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October 23, 2014 / Leo Hollis

The Street and the Ghost House: London

As a young man I began walking around my home city in the same spirit as might a new arrival entering London for the first time. I spent weekends on foot, uncovering the stories of the past, first weaving together the historical narratives found in the monuments and architectural wonders; then finding others stories, less well-known, that offered new stories and threads.

Walking the streets led me to think about the history of the place, the people who once were here, and what they left behind. The city seems to reveal itself in geological strata, but this is a rough and uneven layering: Roman, Tudor, the dark capital of the Enlightenment, the industrial metropolis, the modern megacity. At moments, time collapses and the past reveals themselves in the street pattern, a monument, a connection across centuries. Today, the city is the place where I live but also who I am. London is now a part of my identity, twisting through my DNA like an invisible third spiral of a helix.

But it is no longer London’s places that draw me back to the city every time I leave it. Cities are made out of people, not buildings, and it is in the crowds that one learns the most about London. A city, this city, is an unfolding narrative that is forever expanding, crowd-sourced, and freely edited by anyone who cares to do so.

Rather than looking for a single explanation, or a unique function, we must therefore consider the city as the interaction of different, albeit defined, parts. Instead of seeing London as a still point, a solitary moment, we should see it as a flow of bodies, goods, ideas, fixed structures and unreliable time. And, perhaps, somewhere in that fluidity we can find the soul of the place.

Thus the city offers itself up in different ways: for an economist London is a money machine; for an architect, it is the place where flesh meets stone; for an immigrant it is the hope of home; for a free runner it is an assault course to be conquered. The city is busy with diverse activity, bumping into each other, interweaving. This is the London that I found when I first went out into the city many years ago. It is the face of the metropolis that is forever changing: open, inclusive and alive.

The city is made of places where people come together, where the tributaries of the human city flow into each other, causing, whirls, eddies and counter currents. These common spaces of London are too often ignored and, as a result, are undervalued. But they have powerful effects on those who come here. The public spaces of the city are where we interact and learn how to be with each other: this need not be the grand, official spaces of the city, but can be found on any neighbourly street.

This is an urban complexity that has taken many years to evolve. More often than not we take it for granted, but unlike many of the ways that Big Data quantifies the city, this is a quality that cannot be counted, or reduced to number. Nevertheless we are all too aware of its absence once it has disappeared. This vital complexity cannot be built, or planned into the design of a place but comes when that place is used and is integrated seamlessly into people’s everyday lives. It cannot be defined by contract, but is a place where some aspect of common ownership has been negotiated by action. This spirit can not be given a price or be sold.

These are urgent lessons, for some parts of London are coming to resemble a ghost house, such as the empty residences found in Mayfair and Belgravia. Here the super rich have invested in the market, creating a land bank of grand terraces and squares. Thus the house – and the city – is no longer a home but an asset to be traded. The ghost house is the spectre that haunts more than the streets and neighbourhoods in which they sit, but the whole metropolis.

This calamity is the result of London’s popularity. In this year’s edition of Knight Frank’s annual report on wealth management, The Wealth Report, London was ranked number one in their global cities index. How it got there was through being the most important city for the world’s ultra high net worth individuals, a position the city is expected to hold for the next decade. An accolade to some, but to me this is a threat: without action we could create a city that it closed, exclusive and dead.

London is caught between these two identities: the complex, human city versus the ghost house. These two different faces of the city are in a fluid tension, each offering an image of what the city could be, and whom the city might be for.

[this article originally appeared in the new Journal for the London Society: Join now! http://www.londonsociety.org.uk/

September 2, 2014 / Leo Hollis

Talks in September 2014

There are plenty of talks this month.

On 16th September, I will be responding to the brilliant Adam Greenfield, Mellon Fellow at LSE Cities, on his latest research into smart cities: http://lsecities.net/media/objects/events/a-city-worth-fighting-for

 

On 17th September, I am talking on the top floor of the Shard, about the changing landscape of London; talking with Roma Agrawal, who engineered the top floor: https://billetto.co.uk/events/54189

 

On 18th September, I will be on a boat on the Thames, as part of the Totally thames festival, talking with the designers of the  proposal ‘Garden Bridge': http://totallythames.org/events/info/a-bridge-for-london

 

On 26th September, as part of the Battle of Ideas festival, I will be debating with Alastair Donald from Future Cities Project on whether ‘Cities are Good for Us?’ http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/2014/session_detail/9074

September 2, 2014 / Leo Hollis

The problem with ‘Start-up’ Urbanism

In 1958, three years before her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote an article called “Downtown Is for People.” In it she noted:

The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. It is the major point of transaction and communication. Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.

