Placemaking in the slums

Placemaking in the slums

In the summer of 2013 there was a wedding in Bombay that I was attending with my family. It lasted a week, but instead of staying that week in Bombay and the rest of the time at my granny’s in Poona, we ended up staying three weeks in Bombay and two weeks in Poona. In Bombay we stayed at my dad’s cousin’s, where I felt like a king. I was served five or six proper meals a day (and only because you live in America you may understand what a proper Indian meal is – beta, khaa, kitna patla ban gaya hai tu), one for breakfast, one for lunch, one for snacks, one for tea-time, one for dinner, and one for our mid-night snack. And the only thing we did with our cousins was play a 15-minute football match within closed gates, and play PlayStation tennis and FIFA. It made me sick, overdoing it, and made me feel extremely guilty. I’m not blind.

At the time, I was reading The God of Small Things, a beautiful book which I encourage you to read. More than ever it got me thinking of the real India, a cruel and beautiful one, of the (at least) 80% of the population that live below the poverty line, whatever the suitmen decided that is, and I tried to imagine the number of people that it is. I couldn’t. And I couldn’t even find the India that was boasting to be one of the new economic powers of the world. Perhaps it was all in my tummy, in the six meals I had just had. So I decided to get my arse off the sofa and went to Dharavi, one of the biggest slums of the world. For the next ten days, I spent half a day there and half a day with The God of Small Things, and they turned out to trigger one of the major decisions of my life – where I want my career to lie.

Dharavi industry

The slums, above all, are places of density and informality. They are seen from the outside as places of dirt, disaster, cruelty, and survival. But there is another side: the resourcefulness, creativity, and sustainability that the people who live in the slums show every day is remarkable. Think about it. Living off the trash of the city and still being able to move forward. For me it was a story of hope that I was watching right before my eyes. The people were genuinely happy. It showed me that yes, Humanity does has the capacity to strive beyond the millionaire and celebrity stories that we hear on the Internet.

Slum, No facilities_Meena Kadri

I was reading a magazine where there is a section called “What is Placemaking?” where placemaking is described as a community-driven design principle, where context holds great importance as the people who decide are the people who live there. In slums, the informality comes from the lack of rules that regulate the construction of blocks, and it is the people themselves who build everything. I wonder whether tidying up the slums (while allowing the chaos) by empowering the community and improving transportation, would be what the slums need to develop.

While I was walking around the slums in my kurti, and tried to talking to some of the slum-dwellers, I heard stories of people who had been misplaced from their homes, from the forest, and had nowhere to go to except the slums. This is how much India cares about its people, when it builds dams, for example. Every time I arrive at Bombay’s international airport and we pass by the Hyatt and the slums close to the airport, I have feelings of guilt and impotence, while I feel the energy to do something for their lives, and a chilling inspiration from the slum-dwellers. Yes, the slums can also be a nasty place, but so is the corporate world, and it is taking over the planet.


Other links: Repainting the slums, “Slums as a model for future projects”, The Seven Myths of ‘Slums’,

On ways of talking

On ways of talking

Throughout my life I’ve listened to several different languages. I myself talk different languages, some with different accents. While growing up in Spain, I thought this was problematic. Speaking English at school and at home meant speaking it with a British accent with my teachers and with an Indian accent with my mum. I saw this as a problem of identity, perhaps even of confidence in some way. As an Indian kid in Spain, a Spanish kid in India, I always lived in-between. At the time of speaking, of choosing accents, I always felt like I was picking sides while not wanting to. And mixing Indian environment with Spanish accent, and vice-versa, felt odd, uncomfortable. Now, I just see them as two different languages, especially because I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, so they felt like two different worlds, and not one within another.

A little less unsettling was my Spanish accent. I was born in Málaga, Spain, in the southern Spanish state of Andalucía, where they also have a very distinct accent. Although my family moved to Madrid before I could even say a word, we frequently visited Málaga as I was growing up, and I spoke my first years of Spanish mostly with my family in Málaga. Until not very long ago, my accent would instantly dress up as a sevillana dancer when I spoke with my cousins and uncles and aunties, whose voices already danced the sevillana. As I got back to Madrid, on the train I already heard my thoughts switching accents, from wavy to plain; the landscape turning drier, further away from the sea, the weight of Arabian Andalusian history handing over the torch to Spain’s midlands’ royal and peasant history.

