Archive for October, 2008

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands.

We depart this evening for a few weeks of exploration – another journey to see and learn. We will visit some places we know a bit, and some we know not at all. Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Madeira, the Canary archipelago, and then a few days to commune with the vast Atlantic.

We will fill our journals, sketch books, and photo files with what we see and hear. More in a few weeks – stay tuned. In the meanwhile, feel free to pull up a chair and sit awhile in our Town Square – there’s plenty here to keep you and your cup of coffee company while we wander.

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Today I try to understand our cities in another way, using a comparative juxtaposition of images. When I went looking for these images, I knew in my head what they would look like, but the actual facts are, nonetheless, a bit of a shock.

Take a look, thanks to Google Earth. All of these images are at the same scale, snapped very nearly all at the target altitude of 735′.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

Woodbridge interchange, Virginia.

Place des Vosges, Paris.

Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Pioneer Square, Portland, Oregon.

Route 1 Strip, Virginia.

Piazza San Marco, Venice.

Woodbridge, Virginia.

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A slum in Manila.

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.”  Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins.

I continue to search for a vernacular urbanism for the next city. After some reflection, I have concluded that what I am looking for is an urbanism that is local in character, conditional, circumstantial, meaningful and of value (in every sense – not just financially) for its inhabitants, rooted to its surroundings and its past, an urbanism that is founded on local resources and the specific nature of a particular place, that is based on the found and the available and the renewable. And so I have found myself thinking about slums. Let me explain.

Today one half of the earth’s population lives in cities. That means that something more than 3 billion of us are city dwellers. Of that 3 billion in cities, one third of all city dwellers lives in a slum. Many sources put the world slum dwelling population at something near or over 1 billion people. The UN, among others, tells us that by 2030, one third of the population of the planet will live in slums. This is powerful data, and calls us to look at these places, and learn what we can.

Barrio, favela, shanty town, ghetto, squatter city, wasti in India, katchi abadi in Pakistan, refugee camp, the slum has many names, and many faces. They share some things in common, wherever they may be: they are always home to the very poor, the displaced and the outcast; they all feature substantial problems with sanitation, health, crime, education; they are fragile, and often the shelter they offer is insufficient for local climates; they are crowded, and very dense; they are not subject to romance or nostlagia of any kind – they are very hard places to live in in every way.

A favela in Morumbi, in Sao Paolo. The favela is on the left.

The term slum is seen by most, except slum dwellers themselves, as a pejorative term evoking squalor, filth, disease and crime. Slum dwellers, however, often defend their fragile communities in an articulate and powerful fashion, and aggressively organize themselves to secure improved conditions, access to infrastructure (water, sewers, energy), education, and access to some kind of health care.

Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai.

I think that there may be lessons to be learned from spending time studying these places. As an example, listen to what the distinguished Indian architect Prakash M. Apte said recently about Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, located in Mumbai, and home to nearly a million people:

“A unique characteristic of Dharavi is its very close work-place relationship. Productive activity takes place in nearly every home. As a result, Dharavi’s economic activity is decentralized, human scaled, home-based, low-tech and labor-intensive. This has created an organic and incrementally developing urban form that is pedestrianized, community-centric, and network-based, with mixed use, high density low-rise streetscapes. This is a model many planners have been trying to recreate in cities across the world. A simplistic re-zoning and segregating of these activities — common in the United States — would certainly hurt this very unique urban form.

The ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous development of Dharavi has led to the emergence of an economic model characterized by a decentralized production process relying mainly on temporary work and self-employment. The multiplicity of independent producers makes the production process extremely flexible and adaptable. Its viability is proven by the national and international market its products command.”

Dharavi, Mumbai.

Here are some of the characteristics of slums that might make them valuable in thinking about a vernacular urbanism for the next city:

-They are not designed by architects, developed by developers, marketed by marketers, or legislated by legislators.

-They are participatory, collective efforts.

-They are instinctive. They are vernacular.

-They are organic and incremental. They change and evolve over time.

-They do not look like this:

Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago – a paradigm of failed social housing, now razed.

-They are spatially and socially complex.

-They are very dense, they are definitely not auto-dominated, and they accomodate a dizzying mixture of uses.

-They use very little energy, recycle, and have what could be called small carbon footprints. They are constructed of what’s left over.

-They are intensely local.

Slums are filled with many very serious problems and unmet needs. But many are also robust and lively communities, highly social, and offer some bit of dignity to those most cultures ignore, or cast out. As physical, designed places, they are inventive and intuitive. Slums are always reshaping themselves, always focusing on creating shelter and shared spaces that deal significantly with local circumstance – how to deal with heat, cold, rain, wind, and work, using what is at hand. 