Jacobs feared that this chaotic but human landscape was under threat, lost forever in the rationalizing schemes of planners who desired order rather than life. The message has maintained its power, growing in urgency, so that today Jacobs has become the touchstone to whom all urbanists must pay homage. One of the accidents of this process is that her anger has become neutralized into a road map of acceptable truths. Her wrath has been reduced into unthreatening bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation.

Today, the same threats to Downtown are not as obvious as in 1958, but they are still there. The war against the big developers and master plans has been, in the main, won; but that does not necessarily mean we can be complacent. Now it seems that the main enemies of Jacobs’ Hudson Street Ballet are not knocking down neighborhoods and replacing them with highways. Instead, they speak the language of community to disguise their plans to make a killing. The Jacobs name is now frequently used by developers, urbanists, governments — and, more recently, technology startups — as a short-hand to signal metropolitan pleasures, when the true purpose can be something more venal. It has become increasingly prevalent to “Jane-wash” a project with the promise of bike lanes, placemaking, and walkability.

Case in point: In 2009, the CEO of Zappos.com, Tony Hsieh, invested $200 million of his own money in 55 acres — 20 blocks — in Downtown Las Vegas. Here, he planned to build the “coworking capital of the world” using his calculation for why cities are such extraordinary centers of innovation.

Hsieh’s plan, according to Wired, “was to spend much of his own personal fortune to transform this supposedly lifeless area about a mile north of the neon blitz of the Strip into an entrepreneurial tech nirvana.” For Slate, this gamble aimed to produce “a seemingly paradoxical utopia: a new Silicon Valley just blocks from the Las Vegas strip.” The name of Hsieh’s urban elixir is “collisionability” and is based on the idea that innovation, economic growth, and nothing less than the future springs from people bumping into each other.

Hsieh’s equation proposes that a place that encourages such encounters must surely be a creative place; and a place that increases the probability of collisions through design or planning is demonstrably super-innovative. In this living thought experiment, a good city space has an average density of around 100 people per acre. In addition, it is estimated that each resident should then be in Downtown Vegas for three to four hours a day. As a result, individual citizens should create about 1,000 “collisionable hours” a year.

But Hsieh’s creative mathematics are not just about size of population crashing into each other, but the urban space in which they are encouraged to collide. Using the calculation above, therefore, one can reach 100,000 collisions per acre per year. This can be measured even more precisely to 2.3 “collisionable hours” per square foot per year.

Thus the whole complex, social conundrum of the city is reduced to a number, and an utterly spurious one at that. And on such shallow foundations are set the hopes of “Startup Urbanism.” Here, one can find the seemingly perfect combination of compassionate urban regeneration and the progressive mantras of Silicon Valley capitalism.

On the surface, the Downtown Project appears to be a serious commitment to the Jacobs’ “ballet of the street.” It presents all the latest notions of the city as a sustainable, walkable, spontaneously creative space built out of the existing city. Inspired by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser’s free-market urbanist bible, The Triumph of the City, it takes the hacker ethos, the latest academic research, complexity theory and places them in the real world. If you go by what the mass media says, this is a bold move, a bet on the powers of the city.

But can one re-imagine the dynamics of the city in the same way one thinks about a tech startup? The rhetoric of Startup Urbanism offer a new vocabulary that foregrounds disruption, open source, and connectedness as values that can be transposed from the Internet straight onto the organization of our cities streets. It supposes that, if you can get the code right, the script will run without glitches. However, such technological solutionism is simplistic, naïve at best, and, more likely, dangerously short-sighted.

The city is not a startup. It is not a market than needs to be disrupted in order to stimulate competition and growth. The city is not a platform that can be hacked. Despite the optimistic talk, it is an old language that is being spoken here: Startup Urbanism is gentrification by another name.

Las Vegas is a fascinating test case for this new form of urban thinking. In a PowerPoint presentation given at the Techonomy conference in 2013, this philosophy is summed up in three essential alliterations: collisions, community, and co-learning — which, in turn, inevitably lead to “happiness, luckiness, innovation, and productivity.” In this vision, Downtown is more than a place where people meet, but an accelerator for “the most community-focused large city in the world.” And, in this figuration, the business of urbanism is transformed into “utopia delivery system” that can be packaged and sold, guaranteeing repeatable success.

