studying the city (Annette Koh)

Public space, the right to the city, and civic engagement. How can we improve equity and access through participatory urbanism? Ph.D. student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Former resident of Seoul & San Francisco.
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An Urban Village Pops Up to Comfort Hong Kong Protestors (NPR)

Hong Kong’s main pro-democracy protest camp turned three-weeks-old over the weekend. What began as a road block has grown into urban village with several hundred tents that attracts more than a thousand people at night.

The camp is a combo street fair, outdoor art gallery with political sculptures, propaganda posters as well as speeches, movie screenings and even a free library.

The pop-up protest community sprawls across and blocks Hong Kong’s Harcourt Road, a major highway. Beyond the protesters’ demands for democratic elections in 2017 for the city’s chief executive, what distinguishes the place is a sense of community, which is best captured by the free services that have sprouted up to meet demonstrators’ needs.

The loudest is the open-air, furniture-making shop. Kacey Wong, a professor of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says some of his students kicked it off.

"This whole movement was generated from the students’ boycott of the school a few weeks ago," says Wong. "They are thinking about boycotting school, but not boycotting studying. So how do you resolve this problem?"

By sawing, hammering and drilling scrap wood into desks and chairs the students can use. The result: a study hall with electricity, lights and desks built into the concrete highway divider.

"We are volunteers. They are studying very hard," he says of the student protesters. "We try to make them more comfortable."

More from Gudeman & Rivera’s Conversations in Colombia (previous post).Though I don’t think gardening or farming should be obligatory, I do suspect that knowing that I could grow food would radically change my relationship with the land(s) I live and have lived on. If nothing else, my greater acquaintance with farming here on O’ahu has made me think of rain differently — not just as a traffic nuisance, but as sometimes desperately needed and also sometimes utterly destructive.

25: [The] implicit goodness of the earth is expressed through the notion of “giving.” Over and over the people said, “the land gives” (la tierra da). After some time, we realized that the phrase was shorthand. It can be completed with the name of a crop, such as “the land gives maize.” The land also gives “food,” “a harvest,” or “the crops,” and only the earth “gives the base” of the house, meaning that all wealth comes from the land. More broadly, the rural folk explain that the strength of the earth is “given” by God.

This relation between humans and the earth is asymmetrical, for humans themselves are not repositories of force and so cannot give it in return. To obtain the earth’s strength, however, human work is needed, for the earth gives neither by itself nor by divine will. Humans must “help” the land to give its products. As one person said, “Maize gets its sustenance from its roots and the work done to it, just as humans get sustenance from food.” Once, in a discussion about humans and the land, we asked one man: ”Do both produce?”

"No," he answered, "producing is giving. Man helps the land; the earth produces the fruit."


26-27: When humans properly assist the land, they are able to take (sacar) what it gives, a relationship of “give-and-take” from earth to humans. Thus, the rural folk speak of “gathering up” (recoger) and “picking” (coger) a harvest that is “left” (dejar) to them, and they talk about the earth’s “plenty” as “arriving” or “reaching” (llegar) them. Agricultural processes are also discussed in terms of human exchange. Some speak of a “trade” (un cambio) with the land, while others say that working the earth is like trading with a neighbor. Either way, the connection between humans and the earth is modeled in relation to a human bond. But this trade with the land is also unlike that with a neighbor, for it is never measure for measure (ras con ras). Humans put wealth and work into the earth, while it gives something different and more in return; they expend seed, fertilizer, money, and labor, and the land returns food. The transaction is neither homogeneous nor balanced. Humans do trade with nature, but by using its already given force to gather more strength on which life depends. This relationship of mutual help or reciprocity and of trade favors humans and underlies all others.

Because the land has powers that lie outside human control, agriculturalists can never count upon getting a return. Agricultural activities are spoken of as “a luck” (una suerte), "a gamble" (unjuego de azar), "a lottery" (una loteria), and as part of one’s “destiny” (el destino). "What is luck?… It is what you don’t control. Potatoes are a lottery." Often, the raising of a crop is said to be a "venture" (una ventura), a term capturing the notion of a chance, a risk, and an adventure as well. As one man, in a typical word play, said: “We agriculturalists, we are aventurers.” All these terms are applied to crop plagues and bad agricultural prices in addition to the earth’s fertility. Those who make earthenware jugs say, when their pots crack or burn in firing them, even when great care has been exercised to control the temperature, that this is a matter of “fortune.” As the rural folk explain, “Luck is for some people but not everybody.” 