Acentos del castellano

In my last couple of years of school, Friends and How I Met Your Mother transformed our accents into whatever it is now. But it has all got me thinking about the ways of talking and how they reflect our environment, so I will share with you some very amusing reflections that I find in the accents of cultural behaviours. I’m afraid I don’t know much about American accents and regional history so I can’t say much about America. Having lived in Spain and Italy, schooled in a British school, and homed in an Indian home, I can comment on these.

For English speaking, the Indian accent does have a certain sing-song rhythm to it, which I believe somehow relates to the whole Bollywood phenomenon and the love for drama and dramatisms, exaggerations and celebrations in India. Everything needs to be sung because everything needs to be celebrated. At least in my family there is a habit to follow a word with one rhyming it, to take away the seriousness or importance or make fun of the situation. With British accents, I’d best describe them to be rigid (like the education system, which is fantastic, but still very rigid), and direct. I relate this to the industrialisation process that Britain went through especially in the 19th and 20th Centuries, this rigidity with the mechanisation of things, the need for punctuality. Still, there is an undeniable charm, a sort of composedness in the British accent which makes me wish I would never have lost it. (Just listen to Felicity Jones speak). Of course, there are a variety of British accents, and this may vary, but with my experience with my school teachers, I still have a clear and fond memory of it.

I thought a lot about Italian culture while I was in Italy, and sometimes in relation to Spanish culture. I came across this journalist from Spain, who is a correspondent in Rome for a regional newspaper in the north of Spain. Having spent a lot of years in Rome, he described the differences between the Italians and the Spanish in ways that I agree. Whereas Italy was more gracious and delicate Spain was more brute and passionate. Whereas, Italians are very smart people, in dealing with life, with grace and lightness, the Spaniards make their emotions heavy. The way I think of the two accents, I find that there is a certain musicality, harmony, in Italian speaking, it’s gracious and unpreoccupied, to the point where no one understands one another, but they get on with it, whereas the Spanish say the words and sounds as they are, without thinking of any pronunciation rules; it’s plain and simple. Just listen to Rafael Nadal give an interview in English. While I was in Italy, I realised that there was nowhere in the world where there was so much attention given to art and the culture of art, and the cultivation of these things. In Spain, we’re sort of left to be who we are, and if we’re self-driven, we might actually be heading somewhere.

Ultimately, I think accents are a mixture of the present environment in which we live in and the history of the place, the settlers that arrived and brought their ways of speaking. Eventually, with all the blending of accents over time new ones are formed. For example, in Andalucía, the southern state of Spain, for a long, long time, there were Arabian settlers to the point that most of Spain was Arab, and called Al-Andalus. Beyond the influence on words like almohada (cushion) and ajedrez (chess) and the white-and-blue town architecture, the Andalusian accents have a lot of aspirations that resemble those in Arab.

Staying sensitive

Staying sensitive

I once read an interview with Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, my favourite book. In it she said that studying Architecture in the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, had helped her immensely in structuring and organising her novel. She said that by understanding structures of buildings, of cities, and spaces in general, understanding how people move and feel within these spaces, was critical for making sense of her nonlinear narrative in the book, to get the pieces together. I was already in New York by then, but I hadn’t even looked into my major Metropolitan Studies, and had a vague, undeveloped, side-interest in creative writing. Then, I thought to myself, I’m here in New York. This is the city where things are always happening, we just need to have the sensitivity to catch them, to observe and absorb them. And eventually, with time and encouragement from some of my readers I’ve pursued writing as an activity that has a strange quality of being able to excite me, make me feel more alive.

I think I’ve always been a better writer, like a word-painter, than I have been a storyteller, which has made me lean more towards poetry and poetic prose, which have less emphasis on the story and more on form. So I appreciate having New York to tell me all these stories I can listen to; they are the inspiration I need to get writing. Every person and every thing in New York is alive; it has a history of destruction and reconstruction, of violence, of character, of survival, of hope, of despair, of nonsense. If only we listen to the heartbeat, understand the rhythm, heighten our senses, connect the dots, and delve a little bit in our imaginations, we may be able to tell a story.

