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Afghanistan

Using Graffiti to Predict Insecurity in Afghanistan



Last spring I documented informal graffiti and political imagery throughout Kabul.  The result was over 1000 records of graffiti, which after carefully combing, resulted in about 800 data points.  Each data point is classified according within 15 different categories.  These categories include key words, language used, translation, political association, ethnic association, surface description (public building, private residence, private business etc.) and so on.  The goal was to identify geographic points of emerging social tension, utilizing graffiti as an indicator of resistance among youth.  Then I got distracted by other engagements.

But I've recently returned my attention to the matter and have started running the analysis.  The map below reveals one of the recent findings of the project, over lapping the linguistic distribution of messages with the ethnic and political content.  The yellow identifies graffiti that is purely written in Farsi, while the Red concentrations identify concentrations of Fari and Pashto.  Farsi is the dominant spoken language in Kabul, and it is interesting to note that Pashto graffiti is never isolated, but always located amid dense clusters of Farsi. (Note: If the embedded map does not load in your feedreader, please go to the original article source here).




The green squares signify locations of contentious rhetoric.  Many of these messages are critical of ethnic groups, are xenophobic, or criticize the government.  Some of these messages support the Taliban.

A rare example of protest graffiti in English. SSLLC 2012.
The points on the map where a green square sits on top of a red section identifies sections where there is a linguistic friction combined with an overtly political message.  Based on these two variables, the intersection of the green square and the red cluster are areas of highest social friction.

Notably, some of these locations have been known points of resistance in the past.  The cluster in the lower left (just above Qala-e-Shada) hosts Kabul University and a public park that is frequently the site of protest rallies.  The two square situated directly below the "U" in "Kabul" was the site of the Ashura suicide bombing in 2011.  It is possible that using only these two variables, that the current finding is mere coincidence.  But as several classifications of data remain , it will be possible to drill down with continued analysis.

I'm particularly curious about the concentrations that are not presently linked to a previous act of protest or violence.  What about these sites creates such a hostile and turbulent environment?  As all the data was collected in March/April of 2013, I am now running the project again.  I am using the same techniques and plan to capture the same size data-set.  I hope to see how the pattern changes, and more importantly, I hope to see where it stays the same.  By identifying the location of sites that do not change, then I can follow up with closer qualitative investigation of those sites.  Also by running the study again, I hope to to get closer to a better question - not where will points of insecurity or protest occur, but when?


What ever happened to the Russian Culture Center in Kabul?

Russian Culture Center in Kabul 1982 - 2012 (Source)
For the first year I lived in Afghanistan, I would often drive past a massive bombed-out concrete structure of juxtaposing angles and bullet-riddled walls.  Everyday I thought about how I would like to explore this monstrous building, but put it off for another time.  Then last summer I passed by the building on Darulaman Road and saw it being raised to the ground.  I ran up to the entrance and asked the construction workers if I could take some photos and they looked at me with suspicion and told me to leave.  I expected to see an article in the New York Times or elsewhere about the loss of this iconic building, but no one wrote anything.  Nine months later, it is about time someone wrote an obituary for the Russian Culture Center of Kabul.

Destruction of Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.

Russian Culture Center, Source Unknown
Sadly I did not know the center very well. The old one was torn down with the intention to build a new Russian Culture Center. The original was greatly scarred by bullets and bombings from the 1990s.  It was also famous as a place for opium addicts to convene.

Often when driving past, I had the same taxi driver who grew up in Kabul then spent much of his adult life abroad in Russia.  I asked him if it was safe to explore the premises, and he told me that there are many drug addicts in the building but they are probably harmless.  I then asked him if there were any risks from landmines or other unexploded ordinance and he paused, smiled, then laughed.  After catching his breath he said "you have no need to worry about landmines, all the drug addicts would have cleared them!"  It took me a moment to realize that he meant all the landmines were gone because of the addicts who walked on them.

I also heard that one could find pieces of old film in the rubbles from the film library previously housed in the building.  Blown to bits, none of the film survives, but fragments are scattered about. 

At present there is nothing to replace the Russian Culture Center.  There are plans to construct a new version of the building on the same site, and the plans were to be completed by 2013, but at present there is only some modest construction on site.  If anything does get finished there, I expect it will be about two more years.  Of course who knows what will happen in Afghanistan, in two years, anything could happen.

Proposed Design for Future Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.

Reinventing the Urban Interface: Service Design for Post-Conflict Cities and Landscapes

Police Checkpoint on Ashura Holiday in Kabul, Afghanistan
Sutika-Sipus 2012
Wars have never had simple, neat, clean endings.  We like to envision that they have, but after the signature of nearly every historical treaty there remain scattered battles and acts of aggression by those who refuse to accept defeat or had yet to hear the news.  Today, the lingering aftermath of war is more obvious, as it is a given that wars never end but continue to trickle onward indefinitely.  Cities such as Kabul, Juba, Mogadishu, and Bagdad are rebuilding, but are not safe or stable.  

There are many reasons for their continued instability and lots of research out there to understand why contemporary wars have no ending.  Current research as investigated the problem from diverse perspectives such as  psychology, natural resourcesepidemiology, or even the notion that conflict simply creates more conflict.  But amidst all the efforts there has been little to no examination of the physical city and its role in promoting or reducing conflict.

Unfortunately traditional methods of security greatly undermine the health and function of cities.  Giant blast walls, police and military checkpoints, and steel guard shacks hinder processes socio-economic and cultural production by disrupting the spatial pathways and linkages necessary for their distribution and replication.  

Here are some examples of how contemporary security will hinder post-conflict urban reconstruction:

  • Detours caused by road blocks force the redistribution and retarded delivery of capital  causing unnecessary losses and social inequities.  For example, the guy who collects and sells firewood must pull his heavy cart an excessive extra distance before getting to his customer base, or because he cannot access his customers, he must compete against another firewood salesman in a more accessible neighborhood, reducing profits and potentially causing territorial conflict.
  • Lack of identification among citizens and the frequency of police checkpoints disrupts the flow of goods and people, and further causes new touchpoints for conflict occur.  In developing countries, most people do not have a birth certificate let alone a license or photo identification.  Just as often the police are illiterate and after long work hours are impatient and tired.  While checkpoints are important for security, they also create points of friction in the community and can inspire new conflicts.
  • Most neighborhoods were founded and grew around tightly defined tribal identities.  Over time these tribal concepts began to deconstruct, yet the emergence of social conflict will re-inspire tribal allegiances   When communities are heavily segregated by tribe, cross-tribal interaction is more likely to motivate suspicion and hostility than friendship and commerce. When physical barricades disrupt the movement of people, it prevents opportunities to again break down tribal allegiances.

Blast walls dictate all movement and transport cooridors in Kabul
Sutika-Sipus 2013
As you see, point of security are also points of disruption and thus obfuscate healthy social interaction. The question then becomes, how can governments and institutions create a viable security infrastructure while also promoting the advancement of the city?


To solve this problem, we must imagine some future possibilities:

  • What if police checkpoints could be design and operated in such a way that 10 years from now, citizens would say "remember when we had that checkpoint?  I rather miss it, that really added something to our community."

  • What if security infrastructure, such as blast walls or Jersey-walls, were created in such a way that their identity could become absorbed into the the landscape over time?  

