urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Center for Urban Pedagogy – Week 2

This week was a sort of calm before I dive into my main project for the summer, the Bronx Urban Investigation. It is set to launch on July 6th, so last week was a lull in activity while previous programs wrapped up. I got to do some design work this week, which is always really fun. Also, Deland, our fellowship coordinator, came to the CUP office for a visit this week! Thanks so much for taking time out of your trip to come and see what we’re up to, Deland.

Deland, Sandy, and I at the CUP office!

Deland, Sandy, and I at the CUP office!

I spent most of this week supporting Jenn, our Youth Ed program assistant, on the currently active City Studies. City Studies are another program under the Youth Education umbrella of CUP; they’re usually based in classrooms and focus on simplifying and making a dense classroom topic more accessible. The art deliverable produced at the end of the program then lives on and the teacher can use it to help future classes understand the topic. They involve less contact hours with students than Urban Investigations and are generally a little less in-depth because of that.

The City Study I was helping with was a partnership with the Bronx Museum. They are doing a three-part series on asthma in the Bronx. In the South Bronx, 17.3 out of 1000 people are hospitalized for asthma every year, which is about 8x the national average. The rate of incidence for asthma in children is 8.3% which is double the national average. These rates of asthma stem from two main issues: the concentration of trucking and a lack of enforcement for landlords to uphold humane, healthy living conditions for their tenants. In many old homes in the Bronx, there is mold, peeling paint, pesticides, and other chemicals that can severely exacerbate asthma symptoms and lead to hospitalization, and in some cases, death due to asthma attack. Most people don’t know that these issues in their homes are connected to asthma.

A visualization of community survey responses, conducted and created by the teens of the Bronx Museum program.

As an activist, I am constantly striving to understand more deeply the impact of injustice, to better be able to advocate for solutions that will actually make a difference. I came into my internship at CUP after a really hard year at Stanford, politically speaking. I left the year feeling loaded down by really heavy, toxic rhetoric with no idea of how to move toward solutions. I forgot what it was like to do work that was positive, purposeful, and driven towards change.

At CUP, I’m beginning to find my way back to that path. It’s been rejuvenating for my spirit as both an educator and activist to see the concrete ways in which education gives power back to disenfranchised people. When students learn about asthma with the Bronx museum, they go home and can find the triggers in their own home and tell their friends. That knowledge could quite literally decrease the number of hospitalizations due to asthma in their circle – and the best part is that the knowledge never expires. It’s sustainable and naturally reproduces. It’s justice in a very real way.

CUP's Who We Are Collage

CUP’s Who We Are Collage. Try to find me! :)

To close: this week, I added myself into CUP’s Who We Are collage. At the end of week 2, I’m feeling so honored to be in the silly, off-beat company of so many truly gifted artists, educators, and designers who are teaching me every day what justice looks like, both literally and figuratively.

Bamboo Biking – Week 2

A quick snapshot of this second week at BBB: Our next door neighbors moved out! So we have snagged this room and suddenly have so much more space. As recompense for refurbishing the room, it’s possible that I’ll end up living inside of the workshop itself, as my current housing will expire soon. That would be cool. In other news, we just hired three local high school interns, and I’ve been building my new bike at Workshop 33, designing a catalog for BBB, starting to make a visual workflow/how-to guide for the workshops, and drilling holes around the new room in preparation for some interior designing.

Workshop 34

Workshop 34, with new interns and old-time volunteers (all high-schoolers!)

Neighboring room in transition. Check back in a week or two to see its hopeful transformation!

Neighboring room in transition. Check back in a week or two to see its hopeful transformation!

Ever since I started borrowing someone else’s bamboo bike last week, I’ve been learning a lot more about transportation cultures and mobility in Beijing by spending 2-3 hours on the street commuting every day. At first glance, urban biking in Beijing can seem pretty chaotic and formidable. It is chaotic — when the streets are full, especially, you can look around and see cars in the bike lane, cars parked on the sidewalk, bikers and mopeds going the “wrong” way down multiple lanes, bikes and even pedestrians in the middle lanes of major roads, and a predictable disregard for certain traffic signals.

Despite the visual mess, it’s actually very calm within the fray, because everyone is paying close attention to everyone else. When I bike down the street, I am always planning my path for the next 20 meters, and rely on everyone else around me to be doing the same, so that we can anticipate and adapt to each other’s routes. There are often status transactions going on. For example, if a single bike is going against a single car when the bike has the right of way, the car will definitely cut off the bike illegally. But if a group of twenty bikers during the morning commute decides to cut a car off when the car has the right of way, you better believe they’ll do it. For a sense of scale, here is a picture of what almost every intersection looks like outside of the central city. That’s usually enough room for 6-8 lanes of cars on a road and two bike lanes. In this moment the intersection looks like a parking lot, but when transit goes on in the middle, it becomes a huge slow jumble through which people move like a school of fish, to borrow the words of Wang Wenlan, a photographer who has published famous series of photos of China’s bicycle scene.