The land may produce an abundance {una abundancia) or a scarcity {una escasez). In times of abundance the harvest covers house expenditures with leftovers; in periods of scarcity losses are incurred. But there is much variation between the extremes, and all are expressed in terms of how well the land “gives.” Some land is also said to “give more force” or to produce certain crops better than others. Thus, through the expression “giving,” the people can attend to climatic change, marginal differences in soil fertility, and the land’s varying crop suitability.

Everyone says that the earth gives less now, and local conversations are dominated by the theme of scarcity. Today the land yields a smaller variety of crops and needs more help - “much more help” - from humans in the form of plowing, weeding, and pruning; the crops also need more fertilizer and irrigation. But the people also draw distinctions here. Use of insecticides and herbicides, they say, reduces the human work required but does nothing for the land’s strength. Fertilizer is different, for it adds force to the land. Using the same comparison as the rural folk of Panama (Gudeman 1978, 1986), the people say that fertilizer is like ashes from trees in a swidden that are burned to clear a plot for seeding. As trees grow they store force from the land; when they are cut and burned this force is released, falls to the earth in the ashes, and strengthens the soil. In the past animal manure (abono orgdnico, abono negro), which gets its force from the pasture that animals have eaten, was used to strengthen the soil. In the absence of forests today, and with the reduction in number of domestic animals held, chemical fertilizer {abono quimico, abono bianco) has to be applied. But this fertilizer “burns the earth” and “takes away” its force. The worsening situation is not the land’s “fault,” for it is “tired” and needs to “rest”; still, one consequence is that the people must invest more and more cash now to have a successful harvest.Even with use of purchased additives, the land sometimes “does not produce what it costs” because the price of fertilizer is so high, and from this deteriorating situation there seems to be no "salvation."

This Forum showcases recent and current doctoral students whose dissertations exemplify innovative, experimental formats—Scalar, video, websites, comics, multimedia interactives. The event will be livestreamed and live tweeted (#remixthediss) by Futures Initiative and CUNY DHI fellows.  The Fellows, HASTAC Scholars, and any other interested parties are also invited to contribute to an open public Google Doc that is designed to record and model successful institutional change—and to celebrate individuals and institutions leading such change.

Our goal is to model success stories (and challenges overcome) on the way to inventive, digital, experimental new forms of dissertations.

Super interesting look at other dissertation formats, including a Tumblr! A lot of urban planning folks have turned to film as both process and product. Now I’m imagining a performance as dissertation, with annotations projected on the side of the stage like translated lyrics at an Italian opera. (via)

I’ve been mostly reading about place in an urban sense, and today, I spent an afternoon reading about rooting our selves and souls in rural dirt. I started with bell hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place.


[“Jerry Singleton, 81 years old and last generation farmer, returns ‘Tat’ to a grazing pasture after some light plowing.” Caption and photo from Black Farmers in America]

bell hooks writes about her family’s relationship with the earth in a way that reveals the power of knowing your independence can come from your dependence on the sun and the soil.

When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully. I believe this. The ancestors taught me it was so. As a child I loved playing in dirt, in that rich Kentucky soil, that was a source of life. Before I understood anything about the pain and exploitation of the southern system of sharecropping, I understood that grown-up black folks loved the land. I could stand with my grandfather Daddy Jerry and look out at fields of growing vegetables, tomatoes, corn, collards, and know that this was his handiwork. I could see the look of pride on his face as I expressed wonder and awe at the magic of growing things. I knew that my grandmother Baba’s backyard garden would yield beans, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and yellow squash, that she too would walk with pride among the rows and rows of growing vegetables showing us what the earth will give when tended lovingly. 


[Delta Cooperative Farm, 1937]

She also writes about the loss of that independence as a heartbreaking effect of a search for freedom from the indignities of Jim Crow and the terror of lynchings. By the end of the Great Migration, over 6 million African Americans had left the rural South for the urban North. 

