Only the slums can save us now

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2010

The Rocinha favela, Rio de JaneiroChairman Bruce is still busily curating a canon of Favela Chic thinking over at Beyond The Beyond; this article at Prospect Magazine looks to be a definitive slice of shanty-town futurism.[image by fabbio]

The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

Not everything is efficient in the slums, though. In the Brazilian favelas where electricity is stolen and therefore free, people leave their lights on all day. But in most slums recycling is literally a way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and 30,000 ragpickers. Six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted every day. In 2007, the Economist reported that in Vietnam and Mozambique, “Waves of gleaners sift the sweepings of Hanoi’s streets, just as Mozambiquan children pick over the rubbish of Maputo’s main tip. Every city in Asia and Latin America has an industry based on gathering up old cardboard boxes.” […] Lagos, Nigeria, widely considered the world’s most chaotic city, has an environment day on the last Saturday of every month. From 7am to 10am nobody drives, and the city tidies itself up.

Welcome to the Networked City

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2009

urban anglesAdam “Everyware” Greenfield doesn’t seem to have much luck with editors mangling his articles and essays before publishing them. His misfortune is our gain, however, as it means he ends up putting the originals up on his website, as with The Kind of Program A City Is“, a piece which appears in a more abridged form in the latest dead-tree version of Wired UK. [image by Barbara L Hanson]

Everyone seems to be writing about urban futures at the moment, be it Chairman Bruce cheerleading the Augmented Reality types (who are working on a technology whose utility is far greater when deployed in urban spaces) or Matt Jones writing the most interesting post that’s apperared at io9 in months. Blame it on whatever you want, but cities are changing fast – indeed, as Greenfield notes, faster than even the people who saw the changes coming ever expected – and we need to prepare for urban spaces that are completely saturated by networked technology:

In the networked city, therefore, the truly pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening these occult systems up, demystifying them, explaining their implications to the people whose neighborhoods and choices and very lives are increasingly conditioned by them. This will be a primary occupation for urbanists and technologists both, for the foreseeable future, as will ensuring that the public’s right to benefit from the data they themselves generate is recognized in law. If we’re reaching the point where it makes sense to consider the city as a fabric of addressable, queryable, even scriptable objects and surfaces – to reimagine its pavements, building façades and parking meters as network resources – this raises an order of questions never before confronted, ethical as much as practical: who has the right of access to these resources, or the ability to set their permissions?

The map is no longer the territory (if it ever was). Next time you see graffiti, recognise it for what it is: the echoed report of the first skirmishes and warning shots in a war for public space which is just about to start in earnest, in multiple cities across the globe and in multiple augmented versions thereof. Let’s just hope that war continues to be fought predominantly with art and commerce rather than knives and guns, eh?

Changing the world with Charter Cities

Paul Raven @ 06-10-2009

Melbourne, Australia by nightMany thanks to former Futurismic staffer and all-round top bloke Tobias Buckell for flagging up an interview with Paul Romer at the NYT Freakonomics blog, which pushed a whole bunch of my buttons at once. [image by geoftheref]

Romer’s big idea is that of the Charter City: a developing nation strikes a deal with one or more developed nations, providing a plot of land in exchange for the institutional stability of its partner or partners. A city-state is declared and built, policed and regulated by the foreign nation but populated by citizens of the developing nation who want to take a shot at a better life. Foreign investment pours in, as does population; the resulting nexus of stability acts as beacon and white blood cell to the rest of the developing nation, and to others much like it. Romer explains in more detail on his website:

Today’s world offers little chance for large-scale migration. The hundreds of millions of people who want to move to places with better rules aren’t allowed in. Charter cities will become the places where they can go.

Cities are the right scale for implementing entirely new rules. A coherent set of rules can let millions of people work together and create enormous value on a small tract of land. Because cities are also relatively self-contained, the internal rules in one can differ from the rules in all of its trading partners.

Urbanization is the key to the predictable transformation from an economy where most people earn a precarious living in subsistence agriculture (doing great harm to the environment in the process) to one in which most people work in manufacturing and services. The transformation is inevitable; current estimates suggest that an additional 3 billion people will move to cities this century.

