Viewing entries tagged
Urbanism

Technology Determined Cities or Strategic Design for Tomorrow?





Imagine if urban planners had more knowledge about cars long before automobile traffic was a common issue. Imagine if they had better understood chemistry or environmental sciences. How could that have changed the transit landscape? Could today's problems of automobile pollution or over-dependency on oil been curbed at the outset? Maybe, maybe not, but urban planners can change the future if they change their relationship to technology and the processes by which technologies are created.

Urban and socio-economic development are continually framed as a top-down or a bottom-up system of human decisions. Either the messiness of political action informs and determines the form and function of our lives or policy choices are made by experts reliant on consultation data. Yet this model fails to describe how the environment and the objects around us shape and structure our lives.  Development is not purely determined by people but also by places and things. We might believe we are designing our future, but much is predetermined by what we have designed in the past, by the technologies presently in development, and by the physical conditions of our designing. As long as urban professionals and policy makers ignore such factors, strategic design and policy will rarely accomplish what is intended.

Humans can synthesize DNA, break the sound barrier, and investigate distant galaxies. We wear computers that monitor our bodies and transport information at the speed of light. In the meanwhile, we compose our urban visions in massive paper books of zoning code and render aerial maps on a digital screen to shape the future.  Interesting technologies pop up almost daily that can provide value to urban planning and design, yet as a whole, these technologies are not thoughtfully integrated within planning practice. Certainly planners might use a given technology, but that is not the same as building a mindful socio-technical practice with the technology. Case in point, when I hear the words "how can a planner use a drone?" it is the engineer and the robot that is carving the pathways of our urban future - not the urban professional. There is also a particular moral imposition within the design of a drone - aside from the thinking of the engineer - wherein the design of the artifact delegates use and consequence.

Last week I was interviewed by a journalist on the subject of drones in urban planning and was surprised that all of the questions were focused on how planners should use these technologies. There were no questions about the possible negative results or externalities. There were no questions about the responsibility of planners to design new technologies themselves, or to work with groups of software engineers in the same way we work within community groups.

In its current form, the entire field of urban planning is reliant upon the visions of engineers at companies like ESRI, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Google. These companies showcase their products to urban planning departments stating "now you can do this thing we think is important." If the message is not clear enough, planners look at the technology and say "what do we do with this?" in an attempt to fit the solution to an unknown problem. The search by planners to incorporate drones into their work is a good example.  Certainly there can be a use, but does the drone solve a known problem or does it require the formation of a new problem? Do we want or need that new problem? The answer varies by time, place, and circumstance but I suspect these new problems often distract from more essential demands.

Consequently the technology startups, major corporations, product supply chains, and DIY hackers are designing our future cities - not designers, developers, or policy makers.  Any time a planner asks "how can I use a drone?", they are placing faith into the mind that designed the robot, the design of the robot, and the capability of the machine. Consequently we need urban professionals who are proactive in the technology creation to say "I want X to do Y so I can get Z," and sufficiently understand the technology to see this vision become reality.  If we are truly in touch with urban systems, we should have the vision and capacity to design our own tools to work with those systems.  The ability to make informs the ability to vision, and more importantly, it is the basis to executing that vision.

Planners have long been at fault for separating vision and implementation. In Yves Deforge's essay Avatars of Design: Design Before Design, the author recounts how renaissance inventors and designers for several centuries generated detailed plans with little understanding on how to implement them, leaving that task to another class of producers.  By the time of the 20th century, the role of artistry in mass production had been squashed, eclipsed by the rise of the Eiffel tower, embodying mathematics and engineering in place of design. The role of the designer whose job was to conceive new ideas fell into the shadow of the engineer who gave form to the possible.

In recent decades, the field of design and the planning profession has shifted toward human-centered methods as mathematics cannot alone solve all problems or generate positive human environments. Yet unlike planners, most of today's UX designers are more tightly connected to the DNA of their tools. They can write software and scripts to automate processes and they can construct new tools to make new visions into realities. When they are limited to produce something they envision, they share common vocabularies with engineers to give form to their intentions.  These designers do not need to be engineers, but their tacit knowledge and skills are sufficient to inform new ways of thinking, designing, and making.

So what of the future concerning new technologies in robotics, big data, and AI? Will humans be replaced by intelligent and superior machines? If the outcomes of the Darpa Grande Challenge are sufficient indicators (below), we are not at risk right now of any threats from these emerging technologies. Notably, none of the robotics teams included an architect or planner, even though every robot was tasked with managing the built environment. There is a clear demand for urban professional among the machines.

Will planners continue to react to the work of engineers, forever a decade or two behind the technology?  Already there is a deluge of books, podcasts, and news specials describing how new breakthroughs will change the economic landscape. People will lose their jobs to robots.  Cities will smolder amid collapsed economies. Or in contrast, planners could create a new preferable future, by repositioning their relationship to technology, taking hold of the materials, engaging the engineers, and embed themselves into the processes that shape our economic landscape. They can make digital tools and participate in the working groups that build the machines. They can take the lead in designing tomorrow and not just react to its arrival. They can design the future.




