… students should be trained to be keen observers of the urban landscapes about them, to be able to decipher the riddles of architectural style and substance, to have a working knowledge of the historical development of places and patterns on the land. They should understand how the physical infrastructure of a city works — the mechanics of transportation and utility systems, sewerage and water supply. They should know the fundamentals of ecology and the natural systems of a place, be able to read a site and its landform and vegetation, know that a great spreading maple in the middle of a stand of pines once stood alone in an open pasture. They need to know the basics of impact analysis and be able to assess the implications of a proposed development on traffic, water quality and a city’s carbon footprint. …

Sounds to me like Thomas Campanella wants his planning students to be geographers! :-)

This quote comes from the end of the online piece I linked earlier today. Now, I’ve rather purposefully deleted the context of this quote, and the text immediately preceding and following it show that Campanella’s vision truly is one of urban planning as a specialized master’s level, professional degree, rather than something we could truly call Geography. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that for all his fretting about the social sciences creeping into urban planning’s intellectual territory, he never once mentions Geography, even though its integrative, place-focused approach seems to be exactly what Campanella is advocating. Too bad, because among his colleagues at the University of North Carolina is one of the country’s best Geography departments.

Despite the trolley car in this photo, and the story of gridlocked automotive sprawl presented in the accompanying article, Istanbul remains a strongly pedestrian city. That’s at least the case along the centrally located Istiklal Caddesi (pictured here, with the Turkish “C” pronounced more like an English “J”), which is one of the world’s truly great urban walking streets. Istanbul is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is its ability to be both sprawling and densely and energetically crowded at the same time—not unlike the way in which Istanbul simultaneously represents both the tenacious ancient Byzantine and Ottoman pasts and the unpredictably dynamic 21st-century future on the Mediterranean margins of Europe and the Middle East.
Getting to Know ... Lviv

When we think of eastern Europe, we typically picture in our mind’s eye a dismal, gray landscape. Whether it be the harsh winter climate of a continental northern location, or the no less harsh experience of decades of authoritarian Soviet rule—not to mention the horrors of World Wars I and II and the region’s occasional genocidal tendencies—countries such as Ukraine are generally not the first to spring to mind when we imagine places of vibrant cosmopolitan culture and landscape. Indeed, the irradiated “Zone of Alienation” around Chernobyl is more the sort of place we imagine Ukraine and the rest of eastern Europe to be.

But all regions and countries are complex, never as bleak, nor as beautiful, as we generalize them to be. Thus, take a few minutes and get to know Lviv, the “Little Paris” of western Ukraine.

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Gentrification and the new slums of Berlin

Der Spiegel this week looks at gentrification in fashionable central Berlin, along with the new “Slums of the 21st Century” emerging on the city’s periphery. It’s a story familiar to many cities, and the concentrated poverty and social problems found in the modernist 20th-century high rises echo the infamous banlieues of Paris and ill-fated public housing projects such as Cabrini-Green in Chicago. All examples are unique, however, and Berlin offers us the distinct context of a city reunified for more than two decades since the end of the Cold War in a country now struggling politically with its own questions of immigration and diversity. Thus, this particular story is noteworthy for the general absence of the vilified Turks, an ethnic minority so often identified by commentators at the center of social problems in today’s Germany.

Like most articles in Der Spiegel, this one is well illustrated—particularly if you follow the link to the photo essay on “Berlin’s Lost City Center”. But to help set the stage, here are some interactive images from Google Maps.

Below: The Kosmos-Viertel compound of DDR-era high rises, a living monument to Communist planning and home to the “new slums” of the article occupied by families such as 14-year-old Kira’s.

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Below: The more centrally located neighborhood of Neukölln, from which families such as Kira’s have been displaced by gentrification.

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Below: The relative location of Kosmos-Viertel (yellow pin), Neukölln (blue pin), and Berlin’s historic city center (red pin), along with the color-coded lines of Berlin’s S-Bahn and U-Bahn railed transit system.

Clearly, this is not your typical picture of squatting, and it raises a complicated question: How should Detroit, and other shrinking cities like it, handle a technically illegal activity that’s obviously improving the neighborhood?

Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities makes the case for squatting, as a form of grassroots urban renewal. There has long been similar arguments made for the peripheral areas of fast-growing cities in the less-developed world (e.g., Lima’s barriadas, Istanbul’s geçekondular), but Badger suggests this might be a welcome practice in old central neighborhoods of fast-shrinking cities in the more-developed world, such as Detroit.

