07
Mar
11

Democratic Cities – Theirs and Ours

The popular revolts for freedom and democracy in the Mid-East have some lessons to teach us here in the US about democratic city making.  While US electoral participation wallows in pathetic lows, the people of the Arab world (and beyond) are remaking their cities, governments, and societies in directly democratic ways.  As part of their uprisings, the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan peoples are running their own municipal affairs from the bottom up, often in the face of horrendous violence, with remarkable success.  And this from a people for whom democratic principles and structures were supposedly too foreign to be seriously attempted; they could only be imposed by the force of American bombs and occupying soldiers.

Theirs

Once the uprisings began in January, the Egyptian people began constructing their own free and democratic society in Tahrir, the main square in Cairo that became the focal point for the demonstrators.  To support the continuous, round-the-clock demonstrations, protestors made a free Egypt, a commune in the square. Demonstrators organized food distribution and sanitation, and phone and internet services out of abandoned nearby businesses. Once internet and phone services were suspended by the government, regular leaflets kept the crowd abreast of national developments.  And when the Tahrir demonstrators were attacked by police thugs, medical clinics were established to treat the wounded. The minority Coptic Christians, long a persecuted group, and victims of a devastating New Years church bombing, showed their solidarity with Muslim demonstrators by forming human barricades to protect Muslims during daily prayers. Women took a prominent role, organizing and leading the demonstrations.  Indeed, it was the brave public stances of women organizers that initially spurred the revolt. This level of openness and equality was remarkable. “It felt like it had become a different society – there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside,” organizer Mona Seif told Al Jazeera.

More than this, people all over Cairo began to organize municipal functions that were falling apart as the uprisings unfolded.  Most simply, Egyptians cleaned and cared for their city; teams of citizens washed and scrubbed the streets of the city.  People took over police functions too – streets and neighborhoods organized patrols, checkpoints and watches.  At checkpoints people were searched for weapons or other dangerous material.  Egyptian born American journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous reported that his family members, young and old, participated in these efforts.  Meanwhile Tahrir square’s subway station was blockaded with car frames, and the station platform turned into a holding cell for the scores of thugs captured by the democracy activists, many of whom had their police identification cards seized. In tents and makeshift structures, as well as the public services assembled by the people, Tahrir demonstrated a budding popular power and dedication that would prove difficult to break.  When the government switched to frontal assaults on the activists, it was these structures that enabled the Egyptian people to fight on.

In Libya the popular democratic structures were even more impressive.  In the city of Benghazi, municipal councils began to run all the affairs of the city.  These included the prisons, police, courts, media and communications, electricity stations, the port, and the airport.  The councils were run by representatives of the forces in open rebellion, tribal heads and elders, judges, emerging political leaders, and army units refusing orders.  The council model spread over most territories in rebellion, and local councils federated into a National Council, established to better coordinate efforts, force Gaddafi out, and assert popular power.  Met with some of the most violent repression of any of the current revolts, the democratic forces have now attempted to take the capitol of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s last stronghold, by force.  This as the remnants of the governments coercive apparatus have, in the words of Middle East scholar Juan Cole, “opened the gates of hell” on the protestors.

Ours

Throughout the upheaval, the US has been working to control and limit the dimensions of the uprisings. It seems likely the US was behind Mubarak’s choice of Omar Suleiman as vice president. Suleiman has run the US torture and rendition program in Egypt since the Bill Clinton era, often taking a direct role in torturing detainees like alleged al Qaeda commander Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi and Shia cleric Abu Omar, abducted from the streets of Milan by the CIA. (Al-Libi’s tortured testimony was used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And according to ABC News, Suleiman once offered to deliver Omar’s arm to US officials when they asked for a DNA sample.) Suleiman’s brutality and his loyalty to the US made him a perfect candidate for transitional figure in Egypt. In a Wikileaks-released State Department document from 2006 an unnamed official wrote “Our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman [sic], is now probably the most successful element of the [U.S.-Egypt] relationship.”  While the US and Suleiman’s role in the coming period is yet to be determined, US choices and allies demonstrate their commitment to democratic participation.