We must find our way to the next city in any way we can, as we try to shape a durable, usable urban future. Perhaps the slums of the world can help to show us a way.

Rooftops in Dharavi.

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I have been reading my usual array of favored websites, and have run into an interesting string of comments in the last couple of days. It seems that Michael Pollan’s piece in the NYT Magazine, which I recommended in the last post, has ignited a furor in some quarters. Pollan is being accused of “eco-armageddonizing.”

Notwithstanding the grotesque character of this ridiculous word, there remain many who say that there is no such thing as climate change, that we need not worry about environmental compromises being wrought across the globe, and that what is really required are massive increases in energy use as an expression of a flourishing civilization. (Yes, someone actually said that – I couldn’t make it up). I am flabbergasted at this thought, but let’s proceed.

Okay, so let’s just say that you are in the non-believer camp. You think that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by liberals led by Mr. Gore (conservative just doesn’t mean what it used to, does it?), and you’re headed out in one of your SUVs to the mall for some widget shopping and a stop at Burger King for a quick hit of 2,400 calories of mystery meat and high fructose corn (double Whopper with cheese, medium coke, large fry, medium shake: 2,380 calories). Before you go, give me just a minute or two for some thoughts.

Put aside global warming or climate change as urgent reasons for rethinking and remaking our urban centers, where 80% of Americans live. Some of the things that have shaped our cities are now becoming sufficiently scarce that a new city, and new ways of living in the city, are needed, and much faster than we can make changes. Try this:

Oil. Whether you believe that peak oil looms or that oceans of oil remain, and whether you believe that speculators are firing up oil prices or demand is bumping up against supply, you can be certain of one thing: you are paying a very high price to fill up your SUV. Assuming for a moment that you are cruising through the global financial meltdown in style, gas will not get much cheaper before it starts to rise again, as suppliers turn off the faucet. They’re meeting in Vienna on the 18th of next month to chat about lowering production to account for reduced demand accompanying the financial miasma – you might want to pop in for a heart to heart.

So what about alternatives? Well the airlines are now charging extra for everything from lunch to luggage, and they’re all choking on their gas bills. Alternatives? Not many. Humorist Gene Weingarten, in the Post Magazine this week, suggests that the airlines should fire all their flight attendants and sell regular priced tickets to those passengers willing to push the carts up and down the aisles. Bonus? They get to keep the tips.

Amtrak is having the best year since its inception, and will likely carry 27 million passengers this year, a bit less than Continental Airlines or US Air, but ahead of AirTran or jet Blue. But guess what? They have only 632 usable rail cars, and besides, we travel 900 times further in cars on highways than in trains on rails. Changing this circumstance will reshape our cities and their regions, but it will take time – years – and lots of money. Cozy up to that gas pump.

Nearly every major urban public transit system is operating beyond capacity as well. But because of the financial meltdown, tax revenues are rapidly shrinking. Waiting for that rapid bus or streetcar system? Get comfy. And that’s just transit. Check out how funding is going for the rest of our urban infrastructure. Not so good. With only $1 trillion in national debt, we should see investment in infrastructure turn around real soon. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but real soon.

A more efficient car? Well, you just helped give the U.S. automakers $50 billion to figure out how to compete with Toyota and Honda, who have them cold, and our guys have proudly announced that we should start to see the benefits of taxpayer largess by 2010 or 2011 or so. By the way, did you know that one in thirteen Americans is employed in the automobile industry? Happy days ahead.

Food. Food prices are rising rapidly. In some places outside the U.S., the increases this year alone are as high as 40%. Screw the rest of the world, you say? Fine. A little hard, since so much of what you eat comes from somewhere else, but food prices in this nation are quickly on the rise as well: produce, milk, beef, fish, are all headed higher. Why? Fuel costs, weather, scarcity. A buck for a tomato, $.80 for a mushroom, and $.75 for an apple this week at our market, and $4.00 for a bushel of corn ($4.03 at close Friday).

If we actually did what Pollan tells us to do, and sourced a vastly increased amount of our food locally, and increased the numbers of local markets, we would have a chance at controlling prices. Oh, and by the way, our food system consumes more oil than any other part of the U.S. economy except cars. If we had cities that could subsist on locally grown agriculture, they would have to be designed differently. But we don’t, so not to worry.

Water. Water scarcity is a critical problem in most of the world. 40% of the world has no access to clean water, and 95% of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their waters.