One of my favourite movies is last year’s Italian masterpiece The Great Beauty, which suggests this idea that all art is empty at its core. If you have seen The Great Beauty or read V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street, for example, you may be able to know what I’m talking about. But this only is to remind us of the greatness of human beings and his and her feats in history, and what has been left behind to be what and where we are. Of course, over the course of human history, we have also made some mistakes and some haunting, dreadful crimes, as a result of our misconception of the consequences of our actions. And we are still committing some of these same crimes, but we have to stay sensitive and push them back like we have done in the past.

Perhaps New York is just like another city in the world. To talk about one of New York’s most important characters, the homeless, who tell a story of violence, despair, and survival. I was on my way home, walking from Union Square to Broome Street after a funny and stressful time in Palladium. A little off Astor Place, opposite the landmarked and underrated old public library reconverted to a theatre, beneath the scaffolding, I crossed by two homeless people, apparently friends. One of them, looking weak and emotionally worn out, his eyes searching for the cracks on the pavement to leave these streets, confessed to his mate, “You hate me, don’t you?” His mate immediately responded, “What the fuck, man?! Why do you say that? I don’t hate you,” while he moved closer to his friend and pulled out a white rat from his hood, straightened it to make it a more comfortable bed for it, put it back in, and repositioned his dreadlocks.

Those were the only five seconds I could catch, and I continued walking towards home.

From Penn St to Atocha

From Penn St to Atocha

I have only been to Penn Station once, and I think like most, I didn’t enjoy my time there. Despite my family’s excitement to visit the American Niagara Falls at Buffalo, New York, our time spent getting inside the station, irritatingly meandering our way through, purchasing the tickets, waiting for the train in the empty (of directions, labels, comfort) but full of people with bored and long faces, was dreadful. The glimmering energy of excitement revived us when our train finally arrived, and all we could wait for was to see off the city and get to the green, summer landscape. The train, luckily, was old and slow, so at least my mum and I got to enjoy the scenery, while my Dad got more sleeping time, and my brother got irritated when his iPod battery died. Train rides are a beautiful experience, perhaps my favourite form of transport, but New York surely deserves a better Penn Station.

Grand Central is a beauty of a place, most agree on that; the ceiling, the centre clock, the stairs and the view, the movement of the people, the people that stay still but out of the way. They say that the old Penn Station was also a beauty. However, because it was in private hands, the uproar of the aeroplane industry and the public shift towards the plane for the preferred method of transport for travelling to other big cities especially because of the large distances in the US caused a decline in the old Penn Station. It started to be non-productive, especially financially, as it was losing a lot of money, which of course did not interest the owner. The station itself was not able to maintain its standards of efficiency and cleanliness.

Penn Station, Waiting Area

When talks started about demolishing it, there started a movement for historical preservation, but when the time came for real action and support for the movement, the response from the public was pretty poor. And so, the old Penn Station was demolished. However, only after this became a reality, the movement started getting a stronger current, and the wave grew larger and larger until a commission was finally created dedicated to the preservation of buildings of historical and cultural significance to the city of New York. Eventually, this became the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, where I am an intern this semester.

Now, there are talks to renovate Penn Station, which somehow is linked to Madison Square Garden, which has recently been granted a 10-year lease, after which it will need to relocate. Until then there are many plans being proposed to most importantly have a Penn Station worthy of a great city as New York. The daily influx of people in Penn Station has now reached an unprecedented and unsustainable number of people. Therefore, there will be a major restructuring and addition of trains for the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), better functionality for the PATH trains, and even better movement within the station, to make it a more welcoming station, with a new design, with functionality and aesthetics. Perhaps, the new Penn Station could even grab some inspiration from the old Penn Station. The design ideas I have heard though, talk about making it transparent for people who arrive to the station to be able to see the outside already, with a garden rooftop, and recreational areas. However, I wonder this will encourage people to stay inside for too long. Yes, of course, we want to make it pleasant, but if there is limited space, more trains are going to be fit, and recreational areas are to be made, is it going to get too congested? There must be more developments to the idea, but I think there ought to be a balance between making the station a pleasant place, and getting people moving in and out.

