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Rethinking Public Spaces in Dhaka: an Urban Design Scheme

Category: ⚐ EN+city+design+dhaka+movilidad+urban social design+urbanism

Introduction: the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project

During our trip to Dhaka, the last march, we wandered through public spaces and we experienced what it is like to be a pedestrian in one of the densest megacity of the world. Our assessment was clear: the capital of Bangladesh really needs to improve its public spaces. Because of the city’s urbanization pace, public spaces tend to be approached as an afterthought and become the residual and scarce space between the buildings. And, as such, it is usually lacking the most basic comfort, accessibility or healthiness.

Public place, however, is one of the most valuable assets of every city. A common ground where public life finds its way regardless of the economic or social status of its inhabitants. That inclusiveness is the basic condition for providing quality of life and equity, especially in a developing city like Dhaka. As we explained in our previous article “5 things you can do in Dhaka´s public spaces”, public spaces host a wide mix of uses. For the poorest in Dhaka, public space is also a place of livelihood, one of the only resources available for a large part of the population. They use public space as an extension of private space or as a place to make commercial exchanges, to organize public or private events, to do sports or to meet with friends, among many other uses.

In Dhaka, public spaces are inconsistent with their uses and don’t meet the inhabitant’s needs in a supportive way. Thus, through the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project, we took on the challenge of rethinking public space and adapting it to the context of a dense developing megacity. The resulting combination of general principles, specific design guidelines, and sub-project maps is what we refer to as an Urban Design Scheme within this project.

Urban Design Scheme: A new typology of public spaces

The focus of this project is to invest in what is sometimes seen as the last priority in the urgencies of developing countries: public spaces. It focuses on the rapid improvement of streets, open spaces and public buildings. The proposed strategy has three main drivers: maximizing the benefit for disadvantaged communities, leveraging on the specific potentials of each place, and enhancing connectivity and capacity of building a larger system. Each intervention is considered in connection to a coherent network, as a way to scale up the impact of the proposed improvements in the daily urban experience of Dhaka’s citizens.

According to these goals, we proposed to rethink three typologies of public spaces:

  • Comfortable streets
  • Natural Open Spaces
  • Active buildings

In order to turn this “framework approach” into specific proposals, around 70 sub-projects have been identified: specific streets, open spaces, and buildings where these guidelines can be applied and tested during the forthcoming 5-year long implementation phase.

A map of the proposed locations and networks, colored by type.

Comfortable streets: Making urban space livable

At this project’s scale, which leaves out larger scale planning actions regarding complex aspects like traffic, the main challenge regarding the streets of Dhaka is improving their comfort and accessibility, especially for pedestrians, which most intensely suffer the current conditions. The “Comfortable Streets” approach seeks to improve climatic aspects, accessibility, safety, and walkability.

Recreation of a wide road with a “curbless” design, vegetation and urban furniture, improving walkability and comfort while respecting the flow of traffic.

Actions will vary depending on the dimensions, character and current situation of each street. Some streets will be newly developed, and others will be improved in certain aspects like pavements, sewage system, lighting or shading.

The general approach is to establish a “soft” delimitation of areas in order to improve safety and accessibility without completely denying the spontaneous flexibility of movements that can be observed in Dhaka. This is why, for example, we proposed a “curbless” design instead of creating elevated sidewalks… but that will be explained in our next post.

In order to improve resilience and mitigate floods, the proposal is to integrate passive water retention, drainage and infiltration systems in street sections. Another proposed action is adding vegetation to increase attractiveness, comfort, climate and the diversity of the local urban ecosystem. This natural shading will be completed with the installation of artificial shading (made of textile and/or bamboo structures) in several streets as a city-wide pilot project to evaluate their design, function, and maintenance.

 

Natural Open spaces: A more sustainable and resilient city

The scarce open spaces in Dhaka are one of the most valuable assets of the city. The “Natural Open Spaces” approach treats them as opportunities to reintroduce nature in the city, improving aspects like resilience through water management, air quality, attractiveness and general quality of life.

View of a Natural Open Space. A direct relation between the water and the street, and a strong presence of nature and people.

Under the definition of “open spaces”, different typologies can be differentiated: Playgrounds, parks, squares, ponds and jheels, and open spaces along the riverbank.

In order to create more continuous urban experiences and improve adjacent spaces, one of the first proposals is to remove walls and steps, connecting those spaces to the surrounding streets and between them, creating a network of public spaces at the scale of each neighborhood.

To increase the general quality of open spaces, they will be systematically equipped with urban services like public toilets, waste management facilities or drinking fountains.

The multiples jheels in Dhaka´s public spaces are an opportunity to integrate them as a unique landscaping feature and a system for stormwater management. Adding vegetation will increase attractiveness, comfort, climate, and biodiversity.

A flexible spatial design, combined with some permanent infrastructures and the installation of temporary structures, can support a greater variety of uses: street markets, small food and drink related businesses, meeting areas that enable sitting, resting or eating, sport facilities, play areas for children, open spaces for cultural events or for the concentration of big crowds, etc.

Active Buildings: Stacked public spaces with a rich mix of uses

In the highly dense urban center of Dhaka, there is a clear need for public facilities that enable the cultural, social and institutional life of the city as “urban catalysts”. Active Buildings are a new urban typology defined by the mix of uses, the sustainable design, the creation of open floors and the integration with urban services and public spaces.

