Viewing entries tagged
urban design

Backcasting Urban Planning and Design for Autonomous Cars and Social Robotics



Advancements in technology do not necessarily lead to improvements in society.  Social policies created in response to technology might generate social safeguards but do not always promote social benefits. While we can witness technological developments with delight, we must take a moment to ask ourselves, what kind of future are we creating?

Just last week the US Secretary of Transportation described an infrastructure deficit, not only in terms of existing infrastructure, but also as a lack of planning for future needs. Around the same time the Consumer Electronics Show displayed an array of emerging automotive technologies. Companies ranging from Ford to Mercedes revealed concept cars for autonomous vehicles to roll out in the next few years. Using multiple LIDAR sensors, GPS, and new interior configurations, engineers and industrial designers are redesigning the future of automobile transportation.

But are civil engineers and urban planners actively promoting a sufficient infrastructure to accommodate new use patterns.  To some extent, yes. Much discussion was prompted when IHS released a study speculating that autonomous vehicles will dominate the landscape by 2035.  Some economists speculate that congestion and fuel use will increase. There are even proposals that traffic tickets will be reduced and proposals that cities will be configured around changes in parking, density, and speed limits. It is also thought that changes of car ownership and use will change, such as operating buses more like trains.

It is clear the urban landscape will need to be reconfigured and there are some ideas to determine what this means. Yet if we look at the bigger picture, what are we working toward? What is the future we are constructing? In a city with less traffic tickets or city parking, how will taxes change? If buses are so streamlined, then does the freedom of private car ownership become reserved only for the wealthy?

The present planning and development trend of speculation on social robotics is insufficient because it relies upon a purely constructivist approach.  We had previous industry and technologies that resulted in todays conditions, so now we are creating new technologies in response to those conditions.  Naturally this will create a new scenario, accompanied by additional problems, and there will be a demand to innovate out of that situation into another. But to what ends? What is the end game?

In the existing approach we are saying that fuel and spatial demands will adjust in response to autonomous transportation technologies.  Yet how will this response occur in relation to existing problems such as income inequality, underemployment, poor access to health care, and poor quality infrastructure such as housing, water, and roads?  At present I see no evidence that social robotics will help the existing socio-economic problems but might do more to proliferate them.

In 2035, will only poor people need to drive their cars?  Will the price of driven cars become more expensive from reduced demand, placing additional financial burden on low-income communities? While those who now 1-2 freed hours of time per day (since they are not driving) be able to use that time for study, extended work hours, and business meetings? How will those still using their time to drive be able to compete in the workforce? Will those unable to access social robotics find their entire communities collapsing upon outdated infrastructures?  Will property values shift dramatically creating new ghettos and devastated landscapes?

What if we propose a different vision?  What if citizens and leaders took responsibility to say "In 2035 want my community to look like X?"  It takes imagination and guts to state such a declaration. Yet by setting a clear vision, it is possible to work backwards, to reverse engineer pathways to that vision and align current choices accordingly.  To backcast the future of social robotics might create a future that is more grounded in the social than the robotic.  To plan with a goal in mind, rather than through continued ad hoc remedies, perhaps our high-tech future could be a place where someone might actually want to live. Even if they can't afford it.

City Planning for the Second Machine Age


Just last week the Mayor of Las Angeles announced that L.A. will be the first city ready for self-driving cars.  This is a bold statement considering that no other city has really taken a major plunge on infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, and thus we have nothing to which we can compare the actions of L.A.  The notion of Uber-like services for autonomous vehicles is fairly compelling, but we need to ask - what kind of infrastructure is appropriate or needed for this product-service system? For example, should the police be integrated into an alert system incase things go bad? To take it further, what issues should urban planners consider regarding autonomous vehicles.  What does the future city need?

Much of the technology that will shape our urban experience tomorrow  is not quite mature enough to meet general expectations - but that is why planning for it today is important.  Having the discussion from a planning perspective will reflexively shape the technological development and diffusion, giving us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives - much like the public health movement of the industrial era. Recently, many car makers have announced plans to roll out self-driving cars in the next few years including Cadillac and BMW.  Likewise, Audi has received the first permit in California to road test self-driving vehicles.  While MIT's Technology Review last summer, we are nowhere near the point in time when fully autonomous cars will be fully functional, and we are in fact several decades away - so now is the time to discuss how to make this work.

As we shed the remnants of the industrial era and step into the second machine age, let us imagine how it will look.  Autonomous vehicles are not limited to cars.  Flying aircraft, delivery UAVs, boats, underground tunneling devices, and robots of all kinds can be expected to appear in the next few decades. A primary part of the challenge in creating these technologies is that the urban environment is highly stimulating, directing millions of cues toward a driver at a given second.  The sounds of crosswalks, the recognition of a runner nearing the corner, and the flashing lights of a tow-truck vs a police car or ambulance all provide information to a driver.  These are also the elements of urbanism that make cities exciting and interesting. Strip the city streets of its life, and yes, we can make cars that will safely drive themselves through stop and go traffic - but is that where we want to live? Dehumanized modernist vision didn't work the second time (Le Cabusier's Machine for Living?), so what kind of infrastructure and planning do we need?

I don't have all the answers, but I think about this question quite a bit.  I have a few ideas and hopefully these will inspire others to explore the ideas more deeply.  If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you.

Possibilities:
1. Robust GPS system.
At present there are 32 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, at 20,000 KM above sea level.  I know little about satellites, but I can't help but wonder is this a sufficient system for constant global demand.  So far so good, but can this meet the future demand if you multiple current use by 10 or 100? How might we improve such systems to refine geolocation.  Its important to realize that already a great deal of variance occurs within GPS positioning, so while you might have accuracy within a meter in New York City, your GPS points in a rural and low populated landscape might vary as much as 20 meters. Will this be sufficient when your car drives you to work?