The Emerging Future of Cities



I travel a lot, and just in the last year I've spent time in some of the worlds wealthiest cities, its poorest, and its most rapidly changing.  London, Dubai, Bangkok, Istanbul, Detroit, and Mogadishu are just a sample.  I also am a constant reader and love to learn new skills in computer science and business strategy.  So out of this mix I have some observations and some proposals on how these observations will evolve.  Is it an optimistic future? For those who can adapt it will be incredible. And for everyone who refuses to do so... not so much.

*Edit: Please note this is not a prescription for future cities.  My objective here is to identify variables and perceptions that are currently not central in discussion yet are central to the realities of tomorrow.

Dynamic Urban Interface
For many years we have described the cyber world as separate from the physical world. This way of thinking needs to stop. There is an interface between the cyber/physical, and this interface is of critical to the future world. As found in a timely piece in Science Magazine, the internet is about to get physical.  Or maybe it has been for awhile. For example, a new post from Brookings Institution suggests that humanitarians should consider the implications of cyber warfare upon mass displacement.


Interaction is Experienced Through Environments
The form of this interface is changing at a rapid rate and accelerating. Only 10 years ago the primary way to use a computer was with a keyboard. Now you can shake it, throw it, walk past it, or swallow it.  This will continue to change and more quickly.

Physical environments are likewise responding to the transformation of the digital interface. The digital urban interface is essential to the future evolution of urban planning, architecture,  and design into a broader field of urban experience design. How we choose to embrace Urban Experience Design in relation to economic policies, organizational systems, and business strategy will continue to be disappointing. While the world is changing quickly, people are not changing with it fast enough to create better policies, markets, or in general, a better world.


Shifting Infrastructures
Robust digital urban infrastructures are the key to making the best use of the digital urban interface. The digital urban infrastructure exists as an interconnection of hardware (physical networks, physical computing sensors), software, and data as input in the form of GIS data, core urban analytics (traffic, pollution, security, water). The speed of these systems to acquire input and process it into a meaningful output (forms vary) will distinguish the ability for one city to embrace greater economic growth than another. Today we have smart cities... so consider how much computing has changed in the last 25 years and apply this same rate of transformation to the year 2039. The curve is exponential.


The New Slum is a Digital Wasteland
The 20th century observed the rise of the middle class and the 21st century is giving way to its demise. The cities with the most optimistic futures are the ones that can connect its citizens to the information and tools needed to compete within a global market place. A good example is this forward-thinking library in Chattanooga that has invested heavily in equipment and seminars for 3d printing and product fabrication technologies. Of course when I asked a librarian in Detroit about this, her response was "it will be very difficult for me to convince the board to put our 300 dollar budget for acquisitions toward new technology since we have so little to work with." Communities that adapt to the speed and interconnectedness will thrive and communities that do not will die. More importantly, communities of data creators will thrive, while concentrations of data consumers will collapse inward, as winner-take-all markets continue to thrive.


Integrated Supply Chains
Even today it is difficult for most companies to track each element of a supply chain. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act has provided incentive for technology companies to shift their practice of component sourcing. Interest in companies like FoxConn have pushed for better treatment of workers. Ultimately this trend will continue. Companies must have better monitoring mechanisms, and our physical environment will transform in response to the demand. Yet this will be expensive. Obtaining a granular level of information will generate new opportunities to cut cost and increase profits. The cost of this refinement will be passed to consumers, exerting more pressure upon a shrinking middle class.


Kanban Urban Management 
Extreme socio-economic polarization combined with integrated supply chains and robust digital infrastructures will create new city management models.  Kanban management methods focus on just-in-time implementation and production. Zero overhead.  Zero waste.  For example, digital sensors in the street will notify the city of a pothole, its dimensions, and location. A service worker is immediately dispatched with the appropriate amount of filler. Problem solved with precision. We won't be perfect at this for a long time - there is a steep learning curve - but the future financial constraints will ultimately demand the emergence and implementation of this technocratic model.

Pioneering Urban Experience Design (The New Scale of UI/UX)


For the last 10 years I have worked in some of the world's most brutal conditions.  Along the way I've made and lost friends, witnessed miracles and tragedies, and have immersed myself into every moment of it.  But I've always known that this is not a sustainable or necessarily healthy way to live.  In my desire for a full life, I cannot always live and work in war and violence.   So a few years ago, just at the same time I took up residence in Afghanistan, I began laying the foundation to one day take all the lessons hard-learned from the battlefield into a different direction.

Shifting the Terrain at HSpace
At the beginning of 2014 I transferred my practice from Kabul, Afghanistan to Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is famous for its poetic ruins and tragic rate of decay.  I have also continued to work abroad - in fact, I am posting this blog post from downtown Mogadishu at this very moment.  And in the meanwhile I have experimented with new methods to engage urban environments and to create technologies that shift the way we experience the world around us.

Today today my work is a fusion of deep theoretical understanding of complex urban environments and cutting-edge experiments in physical computing and design strategy.  Although it has not been featured online, much of my time since January has been heavily occupied in a partnership with a global technology giant to develop a new technology to monitor events in Syria.  Those who were present for my talk at the School of Visual Arts in New York City got a sneak-preview of the work we have undertaken.

In my off-hours, I've also been bashing out an array of prototypes and design mockups, primarily in the realm of augmented reality, experimental cartography, and drone-based design.  Here is a sample.