On the domestic front it doesn’t look much better. US democratic structures are hardly functioning, at both national and local levels.  In the last presidential election, marked by the supposed upsurge in popularity of Barack Obama, turnout barely reached 56%, a one percent bump from the Bush election of 2004.  In non-presidential years turnout is closer to 35%.   At the municipal level the rates are much worse, around a quarter of the eligible population. For decades polls have explained the results; the public feels that the government is run “by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” with little space for democratic participation.  Overall the lessons are not hard to understand: attacks on public services for the poor, eviscerate education, dismantle unions and the working class organizations, while the nation’s richest reap record profits and historic low tax rates.  For those who do vote, not many bother to take the time to cut through the fog of media obfuscation to discover who the candidates are, or what they stand for; a majority of Bush voters thought that Bush supported the Kyoto protocols for example.  And the deception has continued under Obama, whose 2008 presidential campaign won Advertiser Age’s campaign of the year, their highest marketing award.  It speaks volumes that our policy makers are sold to us like toothpaste and automobiles.

Democratic Cities

The lessons seem pretty clear; in the US democracy is a foreign tradition, with elections and the government run by a few big interests, and little reason for the population to participate.  To the people of the Middle East this might sound familiar.  Based on their example there’s at least one path forward; they have set an excellent precedent for the rest of us.

— Reagan

03
Feb
11

seattle’s new waterfront

Seattle continues to engage with the debate over the waterfront as James Corner begins to dialogue with the community it is a good time to take a look at the issues at hand. The Seattle Department of Planning and Development has an outline of goals for the project that are broad and snazzy. Corner’s firm Field Operations is renowned for projects including the High Line and Fresh Kills. These locations have a very different form of public process than Seattle, and it will be intriguing to see how the firm shifts gears to grapple with this new cast of characters. James Corner has shown an ability to make the amazing happen, will we as a public allow him to push the envelope here as well? How can the city engage in the process to both critique while simultaneously supporting innovation? The team of designers will attempt to urge us towards a bold new waterfront which may look nothing like what we have imagined. Are we ready to ask what if?

-mac

25
Jan
11

Oft-Overlooked Manifestations and Mechanisms of Urban Inequality

Cities have always been sites of intense inequalities and injustices. As buildings are erected and hillsides are flattened, the experience of city living is one marked by power differentials, exploitative relationships, and real estate profiteering. Neighborhoods rise and fall in their social prominence and cost of living, and socially and economically marginal groups are pushed and pulled from one home to the next. Of course, cities are also the places many find love, friendship, and human connection with others they might not otherwise encounter. These are inarguable social facts of contemporary city life.

I think of Cornel West, who often says that “justice is what love looks like in public and deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice.”

A Community-Painted, Community-Placed Trash Can on Skid Row

Changing the image of Skid Row from the grassroots: A community-painted, community-placed trash can (Photo taken by Michael Powe)

As a doctoral student researching the intersections of poverty and affluence amidst loft redevelopment in Los Angeles’s Skid Row, I came to feel a deep respect and love for some truly engaged, intelligent individuals pushing for respect and justice. Men like “General Jeff” Page and Manuel “OG Man” Compito continue to work every day to foster a positive movement from within Skid Row. Together, they formed a Skid Row-based basketball league that serves to give people something positive, energetic, and fun to do. They also worked to get brooms and trash cans into the hands of those living on the streets, individuals who are often portrayed as lazy, apathetic, and filthy. The scene one imagines when they think of Skid Row is all too often one of bodies slumped on sidewalks, trash clogging gutters, and sirens sounding out down city blocks. This idea of Skid Row as a home to society’s refuse is what General Jeff and OG work to change, but the community’s “problems” are stubbornly associated with the people living there rather than structural inequalities and poorly-framed public policies.

Even the name “Skid Row” is the subject of controversy and contestation. In the late 1970s, city officials decided that the neighborhood needed a “fresh start” and had the idea that a new name, Central City East, might shake up the public’s negative perception of the area. To this day, the neighborhood is alternately called Central City East and Skid Row, depending on the speaker, their intent, and the social context of the name’s usage. That residents were not consulted in the rebranding effort speaks volumes, I think, about justice and inclusion in the contemporary city.

After days spent bicycling through the neighborhood, talking with residents, business owners, city planners, and politicians, I would return to affluent, suburban, master-planned Irvine (my former home and the locale of my graduate institution, UC Irvine), and I would recount my experiences to friends who would generously lend an ear. How can one make sense of such different environments and different ways of living?

Inequality and injustice take many forms in cities like Los Angeles and Seattle. We readily point to one’s wages, their education, and their job prospects when we think of inequality, but we less often consider an individual’s neighborhood living conditions, an individual’s in/ability to shape others’ perceptions of their lives and livelihoods, or that individual’s access to clean toilets, trash receptacles, and social nightlife.