View of an Active Building in front of a public space, offering flexibility, bioclimatic comfort and a sense of openness

These Active Buildings will be implemented in the existing network of community centers owned by the DSCC (Dhaka South City Corporation), and other buildings in vacant lots will be built.

Such buildings will permit the concentration of uses that could not find a place in the scarce public spaces and public building of Dhaka. Floors with permeable facades, shaded rooftops, and open ground floors will actually work as “stacked” public spaces with a higher level of comfort and security, making them accessible to children, women, elderly people, and other vulnerable urban collectives. These new public spaces will include sports facilities or areas for meeting and relaxing. Closed, more protected floors will host offices, libraries, computers and other equipment to enable educational, social or cultural activities.

One aim is to create more continuous urban experiences, by connecting the building with the surrounding spaces and the nearby streets. The ground floor will be left open, acting as a protected extension of the adjacent public spaces. It will increase the surface devoted to public spaces, enable a more flexible use and achieve more visibility and safety in the affected spaces, avoiding black spots. These new public spaces will integrate urban services like public toilets and waste management.

The buildings will be built according to bioclimatic principles, adding shading and vegetation on rooftop and facade to protect against the direct sunlight and to filter air pollution. Open floors and permeable facades will permit natural ventilation. Energy generation and water accumulation will be integrated at rooftop level in order to increase energetic sustainability and decrease their dependence on the city’s overloaded services.

Conclusion: Three Ways of Making Dhaka more livable

One of the main urban design related challenges in Dhaka was to think of new types of public places that can fit in the dense urban fabric of the city and meet the inhabitants’ needs. These three redesigned typologies of public spaces were proposed in the hope of improving comfort, security, sustainability, inclusiveness and several other aspects that can take a city towards the more general goal of livability.

In following articles we will dive into specific ways of approaching other important issues like traffic and walkability in congested cities, informal activity and use of public spaces, and gender inequality.

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5 things you can do in Dhaka’s public spaces

Category: ⚐ EN+architecture+city+dhaka+mobility

As a recent project has led us to Dhaka, we are starting a series of posts to share with you some key topics and observations about this very interesting city.

Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, is one of the densest cities in the world, with 18 million people squishing in 1,528 square km. The average density of the central area of the city has reached a staggering 41,000 inhabitants per square kilometer1. The city is considered one of the least livable cities in the world, ranked 137 out of 140 cities2 in 2017. It is the lowest for any South Asian city surveyed, because of, among other things, air pollution, severe traffic congestion, bad sewage system, hundreds of slums and regular river floodings.

In such a dense and crowded city, the inhabitants make the most of each square meter, making public space a truly multi-layered and multi-dimensional entity. Public space is usually described as an inclusive space, open to everyone, formed by a network of streets, squares and parks. In Dhaka, because of the lack of private space, public space becomes an outdoor extension of living and working spaces. The boundaries between private and public places get blurred because of the way they are being used. Public space becomes a livelihood asset, a channel of flows and a place for recreation and social integration.

Ecosistema Urbano was in Dhaka for two weeks on February of 2018 to study Dhaka’s public spaces within the context of the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project (we will write about this soon) and we were amazed by the diversity and intensity of uses in public spaces. Here are just five examples of things Bangladeshi people are doing in Dhaka´s public spaces.

1. Get a haircut enjoying a garden view

Source: Google Street view

In lots of developing countries like Bangladesh, proposing services (or goods) to customers directly in the streets is a good and easy way to make money for people with low level of income, usually migrants. It does not imply any shop or financial investment. Get an old chair, a mirror and some shading and you can offer good and affordable haircuts to pedestrians. This form of entrepreneurship is less risky and more resilient than opening a formal business.

Informal businesses in Dhaka are a huge part of the city’s economy as around 5.000.000 hawkers are working in public spaces3. Most street vendors work on sidewalks, in traffic intersections or even parks or fairgrounds at all times of the day. They contribute an essential service to all socio-economic segments of the population by offering low cost goods and services at convenient locations.

2. Attend a wedding

An ephemeral installation for a celebration in Azimpur Road, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The lack of private and public indoor spaces results in an important need of places to meet and organize events. Inhabitants appropriate public spaces for private events like weddings or celebrations, building bamboo installations for shading and privatizing entire streets for private use. Streets become an outdoor extension of private space, a place for social interactions.

This is why, in every narrow corner of Dhaka, you can find a pile of bamboo poles waiting for their opportunity to become a cheerful shading for any kind of celebration.

3. Repair your car

Outdoor mechanic workshop, English Road, Dhaka, Bangladesh

It is possible to find everything you need in Dhaka, if you know where to look for it. In some streets, it is possible to find car, truck or rickshaw4 pieces to repair vehicles and even people who would help you for a few Bangladeshi taka. This activity takes place on the sidewalks, often invading the traffic lanes, worsening the traffic congestion, forcing pedestrians to walk among the traffic and reducing the effective traffic lanes by half their size.