Choose Your Adventure - The Mobile AR Experience
Problem: I've never been a fan of video games.  There is nothing wrong with them, but my sense has always been - why play a game when you could live it?  In fact, I recently discovered that playing a video game will satiate my desire to explore the more challenging environments in the world.  But playing a video game also imposes tremendous limitations.

Concept: What if we combine geo-caching exploration with AR gameplay?  What if we use our existing mobile technologies, gps positioning, social networks, and user-generated rating systems to refine the games?

Below I've put together two brief concept videos to show how this can work.  The first video presents how such a game could be organized. The second video presents some screenshots of how such a game would function.

The cool part:  This is an entirely new way to engage our cities and communities.  Your city is no longer just an environment, but it is also an interface, stacked against a digital interface, so as to participate in the construction of new narratives.  The natural syntax of our urban environment shifts, opening new interpretations of space, time, and meaning.  Consequently the identity of the city is no longer what you see in the street, but also how it is constructed in the cloud.  Like your online digital identity, cities can have a digital self, to be pushed-probed-and-hacked.  We've had this digital infrastructure for years, but we lack sufficient methods to maximize its potential.


(Best enjoyed with headphones or decent speakers)



Created in 2014 by Mitchell Sipus

Conceptualizing the City as a Synthesis of Habits



When I started my education in city planning, I took a course on urban form, wherein Jay Chatterjee introduced a different perspective on the organization of cities every week.  Jay knew his stuff, having studied with Kevin Lynch and later, as university president, having led the way to a master plan for the University of Cincinnati featuring an array of established architects.  In fact, studying at UC DAAP was basically akin to studying at a museum of architecture, surrounded by buildings designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenmen, and Michael Graves (himself a DAAP alumnus).

In Jay's class we looked at the history of how a cities have been conceptualized.  Renaissance diagrams of the city as a human body compared roads to arteries and parks to lungs.  Then of course there was explorations of the city as a mandala or as an ecology.  I found these approaches to interesting at the time.

But now, after having worked extensively within complex urban systems, I find them as little more than poetic and perhaps damaging.  To an extent there is truth.  Cells combine to create tissue, tissues combine to create organs, organs combine to create organ systems, and organ systems combine to create an organism.  Thus if to combine organisms you create an complex organic system (city) and to combine these urban systems you create another macro-entity (state). But how does this conceptual organization of systems help advance the needs of the people within it?  How does this framework provide any utility for intervention and to what end?

As an organic system, we can examine capital flows, supply chains, and nodes of interaction just as one would examine the circulation of blood or oxygen.  Milieus of capital and power will intersect in a fashion that is either harmonious or catastrophic.  An array of intersections will form hierarchies in the form of institutions, or institutions will harness the dynamics of these nodes by means of hegemony. Clearly the metaphor can be extended, but what can an urban planner or designer make of this?

I'd argue very little because ultimately it is only a metaphor, an approximate model of reality, and models are fairly archaic in the contemporary world.  With an abundance of technologies to measure and predict interactions, we can do better than model our environments, but we can create new methods to engage, measure, and predict the events around us.  Today, the model and the reality are the same thing, if they are not - then you are doing it wrong.

I say this because we must take for granted that all urbanism is self-organizing, and once we acknowledge that, we are better positioned to ask the more important question: how does a self-organized system actually operate and to what end?  

Now we have an opportunity.

A city, like a business, is better understood - not as an organism or geometric mandala - but as a collection of habitual processes that have organized in time and space to form a collective habit.  This collective habit continues to operate because it has survived to do so.  Any imposition that will undermine the collective habit will force adaptation (new habits) or it will die.  A good example can be found within most manufacturing companies - either they keep with the times or they go out of business.  

At the granular level, changing one individual's habits will merit only limited impact (thus a new mayor or president can only do so much), while changing a large collection of granular habits will lead to a massive change at a larger scale.  This is incredibly difficult but possible.  Take for example the changes in popular music.  While a dominant musical paradigm is perpetuated at the collective scale, a new form of music may grow in appeal at the fringe which will eventually become popular.  No behaviors changed - all people continued listening to music with the same supportive behaviors - but the music selection changed, and thus we find certain elements attached to the music (fashion perhaps) also rising to the fore.  Now we can ask, why has a new form of music replaced the other?  What drove the sustainability of that change?  The habits did not change, but the form of each habit was modified, so how did that work and how can I use the same methodology in my own project?

Conceptualizing a city as a collection of habits will do more for a designer than conceptualizing a city as a body, beast, or geometry.  In the reductionist sense, we can examine the procedure of those habits and fine tune our environments to respond.  For example, if we find that people habitually congregate in a given location, we can  capitalize upon their congregation or choose disrupt the location to redistribute the population, and replicate the process at within all similar environments to the same effect.  Or, from a constructivist perspective, we can examine the array of elements that inform the formation of that organization, and attempt to infuse other environments with those elements to stimulate similar activity, hoping that the inhabitants will contribute something else to create a positive outcome.  

