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.
Recent Tweets @spamandkimchi
Posts I Like

This might be the first sensor-based artwork I’ve really really liked.


Tele-Present Water Simulates a Spot in the Pacific from Halfway Around the World

Artist David Bowen is known for his kinetic sculptures that are driven by real-world data from natural phenomenon. For his work “Tele-Present Water,” first exhibited at the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland, Bowen pulled real-time wave intensity and frequency data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) buoy station 46246 (49°59’7″ N 145°5’20″ W) located in the remote Shumagin Islands of Alaska. This information was scaled and transferred to a mechanical grid structure, resulting in an uncanny live simulation of the movement of water from halfway around the world. The piece, along with Bowen’s other works, speaks to the way technology and telecommunications can both alienate us from and unite us with the natural world. While technology has enabled us to control and model phenomena with unprecedented precision, it may also provide a means to understand the world in a more intimate, visceral way. 

So yesterday I wrote a little bit about the housing type missing from the Ala Moana Transit Oriented Development plan – decidedly unglamorous low-rise walk-up (though there are many examples that transcend the concrete box Motel 6 aesthetic and are quite appealing visually). It’s a common housing type in Honolulu’s urban core, and truly the most affordable. Low upkeep, no need for expensive elevator repairs seemingly every weekend. I feel like half my PhD cohort lives in the walk-ups clustered near UH Manoa along University Ave.


[Google Street View, looking south on University Ave. Yup, lots of concrete]

In many ways, I understand why walk-ups aren’t held up as an exemplar of island style living. No views of the ocean, usually very little grass or even a patch of dirt. But that need not be the case, we have an abundance of tangerines, avocados, and pomelos growing on the side of the fence! Our landlord kept the fruit trees even after building an accessory dwelling unit on the back side of the lot.

Anyway, I think there’s a kind of scrappy friendliness and make-do humbleness that characterizes many islanders (just as the memory of the Matson strikes and Hurricane Iniki makes many a hoarder) that is visible in my little neighborhood of walk-ups spotted with a few single family homes. People haul out their repaired lawn chairs to sit on the curb for an after-dinner smoke. The young guy down the street repairs boomboxes and then strides around the block playing music. My over the fence neighbors started keeping chickens (this suburban girl honestly thought the morning clucking was a novelty alarm clock for weeks). The “mayor” of our block keeps an eye on things while she waters and weeds her property. This sense of living together in a place is not always inclusive or conflict free but nonetheless is palpable in a way that wasn’t evident when I lived in a high-rise condo.

When I was helping with Kanu Hawaii’s Live Aloha in Your Neighborhood campaign I was living in a 14-story apartment building that had a pretty nice laundry room and open air lobby that residents sometimes hung out in. But besides our immediate neighbor to the right, I didn’t know a single thing about the other apartment residents. We just got in the elevator, made awkward eye contact or not, and then scuttled into our respective apartments, shutting the doors behind us. In retrospect, I should have put a chair out in the hallway and said hello to people, but ultimately in order to knock on my neighbors’ doors (as part of Live Aloha) I turned to liquid courage (shot of whiskey).

I am not an environmental determinist, but I do agree that building types and neighborhood design can foster or hinder neighborly interaction. But sociability can also happen in un-designed places, like how the pajama-clad denizens of Shanghai and the coffee drinkers of Hanoi use the streets as an extension of their living rooms. Even without the porches promoted by New Urbanism, people will find their way to the street if the buildings they live in are porous, close to the ground, open to the elements. I’ve yet to see a high-rise apartment building that actually works as a conduit to urban sociability rather than a one-way elevator to privacy.


[Hanoi coffee stand]

The draft Ala Moana Neighborhood Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) plan is an intimidating 149 pages long, but a good chunk of that is maps, pictures, renderings and the like, some of which I included above.

I’ve been too distracted with my own research to do a proper review of the plan, but as a Ala Moana resident I’m both delighted with the focus on pedestrian safety and ultra worried about the long-term affordability and sustainability of rental housing in the neighborhood.