4. Play cricket

A cricket game in a playground in Dhaka, Bangladesh

There is a lack of playgrounds, parks and gyms in Dhaka. In this dense context, every open space becomes an opportunity to play and to practice sports. As a result, open spaces host lots of activities like street vending, recycling, begging or playing. These places can have multiple uses during the day, and one of the most typical ones is playing cricket. Bangladeshi people are great fans of this sport, brought by the British. A pile of old tiles can delimit a cricket field and some trees or an old wall can provide shading for an audience, turning a bare plot into a sport field. Dhaka’s inhabitants develop resilient tactics to make the most of every square meter and to overcome the lack of recreational spaces.

5. A street art visit

Rokonpur girls high school, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka is considered one of the least livable cities, but some parts of the city can be more enjoyable than others. Some streets of Dhaka are very colorful, their walls taken by street art. This mural was made in 2014 during the FIFA World Cup by a group of 200 volunteers that transformed a regular street with a colorful space as a part of the Goal-E project to support their favourite football team. “Goal-E” stands for “goli”, a typical Bangladeshi lane. This kind of art is a way for the inhabitants of the neighborhood to reclaim public space and to appropriate the place.

Public space in Dhaka is a multidimensional entity: a space of appropriation, of socialisation, of exchange and a livelihood asset for the poor. All these uses of space are showing how resilient and creative inhabitants of a megacity can be. But public space is also the place for pedestrians, as 37.2% of the trips in Dhaka are made by foot5. In our next article, we will further explore the pedestrian experience in Dhaka.

6. And… a bonus

A goat? A butterfly? An angel?

You can indeed see strange things in Dhaka. Let us introduce you to… the goatterfly! This fairy-dressed animal, trying to find some food among the trash, sums up our impressions of this city: vital, complex, precarious and generally difficult to explain.

If you are curious and want to see more, we challenge you to dive into StreetView and let us know any other interesting situations you find.


1. Bird, Julia Helen; Li, Yue-000316086; Rahman, Hossain Zillur; Rama, Martin G.; Venables, Anthony J.. 2018. Toward Great Dhaka : a new urban development paradigm eastward (English). World Bank Group.
2. Ranking by Economist Intelligence Unit (2017).
3. Statistics from the Dhaka City Corporation.
4. Unmotorised light vehicle with driver
5. Data taken from Dhaka Transport Coordination Board (DTCB), Ministry of Communications (MOC), Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Preparatory Survey Report on Dhaka Urban Transport Network Development Study (DHUTS) in Bangladesh Final Report (Appendix Volume). JICA, March 2010.

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Making the Collective City: Reflections on Participatory Processes | Conference in Lisbon

Category: ⚐ EN+city+news

Participatory Workshop by Ecosistema Urbano

Next June 8-9th the conference “Making the Collective City: Reflections on Participatory Processes” will be held at the University of Lisbon, with João Ferrão and José Luis Vallejo as keynote speakers.

In contemporary society, a time marked by globalisation, social and economic instability, a weakening of administrative “capacities” and increasingly complex social dynamics, new actors are emerging to support the development of community initiatives. Within this context, the conference aims to promote debate and reflection on methodological approaches applied in Participatory Projects in Architecture, Urbanism and Design.

This international conference will be an opportunity to discuss participation in architecture and urbanism and its role in defining common practices, policy measures and urban management strategies, in order to respond to issues of urban governance and the social needs of inhabitants.

The conference will focus on two central themes: the theoretical perspectives on the co-production of cities, and new approaches and challenges for participatory processes. To add a practical note, José Luis Vallejo will be sharing our experience and approach, and the activities we developed during the last participatory projects we have taken part in.

Save the date! You can submit an send an abstract before February 28th 2017, or register until May 22th 2017. We recommment you to check the website, as some discounts may be available for early registrations.

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Ecosistema Urbano, design finalist of ‘Shore to Core’ competition in West Palm Beach

Category: ⚐ EN+architecture+city+eu:live+news+urbanism

Flagler Drive, West Palm Beach waterfront

West Palm Beach waterfront – Photo by Ecosistema Urbano

Today we are excited to share with you that we have been selected as finalists for the ‘Shore to Core‘ design competition in West Palm Beach, Florida.

This competition, commissioned by the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency and organized by the Van Alen Institute, was launched in order to gather innovative visions and develop forward-looking proposals for the future of the city’s downtown and waterfront area. Participants were asked to address in their projects, general issues that affect the area, from social transformation to rising sea levels, but also to deliver site-specific proposals for several locations: Flagler Drive —the waterfront—, some of the narrow alleyways, the Great Lawn and the city’s Banyan parking garage building.

We are to be one of the 2 teams selected among 41 teams —comprising 159 participants from 13 countries— to further develop our proposals. For us this is another great opportunity to rethink the way urban environment is connected —and responds— to society, culture, economy and the environment.

You can read other news about it and have a look at the official website:

Shore to Core | Van Alen Institute

We are now focused and working for the second stage of the competition, looking deeper into the urban challenges the city faces and transforming them into unique opportunities of improvement of public space and social life.

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looking at the invisible side of cities | the role of relationality in the urban context

Category: ⚐ EN+architecture+city+research+urbanism

Poster_time-frames.psd

Today we publish a text written by Claudia Scholz and Louise Brandberg Realini.

 

What is the surrounding that influences the way we evaluate and imagine a single architectural building? The following text sets the stage for the interdisciplinary research project The role of relationality in urban transformation processes, about the conception of space and time in urban transformation processes. The study was driven by the question how the relational texture of a city influences urban transformations and how these transformations in turn change the city’s relational web over again. The text looks at the definition of the relational texture.