  • What if urban security was approached as a process of customer service, and thus techniques successful in retail could be infused within security operations?  To extent we already have this, but does a visit to the police station feel like a visit to the genius bar?  Do customers have a way to provide feedback into the service experience for improvement?  Most people are afraid of security providers, how can this be changed?

Unfortunately those with the power to initiate and conduct war continue to forget the lessons forged by existing conflicts.  Take for example the swift path to victory by the French forces in Mali.  Achieving the military victory was possible, but before the militants moved in, Northern Mali was a poor and desperate landscape.  Will it return to the same sad state of affairs?  Likely, or even more likely, it will be worse as France appears to have no viable plan for the reconstruction process.  And if they rely upon the methods currently embraced by the aid/development community of the world, they wil only partly succeed, as evidenced by the lackluster reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Certainly the communities are resilient to certain issues and people will manage to survive, but resilience does nothing to prompt the radical transformation for a sustained peace and enriched development.  It is clear that a new approach is necessary, one that transforms the landscape so as to negate the conditions which facilitate conflict.  For years my company Sutika Sipus has been developing strategies and solutions to facilitate this change, but one company is not enough, others must take part in the process as well. We need to reinvent the interface between security and society in our cities, and to do so, it is essential that we redesign the relationship between security methods and the city itself.

Karte-Seh.  Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2013

A Simple Solution to Kabul's Massive Traffic Problem

Working Traffic Light in Karte-Seh, Kabul Afghanistan. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
The thing about complex social systems is that they cannot be controlled.  They may organically self organize or self destruct, but the moment someone attempts to manage the system, everything will freeze up and fail. Traffic is a perfect example.  Admittedly, I've spent far less time on the issue of automobile traffic than most urban planners, but during the last two years that I've daily wrestled with car sickness from the stop-and-go struggle of driving across the city, I've thought a great deal about simple solutions to the Kabul traffic problem.  For those interested, I've also found a great research dissertation on this particular subject.  My analysis and proposal here is far simpler, as I have no fancy data or maps on hand, but lets just say it is based on 2 years of ethnography while living in three different parts of the city.

Kabul, Afghanistan 1960s. Source Unknown.
Kabul then, now, and gridlock
Everyone in Kabul agrees that the traffic problem could have been easily prevented.  In the 1960s and 70s the city didn't have any traffic problems, and in 2001 the city population was at less than half capacity and the city was leveled from decades of war.  Had reconstruction efforts actually began in 2002, the city infrastructure could have been quickly constructed for a population around 9 million people at little cost or inconvenience.  But this did not happen, and so today the city wrestles with around 6 million inhabitants and an infrastructure designed to handle only half of the that.  It is laden with power plays and corruption.  Cheap Chinese imports are jammed into every market and luxury products are more available than ever, although there is not a proportionate distribution of jobs or income to garner wide access to these goods.  

Various USAID and World Bank initiatives have done much in the last couple years to improve the quality of streets by paving dirt roads, repaving much of the downtown, and creating drainage systems. Of course this creates other problems as the construction causes extensive delays and the local population, with limited or nonexistent access to sufficient waste collection, use use the drainage for rubbish and sewage - causing massive backups and new public health risks. 

Small modular T-Walls around Kabul. Source Unknown.
Unlike first world cities, other special variables exist.  The city streets are also dominated by defensive infrastructure in the form of T-Walls, mobile partitians used to fortify security installations.  Major intersections are also blocked by police checkpoints.  Kabul is additionally bisected by a massive mountain, providing only two primary routes to relay traffic around the mountain, and a single-lane road that partially goes over the top.  Lastly the city has one working traffic light (sometimes) which seems to be acknowledged when reinforced by police presence.  

Previous Solutions
I've read several proposed solutions.  Some planners have proposed bans on car imports, the creation of new roads, the repair of street signs, and increased activity by police to enforce traffic codes.   Other solutions involve the development of expensive traffic management systems and facilities.  All of these ideas sound nice, but are more or less quite terrible.  These ideas all cost a lot of money, require a lot of time, will cause more delays, and require a higher level of discipline amont local authorities than available.  I've seen local police enforce traffic violations, and I've also twice witnessed extreme police brutality on citizens who ignored a simple law. We shouldn't really give these guys additional work to do.

So with all these problems, what can be done?


A Systems Approach
My proposal is very simple.  We create an incentive for alternative methods of transit and a disincentive for the current method of transportation.  We also use a very low-tech monitoring system so that police do not require any special training and corruption is offset.  

To succeed we must acknowledge that the chaos of Kabul's traffic is a self organized system determined by many variables.  We cannot control all those variables, nor can we expect that their management would prompt positive outcomes.  We can however provide simple incentives to nudge this system, but these simple incentives can only work if we can manage one or two of the variables that are the most interconnected to all the problems.  To do this, we can start with a trial approach in two particular locations.

First there are really only two ways to bypass the mountain.  One has a police checkpoint nearby, the other has checkpoints on either side.  Everyday between 3 and 6:30 pm, these roads are barely at a crawl, with nauseous drivers and passengers city in a fog of carbon monoxide.  It is not pleasant.


Two major corridors for traffic around the central TV Mountain of Kabul circled in blue. Google Earth 2012.

My 4-Step Solution to Fix Kabul Traffic:

1. Shift the police check points to the center of the corridors connecting the two sides of Kabul.

2. Make each side one-way, so that traffic is circulated around the mountain (though uncertain if this is necessary, needs to be tested).

3. Charge those driving a car 20 Afghani to pass through and provide a simple dated and numbered receipt (like something used at a raffle would may possibly suffice) specific to the car license plate (as we do have those).  Drivers will be charged a maximum of 100 Afghani per day.

4. Those using bicycles will be paid 20 Afghani as they pass through, and will receive up to 100 Afghani per day.

The cost/benefit of 100 Afghani is not excessive, about the cost of 2 USD, but it is significant enough to deter drivers and encourage bicycling.  A variation of this approach was used in Stockholm, wherein the city charged 2 Euro for automobiles to cross bridges into the city.  Notably it created immediate results, and while drivers initially complained, the same population described the project in positive terms after a matter of months.  In this Tedtalk, Jonas Elisson describes the success of this project.

Benefits
My proposal does not require any special funding.   It does not alter the existing infrastructure.  It is environmentally sustainable and can be easily expanded into other major congestion nodes in the city.  Furthermore, the increased use of bicycles over automobiles will increase safety as traffic accidents are the number one cause of accidents in Afghanistan.  It will improve security because car bombs are far more destructive and harder to catch than body-born explosives.  An insurgent on a bicycle will pose far less threat.  Additionally this activity will spur the development of locally produced bicycle manufacturing, sales, and repair - an existing market in Kabul but nowhere near a state of maturity while car sales are otherwise fairly saturated.

Risks
This proposal is not flawless. What is to be done if more people ride bikes than drive cars?  I'm not sure it would ever get to that point, and if it did, would phasing out the program invert the trend?  I cannot know for certain, but one thing is definite - the only way we can succeed is if we try.

International Development Consultants: Divide The Good from the Bad

Map of Afghan Sheep Distribution 1998 using AIMS data, available at UC Davis.
Ultimately a good international development consultant should give more than he/she takes away.   But does this always happen?  No.  I would say it is even uncommon.  International Development Consultants are frequently detested by company staff and equally unliked by communities.

