Sustaining a City’s Culture and Character now available for pre-order

This book will complete the trilogy that began with Urbanism Without Effort and Seeing the Better City. For those who seek an urbanism of distinctiveness to enhance city livability, rather than a bland, generic uniformity, the book examines on a global basis how the many interrelated facets of an urban area’s unique, yet dynamic context—built, cultural and intangible—can be championed and advanced, rather than simply borrowed from another place.  Pre-order at Rowman and Littlefield here or at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

seeing the better city extracts

The past several months have been full of appearances, articles and podcasts in multiple venues, ranging from Seattle, Washington D.C. and Cleveland, to Stockholm, nine Australian cities, four Portuguese cities, London (where I am now based), and more.

Most of these items are chronicled at companion sites and featured publications.  See the compilations at the Seeing the Better City and Seeing Better Cities websites.

See also, related articles and award nominations, including:

“A view of Seattle from the outside looking in,” Crosscut, August 6, 2018, here.

“Thinkers in the Tropical Shade: Empowering Lessons for Livable Places,” with Silvia Tavares and David Sellars, Planetizen, June 28, 2018, here.

Marc Furnival’s summary of Seeing the Better City, on page 28 of the Urban Design Group’s award booklet for the United Kingdom National Urban Design Award Finalists, presented in London on March 7, 2018.

“Forget ‘Smart’–We Need ‘Context Cities’,” Planetizen, December 17, 2017, here.

should the ‘creative class’ be more rural in the developing world?

Rural Africa, ripe for city skills, without cities

Microfinance—the practice of personal small loans to spur creativity in developing nations—had well-known rural roots. Of late, I had assumed that the practice had become a city-based endeavor, in concert with other programs, targeting the world’s burgeoning urban populations.

Time in Africa earlier in the year did not change that perception.

However, after following up with community economic development friends back home, I learned that fostering a rural middle class should spur reflection among those passionate about cities. Sometimes, finding a way to keep a meaningful rural existence trumps city life.

According to Cole Hoover, Director of Programs for Seattle’s Lumana, whose work focuses in rural Ghana:

Although there is an amazing potential for growth and innovation in cities and urban areas in Africa, I think it is important to recognize that it’s not for everyone. Many people do not have the resources or connections to migrate to cities and some, quite frankly, even when possible, do not want to do so.

Lumana is a small, Seattle-based organization founded by young, multi-national entrepreneurs. In Ghana, Lumana helps people reach their personal and financial goals through microfinance, business education, planning for savings and local mentorship. Lumana also employs four Ghanaians who work in rural areas, out of choice and for connection with their communities.

According to Hoover, these Ghanaians have affinity for their home villages, fellow residents and a slower pace of life. In addition, they take pride in helping to lead operations that can make rural areas more livable.

Hoover’s observations confirm Lumana’s rural-based initiatives:

There is an amazing amount of people who appreciate their traditional way of life and the slower pace that rural life allows. We initially got involved working in rural Africa because its people are some of the most underserved in the world. It is our goal to use our programs to do community economic development that increases opportunities for rural people and makes it easier for them to thrive in the villages they choose to call home.

Lumana's Cole Hoover, in Seattle

Today, microfinance work focuses on cities more often than not, leaving a huge amount of underserved populations in rural Africa, said Samantha Rayner, Executive Director of Lumana. Rural areas experience poverty based on disconnection from services and resources.

“Poverty does not just mean having no money,” Rayner explained. “It means having no opportunities”.

Hoover told the story of “Anna” from the village of Dzita.  “Anna” was a case study of Lumana’s accomplishments since 2010, helping rural Africans get limited available resources, including access to basic services, such as health care, drinking water, education and a consistent income.

It was in rural Dzita, not a large city like Accra, that Lumana also helped villagers understand how to make their businesses more profitable and to prepare for unforeseen emergencies by creating specific savings plans for education, future businesses and emergencies.

In addition, in a three-day class, villagers typically learn to better understand supply chains, small and medium-sized businesses and how they influence and affect the total economies of the rural communities.

“Rural Africa is an amazingly beautiful place,” explained Hoover. “You see and feel it in the bright-colored clothing, laid back way of life and support of a close-knit community of hardworking and collectively minded people”

I queried Hoover on the fundamental precepts of urban poverty, something I saw firsthand in several instances overseas, and considered in recent writing about Gary Hustwit’s film, “Urbanized”.

Hoover acknowledged the shared burden of urban and rural poverty. But he cautioned that for many people in Africa, moving to the big city is not the goal:

Rural areas still have many endearing aspects that people are sad to lose when forced to move on when faced with a lack of opportunity. Rural Africans are some of the most amazingly resourceful people on earth. They live with a little, and do a lot. Despite the constant poverty many experience on a daily basis, they learn to get by, supporting themselves and those who they love.

Rayner elaborated on the limits facing older generations in rural areas:

They have been around and have deep roots in these communities, including families, established businesses and homes. However, many times, they struggle to make ends meet, because of the lack of opportunities. We try to help by addressing their limits on accessing capital and teaching better ways to save and make good business decisions with the money they earn. With many of these people, their life is in the rural villages, so we want to help make it easier for them to thrive there.

