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."