In fact, just the other day, I heard a great Afghan joke on this topic:

A western man walks up to an old shepherd in rural Afghanistan and says "If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have, will you give me one?"

The old man said yes, and the westerner walked back to his car, pulled out a laptop, turned on Google Earth and some fancy GIS software then after a few minutes said "You have exactly 872 sheep."  The old man agreed this to be the correct number, so the westerner walked into the pasture, picked one up and loaded it into the back of his car.

The old man then said "Now, if I tell you the name of your profession, can I have that back?"  The foreigner agreed and the old man said "you are an International Development Consultant."

Surprised, the foreigner said "Yes! I am.  How did you know?"

The old man replied, "Well...You showed up when no one asked for you to be here.  Then you told me something I already know.  And lastly, that creature in the back of your car is my dog."

While hilarious, there is unfortunately a lot of truth to this.

International development consultants  were held as the great answer by institutions such as the World Bank in the 1980s and after a couple decades of actions, are today often regarded with absolute disdain by those who work the daily-grind.  Yet big organizations constantly hire them.

I can tell you from my own work experience, nothing is worse than the expert who parachutes in, gives a bunch of irrelevant advice, then disappears leaving behind a busted budget (for the cost of services), empty wallets (from the bar tab), and a frustrated community who is still wanting something to change. Sometimes the company is lucky and the consultant is insightful and genuine, but to be honest, I've met more bad ones than good.  Too often its a combination of irrelevant information, a poor understanding of local issues, and an oversized ego.  Ugh.


Yet consultants can be great because they can supply detailed technical knowledge, an outside perspective to help improve the robustness of current projects, and they can supply a demand for innovative solutions that is not being met by the local market.  If a consultant is simply providing the same quality of insight, than can be locally obtained, then they are not worth the high price.  But if they provide something more, its worth considering.


But the work of an international development consultant can be priceless.  

A good international development consultant will do the following:

a) spend time with the local community to get in touch with local values and knowledge

b understands the legal and political framework which dictates the viability of solutions

c) listen to locals experts on the problem (not explain the problem to them)

d) introduce concepts that are uncomfortable  because the combination of accuracy and honesty 

e) infuse new energies, resources, and opportunities into a given scenario

A good consultant, no matter the price, will provide concrete changes to a situation so that any observer will note that the situation is remarkably different and in a positive manner.  

A good consultant will not arrive with "the answers" but will arrive with enough knowledge so as to ask the best questions.  

As an International Development consultant with Sutika Sipus LLC, I also provide a service that is different from among all other practitioners in the field.  I believe that to be a excellent international development consultant, it is my job to become unnecessary to the client and the community.  If I am tasked with a problem and 5 years later am still working in the same place on the same problem, then I must be doing it wrong.  

It is my job to create the conditions so that my work is no longer needed.  I don't charge as much money as my competitors, but I also know that I am not the lowest bidder.   I am however able to consistently provide viable solutions for radical change in a given project on behalf of multiple stakeholder interests.  That takes a lot of work and sacrifice.  It also isn't something you can just find anywhere.

The Post-War Ghost Towns of Foreign Aid

Within the context of Post-Conflict Reconstruction, it becomes difficult to isolate the best solution to a given problem. There is a necessity to balance demands for immediate change alongside the benefits of steady, consistent progress.   I see the consequence of billions of dollars of investment into direct urban and economic development everyday in my neighborhood in Kabul Afghanistan, and it leaves me unconvinced that the most direct solutions are always the best or most efficient.  Take for example the Kabul neighborhood of Sher-Pur.  

A "single-family" residence in Sher-Pur, Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2012.
Originally a low income neighborhood of informal, mud brick housing, Sher-Pur was subject to government land grabs around 2004 and is now Kabul's wealthiest neighborhood.  Built up using mashup of imported architectural designs from Dubai, the neighborhood is full of massive poppy palaces and narco palaces, a reference to the illicit capital flows that drive the construction of these buildings.  These single-family houses frequently contain as much as 45 bedrooms, and many were constructed primarily to facilitate the interests of the international humanitarian regime.  For years, NGOs commonly pay anywhere between 12,000 USD and 100,000 USD per month to rent these structures for their staff.  Yet now as the international community pulls out ahead of the 2014 NATO withdrawal deadline, many of these elaborate mansions are sitting empty.  Sher-Pur is already becoming a ghost town of opulence.

Sher-pur Poppy Palace For Rent. Source Unknown.
At the time of initial construction, Sher-Pur was the simple, direct solution to a given market demand. People were making more money and aid agencies need secure housing for their staff. But it was not sustainable.  Who knows what the future will be for this neighborhood, but I suspect it will deteriorate in scale, but always remaining a haven for wealthy government officials and organized crime.  Nonetheless, Sher-Pur will forever remain a disproportionate concentration of wealth and power in a city where informal housing shelters between 60% and 80% of the population.

Notably, this is not the first time that the influx of foreign aid and new urban development schemes did more to reinforce the dominant power structures than meet the interests of those in greatest need.  When Cambodia began to stabilize, the same thing happened, with foreign aid workers filling the city's colonial mansions and paying inflated rents.  When the aid market dried up, the foreign elite vacated and the houses were empty, ghostly vessels that eventually scaled back into the urban fabric.

Can this process be circumvented?  For example, as Somalia opens up to international aid, will Lido, Mogadishu become a neighborhood for the disproportionately wealthy and then likewise regress?  Or must we continue to distort land use and real estate markets according to the interest of dominant power-structures?  

Building Facade, Sher-Pur Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus. 2012

Afghanistan's Google Blockade


For the last few days, communicating with the world beyond Afghanistan has been tedious.  In an effort to avoid having same violent protests presently sweeping several Islamic nations, the Afghan government not only shut down Youtube, but has blocked all access to Google, thus including google products such as Blogger and Gmail.  It has been a serious headache.

After 2 days of effort I have been able to develop a work-around, although I prefer not to share the details as I have no idea how long this blockade may remain in effect. It would be a shame to undermine my own efforts. Other search engines such as Bing or Yahoo remain accessible, as do their respective email services.  But considering how many people and businesses rely on Gmail, the consequences are significant. 

It is interesting to note that the act of blocking Google in Afghanistan is intended to quell riots, while in much of the world the same act would spur outrageous protests.  Furthermore as only Google is blocked, information regarding the highly offensive film "Innocence of Muslims" remains accessible elsewhere on the internet.  Lastly, although Google has been inaccessible since Thursday evening, I've yet to see any international press on the subject.  Nor has there been any official statements on the matter.  Hopefully access will resume soon, but if not, at what point will people begin to talk about this? 

Oh, and in case you are wondering, this blog is powered by Blogger. 

**Update** 
After posting the above article last night, it appears that Google is again available in Afghanistan.  I have had no difficulty accessing my email.  But there is the strange coincidence that Twitter is not functioning very well, as Google Chrome and Tweetdeck both claim the security certificate as suspicious.

The importance of speed for land rights in post-conflict reconstruction

Legal Access to Land in Kabul is a constant dilemma (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Afghanistan has seen the completion of various development projects such as the building of roads, the establishment of a Coca-Cola plan, and the rebuilding of the central bank. But everyday in Kabul I witness a hard learned lesson.  The inability for people to access legal title to land has crippled the development of the city.   