Contemplating a city as a collection of habits will not solve all problems. Yet it provides more utility than visualizing the city according to classical metaphors because it provides opportunities for intervention.  Likewise, I encourage interested readers to create other paradigms for interpreting cities but to never get stuck on any particular idea as the ideal.   For example, thinking of a city as a creative entity, aka Richard Florida, is fine.  But if you really plan to leverage that concept for your own city... don't expect much return.  That singular notion, like any other, is merely an approximation - a model - and therefore it will only reap so much reward.  Rather you need to go beyond the limitations of a single ideology. Believe in nothing. Believe in everything.

For example, what does it mean to examine the city as each of the following? How can you build off of these idea to create opportunities toward a given objective?  Simply challenging yourself to organize your thoughts around each of these given prompts will provide a new way to think of human structured environments in a manner to reveal restrictions, possibilities, mechanisms, and more.  If you map out a series of ideas based on each prompt you will also discover many conflicts will emerge.  That is good. Embrace the frictions and the voids because these points are perhaps more important than the symmetries.

  • City as record
  • City as interface
  • City as library
  • City as software
  • City as hardware
  • City as inheritance
  • City as puzzle
  • City as experiment
  • City as a game
  • City as language
  • City as narrative
  • City as reaction
  • City as sport
  • City as reproduction
  • City as resistance
  • City as byproduct
  • City as ...


The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

Looking for a little humanity in central Dubai U.A.E.


Over the last few years I've had the opportunity to visit Dubai several times, and admittedly, I've never liked it.  The city is beautiful and expensive but it also doesn't have much character.  In many ways, it reflects all the bad things about urban planning.  Everything is designed to be so refined and perfect according to some particular set of values that the wonderful  spontaneity of urbanism is squashed.  But last week I made a series effort to explore the city and try to get to know it better.  I wandered on foot for several hours, relaxed on the beach, stopped by a few cafes and watched a movie at the mall.   In a city famous for glass towers, it was my goal to find a more human side to the city.  I'm not sure if I really found it that day, but I did at least catch a glimpse, and left Dubai a little less skeptical.

I also collected GPS points along the way, and above is a map documenting my walk through the city.   Below are also some photographs taken.  If the gallery doesn't load you can access them here.


The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Segregated Distribution of Resources.   Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012, Turkmenistan.
Resilience is a much loved subject these days. I have written extensively in the past about the over reliance on trends in the field of urban planning, including the notion of resilience. But of course there are times that these concepts can be useful, if at least, as a point of reference when exploring a problem. There is also some excellent work out there on the subject, most notably the research undertaken by Diane Davis. Recently, I was discussing with a client the overlap between escalating gang violence the over-burdened transportation system in Tegucigalpa, Honduras when a very simple, but overly ignored notion, occurred to me. The same systems of resilience that are believed to improve cities are also the same systems that undermine their progress.

Before I explore this further, I feel it is necessary to give some background on my understanding of resilience. Earlier this year, in June 2014, I was invited to attend a two-day event entitled The City Resilient, in New York City. Hosting a diverse collection of experts to explore the role of resilience in cities, it was clear that no universally agreed upon definition exists for this concept. I'll never forget when the question "what is needed for resilience" received a response from one guy of "dog parks." I understand his point (nodes for social interaction etc), but if I were to tell the Mayor of Kabul, Mohamed Yunis, to build a dog park... lets just say I'd rather not.

Resilience theory was first introduced in 1973 by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling and is founded on the premise that humans and nature co-evolve as a single socio-ecological system and this system is constantly in flux. Resilience does not consist of a linear pathway but is composed of interrelated feedbacks, is self organizing, and adaptive. To assess the how a system can engage and absorb stress is to establish not only a series of measurements for a singular system, but to also measure the interaction of micro-systems. Within resiliency theory there is no true homeostasis; rather resilience entails flexibility and turbulence.

From an urban planning perspective, I suspect resilience is a difficult concept to use because a resilient urban system is not necessarily the most efficient. Resilience is about decentralization, a concept frequently at odds with city budgets, management practices and the politics of city government. Constant flux also goes against the grain of the planning profession. The inability of urban planners to implement the concept of resilience is in many ways the fault of the disciplinary structure, as planning is a positivist discipline that attempts to solve problems by implementing empirically organized procedure, and is most often exercised through the construction of large-scale projects such as sports stadiums, shopping centers and residential housing complexes.

In the end, we are left with old school empiricists trying to embrace a fluid concept. Or we might have more dynamic thinkers limited to antiquated tools. Or maybe the tools - dog parks - appear trivial but it is impossible to measure the impact? In many ways, this problem summarizes much of what I find frustrating about the planning profession - the problems are engaging, the empiricism is satisfying, but the tools and the objectives are constantly outdated or are actually irrelevant. Unfortunately, like any discipline, the perception of the participants is restricted by mastery and engagement with discipline itself - this it the same reason thousands of kids go to art school every year to be uniquely creative but as an aggregate, churn out art that all looks the same.

Anyway, the interaction of fragmented, seemingly disparate urban phenomena within the built environment is critical to the sustainable wellbeing of a resilient settlement. To intervene in a manner that adds more pieces to the problem, more micro-systems, is to congest the city and undermine its resilience. I believe this problem can be dealt with in many ways, if we were to adopt a more Bayesian and sequentialist approach to the problem, such as embraced by my own Integrated Planning Process™. But regardless of the method, we can identify that observable benefits and improved health of one site is often due to the offset conditions of other locations, one location enjoys business growth yet an adjacent market weakens. This is not to imply a zero-sum scenario but merely to identify that overall capacity toward sustainable development is not improved. In contrast, the increased resilience is actually a redistribution of existing resources, but often not.