Typical intersection in the outer rings of Beijing

Typical intersection in the outer rings of Beijing

Shanghai, 1991 © Wang Wenlan

Shanghai, 1991 © Wang Wenlan

More of Wang Wenlan’s amazing bike photography can be found here. Until next week!

Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP): Week 1

Hello from Brooklyn!

My name is Jazlyn & I’m spending my summer at the Center for Urban Pedagogy. You can learn more about me and my organization here! I’ve been here for about a week and it has been quite the wild ride so far. New York City is no joke, and I am slowly developing the quad muscles to prove it.

I have done and learned an incredible amount in the four days that I’ve spent at CUP. I want to share with you all some of the main takeaways that I’ve been mulling over this week.

1) The Power of (Un)Education

The project that I’ll be working on this summer is part of CUP’s Youth Education arm. The programs are called Urban Investigations and the one that CUP is hosting in the summer will be a collaboration between 5 high schools in the Bronx. Urban Investigations are project-based curricula – check out the process in the infographic below.

UI infographic
How Urban Investigations Work

Our big question for the Bronx UI is, “Why do subways cost what they do? Who decides?” As an Urban Studies major, I heard the topic and I was like, great! Transit! We constantly learn about transit and how it works – I thought I would have a lot to contribute.

However, as I began to do my background reading, and as I began to live in New York, I came to realize how absolutely wrong that was. The New York Subway System is a behemoth of its own, and no amount of knowledge about any other transit system could have prepared me to know the intense amount of politics, money, and social dynamics that go into shaping and maintaining the subway. For instance, did you know that people who ride the subway are colloquially called straphangers? I read an entire article thinking that straphangers was some sort of derogatory term before I asked someone in the office to explain it to me.

As I dove into that research, I was so enraptured by the richness of the topic and complexity of the answer. I began to remember how amazing it is not to know stuff, both as a person and an educator. I expressed this to our director of Youth Ed, Christy, and she said, “That’s the great thing about Urban Investigations. When we pick a topic, we usually don’t know all that much about it, so we’re learning with the students as they investigate.”

For the students, that is such a powerful thing. They will have educators that are relying on them to provide essential components to the project. Without them, we wouldn’t have the answer to our question. That truly, there is no right answer – what they find is our collective truth.

2) Reciprocity

That last note feeds into my next point, which is cultivating reciprocity in service. Reciprocity is a bit of a buzzword in service – it’s something that sounds good and is actually essential to effective service, but in practice is incredibly hard to carry out in a meaningful way. Out of the 3 quarter-long service experiences that I have had in the past year, I don’t know if I successfully implemented it in any of those projects. It was a pretty elusive concept.

That is, until I arrived at CUP. I have seen this in two ways since arriving. On one side, is the reciprocity embedded in their own programming. The UI projects have an incredible amount of reciprocity between the students and their teachers, because they are co-creating knowledge. As I elaborated on above, CUP educators are not experts in every topic that they propose. In fact, a lot of the projects are specific to students’ community context and so often, students have a lot more experiential knowledge about topics than their teachers.

In my personal context, I had an incredible meeting with Christy about what my experience this summer is going to look like. She showed so much care and depth of thought about how my priorities could intersect with needs at CUP, and particularly, the needs that they will have on-site at the Bronx. For instance, one of my priorities is to get hands-on experience with the UI because I will be developing a similar curriculum later for my Urban Studies capstone project this summer. We talked about where my project intersects with Urban Investigations, and what days would be mutually beneficial for me to be on-site. For example, I will be on-site when the students conduct interviews on the street. I will get to see how to teach interview basics and see the activity in action – and I also need to be there to supervise a group so that we can split up. Reciprocity!

That’s it for now – what an amazing week to start off this summer of advocacy, justice, and growth!

Bamboo Bicycles Beijing: Week 1

Hello, I’m Geena!

I have been in Beijing, China for a little over a week now, working in the depths of an old hutong neighborhood in the little gem of a workshop called Bamboo Bicycles Beijing. (See here for a bio and description of BBB!) Most of my first days were something like an orientation, to get my hands working on the bike projects going on in order to get a feel for how the workshop operates. In this first post I’ll share some of the ways my understanding of the workshop has deepened through participating in it.

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop, held last weekend.

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop this last weekend.

