettos rather than wedge heels: they'll snap in place of your fibia.

The final lesson of the high-heeled method is in texture: for this we must abandon the platform heel for something with a thinner sole. (But please not the ballet flat: these are not chic when terminating an English cankle.) The heel puts pressure on the ball of the foot and again focuses attention as to what's underneath. This intimate contact between sole and pavement allows hitherto unconsidered differentiation between different surface materials - the cool pleasures of smooth flagstones; the dozen genres of tarmac; dimpled concrete versus cobblestones. With practice one might locate oneself to the exact street within a handful of closed-eye steps - now that would be urban knowledge.

Yes, I would make every urban planning student walk in high heels for a semester - transvestite shops cater for all sizes no excuses. More navigable pavements would be a victory for disabled access, sure - but, shit, shouldn't urban designers pay some attention to the needs of high heel wearers as a fundamental principle? Stiletto-navigable streets inconvenience no-one, help many, and yet women's specific needs for urban space are inadequately sufficient. From another angle, Barbara Penner's work on the politics of public toilets makes a similar point - as she puts it:

" As one of the last openly sex-segregated spaces in Western cities, toilets fit the bill, allowing me to think about the ways in which the male-dominated professions of planning, engineering, and architecture fail to accommodate and even actively suppress female needs.

In the late nineteenth century, George Bernard Shaw, then heavily involved in local government, complained that the barrier of the “unmentionable” meant that women’s bodies were never visible at the political level. This silence about needs and provision, in turn, has historically had a real impact on women’s mobility, comfort, and sense of belonging in the modern city."

Street pianos - performing the public

Play Me I'm Yours was an audacious public art project masterminded by Luke Jerram. The concept was simple and inspired: place 30 decorated pianos in public spaces around the city and leave them for people to play. Unlike the pre-booked pitches for buskers on the Tube, these were free-range pianos - displaying a rare amount of public trust one might contrast with Gormley's hyper-shielded plinth project. Pianos were left out with simply the trust that people would look after them and play fair; for a month these pianos were ours. The result: some truly extraordinary moments of beautiful musicianshp and/or spontaneous public singalongs.

Liverpool Street station:

Carnaby Street:

Cycling map heterotopia - radical geographies from Transport for London

Cycling geography is awesome. Yesterday a nice brown paper package dropped through the post: Local Cycling Guides from Transport for London. Maps! Now, maps on their own make me happy - it's geeky, but I love to see how everything connects up, and that passion isn't dimmed by however much critical cartography and Brian Harley I read on the power relations involved. Yet in that context these maps are particularly exciting. What they do is re-write the entire fucking road system.

Roads are what make my mental map of the City more than an atomistic collection of buildings and destinations. From the distinctive shapes of the Imax and the South Bank you glide over the river on Waterloo Bridge, swing round the Aldwych, progress up Kingsway past school and the coffee shops, then the Bloomsbury artery of Southampton Row turning into Woburn Place and the difficulties of crossing Euston Road... Maybe Hampstead Road up to Camden High Street past all the council highrises named after places in the Lake District, or up the strange nothingness of York Way with its empty railway sheds and redevelopment that still doesn't look like the architect's pictures... Roads are how I think of the city, and these main roads provide the arterial framework by which I can understand relative location and compass direction and distance.

What's fantastic about these cycling maps is that they upturn that hierarchy. Cycling on high-traffic main roads being scary and dangerous, they structure an alternative network of routeways on low-traffic back roads, utilising every bit of canal towpath and park and standalone bike lane in the capital. Despite studying my well-worn A to Z and knowing my neighbourhood well, I had thought that most journeys I'd need to take would involve these main roads: that they were the straight lines down to Old Street and Camden and Angel, and that backroad routes to these places would be twisty, torturous, too complex to remember.

No! On these cycling maps the major roads fade into the background of black and white, a network of blue and yellow routes drawn above show the sensible ways to go. Yellow roads have been recommended by cyclists as quiet, safe, good alternatives; blue routes may be on busier roads but are at least specifically signed for cyclists. Caledonian Road? Take Hemingford Road. Use Nevill Road to avoid busy Stoke Newington High Street. Highbury Fields and Drayton Park take you to Finsbury Park the safe way; here's a zigzagging (but signed) back route that gets me to Camden without either Holloway Road, Camden Road, or death.

