As the companies, workers and wealth of Silicon Valley creep north into the city of San Francisco, the effects of an industry with a relatively small but highly paid labor force are leading to widespread social unrest. Embodied in the symbolic protests around “Google Buses,” lower-income residents are reacting to tech’s ability to produce so much wealth that is thinly distributed to a small labor force, disinvested from local infrastructure (with private transportation), and funneled to comically useless purposes like the “Google Barges” mysteriously floating in the Bay. However, conversations about tech wealth are often limited to its distribution—with even mainstream economists (as well as The Economist) conceding that, “Facebook will never need more than a few thousand employees.” Clearly, the other side of this is production; even with its relatively small labor force, Facebook can generate billions in wealth and profits. Instagram, the hip photo sharing mobile application, famously had only 13 employees when it sold for $1 billion (that’s around $77 million per employee).Read More
There was a time—not too long ago—when informal settlements the size of small cities were practically invisible. Large and empty beige-gray fields, intercepted by an occasional thin blue line, signifying water, and several thicker, windy white lines that stood for major roads, would pop up on the computer screen when searching for infamous slums such as “Kibera” on Google Maps. The information void stood in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of people living in Kibera, ironically tucked away between some of the city’s most valuable and celebrated resources: the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, Ngong Forest and the Nairobi dam.Read More
“I don’t mind the American soldiers on our streets. If I could talk to them I’d ask: Why are you so afraid of us? Why do you fear us so much?”
So answered my Afghan friend, when I asked him how he felt about the American troops parading the streets of Kabul. I expected him to be appalled by the invasion on his privacy, or sovereignty. But what appalled him most was their fear, and how it seeped into his everyday life. When he looked at them too long, they pulled out their gun, he said. I thought the high walls and barbed wires of Kabul’s new architecture conveyed the same message.Read More
David Chavis’ 1990 article, “Sense of Community in the Urban Environment: A Catalyst for Participation and Community Development," highlights the effects that perception of environment, social networks, and how residents’ sentiments about their communities can further influence the behaviors and perspectives of others. The article further emphasizes the importance of citizen participation in community organizing and explains why it has been regarded as key to improving the quality of the physical environment, enhancing services, preventing crime, and improving social conditions.Read More
Yearning for a rural lifestyle is a legitimate desire for all city dwellers. It is more than understandable to think about a nicer place if you can afford it, considering that “nicer” often means more greenery and nature. Nevertheless, countryside living is not only an aspiration for people in Bogotá who are planning a systematic exodus from the city’s current sense of collapse, but also for displaced rural people who try to make a living in the city. Sometimes there is a situation of urban dwellers colonizing farmers’ land, or the current national social illness of forced displacement.Read More
Shrinking cities have been the subject of much conversation in recent years. With Detroit filing for bankruptcy protection and the growing concern about aging cities in Europe, the discussion is gathering ever more momentum. In a climate of hasty blanket statements and one-size-fits-all solutions, Aksel Olsen takes a step back to critically examine the phenomenon of shrinking cities, in order to find real, practical solutions.
A significant number of cities and regions across the US and Eastern Europe currently face population decline, economic contraction, or both. The ‘greying of Europe,’ where nearly a third of the population will be 65 or over by 2060, is increasing pressure on social services, urban infrastructure, and the labor supply.Read More
This is a tale of a well-intentioned stream restoration project in a residential park-neighborhood of Richmond, CA that sparked a community power struggle. The unintended consequences of the restoration left the neighborhood divided. Neighbors who wanted to reduce criminal activity in the park were pitted against those attempting to promote local pride with aesthetic improvements. It provides an interesting case study bothfor understandingsuccessful urban creek restoration and neighborhood-level politics.Read More
San Francisco has oftenserved as a blank canvas since its rapid rise to prominence after the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s – the subject of countless visions for how the built environment should be designed. Whilesomewereoutlandish and others more grounded, the many ideas advanced over the years for guiding the City’s development have each presented a roadmap for moving forward, complete with nested values of what is most important for the future. Such is the subject ofUnbuilt San Francisco – an exhibit currently presented at five locations around the Bay Area, including at UC Berkeley (more details below). On display are plans, renderings, models, and other media depicting unrealized visions for the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of these proposals, such as a BART line running into Marin County, many wish had been built; others, like Marincello, a 30,000-person community in the now-preserved Marin Headlands, we cannot imagine advancing today. The exhibit covers a journey of great breadth, ultimately leaving the viewer with anuneasy sense of what could have been.Read More
An article in South Africa's Mail & Guardian boldly declares: “Nigeria's property boom is only for the brave.” Lagos is one of the continent's fastest urbanizing, rapidly expanding, bursting at the seams, oil-financed megacities. In this frenzy for investment, migration, and growth, Africa's amorphous--and apparently brave--middle class persists in jockeying for space in an exponential metropolis. So, too, does international real estate capital. Making space for its clean landing in Lagos demands at times the material expansion of the city, dredging the lagoon to build the new high-end enclaves of urban investment. And while real-estate interests demand firm ground, Lagos' slums barely stay afloat.Read More
Some see the rising steel structures in downtown St. Louis as milestones in a long-awaited project, others as an unwelcome reminder: as construction on the Cardinals’ Ballpark Village becomes more visible, controversy surrounding the $650 million development has also grown.