In this way, Hsieh is not just investing in property, but hacking together an urban algorithm that can be used anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, the fact that Hsieh owns so much of the real estate in Downtown Las Vegas should raise questions. While the mainstream press generally sees Hsieh’s investment as bold, or even faintly humanitarian, he could just as easily be using the company he leads to inflate the value of the land he personally owns around Zappos’ campus. It looks to me like a scheme, albeit an extremely clever one, for Hsieh to make a huge personal killing by using Zappos to influence the local real estate market.

Furthermore, downtown Las Vegas is being developed like a startup. Hsieh’s project began in 2009 when Zappos moved its customer service department from San Francisco to Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas. Here, Hsieh continued perfecting Zappos’ corporate culture in the belief that if you got the company culture right, then great customer service would follow. In 2013, in a move that couldn’t symbolize Startup Urbanism more, Hsieh moved Zappos’ headquarters into the old Las Vegas City Hall. Now, Zappos’ company culture is spreading from the call center into the streets of Downtown.

Renovations have turned the old urban fabric into coworking hubs and sharing spaces. The whole place is being set up with WiFi. There is an outdoor mall constructed from shipping containers. There are plans for a cultural center, an exhibition and concert space, as well as a new, private charter schools and educational facilities with the most cutting-edge teaching resources.

The parks are starting to bloom and restaurants are popping up. And the message is starting to get out that Downtown is a place for entrepreneurs to start and grow their companies. Companies such as Zirtual and Tech Cocktail have launched from Downtown while the Chinese business OrderwithMe, that originally wanted to locate in Silicon Valley, changed their minds after two days with Hsieh. Today, The Downtown Project’s VegasTechFund has invested in 42 startups that have come to Vegas. Eventually, they want to attract 100,000 people to Downtown.

In this optimistic commitment to economic growth, Downtown faces the same issues that San Francisco and many of the other cities around the world that are racing to become tech and creative hubs. One side of the story highlights how cities have benefitted from success, creativity, and urban regeneration, but this obscures another narrative. In the Bay Area, the stories of rapidly rising rents, evictions, and protests against Google buses have become international news. Beyond the headlines, San Francisco, which Mayor Lee promotes as the innovation capital of the world, is also, not coincidentally, the inequality capital of the U.S. It now has the fastest-growing wealth gap in the U.S. and the highest housing cost.

These figures put into perspective the promises of the creative classes heralded by Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class that has informed so much urban policy in the decade since it was published. Florida, himself, was forced to examine the stark evidence of the impact of the last decade of gentrification under the guise of regeneration and hip urbanism. And he has had to admit that the creative class is actually part of the problem:

On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations.

As a result, the entry of highly mobile creative workers in neighborhoods almost always comes at the expense of the existing communities. By locating his campus inside the city rather than at the fringes, Hsieh was hoping to get a double whammy of innovation and creativity that comes from combining Silicon Valley work style with open urbanism. However, in Downtown Las Vegas, it appears that, in order to build the new center, the old community had to be “disappeared.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that local opposition to changes has mostly been ignored. For the poorer residents who lived there, this has resulted in rising real estate prices and the closure of local stores. As shopkeeper Hassan Massoumi exclaimed after he lost his store when the lease was not renewed, “My wife and I came here when no one else would. For 10 years, we worked seven days a week — not one day of vacation. Then one day, Tony Hsieh’s people tell us to get out of there.”

And for those that remain: Does everyone have to buy their daily food from the Downtown 3rd Farmers’ Market? Much has been made of the private schools and nurseries such as the 9th that use revolutionary educational techniques, but these cost up to $12,000 a year. It is telling that little is said about the parents who can’t afford these rates. Despite the marketing, this is the opposite of a diverse neighborhood in the making. Like so many examples of gentrification, these are the subtle mechanisms that sort out the unwanted from the desirable.

Another example of this dark side of Startup Urbanism can be found in London’s Tech City, which shows that governments make the same mistakes as private corporations. Launched in November 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron in the Shoreditch district, Tech City was heralded as the European hub for tech innovation. The neighborhood was already popular among artists, designers, and startups — attracted by low rent and proximity to the City — but it was hoped that this initiative would make it a world-class business district.

However, in the years since the launch, Tech City has produced the opposite of what it hoped. “Silicon Roundabout” has now become popular among big corporations: Google, Cisco, McKinsey, and Intel have all invested here. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for a hungry, new startup to get desk space (nevermind artists). Tech City is driving out the very lifeblood that makes it an interesting and creative place. And, as a recent piece in Wired UK declared, it is also driving inequality.

