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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Posts I Like

Dependence Isn’t a Dirty Word: Dr. Danny Avula at TEDxRVA

I’m posting this because a) I know Danny b) he’s super smart c) this is a pretty stellar story about neighborliness and d) he didn’t bat an eye when a near-stranger asked him to dress her head wound at our wedding after-party. 

A board-certified pediatrician and preventive medicine physician, Danny currently serves as the Deputy Director of the Richmond City Health Department.

In 2004, Danny and his wife, Mary Kay, made a commitment with a group of college friends to move into a low-income neighborhood and simply be good neighbors to people whose lives looked very different than their own. Ten years later, they have found themselves in the midst of North Church Hill’s amazing rebirth—a transformation that is full of hope, but which also presents daily complex challenges related to race, class and justice. 


The Guardian Weekend Magazine are running a double-page feature on the Clothing Recycled project in their ‘Fashion Issue’ today. You can also read the article
on their website, here.

I found this photo post via Lucy Norris's book Recycling Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Reuse and Value which opens with a black-and-white version of this photo by TIm Mitchell.

The caption in the linked photo series is a bit different from the caption in the book, which reads:

Figure1. In Raghubir Nagar, a suburb of Delhi where thousands of people earn a living recycling used clothing, a new temple to the god Ramdev is being built. Local dealers in cast-offs regularly contribute a small percentage of their profits, thus the temple is both a symbol of transcendence and a material manifestation of the value to be extracted from old cloth. 

I think a lot about the materiality of unwanted stuff and how waste shapes our cities. Norris’ book looks great for how it investigates how social our understandings of waste and reuse actually are.

Indian society is still partially a cloth economy, where cloth is both a currency and a means of incorporation, which has profound implications for disposal practices. As cloth is gifted and exchanged throughout life-cycle rituals, in religious and personal celebrations, it creates social relationships that have to be continuously reinforced as the cloth wears thin; the processes involved in reuse and recycling are here understood as the simultaneous transformation of trash into treasure and the remaking of social ties that constantly threaten to unravel or tear.

Stephen Ward’s Selling Places: The Marketing and Promotion of Towns and Cities 1850-2000 is well-worth reading and a forceful reminder that the subdivision billboards, cheesy real estate magazine spreads, and catchy (and not-so catchy) slogans of cities have a long proud tradition. Community branding may be the new term, but the idea is over 150 years old.

In his third section, “Selling the Suburb,” Ward discusses the techniques and images the railroads at the end of the 19th century used to lure new residents to the new suburbs being built along their lines. The promotional booklets of Chicago’s Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad “give an unmistakable impression of new suburban towns outside Chicago taking their place on a largely empty terrain… is as if the suburbanites were themselves the first wave of settlers, homesteaders setting up their homes in a new land” (Ward, 138-9). The railroad even quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson — ‘O, when I am safe in my silvan home..’ in one ad. One developer, whose subdivisions were actually quite close to Chicago, nonetheless evoked the idea of an untainted nature by promoting his mass-built homes as ‘a tiny Eden in which there was no serpent’s trail’. Ward analyzes the ads’ presuppositions (145-146):

… many of the healthy qualities stressed in suburban advertising rested on essentially nineteenth-century notions about the spread of diseases. Great faith attached to the value of air, partly reflecting traditional beliefs in the spread of disease by airborne miasmas. 

In 1920, for example, the Chamber of Commerce of the New York Borough of Queens was offering ‘…the tonic of ocean air, the sweep of breezes over sunlit fields, air untainted by smoke and soot…’

[Circa 1920, Forest Hills Gardens, Queens]

One early happy memory as a proto-historian was digging through old magazines at the New York Public Library, getting distracted by ads and marveling at how different and yet the same so many of them were to modern advertising. The “community branding” that many cities, states, and even nations aspire too today reveals so many parallels with the clumsy image-making discourse of the past. While these British and American cities functioned in an era where manufacturing was still a primary economic engine, the general flurry of promises is quite familiar. In the book’s fourth section, “Selling the Industrial Town,” Ward analyzes a rich set of ads produced by various local economic boards and Chambers of Commerce.