There are three aspects of the workshop that are really sticking with me as I end my first week at BBB:

1) Intentionality of scale: BBB has existed for about a year now and hosted 33 workshops, which have produced just shy of 150 completed bamboo bicycles and their proud owners. Though the “reach” could certainly be considered small in a city of over eleven million, the workshop gathers a self-selecting, extremely passionate bunch who end up taking ownership of the workshop in their own way and often volunteer many hours over many weekends to pass on the skills they have learned to others who are just learning how to make their own bikes. In the last week, I was in the space for three or four media outlets who interviewed and videotaped David, BBB’s founder. I heard him reflect often on his disappointment with some of the outlets’ offers to help expand BBB’s brand and image by spinning their stories on him a certain way. “That’s not what we’re about,” David would often say to any story that did not allow for the character of BBB to stand for itself. It feels very special to work alongside someone who has total conviction for what he is and is not about. So what is BBB about, then? For one thing, the small scale of the workshops allows for the cultivation of genuine loyalty and trust in its participants. Other things:

2) Community! A lot of people talk about community. It was a catchphrase I read all over the BBB website and in interviews with David before arriving. However, being on the ground in the BBB neighborhood brought a whole new understanding to the word in the ways it is used to frame BBB’s objectives. The physical space of BBB is open to any passersby for the whole workday. Curious first-time onlookers are welcomed in, and so are the young neighborhood kids who live down the street and sometimes man their parents’ convenience store. In fact, those kids have built their own bamboo bike in the space, and one of them returned to help me build mine on Friday. David’s elderly neighbors also look out for him. One day a long-time resident was just about poised to kick me out of the shared BBB courtyard with her cane, until she realized I was with David and Claudio (another workshop leader) and burst into a forgiving smile, even insisting that I come sit in her home with her. Another neighbor leaves his door open and continually offers food. On one of my first days there he shared with us a homemade lunch over hours of conversation, pictured below. Because of the care that David takes to be a positive, active contributor to the neighborhood in which he’s set up shop, BBB’s participants find themselves cared-for by the existing community. This also strikes me as very special, perhaps guided in large part by a respect for communicating in the language of the community and a general thoughtfulness.

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面 translated as "fried sauce noodles," complete with beer in bowls!

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面, translated as “fried sauce noodles,” complete with beer in bowls!

3) Empowerment: I’ve worked as a mechanic in different bike shops in high school and college. In most bike shops in the U.S. at least, the norm is for amateur mechanics to start off learning to change flats, then do basic assemblies, then the more advanced aspects of assemblies, and finally the varied challenges of repairs. As an amateur mechanic, I was accustomed in past summers to learn two or three tasks and repeat them the entire summer, as the business models of most bike shops are most efficient if mechanics work assembly-line style. BBB has been different from the get-go because of the peer-to-peer teaching and learning that happens around the clock. It is everyone’s intention there to equip longtime workers there to deal with the entire process of building a bike, from selecting the raw material to calibrating the very last component. In fact, anyone who walks through the door can be put to work immediately by whoever has the capacity to teach. The teaching style is very couched in doing: someone will typically explain a process to me, then hand the tools over to me to do myself. This is so wonderful! Especially as a woman engineering student who has had a fair share of tools taken straight out of my hands to get the job done for me “better” or “faster.”

David has continually said that the beauty of BBB is that every new person who joins the team changes the organization in some way because of the new ideas and projects they bring — through planning bike rides and picnics, hosting photo competitions, making new arts and crafts, starting a video series, or taking ownership of BBB’s social media presence. Because the entire workshop was executed on one person’s own initiative, the norm for how things get done is that individuals must implement their visions on their own volition, all the time. This is just one more way BBB lives up to its mission to empower those who spend time there.

Well, I’m halfway through the 2-day workshop to build my own bamboo bike now, so by next week hopefully I will have something to show for it! I will also be moving away from doing bike mechanics and into doing some different projects. Thank you for reading!

How to Turn a Place Around

Placemaking.  It’s a process, a way of thinking, a rousing and powerful call to action.  It’s a vision for how to elevate community life around the world, starting one public space at a time.  As a living and evolving concept, Placemaking is exciting—and also challenging to explain and grasp.  That’s why I’m so grateful I was able to witness Project for Public Space’s entire Placemaking process, start-to-finish, this summer.  In a piecemeal way, all my projects added up to a wonderfully comprehensive and informative encapsulation of PPS’s core work: how to turn a place around.  So, how does one actually turn a place around?  I’ll tell you how!

