Lets Try this again, Blog One.

The reading this week gave a glimpse to the immensity of the issues of defining and organizing an urban space. From the work of Lewis Mumford and Louis Worth that offered definitions of urban space and the social ramifications of that urban space to a summery peace by Nicholas Lemann that gave modern perspectives to describing what makes a urban space successful, there is much to be contemplated and argued.

Of specific note within the Lemann peace is the arguments laid out by Richard Florida and Edward Glaser. Florida argued that the modern urban spaced is economically maintained by what he coins the “Creative Class”; scientist, architects, academics, artists and the like. Glaesar agues that, not completely counter to Florida, that urban space is economically maintained by the people living and working in close proximity creates a kind of creative either that allows for innovation. From another reading, The Urban Experience: Economics, Society and Public Policy by Barry Bluestone, Mary Stevenson and Russell Williams, the work of Florida and Glaesar should also be discussed with that of Joseph Cortright who stated that urban spaces are created and maintained because people want to live in those spaces and take part in the commotion opportunities offered by the space (154). The three works together create the idea of an economically sound urban environment is maintained by the rate of meaningful and directional human interaction, which is confined by some geography, as observed by Mumford.

A literary arc can be seen in the works read this week, as the time frame in which the authors are writing changes so two does the examples and references.  Mumford work, written durning the Great Depression, offers much in the way of defining a city by its geography, using phrases such as ‘geographic plexus’. Some consideration is given to communication and transportation but not nearly as much as Florida and Glasar who were writing in the twenty-first century who were writing, rather typing, in an age of the internet. This dynamic creates an apples and oranges problem when superficially reading through the work because the the early writers simply can not comment on events of our current situation. Mumford states that urban spaces should be through of as a stage, but does not offer any comment on the single largest public stage in human history, youtube, because it simply isn’t a possibility in his world. This may be making a statement about two un-alike concepts, Lemann compared a city scape as a stage on in analogy where as youtube is a very real platform, but the overarching issue still remains. Does the work of authors prior to the internet have sway in modern city scape discussion? Was the internet that revolutionary in terms of how we live our lives?

Simple question phrazed in such a broad manner leads to inconclusive results, and this is no different. It is worth noting though that the last technology that changed signifcantly lowered the cost of communication at the scale of the internet, the printing press, did not change the day-to-day funcationality of cities, just how we understood them. Comparing that time period to this it is not Lemann and the older authors that need to be re-evaluated, rather the newer authors for overstating the value of technology in the landscape. Rather then a new social-classes, there are the same classes in a different cloak. Maybe more public then in the past because of how communication has changed, but still ultamatly the same types of people, still trying to make a living in more or less the same environment as our predesors. And isn’t that the ultamite goal?


A Focus on Mental Life in a New City

Last weekend, I was running along single-track with roots and rocks underfoot; traffic lights and pavement were far from my mind, and yet, I was in the middle of DC in the ravine along Rock Creek. I just moved from rural northwestern Loudoun for school here in Alexandria and already feeling the anonymity and loneliness of city living, I joined a trail running group to meet some city friends. I can just hear Wirth and Simmel’s responses, “Classic move there, young city novitiate.” The two women in front of me were young professionals who moved to the DC metropolitan area for work. No strangers to the transition of moving to a new city, they were chatting about how they advised another transplant friend to hang along a little longer as she contemplated giving up on making DC feel like home. “Cities just suck until you get to know people.” I could not agree more.

This is my fourth city in the past 4 years and I have returned to rural areas in-between each of those moves to recover, literally. It has only been very recently in my introspection and visits to cities where I used to live that I have begun to think I might have some insight on how I can survive and maybe thrive in a city. Getting to know people, not just as acquaintances, but in a meaningful relationship is critical. The readings this week echoed conversations I have had in my mind about the merits of city and rural dwelling. To me they seemed to be even ordered dialectally. I situated myself on the sidelines and tried to judge and analyze the debate based on my own experience and theories.

