CITY BREATHS

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Food as an Urban Connector

am sure you know Monocle magazine. Not everyone is aware of the fact that Monocle also does radio. I have been a longtime fan of one of their podcasts in particular: The Urbanist, a weekly show about urban affairs, featuring a diverse range of themes in a fresh tone of voice and with great content.

Something I did not know yet, is that Monocle also does films. I was notified by Gillian Dobias, the executive producer of Monocle broadcast, that they just finished a film titled City Farming.
What I like about the film, is that it is a great visual illustration of a book I recently made for CITIES
Farming the City. It’s nothing new that food is a connector. But what we wanted to show and explore in the book, is that food can also function as a connector on the level of the city. It can play a pivotal role in the organization and development of our urban societies and can be used as a tool to approach the many challenges inherent in contemporary urban life from a human, locally-oriented perspective.
Monocle’s film features three inspiring projects in the US, Japan and Norway. New York’s Brooklyn Grange is fairly well-known, but I think the others are less so. I had never heard of the one in Tokyo. 

Monocle’s City Farming film is edited by Henry Albert. The contributing journalists are Richard Grehan, Elaisha Stokes and Aleksander Solum.

Here’s an earlier piece that I wrote about the backgrounds of Farming The City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation and why we wanted to write it.

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At Strelka, The Practice of Everyday Life in Practice

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The Strelka Institute in Moscow has a fascinating new educational programme coming up. The 2013-2014 theme is ‘urban routines’, which I think is great – at the same time highly realistic but also very ambitious. Connecting daily urban habits and activities to larger frameworks and design challenges is something that’s essential in planning, design and governance, but at the same time often missing. Michel de Certeau’s “The Practice of Everyday Life” has been one of my favourite books about the city for a couple of years. Simultaneously, I always find it hard to translate his writings into thinking about the city at a planning or governance level. That’s why Strelka’s programme is so interesting, and so important. How do people use space, both public and private? How do they commute, move around the city? In which places are their daily lives articulated? The answers to these questions connect the social, economic, and cultural fabric, and other spheres of urban activity. Students from different backgrounds and nationalities can apply for the programme.

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The spatial distribution of mobile app developers in the Netherlands. Over 40% of them is located in Amsterdam.

The Urban Routines of Dutch mobile app developers
For my MA research in 2011, I focused on the spatial orientation of people working with creative technologies in cities (mostly app developers). How do they use urban space? What kind of dwellings, work spaces and third spaces do they use and prefer? It was basically to test popular theories about creative, footloose urban professionals and the location factors that influence their settlement choice on different levels (which city to live and work, what neighbourhood, what kind of office or café, et cetera). It turned out that some of the theories do apply to them: they do tend to cluster in cities and in temporary clusters (one-day events) where knowledge is exchanged in an informal setting (and in online communities of practice). Moreover, generally they prefer specific urban environments with cultural amenities, a historical makeup, young people, etc. They do, however, tend to stick to regular 9-to-5 times and work in a traditional office, as opposed to a high use of ‘third places’ such as coffee bars and the flexible working hours. The most important reason for this is the spatial proximity to colleagues and people to spar with – communication technologies are no more than complementary to this. So it turns out they are less ‘footloose’ than expected. The situation of creatives like mobile app developers is often idealized, reasoning that a laptop plus internet connection is sufficient for them to do their work. Even these supposedly archetypical ‘footloose’ creatives, tend to behave similar to more traditional economic actors. Next to the importance of face-to-face contact, the routines of the economic arena they play in determine their behavior – if their clients and other actors work 9-to-5 and expect to be welcomed in a neat office, they tend to adjust their location and behaviour accordingly. These findings are important in a broader urban sense in multiple ways, from understanding needs for office space, urban amenities, proximity to others in the same field, good mobility, and many other things.

Strelka programme
The case about mobile app developers in The Netherlands is just a minor example of a subgroup that exists next to thousands and thousands of other subgroups in cities and whose urban routines make up the urban fabric (maybe even more so than the physical makeup of a city). That’s why the 2013/14 Strelka programme is so interesting, especially in a city like Moscow, which has a more top-down development tradition than other cities and therefore the daily lives of Russian urbanites can easily be overlooked from a planning and design perspective. But also because urban space can only to a certain extent be shaped by its design – its use, how it is included in urban routines of city dwellers, also makes up a large part of what urban space is. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the programme in a year from now.

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Neonlights reflecting off the rainy streets of Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, somewhere in the 1960s. Image by Frits Lemaire.

Neonlights reflecting off the rainy streets of Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, somewhere in the 1960s. Image by Frits Lemaire.