After witnessing these disparities, I committed myself to changing the public consciousness of inequality in its myriad forms. These days I focus on public toilets and the right to “brand” one’s community – surely the subjects of future blog entries.

Michael Powe, John E. Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow

25
Jan
11

Re- thinking and re-thinking again

The world is in desperate need of fixing and with the problems so enormous and harsh, it is easy to wish that we might implement a quick fix- change the light bulb and viola..! But the world doesn’t change that way… and in the end it takes a global village to change all the light bulbs… Academia is one such community- a community of thinkers- students and faculty and staff and all the audiences we engage. Academia is an important place for thinking and acting, and re-thinking and then re-acting. It is a place to explore alternatives, to ask questions, to challenge, to ponder. It is not a place to create a quick fix on call, though at times those fixes to happen- and for those moments we are incredibly grateful. For all the other moments when we slog, when we work hard thinking, only to slowly arrive at a possible approach, maybe a small solution, we must know that that work is also important as it too makes change happen. That these small approaches, these small contributions also make change, and creating opportunities for change is what we need. And more than that- these thoughtful small changes may make different the world more than the public suspects.

Yes there is a valid concern for faculty with students who arrive with all the best intentions but don’t seem to know how to best engage or perhaps engage in ways that may not seem to address the core issues. But engaging they are, and for some answers we need to engage in multiple ways. As noted by others, academia is a creative place, or should be, it is not the source of all  answers or a quick fix, but a place to think and rethink and then to re-act. Let us not let that get away in our deep wish to fix the world NOW.Instead lets think deep and hard about how we engage the world and lets try differencing our approaches, our solutions- because with the enormity of the issues today, from poverty to pollution to health- we need difference, but not any difference, but careful thoughtful creative difference.

25
Jan
11

Call for Submissions- ecology, infrastructure, and process

SHIFT:infrastructure release + SHIFT:process call for submissions

The inaugural issue of SHIFT: suggests that the integration of natural systems into the built environment provides for a more sustainable model of landscape architecture in infrastructure design. However, the skillful employment of ecological principles does not necessarily ensure a culturally sensitive design. In the 21st century, Landscape Architecture faces the challenge of not only creating ecologically regenerative designs, but going so in a way that engages the public through education, community mobilization, and inspiration. This is important for the long-term viability of the design as well as its economic success.

How can we as students re-imagine the design process that engages modern culture (such as changes in media, communication technology, and social networking)? This new process should holistically integrate the designer, the users, and ecology in the process of design. What does this process look like? Where does it take place? How do these processes improve on current techniques?

SHIFT: process calls for submissions from current students from any discipline, or student work from graduates within the past 2 years. We are looking for work that encourages debate and discussion of this important topic through informed and academically rigorous creative thinking. Each submission will be reviewed by an independent jury, which is composed of nationally recognized leaders in Landscape
Architecture.

Submissions may be: academic essays (up to 3,000 words), narratives, project graphics including mixed media, or anything one considers key in communicating their ideas. We strongly encourage graphics, photography, diagrams, flash animation, stop motion animation, models, social networking tools, games, community building art forms, puzzles, interactive media of any kind, and…you get the idea. Each submission must include a concise written abstract with bibliography.

Visit the publication website and the student blog for more information.
Our student blog: shiftncsu.wordpress.com

17
Jan
11

rethinking public scholarship

Listening to reports last week of the outstanding work that Celine D’Cruz, Melanie Walker, and Ngoc Dai do to improve the lives of slum dwellers around the world, I couldn’t help but feel as though the academy is almost entirely irrelevant in stories of successful international aid and development. While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation takes enormous risks experimenting with hefty multimillion dollar grants, the professoriate and their accompanying students and postdocs struggle with administrative, cognitive, and bureaucratic hoops. How does concept ‘x’ function in ‘y’ impoverished setting? How will I sell this to the Institutional Review Board? Where might I publish the work after my travel? Will this aid my merit and promotions case for tenure review?

Many academics that I know personally often say that they went to graduate school to find ways to improve the world around us. How can academics possibly “compete” with the World Bank, the Urban Institute, or Rand when it comes to addressing the real problems facing real people in the real world?