These stories of “regeneration” — Las Vegas, San Francisco, and London — raise a number of questions about what, and who, the city is for. Like Tech City, the Downtown Project promises to be world class: the “Coworking Capital of the World.” It is keen to present itself as more than a one-industry town. The investment fund is meant to attract fashion, tech, education, music studios, food, and drink. These different groups will hopefully come together and feed off the atmosphere of creativity.

This is where the idea of “collisionability” is so potent. Hsieh’s algorithm is, of course, poppycock. The relationship between the development of good ideas and urban density is not a simple equation. But something else is being sold to us. While Silicon Valley urbanism turns the office into the city (Google’s Googleplex), in Las Vegas, Hsieh’s Start-up Urbanism turns the whole city into an office. Here, everyone is allowed to bump into each other (now that the old community has gone), but only the right kind of collisions are encouraged — the ones that promise profit. According to the Downtown story, every serendipitous “collision” has an underlying business purpose. A new company, a great app, a revolutionary marketing plan can emerge from every jump to the sidewalk.

It is clear that this is a community defined, and dominated, by work. When the office has no walls, work creeps into every corner of the city, and the mantra of “collisionability” seeks to exploit the business potential of every urban nook. There is no place where one is allowed to be unproductive. “Coworking” is, therefore, one of those words that needs to be approached with caution. Dismantling the walls of the traditional office space can be liberating and highly creative, but it can also deliver insecurity, division, and constant work. As community and business collapse into each other, does this leave any space in the city outside the marketplace? Is there anything except work, customer service, and the rules of 24/7 Capitalism?

The final slide in Tony Hsieh’s PowerPoint presentations reads:

a Great

Brand

Company

City

Community

is a story that never stops unfolding.

But the city is not a company; community is not a brand; citizenship cannot be mistaken for consumption. While Zappos claims that it can deliver happiness when they deliver shoes to your door, the same philosophy cannot — and should not — necessarily be translated to the city. This kind of thinking reduces the city to an algorithm, or customer service mantra, that is expected to produce the same predictable output repeatedly. It is just this kind of urbanism that we should be critical of when we think about the future of cities. A sharing city is one that is open to all, not the few. This can be achieved by working together, not coworking. The city is more than just office space, but a place to discover and nurture the values that make it more than the sum of its parts.

June 2, 2014 / Leo Hollis

Curitiba: Beyond the World Cup

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Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian province of Parana is one of the main sites for this year’s World Cup. But that should not be the only reason to visit. It is, in addition, of the leading centres for cutting edge urbanism. It is hard to believe, but Curitiba is the place to go to learn about the relationship between transit, equality and sustainability. It is a well researched story, but it is worth repeating.

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 It was no accident that in 2001, when UNESCO were searching for city on which to model the rebuilding of post-invasion Kabul, the ravaged capital of Afghanistan, they chose Curitiba. It is a curious story: until the 1960s the city – in which the population had leaped from 180,000 to 36000 in just 10 years –  had been designed around the automobile with wide boulevards radiating out of the city centre. In the 1980s there had been concerns that rapid urbanisation would make this expansion unmanageable, the centre gridlocked with all the traffic, the air thick with exhaust fumes. So the idea of a new master plan was born with the philosophy: ‘a city is not a problem but the solution’. The initial plan was to knock down some of the more elegant turn of the century houses in order to widen the main routes in teh centre, as well as force an ugly overpass through the middle.

However, these proposals met with unexpected opposition, which was led by Jaime Lerner who worked in the architecture and planning school of the Federal University, who complained that ‘they were trying to throw away the story of the city’. Thus in 1988, almost by chance, the 33 year old Lerner found himself named mayor. The first thing he did was to transform the central road, the Rua Quinze de Novembro; but instead of attempting to manage traffic through the middle of the city, he pedestrianised the thoroughfare. Lerner was so concerned about the level of opposition that the scheme would provoke that he completed the whole operation in a weekend; closing the road on a Friday night, workmen planting over 10,000 flowers over the next 48 hours and opened on Monday morning. Beforehand, local shopkeepers had threatened to sue for lost earning; by Monday lunch time there were petitions for other areas of the city to be made car-free.

However, Lerner also knew that designing a transit system would be at the heart of the new master plan. The project began with a plan of the city and devising a transit system that ran from the centre along the five main corridors into the suburbs. The network was designed to connect all the neighbourhoods, and in response zoning laws were used to build neighbourhoods integrated around the network, so that a new shiny bus stop was one of the first things to be be constructed when new housing was created to ease the problems of the favelas. In addition, the system needed to be efficient, fast and well designed to ensure that people got out of their cars and used the new system and so the BRT Express Buses were given their own exclusive bus lane running alongside the car lanes.

