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


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.


Attanya: #WeNeedDiverseBooks because I love science fiction and fantasy books, but I’m tired of authors treating dragons and robots and magic as more plausible than black and brown characters

Jennifer: #WeNeedDiverseBooks because… when I was 13 a white girl told me it was selfishthat all of the protagonists in my stories were Latina because she “just can’t relate to nonwhite characters.” She made me feel guilty for writing about people like me. 

Aiesha: #WeNeedDiverseBooks because…Black Girls are more than sidekicks or “sassy, ghetto friend”

Facts and Figures About Race/Ethnicity in YA and Children’s Lit:


Posting this a little late, but followers please take the time out to check out this post explaining the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and more events to come over the next few days! 

(via newwavefeminism)

Tomorrow We Disappear is a feature length documentary about the last days of Kathputli, a hand-built artist colony hidden away in the alleyways of New Delhi. Spanning three years, the film follows Puran the Puppeteer, Rahman the Magician, and Maya the Acrobat as they approach their looming eviction.

Next Stop: Justice / Próxima Parada: Justicia is a report published in December 2012 that provided ”a cutting edge, comprehensive analysis of public transit in San Francisco, with a vision for transit policy that puts race and the environment at the center.” The report is based on nearly 2 years of grassroots research and analysis in a collaboration among POWER, the DataCenter, and Urban Habitat. 

Next Stop: Justice Full Report in English

Próxima Parada: Justicia Informe Completo en Español

Next Stop Justice Executive Summary in English

Próxima Parada: Justicia Resumen Ejecutivo en Español

With ten case studies of core transit lines in Southeast San Francisco and survey data from more than 700 grassroots MUNI riders, Next Stop: Justice shows how transit solutions that benefit youth, elders, communities of color and immigrant communities can best serve the city as a whole, fueling economic development and contributing to a healthier planet.

As MUNI celebrates its 100-year birthday and looks to the future, key questions hang in the balance.  Will working-class bus riders be at the center of our transit policy priorities, or will public transit become a privilege accessible only to those who can afford the rising fares? Will expanding bus service take precedent over expensive capital construction projects? Will our city and the region choose to invest in public transit as a green economy growth sector, and one of the largest employers of Black workers? We hope that Next Stop: Justice will help guide the creation of the transportation system we know is both possible and urgently needed for our communities and our future.

Image sources: All images from the report itself.

The ballet Les Bosquets is inspired by the French street artist JR’s first project, “Portrait of a Generation.” In 2004, JR organized an exhibition on the walls of the Cité des Bosquets, a neighborhood in the Parisian suburbs. In 2005, riots broke out in this same neighborhood, making JR’s portraits the accidental backdrop to worldwide coverage of youth disaffection.
Now choreographed by JR and set to an original score by Woodkid, Les Bosquets is a 8-minute piece performed by the New York City Ballet and jookin superstar Lil’ Buck.