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Saturday, November 21, 2009

How 'smart' is your city?

I was talking to a friend last night about this report that Heidi Collins (with the CNN newsroom) had a few weeks ago on a list published online by thedailybeast.com, titled The Smartest Cities in America.
First I thought by “smart cities” they mean technologically advanced and environmentally friendly and sustainable, but they were actually referring to the citizens and their intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievement. A portion of the criteria was based on the number/percentage of people with a bachelor degree or higher, nonfiction book sales, higher education institutions, and participation in elections; which was quite interesting (even though the accuracy could be questionable). But I think the intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievements of a society has a very important impact on the community and economic development of a city.

Sherry Arnstein in her book A Ladder of Citizen Participation talks about citizen participation and citizen power, and says that it is the redistribution of power that enables the “have-not citizens” (excluded from the political and economic processes) to be involved and included in decision making of the authorities and “people in power”. But how did the “people in power” get to that point of being able to make such critical decisions and excluding others? With their intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievements. I think the more highly educated and knowledgeable people we have in a community, more citizens of that community would be part of the group of legislators, authorities, and overall “people in power”. Also, a higher percentage of the citizens can get involved and have their voice heard rather than being excluded in the “have-not” group. If people are knowledgeable and well-informed they cannot be taken advantage of as much, by the intellectuals in power. In the book Community Planning for the Few, Tom Angotti also talks about citizen power and how the “have-nots” are taken advantage of because they are not as educated and informed as the people in power: “But powerful New Yorkers, including the leading real estate and financial institutions, continue to rely on civic engagement when it supports their interests and are particularly skilled at engaging neighborhoods and the resources of the local state to legitimize their efforts”.

Did I mention that Denver was number 5 on the list?!

Here's the link to the report:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Successful Transformations?

William Whyte known as a ‘people-watcher’ is my most favorite person in our profession and the master of public spaces, in my opinion. I am fascinated by his approach to public places and design perspectives because it is all about different layers of the society and people, and encourages interaction and diversity. In his film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces he analyzes different plazas, playgrounds, neighborhoods, and public spaces from different perspectives which I definitely encourage you to watch.

After watching that film, I realized that water and light features as well as green spaces are main elements that attract people to a specific space –programmed or not. For example, I think the design of the Apple Store Plaza on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, NY turned out to be a very successful and functional public space (to my friends who know me well: it’s not about Apple and I still don’t like their products). This space attracts countless groups of people during the day which is mostly because of the water features, nice green spaces and trees, but also because of the ‘freedom of choice’. The fact that people have different choices for using a space makes it a desirable and attractive environment for them. For example: they can sit on the edge of the sidewalk, along the water fountain, under a tree and the shade, move the chairs around and use a table, or just even walk around. I spent about 2 hours in that plaza sitting around, walking, people watching, etc. and noticed that many other people have been doing the same. The most interesting part is that it is very diverse by attracting tourists, residents, college students, professionals, and elderly. (pictures to come soon)

One of my favorite public spaces in NYC is the Father Duffy Plaza in Times Square (or better known as the “red stairs”) designed by William Fellows.
This plaza is unfortunately surrounded by many irritating factors such as: the very loud traffic congestion, crowded sidewalks and spaces, and on top of all, the infinite waste of energy by the illuminating beautiful lights amplifying the severe Light Pollution conditions above NYC. However, considering all the negatives, I still see it as a successful public gathering space mostly because of its ‘light features’ and ‘freedom of choice’. Unlike the Apple Plaza there is no water feature and green space, but there are many attractive lighting features and people have a choice of sitting at the tables in the middle of Times Square for coffee or standing above the red stairs to take pictures and observe the fast paced movement of the surrounding; while another group of people is in line waiting to buy show tickets at the discount ticket booths under the red staircase. It definitely is a successful multi-functioning programmed space for multiple user groups with lots of pedestrian space.

I think we need more spatial designs like this that transform a traditional place to a modern and novel space without changing the familiar environment and sense of place. It is possible to design work that follows traditions but interprets them in a contemporary way, creating new traditions.