2. Geofencing
In my last post I wrote about the idea of land use planning for drones.  Yet the concept of geofencing does not need to be limited to UAV use.  It can also be integrated into self-driving cars, water-based robotics, tunneling machines, and any other form of autonomous vehicles.  Creating this system isn't hard, but creating a system of standards for the geofencing to work across cities, states, and nations might be more challenging - which leads to the next concept.

3. MIDI for the City.
One thing that has made the internet blossom is the standardization of HTML, APIs, and data structures like JSON to allow developers to freely port one system/tool with another.  In a similar fashion, MIDI provides a set of standards for musical softwares and electronic devices to communicate.  To my knowledge there is not a set series of standards for electronic device integration at urban scale. Maybe the internet of things will be the solution, but is IPV6 sufficient to address all these billions of objects?

4. Modular Infrastructure
Many cities will generally suffer in the new economy because there is insufficient growth in Commercial, Off The Shelf (COTS) products for smart city creation. Smart Cities cost millions or billions of dollars and are dominated by companies like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM.  Rich cities will have the money to optimize and poor cities will not be able to compete.  There are a few of us (ahem), working on the design and creation of modular components, dashboards, and sensor networks that can provide municipal plug and play operation - but this market space hasn't taken off yet.  This could provide an opportunity for increased safety, reduced costs, and general improvements in urban life quality at scale but more people need to be working on this.

5. Localize Energy Policy 
Sufficient energy systems are a constant problem and a major inhibitor for technology diffusion. With the advancement of autonomous systems our energy demands are going to spike. I think some of the more interesting work in this area is within using ocean driven systems (photo at top of page). Yet we can also harness the simple but functional technologies we have today. Many regulatory energy tools exist at the national level, but perhaps city governments need to be more aggressive in local laws. What if every building permit required new construction to include a solar energy component? What if every historic reuse, preservation tax credit, or publicly funded project mandated the integration of passive energy systems? We haven't perfected passive energy, but whatever we have is only effective if policy matures.

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 Problem With Refugee Camps (Architecture, Design, Planning)



For decades our television screens have been dominated by images of ragged people, hopelessly isolated within political limbo as destitute refugees.  Movies describe refugee camps as exotic edge-of-the-earth locales full of victimized dark-skinned people.  Magazines and websites occasionally release an article on a brand new shelter technology, solar stove, or water pump that is expected to change the future of these settlements.

Although often inaccurate, there is some real world legitimacy to these images.  A decent example of the typical chaos can be found at this moment in Nigeria.  But this is not always, even often, the case. While camp conditions are often poor, there have been strides toward the improvement of camp planning, most notably in Turkey.  Many seek funding to further improve existing camps, such as found in this request for assistance to displaced South Sudanese living in Ethiopia.  But overall, regardless of funding or geography, the progress of change has been slow and grinding.  Refugee camps are an embarrassment to our 21st century civilization. While most refugee camps are not like the movies, they continue to be miserable solutions to a complex political crisis.

Why is it, with all the expertise bubbling in the world, do these places continue to function poorly?

Before I go into this, I want to highlight that dramatic improvements took place from the 1970s through the 1990s.  Up until the 1970s, the United Nations had zero interest in the African continent, but this changed as part of a general meandering toward global sensibilities over the previous decades.  Initial steps in aid and development lacked professionalism, but was the work of untrained adventurers in the global south. This is where we get the classic image of a white guy unloading sacks of grain from a truck - as if refugees need help carrying sacks.

Much of this change toward a professional model is the consequence of Barbara Harrell-Bond whose intense anthropological criticism toward UNHCR, and UN operations in general, did much to orient it toward an improved system of accountable projects by competent people. Yet while her impact has been monumental, and continues to be extended by the efforts of countless researchers and activists within refugee studies, the state of encampment remains poor.

So again, why?

There is no simple answer, but in terms of designing and upgrading a camp, below is a list of critical factors.  This list is by no means exhaustive. Add to this list the local conditions and political realities of a random country and conflict, then stir.



1. We must recognize that Refugee is a legal term.  Technically, before 1951, there was no such thing as a refugee but simply displaced people with no legal status.  The term acquires its legal meaning from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Notably, while a country may agree to accept people seeking asylum to provide "protection," each signatory may withhold elements of the convention. For example, if you are a refugee in Egypt, you have the right to "protection" but you do not have the right to health care, the right to education, or the right to employment because the state of Egypt has withheld those rights in its signature.  By withholding rights, a government strategically removes incentive for a refugee to remain in country.

2. Protection is define in the 1951 Convention but the operationalization is not. This is a big issue. Countries who are providing "protection" in accordance to the expectations of the legal agreement are not bound to provide a particular quality or form of protection. The language is intentionally vague so that each country may decide what protection will look like.  Ultimately, they can do as they please (more or less) aside from a few specific restrictions, such as it is unlawful to send a refugee back to the country of origin if the threat remains.  But within state borders, a state can treat the refugee however it pleases within the boundaries of it's own law.

3. The refugee laws are a response to WWII, and while displacement camps existed prior to WWII, it was only in the immediate aftermath of the war that a legal "refugee" was born into existence.  At that moment, the legal space of the refugee camp was also founded.  With populations scattered everywhere in Europe, refugees were seen as a security threat and the responsibility was thus entrusted to militaries. Militaries therefore used POW camps, prisons, and military barracks to contain, order, and redistribute displaced populations.  Military camp planning and design goes back to the Roman era, as spatial structures to maximize the needs of efficiency, not humanity.  Consequently, todays camps are designed using the same spatial structure.  A refugee camp is made to process, contain, and secure an individual. It is not a space to facilitate the expression of rights.

