A pair of stories from today’s CityLab Daily: Julian Agyeman for The Conversation on urban planning as a tool of white supremacy; and Caitlin Dewey for Stateline on advocates pushing to tear down racist freeways.
Sam Bloch’s ode to shade, for Places Journal, is a sort of quasi-expose of the inequities of its distribution. It’s funny how the places without shade trees just happen to be the unwealthy places with narrow sidewalks and shallow-buried utilities which preclude being able to plant any. It’s galling, too, to see non-tree tactical urbanist DIY solutions being shut down.
Reading this pitch by Adele Peters for Accessory Commercial Units reminds me of something I read in a book at some point over probably the past year that I feel I must have highlighted but I can’t find it in either my Kindle or Kobo highlights. This means I can’t remember what city was under discussion (I’m fairly certain it was somewhere in Asia; big help, I know), but the description was of dense urban living space where the resident’s lease included an empty workspace or stall on the ground floor, beneath their housing. Basically, they could do whatever they wanted with it: rent it someone else, use it as an office (although in context I don’t think there were many office workers in this scenario), open their own shop or food stall. This is not, of course, the same as an Accessory Commercial Unit as envisioned by Peters; it’s just that the post reminded me of this other thing.
Three pieces on urban planning, public spaces, and architecture; as they relate to the moment and the movement of Black Lives Matter. Deirdre Mask for The Atlantic proffers that street renaming is not merely performative in an empty sense; Matt Hickman for The Architect’s Newspaper profiles the Foley Square street mural in New York City (via Civic Signals); and Craig Wilkins for Curbed proposes that architecture as a profession needs an analogue to the Hippocratic oath (via Civic Signals).
I’ve spent the past four years researching street names and what they reflect about communities. I understand that merely changing a street’s name might be seen as “performative,” another show without substance. But performative can also refer to words that, as the philosopher J. L. Austin theorized, don’t just speak but act. (Try arguing that the words I do, said before your beloved and a judge, don’t actually do anything.) Here, the naming is the doing. And although changing street names alone cannot alter societal norms, it captures the momentum of the BLM movement in a concrete way.
“For a long time, in both urban planning and in architecture, there has been a refusal to acknowledge how political our work really is,” said Hassen. “For me, personally, it feels very important at this point in time to acknowledge that as creators who are in positions to help shape the public realm that we come to it with our values and our political standings—because the places that we are involved in creating are not neutral spaces.”
As a profession, we don’t all talk about our role in redlining. We don’t talk about equitable resource allocation, or argue for or against it. We don’t talk enough about the increased privatization of public space. We have been complicit in the design of public housing, which was nothing but warehousing people, when we knew better. And if we didn’t know better, we should have. And what’s the result of that? Whole generations of people have been lost because they were confined to spaces that we designed, and we keep refusing to acknowledge and own up to that.
This piece by Johan Pries, Erik Jönsson, and Don Mitchell for Places Journal about “people’s houses” and “people’s parks” in pre-war Sweden I found interesting in part because of the ascribed tension between people’s movements and “urban planners and policy technocrats”, and how post-war “the era of grassroots energy and improvisational, movement-led placemaking was giving way to the age of expert-led ‘rational’ planning”. That tension made me think of that Jacob Anbinder piece that confused me, and also a little bit about a conversation about urbanist dreams of freeing streets from cars versus questions of representation and bias in planning.
Shannon Mattern’s longform look (or would it be listen?) at urban auscultation passes along a comparison between doctors learning to listen to the body that I know I’ve read somewhere before, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where. Anyway, as I brace for tonight’s likely followup to last night’s cosplay mortar fire, I just wanted to include here one part.
This context quickly revealed the limits of efforts to instrumentalize and objectify hearing. The meters couldn’t replicate the way human ears perceived loudness, and they had trouble tracking fluctuating sounds. Bell Labs’ Rogers Galt, who reviewed urban sound surveys for the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America in 1930, emphasized the subjective, situational nature of aural perception. Whether a sound was perceived as noise, he wrote, depended on how long it lasted and how often it occurred, whether it was steady or intermittent, who made the sound, who was disturbed, and whether the sound was understood as necessary. 23 “Noise” was a product of acoustics and psychology.
Whether or not cities actually were too loud, measurable “noise levels,” with their positivist certainty, “became the sign of how bad the situation was.” Public health concerns were taken seriously only after noise exposure could be quantified. Leonardo Cardoso, in his study of sound politics in São Paolo, argues that the seemingly objective measurements produced by sound-level meters came to “replac[e] our ears as the authoritative hearing actor” and ultimately conditioned our hearing to a world that the instrument could validate. “Through the minuscule repetition of a series of exposures to sound that are allowed to exist thanks to the [meter’s] validation, this technological being” has reshaped our own organic perceptual instruments. 25 We became attuned to what the machine is capable of sensing.