I love it, and want to try it out - every route, every option. This is a new city opened up before me; let these alternatives harden themselves into my mind as my thighs harden into granite with all this practice. Who knew Transport for London made heterotopias? Because this is a heterotopia, I think - an inverting of the usual order of things; a utopian dream of roads for people not motors; a blend of real and imagined; blue and yellow lines of what should be drawn upon the grey map of what is.

17 August 2009

I Love Hoxton

Hoxton High Street, where else?

What If... void spaces could be greened?

There's a vacant patch of ground near my office. It's not large, an interstitial point behind some offices and next to a a low-rise council block, the post-war kind balcony walkways to the flats. 8x8 metres, let's say, the kind of space that's too small to develop and not big enough to bother about.

Instead, What If projects, an urban sustainability architecture practice, have got 70 half-tonne bags of soil and turned it into an allotment space for the local community. They say it's made the place "a beautiful oasis of green" - green yes, urban oasis yes, beautiful not so sure the plastic bags of soil are really that aesthetically appealing - even if they were commissioned to install the same thing for the opening of the Louis Vuitton store in Westfield shopping centre, see photo below. The latter being such a strange juxtaposition makes somehow the soil bags more appealing - they may be ugly but curation by Jeremy Deller, Turner Prize Winner 2004, makes them art? No, that's too hierarchical an attitude to take - but there's still a joy to be found in this disruption of pristine designer commercial space, even if the fact that it's there at the invitation of the shop itself makes it hardly radical.

This space is distinguished from a void by its big enigmatic white sign, showing only the OS grid reference, an arrow, and their web address. What If call this space Vacant Lot, and they've got more grow bags on another stretch of Chart Street, plus Plant Room on neighbouring East Road and a dozen more projects.

They then do more theoretical work, such as Modesty Screened, looking at temporary inhabitable environments formed without formal architectural intervention. Again, their examples are super-local to me - e.g. the garden centre on Caledonian Road. They write:

In UK cities approx. 70% of urban space is residential and planning authorities positively encourage residential-use over other activities. By taking advantage of the slowness of the planning process, areas of the city (i.e. unused sites, disused infrastructure, empty parking garages) could be used temporarily in this way.

This model can be developed in two directions:

1. On a strategic level to encourage the temporary use of existing `unused‘ sites within cities. Activities within these sites can expand to encourage other uses for example: urban agriculture, educational facilities, office / workshop space, arts and entertainment, residential, etc.

2. At a programmatic scale this model can be developed to see how it could influence the spatial and programmatic design of new mixed-use urban developments.

More about this to follow, I hope - I'm really excited by it both theoretically and because, well, I too am an urban dweller without a garden, and I'd love a chance to get my hands dirty with such a practical activism/intervention.

15 August 2009

Learning to cycle / re-learning the City

I bought a bike this afternoon, the process having to be facilitated by a couple of mgs of valium because something about starting cycling in this City scares me that much. This makes it interesting; makes it something important to face up to and do.

Just the ride home from the bike shop opened up so many ideas - cycling will rewrite my urban experience. A few preliminary thoughts:

1. You go so fast. Three or four times as fast my usual walked 4mph and shit, I'm not used thinking at such speeds. Decision-making, navigating, keeping my eyes on everything I need to notice (cars traffic lights parked cars pedestrians holes in the road where the fuck i am) - this must be the source of my fear: the threat of overload in such a dangerous environment. Galloping on a horse - similar speeds, similar lack of crash protection - was at first frightening too; then it just became exhilarating. But there you've got the horse thinking about how to keep you out of trouble too - so perhaps my problems would be solved by a conscious (furry) bicycle?

2. You go so fast. This is going to make the City really small. I got back from Chalk Farm in what felt like 10 minutes, though it must have been longer - the concentration required puts you into a flow state where time is irrelevant. Yet that journey takes a good 45 minutes by bus, being an across-town orbital that doesn't mesh well with a largely radial system of bus routes. So now, fuck, is Chalk Farm close? Easy visits to my friend in Primrose Hill, Marine Ices, and that lovely vegetarian hippy cafe that kept feeding me free food? I'm going to be able to get to hitherto unknown places like Deptford, and the Lea Valley, and - fuck! - maybe the west. Correction: this is going to make my currently-frequented City really small, and enormously expand my perceptions of what's there and what's possible. Life beyond Zone 2 awaits.