Many of the people affected lost their claim to family own land during their displacement, as more than 6 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan or Iran since 2002.   There have also been about 1 million people who were internally displaced by war and have returned to their homes, only to find that they have no means to prove ownership, have been replaced by new occupants, or have found the landscape entirely changed.   There have also been an influx of migrants into Kabul, searching new opportunities or returning from diaspora.   In Kabul,  80% of the residents occupy informal housing settlements.  Many of these settlements are built on government owned land.

The Government of Afghanistan has struggled with informal settlement.  I would say that for 10 years the local and state governments have been rather obsessed with it as an issue, although perhaps not with the mind of solving it.  Many of these settlements are poorly constructed, lack appropriate sanitation, and are seen as a public health threat.  They are considered a bottleneck to development.  A few weeks ago, when conducting a training seminar at City Hall, I asked some engineers what they suggest is the best way to proceed when an informal settlement does not fit into the city master plan.  The response was "send in the police."  

But if a region has a long embedded history of violence, why would a government pursue policies that facilitate discontent, economic striation, legal marginalization, and civil disobedience?  

Open-air drainage ditch under construction in Kabul
That is not good planning.

Because the problem of land ownership was not reconciled in 2001 or 2002, when the city had 1.5 million people, it now struggles everyday with the consequences amid a population over over 5 million.  We have no effective postal system.  We have few street names.  Only now, 10 years later, are the streets being paved around the city and drainage ditches are being dug out.  We have no underground sewage system.  Utilities are a jumbled mess and electrical fires are common a common occurrence.  Nearly all of this chaos could have been avoided had the local government supported the provision of land rights to new occupants. Not to mention the grave economic loss to the city as land loses its productivity when has no determinable owner.  In the meanwhile, corruption has skyrocketed over land access and many people point fingers at the Mayor of Kabul.

I understand the desire to return to one's original home or to strive for urban policy that will provide high quality services.  But these personal interests must not cloud ones judgement.   In post-conflict environments, the speed at which policy is shaped and implemented is essential to avoid slipping backward into chaos.  Policies must be objective and realist.

For years the World Bank has encouraged the Government of Afghanistan to simply recognize many of the informal communities around Kabul.  Now in a massive undertaking, the USAID funded Project LARA is being implemented nationwide at the cost of 41.8 million dollars!  In an attempt to solve all the problems of land use, access, and development, this sprawling project could have been easily avoided about 10 years ago.  With a price tag of 41.8 million, there is also no guarantee of success.

Unfortunately,  I suspect many other countries will not learn this lesson from Afghanistan, and will instead choose to repeat the same decisions as made in Afghanistan.

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan

Graffiti and Street Art in Kabul, Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The other day I wrote a post about the use of images to reinforce governance, in particular within areas of instability.  But naturally the question came to mine, if formal imagery can improve governance and order within a place such as Afghanistan, what is the role of informal imagery?  By informal, I refer to graffiti, street art, and ad hoc signage.  I've had a particular interest in the role of graffiti within Kabul since I moved here, as it is a common sight throughout the city and takes on many different forms.


Advertising in Kabul
Within Kabul there are two dominate uses of Graffiti.  The most common form of graffiti in Kabul is to advertise businesses and entreprenurial startups.  Advertisements will range from translation services to printers, logistics, security, schools, and technical trainings. Its fast, efficient and can be identified throughout the city even by non-Dari by the string of numbers at the bottom of the text.

Graffiti as Political Expression
The lesser use is as as a form of political expression.  Within 24 hours of atrocities such as the Neruz bombing, anti-Pakistan and/or anti-Taliban messages suddenly adorned the walls of city.  As these messages typically appear overnight and within high-traffic areas, it is rumored that these messages are not the work of an angry population, but are created by government workers.

Kabul Street Art
The least common use is as a form of artistic expression.  Much has been written about the creation of street art by a few young women in the city, admittedly this is an extreme minority. The majority of  these images, such as the stencil of opium poppies at the right are are located in the younger, more hip, area of Taimani which features most of the bars and restaurants where westerns and young Afghans can mingle.

Over several months I've attempted to determine the production of graffiti within Kabul may serve as a cultural vernacular, representing the interests of ethnic groups or political agendas, yet find a large absence of this process.  There is far more interest it seems, to utilize ready-made images, such as posters of fallen mujahadeen, to express tribal allegiances.  It will of course take some time to determine how such images are distributed without the city, or to understand how they function within public space. 

Images in the City and the Illusion of Governance

Marketing Campaign to Stop Opium Production in Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus)

Every day on my way to work I pass by a large poster of Afghanistan President, Mohamed Karzai.  Holding a child, pasted high above the heads of pedestrian traffic and adjacent to the Ministry of Education, the leader of the country composes himself as the father of us all.  There are many images like this in Kabul, and while the image of the late mujahadeed Ahmed Shah Masood is far more prominent, the consistent personification of national leaders has had me thinking about what it means to govern.

After all, how many despotic regimes forced their citizens to host images of their leaders above doorways, in offices, or in their homes?  Many of those governments eventually collapsed, yet others remain strong and persistent.  I'm thinking about the USSR, Cuba,  North Korea, and Libya... but I'm also thinking about the times I watched a movie in Thailand and had to stand for a commercial about the King or perhaps more subtly, all the times the national anthem is played before a baseball game in America. 


Poster of Ahmed Shah Masood in Kabul 
Be it a song, picture, or poster, these are the tools the reinforce the idea of governance.  Yet in places like Afghanistan, perhaps these images are more important.  How does a centralized government capital like Kabul maintain a connection to outer regions such as Khost or Helman?  Beyond a constant occupation of the city streets with police and military, how can a city government reinforced the idea of its power within the minds of the population? 

Governance is like any other product.  It has a market of consumers, that market has a threshold, and to expand its consumer base it needs to do two things: it needs to continually reinvent its appeal and it needs to advertise.

Advertising governance is simply a manner of reinforcing the terms of the social contract.  It is a direct way for an administration to say "we are doing what you have asked us to do, please continue to support us."  Though too often overlooked, the process of giving an image to the government is critical within areas of lower stability as there is generally a deficit of reliable information in the streets.  Rumors and conspiracies abound.  Journalism is frequently a fantasy and truth is subjective.  For a municipal, regional, or federal government to maintain control it needs to be visually present within the lives of the people. Yet government employees are expensive, it is a lot cheaper to simply put up a picture.

Opium Deterrence Campaign in Kabul Afghanistan
In recent months there has been an explosion of images within Kabul, as a variety of graphic campaigns have been launched to deter opium production, promote environmental responsibility, and increase continued enrollment in Afghan police and security forces.  Of course not all imagery is equal and many of the efforts will vary in success for obvious reasons.  For example, a campaign to discourage people from allowing their children to carry arms will likely suffer to succeed as the posters are written in Dari, the language spoken primarily by northern populations, while the bulk of the issue is located in the Pashto speaking south.  

However evocative imagery, such as found within the opium campaign may be sufficient enough to overcome language barriers.  The only problem however is that opium production is primarily a socio-economic issue while its consumption in urban areas is a socio-cultural concern.  Anti-drug campaigns have a history of mixed successes throughout the world, but it is unclear how large the current Kabul effort extends beyond catchy billboards.

