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22 AUGUST, 2011

Understanding Urbanity: 7 Must-Read Books About Cities

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What airports have to do with Medieval towns, Brooklyn’s bookstores and Le Corbusier.

“Cities are the crucible of civilization,” Geoffrey West proclaimed in his recent TED talk. Cities are where most of humanity’s creative and intellectual ideation, communication, and innovation takes place, so understanding cities is vital to understanding our civilization. To help do that, here is an omnibus of seven fantastic books exploring the complex and faceted nature, function, history, and future of urbanity’s precious living organism, from design to sociology to economics and beyond.

1. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES

Jane Jacobs is easily history’s most important writer in urban planning. Her massively influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, originally published in 1961, is a book so central to the last half-century of urbanism that it’s almost an embarrassment to mention it in any kind of introductory context. Rather than a hapless attack on then-new planning policies and their negative impact on inner-city communities, Jacobs offers an intelligent, constructive critique that proposes new principles for planning and rebuilding smart, functional cities, debunking the widely held belief that if only we had enough money, we’d wipe out the slums, reverse urban decay, anchor the wandering tax money of the middle class, and even solve the traffic problem — a belief, mind you, that has metastasized all more dangerously in contemporary culture, some half a century later.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

In addition to the meat of the book, buried in its first pages is Jacobs’ curious aside about illustration, alluding to the creative medium’s role as a sensemaking mechanism for the world:

The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might also listen, linger and think about what you see.

2. TRIUMPH OF THE CITY

Thirty-six million people inhabit the greater Tokyo area, the world’s most productive city, and nearly 70% of the U.S. population live in 3% of the country’s land area, yet we do so with the constant civic guilt, perpetuated by the media, about the wasteful, unhealthy, crime-ridden, ecologically unreasonable ways of city life. In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, pioneering urban economist Edward Glaeser debunks a number of popular myths about the ills of cities to reveal, through examples past and present, how and why cities can in fact be a model for optimal well-being, both human and of the environment. (Did you know that urbanites use 40% less energy than their suburban counterparts, and both cancer and heart disease are significantly lower in New York City than the American national average?)

The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to these truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

3. THE CITY IN HISTORY

Originally published in 1952, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by prolific author Lewis Mumford traces the evolution of the urban form throughout human civilization, from the earliest tribal habitats to the towns of the Middle Ages to the vintage-modern commerce hubs of the 1950s. From keenly analyzing the past to accurately assessing the future, Mumford’s insights half a century ago presaged some of the most pressing conversation about cities occupying today’s urbanists, scholars, and civic leaders.

By building up sub-centers, based on pedestrian circulation, within the metropolitan region, a good part of urban transportation difficulties could have been obviated. To make the necessary journeys about the metropolis swift and efficient the number of unnecessary journeys–and the amount of their unnecessary length–must be decreased. Only by bringing work and home closer together can this be achieved.

But beneath his astute observations of all the ways in which we could (and did) screw up our cities lies an undercurrent of breathless optimism about our capacity for wisdom, betterment, and moral imagination:

But happily life has one predictable attribute: it is full of surprises. At the last moment–and our generation may in fact be close to the last moment–the purposes and projects that will redeem our present aimless dynamism may gain the upper hand. When that happens, obstacles that now seem insuperable will melt away; and the vast sums of money and energy, the massive efforts of science and technics, which now go into the building of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and a hundred other cunning devices directly or indirectly attached to dehumanized and demoralized goals, will be released for the recultivation of the earth and the rebuilding of cities: above all, for the replenishment of the human personality. If once the sterile dreams and sadistic nightmares that obsess the ruling elite are banished, there will be such a release of human vitality as will make the Renascence seem almost a stillbirth.