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A Poetic Stroll Around London

One of the most impressive films I’ve come across lately is “Lost in London”, by Michael Smith and Wojciech Duczmal. It shows a poetic stroll through London, based on Baudelaire’s flâneur, and beautifully illustrates that the experience of the city is an individual one. How someone perceives the city, depends on his/her memories, knowledge, ways of looking at and listening to things, previous experiences, sensitivity, how they make connections between these things, et cetera.

The short film also encouraged me to go out and just walk through the city more, even though it is rather difficult to take on a traveller’s perspective in your own city.

The book “Sense of the City - An Alternative Approach to Urbanism" is a great publication that also deals with the sensory experience of the city and might be interesting in respect to the topic of the video. It argues that the city’s representation consists of much more than only its visual aspects, and that sounds, smells, darkness, and other qualities that influence the ways in which we communicate with the city deserve more attention when we talk and think about cities.

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City Picks #5: Top Reads on Cities

Some of the best articles, videos, posts and other things urban I came across this week.

Watch Dogs
This is something for me to look forward to: a video game where you can wander around freely in a semi-realistic urban world. There is no mission, only a loose plot: you can tap into electronic devices because the protagonist has hacked Chicago’s central operating system. From there, you can get several objectives.

It seems like Watch Dogs combines the best elements of Grand Theft Auto and Blade Runner, because it represents a slightly dystopian reality where you can go wherever you like and complete some tasks whenever you like. I’m afraid this is going to hurt my productivity. The Guardian published an interview with the CEO of Watch Dogs developer Ubisoft last week.

How the City Hurts Your Brain
This is an article from 2009 that I ran into this month, in which Jonah Lehrer refreshes older theories by Georg Simmel and Richard Sennett, combining it with recent scientific findings. The city calls upon the brain, and the brain’s capacity is limited. This creates a trade-off between the unique benefits of the metropolis and the psychological damage it causes. Interestingly, the city’s complexity simultaneously triggers creativity and evokes cognitive exhaustion.


The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas
One of the best long reads I came across lately, published on Design Observer’s Places Journal. In it, Ellen Dunham-Jones goes into Rem Koolhaas’ inevitable contradictions that are the result of him trying to marry art and capitalism, radicalism and pragmatism, and icon-making and city-making. She does a great job, by going from his early works and theories to his later products and thoughts. I have the impression that she doesn’t quite know what to think of Koolhaas, acknowledging his genius but despising some of his decisions.

La Maison Tropicale: From Failure in Niamey to Masterpiece in New York
For Failed Architecture, Isabella Rossen goes into the case of Jean Prouvé’s modernist prefab icon La Maison Tropicale. It was thought of as the future in the 1940s and 1950s, but turned out to be a symbol of colonialism and did not fit the African context. Today, however, the three prototypes that were once built are being hailed in New York, London and Paris.

How Cities Reshape Themselves When Trust Vanishes
Thanassis Cambanis shows how trust shapes the public realm and how violent acts can subtly, but radically change urban societies, by going into the cases of Boston, New York, Baghdad and Beirut. A fascinating article, illustrating that trust and security might be the key elements to urban livability.

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Thomas Bayrle - Die Stadt

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This work from 1976 is displayed at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. I was intrigued by it, not in the first place because it is a huge work, but because its geometric urban pattern comes across very intimidating and unfree but simultaneously as a technological marvel.

Thomas Bayrle often presents a personal tension between his fascination with and horror for at modern. This is something I can very much relate to. Much of his work is not about the city, but more about capitalism in society, systems of symbols, consumerism, advertising, and other things that have become more and more part of our world over the past 50 years.

In 2009, Frieze published a great piece on Thomas Bayrle by Dominic Eichler. 

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New Book: “Farming The City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation”

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For the past two years, I have been working on a book. Francesca Miazzo and I have collected contributions and case studies and framed them within our own thoughts about the city’s networks, meanings and mechanisms, to show how food can be used as a tool for a more substantial urban development, today. It’s titled “Farming the City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation”.

The book was officially published April 10 under the flag of CITIES, with TrancityˣValiz publishers, during a big launch event in Amsterdam with a full programme.

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The aim of the book is to show how food can play a pivotal role in the organization and development of our urban societies and how it can be used as a tool to approach the many challenges inherent in contemporary urban life from a human, locally-oriented perspective. 
The book aims to trace a path towards a socially, culturally and economically resilient society; a place where inclusive, locally-oriented modes of production are not only possible, but preferrable. 

In order to clarify this, we have invited leading and inspiring thinkers and activists to write about the ways in which innovative food initiatives can contribute to our cities. Thirteen essays by artists, urbanists, policy thinkers, architects, activists and sociologists (a.o. Carolyn Steel, Kevin Morgan, Jennifer Sumner, Derek Denckla, Chris Berthelsen, Jared Braiterman, Jess Mantell and Jan-Willem van der Schans.