Regardless of the Kabul examples, it is clear that order and governance require more than the simple provision of services, management, and security.  Successful governance entails the ability to communicate successes and ideology to the broader public, no matter how small the success or massive the audience.   Among challenged states it can establish the illusion of governance, and among those states and cities who truly are making strides, it can transform illusion into reality.

Kabul's Rigorous Allegiance to Master Plans

Kabul Playground
Kabul Playground at Camp Julian (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
While preparing to return to Mogadishu in June to further reconstruction efforts, I also have a few planning related obligations in Kabul Afghanistan.  One of which it a weekly training session with members of the city administration in a USAID funded project for capacity building.  Although my colleagues work daily, I visit the program each week to provide teaching on urban planning and to develop a curriculum for guided problem solving activities.  The class participants are city engineers, district managers, and other mid-level administration.

Sutika Sipus Kabul
Kabul,  Afghanistan 2001 Formal and Informal Housing [green]
vs.  2006 Informal Housing [purple] (Map: Sutika Sipus 2012)
I had read previously in a dissertation on Kabul City Planning by Pietro Calgero that the Kabul municipality has historically maintained a strict adherence to a top-down rational planning model.  Yet only last night did I realize the rigidity of this truth.

In an attempt to overview various models of participatory planning, simply as a means to expose the trainees to planning methods in other countries and cultures for comparison, I found myself confronted resolute objections.  

In the words of one engineer in attendance "we know where to build the roads because they are in the master plan, then we go to the community and say we are building a road here, you will need to move. Then the problem is finished."  When I asked about policies regarding informal housing, the response was equally severe. The attitude was that people who live outside the terms of the master plan have to right to the land and therefore must leave if told to do so.  

In Kabul, informal housing is a pressing issue, and while strides have been made to recognize the claims of informal occupants, the top-town approach dominates.  I was surprised to discover the severe attitudes among many of the trainees, whose allegiance to the city Master Plan could not be shaken.  As a planner who has little faith in the utility of master plans among developing economies, I sought some degree of common ground between the trainees.  Not to mention, the city is again working on a NEW master plan! Like most master plans, it has taken years to assemble, and by the time it is ready for implementation, it will likely be out of date and irrelevant.  Perhaps not, but I'm skeptical.

By the end of the session, I found an opportunity when an architect in attendance noted that she frequently needs to negotiate with community members.  Negotiation isn't nearly equivalent to any community-based or decentralized planning models I'm familiar with, but it is a step in the right direction.  Over the next week the participants are to think of strategies in which these negotiation processes may take place.  I look forward to their ideas. Will they surprise me again? Probably.  

The Kabul Neighborhood of Karte Seh (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)

Urban Planning in Kabul with a Low-tech Drone: #kabul, #urbanplanning, #gis


Earlier today I wrote a post about the idea of utilizing drones for urban planning and design. Although little more than a digital camera connected to a flying helicopter, the idea of a personal "eye in the sky" would allow urban planners to collect real-time spatial information for analysis.  However, while this might be an excellent improvement over the traditional use of weather balloons for aerial photography, the high-profile nature of drone research would not be suitable for hostile environments.  As drones vary in size, from large aircraft to small bird-like robots and gliders (or even as small as insects), the role of drones within contemporary combat undermines the ability to use one for spatial urban research.  

A couple hours later I was driving through Kabul when I saw some children playing in the street and a new idea struck.

Kites.  

Every night the Kabul skyline is dotted with kites of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Children and adults fly kites at a range of altitudes from the street, rooftops, mountaintops, ruins and street corners.  Kites are a common feature throughout the city and while they lack the specificity of a remote-controlled craft, a sufficiently strong kite and a small/light camera would easily allow one to photograph the city from the sky without objection.  It would not attract any unwanted attention and could be flown at any time of day.  Of course one would need a super small, lightweight camera, but such a thing a possible.   I've seen tiny cameras in big box stores in the US and all over the internet. Acquiring one on the spot in Afghanistan or elsewhere simply requires a little advance planning.

It does raise questions about invasion of privacy, but I would posit it depends on how one uses this strategy.   If it is merely to analyze urban infrastructure and broad social patterns such as traffic, then it really isn't an invasion of privacy any more than google earth.  The only difference is that it is faster, cheaper, and provides more immediate flexibility.  

Certainly much work would be necessary to adjust the images into an accurate rendering of the landscape, but ultimately the necessity of accuracy is relative to the demand.  This would not be a good method to map property boundaries or any surveying work, yet it would be a great way to determine times of traffic congestion or bottlenecks.

The idea of using a kite for aerial photography and video makes me wonder as to what other local-technologies might offer for urban research within conflict.  Of course this strategy won't work everywhere, but I am certainly curious about the results this experiment will yield in Kabul in the near future.

Creative Problem Solving in #Kabul, #Afghanistan with #Technology and #Education

Since arriving in Afghanistan in August, I've worked aggressively to launch a new project called the Innovation Lab.  Available to select students at the American University of Afghanistan, the Innovation Lab, or (iN)Lab has been designed to extend education beyond the walls of the classroom and directly into the streets of Kabul. By teaching students to research and assess their own local environments, to work with limited resources and engage stakeholders while providing technological resources, I hope to see (iN)Lab fill a much needed gab in Afghanistan's local-scale development. Today registration opened, along with my own small marketing initiative to drive student enrollment.  But now, just when things were starting to take off, I feel like I've hit a setback.  Not a major one, but enough to be aggravated.

Apparently Harvard University opened their own Innovation Lab (i-Lab) this week, dedicated to launching young entrepreneurs into the public.  Consequently I'm disappointed by the news that their project shares the same name, a similar vision, and has the same timing as my own.  The positive side is that I believe my project is very unique in its conception, as the program draws from my own inter-disciplianry education in art & design, urban planning, computer science and work experience in conflict zones.  Arguably, I like to think that working with Afghan students to facilitate local community problem solving through such creative measures is far more innovative than providing privileged Harvard students with more tools to be financially successful.

I strongly believe in the program I have crafted and I fully intend to see it through.  Yet it very difficult to conduct such a program in Afghanistan. We have finite resources in terms of money and space, problems with security, aggressive traffic, power outages, poor internet service... the list goes on for a long, long time.  Working with so many obstacles, I've aggressively sought partners to contribute to the program, and yet nearly 20 universities, nonprofits, or companies failed to respond or simply said it is too intimidating to get involved.  However, there have been successes, and I am very lucky to have found the interests of spatial technology company Spatial Networks and the dynamic science journalist John Bohannon.  With their support (and hopefully others), hard work, and student dedication, I am fully confident that our program will accomplish its goals.  For now however, I'm left wondering if I should change the name.

Deconstructing Kabul's Geography - #kabul, #afghanistan, #gis, #urbanplanning


For the last few days my life has been a nonstop process of researching geospatial technologies and softwares.  Since I was first introduced to GIS in grad school with ArcMap, its amazing how far these systems have come.  Looking into an open source platform, I initially spent my days with GRASS and while impressed by all its toolset, I've been frustrated by its bulky user interface.  Trying to construct informative maps with GRASS made me feel like I was stuck in a time warp, somehow using software from 20 years ago.  I have found more functionality using QGIS, but I'm still just looking for seamless integration and multimedia capabilities.