4. AEROTROPOLIS

For much of human civilization, cities — the places where people gather around and exchange money, goods, and ideas — have been defined by transportation hubs, from ports to railway stations. In Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, academic researcher and urban adviser John Kasarda and journalist Greg Lindsay examine today’s most important transit hub, the airport, as an epicenter of tomorrow’s civilization in the shape of the “aerotropolis” — a combination of enormous airport, planned metropolis, and commerce cluster. Both radical and practical, the aerotropolis lives at the intersection of urbanism, civic engineering, sociology, international relations, economics, cartography, and design to offer a compelling vision for our emergent urban future.

The aerotropolis is the urban incarnation of [the] physical Internet; the primacy of air transport makes airports and their hinterlands the places to see how it functions — and to observe the consequences. The three rules of real estate have changed from location, location, location to accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. There’s a new metric. It’s no longer space; it’s time and cost. And if you look closely at the aerotropolis, what appears to be sprawl is slowly evolving into a system of reducing both. It’s here where we can see how globalization will reshape our cities, lives, and culture.

Amazon has an excellent Q&A with Lindsay.

5. WHO’S YOUR CITY

Richard Florida, apart from being one of the most continuously stimulating people to follow on Twitter and a fellow contributor to The Atlantic, is also one of the most insightful people writing and thinking about cities today. In Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, he examines the macro elements of cities, from economy to transportation, through the micro lens of personal happiness. (Which, in fact, makes the book a fine addition to this reading list of essential books on happiness.) Florida blends heavy-duty statistics and theory with passionately argued ideas and fascinating maps to expose the power of place in its richest, most multidimensional form, revealing the intricate interplay between our cities, our personalities, and our very sense of self and well-being.

The so-called death of place is hardly a new story. First the railroad revolutionized trade and transport like never before. Then the telephone made everyone feel connected and closer. The automobile was invented, then the airplane, and then the World Wide Web — perhaps the quintessential product of a globalized world. All of these technologies have carried the promise of a boundless world. They would free us from geography, allowing us to move out of crowded cities and into lives of our own bucolic choosing. Forget the past, when cities and civilizations were confined to fertile soil, natural ports, or raw materials. In today’s high-tech world, we are free to live wherever we want. Place, according to this increasingly popular view, is irrelevant.

It’s a compelling notion, but it’s wrong. Today’s key economic factors — talent, innovation, and creativity — are not distributed evenly across the global economy. They concentrate in specific locations.

Ultimately, Who’s Your City?, offers an intelligent blueprint for balancing the trade-offs of place and personality to find, or learn to enjoy, the city and community best tailored to your life, your responsibilities, and your aspirations.

6. ZINESTER’S GUIDE TO NYC

The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is no ordinary city guide. In the age of crowdsourcing and digital everything, it’s a delightfully analog, painstakingly curated tour of all the things that make the Big Apple a cross-cultural icon. From Brooklyn’s bookstores to the midday madness of Midtown to the peculiar cultures of different neighborhoods, ZG2NYC is a remarkable achievement of urban curiosity, beautifully illustrated with original artwork, spanning everything from architecture to art to culinary curiosity and beyond. In the eloquently laconic words of Stephen Colbert’s review, “it kicks ass.”

For sure, use your device to double check addresses and hours, but then stash it, man! Your eyes and ears and nose remain excellent portals for receiving, interpreting, and storing information. I get that it could be fun to review your email on the subway, but if you’re always doing that, you are never going to sketch the person seated across from you. Ten years from now, which will prove the better key to this long forgotten day? A deleted digital message (received on a no doubt archaic device) or an inexpert but keenly observed rendering born of being wholly present in the exterior word?

Don’t miss this offbeat interview with Halliday, accompanied by more images from the book.

7. MAKESHIFT METROPOLIS

While the work of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford may have shaped generations of thinking about cities, much has changed since their ideas were coined half a century ago as our technology, economic mechanisms, design processes, and political priorities have evolved. In Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, University of Pennsylvania urbanism professor and Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski explores what these changes mean for envisioning the optimal city of tomorrow. Rybczynski, who 16 years ago started teaching design and development to MBAs and real estate majors at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, summarizes what he has learned about city planning and urban development through data-driven insights about the present and future of cities at the intersection of sociology, design, and behavioral economics, as well as fascinating urban innovation projects from around the world that challenge the definition of a city in an era of changing human demands and resource availability.