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Next to that, 100 pages of the book have been dedicated to exemplary projects that we have come across in the past couple of years. Here, 35 projects are showcased to illustrate in what ways food is already changing our cities, today. We see this chapter of the book as an ode to the citizens, entrepreneurs, organisations and public officers that use food as a tool to re-interpret contemporary notions of urban living, working and collaboration. This visual showcase with basic descriptions has been included as an inspiration for the readers.

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Food instead of creativity
The final section of the book is an epilogue, in which we roughly argue that the same framing, governmental interest and support should be applied to the “food field” as happened to the “creative field” in the past decade. The creative clustering has proven to be a succesful way to revive cities, strengthen identities, promote new industries and develop cultural scenes. However, the creativity field has also been used as a panacea for urban challenges, directing investments to creativity based on false rhetoric, often having negative implications such as displacement, social polarization and ‘distinctive’ urban fabrics and cultures that end up looking alike.

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Instead of promoting an economic sector that revolves around symbolic value, redirecting the focus to the food field can have much more substantial impact, because at its core is one of the necessities of life. The impact, therefore, implies health, social ties, livability, job security, local business opportunities and awareness, contrary to the more superficial benefits of solely investing in creativity. This is not to discredit the creativity sector. In fact, creativity can also play an important role in the various layers of the food field, for example by bringing it to a larger audience and thereby reinforcing its impact.

There’s much, much more in the book. On April 10 during an event in Pakhuis De Zwijger we shed a light on the contents of the book and set the agenda for urban food policies, with Carolyn Steel, Dickson Despommier, Culinary Misfits, Lufa Farms, Trädgård på Spåret and other great people and projects.

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We thought it would be nice to put edible flyers in every book, so that there is actual ‘food’ in there.

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City Picks #4: Top Reads on Cities

This week’s most interesting books, articles, blog posts and videos.

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Failed Architecture: Game Over for Architects?
Michiel van Iersel speculates on the future of architecture and asks some serious questions. He sketches radical developments in the availability of design tools, in construction technology and in dealing with intellectual property. 
With technological innovations and processes of democratization, what will be the role and relevance of the architect in shaping our cities? And what if algorithms and ‘big data’ will gain importance, who ‘pushes stop’ when all systems fail? Questions we need to start thinking about.

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Atlantic Cities: Is It Time to Move Past Urban Studies and Toward Urbanization Science?
Interesting piece at The Atlantic Cities about William Solecki, who argues that urban studies should evolve into more scientific approaches that can decipher the genetic code of the organisms we call cities. More scientists are working on this, such as Geoffrey West. I think this is a highly interesting field, with findings that show parallels between cities (i.e. social organizations) and the biology of mammals. I believe that large aggregations of people can demonstrate similarities with organic systems, but that many urban issues should be approached from the ‘softer’ social sciences (sociology, geography, etc).

My Amsterdam
People from Amsterdam know photographer Ed van der Elsken. He documented the city’s life for decades. He made the video on the left in 1983, driving through Amsterdam on an early morning. It gives a great picture of what Amsterdam looked like in 1983. In 2011, artist Jan Rothuizen captured literally the same image, 28 years later. The difference is striking. Amsterdam was relatively deurbanized in the early 80s, and only started growing again (and being invested in) a few years after this film. In 2011, you see a neat inner city which is clean, organized and safe. The increased affluent population was accompanied by a neutralization of urban space and added convenience, a development that really kicked in in the 1990s. “Amsterdam isn’t what it used to be in the 70s and 80s”, is what people who have lived there during that period often say. Did it change for the good or the bad? You decide.

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Farming the City - Food as a Tool for Today’s Urbanisation
On April 10, this book by CITIES will be published worldwide. A preview is already online on ISSUU. The book asks the question “how can food work as a tool for urban development, today?”. Rather than sketching out future visions for food policies, economies and technologies, CITIES looks at what is already happening right now. They did so by asking a bunch of leading writers and researchers to write down what they are seeing, but also by showcasing 35 projects from around the world that they consider to be exemplary for innovative ways of using food and of shaping cities through food.

Spike Lee - Love vs Loyalty
Spike Lee goes schizo in this great video. His two selfs - the New York Knicks fan and the Brooklyn lover - argue over what team to cheer for, now that the Nets have moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn. Is it about loyalty for the team you have always supported or about love for the borough that shaped you? A great watch, with beautiful shots and historical material.

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A Collective Approach to Local Entrepreneurship

I wrote this article originally for polisone of my favourite websites on urban issues.