A building can never be isolated from the environment that surrounds it; and that does not merely include the landscape, which visually embrace the site, but also the images born out of diverse associations, all of which are legitimated by reasons of sensations. Memories and affections existing only in our imagination are not less real or of less importance. Their visual absence in the material world does not prevent them from influencing our behaviours and judgments in the same manner as physical objects do. We walk along streets for the most irrational reasons: for a particular bakery, a past encounter or just the way it makes us feel. Sometimes places become associated with an event, and we treasure them for that rather than for their form. Even if the proper buildings are gone, the memories linked to them may live on and continue to influence us. At other times, the arrangement of buildings may have become lived up with meaning. The buildings do not matter themselves but only as a configuration. Space in-between them makes them meaningful.

Beside the ‘invisible’ reality a single site may have, we also need to consider the ‘invisible’ relationships that every site has with its surrounding. Sometimes other sites are used to explain a specific situation; sometimes other sites make important issues more evident. Sometimes also buildings in their development process can be changed by their context, as the situation in itself could alter the building welcoming it to the context or rejecting it. Discussion around apparently unrelated objects may push the development in one or the other direction.

Hence, before intervening with something new in an existing network we need to understand and make sense of the situation we are in, what the surrounding is like beside its emblematic manifestations, its famous monuments, what are the visible and invisible relations, past and present ones, that may act on the new projects. Our thought is that in the ‘invisible’ we find important hints on how to handle transformation processes, set up projects and cues from which a particular architecture, something new, may emerge.
We would like to offer another view on the urban reality that may help to ground projects on the stories, not only the histories, of places. It is a loose framework for the design of architectural intervention, one that includes other views beside the one of the architect, the planner or the investor. The thought is to inspire architects and planners to generate new projects that emerge from within as being part of an existing reality.

The challenge therefore is to come up with something that would surface the underlying and rather ‘invisible’ relationships and reveal the finer nuances of our environment. These nuances escape the conventional reading of space and are not easily captured with the traditional tools of the architect. Synthetic observations rarely illuminate all existing dimensions.

To trace the invisible, the complicity and imaginative gift of the citizenry must be taken advantage of. Thus, we need to interview them about their day-to-day life, about their way of looking at the built environment. Starting with more personal questions as a way to warm up and to get to know each other, then we may question more general questions: What do they see? What do they cherish? Where do they pass day-after-day? Which places serve the people’s well-being? Which are their affective places? Is there something that could improve their quality of life? Afterwards we need to be more specific in regard to specific sites asking rather specifically for their perception of them: Do they know them and what do they think of their relationship to the surrounding? What followed should be a 10 to 30 minutes’ walk, where citizens show us a piece of their city bringing us to sites they like or even dislike, to places they often walk by or find particularly interesting in Lugano.

We end with a wide collection of urban stories: from a child’s accident on the main square, the routine of nightly walks in an inner urban green valley to the last singular tree along the lakeside, that subsequently can be coded to one of the five temporal time-frames (see table time-frame). It offers an understanding for which places may be altered and to which point, what would be welcomed and what would probably be rejected.

The urban stories are not only personal episodes. Many of the stories also belong to others or might have been experienced by others. Hence, they have a higher collective significance and are more present in the collective memory. These ‘collective places’ are not only conventional representative places, but also smaller venues like bars, bakeries and nameless streets.

An emotional colored map will emerge around the objects of investigation, where also series of links among sites become evident. These may help to understand its surrounding and hence, frame future intervention. This vision is another reading of today’s reality, where sites – beyond functionality, form and usability – represent the territory from the citizens’ point of view with its atmosphere, its emerging problems and themes. More than a must follow manual it is ‘food for thought’ that may help architects to take position, build structure and unite diverse parts of reality. It wants to unfold the values of those we build for today. Ignoring them, we risk that our designs are rejected or misunderstood. These values need a continuous assessment because as society change, also our behaviours change. To bring it further and work with digital tools would be a next step to do.

More information:
Scholz, C. & Brandberg Realini L. (2012) Multiple perceptions as framing device for identifying relational places, Swedish Design Research Journal, 2: 38-45
www.urbanrelation.org

Authors:
CLAUDIA SCHOLZ (March, BArch) and LOUISE BRANDBERG REALINI (March, BArch) are both
co founders of CODESIGNERS, a Lugano-based studio for architectural designs, strategies and research. The studio is involved in landscape design, strategic planning and consulting.

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Looking for love again | A creative community project in Alaska

Category: ⚐ EN+placemaking+urbanism

‘Looking for Love Again’ is a community development project implemented by the Taiwanese American artist Candy Chang who was invited on 2011 by the Alaska Design Forum to create a public art project on the tallest building in Fairbanks city. The Polaris Building, a landmark of downtown Fairbanks, was during the past an apartment complex, then a hotel, and now it has been abandoned for more than a decade. continue reading

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Urban Social Design | Lecture at Portland State University

Category: ⚐ EN+ecosistema urbano+events+news

ENERGY CAROUSEL

Jose Luis Vallejo, recently appointed with Belinda Tato as the School of Architecture’s 2014 Distinguished Visiting Professors of Urbanism, will give a lecture entitled “Urban Social Design” on Thursday, February 27, at 6pm in Shattuck Hall Annex at the Portland State University campus. The talk will be free and open to the public.