Based on Lumana’s learning about generational views of the city, the children often do not want to leave their villages. Both Hoover and Raynor contrasted American assumptions about their own “Gen Y”—often labeled as an increasingly urban-oriented cohort.

Rural communities appeal to younger Africans, at a fundamental level, said Rayner:

Many young people are not rushing to the cities because they want to, but because it is their only option. A growing number of young Africans are flooding the big cities in search of jobs, leaving behind a better quality of life at home. Many are there to advance their career, go to university or to make increased amounts of money with opportunities only available in the city so they can remit money back home to their families living in the rural areas.

Based on Lumana’s three years of work in Ghana, young people who move to urban areas often do not get better jobs, a university education or more income for their families back home. Rather, many end up living in worse conditions than circumstances they left, in areas far away from those they hoped to help.

Ironically, concluded Hoover, “many are looking for ways to advance their careers, become educated and then return to the rural communities they love best.”

Sitting with Lumana representatives back home in Seattle, I could only wonder whether recent emphasis on cities risks losing sight of universal principles, easily forgotten in an all too competitive world.

Hoover and Rayner referred me to their lead Ghanaian loan officer, Eric Fiazorli, who spoke of helping the rural poor, his family and community. His closing words need no elaboration:

Working in my community is important and I want to find ways with my life to change the rural places I love so much. I want the future to be better for my family to grow up here.

For more about Lumana, click here, or see this recent video from Seattle’s PBS affiliate:

All photographs composed by the author. The KCTS-9 video is in the public domain.

Obama and the Middle East, urban sustainability and detente

Could sustainability principles pave the path to peace?

President Obama’s strategic statements about the Middle East last Thursday (and as clarified to AIPAC on Sunday) were not city-specific, but took me back one year to Jerusalem and in-person perspectives on the city’s prospects.

My 2010 reflections, reproduced below, capture individuals still in the news, and the issues of today’s urbanism, boundaries and ecosystems in Jerusalem—considerations well worth heeding in response to the President’s focus on borders, and his call to embrace the choice “between the shackles of the past and the promises of the future.”

In Jerusalem, a municipal administration rides a pendulum between sustainability and geopolitics.

Greenbelts, light rail, complete street-making, and the storied demolition orders for Palestinian homes in a floodway: all live on a world stage.

Last week, addressing Pacific Northwest professionals visiting with Seattle-based i-SUSTAIN, Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur prescribed the ultimate sustainable urbanism, drawing from a Hebrew phrase. Jerusalem must “emerge from its [many] walls,” old and new, she argued, and enhance the city’s diverse, public areas largely already shared by all.

The Jerusalem of gathering spaces and neighborhoods is already present, she claimed, and should no longer grow out in rings of settlements, but should preserve compact neighborhoods based on affinity, interlinked by public transit and defining connectors such as the Jaffa Road and the Street of the Prophets.

The tools? Public process, for one, even in areas annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War, to help define a collective local voice.

Her systemic analysis of the city is familiar and compelling, as she simultaneously seeks to avoid a Nicosia outcome (a reference to the divided Cyprus to the northwest). Arguably, she is peacemaking on a platform of the sustainable city.

For instance, Tsur thinks at night about the infrastructure lacking in East Jerusalem, and how the city should rise above the intractable and remedy untreated eastern watershed drainage, which flows directly to the Dead Sea. It would be feasible, she says, to pump this sewage to the state-of-the-art treatment plant that already treats the western watershed sewage, and create drinking water through sustainable technology.

Meanwhile, in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan, along the Kidron Valley, just below the City of David and Hezekiah’s water tunnel, Fakhri Abu Diab thinks at night about other things — like what to tell his children about the potential fate of the family house which still “carries the smell of his mother.” As recently reported by The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner, the Abu Diab house was one of several that received a demolition order, because it was expanded without a permit and is the potential location of an archaeological park at the base of excavations already mired in the complexities of political archeology — a search not only to document biblical events, but seen by detractors as a Jewish land-claim process in disguise.

In Abu Diab’s view, the post-1967 municipality has ignored him before, and he lacks confidence in the proposed relocation offer, which is under negotiation for a move to higher ground.

Walls, sleepless nights, conflict, water, and a future for children. The human condition speaks loudly in this most urban of cities, as the debate over the future of Jerusalem brings a reality-television aura to local land-use administration.

The original article also appeared in Crosscut, here.

streets in plain view from a distance

A new trend features photographers’ translations of Google Street View scenes—accompanied by remarkable creative messaging—often topical to urban issues.

One such effort, Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture, focuses on challenged American cities such as Camden and Detroit, and displays a world remarkably opposite the technology used to depict his presented scenes. Click here to see his groundbreaking work.

Similarly, words are not always necessary to describe how public rights of way are used around the world, and travel is not a prerequisite of viewing the interaction of foot, wheel and pavement.

Here, without more words, are portrayals of a Sunday morning visit to Japan, Mexico, Brazil and Finland, with both familiar and novel interactions in plain view.

Credit the wonders of Google for these street-oriented images, and Mr. Rickard for inspiring the myurbanist use of camera and software to enhance such virtual visits from afar.