This is where the role of resilience becomes more complex when utilized as a method to improve cities. This also how resilience can harm a city. When an urban environment is healthy, there is a multitude of linkages, and a multitude of "spaces of flow" (to borrow from Castells), which allow the circulation of resources. Yet when an environment is insecure due to crime, war, or insurgency, the instigators of conflict appropriate the micro-systems that contribute toward urban health for their own means (either directly or indirectly). Roads and irrigation systems that once supported the local economy now become systems for the production and shipping of drugs, facilitate the proliferation of arms, and mobilize insurgent fighters. Adjacent micro-systems respond to these changes and the overall urban fabric of the settlement takes on a new shape. The more linkages and circulatory spaces, the more success a broadly distributed network of illicit activity will be able to succeed. The faster the disease spreads and embeds itself, the more resilient it becomes. Eventually the landscape conforms to the demands of the disease - the farms fund the bad guys, the streets serve as their delivery routes, and the cops work for them.

The negative influence of bad guys does not exist in a vacuum. To be clear, an ongoing socio-economic and cultural transformation of the community under the power of the militant group is reflected within the built environment. Drug cartels in Latin America are dependent upon the same transportation, agricultural, and economic systems as everyone else. Understanding the built environment within a conflict is to recognize the nuances of the multi-tiered stage on which conflict is played out. Those who understand the terrain and can connect the terrain to the community will have an advantage and will be resilient to change. But those who have the power to reorient the shape of the urban fabric and restructure the resilience of the site will control the outcome. So by this argument, if I tackle the traffic problem in Tegucigalpa (nowadays considered the most dangerous city in the world), I have the potential to also impact the complex criminal networks that presently dominate the landscape. But to do so, I must identify precisely how the traffic functions within the criminal system.

If the resilience of crime functions upon the same systems of resilience that help communities, establishing security and stability for socio-economic growth is more than a simple matter of removing the people who initiate violence. Security and positive urban resilience requires interventions into to the built environment to reshape the urban fabric so as to maximize local resources, not just redistribute them. But what we do call an intervention designed to remix the building blocks of resilient systems and transform them into socially productive components? I like to call it nothing but good planning.

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements


Does language affect the organization of urban settlements?  While culture or economics are typically identified as major variables in urban form, the impact of language on patterns of urban settlement remains unexplored. As social scientists have wrestled with the role of language in society for over 100 years, it seems bizarre that the subject has been ignored by urban theorists.  But before we can explore the possibilities, we must first ask, does language influence thought? 

Early efforts to examine this question were based on ethnographic observation by western anthropologists who frequently lacked a sufficient understanding of the language they studied.  For example, it was thought by Warf that the Yonomami tribe lacked the ability to plan for the future because their language did not contain a future tense.  He argued the tribe remained "primitive" because of this linguistic obstacle.  But such arguments tend to quickly fail when applied to different geographies.  For example, Japanese does not contain a future tense, yet the Japanese have been leaders in developing technologies and modernizing the world.   Given the weakness of Warfian ideas on language, for many years it was believed that evaluating the role of language and thought was and impossible task.

However breakthroughs  have been made to understand the psychological impact of language on thought through temporal and spatial distinctions.  Differences in navigational ability and spatial knowledge of language have been discerned among languages that use absolute reference frames vs. relative reference frames.  For example, aboriginal tribes in Australia do not use words such as "left" or "right" but rather always indicate location according to cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West.  Consequently, speakers of languages that utilize absolute referencing have been found to maintain full spatial cognizance of direction and location, even in unfamiliar landscapes or buildings. 

To realize the specific role of space and language,  I cannot but help look at Aboriginal art (as above) but through new eyes as every element exist within a specific spatial context.  Given that aboriginal art is frequently a representation of Dreamtime, and the living geography is conceptually mapped by Aborigines as manifestations of mythic dreamscape, who also utilize an absolute linguistic framework,  the artistic abstraction becomes concrete map, giving the viewer absolute location to a parallel reality.

The ability to interpret space is fundamental to understanding an array of social and cultural interactions.  It also is important to comprehend abstract concepts, such as differences in musical pitch or even the conceptualization of human emotions or time.  To test temporal progression, researchers provided test subjects with an array of cards and asked them to "lay the cards in order."  English speakers would lay the cards left to right, Hebrew speakers from left to right, and speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre arranged the cards from East to West, and depending on the direction faced by the person doing the task, shifted the cards accordingly (Boroditsky).  Furthermore, English speakers tend to conceptualize time as a horizontal process.  Mandarin speakers have been found to conceptualize time as a vertical progression.  English speakers often refer to time as a duration (a quick walk...) while Greek and Spanish speakers refer to time as a quantity (many hours).  

Within the field of urban planning, there is a common discussion of urban form and also regional differences, such as the organic organization of Islamic cities vs. the traditional Roman grid plan.  To what extent do these distinctions have a foundation in linguistic differences?  In part would could hypothesize that he Roman grid is a necessity to maximize efficiency (perhaps a cultural value?) and avoid directional confusion in a society that utilizes a language with relative spatial framework.  If the language were more absolute, citizens would be able to rapidly navigate any possible road formation and reach their primary destination.   