As I mentioned in a previous post, infill development in Honolulu often times are charm-less concrete walk-ups but these cinderblock boxes are a crucial part of the housing market. Unlike the examples of townhouses and “low rise” buildings included in the draft plan, the humble Honolulu walk-up is cheap to build, affordable to rent, and surprisingly sustainable. My little cinderblock apartment catches the tradewinds through louvered windows (no need for AC) and the balcony catches the afternoon sun (no need for a dryer, just a laundry line). The semester we lived on the 31st floor of Kaka’ako condo with a baller view of the ocean, I learned the hard way that southwest facing windows (very few of which could actually open) meant the living room was uninhabitable in the afternoon. Hot yoga anyone?

I assumed that the new high-rises that are going up have incorporated passive cooling into their design, but the nearly done building on Waimanu Street seems to only have those awful windows that hinge open just a few inches from the bottom.

[Illustration of solar heat gain and internal heat gain from lighting, equipment, and occupant body heat]

Tom Dinell, professor emeritus and one of the founding faculty of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa’s planning department, recently wrote about the potential of ohana housing to expand affordable housing options instead of focusing on large-scale development as the only answer.

If you want to know how uninviting the existing procedure is, just read the instructions for ‘ohana unit construction or expansion, which can be found on the Department of Planning and Permitting’s web site.

I’d be excited if, as part of the TOD zoning changes, small-scale infill development was encouraged, the sort that young families and retirees alike can afford. 

[Parisian fishmonger]

Charles Landry's The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators includes this intriguing example of city policy intended to keep small retail in neighborhoods and shift requirements for new buildings from parking spaces to storage for bicycles and baby strollers. Emphases added: 

Paris approved a Local Urbanism Plan in 2005 which seeks to encourage small shops and key workers to stay in the city. It seeks to sustain the economic, social and cultural ecology of Paris, not in a nostalgic way but to strengthen locality and diversity. Central Paris, with just over 2 million residents, is far livelier because it has a dense and varied network of shops and people. It wants to sustain the social balance that makes Paris what it is and not have a place with the rich on one side and the poor on the other.

It seeks to achieve this goal by influencing the market through regulation and incentives. To nurture la mixité sociale, a requirement for developers is to set aside 25 per cent of any project spanning more than 1000mfor social housing apartments in districts where there is little at present. The majority of these will be reserved for key workers, such as teachers, nurses, council employees and shop- keepers, who are rapidly being driven out of a city where many residents rent their homes, endangering the social fabric.

To enhance a vibrant local retail sector on the streets of Paris and to sustain its distinctive food culture, half the 71,000 shops in Paris have restrictions placed on them to prevent inappropriate change of use when the shopkeeper either sells up or retires. This means that a small food shop would have to remain a food shop, and it would prevent, for example, a string of mobile phone chain shops replacing butchers, bakers or greengrocers. The move follows studies showing that the number of delicatessens has fallen by 42.8 per cent in the past decade, with butchers falling by 27.2 per cent, fishmongers by 26 per cent and bakers by 16.2 per cent. At the same time, the number of mobile telephone shops has risen by 350 per cent, fast-food restaurants by 310 per cent and gymnasiums by 190 per cent. Other measures in the plan include a requirement for developers to set aside 2 per cent of any new building for residents’ bicycles and pushchairs. On the other hand it will reduce the number of parking spaces they are required to create. (p 134 Landry)


Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide is compiled by the artist Paul Chan, whose visit to the city after Hurricane Katrina led to the restaging of Beckett’s classic play as a collaborative process. I know, collaboration is a word bandied about by a lot of artists (and planners too, for that matter) but in this case, Chan really put in the time. To bring their experience in theater production and community engagement, Chan asked the Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) to come on board. CTH “brought its own previous experience of hosting potluck dinners” where community and cast got together to talk to each other and talk about the play. In the case of the New Orleans process, five potlucks “overflowing with gumbo, chicken, beans, étouffée, and crawfish” were held. CTH’s co-founder, Christopher McElroen described how his initial conversations with Chan made it clear that the project was truly intended to ”build community rather than exploit a landscape.”