4. Camps are to be temporary so as to encourage the return toward home (repatriation).  This is a tricky one.  We think of camps as a way to safely help a population in need.  For example, MSF may create a camp so as to rapidly deliver much needed medical attention to many people at one time.  But protracted encampment is a different issue.  Ultimately governments encourage camps so as to isolate a population (due to xenophobia), facilitate the responsibility of "protection" (whatever that means), and to encourage repatriation.  Therefore a refugee camp cannot be nice getaway from a conflict because that incites refugees to remain indefinitely.

5. Professionals are not trained properly.  When I first went to a refugee camp, I was the only urban planner on site.  The UN engineer was trained in the UK to create UK infrastructure and the architect from Spain was trained to build stadiums and suburbs.  Now they were in the middle of nowhere Africa and told to design a new camp.  Naturally they approach it like a London suburb, unfamiliar with the deeper political and legal substructure (which inspired me to research this issue for years).  If you want to know more about why this is a problem, check out this older Humanitarian Space article on water infrastructure and conflict.

6. The idea and images of refugees and camps as sprawling 3rd-world slums presupposes the actions taken by stakeholders.  Consequently, we reproduce the same systems over and over again, creating more 3rd world slum refugee camps because we have an idea of what they look like and how they function separately from normal society.  I'd argue that the current camps in Turkey for Syrian refugees are the closest thing to a normative planning structure to emerge. Note that those camps are entirely state operated, having borrowed technical guidelines from UNHCR, but with no managerial involvement by UNHCR.  I question how long Turkey can sustain the cost.

7. Architects and designers focus too much on building technology rather than social systems.  A good example is a recent IKEA solution to refugee shelter.  I'm sure its fine.  Except it costs more to manufacture, import, and construct than any local solution.  Consequently the folks who really do the work in the field have zero interest in a slick pre-packaged technology for import.  It is just too expensive and will require complex logistics to procure and implement.  In the meanwhile clever designers churn out sexy new refugee shelter technologies every year.  This is a waste of time and money when you consider that an imported solution is impractical and the dominant socio-cultural/political/legal systems demand low-standard and cheap but scaleable solutions.

8. A massive communication gap exists between dominating entities and camp populations.  Most aid workers are afraid of the populations they are intent to serve.  Most aid agencies and UN operations maintain highly restrictive rules that negate interaction between staff and refugees.  UNHABITAT, for example, regularly plans camps using satellite images and locally contracted social research, but never actually make a site visit to talk to locals or see the terrain first hand.  This can have extreme repercussions.  The most dramatic example is from an Ethiopian friend who lived as a refugee in Sudan for 12 years.  He told me that a UNHCR director arrived at the site and was angry because the camp was built on a piece of land different from the location originally intended.  Why?  Because maps and satellite images will never be as accurate as boots on the ground.  Again, I feel the need to direct you to this previous article on infrastructure and conflict.

9.  Camps are isolated (for focus on service distribution) and cannot participate as viable economies. This is to further encourage repatriation.  It is also a xenophobic exercise to separate refugee populations from national populations.  But consequently, any camp-based economic development initiative will have a low ceiling of growth or will fail because there is no viable supply chain for production or transit conduit to export of commodities.

10. Residents (refugees) are forced to live in conditions that make them reliant on services, negating the opportunity to advance their own situation and simultaneously undermining the ability for return. The vast majority of encamped refugees do not want to be in this position, but do to legal and political rules, are restricted from any other path.  Typically to break out of this cycle requires extraordinary measures. For example, a Somali friend of mine was born in a refugee camp in East Africa, but at 20 smuggled himself all the way to Hong Kong where he lived as an illegal immigrant but eventually achieved employment and a better quality life. Of course another guy I know attempted to do something similar ended up imprisoned in Israel.

**Bonus** 
UNHCR has zero accountability. If you ask a UNHCR professional about this they will disagree and say that UNHCR is accountable to the broader expectations of the UN or are accountable to the media and to the public.  But this isn't really true because a discontent public has no legal recourse to counteract UNHCR.  It is simply a brach of the UN, and does not go on trial under the UN system because there is no UN Court.  The biggest problem UNHCR can experience is a drop in donor funding, yet as UNHCR is primarily a political tool to exert outcomes derived by internal politics, there is little advantage in reducing funding.  Ultimately UNHCR can get bad press, but a donor still pays them for a desired outcome intent that the bad press will never come back to the donor itself.

Cairo Egypt - A Contentious Veneer of Political Nothingness



This last weekend I was in Cairo, Egypt thanks to a 12 hour layover on my way to work in Ethiopia. Having previously lived in Egypt, I was excited and nervous to see what developments have occurred in Cairo since the Arab Spring.  I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed.

Here is what I found:

One, there has been an incredible explosion of street art throughout the city.  Not only in Tahrir, but everywhere one can find evidence of artistic expression and protest.  This is rather incredible.  Below is a photo from the old social science campus for the American University of Cairo, located on Mahmoud Mahmoud street.  The quantity of texts and imagery that adorns the building is not unique, but such messages can be found elsewhere in the city.



Admittedly however, Tahrir is the focus of more extraordinary works. On the wall of the original American University campus one can find massive murals and other large-scale works which are less clear in their political intent, but remain aesthetically striking.



Beyond the presence of street art, near Tahrir is an extensive array of defensive fortifications.  Large concrete blast walls and stone structures are arranged for about 1 or 2 blocks in every direction around the Ministry of Interior.  Concave walls line some of the streets, striking because their design would be clearly ineffective against explosives (such as the role of the traditional T-wall) but make human access nearly impossible.  Furthermore, large steel gets have been erected near the Mugama on the edge of Tahrir which can be used to close access to the square.