From Mumford to Jacobs, from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright, from public parks to high-tech skyscrapers, from Buffalo to Boston, Rybczynski spans an incredible spectrum of material to explain why we behave the way we behave, live the way we live, and choose what we choose — and, more importantly, how these seminal ideas about cities can be built upon to shape the 21st-century city, with all its liveliness, heterogeneity, and multifunctionality.

Is a city the result of design intentions, or of market forces, or a bit of both? These are the questions I explore in this book.

Intelligent and highly readable, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities embodies the Brain Pickings ethos of cross-disciplinary curiosity, of lateral connections, of knowing and understanding the thinking of the past in order to envision and frame the ideas of the future.

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22 AUGUST, 2011

Noam Chomsky Explains the Cold War in 5 Minutes

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What the gist of the Cold War can teach us about the nature of international violence, peace, and democracy.

The projects of art photographers notwithstanding, the Cold War was no Wonderland. It was, rather, arguably the most significant nonviolent political conflict in modern history. In this rare footage from a 1985 discussion, Noam Chomsky — one of our era’s greatest living thinkers — explains the whole complex phenomenon of the Cold War in just over five minutes, without resorting to reductionism and oversimplification.

Through history, there has been no correlation between the internal freedom of a society and its violence and aggression abroad. For example, England was the freest country in the world in the 19th century, and in India it acted like the Nazis did. The United States is the most open — politically speaking, forget any social issues — and freest society in the world, and it also has the most brutal record of violence and aggression in the world.”

For an intelligent history of the Cold War, you won’t go wrong with The Great Cold War: A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors by former British diplomat Gordon Barrass, and for a more controversial take, see David Hoffman’s Pulitzer-winning The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, the first comprehensive account of how the Cold War arms race finally came to an end and what its legacy means for today’s concerns about nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

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15 AUGUST, 2011

7 Essential Books on Street Art

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What Japan’s manhole covers have to do with Brazil’s favelas and the timeless tradition of Arabic calligraphy.

Street art is a frequent fascination around here. Today, we turn to seven stunning, intelligent books that examine street art from a variety of angles, from the artistic to the sociocultural to the political and beyond, to glean holistic understanding of the ubiquitous, important but often misunderstood medium for public dialogue and civic self-expression.

TRESPASS

WoosterCollective is among the most authoritative blogs on street art. Last fall, its founders, Marc and Sara Schiller, poured years’ worth of expertise and insight into Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — a gorgeous and thoughtful anthology that covers everything from Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee that’s as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech. And since the lavish 320-page volume comes from Taschen, easily the most visually ambitious publisher today, it’s an absolute treat for the eye.

What makes Trespass different from other street art books is that it’s not a street art book. It’s a book that certainly includes street art and graffiti but goes beyond that to also address performance, protest, sculpture, and the whole goal of the book was to really look at the context of street art in a much larger historical perspective.” ~ Marc Schiller

Originally reviewed, with video, here.

STREET SKETCHBOOK

One of street art’s most characteristic features is that it’s so fundamentally public and in-your-face. But what goes into the private creative process of a street artist? That’s exactly what Tristan Manco examines in Street Sketchbook: Journeys, the follow-up to his 2007 Street Sketchbook: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists — a rare peek inside the sketchbooks of 26 of the world’s hottest new artists, and one of our 5 voyeuristic peeks inside the notebooks of cross-disciplinary creators.

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

ARABIC GRAFFITI

It’s no secret that the the majority of street art coverage in the media, from blogs to books to films, has a severe geographic bias, with a tendency to focus on Western lettering and imagery. Arabic Graffiti is a breath of fresh Eastern air in the global dialogue on street art. The ambitious anthology by Berlin street culture tastemaker Don Karl and Lebanese typographer Pascal Zoghbi explores the use of Arabic script in urban context, curating graffiti artists and typographers from the Middle East and around the world who incorporate Arabic calligraphy styles in their artwork — a beautiful intersection of tradition and contemporary creativity.