Don’t care? Well, the central valley of California is not exactly swimming in water at the moment, and that’s where a lot of U.S. food comes from (they use 23 trillion gallons of water a year). The long term drought outlook for the valley, as charted by the USDA, is not too terrific. But never mind, all that water scarcity will do is drive up food prices.

Thinking about tapping into the Great Lakes for a cool one? Think again. The eight states that abut the Great Lakes have created a Compact, just approved by Congress and signed into law, that forbids the diversion of that water. Who says water scarcity is a problem?

As ever, the point of all this is very simple. The city we need to live in is not the city we live in today. Even skeptics should be able to understand this.  It seems that when you start to pull on one thread of issues in the fabric of today’s urbanism, the whole place starts to unravel.

Anyway, you know what to do – when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

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As I have noted here previously, I have been reading up on the history of food, and how we have arrived at the current state of industrial agriculture – endless fields of monocultures of corn or soybeans, giant factories filled with chickens or pigs or cows, a diet that featured 1/2 pound of high fructose corn syrup annually in 1970, and now includes 62 pounds of the stuff every year. (A favorite source: Felipe Fernandez Armesto’s extraordinary book, “Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food”).

And I do this because I now understand that global food production is the single largest source of carbon pollution – some estimates say nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas comes from food production – intensively requires water (2 nice big juicy steaks? About 4,000 gallons of water required), and relies on massive doses of fossil fuels. The next city cannot be fed with this system – we simply won’t be able to afford the fuel or water, or absorb the pollution.

We should all try to get our food from as many local sources as possible. This still isn’t easy (take a look at www.100milediet.org for a snapshot of an interesting experiment), but it is increasingly becoming received knowledge that we will eat better, and feel better, and pollute less if we can get our daily sustenance from local sources.  The Oxford English Dictionary last year added a word to their tome to describe those who eat locally: locavores. It must be official if the OED says so.

All of this is prelude to an invitation to get to know much more about these matters. To wit: an absolutely sensational essay written by Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,””In Defense of Food”), which takes the form of an open letter to the “Farmer in Chief,” whoever that might be after the election. The piece ran October 12th, in the New York Times Magazine. It is quite long, but I urge you to read every word – it is a very well reasoned and clearly argued appeal to substantially alter the way we eat, and in particular the way federal policies influence our daily meals. You can find the article by following this link:


My personal favorite of his suggestions: tear out five acres of White House lawn and plant organic fruits and vegetables. Take a look – it’s a very significant piece by a very powerful  writer. Bon appetit!

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And so folks hunker down, keep driving to a minimum and use transit instead, spend less, pay off a credit card or two, and wait to see what happens next in the unfolding horror story of global economic implosion. Right? Maybe yes, maybe no. It has taken us centuries to perfect a comprehensive cultural habit of avarice. As an old Spanish proverb teaches, “Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.”

Not that any of us should be very surprised at what we see and hear taking place around us these days. We have, after all, spent a good deal of time doing everything we could to make this happen. Our habit of debt has given us the even bigger house, the SUV, the other SUV, the second home at the lake, the jet ski, the master suite, the granite countertops and stainless steel dishwashers, the BIG TV, hyperactive cell phones, and every manner of electronic doodads.

Forbes made a survey a while back that examined how Americans spent their money. This was well before the current unpleasantness, back in the good old days of 2006. Their data show that the average American household had an annual income of $54,453 (before taxes, which should run in the range of 18% to 20%, or about $9,800, leaving a net of $44,653), and annual expenditures of $43,395. A little math yields a simple conclusion: the average American household is spending 97% of its annual after-tax income. Which of course is impossible. Solution? Debt, and lots of it.

And our regions and cities are now finding themselves in similar trouble. The municipal bond market has been teetering for some time, and now all of the recent bad debt will drain tax revenues away from cities and states across the country. This comes at the worst possible moment for the present city, and the next city. At a time when we must reinvent and reimagine our urban communities, and how we inhabit them, the necessary resources are vanishing.

One simple example. Transit use is surging in cities across the nation. Here in Washington, the Metro system has been running beyond capacity for some years, and now is bursting at the seams. Any good solutions – streetcars, buses or otherwise – must rely on a now nearly extinct stream of revenue. Better polish off the bikes.

As Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn said in a speech there recently, it is time for “enough.” We need to find, and then accept, a different way of living in our cities, and in this world. The way we think about our priorities, what we need, what we want, how we live, must now reckon with our great grand children. We must be chastised – an American experiment founded on the boundless more, must, at last, focus on the finite less. Imagine less.

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This graphic was in today’s Washington Post. It illustrates the time Americans waste sitting in traffic every year, and depicts the destinations they could have reached if gridlock unlocked. Hmm. I’ll take the train.

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