3. This is going to require a phenomenal amount of navigational ability. I can usually look at a map once and memorise the route I need to walk - my recall of scale & direction & road names is good enough to absorb a mile or two's data in one go. But, going faster, a bicycle covers so many more streets. Futhermore, in the interests of not getting squashed I might like to stay off main roads where possible, requiring an even greater demand to remember labyrinthine back routes. Suddenly the Knowledge of this town's taxi drivers becomes something I too need to gain.

4. Cycling is also daunting because I apparently don't believe cars have people in - human-shaped amoral vegetables maybe, but not thinking caring people. Pedestrian life seems to have left me with the impression that it's my job to get out of their way, with no expectations that traffic will reciprocally try to avoid me. (After all, they're not going to be damaged by any close encounter.) So I carry this perception through to cycling, even though I am now a road user who should be a car's equal, someone to slow for and permit to turn and acknowledge right of way. I don't seem to understand that I am an equal, and cars should/will do these things for me; has pedestrianism left me with an inferiority complex? That says something about the hierarchical way in which our cities are currently designed/built - and perhaps makes a strong case in favour of those pavement-lowering, sign-removing, shared space reforms recently introduced along such roads as Kensington High Street.

13 August 2009

Ornamented spaces

Jewellery students had taken over this disused shop on Camden High Street to show some of their degree work, these fascinating fabric-wrapped constructions and organic clustered shapes. We stepped downstairs to find, suddenly, the same forms garlanding the basement as used for the necklaces on dispay above -- oh the striking equivalency this suggests between rooms and bodies: they are both containers we inhabit, the spaces in and through which we live.

12 August 2009

URBAN SURVIVAL! With Bear Grylls!!

The City is full of hazards. To keep you safe, here are some words of wisdom from macho SAS adventure man Bear Grylls (feel the testosterone fumes coming off his mere name) that I ripped out of a freebie paper [pdf version here]:

Bear, we're walking down Oxford Street on our way to buy some new pants when a giant savage poodle tries to maul us to death. What should we do to survive?

"I was always told in my army days just to whip your shirt off, wrap it round your arm to protect it, offer it that, let it go for it and then jam your fingers together straight into both eyes. Then squeeze together into its brain, hold it there, and it will release you and die. You're safe."

We're ice skating on the frozen Serpentine and then - crack! - the ice breaks and we plunge into the freezing water. We don't want to die wearing ice skates, so what should we do?

"The first thiing is don't panic. You can die from the gasp reflex when the shock makes you breathe water into your lungs, so you need to control your panic. Turn around and look at where you fell in - you know the ice is good to get out from. Break the ice, then ease your weight up and wriggle like a seal, kicking hard and spreading your weight. When you get out you need to get warm, so take your clothes off and start doing press-ups."

We're on the London Eye and it's really hot - bloody global warming - but it gets stuck, the sun is baking through the capsule and the air conditioning is screwed. How do we stay cool?

"Have you got a window in there? ['Not sure,' we say.] Well, that's very hard. Dehydration is a real killer. I've been in deserts where it's so hot they say that, if you don't have any water or survival skills, you're dead in three hours. Smash a window, get a bit of airflow through and, if nobody is ever going to get you, you're going to have to climb down. I've often thought about climbing the London Eye. I've examined it - it looks quite straightforward."

Now there's a challenge for the City Project to live up to this weekend!

5 August 2009

The High Line park, NYC

City Project is just back from another great city: New York. The High Line park was opened in June, a much-publicised urban oasis on the site of a former rail line running up the West side from Gansevoort St to 20th. The regeneration had been kickstarted by the 2000 photoseries from Joel Sternfeld, showing the park abandoned, recolonised by nature, a beguiling secret space raised up above the city's awareness. It was beautiful. Now, designed within an inch of its life by James Corner Field operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, could the High Line retain any of this magic? My lover was not sure, and wrote to me about this... Then I went to see for myself.

He wrote:

I've just been up to the old elevated train line that was converted into a park. Near sunset, a rosy evening, lots of people on the streets, drifting out of gallery openings between 20th and 25th.

A park like that could have been a wild place, stolen from the city, but it was as sterile as an architect's drawing. Signs said "Keep it wild, keep to the path" - as if you can call anything wild when it grows in a sprinkler-irrigated patch of gravel that's not so much cultivated as curated.