Yet perhaps the most surprising innovation occurred as Lerner stood at one bus stop and watched how people took so long to get on and off the bus. He noted that it took time for everyone to climb the steps of the bus and then pay the driver as they embarked. Instead he sketched an idea for a glass ‘tube station’, a bus shelter raised up from the pavement to the height of the bus door. In addition, a payment scheme was devised, so there was no waiting at the bus door, and a single flat fee, originally priced at approximately £0.20. As a result every time a bus drove up to the platform passengers could alight at all five doors, allowing a maximum of 300 travelers to get on and off in under 15 seconds. Frequency of buses were also increased so that there was never a long wait during peak hours.

Whenvever possible the new system was developed with the participation of users and local rather than experts and avoided expensive innovations. So when the bus manufacturers, Volvo, suggested that they could devise a sophisticated safety door system that to line up the bus with the station platform, an experienced bus driver suggested to the committee that a simple painted line on the platform floor would suffice. Such common sense has meant that the network has never needed city subsidies but has paid its own way since opening. Despite having the highest ratio of car owners in the whole of Brazil, the buses have changed the life of Curitibanos. In 1974 the system only serviced 25,000 passengers a day, today, this has risen to 2 million. At the same time it is calculated that the progamm had replaced 27 million car journeys a year, and as a result the city – which has the largest percentage of car owners –  uses 30% less petrol than any other Brazilian city and enjoys the lowest air pollution. As the city then prospered during the 1990s, new neighbourhoods were designed with the transport system in mind in order to cope with growth so as the suburbs grow, the system can cope with the expansion.

It is for this reason that traffic and transit experts around the world are looking to Latin America for the next innovation in how transportation can make the cities of the future work. In his 1995 book, ‘Hope, Human and Wild’, the leading environmental writer Bill McKibben presented Curitiba as a future alternative for urban living. This appeal was then carried by the   the British architect, Lord Richard Rogers, who visited the city and then pronounced it in his 1995 Reith lectures  as a model city that we could all learn from. In 2006 The American National BRT Institute produced a report to see how whether it was able to replicate the success of such schemes in the US, concluding that while the benefits of the scheme are manifest, the popular ignorance of those benefits and the social stigma of carless-ness would make such a project difficult. In short, US cities lack mayors like Lerner who are willing to make the case for the relationship between social change and transit.

May 23, 2014 / Leo Hollis

Place Hacking

On Wednesday last week, in Court 9 of Blackfriars Crown Court, the law finally saw sense and justice was served. More than 20 months after author Bradley Garrett was hauled off a plane on the runway at Heathrow and arrested by the British Transport Police, it was finally agreed that he should be granted conditional discharge and face no further charges.

Garrett first came to public attention in 2011 when he uploaded to his website www.placehacking.co.uk videos of an adventure to the top of the as-yet unfinished Shard. The clips showed not just how exciting it might be to scale the tallest building in London at night, but it transformed the way we could look at the city. Garrett soon proved himself to be more than just an adrenaline fiend, place hacking was the subject of his PhD. This was later adapted into the book EXPLORE EVERYTHING: PLACE HACKING THE CITY published last autumn.

There has already been some coverage of the trial. In the Evening Standard, Will Self highlighted the absurdity of the proceedings:

I’ve no doubt that TfL and the police are justifiably annoyed by the place-hackers’ antics. Entering abandoned Tube stations, the Crossrail tunnels, the old Post Office railway that runs beneath London — these are breaches of security, without doubt, but if any punishment is appropriate for such behaviour it’s some form of community service, not a jail term. These trespassers hurt nobody and damaged nothing, yet their doors were broken down with battering rams in the dead of night.

The Guardian also highlighted some of the issues involved in the case:

He was charged with conspiring to commit criminal damage during sorties into disused London Underground tunnels and stations such as Aldwych. But after growing outrage from academic colleagues who considered the prosecution a fundamental breach of academic liberty, his trial has concluded in a conditional discharge. ]

The Telegraph also found time to follow the story as well as the Times Higher Education.

As Dr Garrett pointed out: ‘I wasn’t in the dock for anything I did, but because I wrote about what I did,” EXPLORE EVERYTHING is a thrilling book that recounts many of the adventures through the tunnels and up the skyscrapers of not just London but also Paris, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Highly praised when it was first published, the book is also a manifesto, combining philosophy, politics and adventure.