All of the authors seemed to agree that living in a city is a different experience than living in rural areas. As is probably evident by now, I have spent my formative years in a rural area. I am used to more space than people and unobstructed (except by mountains) views of the sunset. The first time I moved to city, it was Los Angeles (although honestly, college in little Blacksburg, VA felt like moving to the city just because of the sheer number of people around me). Even though I contested Simmel’s assertions that country folk were possibly less intelligent and less rational (read: resilient, sophisticated, conscious) than urban folk, I do agree with his fundamental principle that the mental life of urban dwellers is a whole beast unto itself.

The sensory onslaught and high frequency of interaction with people encourages one to develop a sort of presence of mind to release oneself from overreacting to everything little thing. Consciousness might even be the right word for it, especially when it comes to navigating the city to get what you need. For instance, if I would like to go on a walk and soak up some peace and greenery there may be quite a few greenspaces in my area thanks to planners and architects inspired by Garden Cities and other examples of green design. However, some may not be walkable, some might have better facilities, some may not be pet-friendly and I want to bring my dog. Meeting ones needs in a city becomes a puzzle and sometimes I just do not want to work that hard to enjoy myself and my mental wellness suffers because of it. However, the longer you live in a city, the more information you learn and share, the easier this becomes. I think of the process not just as getting to know a place, but learning from people and the landscape to have greater control over your emotions. Until you do that, it really can suck. In times when the metro is jam-packed or you’re amidst some other city chaos, that self-awareness maybe the highest form of autonomy you have.

It would be awesome if architects and planners could design to encourage presence of mind. Life is unpredictable, but if the built and green world around you encouraged a deep breath, a second of perspective, individuals and interactions between them would benefit. Wirth and Mumford both touched on this ideal, I believe. Mumford desperately wanted cities to serve the social needs of a community. I interpreted his approach as wanting to plan away as many social ailments as possible through egalitarian, functional city plans. I think he would agree that a well designed city supported the expression and needs of its inhabitants. Wirth similarly wanted to understand the characteristics of urban way of life in order to create theories for addressing problems unique to urbanism. Lack of autonomy being one of those issues, a theory about its importance and where it is successfully supported or incorrectly ignored would be informative for design and planning.

Urban Culture and Society

This week’s readings provided an introduction to the city and the history of urbanization in America. More specifically each article sought to define the concept of a city, by exploring the characteristics that embodies the phenomenon and drawing comparisons between urban living and other forms of human settlement. Louis Wirth’s Urbanism as A Way of Life, provides an exceptional description of a city from a sociological perspective, that disavows the idea that cites are a mere concentration of people solely defined by population and density, but rather are an aggregation of ideas portrayed by human behavior and social institutions. Wirth presents the idea that the influence that a city provides upon social life provides a greater ratio than urban population. Wirth explains that urbanization has evolved from an idea that people only gather and cluster in a cities based on the attractive services it provides such as employment(industrial period), but rather urbanization more readily represents the manner of which people interact, the amalgamation of various cultures and the distinguishing behaviors. It appears that Wirth’s explanation and approach on urbanization renounces commonality as a component of city living which can be an arbitrary assumption if solely defined by density and population. Wirth assumption uses variations and diversity as more effective measures. Wirth’s explanation of urbanism doesn’t fully dismiss the significance of population as a means of distinguishing cities; he specifies that the increase in population increases the variations amongst social institutions which in turns establish diversity that is separate from communal- folk living that is represented in rural areas.

Wirth makes a compelling argument and in my view, a realistic assessment on how cities in modern times are generally regarded. Commonly, cities are usually admired by the various amenities it provides, its cultural diversity and the dichotomy of its neighborhoods and organizations. However, Wirth’s views raises several questions that involve separation and disparity. If the sociological approach to urbanism is largely defined by the degree of variation amongst groups, does large variations in behavior, culture, occupation and competiveness contribute to the increase in social injustices that have been regarded as contributing to urban decline. Also, should we assume that the rapid growth in suburban areas in recent years contradicts Wirth’s view of human behavior, and infer that spatial aggregation can be favorable in homogenous environments as well, which can also be defined by large population of individuals concentrated in areas where certain economic and social elements may not be common. If urbanism is best characterized as a social entity than the term can transcend beyond cities and can be applied in any densely populated area.