Yet beyond Tahrir, the city remains fairly unchanged.  Vegetables are sold, donkeys pull carts, and traffic barely moves.  Only one block from Tahrir, one can see that daily life has remained the same as before the uprising.  After meeting with some Egyptian friends, I voiced my concern that nothing has truly changed.  The jobs are the same.  There are still police posted on every corner.  There is still a large quantity of easily identified secrete police scattered throughout the city.  In terms of formal political systems, it appears no different than when I left in December of 2009.  They agreed.



Yet one change remained clearly observable.  The divide between the rich and poor has continued to grow.  Outside the city in Qahira Jedida (New Cairo) the suburbs have exploded in size.  Massive malls, large water fountains, and sweeping grass lawns (in a desert!) stretch as far as you can see. There is even a massive, brand new Ikea located nearby in New Maadi.

In the meanwhile old Maadi, which has been the longstanding neighborhood residence of the elite, has grown old and tired.  There remain some beautiful houses, yet much of the neighborhood has lost its upper class allure.  The rich have vacated for the suburbs and the poor have struggled to fill the gap.

In addition, large scale construction projects can be found everywhere.  Capitalism has run rampant in the interest of the upper class.  Just below is  photo from Tahrir, where on the very edge, massive new office buildings are under construction.



In the end, government has remained unchanged, the security of the common people no different, and capitalism has had its way.  Even the revolution has been co-opted.  Below is a photo-synth of 2 images I took of Tahrir with the Mugama in the background.  Perhaps the revolution was televised, but today it is bought and sold, to no benefit of those fighting for change.


Designing The Perfect Glass of Wine in 3023



The audio piece below contains a fictional story I wrote and situated in a soundscape I composed in Logic.  The story is a snapshot of a professional wine taster, a sommelier, working at some point in the future when the production of wine has been technologically perfected.   The title might be a little too cheeky with the overt Huxley reference, but I just couldn't help myself. 




What does this have to do with urban planning?  Everything.  I realize my writing has been getting a bit apocalyptic lately, but it is merely the consequence of all the books I've been reading in the realm of Science, Technology and Society.  I am a big proponent of technology and my livelihood is dependent on the interface between the physical and the digital, yet it is necessary to be critical of the new technologies that we create given the inevitability of the feedback loop we build with each new piece of tech.  

Where urban theorist Mike Davis argues the world will become dominated by slums, I contend that just the opposite is more likely, whereas we might over-design cities and life in general into an overly mediocre and bland existence.  Where David Kilcullen believes that the future of war is will be found in coastal urban hotspots, I advocate that the location of future wars will have less to do with the land and more to do with the communications and energy infrastructure.   I'm not afraid of this particular vision, considering my own biggest nightmare is to live in a world designed by Richard Florida.   Personally I'm still hoping for something more like BladeRunner and with all the time I've spend in Detroit, Dubai and Bangkok in the last 10 years, I feel like we are getting fairly close.

We press ever onward into the unknown. Only an absurd and naive individual would advocate that previous eras could ever supersede the present or future in terms of moral or cultural authority, the venture forward does necessarily designate a better quality of life.  We must be careful, but of course, we do not truly know how to do so.  Not really.  But I do know one thing; where the technological horizon collides with the dusty roads of the developing world - thats where you will find me.

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.


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.  

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Karte-Seh.  Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2013

An Integrated Process For Better Urban Planning



Urban planners frequently believe their projects maintain the most efficient balance between demand, costs, and utility.  A project may be result of community discourse, technical analysis, review by the local business community, and a fusion with the most cutting-edge theories.  Yet when the proposal sits before a local planning commission or city council, too often it is torn to shreds. Heavily debated and politicized, if the proposal ever emerges from the other side of the gauntlet, the final outcome is a shadow of it former self, too weak to do anything effective.  There is a pressing demand for an Integrated Planning Process that accounts for the organizational machine of local government and decision makers.

I once heard a story about an urban planner who taught at the University of Cincinnati. The story goes that the planner spent everyday of 30 years studying a particular neighborhood, Over The Rhine, which has historically been a concentration of poverty and crime.  Everyday he walked the streets, spoke with residents,  befriended local businesses, studied the history, conducted economic research and over 3 decades acquired a thorough understanding of the internal and external forces that shape the neighborhood.  But when members of the local government asked for his input to create jobs, reduce crime, or improve the quality of the streets, he was incapable of providing realistic solutions. 

Certainly he had ideas.   Many of them were brilliant.  But the problem was that his sophisticated understanding of OTR also resulted in highly sophisticated proposals.  Many of these solutions were outside the interests of some decision makers, beyond the means of the local government, or required the overhaul of dominant frameworks such as state laws or county budgets.  The proposals that were acceptable were then diluted through tedious meetings, city council debates, local commissions, and ongoing budget cuts.  By the time his solutions actually hit the pavement, they lacked the means to create actual change.  Does this sound familiar?

Urban Planning has become increasingly complex with the rise of big data, inflating costs, diverging politics, and the advent of new technologies.  Given the historic challenges to balance all the demands of planning and development, it is a wonder that anyone can integrate all the new elements at all.  The process becomes unwieldy, and it is therefore no surprise when the final outcome fails.  It doesn't necessarily take decades for many of us to find ourselves faced with a scenario similar to the one described above.

But perhaps we can learn from the field of Product Design, an industry that has also become increasingly complex.  Imagine creating a new mobile phone.  Multiple departments must work together to compile a functioning design, some departments have to create new technologies to meet the demands of the co-workers across the hallway, and once everything is assembled it must also be mass produced, marketed, and sold.  But the process is not strictly linear.  There are limitations for mass production and supply-chain challenges to acquire the necessary parts. There is often a need to create the tools and technologies to assemble the product and then to sort out the logistics of packaging, shipping, and retail.  All these variables have a cost, all these variables entail the energies of thousands of people, and all of these variables must be delicately balanced to result in a working final product for mass consumption.  And if the item doesn't work as well as a competitor product, then no one will buy it. 