The thing that I don’t understand about this Jacob Anbinder piece about urban planning post-pandemic (via Aaron Michael Brown) is that he criticizes both planners for self-importance and the destruction of neighborhoods and public participation processes and things like “environmental review requirements” for blocking progress, yet says that planners should reassert their authority. What am I missing here? Was there some golden age of urban planning that didn’t also destroy neighborhoods, and usually Black ones? There doesn’t seem to be any illustration of how to reassert planning authority minus the abuses. He derides urban planners for thinking of themselves as “medicine men” but then exhibits nothing so much as his own magical thinking that planners reasserting themselves somehow will just be different this time.
I’m ambivalent about Ilana Sichel’s ambivalence about living in New York City. I do find it problematic, though, to assert, “The problems are enormous, but the choices are individual.” I find it arguably dangerous to ask, “At what point do we accept that the sensory is the level to focus on, that the rest is too far out of our control?” — or, not to ask, per se; but to seriously entertain accepting that premise.
Last week I wondered what becomes of Albina Vision under the Rose Quarter “Improvement” Project. Today, the Albina Vision Trust pulled out of the freeway-widening project, and several political stakeholders appeared to have followed them out the door.
“Real change is demanded of all of us,” says Yohannes, who said the “red flag” was the failure by Oregon Department of Transportation to delineate how the project timeline and decision-making would change with input from the renewed discussions that began in January.
“I would say that we had to consider that our intensive outreach and discussion on the part of our team was not resulting in any changes in the project,” she said. “We cannot accept their position that they’ll change without changing.”
Catch up on what’s what via Bike Portland. You might remember I once blogged about Albina Vision when posting about an interview with the designer of Wakanda — who coincidentally just today asked for BIPOC community and city planners to get in touch.
Feargus O’Sullivan continues asking the urbanist question of how the push for outdoor bar and restaurant seating in public rights of way affects other demands upon public space.
But the movements of these private businesses into new spaces pose new challenges about who gets to occupy outside spaces that are increasingly in demand. Reopened parks, one of the few place to freely and safely congregate during coronavirus, are frequently packed. Many streets already have sidewalks filled with lines of people waiting to enter stores enforcing a low customer capacity. Add a new range of table service businesses to this busy streetscape, and issues about who get priority come to the fore. These questions have been exacerbated in a summer of unrest when, in the most extreme of examples, racial justice protesters demonstrate against police brutality in city streets where other people sit eating brunch.
Kate Derickson writing for n+1:
What does it mean for white people to practice residential community defense in a gentrifying neighborhood on stolen Dakota land in the midst of a Black-led uprising for police abolition? Can it prefigure a city without police, a city without policing? Or are the ideas of community, of defense, of property so saturated with racial capitalism and its associated desires that they cannot otherwise germinate the seeds of the urban? These are not questions to be answered (though people will try) but provocations to sit with. What I can say affirmatively is this: figures of urban life—archetypes—and their arrangements were collectively reconfigured in some neighborhoods in Minneapolis during and after the uprising in ways that deserve attention.
Link via Aaron Michael Brown.
“So here’s some ugly truth about the city of Los Angeles,” writes Matthew Fleischer of the racist elephant in the urban room (via Linda Poon): “Our freeway system is one of the most noxious monuments to racism and segregation in the country.”
Los Angeles was never a paradise of racial acceptance, but in 1910 some 36% of L.A.’s African Americans were homeowners (compared with 2.4% in New York City) — tops in the nation. L.A.’s comprehensive Red Car transit system, which offered easy, unsegregated access to the region’s growing economic opportunities, was fundamental to this success. Integrated, racially diverse neighborhoods like Watts and Boyle Heights emerged and thrived along these transit corridors.
But as L.A.’s population surged from 320,000 in 1910 to more than 1.2 million in 1930 — including tens of thousands of African Americans from the Deep South — white Los Angeles decided it was time to ramp up its own brand of Jim Crow segregation.
It’s not, of course, just Los Angeles, and Fleischer’s specificity in detailing the lengths to which urban planners in L.A. made sure to wipe out Black neighborhoods while preserving white ones is… depressing.
Two commentaries on race and urban planning worth reading together: black urban planner Amina Yasin’s exhortation “to reckon with the racism rampant in city building”, and white sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s explanation of how “urban inequality didn’t happen by accident”.
American urban policy is built with gated communities and administrative boundaries, with prison walls and gerrymandered legislative districts, with restrictive land-use regulations, and with school districts of wildly uneven means. The nation’s urban agenda is driven by the goal of socioeconomic division. The consequences of this approach are laid bare for all to see. When governments build barricades in space, they shift the burden of social problems to the most disadvantaged communities. They pit communities against one another, amplify the divisions among them, and leave urgent challenges unaddressed.
I invite all of us in urbanism fields, especially those who espouse “cities for all” and “open streets for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds,” to consider why Black people are harassed and dying in public spaces while jogging, riding their bicycles, walking, playing, bird watching in the park, having a barbeque, just existing in public space, or even — yes — driving their cars. Moving forward, planners and elected officials must seriously contemplate what they can do to answer the calls for justice, redress and reparations.