Chinese Linguistic Landscape (Source)

Research has also found that cities can shape language, primarily through social discourse, but can the urban experience of density and resource distribution effect language? Advertising and signage can function as a linguistic landscape, informing the urban environment, and reciprocally informed by context.  The city is not a blank canvas strewn with text, but rather, functions in relation to the text.


Ultimately, if language is the infrastructure for our ability to envision space and time, then it must be a substructure for urban settlement.  Exactly how remains unknown but I would love to hear from anyone who has explored the subject.  It would also make an excellent graduate thesis.

Detroit: Between the Rustbelt and the Warzone

Right now I am in Detroit MI, and today, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy and has an estimated 18-20 billion dollars of debt.  So what can be done about that?

Post-Industrial Detroit.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013. 
Throughout my education and experience in urban planning, my entire focus has been urban conflict and cities faced with extreme poverty.   Today I'm in Detroit MI,  investigating the ways that such a city may benefit from lessons of cities with seemingly worse conditions.   All things considered, Detroit really isn't so bad off when compared to a city like Kandahar, but as an American metropolis it definitely stands alone.  In addition to the largest city to file for bankruptcy in the history of the US, Detroit is also the ranked the most dangerous city in America by the FBI for the year 2013.  It has a rate 2,137 homicides per 100,000 people.  

The city has a population slightly above 701,000 people. With an average of 2.75 people per household, 36% of the Population lives below "poverty level" meaning that approximately 90,000 households (out of 254,000) have an income only between $15,000 and $19,000 per year.   And 35% of the land is vacant, so that means average distribution would show every square mile of property containing at least one family below poverty level.  The takeaway is that no matter where you stand in Detroit, you will see someone struggling to survive.  Of course distributions are never even, and smaller groups tend to control the bulk of the wealth, leaving a much bleaker landscape.

There is also an excess of political infighting among council members.  The city has a new charter.  It can't afford to pay the retirement packages to former employees.   They current Mayor, Dave Bing, said he has had enough and is stepping down.  The previous Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is in federal court for a slew of abuses.

So now what?

There is the option for a massive top-down overhaul of the city, but how often are city planners and governments capable of jumpstarting cities from crisis?  Afghanistan and Iraq are direct evidence that all of the expertise on the matter is severely limited, and even if a Marshal-plan amount of money were available, it doesn't mean it will solve the problem.

In many ways, filing for bankruptcy was an excellent move so that the city can focus on paying out the billions of dollars on bonds it owes.  But this single action won't alone solve the problem. Creative solutions are in high demand.

New Site Online for Sutika Sipus LLC



Over the last couple years I've been building the company, Sutika Sipus LLC, which provides governments, businesses, and nonprofits with creative solutions for radical urban change.  

Today we launched the first iteration of our new company website, sutikasipus.com.  

As a company that specializes in unique approaches to urban planning and development, it is only fitting that the site reflects those values. But this task is easier said than done.  Special thanks to Zach Hannes who dedicated his time and talents on the project above and beyond expectation. 

The site has a beautiful scrolling navigation to describe the services we offer, while  examples of previous projects are geolocated on MBtiles for fast downloading.  There is still work to be done for full functionality and some needed content, but for the moment, I'm quite satisfied with the current form.  

Crafting Cities Truly Responsive to Climate Change

The Original Green Roof. Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2013.

I know very little about climate change.   I understand the basic arguments, and having worked at the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences a few years ago, I am familiar with some of the recent research.  But as an urban planner, I admit that I know very little about the role of climate change in urban development.   I often feel like I'm woefully ignorant on the subject because I do not know how to measure emissions from traffic densities or how to determine the carbon offsets from an infrastructure project.  It turns out I'm not alone, most planners can't do this, including many who label themselves as sustainability experts.  Whats the deal?

Yesterday during a Skype meeting with a US nonprofit about an urban violence project, climate change was mentioned and it made me wonder, why do so many of us urban professionals know so little about this subject?  It is a significant variable in the health and function of cities, it has tremendous long-term implications, and it is particularly relavent for coastal settlements.  It is also frequently discussed in terms of conflict, sustainability and the debate over environmental refugees,  although that case is something of a misnomer.  Food production and national security are frequently mentioned in the conversation.  From the quantity of channels in which climate change is discussed, we can evaluate it as a significant variable, but then I must ask myself, after all these years of school and work, why isn't it a standard part of every conversation, plan, and most projects?


Why climate change is ignored or under utilized in urban planning and development

1. Part of the answer has to do with the nature of the variable. Climate is a huge phenomenon that cannot, as a whole, be directly observed.  Consequently, it is unwieldy.  Climate science tends to rely upon large quantities of data, collected and combed by climate experts.  The data and the outcomes are also designed for use by climatologists, not necessarily for urbanists or social scientists, and consequently there is a disconnect between the data and the populations that could create solutions from it.   Greater partnership between policy makers, specialists, and climate researchers could lead to more directly useful information.

2. Previous social science research concerning climate change has been poorly defined and messy.  I'm sure there are plenty exceptions, but looking through google scholar, I found that so many projects pursue participatory or perception-based methods that also mix climate change with other issues such as public health risks.  