Ballpark Village has been envisioned as a new downtown destination for over a decade, but like thousands of other developments nationwide, remained just a vision until earlier this year due to the recession. The 2007 plan included high-rise condominiums, bars, shops, restaurants, plus the introduction of a street grid intended to integrate the project into the surrounding downtown neighborhood. The current construction, however, will include none of the mixed-use features, and replaces much of the planned development with a bemoaned surface parking lot.Read More
Greece. The word brings to mind a dazzling array of images. Whitewashed houses topped with cobalt blue roofs. Windmills and grape vines. Anthony Quinn dancing with a glass of ouzo by the sea. Yet what the word does not automatically trigger is desperate landscapes comprised of abandoned, half-constructed homes.
This article explores the vernacular architecture of Greece (in particular the island of Santorini), and also investigates such landscapes in times of economic debt & crisis. As the US government finally reaches a deal to end government shutdown and avoid default, we can look to other countries for precedents regarding how debt crises affect building, planning and constructed landscapes at the local level. This isn’t an alarmist cry against the certainty of a debt-ridden future. Instead, I tracethe possibilities of how debt affects the built environment, and ask if we should begin thinking about parallel models and case studies. Although Greece and its islands may comprise a much smaller geographic scale than the US or Canada, it is an instructive example and microcosm that we can learn from.Read More
What defines the world-class city?
Who defines the world-class city?
These are the questions with which University of California Berkeley professor of City Planning Ananya Roy begins her headlining talk at TEDCity2.0. Roy takes the audience through an examination of the “cottage industry” of city officials, advocacy groups, and others who spend countless hours pondering this notion of world-class city identity. In municipalities across the globe, from Shenzhen, China, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, local leaders want to know whether they have the “it” factors for achieving world-class city status.Read More
All eyes seem to be on San Francisco’s Market Street these days. A long-stalled planning effort to redesign the street to improve conditions for transit, bicycling, and walking – dubbed the Better Market Street project – is at last progressing, with a final design concept being decided upon in the coming months. The many agencies involved in the project have struggled to create a unified vision for the corridor, since its character is so multifaceted and the street serves many competing roles. The backbone of San Francisco’s transportation network and its cultural center, Market Street is arguably the City’s most important street. Cutting diagonally from the waterfront on the edge of the Financial District all the way to the foot of Twin Peaks, Market Street is simultaneously a connector, a dividing line, and a place of its own.
Despite the slow progress of the Better Market Street project to reorganize mobility along the corridor, many land use and other place-based changes are already well underway. Along Market Street’s long-distressed Mid-Market / Civic Center section, high-profile technology firms like social networking giant Twitter are moving in, and their wealthy, well-educated workforce is following close behind. Such a rapid shift in demographics is changing the character of the area, leaving one asking: whose interests matter and who is being left behind?
Mid-Market has long been a place of concern – almost every Mayor in recent memory has made efforts to “clean up” the so-called blighted area. Directly adjacent to the Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods, this middle section of Market Street is troubled by homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, and other quality-of-life issues. On some blocks, almost half of storefronts are vacant and many buildings are falling into disrepair. Attempts to spark vitality by reviving the area’s roots as a theatre and arts district have only been somewhat effective. Now, the new concept is to reorient Mid-Market into a technology hub, which means remaking the area to attract newcomers, largely to the detriment of current residents.
In 2011, San Francisco officials enacted a package of loans, grants, and tax breaks to lure investors to Mid-Market. Though controversial, the plan seems to be producing results. Twitter’s arrival last year was the subject of most headlines, and other big technology firms like Dolby Labs and mobile-payment service Square have also recently moved into the area. But the allure is not just tax breaks – younger workers are increasingly forgoing life in the suburbs for a more lively urban experience. The advent of corporate shuttle buses carrying thousands of workers who live in the City to their jobs south of San Francisco each morning makes this point very clear. Tech firms are realizing this and are beginning to move the center of gravity from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, situating themselves where their employees want to live and work. Retail businesses are correspondingly turning-over, with expensive coffee shops, gourmet restaurants, and boutique chocolatiers taking their place. Change is afoot.
By early next year, the 754-unit luxury apartment complex NeMa (standing for “New Market”) will be complete, bringing thousands of new affluent residents to the area. A good number will work in the burgeoning tech industry. Mid-Market’s revitalization involves a very real change in the area’s identity, as the City caters to those who stand to bring the most capital into the area, with little attention given to the thousands who live on the streets and in low-rent housing. Just last month, police shut down an over 30-year tradition of Tenderloin residents playing chess on Market Street’s sidewalk – one of the corridor’s only visible images of community. SFPD Capt. Michael Redmond said the games had “turned into a big public nuisance” and he suspected they were “a disguise for some other things that are going on,” such as drug dealing and gambling. This once-forgotten stretch of Market Street is suddenly valuable, and the last thing the City wants to do is scare affluent people away.
What will all these changes ultimately mean for the neighborhood? Market Street will surely continue to be a place where people of all walks of life come together, but a process of harsh gentrification is nevertheless occurring. As Mid-Market reorients itself to be attractive for a younger and more affluent demographic, current lower-income residents are viewed as a nuisance – an expendable population tolerated only until renewal takes-off. San Francisco needs to reflect on the type of city it wants to be. As things are going, there will need to be a big change in perspective, unless it wants to relegate itself to being a playground for the rich.
Mark Dreger is working towards his Masters in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, concentrating in transportation and urban design. He is a San Francisco native and interested in the nexus between systems of mobility and the public realm.
One of the most popular pieces of advice to incoming students concerns walking around People’s Park and Shattuck Avenue, two of the most popular homeless encampment areas. While some claim that “no story of Berkeley is complete without the story of the homeless, whose presence has become familiar to residents,” many avoid these areas because they wish to avoid either the homeless themselves, their belongings (e.g. the sight and spread of their tattered blankets) or their companions (e.g. cats, dogs and other pets). Particularly on Shattuck Avenue, the downtown area where many local stores and restaurants are located, business owners express resentment, claiming that the homeless people have affected their daily operations. They have urged the city government to do something.