To ensure that the product can meet an array of expectations and capacities, every variable is recorded and investigated from initial ideation to the point of consumer use.  In the samer manner, the Integrated Planning Process maps the array of variables to create, design, modify, and implement a solution.  This procedure can reveal to stakeholders and participants what is essential, what is not, impose more clarity, and save time by providing alternatives for individual components.  

This process allows decision makers the ability to look beyond what needs to be stripped down, there is a means to prioritize what is essential, non-essential, and what adds value.  The project will of course change, but the planner is taking responsibility for the forces that impose change, and therefore holding more control over the outcome.  This improved capacity to understand and measure flexibility, will result in higher-value outcomes.

There are several ways to utilize an Integrated Planning Process.  Here are just a few possibilities:

 1.  Simple info-graphics to articulate the processes of decision making reveal the degrees of flexibility in the planning process.  These can be shared publicly (suggested) or for internal use only.

2. Presenting a comparative "teardown" of similar projects in other municipalities can provide a platform for critical engagement to document costs for optimization.   If you identify teardown components in relation to the outcome, you can better isolate the variables that matter most.

3. In addition to itemized costs, planners can provide details for alternative options with the clear cost/benefit of each alternative.  Instead of letting city council decide what works and what doesn't, or too demand more research, simply provide 2 or 3 options for each element of the plan that will have a similar outcome but with a clear cost/benefit.  These variables can then be reconfigured like Lego Blocks.  In this manner it is possible to find ways to quickly reduce cost while maintaining performance.

4. Planners can submit a list of prioritized alternatives or suggestions for modification to the entire proposal,  to better control the outcome of political committees. I do suggest you have this ready and waiting, but do not offer it up in the beginning.  Expect that your proposal will be changed according to the whims of dominant power systems.  There is nothing you can do about this so it is best to factor it into your planning process to create a more viable solution.

5. Planners must recognize that the organization implementing the project (doing the construction work for example), maintain their own level of influence upon the success of the project, such as their ability to finish work on time and under budget.  Map it.

The Integrated Planning Process maps the variables informing project design,  the influence of those who hold authority, and the influence of those who implement the work, and will provide planners the means to propose solutions that are resilient to the political machine.  An Integrated Planning Process results in flexible proposals designed to contend with external demands and will always create a more robust outcome. If a development scheme consists of the insights of stakeholders, but has the ability to fluidly accommodate the organization structure of government and implementing partners, the final result will be more value-laden for the target population and for the neighborhood.

Will such an integrated process always work?  Absolutely not.  There are too many variables, and it is incredibly difficult to measure how much influence each variable will impose upon the outcome.  To borrow from Nate Silver's book, it is a challenge to separate the signal from the noise.  But product design is no different.  There are always glitches, a necessity to release updates, and to release a next generation product based on the precursor.  The Integrated Planning Process does not result in a single one-off solution to later abandon.  Rather it sets the foundation for sequential upgrading.

There are many planners who already work in a similar fashion, but do so intuitively. Integrated Planning thus becomes a skill acquired through experience and therefore is not universally upheld. But if Integrated Planning can be  can be more directly implemented by practitioners (and not just in their minds), or utilized in university curriculums, the benefits will soon become obvious. Planners will typically be more satisfied in the outcomes of their work, but ultimately it is cities who will benefit the most with better projects conducted amid less debate, in shorter time, and for less money.

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.

Urban Design and the Indefensible Space


I recall the first time I heard an architect talk about programming a building.  I imagined an elaborate process of computational mathematics and structural engineering blended with social psychology.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that programming was little more than a designer saying "this place is for walking between a and b, this place is for sitting, and this place is is for the mixed use of sitting and/or walking."  

Certainly there is some excellent work out there to understand the relationship between human activity and the predeterminations of physical space.  I have a copy of A Pattern Language sitting on my shelf and can't recommend it enough.   But so often the process of programming is approached as formulaic as master plans (frequent readers are familiar with my disdain for old fashioned master plans).  A quick google search will reveal step-by-step guides to programming, but reading through such procedures, one is simply confronted by the usual "rational strategic planning model" to identify user needs within the framework of budgets, time, and materials.  Bottom up and mixed-methods exist as well, but again, how dissimilar is programming from basic decision making?

I suspect we use the term programming because it sounds more impressive.  But more importantly, there is a desire among architects and urban designers to identify and tap into some cosmic body of knowledge that will explain the structural underpinnings of human behavior.  I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone else.  And the evidence of this desire is everywhere.  We have decades of research on central place theory and investigations into complex adaptive systems  along with today's groundbreaking research on the mathematics of cities.  


But as we mine downward into the underbelly of social order, what do we do with these new understandings?  Do we attempt to restructure all of society according to some personal vision like  Le Corbusier, or do we simply reinforce these patterns with our design efforts, even if they are imperfect? There are plenty of tools out there to understand the role of space in human activity, but how do we build upon that?  In many ways we are beginning already to implement these lessons, such as the efforts by Washington DC police to look at how land use and development trends impact changes in crime.  But in this instance, it is about redistributing police officers to points of potential crime. As an urban planner, how can I apply these same tools and concepts on behalf of governments around the world?

This issue has been on my mind a great deal lately I have been designing a public green space for construction in the spring and have been thinking a great deal about how the space can be used, and more specifically, abused.  Unique architectural features that might stimulate social responsibility or interest can easily become transformed into vantage points for sabotage, crime, and violence.  Although security has always been a critical part of city planning, the modern idea of creating a "Defensible Space"  has emerged in the 1960s when Oscar Newman was attempting to reduce crime in low-income housing communities in the US.  His conclusions such as the use of street lights, defined walkways, and indicators of clear ownership have all been successfully implemented in communities around the world to deter urban crime.  