Here, I’d like to bring in one of the train stations of my own city, Madrid’s Estación de Atocha. I know it isn’t fair to compare New York’s Penn Station to Madrid’s Atocha because both have different demands to meet. Penn Station has to accommodate a daily influx of over 600,000 passengers, while Atocha was responsible for roughly 25,000 people per day in the first decade of the twentifirst-century. I have nevertheless always had a fond memory of this station because I have always been a romantic of train rides. The Spanish landscape on the Madrid-Málaga trains, the Madrid-Valencia trains, the Madrid-Barcelona trains have always been a joy, kind of a visual soundtrack to my thoughts, to my conversations with my family, with my friends, to our card games. The station of Atocha itself went through a renovation in 1992 (before I was born), so I have experienced it in its current form. Compared to Penn Station it is small, but functions wonderfully, going through security an easy process, and getting to the train, a short walk. If you’re not there for the train, or if you get there early, there is a greenhouse garden, eating areas, shops, a few book vendors, and a sort of pond with armoured catfish, other colourful fish, and turtles like the red-eared sliders and the shiny softshell turtles. Occasionally, commercial tents are also set up for artisanal goods to be sold.

Atocha greenhouse

In the city centre it is expected to be a place with a sense of place, but New York’s Penn Station I believe fails in this aspect. Even with limited space, I believe New York can have another excellent station. It will be a challenge, but they say that’s what New York is made for.  Here are four new plans.

The Old Police Building

The Old Police Building

“240 Centre Street, formerly the New York City Police Headquarters. Built in 1905-1909. Housed the headquarters of the New York City Police Department from 1909-1973. Converted into luxury condominiums in 1988. Now known as the Police Building Apartments.

(Comments section:) Also, NYC landmark.”

– Instagram: moinihalani, 18th October, 2014

I live on Broome Street, between Cleveland Place and Mulberry Street, in NYU’s Broome Street dorm, bang opposite this beauty of a building. This beauty is the view from my study lounge, and quiet the only reason why I spend any time over here. And I spend most of the time looking out of the window anyway. Some say it is in Beaux Arts style and others denominate it “Edwardian Baroque”, others Baroque-revival.

Dome, 240 Centre Street

With the consolidation of the five boroughs of New York in 1898, the cities of New York (Manhattan) and Brooklyn, the counties of Queens and Richmond (Staten Island), and a section of Westchester County annexed to The Bronx, formed the city of Greater New York. The police department needed new headquarters, and this one replaced one on Mulberry Street, where former President Theodore Roosevelt served as commissioner. The building started construction in 1905, and while plans were to finish construction within a year, it went on for five years, due to differences in taste between Mayor McClellan and Commissioner Bingham. With the City Beautiful Movement in the turn of the century, the principle that civilised buildings foster civilised behaviour led the architectural firm Hoppin & Koen to construct this edifice in such a grandiose fashion. It was said that the intention was “to impress both the officer and the prisoner with the majesty of law.” The truth for me is, either walking up Centre Street or walking down Lafayette Street and into Cleveland Place, the view of the dome is perhaps one of the most beautiful sights in New York.

Brooklyn, Bronx, 240 Centre Street

Today, it can be considered part of SoHo, bordering with Chinatown, although at the time of construction it was in the heart of Little Italy. Some realtor websites try to relabel it as part of NoLiTa, but the truth is Little Italy is towards the east of the building, if anything, not the south. The plot of land is oddly shaped, like a pie, by the already existing Broome Street, Centre Street, Grand Street, and Centre Market Place, but the building sits with great elegance. The interiors of the building housed a palatial, marble-clad reception area, a basketball court in what is now a vaulted living room, a pistol range and a gymnasium in the basement, and an observation deck at the top. There was and there still is a garden on the north end of the building, highly unusual for a police building. Soon after its construction, there opened gun shops, cop saloons, and a restaurant called ‘Headquarters’, popular among the higher order policemen. There seems to have even been a tunnel that connected the police headquarters to the restaurant ‘Headquarters’, where they would enjoy a drink during the Prohibition days.