There have been recent attempts. The City of Berkeley proposed a controversial ballot measure to ban anyone from sitting or lying at the sidewalks during the day through Measure S, otherwise known as Civil Sidewalkers, in late November 2012. First-time violators would face a penalty of $75 or community service, while subsequent violations could be charged as misdemeanors. Measure S was voted down by a majority of Berkeley voters.
The message is clear: as the measure would have forbidden the basic activities of the homeless in commercial areas, it was really aimed at reducing the visible signs of homelessness. As advocates of the measure claimed, “living on the street is unhealthy, and sends people into a downward spiral” while “keeping shoppers away and hurting local merchants.” In their opinion, the assumed benefits of Measure S were to improve the quality of life of the homeless community by transferring them to the appropriate social services and to increase economic activity of local merchants in the area.
But how likely are policies such as Measure S able to accomplish what they are intended to? According to an article published by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley’s School of Law, “Will Berkeley’s ‘Measure S’ increase economic activity and improve services to homeless people,” the benefits are “neither proven nor promising.” Indeed, a similar sit/lie law, passed in San Francisco, was proved to be a failure. According to a recent report from the City Hall Fellows, the measure is radically ineffective in dissuading the city’s homeless from sitting on pavements, and it poses an extra cost to the police force, whose time could probably be better spent on inspecting other activities.
Although voters in a city that is no stranger to political movements said “no” to Measure S, Berkeley is far from having ended anti-homeless efforts by the city government. The victory for homeless rights advocates has proved extremely short-lived: Councilmember Jesse Arreguín has proposed a new series of actions to target the homeless community, dubbed the “Compassionate Sidewalks Plan.” The Compassionate Sidewalks Plan convenes a group of representatives to develop new regulations and law enforcement strategies based on consensus. But certain residents and community activists speculate that this plan is simply a masked version of Measure S, only this time more stakeholders—community members and government officials but not homeless people – are included in drafting a new measure.
Should the homeless be wiped off the streets of Berkeley simply because their appearance seems to deter shoppers and threaten the city’s image? At the very least, I believe, decisions about public space should not be weighted solely in favor of profit.
It is possible that the Compassionate Sidewalks measure would start a trend of criminalization and discrimination in Berkeley against those who are in need. The danger is that if any such measure was passed, the trend would officially be established, could be hard to terminate, and potentially lead to laws that further target homelessness and associated activities (e.g. cooking and congregating in public). Even if the policy successfully displaced the homeless community from the city’s surface, they will only migrate from one place to another, unseen from public view. In the absolute worst case, a sense of alienation is created among the needy, which further intensifies the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Compassionate Sidewalks is a thinly veiled attempt to hide homelessness, and it undermines efforts that could have addressed the true roots of the problem. Therefore, for incoming students, my alternative piece of advice would be to learn about the transient population first-hand instead of passively consuming formulated opinions about homelessness. A good start would be to volunteer with a student group like the Suitcase Clinic, or to visit People’s Park and Shattuck Avenue and talk to the homeless face to face instead of shying away uncritically.
Allista Cheung is an undergraduate student in Economics and City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UC Berkeley Professor of City and Regional Planning Michael Dear’s ambitious new book, Why Walls Won’t Work, offers an engaging view into the everyday lives of residents on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Dear prompts a critical re-evaluation of our understanding of the U.S.’ southern border with Mexico, and his timely discussion is relevant to the proposed federal immigration bill, which, if passed, will likely spur further border securitization. Central to Dear’s argument is a framing of the borderlands stretching from southern California to the Gulf of Mexico as a “third nation,” distinct from the U.S. and Mexican nation states. However, by proposing this spatial category, Dear reproduces a territorial model for understanding a region largely defined by its tumultuous engagement with and subversion of the nationalist (territorializing) claims and technologies of the U.S. and Mexican governments. Borrowing a term from anthropologist Nicholas De Genova, I will suggest that instead of redrawing an alternative boundary, we should approach the region as a “transnational conjunctural space,” (see De Genova’s Working the Boundaries).
Dear stakes his provocative assertion that the barrier will fail based on the historic and continued practices of transnationality (and economic interdependence) that undermine the wall’s claims of territorial national sovereignty. Drawing on borderlands historiography, Dear takes us back to the Comanches raids along the southern border prior to the U.S.-Mexican War (see Brian DeLay’s illuminating War of A Thousand Deserts) to suggest that the borderlands share more than a common history, but also blurred cultures, value systems, and practices of mutuality—in short, what Dear identifies as an alternative nationalism. Dear highlights the two dimensions that compose the “third nation’s” nationalism. Firstly the crossings, tunnels, economic interdependence, and other material exchanges that make up what Dear calls the “third nation before the wall,” and secondly, the cultural and language exchanges that make up what Dear calls the “third nation of the mind.” However, Dear for the most part engages these dynamics as parallel, rather than intersecting and inseparable. An illustration of this approach would be a focus on the ways that transnationality is experienced unevenly and unequally by borderlands residents, (for a rigorous analysis of the “nation form” see Manu Goswami, 2002).