At one point along the path the viaduct crossed the corner of a low building's roof. Broken chairs, old TV sets, statues with their heads replaced, hand-painted signs, hinted that the roof had once been a gateway to this place - what was now a public park had been someone's secret playground. I'm not sure the city's richer for the change.

Even landscape architects couldn't rob the place of all its character, though. There were views over the glass and steel of Chelsea, but more impressive were the points where the path passed through or under buildings. There was one that I found particularly striking - a high modernist grid of green glass and grey tiles, perched on tapering legs. As you know I'm not a fan of the international style, but there was something about the evening light on that smooth green surface that I found oddly moving. It seemed to call back half-formed memories from my early childhood - the wind on the sea, and something else I couldn't bring to the surface. On the way back to the subway all the greens and turquoises were peculiarly vivid. I bought a notebook to write this down for you before it faded.

You should go there when you're over, one early evening when the galleries are open - maybe write about it for the City Project.

My response:

I liked it. I'm not sure I have a defensible reason for liking the park as a concept, but certainly the planting was excellent. Fashionably loose, dominated by grasses and big drifts of colour without structure - all annuals that will die down in the winter, no shrubs - it reminded me strongly of another Chelsea: the Chelsea Flower Show, highlight of the British garden design calendar. The late summer prairie planting contrasted against the austere running lines of the concrete pathway and slick benches; the ecological design selecting the silver foliage and meadow plants that can handle the exposure and shallow soil and extremes of climate; the repetition of design elements and a limited number of different plant types - this is all very now, very chic. It's innovative to see this style escape the private garden for the public park, a space so long the domain of regemented beds of pansies and busy lizzies.

Its naturalness is to be sure a faux-naturalness, an aesthetic covertly overtly created - but the idea of the secret derelict nature reserve that was there before is surely too fantastical to be true (I never saw it, did you?) so what else can the High Line be now but fictive? The concept of a park on stilts, while a happy (hard-fought-for) accident, seems more like a borrowing from the Far East - Hong Kong, or Tokyo, where you don't walk consistently at ground level anywhere. It is designed for such an international audience (perhaps urban studies-educated visitors such as myself most of all!) rather than the utility of any local residents - park utility as in such civil functions as public gathering, grass and trees for those without gardens, space jogging and team sports and whiling away afternoons. No: instead it is surely a space in which to promenade one's small overpampered lapdog to attract another lapdog/metropolitan owner combo of appropriate sexuality; a purpose-designed space for showing off and dating? How utterly NY!

Of course, it's not exactly a free public space or much of an opening for civil society. Has any park been such since the cruisers were kicked out of Russell Square and Tessa Jowell tried to deny Hyde Park to the war marchers? The normative nature of parkspace (no camping no barbeques no music get your public assembly licenced plz) is just a little more visible on the High Line, its very shape in its elongation forbidding any crowd gathering, its entrances so easily sealed off. Perhaps the private garden style design is telling here. This loose, natural planting is meticulously tended by gardeners wearing chic pastiche Chinese peasant hats as they labour on their knees in the relentless unshaded sunshine. It's very picturesque, even labour becoming an elegant spectacle. Do you think they have health insurance?

The High Line is absolutely a bastardisation of what was there before - but the whole of Chelsea is the self-same thing, a district playing at very high-end faux dilapidation with its warehouse art galleries and stripped-down designer clothes stores; it has got the park it deserves and maybe that is excellent site-appropriate design. We're in the wrong part of town to design a park for the poor, darling.

An ambiguous defence, I know. I instinctually liked it, and yet it is unquestionably a problematic space. But oh, such dilemmas are the meat of urban experience...

Peckham library (Will Alsop, 2000)

I stumbled across Peckham Library quite unexpectedly the other day. It won the Stirling prize in 2000, and high words are said about its social responsibility - thus an appropriate find when I was in the neighbourhood to explore a charity's work with the socially excluded. But does the building work, does it really change anything? I was unsure.

