Viewing entries tagged
community planning

Detroit Urban Development and Communication with a Drone


Recently while assembling a project in Detroit Michigan, I came across some videos utilizing a consumer drone to document parts of the city.  They are truly gorgeous.  This particular one below documents the Heidelberg Project, an neighborhood-wide art installation by Tyree Guyton.  

I've been a fan of the Heidelberg Project since my days in art school, when I learned that Tryee was using his method of found-object art construction to highlight the excessive needs and attention of his neighborhood. Adjacent to the abandoned Packard plant, and situated among endless blocks of abandoned buildings, Tryree constructed the Heidelberg project as an act of beautification, neighborhood protest, and empowerment.  For many years people were outraged by his actions, but as it brought attention to the landscape, one could argue that the Heidelberg Project has been an important catalyst for change, now that Detroit is on an upswing.  If you cannot view the embedded video, find it here.




Recently a series of arsons have been consuming this urban installation. Rumors abound regarding the motive and source of the fires and investigations on on-going.  The drone footage captures the landscape just before the most recent fire.

I've theorized in the past how drones could be used by urban planners, yet the documentation of Heidelberg illuminates a new, and fairly simple prospect.  

It is difficult to convey the qualitative, intangible feeling of vast spaces.  While photography and film has the ability to convey strong emotion, it does not necessarily have the means to do connect a viewer to an entire neighborhood.  The power of shaped and empty space is the ability make a person feel large, small, connected, or alone. Standard videography does not effectively transfer the essence of space to a viewer.  Yet perhaps this is a new opportunity for drones.

When I watch the video above, irregardless of any music, I get a sense of the atmosphere, I get a sense of the weather, and I get a glimpse of what it is like to move through the installation.  I get an idea what it is like to participate with the space, from the physical perspective of a small child, as a grown adult, or even perhaps from within the imagination of Tyree, who arguably has a more concrete vision of the installation than anyone.  He knows its details yet can see the large picture of interlocking pieces.  As a viewer and participant, we can eventually acquire an equally sophisticated relationship with the space, but to transmit this relationship is a challenge.  The drone imagery does not solve that problem, yet it may get us a step closer toward communicating the ethereal.  Perhaps drones will do more than cause new problems, perhaps they will give us the chance to be one step closer of experiencing the multilayered syntax of place.  That is a powerful thing. 

Planning for the Future Reconstruction of Syria from Chaos and Complexity



The world is abuzz over the current civil war and the possibility of external military intervention in Syria.  While the conversation is primarily focussed on the use of chemical weapons in violation of the Geneva Charter, there has been little discussion about the long-term implications of the civil war, regardless of the role imposed by outside militaries.  What will be the result of so much bloodshed and how will the nation rebuild?  In what form?

Spatial Distribution of Conflict.  August 2013.
The severity of physical and social damage established in the last two years, broad distribution of conflict and the lack of unity among non-state actors within the conflict suggests that the civil war will be a long one, perhaps 10 years or more.   The resolution to this will not be political process as the lack of clearly established leadership among rebel groups positions no one to pursue negotiations with the State.  The massive refugee outflow, consisting 50% of children, weakens the social fabric of the nation and will continue to do so.


Engineering A New Outcome

If you discover that you are genetically predisposed toward a certain ailment, you adapt your lifestyle to mitigate the future.  You hedge your bet.  Likewise with Syria, the most probable outcome right now is protracted conflict followed by a painful reconstruction process (like Afghanistan).  But if examine the current variables, and measure the inter-relations between those variables, we can attempt to coordinate a strategy toward a desired outcome - ie., less war and more rapid recovery.   Because each variable maintains the same potential as a butterfly to inspire a hurricane, we don't have the control as we do with our bodies, but we do have the ability to better position some social and structural elements in terms of probable outcomes.  If this process were to begin now in Syria, it could potentially lead to a better future.

In this case, the goal is for the war in Syria to play out in such a manner that all relevant resources (community groups, finances, areas of destruction vs. preservation, social allegiances and so on)  are best organized for a rapid and successful reconstruction process.  The variables are numerous and so too are the methods of working with them.  So where do we begin?