What the case proves is twofold: there is a concerted effort to stifle bold and radical research. As Danny Dorling, professor of Geography at Oxford, who works with Dr Garrett notes:   “This case raises serious questions around academic freedom. There is part of the state system that doesn’t understand what academics do, just as there is part of the system that doesn’t understand the value of a free press. We don’t want to see people straitjacketed by fear of what might happen if their behaviour has been slightly transgressive.”

Secondly, Garrett’s work alongside the London Consolidation Crew, shows how our urban imagination is slowly being eroded without us noticing, and it takes a brave step in to the murky area between public and private space in order to see how ‘our’ city is slowly being transformed into ‘their’ city. This is an example of a wide ranging systematic ‘kettling’ of our experience of the city, which is slowly being reduced down to shopping and working. In the novel 1984 Orwell created newspeak as a way of limiting language in order to muffle protest; what the heavy-handed CPS and BTP have proved in this case is that newspeak also has a spatial potential.

I am very proud to have worked with Dr Garrett on EXPLORE EVERYTHING as editor, and I passionately defend his academic right to explore the boundaries of our cities, bringing back both disturbing news and fascinating stories; we are glad that the court has seen sense. As one of the quotes in the book puts it so well:  “The Age of Discovery is not dead: it lives on through urban explorers.”

May 7, 2014 / Leo Hollis

The Mental Life of Cities:

In 1903  the German sociologist, Georg Simmel, wrote his groundbreaking work ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ that mourned how modern life destroyed the individual spirit. 

He was certainly not the first to assume that city life was dangerous, but he also spoke of how the city overstimulated the intellect and create a coldness, what he calls a ‘blasé outlook’ as a coping mechanism against the continual overexposure to everyday life that one finds in the city.

 

We have pathologised that ‘blasé outlook’ and today scientists remap the urban landscape according to chemical imbalances. Neuroscientists and epidemiologists chart how the city produces surges of hormones that alter the patterns of the brain in response to stress and pleasure. However, the doctors always comes back the same diagnosis: cities can make you mad.

A gathering mass of evidence shows how cities can impact on levels of stress that lead to mental illness. All these studies take the city to be one thing, and all cities to be the same; as a result a city dweller has a 20% higher chance of developing an anxiety disorder, and a 40% higher chance to develop a mood disorder; the chances of developing schizophrenia doubles for people who grow up inside the metropolis; no matter where they might be.

The irony is that what makes us most stressed is also what makes the city so attractive. For while many types of stress have been recorded in the city such as noise pollution and environmental design, the thing that makes so many of us anxious is being close to each other. And yet this is why we come to cities in the first place.

It is a seeming paradox that just as some neuroscientists are telling us that being together makes us ill, others are proving that we are hard wired to be together. In ‘Social’  Matthew Lieberman uses the same MRI imaging techniques to show how our brains react to social interactions as acutely as physical pleasure and pain. Being together makes a difference and has a huge influence on how we feel, and behave.  In another study neuroscientist John T Cacioppo shows that ‘chronic loneliness’ is an evolutionary impulse that encourages us to come together, a warning that we need to connect to survive.

But what does this say about the city? It proves that the metropolis is an on-going experiment – now over seven thousand years old – at getting us all together. And yet, there is something more; while being together offers this paradoxical stressful allure, being together also brings out the best in us. Cities, despite the press, can be good for us.

We often assume that we lose something by being part of a crowd but in a study published by Hatfield University last year, taking two events – a FatBoy Slim Concert in 2002 and a Unite Union march in 2007 [1] the opposite was discovered. There was a positive emotional benefit by being part of the mass; in fact, where you were on the march – either in the middle or at the front – had a hugely advantageous effect on one’s sense of social identification. Being part of something can make you happy.

Living in cities can, as Plato suggest in the Republic, even make us happy. However, one needs to take with a pinch of salt the advise from journalist Charles Montgomery’s fascinating book ‘Happy City’: ‘the firing synapses of our brains, the chemistry of our blood and the statistical heft of our collected choices and opinions offers a map that approximates to the wisdom of philosophers’. We cannot, and should not, map our cities according to levels of oxytocin; nor should we assume that design alone could response and transform supposed universal rules of human behaviour.

I would identify three key areas to help us think about what a healthy city might look like: access to green spaces, defining the relationship between privacy and public space, and finally, and most importantly, the question of inequality. Daily contact with nature is essential for a healthy city. A child that does not have a regular encounter with green spaces can develop stress disorders.  In addition, the less green an environment the higher the rate of violence and assault. Therefore the preservation of parks, avenues and the effects of communal garden gardening projects show that a real relationship with green spaces even in the heart of the city has a powerful impact on mental health.