The motivation for black folks to leave the south and move north was both material and psychological. Black folks wanted to be free of the overt racial harassment that was a constant in southern life and they wanted access to material goods — to a level of material well-being that was not available in the agrarian south where white folks limited access to the spheres of economic power. Of course, they found that life in the north had its own perverse hardships, that racism was just as virulent there, that it was much harder for black people to become landowners. Without the space to grow food, to commune with nature, or to mediate the starkness of poverty with the splendor of nature, black people experienced profound depression. Working in conditions where the body was regarded solely as a tool (as in slavery), a profound estrangement occurred between mind and body. The way the body was represented became more important than the body itself. It did not matter if the body was well, only that it appeared well. Estrangement from nature and engagement in mind/body splits made it all the more possible for black people to internalize white supremacist assumptions about black identity. Learning contempt for blackness, southerners transplanted in the north suffered both culture shock and soul loss. Contrasting the harshness of city life with an agrarian world, the poet Waring Cuney wrote this popular poem in the 1920s, testifying to lost connection:

She does not know her beauty
She thinks her brown body has no glory.
If she could dance naked,
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river
She would know.
But there are no palm trees on the street,
And dishwater gives back no images.

For many years, and even now, generations of black folks who migrated north to escape life in the south, returned down home in search of a spiritual nourishment, a healing, that was fundamentally connected to reaffirming one’s connection to nature, to a contemplative life where one could take time, sit on the porch, walk, fish, and catch lightning bugs.


Mainstream American journalism “discovered” the homeless in the early 1980s. Those investigating homelessness contend that shortly after 1980 the phenomenon “moved from the margins of public awareness to center stage” (Redburn and Buss 1986, p. 113). Indeed, one indicator of this movement to the center is a striking semantic shift in the world of news. Throughout the 1970s, The New York Times Index provided no “homeless persons” category, listing instead scattered articles under “vagrancy” or “housing.” In 1981 and 1982, only five articles were indexed under homeless while in each of these years, sixty-one and ninety-nine articles turned up under vagrancy. In 1983, the language dramatically changed as homeless persons displaced vagrancy as a classification. That year, eighty-two news articles and editorials appeared under homeless persons; only five articles appeared under vagrancy. By 1984, a total of 159 stories turned up under homeless; two under vagrancy. And in 1985, the number swelled to 235, none under vagrancy.

Why the semantic shift from vagrancy to homelessness? The modification in part represented changes in both the socioeconomic structure and in the numbers and types of homeless persons. Vagrancy conjures up bygone images of tramps and hobos, of drifters who choose to wander and live on the margins of society. Being without home, however, speaks much more to a severe rupture in the fabric of Middle America — to the lack of individual choice. Homelessness signifies being without those centrist virtues “home” connotes: safety, stability, family, warmth, neighborhood, community (see Watson and Austerberry, 1986). Being without home transports a person, often violently and unwillingly, from mainstream to margin.

Certainly homelessness is not a 1980s phenomenon. Most studies trace its roots as a serious social problem to the industrialization and urbanization of the nineteenth century (Watson and Austerberry, 1986, p. 26). Still, it is 1980s news, and it became so in much the same fashion as war protests became news in the 1960s or ecology in the 1970s.

Richard Campbell and Jimmie L. Reeves “Covering the Homeless: The Joyce Brown Story” in Min, Eungjun, ed. Reading the homeless: the media’s image of homeless culture. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.


1. Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.

2. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design…

If space and place are taken as internally related to one another in human practice, however, these oppositions dissolve. Space then signifies a field of practice or area in which a group or organization, such as a state, operates, held together in popular consciousness by a map-image and a narrative that represents it as a meaningful whole. Place represents the encounter of people with other people and things in space. It refers to how everyday life is inscribed in space and takes on meaning for people and organizations. Space is thus ‘top-down’, defined by powerful actors imposing their control and narratives on others. Place is the ‘bottom-up’, representing the outlooks and actions of more typical folk. Places can be localized when associated with the familiar. But they can also be larger areas, depending on patterns of activities, network connections and the projection of feelings of attachment, comfort and belonging. From this perspective, neither trumps the other. Indeed, each requires the other.

Agnew, John (2005) “Space:Place,” in Paul Cloke & Ron Johnson, Spaces of Geographical Thought: Deconstructing Human Geography’s Binaries. Sage: London, 81-96. (via Serge Marek’s dissertation on Maori urbanisms)


Arcosanti, an experimental town developed by Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri

"Arcosanti is an urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community, and environmental accountability. Our goal is to actively pursue lean alternatives to urban sprawl based on Paolo Soleri’s theory of compact city design, Arcology (architecture + ecology).”

Compulsive reading of completely unrelated books will help me write my dissertation proposal. Right? I really liked this one though. Not only because I got to imagine a potato-based economy (utopian dreams…), but because the authors did a great job of showing how the concepts and metaphors of campesinos are in dialogue with the concepts and models of economic theorists, in ways that challenge and extend our understanding of economics.