Locally owned shops were once cornerstones for products, services, employment and social networks in urban neighborhoods. The rise of automobiles, franchises and Internet shopping has forced many out of business or into niches that don’t correspond with the needs of their local communities. However, in some cities they’re seeing a resurgence due to creative initiatives that link grassroots activism with public- and private-sector resources.

The Van der Pek neighborhood in Amsterdam. Source: Design as Politics

In February, a special kind of shop opened in Amsterdam’s Van der Pek neighborhood. It is called the Wisselwinkel, meaning “shift shop,” because it hosts a new local entrepreneur every six months. If this trial period goes well, the entrepreneur receives assistance in setting up a more permanent location in the neighborhood.


Louise Went. Source: Amsterdam Museum

The Wisselwinkel is the brainchild of a young activist collective named Mama Louise. Their identity is a tribute to Louise Went, an influential advocate for public health and social justice in Amsterdam’s working-class neighborhoods during the 1920s. Mama Louise organizes D.I.Y. summer markets and other events where people make things, give performances and exchange goods and services. The events strengthen community ties and offer opportunities for entrepreneurial residents to earn income. Mama Louise is now working to create a more permanent platform, and the Wisselwinkel is the first tangible result.

The Van der Pek neighborhood is absorbed in a process of gentrification and large-scale restructuring that threatens to displace many current residents. To help counter displacement, Mama Louise invests in people. Their aim is to uncover the neighborhood’s hidden entrepreneurs, connecting local skills with local needs.

There are several conditions for entrepreneurs who wish to set up shop in the Wisselwinkel. They have to live in the neighborhood and show a desire to start or formalize a business. Once running, the shop has to be open at least five days a week and adopt high-quality marketing collateral developed with help from Mama Louise.

Inside the Wisselwinkel.

Designed and constructed by MOS Collectief, the Wisselwinkel interior is flexible so that different startups can use it according to their needs. Along with the storefront, entrepreneurs receive practical guidance in connecting with support organizations, fulfilling legal requirements and attracting customers. Mama Louise also provides a website, a logo, canvas bags and other material with help from Waarmakers design.

Source: Waarmakers

After six months, the entrepreneur moves out of the Wisselwinkel to make room for the next venture. Local housing association Ymere helps viable startups find another location in the neighborhood. Associations like Ymere — which are no longer public entities in the Netherlands — are often criticized as focused primarily on maximizing real estate profits. However, Mama Louise found that Ymere staff took to their initiative with entusiasm rooted in genuine care for resident wellbeing.

In working with Ymere, Mama Louise might be criticized for putting low-income entrepreneurs at risk of taking on insurmountable debt after the trial period. However, they help the Wisselwinkel’s tenants become self-sustaining and attract investment. They channel the resources of organizations with a stake in Van der Pek’s future toward opportunities for current residents to successfully weather gentrification.

Screenshot of the Wisselwinkel website customized for Rathu’s bike shop.

The first entrepreneur in the Wisselwinkel is Rathu Gunawardana, who started out repairing bicycles for friends and neighbors in his backyard. Mama Louise supported his proposal because there was no bike-repair shop in the neighborhood and residents have expressed strong interest in having one. Through the city’s Department of Work and Income, Rathu received a micro-loan for welfare recipients interested in starting their own businesses.

Business has boomed for Rathu, who also sells restored bikes and gear. After a few days, his shop became a popular gathering place for local cycling enthusiasts. A teenage boy asked to help and now takes care of smaller repairs. Other informal entrepreneurs have started visiting the Wisselwinkel to apply for six-month residencies and offer their goods and services.

Mama Louise is now building a map of formal and informal businesses in the neighborhood. Upcoming projects include a salon run cooperatively by local hair dressers, masseurs and other service providers. Each initiative is focused on developing commerce, employment, amenities and social ties to assure that current residents share in the benefits of gentrification.

Mark Minkjan is an urban geographer who works as an independent researcher and writer. He is part of CITIES and Failed Architecture, and runs City Breaths.

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Definition of a City #11

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Paris, by lenscapbob

“‘The City’ is not a framework but a social practice in constant flux. The more it becomes an issue the more it is a source of contradictions and the more its social manipulation is linked to the ensemble of social and political conflicts.”

- Manuel Castells (1972) “Urban renewal and social conflict in Paris" In: Social Science Information Vol 11. p.93-124

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This is part of a series of definitions of cities featured on City Breaths. The aim is to collect definitions from different perspectives. The definitions will tell us something about what the role of urban space is in sustaining human life, the way we experience and perceive urban space and the sensations it creates in us. You are welcome to add more definitions. The other definitions can be read here.

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