He will talk about Ecosistema Urbano’s “urban social design” approach, focusing on the design of environments, space and dynamics as a way of improving self-organization of citizens, social interaction within communities and their relationship with the environment.

Happening on: February 27, 2014 6:00pm
Location: Shattuck Hall Annex, Portland State University campus
Official post at the Portland State College of the Arts website

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Mass culture: How to not die of

Category: ⚐ EN+city+sustainability+urbanism

Last summer, different cities from different parts of the world screamed through their squares and streets, and the messages from their voices revealed more than what we could see at first sight.

2013 Taksim Gezi Park by Flashstorm

2013 Taksim Gezi Park by Flashstorm

In Turkey, protests clashed initially in Gezi Park in Istanbul, where the government wanted to impose a new shopping center in the middle of the city, where a green park stood. The protests appeared trivial and useless, as the decision to build another shopping center, commonly and always justified as part of innovation and development of a country, could not compete with citizens’ willingness to keep a green area in the city center. Anyway it appeared incredible that due to this occupation, government military forces started a real fight against the ‘riots’, so that from a little episode, the phenomena started to expand to the whole country, augmenting the size of the protest and people’s involvement.

Photo by Diren Gezi Parki on Facebook

Photo by Diren Gezi Parki on Facebook

Likewise, Brazilian people began to occupy their streets in the name of stopping their Government for what they considered a waste of money and resources: the forthcoming World Football Championship. As it is known, the investment for this is a huge cost, involving the building and the re-organization of new spaces. Citizens occupied the streets asking to invest that money in more urgent sectors, as education, health and security. For sure, behind this people movements, behind their complaints and their need of being listened to, there are several dimensions of a same problem.

The ‘problem’ is that people would like to be part of a democracy, as the Governments define themselves, and have access to a democratic life, having the chance to be active part of the decisions taken. Mass culture takes part as a dimension of the phenomena. We can try to understand why and to what extent.

The context for much of the current interest in material culture is a fear. It is a fear of objects supplanting people. That this is currently happening is the explicit contention of much of the debate over postmodernism which is one of the most fashionable approaches within contemporary social science. (Miller, 1998:169)

This statement is extracted from an article where the author explains that the fear described is an overrated feeling in sociology. If we consider the Marxist position, it uses to refer to a distinction between an assumed pre-era, far from material objects, and the modern one, made or dominated by material; anyway there is actually no evidence of this historical distinction from ethnography or past studies, as even old societies were rather engaged with cultural media (Miller, 1998). However, Miller’s thought is contextualized in a different discourse, whilst the theme, that hereby is going to be explored, touches that argument in the most ‘materialist’ way possible: Indeed it will be the consideration of mass culture intended in its symbolic and representative meaning, and especially in which way the symbolic and the representative are intertwined with the material objects and massive quantitative consequences of its use as media tools.

In this case, I would argue that fear is not overrated, rather it is underestimated. Indeed, fear is real as much as deaths due to climate change and revolutions; fear is real to the extent that some people have too much and others have nothing. In this essay mass culture will be discussed from the aspect of its weight on people and planet lives, in particular inside our cities. I would try to discuss mass culture from an ethic point, not asking if we are dominated or whether there is the domination of a Western or capitalist culture, but rather inquiring if we are dominated by mass culture without recognizing its cost in terms of social justice, sustainability and depleting resources, and thus, if we could change something before crashing indirectly also due to mass culture’s effects.

Mass culture and the city

Image by AlexandraGalvis

Image by AlexandraGalvis

Mass culture is, first of all, an incredible phenomenon itself. With this term, I will refer to the huge flowering of cultural products and cultural media that surrounds our daily life, often strongly driven by markets, and that, due to the global streaming, reach masses and are consumed quite globally. Thus, it is clear that within the phenomena, arts, events, shopping and most of the rituals and media we experience daily are directly involved. Above all, mass culture has a relation with the consumerism system and technology development. Furthermore, when we talk about mass culture, we talk about a collective culture production, and thus of a result due to human interaction. (Grazian, 2010).

It is not so difficult to imagine the particular relationship that mass culture engages with cities. Not just because it is possible to observe it directly, but because cities are primarily the first concentration of masses where people live into the network of relationships, where their lives are indeed organized and intertwined within the social system. Literature supports various different traditions and points of view: For sure the city has always been seen as a great place for commercial, business, capitalist trades and often cities have been built according to these interests. For instance, Marx Weber in his classic ‘The city’ (1958) discusses it in these terms, trying to identify their main features, stressing what defines a city and what is not enough:

Both in terms of what it would include and what it would exclude size alone can hardly be sufficient to define the city. Economically defined, the city is a settlement the inhabitants of which live primarily off trade and commerce rather than agriculture.

Certainly, due to chances of trades, relationships and exchanges, the city is the realm of business. Weber also considers citizens according to their consumer role:

Similar to the city of the prince, the inhabitants of which are economically dependent upon the purchasing power of noble households, are cities in which the purchasing power of the other larger consumers, such as reinters, determines the economic opportunities of resident tradesmen and merchants.