This famous photograph was taken by Berenice Abbott

This famous photograph was taken by Berenice Abbott

The controversial Commissioner Bingham was the head of the Fifth Precinct housed in this building, a notorious racist and profiler, he also fought Tammany Hall and the Black Hand, an Italian gang loosely related to today’s mafia, being the first to infiltrate to convict gang members. Eventually, Mayor McClellan fired the commissioner. On 9th June, 1970, the radical left-wing organisation led by leaders and supporters of the Students for a Democratic Society, Weather Underground, otherwise known as the Weathermen, that once declared war on the government, planted 10 sticks of dynamite at these police headquarters, in response to “police oppression”. They also conducted a series of bombings for property destruction (that didn’t intend to harm anyone, although three members died in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion), “in protest of the invasion of Laos”, “in retaliation of the US bombing raid in Hanoi”, and “in response to the escalation in Vietnam”.

Entrance, 240 Centre Street

After three years, the Fifth Precinct shifted to One Police Plaza, just behind the Municipal Building – I find it amusing that the past police headquarters is opposite my dorm, and the current one just behind my workplace – and the now Old Police Building sat idle for a decade till City considered different options for its new use. After being proposed as a luxury hotel, it wasn’t able to find funding and the idea was dropped off. Finally, in 1983 the City accepted it to be reused and interiorly renovated to house fifty-five luxury condominiums, selling it to developer Arthur Emil who paid the City $4,200,000 and spent $20,000,000 on renovating it. While the entrance hall was preserved and restored, the rest was completely renovated for residential use. With the City’s 1980s planning phase, it was discovered that the building exceeded its lot size by several feet, which was a problem because the Department of Buildings would not allow its sale until the building fit the city plans, while as a landmarked building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would never allow the building to be even touched on the exterior. Ultimately, the City decided to grandfather the building as it is. The apartments are said to have been owned, at least at some point, by celebrities such as Leonardo di Caprio, Steffi Graf, Calvin Klein, Winona Ryder, or Cindy Crawford. Personally, I would have liked that such a majestic building be open for public use, perhaps as a library, school, or museum, but I’ll have to be content with this view.

Old Police HQ, Garden

On a side and final note, NYU’s Broome Street dorm used to be the annex to the police station, serving as the “Police Training College”, the “Police Academy”, and the “Police College”. It also housed the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a branch of the police laboratories. One of the guards at the dorm tells us that they even stored cocaine and other drugs that were caught with the prisoners.

Old Police HQ, view from Cleveland Pl

The Little Balcony and the Garden Terrace

The Little Balcony and the Garden Terrace

The little balcony faced and oversaw, with steps leading down to the patio, the vegetable garden and the fruit orchard, the home of the tortoises and the playground of the cat and the dog. It was the place where I had learnt most of my Italian I’d say. Perhaps not in quantity, grammar, spelling, or any of the formal structures of the Italian language, but rather the intuition I acquired with my conversations with my homestay mum. Every night after dinner, she would take a cigarette and we would protect ourselves from the zanzare (mosquitoes) wearing hoodies, and talking about anything from football to wine to IKEA to America, NYU, Villa La Pietra, Italians, Florence, and Rome, while she smoked and I craved, but too scared of heart diseases, limited myself to the scent of tobacco. Her orchard, garden, tortoise pond, pet playground was a gracefully funny place, especially when our endearing neighbours, an old, old Italian couple, graced our conversations with their loud, crazy, open-hearted arguments about why the old wife moved the husband’s towel from the chair to the bathroom bar. But it’s okay, we laugh it off the next day, and we see them take walks together, with youthful smiles and happy wrinkles, arms locked in to each others.

I have very pleasant memories of that balcony and that terrace. If you were able to battle the mosquitoes, that is. But it used to be the place for the private conversations in the open air, to talk to my homestay mum C., to guests, to neighbours, on phones, to Skypers, to diaries, in the company of the tortoises, those peaceful, wise, old, slow, Zen-like animals that witnessed a foreign cat entering the property and the domestic one fighting it away, shaking off her habitual laziness to protect her playground, and C’s lemons, cherries, tomatoes, plums, carrots, and peppers.