After my last post I received some emails about some new tools out there and later after a few email exchanges with Anthony Quartararo of Spatial Networks, he introduced me to some of the more exciting options out there an began to realize that a full-scale desktop GIS may not really be necessary.  Thanks to tools like MapBox,  IndieMaps, and Geocommons, it is possible construct interesting maps and have access to a wide variety of data.

For example, by using Geocommons I was able to quickly construct a map of Kabul with the location of each school in the city - or at least the locations in 2004, I haven't located more recent data.  I was then located the map into google earth.  Check it out, its a great way to explore the city.  If you can't see the image below, you can visit the site directly here.

View map on GeoCommons



While exploring my options for analysis and filtration, I also stumbled upon a site dedicated to 360 panoramic photos.  There is a fantastic panoramic of Kabul as shot from the top of TV Mountain - the central mountain in Kabul covered with antennae and satellite dishes etc.   Once again, if there is difficulty  accessing the image, please click the link below.


TV Hill in Afghanistan

Finding #Kabul on a Map - The Challenge of Acquiring #GIS Data in #Afghanistan


Lately I've been working hard to improve my skills with Geographic Information Systems.  As a Planner, GIS is a critical tool for researching, deconstructing, and analyzing human settlements.  I've been using GIS for several years, yet was never confident in my ability to utilize the software packages or the datasets.  I could do the work, but it was never intuitive.  Fortunately that is beginning to change.   Recently, GIS has taken on a new role in my life as I've been using it to determine and model advance indicators of insecurity.  While there are plenty of competing organizations and individuals out there hoping to find ways to asess the probability and locations of conflict  before it happens, the truth is, all these systems are bulky, expensive, slow, and not feasible for an individual user.  Yet there is a demand among individual users and so my goal is to create a  reliable statistical tool for common individuals with basic internet access, not to reinvent the wheel of security and defense.

Image via Spatial Networks
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle hasn't been acquiring real-time data. Thanks to recent developments in social media, it has been remarkably simple to acquire and filter information on recent events as they happen.  When a problem takes place in Kabul, I have full details on that situation within seconds and after only a matter of minutes am able to fully assess its scale and location.  Knowing when and where things are happening is the easiest part.

Google Maps - Map of Kabul
Instead, the biggest challenge has been the acquisition of a useful base map.  In short, maps of Kabul are terrible.  Take for example this map acquired from Google.  You will notice that the streets outlined in yellow do not remotely correlate to the actual roads in the satellite image.  Someone should be fired for this.

WikiMapia - Map of Kabul
Other typical map options are equally limited.  In the past I've been a solid user of Wikimapia, as it allows individuals to upload information and draw vector-boundaries around areas of interest, so its useful for studying remote geographies.  It has been of great value when studying Somalia, and it is clear from the example that Wikimapia is densely loaded with relevant information in Kabul as well. Clearly this is better than Google, yet it has one majore flaw, it does not allow one to export the maps into any useable format.

Options do exist out there in the world to obtain high quality geographic data on Kabul, such as found through Spatial Networks, but if you are like me and must do the work with a limited budget, options are slim.  Using ESRI's online ArcExplorer, I was able to pull up a collection of maps for comparison.  Although they look suitable in the small examples to the right, once you actually begin to zoom inward, all feasibility of use at street-scale is lost.  Bummer.

Today I made the breakthrough and found the winner to be OpenStreeMap.org.  It functions basically like google earth, allows one to customize the map like wikimaps, but best all, allows the user to export the map as an XML file.  The result is that I can integrate this map with my datasets and an actually useful product is in the making.   I'm excited about the prospects of this new tool and look forward to sharing updates on its development in the near future.   If any other GIS users out there have insight on ways to obtain useful data and maps for less-documented places like Kabul, feel free to send me an email or something - I'm always looking for new information.

Urban Planning in Kabul - Convention vs Demand; #Kabul, #Afghanistan, #engineering, #transportation

Urban Planning is more than an attempt to solve existing problems.  Urban Planning is about directly shaping the future and I would argue that a sense of vision is the greatest skill needed by Planners.   Yet somehow there is a common disconnect within the discipline, where graduate programs encourage rich brainstorming and imaginative concepts, or individual architectural studios pursue elaborate renderings of the future - but in the end, the final projects are unimpressively droll.  

Frequently this disconnect is due to the over-reliance upon trends, conventions and buzzwords.  In the last 10 years, thousands of Planners have pursued their work within the confines of new urbanism, transit-oriented development, and sustainability.  The danger of course is that Planners can and do make decisions that dehabilitate future development in the name of social advancement, or they fail to account for pre-existing variables because those variables do not fall within the confines of the trend.  An obvious example is the manner in which NYC planner Robert Moses frequently advocated the needs of automobiles over local communities - yet Moses was merely working within the conventions of the era.  In his mind, automobiles and transportation were the most critical asset to urban health and it was impossible for him to assess the negative repercussions.  How many planners today make the same poor decisions as Moses, but in the name of sustainability or economic growth?  

In Kabul, urban planning and development is subject to the same conceptual limitations although the city contains an seemingly more complex array of variables.  I would argue however that the variables are no different than any other metropolis, but rather the organizational methods and logistics  for implementation contain more obstacles.  Regardless, various discipline-centric examples can be found for planning the future of Kabul.  For example, within the proposed project, City of Light, great emphasis is placed upon developing a skyline to accentuate the mountainous horizon lines following the city.  Other proposals focus on typical urban planning strategies such as sector-based zoning, green corridors, centralized business and historic districts and residential living.


Yet why?  Why should Kabul develop according to these guidelines?  In fact, the city has remained in place for thousands of years, and while never emulating the mountains in its skyline, has managed to capture many hearts with its beauty.   Likewise, while I appreciate the sense of vision, I also wonder why the planners simply ignored the most common and visible feature of Kabul - the hillside residential sprawl.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the most obvious characteristic of Kabul is the verticality of its organization.  The hillsides are covered with formally and informally constructed housing, stretching far up the mountains and on all sides.  There are no paved roads up the mountains, rather residents must walk along narrow pathways and hand carved staircases.  Running water is inconsistently distributed but many of the houses have electricity.   To my understanding, the houses along the mountainsides are fairly new, all constructed sometime in the last 10 years.  I was told that majority of these houses are the result of mass displacement in outlying provinces, as millions of people have sought safety and economic opportunities within Kabul.  Unable to secure housing in the central valley, housing has been informally constructed from the bottom upward.  This also implies that the communities are composed of mixed ethnic groups, potentially with a collection of diverse languages and cultural practices.  In addition to localized sociocultural identities, they may also contain localized economic traits, and each community is the foundation for new identity constructions, in particular among the youth who must balance imported identity constructs with local Kabuli characteristics.  