Moreover, he claimed that:

Thus, we wish to speak of a ‘city’ only in cases where local inhabitants satisfy an economically substantial part of their daily wants in the local market (…). In the meaning employed here the ‘city’ is a market place. The local market forms the economic center of the colony in which, due the specialization products, both the nonurban population and urbanites satisfy their wants for articles of trade and commerce. (1958)

So, as a central crossroads of activities made of relationships and exchange, soon the city became the symbol of economy, gathering around itself both producers and consumers, and creating for them a whole life, including mainly rituals and tools of innovation concerning demand/buying and offer/selling. This is well explained by Jayne in his essay ‘Cities and Consumption’ (2006). He conducts an analysis about the rising of the industrial revolution, mass production and the consequent mass consumption, and the rituals of shopping and entertainment that had developed around these, collocated in the spaces of the cities, according to class distinctions, social system and capitalist interests. And mainly it is from this process that mass culture developed for the most as we know it today. Jayne stresses also how the dominant class pictured the shape of cities basically operating on the re-organization of spaces in order to respond functionally to a social meaning of class division, but also to respond to new needs of rituals primed by economic growth and capitalist fuel (2006).

It is in the first years of the 20th Century that the consumption of objects as media tools of culture in a massive style starts to be established and spread, thanks to the incentive of mass commodification and the technology advances. As it has been described by Veblen (1899), and Bourdieu later (1984), consumption and possession became icons of status. Precisely, as affirmed with the concept of cultural capital, the consumption of a specific culture and lifestyle became the symbol of distinction within the capitalist societies, where agencies and institutions worked to perpetuate the status quo (Bourdieu, 1984).

A kind of economic frame-centrism seems to exist, indeed economy is often the most considered starting point for analyzing society, as an invasive factor that defines all that it touches. Anyway, according to me, it is necessary not to forget that economy is not the only working force, because, not considering the phenomenon exactly in its whole, we risk to fall into determinism, being partial, and not seeing alternative ways of operating.

Robert Park, the major exponent of Chicago School, in 1916 talks of the city from another point of view, in my opinion also changing the vision of mass culture related. I found his words extremely interesting:

The city, from the point of view of this paper, is something more than a congeries of individual men and of social conveniences-streets, buildings, electric lights, tramways, and telephones, etc.; something more also, than a mere constellation of institutions and administrative devices -courts, hospitals, schools, police, and civil functionaries of various sorts. The city is, rather, a state of mine, a body of customs and traditions, and of the organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition. The city is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital process of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature. (1916)

Considering that, I would see mass culture more like something belonging to the city in a virtual and potential way, then created by people and by their relations built there, and as something that is not just derived by economic forces and consumerism traditions. Again, the city characteristics assume a more human look. Park doesn’t forget the economic side and recognizes its importance:

The city is not, however, merely a geographical and ecological unit; it is at the same time an economic unit. The economic organization of the city is based on the division of labor. (…) Much of what we ordinarily regard as the city-its charters, formal organization, buildings, street railways, and so forth-is, or seems to be, mere artifact. But these things in themselves are utilities, adventitious devices which become part of the living city only when, and in so far as, through use and wont they connect themselves, like a tool in the hand of man, with the vital forces resident in individuals and in the community.

Another last important aspect:

The fact is, however, that the city is rooted in the habits and customs of the people who inhabit it. The consequence is that the city possesses a moral as well as a physical organization, and these two mutually interact in characteristic ways to mold and modify each other… (1916)

Thus, the city is first of all the space of human action and the shape and personality of its citizens. It is the place where culture and ideas flourish, as a fruit of human interaction.

Image by Oleksandr Hnatenko

Image by Oleksandr Hnatenko, www.pohtography.com

Following this pattern, we can look at analysis that see the representative idea of a city today, as the core of creativity, the essence of innovation, and the development and growth of a contemporary era. The same Richard Florida best seller ‘The rise of creative class’ (2002) contributed to expand the idea of a different city representation. Together with the ‘The creative city’ by Landry (2000), the authors indicated culture in its whole manifestation as the best creativity booster factor to attract the main potential resource of innovation: creative people.

By the way:

Hall unfolds a very important aspect of urban creativity, i.e. the people involvement. In fact, in the view of many scholars concerned with popular culture, people are not only passively consuming goods, as ‘mass’, they are also creatively determining the production and circulation of culture (Chambers, 1986; Fiske, 1989a, b) and shaping accordingly their view of the city. (Botta, 2006)

Mass culture could be seen as created, influenced, inspired by and consumed in the cities. But, in a double way, the same city is protagonist of mass culture, of narrative and imaginary, recounted and repurposed as representative of an idea of the city itself.

Mass culture, consumption and sustainability

Once the interrelationship between city and mass culture has been observed and after having stressed how there is not an only way to intend this liaison, we could now focus on the weight of mass culture. This weight could seem invisible to most, in first place because they don’t want people to see it, and then because people don’t want to see it either. Indeed, I am talking of a complex plot process among mass culture, consumerism and mass consumption, something that concerns deeply our ‘normal’ representation of daily life, as the best life possible.