Cities push us ever closer, enabling the rapid spread of new ideas. This accelerates the flow of new technology, increases the rate of new business formation, and makes for vibrant artistic and cultural scenes. And those very same mechanisms that unleash our innovative and artistic energies also make cities veritable cauldrons, in which political energy and activism are pressurized and brought to a boil.

- Richard Florida, “How Cities Stir Revolution”,

Professor Richard Florida, now at the University of Toronto, is one of leading voices today celebrating the rise of a “creative class” in our postmodern, Inter-networked culture economy, which has been the subject of intense academic debate within urban studies over the last decade.

For Florida and other like-minded urbanists, cultivating a creative class is the key challenge for cities looking to secure a sound economic base for 21st century. And as the blog posting from which the quote above is taken demonstrates, Florida finds revolutionary global significance in all this newly networked urban creativity.
Calbuzz: Making the Case against Redevelopment

Calbuzz today presents a fair-minded argument in support of Governor Brown’s proposal to terminate local redevelopment agencies. While providing a nice overview of the workings of TIF (tax-increment financing)—an obscure but hugely important component of local-government fiscal maneuvering—this piece illustrates nicely why the Governor (a former mayor himself) is willing to shut down what appears to be a powerful job-creating and tax-generating machine. The cold reality is probably that, from the state’s and maybe even the MSA’s perspective, local redevelopment doesn’t create new economic activity as much as it just steers a given quantity of activity toward “blighted” districts. Depending on one’s perspective, maybe such a geographic redistribution of wealth isn’s such a bad thing, but if we have any sort of historically informed point of view, we desperately need to put that word, “blighted”, in quotes. Quite simply, as the urban historian Robert Fogelson and many others have observed, redevelopment nationwide from the 1950s onward has been more about promoting declining commercial interests downtown—in the face of competition from the suburbs—than about actually revitalizing struggling communities of the urban poor.

As the Calbuzz piece notes, then, one certainly could make a strong case for taxpayer-subsidized urban redevelopment—in the abstract. But the actual practice has been a terribly unjust and inefficient siphoning of local tax dollars to support a few well-connected businesses and industries. Here’s a short history of how Chicago was something of a model emulated by the rest of the county.

Just as 1960s urban renewal destroyed Chicago’s Little Italy on its near West side, a big piece of Los Angeles’s own Italian community was bulldozed into oblivion to make room for a new taxpayer-subsidized modernist CBD atop Bunker Hill. (Thankfully, Leo Politi was there to chronicle old Bunker Hill before its demise.) And all across the country, Italian-Americans weren’t the only ethnic group targeted. Indeed, for many activists, postwar “urban renewal” was seen as a euphemism for “Negro removal”.

To be fair, and to bring this discussion back to the present day, the federal Department of Housing and Urban was created in the 1970s with significant reform in mind, and a more participatory, resident-centered “Community Renewal” has since been the goal. Nonetheless, as we debate the future of our governments’ budgets, we need to do so with a full appreciation of the convoluted ways in which local and state revenues and spending are intertwined, and the often perverse incentives for specific types of development as local governments chase revenue. (Why encourage construction of more affordable housing that will yield modest property-tax increases offset by greater demand for costly public services, when retail, entertainment, and tourism-oriented projects promise to yield lucrative sales and hotel taxes?) And given what we’re now witnessing in Wisconsin, it is most certainly time we appreciate how a multitude of interested parties—not just teachers’ and state-workers’ unions—have their snouts in the public trough.
Study what you love, and learn to think and communicate well

The Association of American Colleges and Universities provides a list of the top things employers look for in new college graduates. The list reveals that choosing a major is perhaps the least important decision students make. For those that follow my path, take comfort and find confidence in knowing that studying Geography can help develop all ten abilities on the list…and we’re especially good at developing number six!

6. An understanding of global context in which work is now done
New Film: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

I haven’t yet had a chance to see this film, but it looks very promising. From the perspective of academic urban studies (geography, history, sociology, planning, etc.), the “myth” the film seeks to debunk seems like something of a straw man. Nonetheless, that same myth very much has a life of its own in the political arena where concepts like welfare and public housing have become hopelessly stigmatized. If nothing else, this film looks like it tells the story of Pruitt-Igoe, which is as important a story of 20th-century America as there is, from a much-needed humanized perspective set in a rich historical geographic context. I’m eager to give it a look.