Undoubtedly it's interesting to look at, and for architecture (a discipline that does not convince me with its political convictions) this might be everything - instead of a mere fragment of the building's impact, a fraction of its function as an assemblage of space-movement-people-meaning in a specific socio-economic context. Some authoritative voice tells us that "Peckham Library is not an irreverent post-modern architectural joke. It is a very serious building with a strong social mission" - and then indicates that said social mission goes as far as some nice but hardly revolutionary sustainable cooling measures. Woo. Critical urban theory has apparently not made enough an impact on designers yet, even though they can buy the latest City journal on this very topic in Borders no fancy academic subscription required.

But despite my scepticism, some of Peckham Library's social misssion seems to be working. It's shown in the increased visits to the library, and Alsop's 'civism'
"where civic space is defined as a place where you can meet someone outside, name the place and know where to go"
would indeed seem to be boosted in Peckham: this is a memorable place, it puts Peckham on the map for the right reasons rather than shootings, and there is indeed outdoor seating for meeting people. Nonetheless, nine years on the public square is a little run down, weeds colonising the paving, repairs needed and not forthcoming. The regeneration the library was supposed to herald does not seem to have arrived - perhaps there have been repairs, but no change of mood, no boost in image - and the locality remains very isolated: even the buses take convoluted routes to get there. The highstreet was covered in litter; so much for reputed Anthony Gormley street art.

This regeneration has entailed £275m in investment; 2500 new homes; a £5m new library (which admittedly Gordon the postman thinks is "beautiful"). But if you want to put an end to the ghetto then stop locking the gates at night - this is what's wrong with many smaller-scale housing projects too: impeding porous movement between neighbouring areas creates a them/us mentality and stops deprived areas integrating into wider society. Peckham needs a tube station and the access to the wider London jobs market that would facilitate; without this the gates are locked and the whole neighbourhood is socially excluded. However lovely the access to knowledge it may promise, a pretty green library is fairly cosmetic.

Cities & Citizenship: a New Urban Agenda debate

An interesting upcoming event from the London Development Agency's New Urban Agenda on the intersection of urban life, urban design, and citizenship:

* What does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st century?
* What is the relationship between the way we design our city and our perception and experience of citizenship?
* Is it time to redefine Londoners' obligations, responsibilities and rights to improve the liveability of our city?
* Are we equipped to tackle the environmental and economic challenges we face?

These questions and more will be tackled in a debate on Cities and Citizenship which kicks off the LDA’s New Urban Agenda Debates. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA will be in conversation with leading social entrepreneur Lord Mawson and pioneering writer and journalist Anna Minton, chaired by Ricky Burdett, Director of the Urban Age programme at the LSE.

The event will take place at 18:30 on Monday 21 September in the Great Room at the RSA, as part of the London Design Festival

10 July 2009

Two sides of sex in the city

Two excellent reasons to use my 'sex and the city' tag, and a demonstration of two of its extremes.

Who can say what kind of love is inscribed on this tree - an 'I love you' for someone particular; an injunction to all of us, the public, to love more; an expression of a wider love for the city or indeed for trees? I love how scrawled it is, and that it's not a pristine stencil - whatever kind of love it feels passionate. And then a wingéd phallus, erect and exhibitionist yet just silly enough with its little feathers that I find it cheeky rather than aggressively cocky. A comment perhaps on the wilful independence of sexual desire, lust flying free of any conscious intent.

Behind both, though, the same kind of libidinal urban energy - a statement, "I DESIRE". A Deleuzian desire, not one built out of Lacanian lack but rather a force, a drive.

18 June 2009

The places regeneration leaves behind

Just an ordinary North London road, scruffy and shabby with newsagents and kebab shops. When I moved to the City I didn't like these places, so different to the pristine market town where I grew up. But it's home now.

Even before 2008 many shopfronts were battened down or whitewashed over: longer-term shifts in economic geography than recession drove businesses out. Flats on this road are starting to be visibly gentrified - I live in one such block and there's a decent (clearly architect-driven) refurb just round the corner. But there is little demand for business here any more, only corner shop chicken shop pizza place. The odd laundrette; still internet cafes, a reminder that the internet is not exactly the great leveller; many are still economically or culturally excluded. Little more. These are some of the shops shuttered and left behind:

Blackalls Fruiterers and Greengrocers, established over 100 years. Closed now, closed at least fifteen years if its phone number began not 0207 or 0171 but 071. And the tenant just pulled the shutters down and left - the landlord has not re-let the space, has not converted into a fried chicken emporium or poundstore or fought the council for reclassification as in-demand residential. Just left.