From a fairly early stage several distinct types of slogan were being used in industrial promotion. The most basic linked the name of the place with industry, prosperity progress or other positive sentiment. Key reinforcing words, such as ‘centre’, ‘hub’, ‘gateway’ or ‘heart’ were sometimes used” (197).

Even the visual tropes are nearly identical.

Landmark buildings or groups of buildings or engineering structures were sometimes used as a shorthand way of representing places. Richmond for example often included the Virginia state capitol as a central feature of its advertising. In Britain, Nottingham incorporated the castle and the Trent Bridge on the cover of its 1927 promotional brochure. Bridges were especially popular devices in both British and North American publicity. This was perhaps because bridges combined visual interest with the suggestion of functional efficiency and a supremacy over nature that reinforced the theme of industrial progress. (203)

It was, however, more difficult for the general run of industrial towns and cities to encapsulate their essence in one memorable building or structure. Quite simply, it was rare for them to possess anything which had sufficient visual potential to impress in this way. A common means of overcoming this problem and conveying the essence of place while avoiding the extremes of excessive realism or overly artistic treatments was to use a skyline, often in silhouette. This device did not need to be entirely realistic. Real buildings could be used, but often rearranged into a more exciting and dynamic juxtaposition. A very common variation was to produce two skylines. One was industrial, comprising factories, chimneys (often smoking), and related structures. The other was civic, comprising churches, public buildings, universities and monuments. The intended effect was to show a place that had two facets, a workaday city of modern, busy industries, yet one that was also civilized. It was, though, important to show that these identities, though distinct, were not entirely separated.

All images and captions from Stephen Ward’s Selling Places

  1. This residential booklet by the Chicago and North Western Railway (c1909) promoted many of the higher status Chicago suburbs. 
  2. Letchworth (and later Welwyn) Garden City were amongst the most active British sellers of themselves in the early twentieth century. From 1908 industrial promotion became a priority, producing advertising of the kind shown here.
  3. This 1936 example by [the developer] John Laing stresses especially the values of elevation, away from smoke
  4. Early 1930s brochure from Derby. The conjunction of civic and industrial skylines and the cog wheel motifs were familiar promotional devices. The leaping stag and slogan were more original touches, however.
  5. Even Toronto, much the largest city in Ontario, felt vulnerable enough to promote itself in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. The reliance on a photograph of the central business district to show the essential character of the place was very typical of Canadian practice. This example dates from 1910.


Community Mapping as Participatory Embroidery (a CAPITAL B project) I love this. Found via CityFix.


Sometimes I search for things on the internet and find my own Tumblr. ^_^


Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1871‘‘Report to the Staten Island Improvement Commission of a Preliminary Scheme of Improvements,’’ as quoted in Robert M. Fogelson’s excellent history of the subdivision Bourgeois nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930. Yale University Press, 2007.

Fogelson describes Olmsted’s impassioned case for zoning as arising from his horror at the deterioration of once-grand suburbs due to speculation, over-population and expansion of industry. (p 29)

Through ‘‘ignorance, incompetence, bad taste, or knavery,’’ Olmsted wrote, the newcomers destroyed ‘‘just those circumstances of the locality which have really constituted the chief parts of its value to cultivated townspeople.’’ Far from happy with the changes, some owners lost interest in their property or found other uses for it. ‘‘Rural buildings and fences are allowed to fall into decay, woods and orchards to be cut down, shops, brickyards, breweries, factories to be brought in, and a poor semblance of the scattering outskirts of a large town to overgrow what had been a beautiful countryside.’’