The role of strategic planning and development within the battlefield is not new.  As an expansion of the Hearts and Minds campaign of Vietnam, development was heavily undertaken by NATO in the Iraq and Afghanistan and implemented via Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs were designed and operated in coordination with a broader mandate of Counter Insurgency doctrine (COIN). This was not a flawless system, it required massive layers of security that isolated the infrastructure creation process from the populations served, and when the projects were turned over to communities, unsurprisingly the outcomes were not always as hoped. Yet these methods were only viable as a strategy because of the massive allotment of resources.  Furthermore, PRTs had an inconsistent impact across regions and populations.  It is a tactic that will be likely replicated in the future but it simply won't apply in Syria.

In the recent 21 years of conflict in Somalia, intervention was limited to MSF operations, WFP, and other UN backed initiatives typically implemented by local NGOs.  In this regard, Somalia is a better region of comparison to Syria.  The problem here is that such agencies are designed only for humanitarian relief. This is essential, but it doesn't facilitate a resolution as much as institutionalize a process of triage across a fragmented society.  The inequitable distribution of services doesn't maintain a status quo as much as introduce a new variable, randomly redistributing the lines of power among a downtrodden population.  Potential outcomes vary from relief to militarization.


Urban Planning and Development In the Syrian Conflict

Typically when I tell people that I apply urban planning methods to mediate violent conflict, people imagine I'm referring to zoning and bike lanes.  Sigh... thats so boring.  But I suppose on the imaginative level there could be something here as one could argue that territorial patterns of warfare form emergent conflict zones, interconnected by supply corridors - don't forget that al-Shabaab had covered Mogadishu with a complex network of trenches to quickly mobilize troops and supplies yet also grinding the speed of territorial changes to a halt.  Yet these concepts in the current state of the conflict can only apply to analysis and not to planning outcomes.

A more pragmatic approach is to better understand the diversity of stakeholders in the conflict, as the fragmentation of non-state actors is a major obstruction to the peace process.  This obstruction was likewise a major obstacle in Afghanistan and it is no surprise that the suitcases of money provided by the CIA in 2002 to mobilize diverse ethnic groups for a common interest did not build a sustainable peace or found strong governance.  

Expanding and integrating diverse stakeholders is a cornerstone of the urban planning process, and while stable nations have the benefit of easily organizing community groups or legal proceedings,  it remains possible to mobilize stakeholders in hostile territories.  A key feature of this "non-rational" process is that it does not necessarily require strong, easily defined internal leadership.  Rather the process only requires an entity committed to the interest of all stakeholders, committed to a win/win outcome, and who can manage an otherwise neutral disposition.  Notably, this entity will not be successful if all authority is founded on outside power (US intervention for example), but rather this entity must have acquired a local, grass-roots level of respect combined with recognition among high-level community leaders.  At the moment, there is no one of this description involved in the conflict. Yet this can change.  After all, the war could take 10+ years so its completely feasible for an individual or organization to emerge to do the work.

Another critical element toward the future pacification and reconstruction of Syria is the role of the internally displaced and refugee populations.  The role of displaced populations could effect rebuilding of Syria in a combination of ways, yet two possibilities are immediately obvious.  When the war in Afghanistan drove thousands from their homeland, many children were left secluded in Pakistani refugee camps where Saudi madrasas promoted Wahabist beliefs, laying the foundation for the emergences of the Taliban.  During the same time, the war in Somalia drove thousands abroad who were then exposed to a variety cultures, educations, and lifestyles.  The return of Somalis in diaspora has made the sudden rebuilding of Somalia a possibility as they return with new social capital to invest.

Number and Location of Syrian Refugees. US State Department 2013.
At present the 1.9 million displaced refugees are primarily distributed throughout Lebanon and Turkey.  While I don't believe those nations would have a detrimental impact upon the refugee population and the long-term psycho-social advancement of the youth, it is unlikely that those nations have the resources necessary to invest.  At present, Turkey is already hosting 200,000 refugees in camps and has 200,000 refugees outside of camps.  
As you can see from the map, many of these camps are open, but it is clearly getting stretched to a limit. If it is becomes commonly accepted that the the civil war will be long and drawn out, initiatives to excel the resettlement of Syrian families into new communities could provide the investment needed for the future of Syria to be founded on socially productive and worldly populations. 

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.

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.