W. Plumb the butcher has a beautiful old-fashioned sign with even a little stained glass. Where did he go? How did he feel about closing the business, about giving up hope of becoming W. Plumb & Sons, or perhaps Daughters? I cannot imagine this road with a proper old-fashioned independent butcher on it - what was it like, did it have community that extended beyond council estate dwellers? (Do they still have community, or do I romanticise? I know we middle classes have lost it.) This has always been a working class area, my block of flats one of the few visible signs of gentrification - but for it now to have a proper family butchers like this would be such a posh thing: how Highgate, how Crouch End.

Perhaps a more recent casualty - or not: Sega's Dreamcast (2001) was a failure, and the Saturn (1995) not much better, so would this branding date back to Megadrive days (1991)? I spoke to the chap in North London Models - not a brothel, a model aircraft & toy car shop, a relic still going on no visible sales at all - who dated the loss of these shops to the early Nineties and, presumably, the recession then. Further down the road there was even a bank, the Natwest form now sitting above somebody's kitchen still visible under layers of paint. Was this area once a highstreet, a community, a functioning economy? A destination? Now it is just a road for transit through to other places.

17 June 2009

On yer bike: adventures in new urban space

So I'm finally getting a bike. Finally listened to my road-bike warrior friends on the poetry of motion; finally accepted that it has to be the best way of getting around this tangled City. (Pretty good, too, to save some cash: life in this town eats money.) And suddenly I find myself moving in a whole new environment, find a whole new City opens up to me - a new city built from the same streets I've walked for years. What a tool the bicycle can be for urban perception! Let me explain:

You go fast on a bicyle. Having not cycled since I was 10, I had forgotten this. The same familiar journey becomes a completely different journey at four times the speed (say 4mph walking, 16mph cycling) - instead of taking an opportunity to think, one must be constantly aware of traffic, road conditions, your balance - and all these thiings change, every second. Architecture no longer matters, the dress sense of pedestrians (such an urban pleasure!) becomes inconsequential; the landscape becomes one of road signs, traffic lights, moving cars and parked cars and tarmac texture. Now you can see the grooves buses wear into the street surface; painted road markings are no longer signs & symbols but objects, raised up and tactile. This road-space is governed by rules I do not know; I read the Highway Code so I would not be a total liability out bike-testing, but this is such little fraction of the behavioural codes of roadusers. Cycling ignorant of this is cycling illiterate, a foreigner in a strange land.

Yet what is so intriguing is that these new processes and foreign meaning is re/inscribed upon streets I've walked and bussed down for years. As a pedestrian I handle traffic so fluently, jaywalking across roads watching traffic flow as a set of (differential?) equations, each lane to be solved one at a time. I weave in and out of cars without concern, guided more by instinct than concrete thought as to what is safe. Yet up on a bike it feels like a completely different problem. Instead of crossing perpendicular to traffic I must now move parallel with it - become part of it, I suppose, though my thinking has not yet quite understood that concept so far. This layering of spaces, of meanings within the same built architecture - it is the city as palimpsest, the overlayering of trace upon trace upon trace.

Cycling produces a new emotional geography too. I don't want to be ashamed to admit that testing bikes yesterday I was afraid - so easy to wobble into traffic, or, not knowing what to look for in this unfamiliar setting, to fail to notice impending danger. Cars are so much bigger, heavier, armour-plated - when cycling they felt like autonomous machines, their trajectories inevitable and unalterable. I'd forget there were people inside, people who were watching and thinking about how I was moving - people who would make an effort to avoid hitting me. Is this why cyclists talk of the road as warfare? It is hard to see it as teamwork, much as it may be that kind of social space of cooperation and allowance too. So cycling was this state of continual awareness of how I might come to harm - can I call this existential? - very liminal, danger a knife-edge away. Like standing on the edge of a tall building - and, what is more, knowing how easy a moment of madness could be.

I beg to know when cycling might become second nature; how long does it take to learn to read the road? I hate to be a beginner like this, a liability to myself and others. Though it'd be a shame to lose this novel frame of perception - must mine it for ideas while I can! - it is so difficult to inhabit this road-space of fear and trial and threat. Yet until I started thinking of buying a bike I did not know this arena of challenges was even there - hidden in plain sight, the materiality of the road users visible but the process and meaning obscure without practical experience. And now these streets become a place for me to test myself, to face my fears, and to develop this new competency and embodiment.