Olmsted had observed this deterioration on a tract of about a thousand to fifteen hundred acres on Staten Island, where he had worked on and off as a gentleman farmer in the late 1840s and early 1850s. A tract that was once ‘‘the most attractive of any on the island, or even perhaps of any on this side of the Atlantic,’’ it had been covered by farms and villages, whose residents lived in cozy cottages alongside pretty roads, ‘‘winding among the great trees, crossing clear brooks and skirting the clean meadows.’’ Then a wharf was built, and a ferry began running between the island and the city. New roads were constructed, and old farms were divided into suburban lots, ‘‘inviting to a good class of residents.’’ But no provision was made for proper drainage, and no care was given to protecting the natural setting. Soon the growing suburb attracted not only the well-to-do but also servants, laborers, and what would now be called day-trippers. To tap the new market, one businessman opened a beer garden; others set up shops and stables and built small dwellings, ‘‘to make room for which fine trees were often felled.’’ ‘‘At length,’’ Olmsted wrote, ‘‘two or three factories were established in the neighborhood, increasing the demand for small lots for lodging houses, stores, and dram shops’’ and making the place less attractive for single-family houses. Polluted by household wastes and left stagnant by road construction, the once sparkling brooks became ‘‘disgusting and dangerous.’’ The once beautiful woodlands, cleared by builders (and then stripped by the poor for fuel), were replaced by ‘‘bare, unsightly wastes’’ and ‘‘pestiferous swamps.’’ To Olmsted, it was extremely troubling that ‘‘a suburban district of great beauty’’ that was easily accessible to the city could deteriorate so rapidly.


[1891 Long Island Railroad map and advertisement]

Two things. 1) Is that an airplane hangar repurposed as a grocery store? 2) I’m glad I’m a townie (for geographic convenience to school, Korean restaurants, and friends) but the windward view of the Ko’olaus is incredible.

Kaneohe Foodland! RT @HistoryInPics: Foodland supermarket, Hawaii, 1959. Photograph by Ralph Crane.RT Via @jilltokuda (Jill N. Tokuda May 15, 2014)


[Trompe l’œil by Alan Sonfist. Images added by me as usual]

I’ve returned to my stacks of half-read books as a way to ease back into research and writing mode. I had checked out Dwelling, seeing, and designing: Toward a phenomenological ecology (1993) for a single chapter I needed for my comps: Randolph Hester’s excellent chapter on the sacred spaces of a small coastal town.

But my inability to let the rest of the book go unread has resulted in my happy appreciation of landscape architect Catherine Howett's chapter "If the doors of perception were cleansed: toward an experiential aesthetics for the designed landscape." I liked her summation of Mark Francis' findings in “Some Different Meanings Attached to a City Park and Community Gardens” (1987) re: a Sacramento study in which respondents preferred the messy chaos of the not-always-legal community gardens to the serene and green expanses of Fremont Park. 

The gardens had overcome the objectification that made the park seem ‘boring’ to some users; they were not landscape ‘things’ but landscape actions — tangible, lively, and ‘beautiful’ physical signs of political, social, and natural processes to which any citizen might relate, if only to affirm to validity of such alternatives.


[Bali-born Athens-based street artist Wild Drawing] 

Howett also writes quite poetically about a new kind of landscape architecture (p. 69)

As designers, we might allow ourselves to think metaphorically of allowing nature to intrude itself, to ‘take over.’ Imagine an army of trees — or better, a feisty ragtag remnant of some original vegetation — ‘occupying’ a square, blocking certain of its paths to force us around and through them. Imagine an urban place that was designed to provide habitat for creatures other than squirrels and pigeons — a tangled, thorny thicket replacing the manicured planters. Imagine transparent retaining walls - like the one proposed by artist Alan Sonfist to reveal the layers of earth strata uncovered during construction of an underground metropolitan rail station serving the High Museum in Atlanta (Sonfist, 1979, 1-3). These walls remind us of an ‘underworld’ that literally and symbolically supports human life. Imagine places that compelled us to pay attention to rainwater moving through drainage devices or, conversely, that made seasonal drought and desiccation impinge upon us forcefully — a ‘fountain’ from which precious drops of water appeared sporadically, each one resonating somehow in the struggle of other lifeforms to endure in that place.

We are in a strange part of town: unknown space stretches ahead of us. In time we know a few landmarks and the routes connecting them. Eventually what was a strange town and unknown space becomes familiar place. Abstract space becomes concrete place, filled with meaning.