The quality of their lives will depend on whether these are well-run cities with good rules, or dysfunctional cities with bad rules. Many people continue to move into urban slums with no running water, high crime rates, few steady jobs, and sewage in the streets. The embedded, interlocking systems of bad rules that lead to this type of dysfunction will be exceedingly difficult for existing cities to change from within.

A new charter city offers a speedier path to better rules. People who live there, even people who start out earning very little, can live in housing that is safe and sanitary, send their children to school, find work, and live free from fear of crime.

Now, this is a fascinating idea – the sort of thing that sets off little cascades of story ideas in my mind (which, based on past form, I’ll never get round to doing anything with until reality has rendered them redundant). I’ll say outright that I can see a lot of flaws in it (not least of which is the alarmingly totalitarian undercurrent implicit in the idea of a city into which many may legally arrive but few may leave – Berlin Wall, anyone?), but there’s a core of logic in there that rings true. The interview with Romer addresses some of the more obvious criticisms, and is well worth a read:

Freakonomics: Why will governments, particularly the entrenched, corrupt governments found in many countries, be willing to cede control of these zones?

Romer: First let me push back on an assumption that many people make and that seems to be implicit in your question. This assumption is that “bad guys” are why so many people are stuck living under bad rules. If you were a good guy and were the mayor of New York, would you be able to build enough consensus to implement congestion pricing for traffic, at least within our lifetimes? Or would you be strong enough to be able to coerce the people who don’t want it to go along?

Narratives about good guys and bad guys are always entertaining, but there is a deeper reason why people get stuck under bad rules. For those of us who live in the United States, it is easier to understand in a context like New York that is more familiar. It is quite possible that its existing political system will never allow an improvement like congestion pricing, and yet many people would happily move to a new city that had sensible pricing and smoothly flowing traffic at all hours of the day. Systems of rules are “sticky”; they are difficult for any leader or group to change.

Most of the “designed nations” that I can think of came to sticky ends or fizzled out early, but they tended to be more obviously (and naively) utopian in concept than Romer’s ideas, which seem to be a form of free-market capitalism tempered by a bit of common sense about human failings and the frailty of political and economic systems. Would charter cities work as Romer suggests, and help developing nations climb out of the poverty pit? I have no idea… and I guess the only way we’ll find out is if someone lets him build one.

Sifting city water for illegal drugs

Tom Marcinko @ 15-07-2009

methThe conclusions may not be surprising, but the method of discovery is intriguing. Oregon State researchers sampled municipal wastewater before it was treated to create a map of drug excretion.

The study looked at 96 communities, representing about 65% of Oregon’s population. It measured levels of methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), and BZE, a cocaine metabolite.

They found that the index loads of BZE were significantly higher in urban areas and below the level of detection in some rural areas. Methamphetamine was present in all municipalities, rural and urban. MDMA was at quantifiable levels in less than half of the communities, with a significant trend toward higher index loads in more urban areas.

The researchers expect their method can help map patterns of illegal drug use. Next step is to find the best method to get a reliable annual reading.

[Image: sashafatcat]

Safer, saner cities

Jeremy Eades @ 24-04-2008

city park The more I go through life, the more I find that other people have very different experiences.  But if you’re from middle America, or any major city, much of Nature you’ve seen in your adult life has been through a car window going somewhere else.  And the traditional view of future cities has been a bigger and better version of the concrete jungle, like a bad SimCity where everyone lives in one area, commutes to work in another and goes shopping in a third.

A recent study found that more “walkable” neighborhoods bode well for the elderly, not merely for exercise and physical health, but also for their mental wellbeing.  Specifically,

Berke speculates that walkable neighborhoods might be so important because they promote social connection and reduce isolation, a major predictor of depression. “If people are out walking to destinations, they run into each other”, he says. “And then they talk, or interact, or share ideas”.  He adds that city streets with their shorter blocks, more direct routes, and greater number of intersections—can be more walkable than suburban ones. They also have greater population density, which increases the probability that people meet one another by chance.

This sort of connection between people in a neighborhood is something that has been lost in modern American cities and towns since the rise of the automobile and long-distance commuting became regular.  At least, it’s something that I’ve seen and heard about, but have never actually experienced.  But, with rising gas prices and actual debates going on about changing the way our cities grow, this is something that could impact our perception of futuristic cities.

(via SciTechDaily) (image from Andreas.)

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