Urbanization Fosters Democracy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 6, 2014 by urbanphile

Two news stories serve to remind us of the positive potential of urbanization. Both stories are in countries not known as beacons of democracy. For the first time in a long time women in Afghanistan are able to vote in their elections. It is unprecedented because during the Taliban era this was unthinkable. The news reports indicate that women are braving the voting stations in the cities of the war-torn nation. In a country women are too often treated like property, this progressive event could only happen in cities. Social change happens in places where news ideas are generated and there are enough people to adopt and spread these new ideas. Cities are such places.

The other story comes out of China. Thousands of Christians have come together to help save a church building in Wenzhou (a city with a long Christian heritage). It seems a local politician decided to tear down this church building, but with no legal grounding to do so. These Christians organized a peaceful protest by staying on the church grounds around the clock to prevent its destruction. In a fractured and disconnected society politicians can rule without regard for individual rights or justice. But in a city, people have opportunities to stand up to such blatant injustice. There is an empowering effect that comes with urbanization. Thousands of Chinese Christians have mounted an extraordinary, round-the-clock defence of a church in a city known as the 'Jerusalem of the East'

The democratizing effect of urbanization is not a new phenomenon. History tells of many dictators who have been overthrown by the groundswell of empowered urban dwellers. The EDSA Revolution in Manila, Philippines effectively took down the Marcos regime. The Arab Spring a few years ago was a testimony to the strength of urban numbers. Although urbanization brings many difficulties and can facilitate exploitation, it also becomes a powerful force against government and political abuses all over the world.

Poverty and Segregation

Posted in gentrification, the poor, urban density, urban poverty, urban transformation with tags , , , on March 27, 2014 by urbanphile

The Atlantic ran an article by Richard Florida on American cities and the geography of poverty. Florida draws on the findings of a report by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon. I think this is an important topic to consider, because the ways we design, legislate, and administrate our cities depends on clear thinking about this issue. A lack of clear thinking about this can lead to superficial legislation that does not aid the urban poor. Here are a few thoughts on the report and the conclusions we might draw from it.

First, don’t be thrown off by the word “segregation”. In the aftermath of racial segregation, this word might conjure up images of forced separation of the rich and the poor. By and large the poor live in places they can afford to live. Wealthy communities remain wealthy communities because the poor cannot afford to live there. In this report “segregation” is used to denote geographical separation regardless of the causes.

The geography of poverty matters. As the report by Bischoff and Reardon states, there enough studies that show causal links between poor neighborhoods and human impact to cause us to pay attention. We, middle-class Americans, have a tendency to think very individualistically about wealth accumulation. Quite often it is because family and neighborhood factors were so stable and supportive that we didn’t notice the boost it gave us. Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods aren’t just poor, but they don’t have the same quality of education, public libraries, police protection, and even public maintenance. The less tangible consequence of hailing from a blighted neighborhood is the stigma one carries with them. It can impact education, employment, bank loans, and even social interaction. In other words, ares of concentrated poverty should draw our attention and concern.

Not all concentrated poverty is equal. There are some advantages to living in a poor neighborhood for some people. If they are recently resettled refugees then they need access to their own community for language, culture, and even job needs. It is easier for children of immigrants to be near other children of immigrants rather than in a less multicultural suburb. There are also proximity needs. If people don’t have access to private transportation, then they need access to public transportation or walkability. People live where they do for complex reasons.

It was suggested in Richard Florida’s post that there is significance in the fact that poverty is more segregated in higher density cities. A lot of other factors need to be considered to interpret this observation. High density exists for a reason. It tends to be the older cities (northeast and midwest) that are most dense. This makes sense because they are the oldest cities and grew at a time before the automobile became the default mode of transportation in American cities. High density usually means high demand for property which also means high cost. As much as we lament some of the impact of gentrification, it is not something we can just stop. The poor in more population dense contexts are more often renters, which means they subject to less sought after locations. Newer cities are less dense and less economically segregated…so far. I wonder if this will begin to change over time. I also wonder if the suburbanization of poverty is going to flip some of the findings of this study. The primary census data they are using is from 1970-2000. Could it be that changes over the 14 years are changing some of those findings? Does a history land ownership impact the results of the study?

The report does still serve to call attention to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and our response. There have been efforts in the past to tear up the socioeconomic pavement and try to create mixed class neighborhoods. This has been challenging, tedious, and has yielded few good reports. And our answer can’t be simply to pump in middle class families into a poor neighborhood. It runs the risk of gentrifying a neighborhood and making it inhospitable for poorer families. Robert Lupton urges us to consider a small number of people who enter a neighborhood to seek its welfare. It is a slow way to bring change to neighborhood, but it is a proven way.