Yi Fu Tuan - Space and place (via tastefulraspberry)

Via Stuart Elden, a review of Yi-Fu Tuan’s most recent book, Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape

Directed at a general audience, Romantic Geography offers an alternative to modern academic writing, which Tuan criticizes for being aimed at too a “restricted group” (page 172); as an indication of this style, the book contains an index and notes but no bibliography.

Romantic Geography will divide audiences. Literary scholars may be left frustrated by the want of close textual engagement with source material, historians sceptical of generalisations, and geographers unconvinced by oversimplifications.  At the same time, it is in its capacity to span, and to interweave Western literature, Indian mythology, Christian theology, imperial China, and medieval Europe that Tuan’s account is most impressive.  In short, Romantic Geography is not without problems, but it promises the possibility for wider debate concerning the nature of Geography and its complex love affair with exploration and aesthetic geographical experiences.


My [scattered] thoughts on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. This was originally just a defence of the film’s ending—which I’ve seen widely criticised—because I think it’s brilliant and necessary and worth defending. But… then there’s everything else.

[major spoilers, of course]

Read More


Sungseok Ahn’s series entitled “Historic Present”

South Korean artist Sungseok Ahn’s series entitled “Historic Present” questions the memory of past from the fast changing scenery of today. By overlapping a historical location with an old image of that exact place, he questions the way we treat our history and explores the dynamics between space and time at the same time.

This photo-in-photo juxtaposition has become popular. I like how he has used the screen as a physical insertion into the landscape, as a visual reminder of the distinction between the two kinds of images. 

(via han-nara)

I’m fascinated by how knowledge and practices based on certain knowledges are propagated and codified. Mariana Valverde describes her book Law’s Dream of a Common Knowledge as the “study of how people—especially officials—come to know what is vice and what is disorder, and how they explain and justify their knowledge to legal authorities.” She discusses inChapter One (available at Princeton University Press) how the operating knowledge may not be scientific or expert, and police or judges may rely on hybrid or even popular knowledge for their decisions.

Nevertheless, not all fields of human endeavor have been successfully “medicalized” or otherwise monopolized by professionals wielding expert knowledges. This is more than an empirical point. This book suggests not only that expert domination is limited but also, more fundamentally, that it would be more useful for socio-legal scholars to abandon the undirectional models provided by “professionalization” and “medicalization” theses in favor of more dynamic and flexible frameworks that do not assume there is a single logic that can be studied across fields and across situations, either to prove its dominance or to show that it fails to dominate. There are many, heterogeneous, unsystematizable reasons why both popular and hybrid knowledges continue to flourish in many fields. In some cases these knowledges directly compete with science and expertise, successfully or unsuccessfully; but in other situations there is no overt contest, only various patterns of peaceful coexistence. The research done for this book, in other words, does not support the thesis that law is becoming increasingly technical or scientific: but neither does it support the opposite view (expressed through such offhand remarks as “judges cannot be replaced by computers, you know”) that there is some essence of law as such that makes it impervious to scientific knowledges. The epistemological workings of law, I suggest, cannot be reduced to any one general thesis. Different fields and situations exhibit different logics. (pg 3)


If I had a time machine and a teleporter, I’d go to her June 6th talk

This public lecture brings legal scholar Mariana Valverde and theatre scholar Michael McKinnie together to examine the relationships between performance and socio-legal studies.

In her article ‘Seeing Like a City’ (2009), Valverde offers a reading of the urban that acknowledges the influence historically distinct ways of seeing the city contribute  to the negotiation of property, land and its uses in the contemporary moment. More recently, McKinnie reconfigured ‘seeing like a city’ as ‘performing like a city’ in his analysis of London’s South Bank Centre (2013), where he argues that the entrepreneurial performance of today’s South Bank relies on the performance of the building as a national and social welfare project.

On weekends we walk out to where the past used to be and where its stories remain…”

A quiet comic about pain and empathy.