Daniela De Leo, in her review of Dear’s book in Volume 26 of the Berkeley Planning Journal, questions the efficacy of a nationalism operating outside a formal nation-state. Perhaps this ambivalence comes from the lack of physical mediums through which nationalism can be performed and distributed in non-state spaces (Benedict Anderson’s famous example of the printing press in Western Europe comes to mind). I share De Leo’s concern. In the southern borderlands, these potential mediums are violently disrupted by physical and legal barriers—or more precisely, access to existing mediums is highly unequal. As geographer Doreen Massey would put it, “different social groups, and different individuals, are placed in very distinct ways in relation to these flows and interconnections.”
From the privileged perspective that comes with U.S. visibility, transnational fluidity seems remarkable. But from the perspective of Mexican citizens, physical transnationality can only be experienced after years of paperwork, steep fees, and too often, the risks involved with undocumented entry into the US. Similarly, cultural exchanges and economic interdependencies are highly uneven and often perpetuate inequality.
Alternatively, UC San Diego architect Teddy Cruz looks at borderlands through the lens of political economy, focusing on the vastly uneven experiences of transnationality along the border, resource flows, and the particular effects of borderlands capitalism. Instead of a coherent alternative nationalism, Cruz sees creative informality, which he argues, forces us to develop a new political language and spatial categories.
I do not suggest that alternative nationalisms can only emerge from state formations or that the “nation form” is an outdated frame, since nationalist movements from India to South Africa suggest otherwise. But in the US-Mexico borderlands, where the experience of transationality is highly uneven, I fail to see the usefulness in attributing territorial nationality to a place of informal dissonance, but exciting political creativity, as Cruz proposes.
Rather than a third nation, the southern borderlands lend themselves to an exciting alternative to bounded geographic models. Lucidly explained by Doreen Massey in her seminal essay, “A Global Sense of Place,” I want to suggest that we approach the southern borderlands not as a third bounded space carved out of a national boundary, but as a dynamic node of global interconnections where local histories, global capital, and uneven transnational agency come together in illumining ways.
Luis Flores is a 2013-14 visiting researcher at UC Berkeley under the auspice of the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. His project, “Discovering the IRCA Generation” aims to produce a political economy of immigrants’ integration into housing markets during the 1990s and 2000s, illuminating the dangers of articulating assimilation with financial participation, as well as emphasizing the transnational dimensions to the Great Recession. Luis was raised along the southern border in the town of Calexico, California. He can be reached at email@example.com
Dublin is a city of juxtaposition. And perhaps city-ness is nothing more than a multiplicity of juxtaposition in form and function. But as it reimagines its past and rebrands its future as authentic, Dublin gives this truism some shape.
During our summer research with the Annenberg Scholars Program in Culture and Communication and the National University of Ireland Maynooth, we grappled with the prevailing forces shaping Dublin’s realities. In particular, we reckoned with what David Harvey identified as an emergent but dominant mode of urban governance: entrepreneurialism . The city as enterprise. The city as facilitator and partner. The city as both place and place-maker. What was the relationship between “the political economy of place and the cultural politics of place” ?How did the contingencies of Dublin – the city and the city-brand – and Ireland – the nation and the national imaginary – shape the city government’s entrepreneurial endeavors?
Attending the Dublin City Council's StartUp City charrette, we began to see how the city's ongoing transformations and internal tensions were etched into the built environment. The event, in which teams variously comprised of city officials, urban designers, hackers, and entrepreneurs presented proposals for improving city support for small to medium-sized enterprises, was located in the City Council's Wood Quay offices along the River Liffey. Once there, we found ourselves in the City Wall Room, an immense conference space in the office building's basement, named for the Viking-built wall undergoing archaeological excavation at the time of the site’s construction – the wall that lay dormant behind the speakers, their Prezis, their future-motifs. Not only were Dublin’s deep past (as Viking settlement) and immediate future (as an entrepreneurial e-city) juxtaposed in this ethnographic moment, so too were the specters of its more recent history – a history of vast public campaigns to halt construction, a history of voices extinguished, of democracy, public space, and urban identity in doubt.
One StartUp City team focused on encouraging street markets by streamlining the bureaucracy for establishing new hubs. While officials and developers see these hubs as catalysts for entrepreneurship, urban livability, and local investment, commitment to existing markets was waning. The sites of extant locales have increasingly become targets for large-scale development projects that cater to the ongoing hope for middle-class influx.
Hopping between these market hubs, we saw an abundance of forms, styles, and purposes: from the sidewalk vendors in the Liberties selling cell phones, toilet paper, toys, batteries, and watches, angry with the City Council for doubling their stall fees; to the Temple Bar Food Market and Cow’s Lane Designer Market, where gourmet fare is hocked upscale tourists and locals and is carefully managed by the city’s Temple Bar Cultural Trust; and the Ballymun Farmer’s Market, inside a new but failed shopping mall in a northern suburb dominated by social housing.
In a subtle yet striking juxtaposition, two types of markets emerged after the Celtic Tiger crash: sprawling, outer-city car boot sales and curated, inner-city flea markets. In poorer suburbs, car boot sales attract hundreds of vendors and thousands of visitors. Furnishings, appliances, toys, and jewelry sell for a couple of Euros. Vendors pay a small fee to set up shop, their wares laid out on a table or blanket as they chat with friends nearby, bargain with shoppers, or peruse cars arrayed in rows, face-to-face, boot open. Vendors are usually under- or unemployed, and the sale is only one of their many informal trades.
Meanwhile, the inner-city’s flea markets cater to a younger, hipper crowd, selling homemade and vintage jewelry, vinyls, antique furniture, old fashionable clothing, and art. A founder of the Dublin Flea believes that this new interest in markets is partly a shedding of the middle-class fear of being associated with peasant culture. City Council representative Siobhan Maher, on the other hand, imagines it a tourism amenity: “visiting people want to find the quirky stuff.” Perhaps the street market presents a variety of opportunities for what Sharon Zukin calls “shopping for authenticity” : a few extra dollars for vendors and for the government, a way to encourage individual entrepreneurship at a low risk, and a way to validate authenticity through consumption.