Unique Feature or Tactical Vantage Point?
But as I work in an areas where militant aggression and terrorism are daily realities, I'm curious how I can do the opposite.  Everyday in Kabul I see big massive walls surrounded in razor-wire with reinforced steel doors and windows glazed in blast film.  Not to mention that tall buildings have been utilized multiple times now as strategic points of attack by insurgents. Just the other day I was walking past Share-e-Naw Park and I was looking at its tall iron fences, the clusters of foliage, and the undulating terrain.  Now the park isn't exactly an offensive vantage point, yet nothing about its design actually would deter or undermine an offensive actor.  In fact, many of the elements designed in line with Newman's prescriptions just would just well serve as an asset to a criminal - with limited points of entry and exit, absorbing shadows at the edge of the spot-lit walkway and continually obstructed sight-lines formed by vegetation and corner shops.  

Perhaps a better solution is to create the Indefensible Space.  A space or structure that can only be used for its intended purpose that cannot be destroyed, vandalized, or misused as a means to conduct offensive operations.  Such a space or structure could not be formulaic, but site sensitive, and its programming would emerge more from the process of responsive decision making and data collection rather than from within a studio.  But the intentional proliferation of such spaces could transform global conflict.

We already have cities full of defensive structures, and when programming a public space in a conflict zone, it cannot be assumed that the typical recipe for creating secure structures meets long-term social interests.  In fact, I would argue that the more classical interventions are utilized to secure a city, the longer that city will struggle with transitioning between conflict to post-conflict stages and beyond.  If you want to undermine the resiliency and economic sustainability of a city in conflict, then build massive walls.  But if you want to reinforce social forces to maximize social order, then a different prescription is needed.


As for cities like Kabul that are already overwhelmed by defensive architecture, the infusion of indefensible spaces into such a landscape could help lesson the oppression of concrete barriers and checkpoints.  The free-flowing indefensible spaces distributed throughout the city could bolster stability and even economic growth.


Clearly the counter-intuitive nature of the concept yields many weaknesses.  But we already have plenty of tools from which to analyze social spaces and to measure the impact of the built environment.    So how do we transform the knowledge gained through all the analytical tools into an effective programmatic and design solution remains an unrefined art.  So while my proposal for the indefensible space isn't perfect, it poses an opportunity to explore the analytics while lessoning the potential for negative consequences.  The greatest risk is that some unimaginative planner will situate a flat, empty parking lot in the middle of a city and do nothing more.  But as for the potential opportunity for design and the art of programming?  That remains to be explored.

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.

An Optimistic Future for Urban Planning in Mogadishu

Mogadishu, Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Tomorrow I head back to Kabul.  This morning I had the opportunity to discuss with the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, and other upper administration how to streamline existing operations and opportunities for new projects.  As the Urban Planner for the Benadiir Administration, Mohamed Ahmed has already accomplished a great deal in the short time he has been here.  Consequently, I made a point that my urban planning solutions all accentuate  his own work, but also introduce new assets and opportunties.   I've already started some of these projects, but I look forward to returning to Mogadishu in about 6 weeks to continue focusing the ground implementation.  I am grateful to the opportunity to work together with the municipality and hope this partnership is long lasting. 

The Youth Volunteers of the Mogadishu Benadiir Adminstration (Sutika Sipus)
What really stood out today was meeting with the Mogadishu Youth Volunteers.  At a total of 200 volunteers, these youth are high school and college students who grew up in Mogadishu while faced with civil war and the threat of al shabaaab.  After shabaab withdrew from the city, some of the young people from different districts started working together and were surprised by how much they could accomplish.  The group quickly grew and became more sophisticated in organization, capable of taking on large projects.  It blew my mind how hard these kids worked in the hot sun, with no water or shade, picking up trash, cleaning out overgrown brush, and burning rubbish.  If the people of this city can continue to dedicate themselves to the common good like these kids, then the future looks bright.

Local Cafe in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
I also had the chance to visit a cafe with some friends.  The owner lived in the UK for many years and has opened a couple businesses since returning.  The kitchen standards, the food quality, and the service are all top notch. There are lots of great things happening in the city of  Mogadishu, yet where are the news agencies covering it?  Of course upon returning back to the administrative offices, I did happen to see a foreign television crew.  And what were they filming?  The armed guards.  No surprise.

Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia: #urbanplanning, #mogadishu, #somalia, #design4dev

Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
For the last 7 years I have labored to understand as much as possible about the city of Mogadishu and to determine viable strategies for reconstruction when the opportunity is presented.  I now have the opportunity to implement these concepts and look forward to introducing simple, yet tangible solutions to many of the city's complex urban planning problems in cooperation with the city government.  Some of the solutions are dependent upon traditional planning and humanitarian initiatives such as concerns with historic preservation and sanitation.  Other concepts are far more innovative, relating to processes in data collection, crowd-sourcing, and GIS.  My business partners and I are presently developing a series of phased low-input, high-input initiatives for the city and will begin implementing these projects in the streets of Mogadishu this March.  I look forward to the project unraveling with some fantastic partners at every step and sharing our progress online.

Yet when I tell others about my work, they often ask, "why Urban Planning in Mogadishu, Somalia?"

The answer goes back a few years to 2004, when I spent 90 days hitch-hiking across Northern India, where I lost my money and acquired malaria in the swampy state of Bihar.    I chose to commit my life to reducing poverty, not with a vague belief that I can make the world better, but rather with the sense that I can make it less inequitable through precise, technical solutions.  It was from that experience I was determined to work in development and to build upon my initial training in art and design through the study of architecture.  After I began my studies, I met Aarati Kanekar, an architect who had worked in post-war reconstruction in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Upon meeting her, I expanded my studies to go beyond architecture, and to focus on urban planning.