While thinking about this private balcony and terrace with the garden, I am also thinking of all the other balconies I have gone out to. In the places I’ve travelled to in Europe, it isn’t uncommon to have balconies with formidable views of Paris, Lisbon, or San Sebastian. As parts of flats, they are the extension from the interior to the exterior; a platform where one can feel like one is floating with a cup of coffee or tea in hand, in company of a loved one, and the sound of the city’s yawn, it’s awakening, or its lull, while the lights go down, and dreams paint the streets in the dark.

My dad has also taken us on some cruise ship vacations, in which I got to share a room with Mediterrean balcony views with my little brother, and Scandinavian balcony views with my grandma and brother. In my Mediterranean trip, I managed to share relatively calm moments with my little brother, which was a complicated thing at the ages of nine and fourteen, and was even able to read a book to my surprise, as I am still a very slow reader. The waters were happy and calm, sunny, with the light always reflecting on its surface. In our second trip, to Scandinavia, the waters were tranquil, silky, with fewer currents moving the water other than the movement of the cruise ship. One of the most incredible sights I have ever experienced was from our balcony at five a.m., when we were arriving Gothenburg, in Sweden. The waters looked like an extremely clean and shiny grey, like a slightly dark sheet of chrome. The stillness of the water had the power to paralyse and to silence, and there was a pin-drop silence, at five a.m., when everyone was in their balconies. I remembered that my uncle always tells me, “Be water, my friend”, but I think he’s stealing the line from someone famous. He always does that.

Then there are those public terraces, those that are usually opened in the summer at cafés and restaurants, and are an essential part of the piazza in Italy, or the plaza in Spain, and all its variations around the world, extending to the sidewalks of New York, a more delicate matter. In my city, Madrid, in the less touristic months, Plaza Mayor is one of the best examples of some good terraces. Although the quality of the food isn’t top-notch, the company of loved ones and sangria make up for some lovely times.


The city is also home

The city is also home

I have never lived in a suburb, let alone an American suburb, so I don’t have a point of reference of my own to explore my thoughts and feelings on the way of living in suburbs. However, the points of reference I do have are films I liked such as The Truman Show, Revolutionary Road, and American Beauty, novels set in suburbs, and books (or chapters) such as Hunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere”. My impressions are of an agonising monotony, a mass standardisation of things, a characterlessness of place, and a painful distance between ourselves. Of course, I am aware that my view is extremely one-sided and lacking of experience, but I have been looking for good arguments in defence of suburbia, but I have found none. I’d be glad to listen to some though.

My last post left me thinking of the movement starting from the 1980s in urban design called New Urbanism. Some critics, like Alex Marshall, an independent journalist, whose critiques resonate with others’, claim that New Urbanism is a marketing campaign for repackaging the suburban sprawl with an idealised view of old, small towns of the 1920s, while still keeping the desired parts of urban life, such as walkability. In general terms, I agree in many ways with the concepts of New Urbanism, and see a lot of value in the growing importance of sustainability, public transportation, historic preservation, and aesthetics as a productive value and not just a luxury. However, I see a slight resemblance to suburbia (perhaps because it sounds too good), which may or may not realise itself in its journey from theory to practice.

Perhaps this is just a broader cultural issue as some people argue, but one of the things I have realised about suburban design is that its concepts revolve around consumption, like each design decision is made in relation to the practices of consumption, primarily of cars, and not so much in relation to the experience of being in a place, which is what we do. We be, or we are in a certain place, which needs to be designed to allow for a positive experience. Independently of whether or not people are willing to take the car, I believe that for the sake of caring for our environment, we shouldn’t be encouraged to take it by forcing us to travel long distances, by providing redundant and large parking lots, building garages in the front side of houses, or building small sidewalks and large pavements.

As an intern at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission this semester, and especially after having spent my last year in Italy, I cling on to the concept of historic preservation for the forging of character and identity in urban spaces and small towns. Urban design should rely on what is already there, with more context-appropriate architecture that could avoid the haunting monotony of a line of houses, an unnatural lack of diversity.

As a European city kid, I grew up far from the city centre, but still in a neighbourhood that had a distinct character, surrounded by bridges and squares and parks and important landmarks of the city. Now I live in an area that was supposed to be developed with many new homes, but when the housing bubble burst in Spain, they were halted. As a result, my area feels a little detached from the city, even though most of the things we need are within walking distance. Most of my Spanish friends live a lot closer to the city centre, and I have always felt the desire to live in places like they do, places that have a lot more character, a lot more history. Even if the houses are smaller, we only really need a certain amount of space. What really matters is whether we are able to build a home both within our house or flat, and our city or town.

