The flipside of postnationalism

Paul Raven @ 14-03-2011

Tim Maly has an interesting (and enviable) response to being insanely busy with non-blog stuff, in that he ends up posting more material than usual. (I know, right?) Granted they’re small idea-sketches and think-nuggets, but given that Maly can fit ten times the erudition into a few hundred words than I can squeeze into a whole week, well, I’m not complaining. Anyways, here he is thinking about the fluidity of city boundaries and identity:

The interesting thing about cities (not city-states) is that while they are clearly entities, they do not have borders. They bleed and blur around the edges. It’s very easy to come and go. It’s very easy to move there or to move away. In a political context where every now and then people like to trumpet post-national politics with a rise in urban power to match the drop in state power, this is very interesting. Once you have crossed the borders of the state (the ones that aren’t police states) you get free reign to come and go as you please from place to place; something that can have wonderful or disastrous consequences for the health of an urban environment and the people left behind.

[…]

In some ways this opens up a lot of exciting possibilities but in other ways it weakens civic engagement. Sometimes reforms are necessary and painful. A lot of the problems we’re facing are at a scale that’s larger than the city, but that if cities are the new seats of power that we must deal with tools at city-scale. If your opposition to a policy means you just move a county over to avoid it, policies are harder to enact. If you don’t want to pay taxes, you move to a bedroom community and rob the the infrastructure of life-giving dollars. But the problems don’t happen county by county. They happen all over.

This seems to me to be another failure of the nation-state model: circumstances vary too widely and too quickly for a centralised governance system to cope, and the variation is getting stronger and faster. I have a tendency to cheer-lead the decay of the nation-state (oh, really, you’d noticed?), but this is the dark underside of that process – there’s still a lot of issues that need sorting on a regional or global scale, and a general narrowing of focus to local issues will leave those problems out in the cold. And given the number – and weight! – of those problems, ignoring them even temporarily is not a very good idea.


When Manaugh met Miéville

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2011

With no qualification whatsoever, I commend unto you the BLDGBLOG interview with China Miéville, which is just about as full of good stuff as I could have hoped. If someone wanted to put on a symposium where Manaugh and Mieville could just talk about stuff that interested them for an afternoon – perhaps with guest stints from a few other smart people – I’d be there with figurative bells on. (Though I’d be careful not to jingle them while the clever people were talking, natch.)

The most interesting part for me (on my first read through, at any rate) was where Miéville explains why allegorical readings of his work are a little repellent to him:

… I dislike thinking in terms of allegory—quite a lot. I’ve disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.

The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading—a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.

It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about “what does the text mean?”—and I don’t think text means like that. Texts do things.

I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

There’s much more, so go read the whole thing. Miéville’s attitude toward allegory throws some interesting and hard-to-avoid caltrops into the road of criticism, because he’s simultaneously declaring himself to be a dead author while admitting (or so it seems to me) that the intentional fallacy is an attempt to graft nonexistent conscious impulses onto extant subconscious authorial concerns.

Of course, I could just be reading him wrong. 😉


Unleash the urban: regenerating America one city at a time

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

A guest post over at Freakonomics from one Ed Glaeser, who’s apparently way out in front of the whole “cities are the future and should be embraced as such” movement. It’s mostly a list of truths he reckons need acknowledging if the US is to pull its collective backside out of the economic firepit, but some of them are pretty interesting. F’rinstance:

Build, baby, build. Cities like New York and San Francisco thrive because they’re productive and fun, attracting millions of people over the years with the promise of one of the great urban gifts: upward mobility.  But increasingly, they’ve become unaffordable to the ordinary people that drive their innovations.   If a city has plenty of brilliant people, then give them space to live and work.  Don’t enact byzantine zoning codes or hand vast, architecturally undistinguished neighborhoods over to preservationists.  There is no repealing the laws of supply and demand, and if successful cities don’t build they become expensive, boutique cities that are inaccessible to mere mortals.  When New York City was building more than 100,000 new housing units a year in the 1920s, housing stayed inexpensive.  New York construction dropped dramatically from the 1950s to the 1990s, and prices rose accordingly.  Chicago’s sea of cranes on Lake Michigan helps explain why average condo prices in the New York area are more than 50 percent more than condo prices in the Chicago area.  In this case, the city has much to learn from the Second City.

