What Slums Can Teach Us

March 25, 2010

In Prospect Magazine Online, there is an insightful article about how modern urban planners are learning concepts and specific ideas from the squatter slums of India, Brazil and elsewhere.  This is the latest incarnation of the new urbanism that emerged in the 1970s.

One billion people live in these cities and, according to the UN, this number will double in the next 25 years. There are thousands of them and their mainly young populations test out new ideas unfettered by law or tradition. Alleyways in squatter cities, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. One proposal is to use these as a model for shopping areas. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6pm,” suggests Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city” …

The book’s optimism derived from its groundbreaking fieldwork: 37 case studies in slums worldwide. Instead of just compiling numbers and filtering them through theory, researchers hung out in the slums and talked to people. They came back with an unexpected observation: “Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city.” The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

I’m glad to say that Vancouver is well ahead of many other big cities when it comes to the next idea:

One idea that could be transferred from squatter cities is urban farming. An article by Gretchen Vogel in Science in 2008 enthused: “In a high-tech answer to the ‘local food’ movement, some experts want to transport the whole farm shoots, roots, and all to the city. They predict that future cities could grow most of their food inside city limits, in ultraefficient greenhouses… A farm on one city block could feed 50,000 people with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat. Upper floors would grow hydroponic crops; lower floors would house chickens and fish that consume plant waste.”

The article concludes with the following sobering thoughts:

And just as this was true during the industrial revolution, so the take-off of cities will be the dominant economic event of the first half of this century too. It will involve huge infrastructural stresses on energy and food supply. Vast numbers of people will begin climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder, from subsistence farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat and soy to meat—and doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try to talk people out of it will find the effort works about as well as trying to convince them to stay in their villages. Peasant life is over, unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it. For humanity, the green city is our future.

Well worth the read.


Modes of Transmission: Facebook and Syphilis

March 25, 2010

I like playing around with Twitter, and I’ve had a blog of one sort or another for about a decade.  I’m active on Flickr and RedBubble and Mahalo and a couple of other places.  But I have never been on Facebook.  Some years ago, my daughter sent me  a message via Facebook and I was obliged to join in order to get the message, but that’s the only time I was ever there.   Now there is probably some empty page or wall or whatever with my name on it, and every once in a while someone sends me an invitation to be their friend — and I ignore every one of them.

My reluctance has everything to do with my distrust of Mark Zuckerberg and his crowd.  I have no memory of what started that distrust, but it hasn’t improved over the years.  Now, the Daily Telegraph has added another reason — apparently, Facebook is “linked to the rise of syphilis.”!

“Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex. Syphilis is a devastating disease. Anyone who has unprotected sex with casual partners is at high risk.”There has been a fourfold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected … I saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites,” reported Professor Peter Kelly, director of public health in Teesside, England.

I have no idea if the Professor is right — and the comments to the Telegraph article make it clear how daft it all might be — however it is fun to speculate.  I wonder if someone could drum up the grant for a comparative STD study between, say, Facebook, eHarmony.com, and the adult section of Craigslist.

Red Tulips No.4

March 19, 2010

For this very springlike day, some flowers.

Following Sumo

March 13, 2010

As if  I don’t have enough to do already, I’m covering the Spring Sumo Tournament on mahalo. The tournament begins tonight at around midnight my time, and goes on for fifteen straight days.

With the enforced retirement of superstar Asashoryu, it will be a quick march to the coronation of Hakuho unless Harumafuji, Kotooshu and Baruto can pick up their game. I expect that they will and I’m looking forward to this being a fascinating basho.

Missing The Happy Lube Lady

March 12, 2010

I have only just noticed — I can be so slow and unobservant at times — that the gloriously happy and life-affirming mural on the side of Womyn’s Ware at Commercial & Venables has been painted over and replaced with a decidedly more aggressive and, to me, far less pleasant image.  I miss the happy lube-lady, so here she is again as a reminder of what we lost…

These Olympics Are Disabled

March 12, 2010

This evening, in Vancouver, there will be the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Paralympics.  I am sure everyone here will try to make these “Olympics” fun and worthwhile but it is, let’s be honest, so very second class.

Most of the public facilities set up for the Winter Olympics are gone or closed, and the international media has gone off to cover Formula One racing or skeet shooting in Dubai.  Even Canada’s own Globe & Mail has no story on the Paralympics on their website today.  Television coverage will be hit or miss, and certainly without the wall-to-wall broadcasting we had a couple of weeks ago. None of the medals Canada wins over the next few days will count towards the Own The Podium campaign.

If I were a differently-abled athlete, I wouldn’t bother showing up.

The only way to end this degrading of “handicapped” athletes into second class citizens is to make sure that the Paralympics and the Olympics themselves are merged into a single event.   It may add a day or two to the “ordinary event” but so what?   It will bring these sports and athletes together with the rest of the sporting community, and it will garner these sports wide TV coverage.  How can there be any downside to this?  Certainly no downside that could possibly compete with the new respect these men and women would get.

Failure to bring these Games together will probably never happen while petty kings such as Jacques Rogge and the other mediocrities on the IOC are still in charge.  But that failure should weigh heavily on any legacy they hope to project into the future.

Fast Train To China

March 9, 2010

Forget the slow boat: the Chinese are planning to build a rail network that will have passengers traveling from London to Beijing in just two days!  The following is from the Daily Telegraph:

China is in negotiations to build a high-speed rail network to India and Europe with trains that capable of running at over 200mph within the next ten years.   The network would eventually carry passengers from London to Beijing and then to Singapore.  It would also run to India and Pakistan … A second project would see trains heading north through Russia to Germany and into the European railway system, and a third line will extend south to connect Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Malaysia.

Passengers could board a train in London and step off in Beijing, 5,070 miles away as the crow flies, in just two days. They could go on to Singapore, 6,750 miles away, within three days.  “We are aiming for the trains to run almost as fast as aeroplanes,” said Mr Wang. “The best case scenario is that the three networks will be completed in a decade,” he added.

Wow!  And they seem to be very serious:

China is in the middle of a £480 billion domestic railway expansion project that aims to build nearly 19,000 miles of new railways in the next five years, connecting up all of its major cities with high-speed lines. The world’s fastest train, the Harmony Express which has a top speed of nearly 250mph, was unveiled at the end of last year, between the cities of Wuhan and Guangzhou. Wholly Chinese-built, but using technology from Siemens and Kawasaki, the Harmony Express can cover 660 miles, the equivalent of a journey from London to Edinburgh and back, in just three hours.

Book me on the opening train!