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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[Diagram taken from “Theory-driven inquiry on evaluation and research”]

I’ve always wondered how planning practitioners, especially those working in public agencies, do or do not engage with the ethical and longer-term implications of their work. All the “Year 2050” sustainability plans, all the community visioning processes, all the good intentions cannot transform the ossified logics of bureaucratic planning processes. The Anrea Cook and Wendy Sarkissian chapter, Who Cares? Australian Planners and Ethics (pdf)is a valuable peek into how planners negotiate this disjunct between the backlog of permits and a backdrop of lofty goals. They begin with a quotation taken from the 1985 book Ethics in Planning: “Planning deals with choices and politics deals with choices, while ethics, on the other hand, deals with choices.”(Stanley Hallett, 1967. “Planning, Politics and Ethics,” in William R. Ewald (ed) Environment for Man: The Next Fifty Years. They then offer examples of three types of stories – ‘love/hate stories’, ‘bewilderment stories’ and ‘professional pleas’ — that characterize the ethical stories that emerged from their interviews with government planners.

One local government planner expressed a lack of ethical opportunity in his work that struck me as a quite common experience for practicing planners:

In my area, I do a lot of application process and I don’t have a lot of opportunity to focus on things like the environment. You basically have to assess if it is appropriate development based on particular design elements rather than looking at it in that broad context.

So I guess, in many ways, the values on the broader planning principles are prescribed to me, if you like. They are handed over to me. So how do we deal with questions of fairness and environment and all that sort of stuff if we have a much narrower field that we are touching?


#Cardboard Stories. You’ve got to watch this.

Maybe the best use of the holding-a-sign meme I’ve seen yet. Really really appreciate this, especially given all the punitive proposals on homelessness floating around Honolulu. (via)

One gauge of how much urban planning has been redirected toward “achieving marketability of its product — urban space” (as in yesterday’s Susan Fainstein quote) is which metrics are typically used to define success. Emphases added in the following quote from the Urban Land Institute article “Making Public Spaces Work Overtime”:

“As we densify, we must ‘green’ at the same time,” said Ed McMahon, ULI senior resident fellow and Charles E. Fraser chair for sustainable development. Developing high-quality public space adds value to surrounding real estate, he said, citing the High Line in New York City as a prime example. The city invested $115 million in public funds and raised $44 million from the private sector to convert an old, elevated freight rail line on the west side of Manhattan to a 1.5-mile [2.4 km] public park. The High Line park has boosted nearby property values by $2 billion overall and created 12,000 new jobs in the city, McMahon said. “If we don’t invest in the public realm, we don’t realize the public good,” he said.

[Under construction condos hugging both sides of the High Line]

A friend made this film about the wall that runs between the West Bank and Israel.

Planners are less inclined to mystify their activities by pretending to be doing one thing (comprehensive decision-making in the public interest) while performing another (fostering capital accumulation and mediating tensions between capital and community). The connection between the economic structure and planning legitimation is now straightforwardly claimed, and the tactics developed to stimulate economic growth are frankly enumerated. Ideology thus no longer obscures the planner’s role; mystification instead resides at the level where private advantage is equated with public benefit.

The old justification for planning was comprehensiveness and the minimization of negative externalities. The new ones are competitiveness and market rationality. The debate over the utility of the rational model becomes meaningless in a context of negotiation with private investors. Whereas planning was previously seen by both its supporters and its right-wing critics as antithetical to markets, it is now directed at achieving marketability of its product — urban space. This term does not refer to territory per se but to a set of development rights and financial capabilities associated with a piece of land.

Susan Fainstein, “Promoting economic development” in Journal of the American Planning Association. Winter 1991, Vol. 57 Issue 1, p22. 

The shift from the managerial city to the entrepreneurial city — that is, privileging economic development over any other municipal concern (housing, sustainability, poverty alleviation) — has stripped planners of “the vocabularies of architecture and the law.” 

…planners now speak in the same terms as investment bankers, property brokers, and budget analysts. Changing planning modes have affected schools of planning, where students elect courses in real estate practice, budgetary analysis, investment management, and, when available, negotiation techniques and implementation strategies…

Fainstein is one of the mainstays of progressive planning discourse. I really like how clearly she laid out the transition to neoliberal planning practices.

One of the sites we examined as part of our group project for the Vienna Urban Studies Summer School was the flakturm that has been converted into a climbing wall and multi-story aquarium. One group of American tourists had not a clue as to the Third Reich origins of the tower, while most of the locals knew, but preferred to enjoy the reclamation of the tower as a site for play and socializing. We saw a bachelorette party boozing it up under the looming bulk of the tower, couples on dates, little kids careening around the extensive playground built at the tower’s base.


A flak tower in Vienna. In 1970s, more emphasis was put on the preservation, and the striking brutalism of the architectural remains of the wars in Europe.