Perhaps we can start in the classroom. In recent Now Urbanism events, several individuals have mentioned that high schools and universities are not teaching skills that are imperative for the functioning of a just, vital democracy. Gone from curricula are courses in civics or lessons on the importance of being humble and empathetic. We all know the power of good storytelling, but we do not lead discussions on how social science research projects might be better told as human-focused narratives. Thinking personally, as a newly minted Ph.D., I feel underprepared when it comes to engagement with governments, and my research accounts too often lack stories about human beings, human lives, and human emotions.

Perhaps we can start in the field. Models of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR) acknowledge the “outsider” role that academics often play when working with communities to bring positive social change. When I began my own dissertation research, I was reading a lot about these research paradigms, and I thought to myself that I would carry the progressive torch of an engaged public scholar. Much writing about CBPR insists that the research question, the research method, and the venues for dissemination of a project’s findings must be determined in large part by community members. While I’ve not given up my ideals or lost sight of the distance between my research process and that of the ideal-type community-based research project, I have yet to come near the practice of beginning research by simply asking a community member how I can be of service. Like many social scientists with good intentions, I have too often begun research with a well-developed agenda rather than a wholly open mind and pure desire for service. Is this the course of a bold, progressive researcher?

One could argue that the path for engaged scholarship could just as well begin at the administrative level. Though I have not begun to worry about my own future quest(s) for tenure, I have heard great consternation and horror stories about the disregard that many institutions have for engaged scholarship. How should a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow like me take these stories? Does this mean that we should put the struggles of communities out of our minds and focus on what is publishable rather than what is actionable?

Clearly, the push for more engaged, community-based research needn’t come from a single direction, a single organization, or a single agenda. As a bureaucratic, top-heavy institution with a history stretching centuries and  with hundreds of thousands of independent, critical-minded employees, academia is a difficult ship to steer. If we are to reimagine our collective work as something that improves the quality of life for the destitute and hopeless, however, we must begin to make our moves – acting against the stereotype of a high-minded, esoteric set and operating with humility, openness, and a patient commitment to making positive change in the world around us.

In a world of widening gaps between the rich and poor, powerful and powerless, we can scarcely afford to focus exclusively on journal articles, academic conferences, and traditional modes of pedagogy.  In our own practices in the classroom and the field, in professional meetings and in community forums, we must reconsider our scholarship’s impact on the public and reimagine our roles in promoting social change. We would do well to seek out non-academic models of world-changing research –perhaps beginning with the efforts of Shack/Slum Dwellers International and the Gates Foundation – and openly ask ourselves whether we could do better. Remaining stagnant, irrelevant, and useless to effecting change in an unjust world seems no kind of reasonable option.

Check out the work of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Special Initiative on Urban Poverty, and the Now Urbanism Sawyer Seminar online. Listen to Celine D’Cruz and Melanie Walker on KUOW’s Weekday here.

-Michael Powe

16
Jan
11

adapting forms of activism

In the January 13 lecture “Informal Urbanism: Slum Cities and Global Health”, both Celine D’Cruz of Shack/Slum Dwellers International and Melanie Walker of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spoke of activism that looks and feels different than the protests of the 60s and 70s. Conscious of the increasingly limited returns from marches, sit-ins, and speeches via bullhorn that come to mind, they spoke of an “agile” and politically savvy form of social engagement.

With an understanding that they are standing on the shoulders of previous forms of activism, both Walker and D’Cruz also had a long term approach to creating change. Key elements that made their approach feel unique were the use of inclusionary tactics, often enlisting the help of historic foes. They discussed the value in searching for win-win situations. Broad based support was valued above singular goals. Constant engagement with those least empowered was an organizational element that they both valued.

The programs that Walker and D’Cruz referenced as leaders were those that focused their energy on a few things and did them very well. Although the programmatic goals may appear externally simple, they were programs that had linkages that addressed a wide range of problems.

A program that has these characteristics is the Green Belt Movement which was started by Wangari Maathai in Kenya in 1976. “What began as a grassroots tree planting program to address the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water is now a vehicle for empowering women. The act of planting a tree is helping women throughout Africa become stewards of the natural environment. But that’s just the first step. By protecting the environment, these women are also becoming powerful champions for sustainable management of scarce resources such as water, equitable economic development, good political governance, and ultimately….. peace.” The linkages to broader social and environmental systems is where the impact of localized change creates unexpected shifts in the community.

After studying internationally, Professor Maathai chose to focus her lifework and activist efforts in her home country of Kenya. Both D’Cruz and Walker spoke of the value of long term commitment to volunteer efforts. Perhaps that is an essential element that has not changed; focused, long term relationships are essential to lasting social change.

-mackenzie




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