But authenticity can be an elusive siren. And the quest for it dictates much of urban governmental action. Cities seeking to foster authentic built environments and a creative material personality must make concessions; the role of government must be transformed. The City Council, wary of its own preponderance, strives to become a facilitator of authentic creativity and urban place-making.
Channels are thus created for the sourcing of citizen input at the front-end of development. The Studio, an “interdisciplinary” branch of City Council founded after the economic crisis, looks for “new ways to engage with the public that are less formal [and] less officious.” The hyper-localized urban connaissance of what it means to be a resident of Dublin, on x street in y neighborhood, becomes the currency of city officials. New rituals and frameworks for public engagement are enacted. The Dublin City Beta Project transforms the city into a “test-bed” for seemingly radical, citizen-sourced design concepts to improve street life. Citizens become users of the city-as-product, and the entrepreneurial city knows what its users want.
The Digital Dublin Master Plan and Dublin City Public Realm Strategy each project an image of perfected, open city-ness, in which consumers of city-space provide constant input to the City Council in real time, a feedback effect that risks being construed as a substitute for democracy. These newly-minted initiatives are aspects of an explicit imperative to “open” the city – to make big data available, open source, for developers and citizens. The open city extends beyond the digital and into the public realm, where clever “hacks” of public space are now praised and promoted by city officials. Reports like these are mechanisms of power, not because they shape the future, but because they coordinate “a shared belief in the future” in the present .
In Dublin, city of juxtaposition, these techniques call attention to themselves. Public spaces are no longer the physical and social domain of the commons but “a key part of the city’s identity and distinctive character [whose] quality affects the city’s competitiveness and ability to attract investment.” Smart, open, transparent, walkable, consumable cities. The imperative is to spatialize a city-image attractive to consumers of urban authenticity. What comes into relief, however, is not a city trying to improve the conditions within its territory, but an enterprise with the singular objective of competing with its global peers in attracting capital.
Aaron Shapiro and Emily Ladue are doctoral students at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Aaron studies cities, intellectual technologies of urban revitalization, and commodity aesthetics. In particular, he is interested in urban design and planning as spatial techniques of government. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Emily is studying urban development, dispossession, and consumption in US cities. She is also a filmmaker looking to express this research through video projects. Her email is email@example.com.
The Oakland waterfront redevelopment project called Oak to Ninth is back in the news after Governor Brown and Mayor Quan recently secured $1.5 billion in funding from a Chinese investment company. The Oakland’s City Council approved the project and a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in 2006, but the developer, Signature Properties, never broke ground due to the recession. In 2011, city officials even tried (and failed) to attract the planned satellite campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to the site. Now, the development is proceeding with a new name: Brooklyn Basin.
Like fees and exactions, CBAs represent a developer’s contribution to the local community as a condition of receiving public subsidies and permits. Going beyond baseline payments for infrastructure such as roads and schools, CBA campaigns can target affordable housing and workforce development, among other local needs. They can involve diverse stakeholders, as well as more immediate input from the public than fees and exactions, which may be assessed automatically.
Oak to Ninth put equity advocates and the developer in an unlikely alliance. Once the City and the developer had signed a development agreement that included community benefits and enforcement provisions, community groups came out to planning meetings to support the project. This placed them at odds with environmentalists, intent on maintaining an earlier agreement with the city that created a greater amount of public open space from the former industrial site, as well as historic preservationists who wanted the whole Ninth Street Terminal, not part of it, restored.
Today, Plan Bay Area and other efforts to promote smart growth in the region suggest that environmental and social justice groups are much less at odds with each other. This is partly due to a greater aligning of goals between environmental groups and organizations focused on social justice and community development. The former have focused their agenda more on urban issues, in addition to wildlife preservation outside cities. The latter have focused on health and opportunities in the green economy. Both have come together around the uneven impacts of climate change.
With Oak to Ninth-Brooklyn Basin and its accompanying CBA looking set to move forward again, it’s worth checking in with the overall concept of community benefits. In the time that Oak to Ninth lay dormant, CBAs were tested, shown to have some fundamental weaknesses, and improved upon. The foreclosure crisis and a new drive to link sustainability with housing and land use under Plan Bay Area provide a different backdrop for the project than the pre-recession real estate market did.
At 30 acres, Brooklyn Basin is small compared to other large-scale infill projects such as the Railyards in Sacramento (240 acres), the future terminus of California’s high-speed rail line, or the Brooklyn Navy Yards in New York (300 acres). Yet Brooklyn Basin will be significant for reconnecting Oakland neighborhoods south of Downtown with the waterfront. The site borders Chinatown, Lower San Antonio, and Fruitvale, where there are high poverty rates and a need for jobs and affordable housing.
In the seven years since the Oak to Ninth project approval and CBA campaign, Oakland has experienced high foreclosure rates, rising unemployment, and social movements targeting income and housing inequality, such as Occupy Oakland. Developer funding for job training programs and affordable housing stalled along with the Oak to Ninth project. However, as soon as the first building permit is issued on the multi-year project, $1 million will be divided among several Oakland job-training programs, with another $325,000 specifically for job training in Chinatown, Fruitvale and Lower San Antonio. In terms of housing, 465 affordable units will be built onsite-- about 17 percent of a total 2,765 units.