Urban Parks are the Best

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 28, 2014 by urbanphile

Just one block from where I’m staying in Taipei is urban park. It is the 228 Peace Memorial Park. On a whim I walked over there after getting some coffee. The park was buzzing with activity. people were walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing, and even practicing martial arts. There were the elderly intermingled with young children. Today there was a wedding going in part of the park. And not too far away there was an orchestra playing music for all to enjoy. It was not a big park, maybe six or eight city blocks, but it is green space in the midst of urban density and it is a public space for everyone: rich or poor, young or old, local or visitor.

I have been to my fair share of suburban parks. I get depressed going to them. They lack life unless there is a baseball game going on. They feel like a waste of tax dollars and a good lawnmower. They sprawl endlessly and generally feel neglected (even if it is maintained).

The little urban park in Taipei isn’t unique among urban parks. It is a natural phenomenon when these small public spaces are carved out of urban density. They are an open space for people to gather. They attract all of the diversity of the city to entertain in the city’s living room. Urban parks become one of life’s little joys that add to a thriving city life.

Gentrification is not a Topic to Ignore

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 22, 2014 by urbanphile

“I don’t want to mention the ‘g’ word.” The “g” word she was referencing was “gentrification.”  I heard one of the presenters at a recent seminar on the topic of “urban placemaking” say this as she told of her work in niche urban development. She was salvaging heritage buildings by turning them into beautiful houses and weaving the residents into a real neighborhood. Her presentation was combined with two other presentations. One was from an entrepreneur who has started niche artisan cafes and bakeries in the midst of high-rise concrete apartment blocks. The third presentation was from erudite architect who gave compelling reasons to design buildings inside and out that is both aesthetically pleasing and highly usable by people. Each presenter was passionate about making better cities and the relationship between physical space (and built environment) and the flourishing of urban Imagedwellers.

But my ears registered a disturbance in the force when I heard the desire to avoid the “g” word. It struck me that while all three presenters aim to beautify the city, their plans were primarily for those wealthy enough to use disposable income for such beauty. Each of them presented ideas that would raise the image of the neighborhood and attract the middle and upper class. One of the presentations quite clearly portrayed urban renewal in a community that was famously blighted by bringing back to the city home owners through highly appealing urban home designs. This is precisely what gentrification is. It is the arrival of middle and upper class land owners in older, run-down communities. Gentrification hotly debated in cities all around the world and for good reason. It is not as simple as making old neighborhoods newer and shinier. The changes in the community impact the old residents of the community, sometimes forcing them out to other locations.

Returning to the seminar I attended. I asked the presenters about possible solutions for placemaking for the urban poor. This is an important consideration since two out of seven people in the world are considered the urban poor. I was hopeful that these creative and inspiring presenters would regale me with wonderful ideas for make urban places better for those without access to plump bank accounts. Their responses were thoroughly uninspiring. One of the presenters even mentioned a soup kitchen for the poor. It was telling to me that the presenters seemed to consider good places and well-designed structures only relevant for the haves. And for the have-nots, we will just make sure they have a bit of food for a day. This is the danger of not taking an honest assessment of gentrification and its impact on all of the people in the community.

There is a brand new book that wrestles with this very important topic of gentrification: Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting. The contributors bring the experience of those seeking the good of their cities as well as nuanced thinking about a complex issue. The book is available as a paperback or an e-book. Check it out.

Income Inequality

Posted in Uncategorized on January 9, 2014 by urbanphile

The Atlantic posted on article that seeks to demythologize the causes of income inequality. The article made this claim:

Don’t mind the rich-poor gap. Statistical analysis shows three factors—overall income growth, marriages, and local government spending—matter most for poorer children chasing the American Dream. 

But this is actually a deceptive way of looking at things. Income inequality is far more complex than these three factors. And even further reflection into these three factors reveals that a superficial fix is not the answer.

The rich-poor gap is not simply a matter of some individuals being rich while other are poor. It is directly related to the structures (both formal and informal) that benefit large corporations and spending that does not lead to local government spending. Local government spending relies on local tax dollars. Many big box stores and other large companies prefer to develop on unincorporated land further where tax rates are lower. Of course the tax rates are lower because it was often rural farmland. When this happens it draws tax dollars away from local communities where more people live. In other words, if we want local government spending, then we need to support businesses that pay taxes in our communities.

Urbanized: A Documentary Film

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 13, 2013 by urbanphile


Check out this well-made documentary featuring the impact of urbanization.