Take for example this page for community health concerning soil and food.  This project advocates a community based research process in Malawi among farmers to develop response strategies to climate change.  That sounds good, except it also manages to include HIV awareness/prevention, and the methodology "focusses on gender/age inequalities."  I can only imagine that the research designer was trying to diversify the project in order to acquire funding, because such a schizophrenic research design will prompt a blurred mess of outcomes.  I appreciate the complexity intended in the study, but keeping specific to goal (adaption strategies for climate change among farmers in Malawi) provides a higher probability of success for those farmers.  Aids education, gender, and age, do not need to be a part of the project and only creates distractions.

3.  Social science research and development projects that take a strategically proactive approach to climate change tend to have a rural focus (such as this project with farmers in Ethiopia).   It makes perfect sense to work with farmers to experiment with strategies to contend with climate change in coming seasons.  Excellent.  But how does this translate to urban environments?

There are plenty of examples of climate change and poor urban planning causing problems (such as flooding in Argentina), but what about the successes?  Current "best practices" tend to focus on novel solutions such as green rooftops and house boats.  Seriously?  This sort of approach to problem solving perfectly exemplifies everything that is wrong with the field of urban planning.  May I ask, how many square meters of roof-top gardens in a city/state/nation/world will be required to reduce carbon emissions by 2% in a year?  How many liters of water collected in rain gardens will produce the same impact?  This is not a legitimate approach.  It is ad-hoc and based more in good will than good thinking.

Also, many of the messages propagated among urban-dwellers is to conserve - recycle, turn off lights, use public transit -  or to rely upon technology (such as sustainable architecture and infrastructure) rather than to individually experiment with livelihood strategies to produce environmentally advantageous outcomes.  I'm not a big believer in social programming for baseline behavior change, and the notion of experimentation has more pro-active connotations than the emphasis on reduction.  While there are likely some urban projects that take the proactive, experimental, and strategic approach, these are in an extreme minority.  In the meanwhile the public sphere is dominated by media messages constructing conservation as long-term responsibility, not messages of environmentally-positive production because of urgent necessity.

4. There is a lack of concise research methods for urbanists and social science researchers.  I've spent the last 24 hours searching for published, quality research concerning urban settlements and climate change at the individual, human scale (not the sort of research pursued by climatologists).  There are many papers concerned with participatory action research methods with farmers to research the affects of climate change on their livelihood and to develop solutions to contend with this.  Where is the same kind of for cities?  It must be out there somewhere, but its not omnipresent, and that is a problem since cities generate the greatest quantity of carbon emissions.  It seems feasible to use the same strategy for cities, but we can assume that the impact will be more difficult for urban residents to discern. 


The Outcome

If climate change is to become a valid concern for urban populations, it must be removed from the abstract and exposed among the lived day-to-day reality of the population.  We must first ask ourselves what sort of clear and tangible evidence for climate change exists within our cities and neighborhoods. The best social research and work today seems focussed on developing coping strategies for the victims of climate change, such as rural African villages and farmers.  But this social research needs to happen in our cities and suburbs as well, not because urban dwellers are to be positioned as the evil propagators of climate change, but because without a proactive approach, they will be the future victims.

We also must drop the fantasy assumptions about the so-called solutions on land use and green space to which we presently adhere.  Upon identifying the specific incidents of climate change, we can create relavent methods within our communities to internalize the evidence to then develop strategic, pro-active responses to contend with the harsh reality of climate change.  Furthermore our responses must contain a series of relavent tactics that can a) quantitively reduce carbon emissions in our cities and b) develop coping strategies for the negative impact of climate change.  

While we strive to do our part to mitigate or even reverse the trend of global temperature increase, we must also accept that temperature change has a longstanding history and will continue, although at a slower pace.  Our cities need not be prepared for climate change, but accept the responsibility in the present tense and thus become responsive.  Whereas preparation implies a coming event, response suggests a current and ongoing engagement.  

Should We Paint the Sandbags Pink? Redesigning The End of War


A fundamental lesson within the major literature about counterinsurgency, such as Nagel's How to Eat Soup with a Knife or Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare, is the lack of institutional memory regarding the end of conflicts.  For whatever reason - social, organizational, cultural or otherwise - popular conceptions of history describe wars as having a messing beginning and a tidy ending.  Images of helicopters hovering over Saigon or masses of WWII soldiers boarding ships homeward bound resonate in the global social conscious.  But it is unlikely that any war in history concluded with the simplicity of closing the cover on a book.

Historical battles were heavily shaped by the seasons, as the winter obstructed movement and in the spring many soldiers would need to leave the front lines to plant seed.  Wars would be resumed once the seed began to sprout, postponed for harvest,  then returned to again until winter.  A quick look at the wars of the 19th century on wikipedia reveals that most wars lasted 4-5 years, but  the wrong impression is given by this list as it provides a nice simple year for the conclusion of every conflict.  In contrast, many of the wars featured ongoing skirmishes, small attacks, and a trickle of minor incidents for months or years after each battle.  

Today's conflicts are no different.  Low-intensity, protracted conflicts stretch onward into the future.  Major international conflicts and localized internal conflicts seem to never end.  Yet a significant  difference between these conflicts and those of the past is the role of advanced communication technologies and access to simple yet powerful weapons that put small groups on par with massive military forces.  