Oak to Ninth was approved at a time when CBAs were becoming a popular tool for equity advocates. CBAs provide a political rallying point for sharing the benefits of publicly funded projects, rather than simply halting them. The Staples Center CBA (2001) is considered an early model for community groups to negotiate for first source hiring, living wage, and affordable housing when large public subsidies for development are at stake. Yet CBAs can also reflect broader power imbalances. Who represents the “community” can come up for debate, as it did with the Atlantic Yards CBA (2005).
The Oak to Ninth CBA was grassroots-driven. A group of labor, neighborhood, faith-based and equity advocates were among the coalition members who created political pressure for the City of Oakland to approve the development agreement that codifies the CBA. The City of Oakland, eager to attract development, was a reluctant partner in the CBA, but eventually signed a development agreement that is binding for both the City and the developer. Among the agreement’s safeguards are payroll reporting by contractors and financial penalties if targets are not met.
The local hiring provisions of the CBA are designed to help Oakland workers without significant previous experience break into the construction trades. It does this by requiring that six percent of the job hours on individual parcels be carried out by Oakland residents who are new to the construction trade, with an incentive to keep the same workers on the job for the equivalent of 23 full time weeks. Although this is only a small percentage of the site hours, the effect will be that at least a third of the apprenticeships – paid, entry level, career path positions - on each project site will be filled by Oakland residents.
CBAs have become more common since Oak to Ninth, and with more examples have come lessons for their proponents. Enforcement mechanisms are key, and the most effective CBAs provide a stepping-stone to stronger citywide policies on local hiring and affordable housing, rather than project-by-project funding. Although a more comprehensive citywide policy on community benefits has not materialized in Oakland, members of the Oak to Ninth CBA coalition have put the experience they gained to use. In 2012, EBASE helped negotiate a stronger CBA in connection to the redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base. The site will remain industrial, creating construction as well as long term living wage shipping and logistics jobs for Oakland residents and residents of the high unemployment area of West Oakland.
The loss of state funding has complicated local redevelopment, but public funding and permitting of large-scale development remains a leverage point for equity and sustainability advocates. As it moves forward, the Brooklyn Basin project will provide much-needed local investment, but work remains to be done to make housing and employment more equitable in Oakland and in the Bay Area across the board.
Lizzy Mattiuzzi is a doctoral candidate in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She studies the politics of sustainable land use, transportation, and community development at the urban and metropolitan scales. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Affordable housing in the United States echoes a continuously changing ideology of the most effective, safe, and desirable way to house the poorest and most marginalized people of our society. In the 1960s, the idea was that affordable housing had to first and foremost accommodate immense numbers of people. Subsequent massive projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Cabrini-Green in Chicago were constructed. It was later realized that such poorly designed and enormous publicly run housing projects led to widespread crime and danger. During the next phase, affordable housing was built on a much smaller scale, managed by private developers, and not segregated from more well-off neighborhoods. While this type of lower density housing harbors a much more hospitable environment, it cannot accommodate the growing number of poor Americans.
The most recent question surrounding affordable housing is how to construct quality, well-managed, safe, publically funded housing for the poor in the mass quantities that are needed to make a dent in homelessness.
The Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), based in Downtown Los Angeles, has attempted to tackle this question. Skid Row is an area in downtown Los Angeles that contains the highest concentration of homeless people in the United States. Streets are lined with cardboard, shopping carts, tents, and belongings. SRHT strives to assist the 3,000-6,000 people living on these streets by constructing affordable and desirable housing. The Star Apartments, the first pre-fabricated affordable housing complex, are an effort to construct a larger scale, well-designed project at minimal cost and construction time. The Star Apartments will cost $20.5 million and will consist of 102 units built in a factory and then stacked on site in just over a month. According to the Los Angeles Times, the project, designed by renowned architect Michael Maltzan, will include basketball courts, art centers, community gardens and green space. Star Apartments will serve the entire Skid Row community through services and public spaces. Residents will pay 30% of their income and will not be mandated to attend any counseling or social services. The Skid Row Housing Trust advocates for the so-called “housing first” model, which argues that the most effective way to deal with homelessness is to provide sustainable housing as quickly as possible, regardless of the level of stability of the resident.
Due to this unconventional model, Star Apartments have been the subject of controversy. Residents of the Star Apartments do not have to prove that they are on “the right path,” because “housing first” prescribes that once homeless people have housing, improvement and stability will follow. Opponents, such as conservative radio talk show host John Carlson, call such projects “bunks for drunks” and argue that in order to make a real difference in homelessness, residents need to be mandated to stop “risky behavior” and take proactive steps to better their life.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of “housing first” programs in reducing chronic homelessness and health care costs. Costs of individuals living in housing first programs were compared with those on the waitlist for the same type of housing but who were still living on the streets. Including housing expenses, public service costs decreased from $4066 to $2449 per person per month after a twelve-month period. This study thus demonstrates that it is actually cheaper to provide subsidized permanent housing for the chronic homeless than to pay for public health and safety services. Give the homeless homes, and the reduction of drug use is secondary to the numerous benefits that come with safe, sanitary, and sustainable shelter.
Critics of the Star Apartments might also take issue with the relatively low capacity of the project. However, regardless of its size, this well-designed building has the potential to completely change an entire community. A mixed-use housing project provides the space for people of the whole neighborhood to collaborate and build relationships. While it may house fewer people than a Cabrini-Green or a Pruitt-Igoe, it has the potential to positively affect the lives of many more.