Part cultural anthropology, part study in creative ingenuity, Arabic Graffiti is also a timely and needed cross-cultural bridge of visual communication in the context of today’s global political climate. (For more on the subject, see the fantastic Cultural Connectives.)

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

STREET WORLD

What makes street art so fascinating is that it isn’t an isolated discipline — rather, it’s the confluence of a myriad cultural phenomena, offers commentary on countless social issues, and borrows inspiration from a multitude of other creative domains. In Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents (which you might recall from this old piece on Beautiful Losers, the excellent documentary about contemporary street art culture), Roger Gastman, Caleb Neelon and Anthony Smyrski examine street art culture from a holistic standpoint, as it relates to other forms of urban expression — skateboarding, bike messengering, DJing, fashion, gang politics, music, design, photography — and explore how the advent of the Internet has fostered a new global street culture in less than a generation. From New York’s back-alleys to Brazil’s mega-cities to South Africa’s townships, the hefty tome is divided into more than 50 topics, each illustrated with dozens of photographs.

STREET KNOWLEDGE

Today, street art is so ubiquitous it’s easy to forget it’s a fairly nascent form of urban dialogue. But where did it begin and how did it make its way around the world? That’s exactly what King Adz explores in Street Knowledge — a fascinating encyclopedia and insider’s guide to street art culture around the world, tracing the evolution of the movement from its groundbreaking days in 1980’s New York to the bleeding-edge work of modern-day Middle Eastern artists. From old-school graffiti legends to modern street art icons, including film-makers, designers, DJ’s, writers and poets, the book reveals the deep and lateral propagation of street art across just about every aspect of contemporary culture.

From interviews with some of world’s most influential street art talent, including Banksy, Quik, Shepard Fairey and the Obey crew, Martha Cooper, David LaChapelle and Tony Kaye, to profiles of up-and-comers from across the globe, Street Knowledge also places the featured street art in the context of the cities where it appears, doubling as an underground guide to the hottest art, culture, music, fashion, dining and film spots in some of the world’s most exciting cities.

Originally reviewed last year.

URBAN IRAN

In 2008, our friends at Mark Batty released the excellent Urban Iran — a gripping, visually stunning anthology by photographers Karan Rashid and Sina Araghi exploring the rich spectrum of street art across Iran’s cities and countryside.

Alongside the lavish visual spreads are illuminating essays that examine the artwork in a sociopolitical context, bridging this faceted visual landscape with the cultural undercurrents that power it.

What makes the project particularly intriguing is that it came mere months before the 2009 Iranian uprisings, but the content and context of the street art themes featured in the book — censorship, rebellion, political disillusionment, a yearning for justice and democracy — presage what was to come.

Originally reviewed, with more images, here.

DRAINSPOTTING

Street art is considered a subculture in and of itself, but the fact remains that it’s divisible into a great diversity of subgenres itself. Among the most fascinating is Japan’s unusual style of manhole cover graffiti, cataloged in Drainspotting — a stunning photographic anthology of the remarkable street art gems found across nearly 95% of the country’s 1780 municipalities. With their bold colors and dramatic motifs, from doves to dragons, the book’s 100 photographs capture the best and most visually compelling of Japan’s 6000 distinct manhole cover designs, part of a 20-year beautification program, orchestrated by what’s essentially Japan’s version of the WPA, aiming to make manholes reflect the uniqueness of each city — its mythology, its aesthetic sensibility, its legacy and essence.

The cherry on top? There’s also a Drainspotting iPad app, a beautiful homage to the classic Japanese intersection of art and technology. The app uses geolocation, inviting users to drainspot Japan, scavenger-hunt-style, and discover more examples of this unique visual subculture that didn’t make the book.

Originally featured here last spring.

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11 AUGUST, 2011

The Homosexuals: A CBS “Documentary” from 1967

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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.

Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:

The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”

When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:

I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.

But, hey, one thing we’ve made unabashed progress on is gay rights sign design.

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