As Nato Thompson, curator at Creative Time, described:

When Paul Chan states that what was required was the production of a public, his words go to the heart of the most critical element of this multi-pronged endeavor, the one hardest to see. Without a background of workshops, potlucks, meetings, and time spent among the residents of New Orleans, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans could easily have worked as yet another spectacle that the disaster tours digest so readily. The pieces were there. Without the production of a public, the work could fall into the trap of spectacularizing the painful image of horror. In a contemporary art world full of gestures that supposedly point at problems and critique, then, how does the production of a public position itself as a substantially different aesthetic maneuver?

Ultimately, a play transpired. On November 2, 3, and 4,, 2007, at the intersection of N. Roman Street and Forstall Street, and on November 9 and 10 in the front yard of a house on the corner of Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Pratt Drive, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot came to life before a beyond-capacity crowd. Each night began in New Orleans style with gumbo and a second line band (the Big 9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Rebirth Brass Band, the Pinettes Brass Band, and Salty Dog) that would parade the crowd into the stadium seating built to hold eight hundred people.

How to capture what happened in the play? To call it site-specific seems so limiting. In the distance, one could see the barges making their way out toward Lake Pontchartrain from the Mississippi River. You could see the foundations of homes that once stood peeking out from the encroaching weeds.

The dead were powerfully present. And there was a play. The cast performed not for strangers, but instead, for a community. People had not come to just see a play. They had come to be together. It was a peculiar ritual, summoning community.

"Occupy Bakery" is the 7-minute distillation of the story told in the award-winning documentary The Hand That Feedsfrom Jubilee Films. 

At a popular deli on New York’s Upper East Side, customers get bagels and coffee served with a smile 24 hours a day. But behind the scenes, undocumented immigrant workers face sublegal wages, dangerous machinery, and abusive managers. Mild-mannered sandwich maker Mahoma López has never been interested in politics, but in January 2012, he convinces a small group of his co-workers to fight back. Risking deportation and the loss of livelihood, the workers team up with a diverse crew of innovative young organizers and take the unusual step of forming an independent union, launching themselves on a journey that will test the limits of their resolve. 

We’re looking to screen the full documentary at UH Manoa, but will definitely be hosting a “Food+” screening & discussion in late October that includes this short version and the film The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers, along with a discussion of solidarity in labor organizing.

Hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory, the Graffiti Dialogues Network at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) and Southbank Centre, the Graffiti Sessions (December 3-5, 2014 in London, UK) will gather a wide group of experts to explore the evolving roles of graffiti and street art in the urban environment. Contributors include: Chantal Mouffe on agonistic public spaces, Jane Golden on using arts for transformation, Devon Ostrom on billboard fees for arts practice and more.

The ambition is to challenge deep-rooted preconceptions and speculation that have until now limited the progress of both policy and practice related to street art and graffiti. 


DAY 1: The Illegal Sessions.

How can cops, courts and cleaning of graffiti be more economically and socially sustainable for the publics they serve? What would improved spatial justice look like for the diverse groups affected by graffiti? This day will address structures for managing vandalism and graffiti, and theories of understanding relationships between design and crime, as well as activities supporting graffiti, and the roles of graffiti and street art in gentrification. 

DAY 2: The Legal Sessions

Can street art and graffiti related practices support claims that they can resocialise or regenerate cities and neighbourhoods? What are the positive examples that can more transferably show the role of graffiti and street art in genuine regeneration? What are the most innovative ways of assessing the impact of street art, graffiti and urban creative practice on places and publics? 

DAY 3: A Call to Action

How can artistic interventions or better management help people love places more? How do or could street art and graffiti contribute to making safer and more social places? What is it that promotes enjoyment – artistic interventions or the way such spaces are managed?


RPM Curated Photos and Videos from Idle No More Events and Round Dances

[Drummers for a Round Dance flash mob held at the Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, December 30, 2012. Photo by Kevin Konnyu (image and text below via Cultural Organizing)]

In October of 2012, the Canadian government introduced Omnibus Budget Bill C-45, which significantly eroded Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections. Indigenous communities immediately voiced concerns. In Saskatchewan, four women — three Indigenous and one non-native — launched a teach-in and website in order to raise awareness about the issue. They dubbed their effort Idle No More.