I believe modern planning follows the sociological approach to urbanism in considering how areas are developed. Development is centered on achieving the maximum economic return of land (density). The article provides a theory of density that applies Darwin’s thought that density brings complexity to the social order of settlements that causes a divide in social interaction. When I was a Planner with Chesterfield County, VA, a growing locality in the Richmond Metropolitan area of around 350,000 residents, one of my duties as a plan reviewer was to apply social integration in large scale subdivision developments. Subdivision developments that proposed a large number of dwelling units and covered a certain degree of buildable area to achieve the maximum density allowed in a particular zoning district were required to develop focal areas (such as community centers) and/or preserve a certain amount of land for aesthetic uses such as bike paths and common areas. These practices were to uphold the integrity of the community and emphasize the importance of community engagement.

Ventura/Urban Culture and Society

Each author used various ways in which to describe the urban life through different lenses and perspectives of what makes a city. I found the most interesting was the ideas presented between Mumford and Simmel and how they contrast each other. Mumford makes an emotional experience of the city and Simmel sees a lack of it. But Simmel’s ideas may be representative of cities that did at one point dilute everything to asking “how much?”. I think the way our society is changes; it actually calls for collaboration, and teamwork across disciplines to solve problems, at least in the world of architecture and I think the same would be said for planning.

Mumford defines geographic plexus, which is comprised of social actions, and an “aesthetic symbol of collective unity”. Mumford may not have been referencing buildings, but it is the first thing I think of when he mentions “aesthetics”. Within architecture, aesthetics is something that is sought after. Part of a city’s beauty is the way in which people have sown their culture and history into the buildings and ultimately collectively created their environments. These buildings add drama to the cities without much needed dialogue. When I lived in Oxford, I enjoyed it, because it buildings within this city represent a long history, and many changes. It acted as a precedent to many of the college campuses we have in the United States.

But cities are also a place of liberation from the mentality of a small community (Simmel). The development of the polis is something I can closely relate to in experiences growing up in a Hispanic culture within the American society. There was a constant struggle between the family (immediate and extended) and my individualization. I grew up in a culture where family, what I am defining as a small community, came first and almost always before the individual. The family was there to help you when you did not have enough money or food. But I challenged this; I left home to go to college, and the opportunities to work overseas, which is something that typically does not happen unless you were married. Now with time and my parents becoming Americanized, their thoughts have changed. We realize that in this country; it is very much centered on the individual. So I can see how this affects people who grew up in small communities; they want to leave to find their own self and most will find those answers in the city life.

I have seen the city house many “small communities” and they continue to grow. He discussed London, as nothing else but England’s “money bag and intellect” which I do not agree with. The money allows for greater opportunities. People like Henry Tate donated generously to ensure that art was shared within the city, eliminating potential blasé tones to take over the city. As a result his funds and name have created several museums. London has a focus on its theater and the arts, which gives life to individuals within those communities. I spent a lot of time in London, and those that live there seem to value the arts; it is home to the National Theater, National Gallery, the Royal Albert Hall, and many museums. The English value their green spaces. It is evident in the fact that they have ensured parks and garden spaces throughout their city. If money were at the core of the city, there would not be open spaces for the parks and gardens. The land would have already been taken and built on

St. James’s Park with Buckingham Palace in the centerbuckingham-palace-st-jamess-park-looking-east-towards-city

I will end this the same way Simmel does, “it’s our task to only understand”.

You can’t take justice out of city theory

Many thoughts came to mind this week as I began my first week in learning what it means to theorize urban planning. Particularly insightful was the piece by Nicolas Lemann, that dove into multiple perspectives on the characteristics and essential functions of successful cities. Lemann ultimately purported the theory that we should construct cities in a manner respective of the society that surrounds it. The feelings of people regarding social justice are tougher to capture than the way they feel about the type of city should we build, but are no less important for how they should be built.

The writers’ opinions of social justice pervaded their writing which just as they inherently entangle with urban planning. As a planner you either determine and advise how a community is structured, or you listen and implement, both of which require decisions regarding what is equitable for a community; a decision that both shapes and is shaped by cities themselves.

Georg Simmel in The Metropolis and Mental Life argues that city residents are more disconnected to the whole, connected to sub-groups, and are more objective than subjective in their decision making. Whereas country folk are less socially stimulated, more familiar with the whole of their community and less inclined to form into small social groups similar to clubs, groups and even gangs often formed in urban centers.