Are we into New Urbanism?

Are we into New Urbanism?

Before I start, I think it is necessary to say that I hope to be an urban planner for at least part of my professional life. With this engrained in who I am and therefore my perspective, how I think and write related to urban issues at least, I really enjoyed the conversation that was strung together between Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and to a lesser extent, Robert Moses, in our readings for this weekend on Utopias. Each one of these people was of an extreme significance to the urban landscape, in practical terms and in ways of thinking of urbanism.

Jane Jacobs provided, above all, a fresh perspective to the idea of safety in cities. Although there were some evident potholes in her arguments, her idea of “eyes on the street” holds tremendous value in the reshaping of urbanist thought. Lewis Mumford is to me the thinker that develops the most coherent arguments, taking into account the issue of affordable housing, aesthetics, safety, wellbeing, and drawing from urbanisms of different places. Robert Moses, on the other hand, despite his many accomplishments for New York, is constantly portrayed as a character that liked to play God, if I may say so, taking the top-down approach to planning. As a person who gets excited with just the idea of planning things in general and planning cities in particular, I understand the instinct to think of things in this top-down approach, thinking of the ‘greater common good’ (highways cutting through neighbourhoods, housing projects of low aesthetic and design standards managed by for-profit, tax-exempt insurance companies), because they provide quick solutions and makes us look good. But I have also come to understand that when we do this, we lose sight of the details, of the small things, which cannot be given up as sacrifice. I believe that the answers usually lie in the world between the small and the big things, where these two are in balance.

Sadly, I sense in Robert Moses a disdain for aesthetics, or at least for a pleasing aesthetic for one that is hyper-modernist, too rapid for substance; excluding aesthetics from the values that make up cities in the name of more ‘practical’ decisions that will provide ‘solutions’. The way I see it, cities are constantly being reshaped, contested, while new problems arrive and constant improvements have to be made, to adapt, with the participation of citizens. There are no absolute solutions. Building highways through the city was an attempt to provide a solution to the slow commute to the city, but it would have created an even larger problem: one of a ‘deathification’ of the city, as Jacobs might describe it.

There is a movement of urban thought and design called New Urbanism that arose in the 1980s, that centres around the concepts of walkability, the use of public transport, environmental responsibility, sustainability, smart growth, historic preservation, regional planning, and context-appropriate architecture and planning. All these concepts point more in Jacobs’s and Mumford’s direction than Moses’s, with the recognition of aesthetics, ecology, and the small scale as powerful forces in building and designing successful, liveable cities. Although there are many values that I share with New Urbanism, I sometimes miss more of an urban character in it.

Personally, one of the things I love about New York is that I’ve never had the slightest urge for the use of private transportation, despite the fact that the city is massive. In Europe, I’ve heard of a lot of efforts to encourage public transportation, my city, Madrid, being particularly headstrong in this matter. My internship this semester is at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which represents one of the values of New Urbanism, and to me more personally my own values for my ideal city.

On the scent of friendship

On the scent of friendship

I turned nineteen two years ago, on the second day of the year. It felt like a lazy morning after a lazier New Year’s Day, but as the day went on, the company of my family made it very pleasant. In the evening I met a few of my closest friends for a small dinner. We met near calle de Colombia in Madrid, where we usually meet, and talked until the last one arrived. My friend then told me to turn around and used her scarf to blindfold me, while she told me that we were going to take a walk around the zoo. I could smell something in her scarf, something warm and comforting, the affection of a dear friend.

While two of my friends guided me through this zoo, I could only think about where we really were, and where we were heading. To me it was like a game, tracing myself on different paths, and trying to imagine my surroundings. With my eyesight inactive, my other senses were heightened and I tried to pay attention to my sense of smell and hearing. I don’t know whether it was my intuition, but I anticipated a feeling of the company of friendship, of comfort, and so I guessed that we were meeting near my school, but it was finally a small surprise party at a friend’s house. At that moment I thought that although we weren’t at school, my guess wasn’t too far off, as a lot of what makes a place is the people who are attached to one’s memory of it.