Every day we get up and go to work. We work to earn money and with that money we buy everything that can permit us to conduce a comfortable life, possibly happy, healthy and rich. The more we work, the more we earn, the more we want to have. Having objects, first of all, does not imply them to be stupid ones. We love design, we love to show off concern for our culture: So we fill our houses with books, compact discs, vinyls, vintage pieces, clothes, shoes, cars. We love of course an independent big house with all comforts, hot in winter and cool in summer. We love culture, we love style and good food, we love travelling around the world, we love a comfortable life, we love shopping. We love sports, we love concerts and dancing. And above all, we love doing everything in a single very amusing and cozy place: a big city that can offer this and more.

That above seems almost one of those pictures or statements that we can commonly find on the teenager’s timeline on Facebook. A real statement about ideal life underpinned by mass culture. Unfortunately it is a sad reality if observed under another point of view. I regret to communicate that our planet is not big nor rich enough (not anymore) to grant the same treatment to all the teenagers of the world. I am sorry to communicate to my friends that their passion to collect rock compact discs is increasing the garbage that someone else will probably find as plastic junk in the sea. I am sorry to communicate to citizens that our big cities are not going to be livable anymore if the presence of toxic gases will increase. I am sorry to communicate that while your favorite an-alcoholic drink brand, Coca Cola, launches its new advertise, assessing their will to help people and make the world a better place, with children singing in the background, in India their factories are exploiting the country’s water resources to produce their drink and the company is collaborating with Government to privatize the same water, taking it away from people.

Image seen in Global Environments & Societies wiki

Image seen in globalenvironmentssocieties.wikispaces.com

It is not easy put in discussion the best lifestyle possible people’s idea: but it is time to really face the cost of our lifestyle, and our lovely mass culture. Maybe mass culture has become a natural part of our life that it is really difficult try to reason on it in terms of sustainability for the planet in which we live, the only one. This is because mass culture currently concerns almost all the rituals of our everyday life, including education, cultural capital, identity, wealth, traditions, and all the ‘soft’ symbolic part turned on rituals.

Anyway, at this point, it could be useful to make a distinction. For me, when we talk about mass culture we are not talking just and necessarily of consumerism, but perhaps more of rituals and activities that are deep-rooted within the consumerist society; this has then for sure been emphasized to an excess, in quantity and in stimulation and expansion of people’s needs. Indeed, Chandra Mukerji (1983) has historically described examples of consumer culture in the 15th Century Europe, where the exchange of media culture, such as books, exotic pieces from far places, jewels, spices and textures, was usual among royalty and upper classes (Wilk, 2002). Moreover, Peter Corrigan argues that the concept of ‘fashion’ was already well known in the Elizabethan times, when London was the center of trends (1997).

Today the modern consumption and the consumerism culture has achieved an exaggerate level of production of goods, if not waste. We could think that the human nature aims to have as much as possible or that being greedy is a natural component of human behavior; instead it is fairly reasonable that not in all societies, in the past nor now, people have the same need of possession, nor the same notion of richness or comforts. Nowadays, we can also say that not even the whole population belonging to the same society has the same notion of values in life and of our cities. Coming back for a moment to Turkey and Brazil, it is clear that a great number of people doesn’t agree with their Governments about which are the priorities for a good life in their cities. Could another shopping center create better conditions for people or enrich people more than a green space? Could a world event solve the social basic issues of inequity and poverty of a country? People are recognizing more and more that what is really important for their cities are adequate spaces for themselves, where they have the chance to choose their rituals or maybe to create them.

We are in a cyclic system that resembles a treadmill, where the whole society is involved, into the process of producing needs, old and new, and then producing goods. The index to indicate the level of wealth and growth is the GDP that measures the quantity of goods – products in one year per country. Is the huge quantity of goods produced seriously making our societies better and prosper?

Whereas mass culture (or mass cultures) is made of tools, symbols, icons, practices, rituals and it is something concerning people and their consumption in a certain way, what distinguishes pure consumerism today is: The quantity of goods produced; the stimulation and the expansion of needs; the pushing, by few stakeholders, of society towards consumption and possession. For sure marketing and selling strategies have always done a good job to lead practices, rituals and symbols around their products.

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009 - Photo by Michael Holden

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009 – Photo by Michael Holden

Consumerism affects mass culture so much that is primarily a mean of identity and interaction with others, because historically our Western capitalist societies consider money and the quantity of goods as distinctive symbols of wealth and success in life. Sure is that, the existence and the use of mass culture both suffer this deal. But in a society where we are conscious of the issues concerning the exploitation of resources and the return of it under the shape of garbage and where the first value is keeping safe life conditions, mass culture could change look. Already now we are adhering to style trends for smart cities, car sharing, waste recycle and other practices, that if inserted as pieces of mass culture into our lives could help to change mass culture too.

Thus, we cannot just criticize our consumerism society in terms of the damage that we are causing. We should start to reflect on our daily cultural practices, which are indeed made of mass cultural media tools, starting by city spaces, where our activities are concentrated and where more than other we could see the rituals and the proliferation of mass culture. And thus, we should begin thinking of a new approach based on them. I am persuaded that we could indeed change mass culture through mass culture itself.