This is all played out for a very specific reason that is best summed up when Simmel wrote, “The decisive fact here is that in the life of a city, struggle with nature for the means of life is transformed into a conflict with human beings, and the gain which is fought for is granted, not by nature, but by man.” Men in the social constructs of the city view life as a rat race; subject to the political will of those with the greatest might. One’s very status as a city-dweller therefore even carries implications for their view of justice.

Social justice also undoubtedly shapes cities as evidenced by Edward Glaser’s assessment of why economists still like cities. For part of the article, Glaser discusses the decline of manufacturing due to transportation advances, urban regulatory environments, the advent of more specialized products. He presents this development as a good thing because as he attempts to demonstrate, a well-educated city is more profitable and sustainable.

However, in a real twist of words, Glaser’s cites Jane Jacobs’ “theory” from “The Economy of Cities” as a supporting claim for his theory. His interpretation of Jacobs’ theory is that innovation is derived from the spontaneous interaction and combination of existing ideas. While this is not untrue, it is guilty of a omitting Jacobs’ main premise.

In “The Economy of Cities” Jacobs is a champion of local manufacturing and argues quite convincingly that import replacing cities (those that replace the goods and services they import with goods and services that they produce and export) will ultimately be the strongest and most reliable economies for localities. A definite promotion of social justice for localities and employees left behind by the service economy boom.

On this, I agree with Jacobs. I think it defies the conception of justice to promote a society where the rungs on the preverbal ladder to success (i.e. a college education and service economy skills) are out of reach for the poor. Consider the barriers to gaining a high school education in some of our poorest neighborhoods, where gang affiliation is often the strongest familial bond and education funding is more sparse than healthy food.

In Glaser’s defense he goes on to cite a statistic that found higher education levels on a city-wide basis improve the economic situation of upper-, middle- and lower-classes. His theory does promote a vision of social justice that may work for all classes in an ideal world. Glaser wrote that it is vital for our leaders to provide, “excellent municipal services—from schools to police to sanitation—that make urban life attractive for today’s skilled workers.”

However, what does this theory look like in a world full of funding shortfalls for schools and public services? I don’t think we should overlook the advice of Lewis Mumford in “What is a City” when he warns in light of market based planning of the past, “today we must treat the social nucleus as the essential element in every valid city plan.” While service economy planning is not inherently ignorant to the social nucleus of the city, in a world run by compromise, prioritization of the market over social nuclei in any form may be liable to result in a repeat of our past mistakes.

Urban Culture and Society

A central theme or question addressed by this week’s readings is individuality in urban life and its effects on the human psyche. How do cities shape their people and vice versa? How can we define cities in sociological terms? The reading reminded me of when I arrived for my first day of undergraduate at St. Lawrence University, my primary concern was the location of the campus. When I chose to go to St. Lawrence, I knew the closest sizeable city was an hour away, across the Canadian border. But as time wore on at SLU, I came to realize the very thing I considered to be SLU’s biggest drawback, was instead what made it so unique. Everyone there had made the same trip to the same place in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. Every one of them had the same thought while driving through the endless North Country of New York: “Where the heck is this school?” But for that precise reason, all students share a common bond. As Simmel suggests, in small towns, mental life “rests more on feelings and emotional relationships” (P. 12). In contrast, Simmel says, as a response to the constantly changing urban environment, the metropolitan type forms a “protective organ for itself against the profound disruption” (P.12) As a result, the person is more rational and indifferent, and reacts in a more indifferent way that is removed from the emotion SLUor the personality.

Upon graduation, many St. Lawrence graduates moved to the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast for many of the reasons suggested by Glaesner. Cities like DC are attracting people because workers earn more, and the spatial proximity spurs the transfer of ideas and innovation. Cities like Boston, New York, and DC are increasing their competitive advantage by creating a hospitable climate for high skill industries and well-educated workers (Finance in New York, Government Contracting in DC). But even with all the economic advantages of cities, I experienced firsthand the “protective organ,” of trying to transition and react to the fast-paced, “dominance of the metropolis” (P. 12). The transition to city life was difficult because of the profound differences between an individual’s daily experience in urban and rural environments. For example, as Wirth notes, for rural inhabitants, they “rub elbows with in the course of daily life” with less people and have “less intensive knowledge” of the ones they do (P.12). Not surprisingly, relationships in a small liberal arts college town differ from those in made in large cities like DC.