In 2005, I completed my first year of graduate school in Urban Planning and Architecture, and was faced with the seemingly massive task of choosing a thesis topic.  Overwhelmed by the task, I thought hard about my essential priorities and determined that I should attempt to locate, define, and focus my lifework upon the world's most difficult problems, to work for the interest of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable populations as this is where the utmost improvement is needed.  Uncertain how to proceed, I turned to Google.  

Concise and innovative urban planning solutions
 are in clear demand in Mogadishu Somalia 
I more or less typed all of my priorities into Google in hope that it would reveal something new to me. Success.  It was from that simple search that I first learned of the Dadaab Refugee Camps.  Embarrassingly, at 23, I was quite ignorant to the problems in Somalia and knew next to nothing of the decades of violence, famine, poverty, and displacement.   As I began to invest more time into learning about the situation, I came to two conclusions. First,  I decided that I would find a way to go to Dadaab to research and work directly with the problems of refugee camp design and planning. Secondly, I also decided that eventually, one day for whatever reason, that circumstances in Somalia would change and the city of Mogadishu will need to rebuild.  

After decades of conflict, it is difficult to be entirely optimistic, but in many ways, the prediction from 6 years ago has begun to manifest.  After al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu several months ago, they have had little success in a multi-front battle against AMISOM/TFG, Kenya, and drone attacks from the US.  Although other forces may have strategic limitations, the fact that Shabaab has continued to change their tactics is evidence of continuing instability on their end.  For the first time since its founding, the Transitional Federal Government has full control of the city of Mogadishu.  With al-Shabaab primarily limited to the Kismaay region, there is even an effort underway to begin relocating refugees from the Dadaab camps back to Somalia.

Mogadishu is an ancient city.  Since the 14th Century it has flourished from its strategic location, an epicenter for trade between the Gulf and the Swahili coast.  It is this strategic location that also facilitates regional piracy.  It also serves as an ideal conduit for the trade between internal production and export.  Although dominated by an array of colonial powers over time, from Oman to Italy, it nonetheless retains an internal, structural capacity to again become a major economic hub.  Its urban density, coastal location, european roadways, and interconnection with other cities such as Afgooye or Kismayo have contributed to an urban resilience of the city.  Perhaps one could conjecture that so much physical destruction has taken place in the city because the structural resilience made it too difficult for armed groups to conduct combat, and consequently only through degrading the city could military accomplishments take place.

Now that city is beginning to stabilize and the Somali people are beginning to return to Mogadishu.  With the massive influx of returnees, the city is faced with new tasks.  Jobs need to develop, roads need to be cleared and repaired, sanitation improved, access to water, and systems need to be developed to deal with property ownership and acquisition.  Without the funds to cover the costs, and with the lack of urban planning for a city in conflict, it will require creative and innovative efforts to stabilize and rebuild.  Of course there are greater regional challenges, as many are also returning to Mogadishu because they fear the dangers of living outside the city.   Obviously the key to the success of the city is connected to the stabilization of the region as well.  But for the first time in decades, there is a chance that something can change.  There is an opportunity.  

Problem Solving through Design and Dancing your Phd: #design, #urbanplanning, #dance

Design is an experimental process to question and remix the obvious
Last week I wrote about how design has lately become over privileged as a problem solving tool with the recent pop-culture and corporate belief in the power of design-thinking.  Certainly while design-thinking will not solve all problems, it does have its merits.  In fact, it is the use of design and product-centric outcomes which differentiates my own work from many competitors.  Too often urban planning and development firms invest thousands of hours into research and strategy, only for the final product to manifest as a sterile report and an underwhelming powerpoint presentation.   Imagine if urban planning retained the energy of a design process throughout multiple phases of strategic problem solving.  It could potentially engage broader audiences, source more diverse inputs, and lead to solutions that aren't so easily diluted by city governments and regional politics.

Design thinking has benefits.  It is both systematic and exploratory.  Take for example a typical model for concept development within industrial design practice.  It is more or less similar to an urban planning approach - to identify stakeholder interests, define guidelines, to research similar projects and move forward with a product for phased testing.  Over time the concept becomes more refined and at anytime you can - and should - revisit previous steps to continue revision.  Eventually the final product is realized and implemented on a broad scale or mass produced.  Only within the process of idea creation are decisions arbitrarily made, yet the process is not strictly scientific or entirely reliant upon market tests.  In theory, the final result should maintain some degree (or hopefully all) of its original creative energy while nonetheless balanced and viable.  Typically work developed via a design methodology should be effective, attractive, accessible, inexpensive, and broadly communicative.  Perhaps it is the infusion of such simple concepts as "attractive" that have corporations suddenly lusting for design integration within their work.  Yet the real question is, why was this not a concern before?  How many revolutionary moments in human invention have been connected to the phrase "our product is really ugly, hard to use, and  cumbersome, but please ignore that."

Concept Development within Product Design Methodology

The power of design can also undermine real analysis 
Obviously a design-based approach has an important role beyond the idea development and solution process, as it has the means to transform sterile content into an engaging opportunity.  For example, a quick look through the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook reveals an adept use of Adobe Indesign and a variety of visualization techniques.  Or take for example the work done by Space Syntax.  Their GIS work is consistently beautiful. So much that I am often distracted by the quality of the renderings, uncertain of their specificity and meaning.   Of course that is a keen advantage to providing data via beautiful imagery, as the method can smoothen over the gaps in knowledge and research.  Then again, the strength is as much a weakness.  