In addition, others might claim that though the project will attempt to nurture a safe environment, it is still located on 6th and Maple; residents will still live in the heart of Skid Row and it will be nearly impossible to escape its lifestyle. But to argue that a project should be built in a different region is to completely give up on Skid Row and settle that it will never be a productive or family-conducive community.
In order to understand why it is important that Star Apartments is located in Skid Row, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the area. In the documentary Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home, director Thomas Q. Napper, attempts to justly frame the Skid Row community and the issues it faces. The documentary demonstrates that even though crime and drugs are rampant, the region has also nurtured a unique, lasting sense of community. Kevin “KK” Cohen, who is profiled in the film, lived on Skid Row for 14 years and became the fiancée and protector of Lee Anne Leven, an older, mentally ill, hunched-over Skid Row native. KK claims: “I would defend her with my life, believe that, dude. I would die behind this little lady right here.” Skid Row has fostered this unique and compelling relationship. I believe that while it is important not to isolate the poor from urban life, it is just as essential that longstanding neighborhoods are not abandoned because of negative outsider conceptions.
The Star Apartments could be the model for the future of affordable housing. However, as Mike Alviderez, the Executive Director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, told the L.A. Times, “We’re not going to be able to build our way out of homelessness.” Pre-fab affordable housing must not be seen as a solution for homelessness but as a way for those who are desperately poor to begin to climb out of poverty. It is one step in the mitigation of homelessness, just as pre-fab affordable housing can be viewed as one phase in the United States affordable housing timeline.
Hannah Squier is a second year Civil and Environmental Engineering major at UC Berkeley. She is interested in the way engineering and urban planning intersect to solve social and systemic injustices. Feel free to contact her at email@example.com.
Things change when there is no place to go. A city loses itself when the gravitational force on metros, buses and people loses its hold. Before opting out, I was living in a nice place, working for a good office, and spending time with close friends. From the apartment at Sihui Station to the office on Tuanjihue Lu; from the diplomatic areas of Dongzhimen to the alley bars of Gulou, work life and personal life revolved around design scenes, family-style meals, and group outings. This is how I interacted with the city, and this is how the city interacted with me. But once these things, these places, and these people were gone, Beijing became something less familiar.
Maybe I had watched Into the Wild one too many times. Maybe I thought I was a character in a Knut Hamsun novel. Or maybe it was that I had experienced a broken heart. But as my lease at the Gemdale Plaza next to Line 1 came to an end, I filled a backpack, dropped my luggage off at a friend’s house, and spent the next 8 months looking for the best places for personal displacement. I didn’t know where I was headed, or if being headed anywhere made much sense. All I wanted was nowhere, and I wanted it wherever I could find it.
Beijing is a cold city in more ways than one. The winter of 2012 was no exception. The wide-open spaces created an impersonal landscape of gray brick and white barriers. Low-density blocks the size of airport runways made my jacket feel thinner, as exhalation would come to obstruct my vision. Within these vast openings would sometimes sit a bench, isolated and prominent, as if drawing attention to itself just by existing. I began to find comfort in the outskirts. I would seek out the corners and retreat into the narrowness. The hutongs were mazes, and mazes are indeed fun when time is irrelevant. Once, I would get frustrated when I ended up in the wrong side street to meet friends at an obscure pool hall. Now, my frustration applied itself to a stopping point.
Physical movement became more necessary as the temperature ticked downward. I sometimes found myself on the periphery, running in place, waiting for 10am, when the nearest heated space, known as a shopping mall, would open its doors. To me, malls were giant mixed-use monstrosities, and I found myself in them more often than not, resting, reading, and writing. The couches were more comfortable than the concrete, and the clean bathroom stalls made napping manageable. Laowài were welcome there, and I took full advantage.
I even spent a few nights in the biggest, freest hotel in Beijing: Foster’s Capital Airport.
I spent little time in parks with their controlled access points and more time under overpasses, as they felt freer and at the same time more private. When the ring roads intersected a highway, the massive looping exits created pockets and barricades. Businesses operated along the roads running underneath the 8-lane traffic several meters above. Medians were brick islands with a width of two lanes. Where the overhead’s giant concrete columns touched down on these islands, a good place for leaning was born. Nearby, tunnels could be found that gave pedestrians and cyclists a means of punching through the vehicular onslaught. It is within these negative spaces that city equipment was stored and traces of graffiti could be discerned. Beyond the sound of revving engines and blaring horns, it was a place of burnt wood and loneliness. Sometimes, I would find jackets and blankets, a pile of flattened cardboard boxes, a lighter, a cup. And no one else.
In order to bypass the roads, the highways, and the noise that accompanied them, I would sometimes travel the city canals and walk for miles and miles. Like the tunnels and grooves, I felt safe and off-the-grid, with the benefit of a de-saturated sky above me. I went to places I had never been, and I spent time in places that I had once enjoyed with the people that I used to know. It was at this old sky bridge where a pointless conversation had taken place, a time of eye contact, winter jackets, and the backsides of green traffic signs. But my memories were fading, and it became harder to figure out what was so special about that damn sky bridge.
By the spring, I was no longer serving drinks and cleaning bathrooms in exchange for a bed at the local hostel. I had removed myself from the couches of generous friends. I had left my new job of only 3 months, and the convenience of their office furniture. My nights were now spent on patches of grass between sidewalks and tower plinths. Long-haired and bearded, I continued walking the city, often without an idea of where I was. Beijing is not known for way-finding, so I followed whatever way I could find. I would hike along railroad tracks, watching vendors sell clothing, books, and chuanr. They never noticed me, and I never minded. The city was now blooming, and the large setbacks became small green parks with foliage-draped benches and places for locals to nap and water the flowers. It barely rained, and when it did, I found the nearest awning, metro station, or mall. I was now used to it all.