We can already see the influence of these idea on urban planning with development of pocket parks, and projects such as walkable neighbourhoods. Creating places that you might want to to walk through rather than sit in a traffic jam on the school run has an powerful cluster of results. A child that bikes or walks to school has improved concentration levels all the way to lunch. Leaving the car at homes means that there is improved air quality, less congestion on the road has a social impact on the street and in a famous study by Donald Appleyard, Liveable Streets, one’s social contacts will grow with neighbours. A walkable neighbourhood encourages fitness and better health, (it also can raise house prices).

The question of privacy has a huge influence on the way our cities are being built. However, our ideas and priorities are changing – at home we now interface with at least two screens every evening; at the same time our public spaces are being privatised, reducing the possibilities of vibrant civic life. Nevertheless, a healthy city attempts to mark the boundaries between the two spheres. Numerous psychological studies show the need for a place to retreat away from the noise, to close the front door on the bustle of urban life.

The design of communal corridors in apartment blocks and student housing tell us a lot about how we muddle along together, and what works. The streets in the sky of Brutalist schemes such as Park Hill, Sheffield, were bold attempts to recreate the traditional row in modernist form. Where once this concept was derided as the worse excesses of council housing, now that they have been Grade II listed and turned into luxury flats. We need to design open spaces that allow us to engage with each other without threat but also do not put ourselves on top of one another: often this is the definition of a good city street where everyone gets along but is not in each others’ pocket. This is at the heart of the vision of Hudson Street as written by the American Urbanist Jane Jacobs in ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’.

Inequality is perhaps the most pressing issue facing those who are thinking about the mental life of cities. many of the neurological studies note social stress as the most damaging measure. In his important study, Unequal Health, geographer Danny Dorling shows how inequality impacts on all aspect of health from life expectancy to mental anxiety. While cities show the highest life expectancy levels in the world, they also include the lowest. This is also true for child mortality rates, so, for example, Nairobi, Kenya, has the best survival rates for up to five years old, but those who live in the city slums, such as Kabira, have the lowest rates. This is also true of non-communicable diseases such as stroke, cancer and diabetes. In the UK, rates of obesity and mental health disorders within the city are far higher amongst the poorer neighbourhoods.

Despite the fact that Boris Johnson said that cities need a bit of inequality to work, that envy was a good thing, there is nothing in the nature of cities that dictates that there has to be this geography of difference. Inequality impacts on all parts of the urban landscape and it is the have nots who do not have access to parks and green spaces, nor have the luxury of privacy and adequate housing. To plan the healthy city we do not only need to think about the designs that will deliver better places for people but we also have to consider the process: we need to plan from the bottom up, putting the concerns of the most in need first.

 

[1] [http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0078983],

April 14, 2014 / Leo Hollis

Resilience is based on trust

This originally appeared on Shareable.net: http://www.shareable.net/blog/the-heart-of-urban-resilience-is-trust-not-technology

 

A few weeks ago, my family and I drove from London to my family home in the southwest of Britain. We were forced to drive because the train line that we normally rode, and that runs alongside the stunning coastline outside the Devon city of Exeter, had fallen into the sea during the terrible storms of January. It is a uniquely picturesque stretch of coast: The track curls around bluffs and coves, and was first built by the quintessential Victorian engineer Isombard Kingdom Brunel. For the first time in decades, the tracks had buckled and twisted in the storms, pounded by waves, leaving the counties of Devon and Cornwall cut off from the rest of the country. It will be months before the line is repaired, causing economic hardship and frustration.

As we drove through the countryside, the scars of the storm could be seen on all sides — rivers had burst their banks and miles of open fields had been transformed into wetlands, waters lapping at the edge of the motorway itself. Villages had been abandoned, farms devastated, crops ruined, and livestock lost. At the same time, the blame game had started in earnest; politicians stood in Wellington boots and listened to people’s stories, making promises to do what they could. Everyone wanted to know whose fault it was, and why nothing was being done fast enough.

A few weeks later, the water continued to rise, even threatening to encircle London, as the upper reaches of the River Thames swelled and broke its banks. The homes of the outer suburbs of the capital fell before the Spring tide. There were newspaper stories that predicted what would happen if the floods hit the centre of the city. At the same time, images were posted on Twitter to show the extent of the damage if the Thames Barrier, a flood prevention wall that spanned the estuary, had not worked. The statistics were retweeted with a mixture of fear and amazement: The barrier had been used 150 times since it was first built in 1983, including 28 times since December 6, 2013.