From Architecture of aggression: a history of military architecture in North West Europe, 1900-1945 by Keith Mallory and Arvid Ottar, Architectural Press, 1973.


[Italian bakery on Bleecker St in 1937, via the Tenement Museum]

I still have an accidental side research interest in food systems. Came across Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s 2008 article ”White bread bio-politics: purity, health, and the triumph of industrial baking” in Cultural geographies 15.1 (2008) which lead me to his 2012 book White bread: a social history of the store-bought loaf. He looks at the process by which baking became a modern industrial science: in 1890, 90% of America’s staple starch was baked in homes by women; in 1930, 94% of bread was baked outside of the home by male professional bakers. Bobrow-Strain describes this as “a story of massive commodification and industrialization, and, as with any such story, it is an account of enormously complex cultural change.” In his 2012 op-ed adaptation for the popular media, he wrote on how home-made bread and neighborhood bakeries became tarred as unsanitary and unhealthy: 

But they could all agree on one thing: Incorrect food choices were the root cause of nearly all of the nation’s moral, physical, and social problems. So, in a fashion reminiscent of many community-garden and anti-obesity campaigns today, well-meaning reformers poured into the country’s urban tenements to spread “the gospel of good eating.” What happened next entangled choice of bread with high-stakes questions of race, responsibility, and citizenship. Small immigrant-run bakeries came under intense scrutiny, with sanitary inspectors and women’s groups painting pictures of dank, vermin-infested cellar workrooms where sewage dripped into dough-mixing troughs.

Even that sentimental icon of all that is good — “Mother’s bread” — was denounced under the banner of a safe and efficient diet. Scientific American, women’s magazines, and home-economics textbooks portrayed careless home baking as a threat to family health, while other observers wondered whether even the most careful housewife should bake at all.

Whether or not bread from small bakeries and home ovens was actually unsanitary — it probably wasn’t — anxiety over unclean bread was a gift for industrial bakers. “I want to know where my bread comes from!” an affluent woman demanded in a national advertising campaign. Strange as it might seem, especially to contemporary foodies, the language of “knowing where your food comes from” was a publicity coup for industrial food.

The somewhat grouchy book reviewer from the NYT emphasizes this racialized and class-based fear: 

A frightened public fixated — with encouragement from city officials and shrewd advertisers — not on labor law or social services, but on cleaner bread. It would be produced by machines, with tired, diseased hands kept away. The hygienic Ward Bakery, the country’s largest, opened in Brooklyn in 1910. And instead of social reform, we got bread that did not rely on society.


[A delivery truck in front of the factory in 1923. (via Streets of Washington)]

This national fixation on sanitation is corroborated in the Streets of Washington (D.C.) blog’s post on the history of local bread manufacturers and the factory buildings that remain neighborhood landmarks:

For years to come, attendees at ball games would be treated to the sweet smells of the Bond Bread factory wafting over them as they sat in the stadium’s bleachers. Excavation work at the bakery site began in 1929 for the $650,000 state-of-the-art building, designed by Corry B. Comstock of New York, an experienced bakery architect. An article in the Evening Star noted that the building would be one of the largest and most modernly equipped in Washington. “Particular attention will be paid to sanitary measures, the bread being touched by human hands only twice in the baking and once in the wrapping.” It was completed in 1930.

Even at the turn of the 19th century, this sanitation/scientific transition was in full effect (emphasis added).

An 1893 article in the Evening Star observed that "Home-made bread is a back number. Machine-made bread takes the cake. The twentieth century bakery is a thing of beauty and the up-to-date baker is a joy forever." At the popular Pure Food Show at the Washington Convention Hall in 1909, D.C. bakeries put on a massive exhibit that filled the K Street end of the hall. Visitors could observe machines doing the work in a modern factory setting; dirty human hands never touched the bread. In that same vein, a 1919 advertisement for Dorsch’s in The Washington Times urged consumers to give up their old-fashioned reliance on the corner store: “Why buy bread at the grocer’s, fresh for each meal, when it is possible to get good, wholesome, and fresh bread that tastes as good at the last bite as it did when you first cut into the warm loaf?” 


[Advertisement for McDougall’s bread factory on Fernberg Road, c1920. (State Library of Queensland, Image no. 109414)]


The Baffler has made all of its back issues available for free online. Here are our recommendations.



Taxi hailing apps have become controversial. Like hand-wringing, subpoena-serving, rock-slinging, 10,000-car-protest controversial. “Ride-sharing” companies have been widely attacked and praised, accused of bypassing laws as they turn non-professionals into taxi drivers who can be dispatched with a few clicks. The controversy has raised critical questions for “the sharing economy” about labor, liability, and trust.

But strangely, somewhere along the way, the meaning of ridesharing itself got lost.  

Read More

Cab-sharing app Bandwagon’s take on ridesharing.

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.