The upward residential sprawl also reflects a spatial settlement structure consistent with an earlier time in western countries.  The wealthy classes live in the middle of the town and the poor live in the difficult to access outskirts.  As Kabul continues to stabilize and develop, this settlement pattern will change.  In many ways, it already has begun to change.  Just as large-scale housing and condominium developments have been constructed along the outskirts of Kabul, near the airport, attracting large segments of the population, the settlement structure between the mountains and the downtown neighborhoods will likely invert.  When improved transportation and utility infrastructures are installed, the mountains will become a site for high-end housing.  Some of the high quality housing will be a consequence of incremental consolidation among existing structures, where  families will continue to expand and upgrade their own housing.  Yet much new housing will also be constructed and as many of the existing legal structures lack a legal claim to the property, inevitable conflicts will emerge when wealthy developers acquire legal titles to property then raise existing settlements in the name  of progress.

Although seemingly separate, one must also recognize that one day a tunnel will be constructed through the mountains, most likely within the next 40 years.  At this time, all transportation is bottlenecked as the city remains bisected by the mountains (illustrated in blue).  Once a tunnel is constructed, the future urban morphology of Kabul will make a dramatic shift, reformulating itself according to new traffic patterns.  New centers of business growth will take root while existing locations will deteriorate.  

If the city can become more integrated with regional developments, such as improved logistical pathways to China and Pakistan, perhaps there will be limited negative repercussions, otherwise one must assume that this aggressive and inevitable demand by the transportation infrastructure will harbor large-scale economic impact.  It also suggests that most urban development plans will be rendered arbitrary, perhaps even harmful.

So what does this all mean?  It means that the most visionary planning will become impotent if the microstructures, points of existing demand, and regional connections are ignored.  It means that the entire functionality of a city can change with a single project when that project is in aggressive demand.  I would argue that within areas of conflict, that these singular interventions can provide the greatest degree of impact, and therefore large-scale planning is fairly limited in its applicability.

Kabul's historic legacy is rooted in its location.  It has always served as the point of intersection between India, China, Central Asia, and Western Europe.  Ultimately, the success of the city has always been founded in its ability to connect disparate points of activity, serving as a critical intersection.  While vision is essential to lead Kabul into the future, this vision cannot exist in a vacuum, and any feasible planning must build upon Kabul's geographic centrality.    Today, urban growth patterns generated by conflict have resulted in a bifurcated city.  In many ways, this division undermines its prospects for stability as the dehabilitated infrastructure supports systems of chaos and undermines the logistics of social order.  Notably, solutions exist - the construction of a single mountain tunnel (high cost, but difficult to sabotage unlike rail transit, and short-term construction time unaffected by seasons) can redirect the entire urban assemblage.  The upfront high-cost becomes proportionately low-cost given the generated value of financial revenue and increased stability.

A Vertical Menagerie; #kabul,#afghanistan, #city


As mentioned in my previous post,  the most fascinating characteristic about Kabul is the way in which a single space can contain multiple layers of meaning and value.  Social spaces are loaded with complex combinations of use, symbolism, risk, respite, and value.  Yet another intriguing element about Kabul is the manner in which urban spaces are vertically stacked.  This is of course true of all settlements, yet in Kabul, these spaces and their traffic extend arguably higher, far beyond the rooftops.
All throughout the city are men digging drainage ditches alongside the streets.  The nicest streets are paved with concrete and have drainage canals covered with steel grating along the side.  The lowest order of streets consist of entirely of compacted dirt and rock with no drainage, and throughout the city are mixed combinations of both types.

I know there are some underground sewage systems, but these are only in wealthier or new neighborhoods.  For the most part, roadway drainage (about 2-3 feet deep and 1 foot wide) is the most prevalent form of subterranean infrastructure.  Yet given the large quantity of local infrastructure projects, I can only think of the this space, the space below the ground, as an important part of the urban fabric.

As you rise upward, the landscape shifts from the sewers to the streets, which vary tremendously in quality and traffic.  Neighborhoods composed of international agencies and residents are lined with massive walls, hiding families away behind compounds while the average street is comparable to most throughout the world with shops, restaurants and markets.  Dotted throughout the intersections are large defense posts, often adorned with light weaponry and dusty camouflage netting. Overhead is a tangle of power lines and cell phone towers, with mountains in the background.  Political imagery and signage is typically visible, sometimes entangled with advertising and shop signs.  Large posters of President Karzai, photos of political leaders and signs denoting signs of progress dot the roadways. The dust permeates all spaces and layers all structures with a thin velvet layer.


My favorite time of day in Kabul is just a few minutes after sunset, when distances are suddenly squashed by the fuzzy ambiance of light and the hillsides begin to glitter with electricity.  The massive dark mountains begin to flicker and move as all the houses, one by one, light up for the coming evening.  The call to prayer goes out, mixing with the sounds of children and barking dogs floating upward from the streets.  When the sun goes down, the hills abound with the humanity of family life.

Yet during the day, the hills take on a different sensibility.  Not because the houses, the families, or the people are different, but because in the light of day it is difficult to focus upward eyes upon anything but the large white reconnaissance balloons floating in the sky.  The Eyes in the Sky, large white zeppelin-like balloons called aerostats hover above the city, collecting information from conversations, watching people on the street, and attempting to determine sources of threat from normal social behavior.  Part of me wonders if the data from these balloons is integrated in the DOD's project, Nexus 7, in which complex computational tools attempt to measure common social behavior and extract outlying incidents as a means to predict conflict.  

When not focussing attention upon the aerostats, then my vision is often distracted by the helicopter traffic.  Always traveling in pairs, I've quickly learned to distinguish helicopter typologies, and more often, learned that when the sound of chopper interrupts conversation to wait until the second passes before resuming.  


I've never been anywhere in which I felt the airspace was as much a part of the general urban space as I have found in Kabul.  So often the energy of a community ends mid-way up the tallest buildings, and yet here it seems to just go onward into the clouds.

Part I of II: Central Place Theory and Informal Economies


In 1933 Walter Christaller made a ground breaking contribution to the understanding of economic geography with the founding of Central Place Theory.  This theory seeks to explain the spatial structure, scale, and quantity of urban settlements as an inter-connected system.   Determined by studying settlements in southern Germany, Christaller noted that many settlements of similar scale and composition were equidistant from one another.  While his model is founded upon a collection of unrealistic assumptions such as the expectation of markets to function in equilibrium and for transportation between cities to have equal costs, he nonetheless established some valid conclusions.

Christaller determined that each human settlement functions as a central location to provide services and goods from the core to its peripheral threshold.  The distance to that periphery will very for the quality of goods, where as common place items, items of the lower order such as common produce, have a smaller geographic sphere of influence and high order goods - gourmet items -  maintain value across greater distances.  At a certain point, the value of the item reaches a threshold, where it is no longer to the advantage of the consumer to spend time/money to travel the distance and acquire that item.  This  process is also observable within a previous post, wherein I discussed the presence of Coca-Cola as a socio-cultural and economic indicator.  The cost of Coke is high in the center of the city (because of the stronger markets) and as one travels into the hinterland the cost drops until a threshold is crossed and the price begins to escalate due to rarity.  In America or Europe, the threshold would overlap with another marketplace and the cost remains constant.  However in many developing countries, the market reaches its threshold and the product is simply no longer available.