School was a place where I learned a lot, but was also a place where I forged many friendships, and there is a similar smell, taste, and sound in the air and dust that surrounds our coming together again.

Some short notes on:


I spend a lot of my time playing around with Google Maps, GIS maps, MAS maps, physical maps, and all other different kinds of maps, looking for new restaurants, plotting public schools, green spaces, designated historic landmarks, predicted developments, etc., which are very interesting to me, but maps also make me feel secure because I am able to find myself, when I am lost in confusion. I understand that it’s okay to not know where you are at times, especially because you know you’re going to find yourself at some point.

The navigation system

Whenever my dad doesn’t need to use the navigation system in our family car to move around the city, I set the map settings to orient it according to the fixed compass directions, zoomed out, without letting it rotate to indicate natural relative position, because I enjoy watching the car’s trail around the city on the map.

Losing oneself in Madrid

Losing myself in Madrid is a hobby of mine, a weekly activity that I enjoy as much as anything. There are parts of Madrid that are short, winding roads, the small-town ambience of the backstreets, beautiful and authentic paths that meet each other with a kiss on each cheek. Like a Spanish greeting, hasta lueguito, amigos.

Mercer or Wooster?

Mercer or Wooster?

In the last few months I have had plenty of opportunities to explain my city to friends who come to visit or who are going to study away in Madrid. And of course, I take out my map of the city, and with my fingers I start tracing my steps through the streets of the city. I find myself projecting myself and my choices onto their introduction to the city. I find myself suggesting to my friends to get to take an hour-and-a-half walk from Moncloa to Paseo del Prado, through calle de la Princesa, Plaza España, Gran Vía, Alcalá, and Retiro, encouraging them to get lost and find themselves again on the way. This long but straight (for the most part) walk, would probably take at least three or four hours in proper Spanish manner. A cup of coffee here, an ice-cream cone there, some reading over here, some day-dreaming over there. This personalised path includes parks, palaces, and museums, whole districts and landmarks. From my experience in European cities like Madrid and Rome, in which I find very pleasing similarities, landmarks are usually unavoidable in our meandering through the city.

Jardines del Buen Retiro de Madrid

In Madrid, this never troubled me as much because I felt like these landmarks belonged to me. In Rome, however, I wished they did, I craved an intimacy with them, but having to share them with all the other tourists made discomforted me because I was trying so hard not to be one. And they still kept popping up in my face wherever I walked in the centre, until I escaped. In New York, on the other hand, I find that was I to experience this problem, there is an easy solution. The reason for this I think is the grid structure of Manhattan.

When the days were warmer (and before I discovered the free bus ride to campus from where I live), I would walk to campus from Broome St. After a few days, I realised that by all means I had to avoid Broadway for the sake of a good morning walk. I used to briefly cut through Broadway on Spring St until I got to Mercer St, which I would take until I got to NYU. On the way back, I would take Wooster St instead because of the art galleries that inhabit the street and because of the Momofuku Milk Bar that make mouth-watering cornflakes-marshmallow-chocolate chip cookies.

Mercer Street, SoHo

I don’t know whether it’s because of the long zebra-crossing or because of my own preconceptions, but I always imagine a banner on Mercer St and Houston reading “NYU” (with Coles and Think Coffee lying ahead) which really is just the entry to Greenwich Village. The aesthetic differences northward and southward, the latter more industrial SoHo, of Mercer St and Houston, marks this edge in my mental map of New York. Whenever I go into the Think Coffee on Mercer St, I wonder whether the people unrelated to NYU present at the coffee shop want to be surrounded by college students, or whether it’s not that obvious to them. Perhaps we students do blend in the city well enough.

During my first semester of freshman year, I got to go to the Casa Italiana for my Intensive Elementary Italian, and while walking down Fifth Avenue, I got to see for five days a week a Greenwich Village that was less and less NYU with every step further away from Washinton Square Park. It made me think of NYU as a pocket inside Greenwich Village, overflowing with students and university-related people, while outside the pocket there was a continuation but a lot less dense, without the need for an extra patch to fit more people.


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