By the fall, I had made it into Mumbai, India with a void work visa. My distaste for Beijing was at an all-time high. I had championed Beijing the previous year, only to become too intimate with its reality as compared with my own. Everything I had loved about the city was associated with and based upon everything I had now lost. Through my own stupidity, I had broken, ruined, and separated myself from every personal and professional association that I had obtained while living in the city as an architect. Now the city was lacking because I myself was lacking.
Beijing became a barren wasteland, and my understanding of cities had changed. A city can be many things: It can be clean. It can be dirty. It can be pleasant or stressful. It can have a public transportation system and a logical road network or be lost within chaos. It can feel as if home, or it can resemble something foreign. But without the stability of relationship, a point of contact, with a person, a job, a bed, the reference is lost, the meaning is void. Without this framework, the city bleeds away into empty materials and emptier buildings, an ocean of grayscale pavement, broken up by stoic park benches. Things change when we have no place to go. Or we have no place to go because things change. Either way, as Steven Wright once said: Anywhere is walking distance if you’ve got the time.
Brad Hooks is an architect who graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has worked for ATOL Architects in Shanghai, URBANUS Architecture & Design in Beijing, and Studio Mumbai Architects in Alibag, among others. He now lives and works in Ahmedabad, India. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the violence experienced by youth, to the imbedded racial discrimination experienced by people of color in the trial court system, to the obsession of the construction of whiteness around Zimmerman who in the end killed a young innocent man—there are so many powers at play in this case, and so many things to say. But I want to focus on what themes have been springing out from the dreadful case that are connecting to the work I seek to do with my own experience as a planner in training, but also as a woman of color deeply involved and in youth organizing, environmental and restorative justice, and community. The Missing Link of Transformative Love
Some of the people that I look to when working as a planner and as a community member are my sisters and guides whose wisdom I access through books: the radical feminists of color, in particular Professor of English and activist bell hooks who posted a response. In her acclaimed book, All About Love, hooks writes:
“The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety… The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.
White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor…. This is what the worship of death looks like.”
This excerpt alone could have been a response to the Trayvon Martin case outcome where hooks describes how youth, particularly young men of color, are seen as a threat. Unlawful and devoid of humanity through their criminalization, young men of color are then subject to the racialized systemic violence and discrimination due to deeply ingrained societal racism. She also links the environment in which we live, the social and concrete ecosystem of place and space that make up the violence and the social understanding of what it means to be black and dangerous.
Her response to this phenomenon is that of transformative love, how the power of love can transform communities, socially and physically. Some people look at the matter of love as something of a subjective nature, something that is not objective. Similarly, some might underestimate this blog piece and deem it as a mere social science theory. But as a planner, I have to look at its application in the real world. Transformative love to me is not as theoretical as it seems; in fact, it can only be reached through simple and practical applications such as engaging in real conversations with each other.
The reason Trayvon Martin died is because we, as a society, do not communicate. We need to invest in one another. One group’s equality must be invested in another group in order for us to move forward to better cities, better schools and a better environment. I believe our society can no longer afford to leave some groups struggling, while others enjoy economic, social and physical protection. As hooks explains in her last sentences, justice itself is wrapped up in the love of human dignity. I think this is something that we have lost as the Trayvon Martin Case/Zimmerman acquittal becomes more and debated and sensationalized.
Trayvon’s life may have been like any other urban kid’s experience. Surrounded by poverty and stricken by lack of opportunity, young people like Trayvon Martin are harassed and need to defend themselves. These conditions often result in the murder of such young men. Trayvon Martin’s murder is the loss of a life, but it is also the loss of an opportunity for the entire world to see what young people like Trayvon can offer. What worldly perspectives, what deep insight on poverty, resilience, love, dedication, problem-solving and ingenuity can the strong and creative minds of our youth offer? And, most importantly, at what rate and at what cost are we losing them, especially our youth of color?
Roses from Concrete: What Makes Up the Concrete
Another idea that has been circulating the blogosphere and social media outlets has been that of Brooklyn-based black feminist scholar and activist Syreeta McFadden: “Only in America can a young black boy have to go to trial for his own death.” Not only can a black boy go to trial after his death, but it is only after he dies that his life is recognized as a life—or that his life can make it to the big screen. From Rodney King to Oscar Grant—America is familiar to stories like these. However, what about other deaths in our neighborhoods, the deaths of the urban poor?
I ask these questions because it is clear that black and brown bodies are not only unsafe in white spaces, but that the very spaces where poor people of color have grown up and that they have sustained are terrorized with hyper police-reinforcement, low health outcomes, and very little opportunity for educational success. These questions are part of the death sentence killing youth of color and they are also part of the work that comes with the privilege to plan cities. However, these are also the questions that have very little room in planning classrooms or in commission meetings.
Lastly, let us not mistake the murder of Trayvon Martin as an act of an individual; rather it was an entire system that killed Trayvon. As many of us mourn this loss, I think of the families of fallen heroes, of these roses from concrete. However, this cannot paralyze us. Let us honor the lives of these young people by actively creating avenues for transformational love that can change the way cities function and the way historically marginalized people live. Let us create new planning approaches, so that their environments and life outcomes can match the dignity of their lives.
Mar Vélez is a master’s student in both the Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. She is currently interning with the Pacific Institute and working along side Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) in Oakland on issues of health, gentrification, gang injunctions and popular education methods for participatory planning strategies for sustainable communities. Yes, all these things are related. She can explain how if you reach her at email@example.com.