Central Place Theory 4x
Although a product's area of influence is assumably circular from the point of origin, Christaller modified the model as the juxtaposition of circled regions would leave gaps with no service.  By adapting a hexagon, one is able to adjust the scale of the model, isolating single settlements and zooming out to identify how settlements of higher order (large cities such as Chicago, New York, London, Paris) are few and far between, interwoven and interdependent economic landscape. The distribution of markets and market centers reveals that each city center shares 1/3 the market of the adjacent market of equal scale (the K=3 principle); the market of the highest order dominates all adjacent markets, and this dominance promotes efficient transportation of goods by working from a central administrative hub (the K=4 and K=7 principles).


Yet how does this same concept apply to alternative human settlements?

Presumably other human settlements function in a similar manner.  The same geometric spatial pattern may emerge among administrative centers or military bases while an inversion of central place theory also highlights urban settlements of tactical significance within a military operation.   Administrative centers and economic hubs may take multiple forms, and it is no surprise that the changing of government regimes, political power, ethnic composition and market transitions often witness the imposition of new systems on top of the previous systems.  Classic examples may be found in ancient cities such as Jerusalem, Rome, and Cairo, however more immediate examples are easily found.  Of course the act is typically symbolic, to display the replacement of power and the dominance of the ruler.  However the process is just as often logistical, as these cities frequently maintain economic advantages.

Recently in Afghanistan, one can find a similar example as an al-Queada militant training camp now functions has a rural development hub, while the primary Counterinsurgency strategy of NATO and US Forces in the nation has consisted of establishing secure administrative centers for reconstruction and development.   In contrast, al-Queda linked militants in Yemen have targeted military bases throughout the south of country at nearly equidistant locations from one another.   Both NATO and the militants are ultimately attempting to do the same thing, but clearly different reasons.

As Central Place can provide insight into the economic sub-structure of a settlement, it also provides tools to illuminate gaps within service provision, governance, and economic markets.

What is unclear however, is the  the role of Central Place Theory within Informal Economies. As informal economies dominate the global south, and illicit economies often function in a parallel or overlapping nature to support militarization and criminal networks, it is unclear how these less measurable systems may comply or conflict with Central Place Theory.  Demand for weapons, drugs, and sex workers is subject to economic constraints, yet these goods are also traded by complex means, often taking great effort to avoid formal institutions and legal authorities.

Please return for Part II of Central Place Theory and the Urban Economy.

With my eyes fixed on Kabul


*Posted 6/29/11, Edited and Re-posted 6/30/11


As I prepare to relocate to Kabul in the coming months, watching the chaos at the Intercontinental Hotel yesterday made me physically ill.  Simultaneously I felt angry and frustrated.  Part of me was questioning the resolve to go to Kabul and the other part of me felt only more determined to get there.  I don't go looking for fires in the world as much as I look for ways to extinguish them, and watching the tragedy unfold, I felt as if the fire just got a great deal bigger.

It is for the very fact that I want to see a world of peace and justice, where no one must suffer needlessly, that I support any institution- be it nations, armies, corporations, or otherwise - who dedicate their resources to bring education, capital, and legal systems into the corners of the world.  Terrorism and aggression byproducts of global injustice, a consequence of international systems having marginalized vast regions of the globe, creating pockets of chaos, poverty, and despair.  As long as the world contains vast populations of alienated, frustrated youth who are denied a better future due to illiteracy, misinformation, and extreme poverty, tragedy will continue to touch our lives.  

Perhaps the avoidance of such ungoverned spaces would have been excusable in the past, but in a global era, the chaos of these regions will continue to permeate into the world.  Avoided regions such as Somalia affect the world everyday, evident by the 8.3 Billion Dollars lost to piracy in 2010, a metric that does not reflect the loss of innocent life or the displacement of millions of people.  Without continued effort to stabilize and facilitate an educated peace, will  today's Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan or elsewhere be any different?  

We can choose to intervene and invest in the well-being of humanity, to spread education, improved housing, access to clean water and opportunities for social mobility, or we can continue to marginalize populations.  The construction of economic barriers will not solve problems by removing them from sight.  In contrast, it will only give reason for people climb them, and when that is not possible because the wall has grown too high, it is only too be expected that those on the other side will fight to break the wall down.

I am saddened to see the lost of life from yesterday's attacks, and naturally fearful when I look at the problems facing me down the road.  Such incidents shock the conscious and shake me at the core.  My job is not to solve such problems, to "save the world" or bring peace and justice.  My job is to supply straight forward solutions to complex problems, very much in the way that a mechanic fixes a car or a technician repairs a computer.  The only difference is that I have to work with communities.  It is unfortunate that solving these problems - such as providing education and technical training to expand economic markets and reduce poverty - must confront hostility by an isolated and active minority.  Yet it is more unfortunate that so few are contributing solutions. 

It is understandable that not everyone has the ability to directly contribute to solving such problems.  Yet everyone has an ability to contribute in some particular fashion.  One place to start is with a modest donation to an aid agency.  I suggest MSF, as they take on  the greatest humanitarian challenges in the world and do not have any political support, operating entirely by private donations. More importantly, they are arguably the one of the best agencies, and are a leader in their field. Click Here to Make a Donation Online.  For now, I will  continue to measure the conditions in which I need to work in the future, and will continue to calculate the ratio of risk I am willing to confront for a each particular job.  While I continue to determine the fine balance of personal ability vs personal risk, I hope that others can at least make a small contribution to support those who do the same, and often in far more dangerous circumstances.

#Kabul, #Afghanistan: #Skateboarding toward the future


More often than not, international development is pursued as a purely economic process.  Roads must be built, banks must be strengthened, housing improved, and health care should be made accessible.  Yet the simple construction of institutions, the provision of infrastructure, and the implementation of social programming is not enough to solve all social problems because social problems are complex. It is common wisdom that these complex problems can only be solved internally, within the community,  yet the community generally lacks the means to to action.  Conversely, aid agencies frequently advertise for specialists in "capacity building" and yet within the job descriptions, the term "capacity" remains consistently vague.   While capacity is best defined as an internal ability to pursue and implement active change, when the workings of communities are merged with capacity, the concept bubble stretches to a breaking point.  The scale of the problem remains too much for the solution.  Sometimes something else is needed, a strategy that is less direct than teaching job skills or creating new markets.

While in Cairo, I witnessed the transformative power  of that simple social programming can have within the lives of youth who must grow up in poverty and who lack opportunities for personal advancement.  Viable social programming, such as sports, music, or even the provision of a space to play, can transform a child's life.  Certainly these things alone cannot remove the frustrations of poverty or the pains of social alienation, nor can these things provide the same concrete tools for personal advancement as education and job training.  Yet these sorts of programs create opportunities for confidence and self esteem, provide opportunities to for children to communicate and express themselves.  Self expression is easily undervalued because its role is immeasurable, but little imagination is necessary to recognize that a confident child will find more success in life than one who is alienated and unhappy.  Even where opportunities are limited, those with confidence and pride will creatively seek solutions, believing that solutions are possible.

This evening I discovered the brief documentary Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul.  This film shows the work of an ngo to bring skate boarding to youth in Kabul.  It shows how a nice space for play, how basic access to safety and fun may wield a transformative power.   The film reveals how something as simple as skateboarding can dramatic shape an individual's life.  Now imagine, if a child impacted by something as simple as skateboard had the chance to go to school, to drink clean water, and to walk down the street without fear.  Apply the same concept to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children in a city like Kabul and the concept of capacity becomes strikingly clear.  Suddenly the future isn't so bleak.