If, that is, I can find the right bike!

10 June 2009

Hoxton stencillist wisdom, Jan 2009

DON'T WRITE ON WALLS, WRITE EVERYWHERE - now there's a message for a cities blogger. The first part of that instruction is to be ignored, of course, if your glyph has the graphic purity of the tag below.

9 June 2009

Geographic Information... Postcards?

The Met Police's latest resident engagement exercise: "tell us your concerns about crime and antisocial behaviour in this area", and mark where it's happening on the map.

Quite touching, really. It's the police reaching out rather than being merely reactive, and in allowing written and spatial feedback it's open to different styles of communication and thinking. The tagline is "Listening to you" - god, you think they're going to give you a hug rather than (a) catch criminals and (b) beat up/imprison/murder lawful protestors.

But it's not going to work very well, is it? First, the map's half-unreadable because the boundaries of the local ward cutting off several key street names. Second, do respondents have the sophistication to put their X in the place they want to be describing? Sounds patronising, but the first rule of survey design is always Keep It Simple, Stupid: if it can be misunderstood it will. Third is the problem of processing all these smudged Freeposted postcards: that's a lot of data entry, and half of it won't be legible.

You can see what they're intending, and it's good: mapping crime, Geographic Information Systems, very closely related to work at UCL's Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. (Linked, even, c.f. former policeman Paul Richards' PhD on Realtime geodemographics for reassurance policing and crime prevention [ppt]. But if you want a GIS, don't hand out bloody postcards... E-democracy or e-governance has never quite taken off in this country, has it - why not? This should be web-based, it should connect to stuff, not least the Met's overall Crime Mapping site - yet there is nothing, no parallel site, no mention of it on www.met.police.uk/islington at all. Is this so hard? It wouldn't require groundbreaking innovation: internet use is widespread enough for e-governance; Google Maps is robust enough; and people can type more legibly than they handwrite on half-a-dozen narrow lines. And we've got an ex-copper doing a doctorate on this exact topic.

So why'd I get a damn postcard?

Capital markets - the economic realities of office space

Enough cultural whiff-whaff (as our Dear Leader Mr Johnson might say): the city's made of money. Made of capital, if you will. And I love money: I find it fascinating.

The Rat and Mouse is a key real estate economics blog, but its focus is largely residential property - as indeed is most newspaper coverage. Subprime residential mortgages in the US may have kickstarted the whole credit crunch - this was something I watched kick off from a ringside seat in real estate research; fascinating - but it is in fact commercial real estate that has seen the biggest falls. You thought 22% peak-to-current fall in house prices was bad? Try a 50% crash in office values.

Furthermore, whereas subprime mortgage securities may have been the catalyst of the crunch, it is commercial property that yet remains to kick the banks in the teeth. They lent too much against this sector, and have not yet written down these loans and deleveraged these securities. Savills say almost all property investment loans made between 2004 and 2007 are now in negative equity, yet banks are extending loans rather than crystallise their losses. The last couple of weeks have seen green shoots emerging in the economy much earlier than anyone really expected - Darling may have been mocked for his Budget, but now Q3 growth looks a real likelihood. Yet with these lending problems ahead, do you really want to bet against a W-shaped double dip coming up after Christmas?

What I haven't seen is much discussion of what this implies for the urban fabric. With companies cutting back on staff and the near-cessation of merger & acquisition activity, demand for office rentals is down as companies aren't needing to trade up to larger spaces. (The falling rents drive part of this 50% collapse in values discussed above: commercial property is an investment class so its value is based on its yield.) Increases in availability and affordability combined with the current mood of caution may mean that demand will hold up best in traditional centres: City, West End and a bit of Holborn. Your Victoria, Paddington and Kings Cross developments? Aren't going to get the big tenants they'd counted on, and new developments are visibly being put on hold as they fail to be pre-let before completion. Additionally with prime office space more accessible, demand for shabbier secondary offices will surely decrease. If summer is as hot as forecast, how much tolerance will there be for poor or no air conditioning? There's a lot of 1960s and 70s space that, at least superficially, looks to be beyond refurb. Yet demolition costs money, and there's little pressure for new development sites yet.

City Project says it'll be a prime summer for exploring abandoned buildings...