If the purpose of design is to communicate, then we must be wary of how easily the beauty of design can undermine the ability to do so.  Communication is challenging, in particular when communicating complex information to audiences who are unfamiliar with the territory.  I believe every grad student experiences that moment when a relative asks "so what are you working on in school" only to watch their eyes glaze at the over-long, overly detailed, and laborious response.  A couple clean graphics could change this entire situation, yet the result could just as well become "what beautiful colors."

A recent TEDtalk by my buddy John Bohanon does well to illustrate how good intentions can go array when  communicating information.  In the video below (or here), John satirically examines the detrimental impact visual PowerPoint presentations have made upon the global economy.  And in a beautifully choreographed yet modest proposal, John demonstrates how other means of communication are perhaps more appropriate to explore complex concepts.  Although John embraces dance as a vehicle to communicate, one could just as well embrace music or knitting.  Ultimately, the vehicle by which a message is delivered cannot redefine the message itself.  It can only carry it.  Sometimes the correct vehicle is chosen and is a smooth ride.  Sometimes its not.  And sometimes, it would have been better to walk or ride a bike had one taken a moment to stop and consider the possibilities. 


Buzzword of the Day: "Design-Thinking"

Design Tip #1 for all the Design-Thinking Innovation folks: When pasting an image onto a monitor,
include an offset darkened reflection for that professional touch  [Pic by Mitch].
Why is the catchphrase design thinking the big buzzword these days?  Somehow alongside a massive cultural focus on innovation, companies are lusting toward design-thinking as a strategy to reframe old problems and create new, radical solutions.  Yet how many organizations maintain an internal structure to accommodate such endeavors?  How many organizations can afford to do so, when the premise of design is to take risks over and over again until something works?  Not to mention, design is merely a tool equitable to all other tools for solving problems.  Design solutions are by no means better, they are simply nicer to look at, easier to sell, and sometimes not as predictable.

Now after paging through Forbes or entrepreneur magazines, it seems that all the people who are lusting for design solutions are non-designers. I wonder what they are hoping to find?  Anyway,  I'm fine with the trend because when I came out of art school, I didn't plan on ever making much money or being in high demand - but all that has changed.  Thanks!

Tip #2: Always include filigrees
to come across as hip but refined.
I find it fascinating, and somewhat comical, that so many organizations suddenly want to be design companies.  Having started my career as a designer, I admit that directing my career into urban planning, economics, and conflict studies was extremely difficult.  There were countless hurdles to acceptance among other development professionals who would immediately question the value of my education.  Once I had a job interview with an ngo that kept asking about my BFA throughout the interview... even though I had masters degrees and work experience in their sector for 6 years,  having graduated from art school nearly 10 years past.   During that 8 years, I also had to work 10 times as hard as my peers to acquire a fundamental knowledge-base in statistics, research methods, and contextual knowledge.  It is only natural that the challenges go the other way as well... even though it is a popular ideology that anyone can do art and design, this is far from the truth.  Like anything else, one has to work their way up and there are many sleepless nights.  Not to mention, design isn't like some disciplines where one merely needs to be smarter than the competition, as a design project easily entails hundreds of hours with no guarantee of success.  For all the companies that suddenly want to become design firms, they are about to face a barrage unexpected hurdles.

Take for example the firm Caerus Associates.  Headed up by military strategist David Kilcullen, Caerus is a defense strategy consultancy that has initiated a transition toward working as a design firm.  Yet when you look at their amateur website, it is evident that the one thing they really lack is an understanding of design.  To make matters worse, the source code on their site shows that they didn't even do it in-house, but passed it to a group of young WashingtonDC hipsters who probably did it below market value in hope of building a better business relationship down the road.  The fact that Caerus didn't reject the outsourced site design shows just how much more they need to learn before they can actually do decent work for someone else.  If something as fundamental as a basic CSS site is such a design obstacle, do you really want such a firm proposing urban design solutions for an entire city or nation?  

Tip #3:  Always include helvetica in your photoshop images,
ideally contrasted with a font no one can read [Pic by Mitch]
If a client is searching for design based solutions why bother hiring social scientists wanting to be designers when there are plenty of design firms out there that work in complicated areas.  Just off the top of my head I can think of SAYA/Design for Change,  Urban-Think-TankSolidere.  Will their solutions work?  Maybe, but not necessarily because they are design firms and architects are trained to approach social space as a design space rather than as social enterprise.  But at least you are getting designers if that is what you are looking for.   


Reconciling complex social problems with product-oriented solutions is a monumental task and very few people have the training within both domains to accomplish this feat.  If it was easy, urban design and planning wouldn't be so reliant on professional trends. The majority of architectural and planning solutions would extend far beyond the standard application of mixed-use urban development (maybe retail on the bottom with housing on top, whoa!), green-belt buffer zones, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, community mapping exercises, economic incubators, zoning codes, voucher programs, community design centers, PAR, and public-private partnerships. 

Tip #4: Use QR Codes all the time
since no one uses them outside of Asia
So why keep recycling solutions and pretending it is something new and innovative? The present focus on design-based social innovation is simply another trend.  It is equitable to the industrialist trends of 1890s, the garden city concepts of the 1900s, the Le Corbusier inspired highway elevations of the 1950s.  Then of course there is the creative cities and new urbanism movements of the 1990s, the sustainability movement of the last 10 years and the overwhelmingly popular interest in urban resilience that is happening these days.  All of these trends are permutations of the same thing more or less, varying only by degree.  

Today's overwhelming focus on social entrepreneurship, design-thinking, technology-based solutions and resilience is not a means toward something worthwhile.  It is merely another observable reflection of economic circumstance and a cultural gravitation toward technology as a solution gateway.

So why draw more dots when there are plenty to connect in the meanwhile?  
C'mon fellas, we can all do far better.

--
[Hmmmm... this was fun. Maybe I should do a whole series of tips for all those new Innovation Consultants and Strategic Design Firms out there].