Stephen Gudeman and Alberto Rivera. Conversations in Colombia: the domestic economy in life and text. Cambridge University Press, 1990. (page 182-188).

Keynes himself once justified his profession in a grand set of phrases (1964[1936]:383): 

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

But the anthropologist wonders whether the economist has it back to front, for to judge by the Colombian ethnography it would appear that many of those “voices in the air” come first from the practices and articulations of living folk and are then frantically distilled and transformed by academic economists into textual forms that - as the writings of Aristotle, Xenophon, Cato, Aquinas, Smith, Mill and Keynes all suggest - have their persuasive force on one another and on the long conversation in which we all participate.

One part of our argument, then, is that the folk have economic models, too. Their behavior and talk, patterned and changing, is an act of modeling. Often, they are very articulate about what they make, and some of their historical voices have been incorporated into textual theories. But the shift from practice to text is hardly one-way, for just as Aristotle may have been influenced by early Greek practices or Mill by his observations of European peasants or Smith by what he observed in France and Scotland, so their texts have had a profound influence on the way life was conducted and texts were written in the centuries thereafter.

But just as there are “voices in the air” (by which Keynes meant texts), so there are “voices on the ground.” Contemporary conversationalists situated at the periphery of economies have models of livelihood, too. Should we call their study “ethno-economics” (Mayer 1987)? Certainly, when we turn to problems and puzzles of “economic development,” we might think first about expanding and democratizing the community of modelers. Rather than using the various forms of power - from monetary control of capital to the writing of texts - that subjugate and exclude these other voices, rather than offering prescriptions for “deepening capital” or raising agricultural productivity through doses of technological improvement (as in the Green Revolution), we might try to develop an “appropriate economics” that would expand the community of conversationalists by drawing upon the work of both the marginalized modelers and the inscribers. In a curious, almost paradoxical way, this would return us to the tradition of Smith, Mill, Marx, and others, whose work was embedded in their experience of contemporary practices.

But what might we expect from such a venture? We have seen how the house model - with the practice of making savings and the schema of sorting flows into expenditures and remainders - helps us to understand what is occurring in trade between the rural house and the marketplace agent. Starting with this model we might view trade relations themselves as simply one dimension of the larger, two-way, “flotsam-and-jetsam” or remainder relation between house and corporate economies. Leftovers from corporate units are turned to new uses in the countryside. Old rubber tires are recycled into sandals, discarded plastic sheeting becomes a windbreaker and raincoat; distant forests are used for firewood, leftover grass by the roadside becomes pasture for animals. This is a perpetual, ever-changing relationship corresponding to the house practice of putting remainders to use. In the model of the larger economy, however, it is viewed differently: there, the tires, the plastic sheeting, and the old tins are “garbage” because they cannot be used for profit. By expanding our community of modelers, our community of material makers, we come to a better understanding of this total relationship and to the proposal that we search for ways in which one group’s leftovers can be used by the other.

Much of modern economics, for example, starts from a Cartesian ego or from a reified model of the individual from which behavior in any aggregate is deduced; much has been lost by effacing the vocal presence of the other, and if we are once again to take cognizance of human experience, daily lives, and the shifting problems of survival - whether in the rural areas of Colombia or the peripheries of the market in modern cities - we must expand our conversation to include other communities of people, their practices and their voices, which, to judge by Colombia, are sometimes not so different from our own.

[Image of potato varietal farmer from]



In Cairo, waste collectors, known as zabaleen, work in an informal economy, but they provide a remarkably efficient recycling service and become experts on their neighborhoods. In this week’s issue, Sayyid Ahmed reveals the contradictions of life in modern Egypt to Peter Hessler

Above: Sayyid Ahmed, Cairo. Photograph by Rena Effendi / Institute.

Gerardo Francisco Sandoval, “Transnational Placemaking in Small-Town America”, in Dialogos: Placemaking in Latino Communities, editors Michael Rios and Leonardo Vasquez

This map illustrates the counties in Iowa where Latinos reside according to 2010 U.S. Census data and the counties that contain meatpacking and processing plants that employ 50 people or more. Some of the counties listed have more than one meatpacking / processing plant in the county.

Six of Iowa’s counties have Latino populations of 10% or more. Tyson is the second largest employer in the county, with 1,200 workers from all over the world. In fact, 75% of its employees are foreign born, including 55% from Latin America.

This map blew my mind.