It is no wonder that there was a new energy in the debate concerning the question of resilience, and how to ensure that if — and when — such disasters arrive again, we are more prepared. Politicians, agencies, and advocates are currently arguing over resources and methods. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced that he would repair the damage “whatever the cost,” only for this promise to be negotiated down by his aides afterwards.

One thing is for certain, however: The discussion of ‘resilience’ becomes more urgent when the disaster arrives at your doorstep. Nevertheless, I can not help but feel ambivalence toward the word and, in particular, what it might mean to a city or community.

Like many concepts that start in the life sciences and get translated into the humanities, ‘resilience’ is a open-ended word. First developed by the Canadian ecologist C. S. ‘Buzz’ Hollings, the term was used to sum up something about the relationship between an ecosystem and complexity theory. Hollings’ original paper in 1973 looked at how an ecology can respond to disturbance, and how it might resist damage and swiftly bounce back to a ‘steady state’ vitality — how a forest regrows after a fire or the impact of a foreign species introduced into an ecosystem “so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.”

For Hollings and his colleagues, it was important to be able to measure the limits of this resilience, developing an ‘ecological economics,’ which now allows economists and environmentalists to calculate, for example, the costs of overfishing, the impact of waste on ecosystems, the gamification of climate change, if you like.

But does this way of talking about resilience also work for cities? In many occasions, the use of resilience in terms of the city has come to take prominence over the discussion of sustainability. This could be partly to do with the sense within the word that jeopardy is increasingly more likely than not. While sustainability suggests that ‘If we do this, we might avoid disaster’; resilience, on the other hand, is more pragmatic and asks ‘When disaster occurs, how will we bounce back?’

This seems a realistic position to hold. We are facing an uncertain future as a result of climate change; disasters do seem to be happening all too often. But does our emerging notion of resilience, as a result, become an alternate way of thinking about disaster management rather than a longer term means to consider how to make our cities more robust and flexible in the face of uncertainty?

Resilience is now big business. And, as a result, the term can suffer from the allure of ‘solution-ism’ — the desire that, by doing something, all shall be well. These solutions often take two forms: design innovation or technological promise of Big Data (a version of Hollings’s original ‘ecological economics’). In both cases, engineering offers the answer, often at a price, and resilience can be imposed upon a place through good architecture, space management, or the helpful collation of vital information.

Doubtless that this will see some good results, but it raises some important questions that this limited definition of resilience does not answer. This kind of resilience is designed to be flexible, but it tends to be resistant to change. It can absorb disaster and be measured by how quickly it bounces back, but it loses adaptability; it does not learn from change. Instead, it seems, it is constructed to get everything back to work as quickly as possible, not to evolve into something different. What it lacks is a social urban dimension, one that takes people into consideration.

Many recent natural events — from hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the winter floods and earthquakes in China — have shown that disasters are different for different people. In the days after Sandy, while some in Staten Island were wading through the debris of their neighbourhood, others were taking their regular jog around Central Park. The image of the lights still on in the Goldman Sachs offices by Battery Park while the rest of the Lower Manhattan was in darkness sums it all up. Resilience is unevenly distributed, even in the same city.

This kind of inequality makes trust difficult to thrive, and trust is at the heart of a more social urban definition of resilience. In Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating book about how communities come together in times of distress, A Paradise Built in Hell, she tells the story of what happened in 2005 in New Orleans after the levees broke, and the often overlooked acts of compassion and cooperation that spontaneously emerged out of disaster. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered,” she writes, “people step up — not all, but the great preponderance — to become their brother’s keeper.”

In the same manner, after the first reports of the horrific state of the flooded counties of southwest England, followed by the endless blaming and counter accusations between politicians and government agencies, stories started to emerge of how communities were helping each other to get back on their feet. As the organisers of floodvolunteers.co.uk told the Daily Telegraph: “People have offered up their homes, boats, waders, and even toys for kids. Others have volunteered their time and expertise. A group of farmers from the Netherlands have offered to bring over their tractors and boats. It’s restored our faith in humankind.”

This, surely, is a more robust way of thinking about how communities — and cities — bounce back. At the foundation of such adaptability is not some technological innovation, but trust — the essence of the understanding that the places where we live and the lives that we lead are shared experiences, rather than tradeable properties. This kind of trust, however, is nurtured in equality. It is not, as some thinkers will tell you — such as Francis Fukuyama or Robert Putnam — based upon some social transaction or the reward for one kind of participation or other, but rather the dissolution of the difference between us and them. This is a resilience that is more that simple solutionism, but also promises transformation.

 

 

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