By December, the “Idle No More” movement was in full swing. Rallies were being held across Canada and internationally; the hash tag #idlenomore was trending on Twitter; and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was on hunger strike seeking a meeting with the Canadian government. The movement had quickly broadened to encompass a collective demand for governments worldwide to “honor Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water,” as the group’s website declared.

It was in this context that a group of organizers put out a call to action on Facebook asking “Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people, Metís, youth, and anyone willing to dance/sing/drum with us” to meet at the Cornwall Centre shopping mall in Regina, Saskatchewan. At 7:00pm on December 17, Aboriginal activists gathered at the mall and began beating out a steady rhythm on hand drums and singing. Others soon emerged from the holiday shopping crowd to join hands around the mall’s massive Christmas tree, circling clockwise in a traditional Indigenous round dance. By the end, an intergenerational and interracial group of over 500 people had gathered on two floors to take part in the action. Mall security and city police arrived, but the flash mob remained entirely peaceful before melting away.

While the flash mob itself lasted less than 15 minutes, videos and articles about it circulated widely on the Internet. Another round dance took place the following day in the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta. These actions captured the imagination of others in the movement, and dozens of round dance flash mobs began popping up in malls and public spaces across Canada and the United States. On December 29, over 1,000 people gathered for a round dance protest at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Round dances, often used as a form of celebration and as an expression of friendship and unity, are practiced in different forms by many Indigenous nations in North America. Along with many other aspects of Indigenous culture, the round dance was suppressed in the process of colonization, but it has recently reemerged as a celebratory practice, and recorded round dance music has become increasingly popular. The round dance flash mobs, then, represented both a powerful expression of resistance and a practice of cultural regeneration.

Round dance flash mobs became a strong enough presence in the Idle No More movement for some to begin referring to it as the “round dance revolution.” Organizers had hit upon a way to combine social media and flash mobs — both highly popular forms of activism among young people — with traditional music and dance in a way that bridged generations and cultures, creating space for building a sense of community. The round dances symbolized the movement’s core tenets of peace and unity, while sending the simple message: “We are here, our culture is strong, and we will not be silent in the face of destruction.”

[The Round Dance Revolution #IdleNoMore]

The Roman Carnival is not really a festival given for the people but one the people give themselves… unlike the religious festivals in Rome, the Carnival does not dazzle the eye: there are no fireworks, no illuminations, no brilliant processions. All that happens is that, at a given signal, everyone has leave to be as mad and foolish as he likes, and almost everything, except fisticuffs and stabbing, is permissible.

Goethe, via Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

This book is super fun and is having a colloquium in my head with William McNeill’s Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History and UH Manoa political science professor Michael Shapiro’s talk last week on “Political Temporalities: The Rhythms of Work and the Arts of Resistance.” She discusses early Christian dancing in church (apparently quite common until the Middle Ages), the rise in melancholy as connected with the suppression of Carnival, Fascist spectacles, and more. Right now I’m reading about rock and the eruption of bodily, collective fervor.

Bradley Garrett's presentation “Place-Hack Your City” at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. 

I’ve seen his book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City pop up a few times on my radar but haven’t had a chance to check it out. I imagine that some of the footage shown in this presentation was part of his PhD dissertation: ”a visual ethnography with urban explorers, people who trespass into, and often photograph, off-limits urban spaces. The research was one of the first multimedia theses in geography, being comprised of text, photography and video.” 

Justice in the Home: Domestic Work Past, Present and Future
October 16 – 18, Barnard College, New York City

The National Domestic Workers Alliance has partnered with the Barnard Center for Research on Women to organize a conference about the domestic work industry. We are all really excited about the stellar line-up of scholars and organizers who have agreed to participate. We look forward to a program that we are sure will advance both research and organizing. 

Registration for is now open! “Justice in the Home” is free and open to the public. We are especially encouraging the participation of scholars (both independent and academically affiliated), domestic worker organizers, domestic workers, and other low-wage worker organizers. Please register as soon as possible and also distribute this link to your networks:

Join us in New York City, October 16-18, for a groundbreaking gathering of researchers, organizers, scholars and activists!! 

Co-sponsors: The Worker Institute at Cornell University, Labor Research Action Network, Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, UC Santa Barbara Department of Feminist Studies, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and the Roosevelt Institute