According to the anthropologist Margaret Mead, there is no single approach working successfully in every society; rather, each one has a “culturally appropriate” approach, concerning the specific characteristics of its individuals (1953). In this perspective, Wilk argues:

They imply that no single set of solutions, technological, legislative, or cultural, is going to work in every society. On the contrary, we should expect great diversity in the ways different countries and cultures deal with sustainability problems. How can we expect things to change in the countries that presently consume so much more than their share of global resources? (2002)

When we talk about cities, we then talk about mass culture too, thus maybe cities could live by a different mass culture. As the city has been the protagonist of growth of mass society and mass culture of consumerism, it could also happen that the city may see the birth of a new and fairer society. Indeed, change should begin from here, from the set of organizations and citizens, in creating different rituals and use of the spaces.

Image by Starkart

Image by Starkart

Bibliography:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Harvard University Press.
Corrigan, Peter. 1997. The Sociology of Consumption: An Introduction. London: Sage.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Grazian, David. 2010. Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Society. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Jayne, Mark. 2006. Cities and Consumption. New York: Routledge.
Landry, Charles. 2000. The creative city. New York: Routledge.
Mead, Margaret; World Federation for Mental Health. 1953. Cultural patterns and technical change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Miller, Daniel. 1998. “Coca Cola: A Sweet Black Drink from Trinidad.” Pp. 169-187 in Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, edited by D. Miller. London: UCL Press.
Mukerji, Chandra.1983. From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism New York: Columbia University Press.
Park, Robert. 1916. “The city: suggestions for the investigation of human behavior in the urban environment” Pp. 90 -130 in Classic Essay on the Culture of Cities. New York. 1969, edited by R. Sennett. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Weber, Max. 1958. “The City.” Pp. 23-46 in Classic Essay on the Culture of Cities. New York. 1969, edited by R. Sennett. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Wilk, Richard. 2002. “Culture and Energy Consumption” Pp. 109-130, in Energy: Science, Policy and the Pursuit of Sustainability, edited by Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr, and Randall Baker. Island Press: Washington.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1899 [1973]. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Introduction John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

This is a guest article by Simona Ibba (@PenniLeyn). Thanks, Simona!

If you want to get your own article published, see this.

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Planning for protest | Time to get the book and visit the exhibition!

Category: ⚐ EN+news+publications

Planning for Protest

A volley of protests have taken place throughout the world since 2008, the symbolic catalyst being the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of the multinational banking systems. We are now in an era of particularly well thought-out and networked mass movements that through the convenience of a digital news cycle can be followed more closely than ever before. Planning for Protest takes an closer look at how public spaces shape both the physical and psychological backdrop of these public events.

12 architectural offices in 12 cities across the globe have examined the role of architecture in shaping, defining, or limiting the flow of protest within their respective cities. Each contributor rendered eight drawings exploring a proposal for their city, focused on a specific intervention or urban planning scale. Varying from historical studies to proposals for a radical reshaping of space for public discourse, Planning for Protest is an ongoing documentation of how the physical world around us both limits and can be transcended by the people at any given time.

PlannignforProtest_invite2_620

Planning for Protest takes shape as an publication and exhibition. The opening event and publication launch of this Associated Project of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale will be on September 14 at 17:00. There will be a guided visit on September 15 at 12:00. The exhibition runs from September 12—December 15, 2013.

The publication is designed by Project Projects and will be available at the opening. It consists of a portable version of the exhibition and features essays by Daniel Oliveira and Pedro Levi Bismarck.

Interested? It is currently open to purchase and support through a crowdfunding campaign. By purchasing the publication you will be supporting Planning for Protest: all proceeds will be used for funding the public program. If you will not be in Lisbon next week, you can order a copy and support the project on the Indiegogo page until next Sunday, September 15.

Organized by Ben Allen, James Bae, Ricardo Gomes (KWY), Shannon Harvey (Public Address) and Adam Michaels (Project Projects), Planning for Protest is an ongoing documentation of how the physical world around us both limits and can be transcended by the people at any given time. Download the press release here.

Participants: Antonas Office (Athens), Studio Miessen (Berlin), studioBASAR (Bucharest), CLUSTER (Cairo), Culturstruction (Dublin), SUPERPOOL (Istanbul), ateliermob (Lisbon), public works with Isaac Marrero-Guillamón (London), Ecosistema Urbano (Madrid), Srdjan Jovanović Weiss / NAO (New York), PioveneFabi with 2A+P/A (Rome) and Vapor 324 (São Paulo).

Location of the exhibition: Rua dos Douradores 220, Praça da Figueira, Lisbon, Portugal

www.planningforprotest.org 
www.facebook.com/PlanningForProtest

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Solving an intersection, the Dutch way | Where cars, bikes and pedestrians meet

Category: ⚐ EN+urbanism+video

How can urban design solve the complex situation that takes place in street junctions where bikes, pedestrians and motorists have to cross and turn in different directions? This interesting video shows one of the typical Dutch solutions to this problem.

Could this be implemented everywhere? While other places are going for mixed use of the street (like Spanish ciclocalles) or even more radical solutions like shared space or even ‘naked streets’ without any signs or lights, cities in the Netherlands are known for making extensive use of segregated bike lanes, and that is the scenario where this kind of solution makes sense. There are also other types of intersections, like the roundabouts, which can solve the same problem in a different way.

It’s worth noting how helpful the video format  is for explaining this kind of dynamic issues in the city. I also recommend reading the discussions under the posts linked below; you will find interesting opinions and alternatives.

Read more:

Original article at Bicycle Dutch
Via momentummag.com