So if wars have messy endings but the mess is bigger these days,  do we defend our cities with the same methods as in the past?  At present we rely upon militant checkpoints, guard towers, road blocks and a whole array of methods intended to restrict movement, obstruct attackers, and provide tactical advantage to one force while negating abilities of the other.  This is all well and good in terms of security, but it does nothing to add finality to the ever-steady trickle of attack incidents.

When fortifying a point of interest, the goal is to focus on utility, with the broad assumption that the newly installed elements are temporary.  Consequently  security architecture is stark and simple, an element that becomes threatening when contextualized by armed guards and interrogations.  The greater problem is that these features are rarely temporary.  Because the hostilities continue, the security infrastructure remains, detracting from the quality of the urban experience and reinforcing the sense of danger.  One could even argue that such infrastructure promotes ongoing militarization and escalates conflict.

To instill finality into contemporary conflict, we must create defensive infrastructure to facilitate a post-conflict urban condition.  We must create security mechanisms that not only satisfy their primary objective, but can contribute to the health and wellbeing of urban living.  Imagine if one day someone in Kabul or Baghdad or Cairo could wake up in the morning and say "remember that police checkpoint that used to be around the corner?  I really miss having it there, it really made walking down the street a little more pleasant."  People make such statements about art, fountains, gardens and landscaping.  They do not say this about barbed wire fences, blast walls, or security installations.  

So what should we do? Should we paint the sandbags pink?  Maybe.  It seems absurd, but why not?  Perhaps global society could benefit to emasculate the battlefield.   Discard the drab olive green and replace it with a mural of clouds.  Many could argue that such acts beautify war and devalue its significance, but this is only partly true.  Such acts beautify our environment and celebrate our common humanity,  thus giving an opportunity for peace, otherwise lost, by devaluing the the significance of violence.  It is time to design a new battlefield, not to fight war, but to end it.

Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine


Smokestack chasing.  Garden cities.  Tactical Urbanism.  New Urbanism.  Creative cities.  What do all these have in common? They all reveal the greatest weakness of urban planning as a discipline. The reliance upon urban development trends, which shift every few years, has ruined neighborhoods, devastated communities, and undermined economies.  Yet we keep doing it.

When I was a graduate student, sustainability was the utmost priority.  And for the last few years, every planning and design firm advocates bolstering resilience as the prescriptive cure for cities ensnared by poverty, conflict, or natural disaster.  But how do any of these concepts actually make a difference in the field of urban planning?  While they may posit some degree of merit by creating philosophical or operational frameworks for positive action, they do far more to impend weakness upon a community.

Anyone can read a book about the creative class and push for their city to open more coffee shops and tattoo parlors.  But an urban planner is trained to measure problems so as to determine solutions, not just impose preconceived ideologies upon a space or population.  Measurement is the core of urban planning.  The ability to fuse social, economic, spatial, environmental, and cultural data into an observable model provides planners the ability to determine structural weaknesses in a community.  These structural weaknesses may be offset through direct internal realignment, manipulation of broader legal frameworks, or offset by outside interventions.  But the application of broad concepts as a cure-all is not a solution, it simply is a waste of resources, or at worst, an act of  imperialism.

Certainly urban planning trends are drawn from observable social processes.  And many of the ideas, such as sustainability, are not bad things on first review.  But when New York city planner Robert Moses proposed putting a highway through East Village, he was simply subscribing to the values of the day.  He believed that cars and highways were positive tools of progress.  He believed that the old communities were dirty and backward.  He was doing the residents of the East Village a favor by installing this highway, to connect them to all of New York and the rest of America.  It never occurred to him that they would want, or deserve, something different.

One of my first projects as an urban planner was to conduct an impact analysis for a wind turbine farm in rural West Virginia.  Thousands of acres of virgin forest were to be destroyed to install wind turbines which would route the power to New Jersey.  The residents of the local community were outraged.  Yet entrapped by poverty, these residents did not own the land around them.  It was the property of coal companies and the US government.  They could no nothing but watch their lands be destroyed.  New Jersey of course didn't mind ruining one community to facilitate its own energy needs.  After all, wind energy is sustainable.

What we as urban planners believe to be true and good in ideology can just as likely wield a terribly destructive power.  In that regard, is it not better to forgo all ideologies?  Perhaps it is better to attend  the intricacies of measuring complex systems.  We must recognize that every method of measurement  imposes a value upon the outcome, and so we must place greater attention and selectivity upon this primary step in the planning process.  If a given system of measurement works in one location, it will not necessarily work in another.  So how then can we presume that outputs are transferable?

Good urban planners will not invent the wheel every time they approach a settlement.  They will aslo not limit themselves to particular methods or ideology.  In the same way a good musician will not say simply "I am a jazz guitarist" or "I am a rock guitarist," rather, a good musician will study all forms of music so at the moment of performance he may play freely, not thinking about "I must infuse a minor third on the next note to get a given result." When trapped by conventions such as style or planning trends, the intentional application of convention will undermine the effectiveness of the final product. Urban planners trained to measure and respond will forever create better solutions for community problems than those who apply preconceived notions of community or development.

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

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.

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.