Also of note: the “Get Over Jefferson” section, which applies just as well on this side of the pond (albeit with a different name in place of the dead prez):

America is, remarkably, still held captive by a Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers and country living.  The rest of the world, however, is not.  The rising powers of the developing world are seizing their urban futures — cramming smart people together, creating gateways for ideas, and building platforms for the serendipitous fortunes that proximity can provide.  Gandhi may have thought that India’s future was in its villages and not its cities — but India today is proving the great man wrong.

As mentioned before, the more I read about cities, urbanism and economics, the more I realise there’s a whole lot more stuff I really want to know. Anyone want to fund me to take a combined degree in economics and urban architecture with a side serving of speculative futurism?

Damn. Didn’t think so. 🙁


Landscape urbanism: the sound of the suburbs

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

As the human species becomes majority-urban, the planning and maintenance of cities becomes an increasingly important matter… and where importance goes, there too goes profound philosophical disagreement on best practice. Meet the Landscape Urbanists, the newest new school of architecture and civic planning [via BigThink]:

The landscape urbanist vision propounded by Waldheim and his allies comes down to two central insights. The first is that American cities in the 21st century are not like American cities from the 19th century, and should not be expected to function the same way. The second is that the best way for urban designers to protect the environment is to prioritize the natural landscape. Design should accommodate the waterways and the wildlife that were there before you arrived; it should preserve the rainfall instead of shunting it into sewers, and perhaps use it to irrigate nearby vegetation.

Taken together, those two positions add up to a vision of city planning that doesn’t put a priority on city life over suburban living; it focuses instead on resource protection, the creative use of natural infrastructure, and so-called systems thinking — that is, exactly what landscape architects are trained to do. There are, as yet, few examples of the ideas put into practice: Supporters tend to point to projects still under construction, like the park being built on top of a landfill in Staten Island, N.Y. But Waldheim has said that his program is “specifically” and “explicitly” meant to dislodge the New Urbanists from their perch in the American planning world.

[…]

Proponents of the New Urbanism have not been taking the accusations of obsolescence sitting down. In a widely circulated November essay on the website of Metropolis magazine, Duany mockingly cast the rise of landscape urbanism at Harvard as a “classic Latin American-style…coup.” His fellow New Urbanists have weighed in with more substantive critiques that have been equally harsh. One planning professor in Arizona attacked the landscape urbanists for caring more about nature than humans; on the planning website Planetizen, the Portland, Ore.-based urban design theorist Michael Mehaffy published an indictment of landscape urbanism called “Sprawl in a Pretty Green Dress?”

The underlying argument between the groups goes beyond the relative merits of density, or the question of whether you should start a planning project with the buildings or with the watershed. It’s an argument about whether human beings should adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves, or try to change them. Is sprawl inevitable, or isn’t it? At what point does it make sense to come to terms with it and try to find pragmatic, incremental solutions that don’t rely on any paradigmatic cultural shift?

This is one of those moments where I find myself entertaining the idea of immersing myself in an entirely new academic discipline; I’m in no way qualified to take a side on that argument at this point, but its importance to the near future is blindingly obvious, and I’m a sucker for big questions waiting on an answer.


Brixton reimagined as favela for robot workers

Paul Raven @ 20-01-2011

Urban futurism, offered without comment: via the incomparable BLDGBLOG, this image by the wonderfully-monicker’d Kibwe X-Kalibre Tavares is called “Southwyck House”, and is part of a set of similar images “of what Brixton could be like if it were to develop as a disregarded area inhabited by London’s new robot workforce […] the population has rocketed and unplanned cheap quick additions have been made to the skyline.”

[Click the image to see the original in bigger sizes on Flickr; all rights are reserved by Tavares, and the image is reproduced here under Fair Use terms. Please contact for immediate take-down if required.]

Southwyck House by Kibwe X-Kalibre Tavares

My first thought on seeing that? Kowloon Walled City. Dense urban populations lead inevitably to an increased density of marginal and/or interstitial regions…


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