Mumford takes this premise further, describing cities as “theater of social action” (P. 7). The metaphor is striking as it defines the city as a social institution where people of all ethnic groups, classes, and beliefs congregate and interact in public spaces. In contrast to Glaesner who argues it is misconception that there are limits to growth of cities, Mumford cautions against rampant sprawl “beyond which further urban growth tends to paralyze rather than to further important social relationships” (P.9). As we investigate the urban life and its fundamental impacts on its residents, it’s helpful to remember that at its core, cities are theaters of social activity and should be defined by the opportunities they offer to various groups and the social relationships it serves. It’s the planner’s job to foster these relationships, letting people work, live, play, and interact together. If we do it right, I might even feel like I am back on a college campus again.

Urban Culture and Society

In his 1903 essay “Metropolis and the Mental Life,” Simmel examined the conditions of modern city and how the metropolitan lifestyle led to the degradation of the individuality. He explained that urban residents tended to react rationally rather than emotionally, and not to engage the “depths of the personality.” It is fantastic that the essay, which was written more than one century ago, still remains to a great extent relevant to understand the isolation and individualism in cities today. Due to the intensification of sensual stimuli from both internal and external urban area, the metropolis fosters a situation where one must adjust himself or herself to a constantly changing environment. Logic and intellect dominate the modern city. Qualitative value is reduced to quantitative. Unlike that of a rural setting, metropolitan life becomes a matter-of-fact, with little consideration to emotional concerns. This yields Simmel “blasé” terms – superficiality, grayness, indifference and alienation.

Resonating with a line of urban cultural analysts, Mumford saw the city as “a theater of social action,” and other facts — art, politics, education, commerce — only served to make the “social drama … more richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play.” By exploring the questions of what is city and what is the desirable size of a city, he emphasized the primary role of social facts in shaping every city plan.

“Chicago School” urban sociologist Louis Wirth connected with Munford’s emphasis on community values and the city’s role in encouraging human personality. In a new academic paradigm for city life as sociological construct, he detailed three empirical areas of focus: population size, density, and demographic heterogeneity. Unsatisfied with the common way to define a city merely by population size, he argued that there were more factors that should be taken into consideration. In addition to size, Wirth proposed that another defining feature of the city is density. This feature can not be ignored because a cluster of individuals would impact how urban residents interact with one another and with the city itself. Also, Wirth stated that social heterogeneity was the third defining quality of a city. That reminds me of Robert Park’s definition of city as “a mosaic of little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate.” Using this “mosaic” theory, Park vividly expounded the heterogeneity of American cities. We usually refer large cities, usually destinations for immigrants (like San Francisco, Chicago, New York), to melting pots. For us as planners, an absolute figure of population or area is not the only feature that matters, the need to serve the function of social relationships should never be neglected.

Glaeser demonstrated a positive correlation between urban density and productivity in his article “Why Economists Still Like Cities.” He also pointed how the Creative Class bring people into contact, enabling them to interact in rich, unexpected, productive way was the key factor that makes cities successful. With safe environment, appealing streetscapes, employment opportunities, cities are viewed positively again after a long run of “urban crisis.” The new urban optimism drove a trend of population shift from rural areas into urban centers (Figure 1). According to a 2015 report by the CBRE Global Investors, American cities entice younger workers with better options for their careers and lifestyles and talent is clustering in dense urban areas. The “pull” of downtown living brings a population influx to thrive cities and also engenders cities in flux. Gentrification is a problem. Washington, DC is one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the country (Figure 2), which has raised concerns that as neighborhoods become wealthier, their long-time residents who cannot afford the increasing rent and property taxes have no choice but move out. That leaves unanswered questions like: Development for whom? How can we deal with the constant change that happens without displacing people?

Figure 1. The U.S. Urban Population Will Continue to Grow

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Figure 2. Washington, D.C., Gentrification Map: 2000 Census – Present

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Source: Governing Data