Urban Density is Necessary, part 2

Posted in cities, Uncategorized, urban density, urbanization with tags , , , , on November 23, 2013 by urbanphile

(This is a follow-up post responding to Joel Kotkin’s article on urban density. You can read the first post here.)

At the core of what makes a city a city is relative density. Imagine if we took the world’s population and evenly spaced each person out on their plot of land. What would we end up with? We would have a lack of farm land. No centralized places of trade or commerce. People would be living in flood plains and rocky crags. We would be left with an uninteresting society. And, there wouldn’t be cities. This is why people have chosen proximity and built cities. Even the psalmist in the Bible said that Jerusalem was built as a city ought to be built, closely compact (Psalm 122:3).

As a clarification, density is not the same thing as overcrowding. Preferring urban density isn’t a matter of trying squash as much humanity per square foot as inhumanly possible. Joel Kotkin’s article refers to places where overcrowding is undermining the human experience (here is an intense photo collection of Hong Kong’s overcrowdingImage). Urban density is for the sake of the common good, but when it becomes overcrowding it detracts from the common good. Also, urban density doesn’t mean that everyone is cooped up in 30-story high-rises. Brooklyn, London, Paris, and Istanbul manage high density without skyscrapers in every direction.

Density is Good for the City’s Economy

If I am opening a new shop, I want to put it in a place there are a lot of people. Jane Jacobs tells us cities have always been centers of trade and commerce. Commerce only works when there is enough density to make it work. The market is an urban phenomenon and thrives when there is enough critical mass for ongoing profit. Without urban density, we would still be doing our shopping when a trade caravan travels past our dwelling. Moreover, density allows us the opportunity for variation in our economic offerings. Niche markets have a better chance of thriving in relatively dense cities.

Density is Ecologically Friendly

I live in a medium-high density neighborhood. We have no houses here. Our whole neighborhood is composed of apartments, townhouses, offices, and shops. This is ecological advantage in three ways: reduced infrastructure, walkability, and public transportation. First, if we took the 60,000 people who live here and put everyone in stand-alone houses, we would need more construction materials, roads, pipes, electrical lines, and more. All of this chews up more of the earth’s resources and occupies more land that could be used for agriculture. Second, because our neighborhood is dense, I can walk anywhere in the community. I can walk to a restaurant, grocery store, or to friend’s apartment who lives on the other side of the neighborhood. This helps reduce carbon emissions and gas. Third, public transportation is much more efficient and usable when neighborhoods are built with density in mind. We live an easy 15 minute walk from the light rail train station and 2 minutes from a bus stop. Many American cities struggle to implement public transportation precisely because of a lack of urban density. For middle-class car owners, this is no big deal, but for the urban poor this is a huge issue. Matt Hern illustrates the ecological advantage of densely built cities: “New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.” By living in close proximity we are being good stewards of the resources with which we have been blessed.

Density Can Provide Security

Since the beginning of history people have come to cities to escape threat of bandits and marauders. High city walls in the old days and police and security forces today are all urban characteristics. More densely settled populations can pool their resources to set up informal and formal security systems. It is the collective density of cities that generated the resources for other security measures. Crime is reduced in neighborhoods where there is more social integration. Neighborhoods are more socially integrated when there is enough density for walkability and shared public spaces. This is not to say that urban density automatically fosters a secure environment, but it is a key ingredient.

Density Fosters Vibrancy and Innovation

Jeb Bruggman in Welcome to the Urban Revolution says that density is one our most important urban advantages. When we live close to each other we are more likely to interact socially and share common concerns related to the neighborhood. This proximity becomes a catalyst for urban vibrancy. Urban vibrancy stems from human activity. The sidewalks are busy with activity, and the public spaces are being used in diverse ways. This happens when the citizens demonstrate involvement in the city and the everyday matters of the city. The best cities in the world—the ones people love to visit—have a vibrancy to them.

By living in close proximity to a lot of other people we have opportunities to rub shoulders with a variety of people with all kinds of ideas. Fashion, music, and technology have all flourished because of urban density. Kotkin said that Silicon Valley is more sprawled and suburban than dense and urban. Many of the big companies have built headquarters there. But many of the initial great ideas were sparked in crowded coffee shops in the SoMa district of San Francisco. The easy and free exchange of ideas spawns innovation and creativity.


I believe the weight of evidence is on the side of urban density, and a recent UN report agrees with me. It is good for individuals, communities, cities, and even the earth. But this is not to say that we should just turn over large tracks of land to corporate developers to make dense cities. The best kind of urban density is developed over time and organically. City leaders and citizens will do well to consider policies that foster urban density without forcing density. Let’s build dense cities that benefit the common good.


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