Picture1

  1. Meeting with stakeholders about the place in question. Identifying issues and opportunities.
  • I met with Harvard’s campus planners and Common Spaces Project managers to discuss Phase III of the Common Spaces project. 
  1. Developing hypotheses about the site based on the issues and opportunities (such as, “This is an unsuccessful public space because it lacks shade”). Developing a work plan.
  • Based on my knowledge of the Stanford campus and the goals laid out by the campus planners, I identified the issues (i.e. uninviting space) and opportunities (i.e. potential to interact with the streetscape) of Herrin Lawn and White Plaza.
  1. Collecting on-site data using PPS’s observational techniques such as behavior mapping, tracking, trace measures, interviews, questionnaires, and lots of photographing.
  • I collected field data during my community outreach in Marcy Plaza, Brooklyn.
  1. Analyzing collected data, reviewing initial community input, brainstorming ideas for implementation. Creating summaries of the data, revising the hypotheses.
  • These were critical parts of my Stanford project—I have long, messy lists of potential ideas and amenities as proof of my brainstorming!
  1. Hosting a public forum to solicit community feedback. May involve pop-up workshops, the Place Game, a community voting system, a mock event or activation. Based on this data, break the site down into potential zones of activity.  Public forums may be repeated throughout the entire process.
  • The pop-up workshop I helped with in Crystal City, VA, provided valuable community input. I also attended design workshops PPS was hosting in Los Altos, CA during the winter.
  1. Make a conceptual plan that includes the bubble diagram, benchmark images for each bubble, a schedule of amenities and a cost estimate for the amenities.
  • I completed this process start-to-finish for the Stanford project, and I made a schedule of amenities and cost estimate for Balboa Park in San Diego.
  1. Make a draft report presenting these recommendations. Dialogue with the stakeholders about any changes and make revisions.
  • Over the past few weeks I’ve been communicating with the Stanford planners based on my draft report.
  1. Order the amenities, implement them into the public space, gather feedback from the community. Take pictures of the activated space and note successes/failures for future projects!

These steps are meant to serve as a framework and not a rote tactic for success, however, they boast a track record of transformed public spaces.  And after following the formula for the Stanford project, I’m thrilled to say that the campus planners began ordering my recommended amenities on Friday so that Herrin Lawn will be activated by the time school starts in a month.  That’s the beauty of PPS’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach: things turn around with gratifying rapidity.  WOOHOO!!  

Giving my final presentation to the PPS Staff on Friday.

Giving my final presentation to the PPS Staff on Friday.

 

After a whirl of finishing up my projects, sending off final recommendations, and preparing for my departure, I was happy and relieved to share my final presentation with the PPS staff on Friday, hours before I left 419 Lafayette Street for the last time!  The presentation went wonderfully, and I was especially thrilled to have Deland Chan, the Program Manager for Service Learning for Stanford Urban Studies—and the incredibly patient coordinator of this Fellowship—in attendance, as she coincidentally happened to be in New York last week.  All summer, my worlds of PPS and Stanford had been strangely parallel, and they finally met on Friday in the perfect closure to my work.

With PPS's founder and President Fred Kent, my amazing supervisor Casey Wang, and the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship coordinator Deland Chan.

With PPS’s founder and President Fred Kent, my amazing supervisor Casey Wang, and the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship coordinator Deland Chan.

 

In leaving PPS, my mind cycled back to the questions I’d asked myself at the beginning of the summer.  I’d written in my first blog post:   

What makes a great public place?  Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form?  Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day.  Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity.  How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?

 In its simplicity, it’s startlingly clear to me now that great public spaces are the result of the conscientious interplay of all these factors.  Public spaces are the heartbeats of both the megacities and the picturesque villages, those unifying zones where people and place meet and interact with harmonizing energy.  We need to be stewards of these spaces because they mean so much more than just some colorful chairs.  Thank you, PPS, for showing me how.   

 Many thanks also to the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship, Deland Chan, and the other wonderful Fellows for teaching me so much this summer!

Community Cube Urban Activation + Final Johannesburg Reflections

My time in Johannesburg and my work with GRIND ended last Thursday with a final presentation and exposition event of the Maboneng Community Cube, my GRIND residency project. I spent the days (and nights) before the presentation working with neighborhood residents putting final touches on the Cube. The Cube was “finished” with Thursday’s presentation, but is meant to be a living and changing space, and will hopefully continue to see changes even after I leave Johannesburg.

The Community Cube final presentation during my last night at GRIND.

The Community Cube final presentation during my last night at GRIND.

The cube event opened with a public garage opening at street level.

The cube event opened with a public garage opening at street level.

The presentation incudes a free public soup event with The Urban Basket and Woza Waste and a public garage activation session, as seen here.

The presentation included a free public soup event with The Urban Basket and Woza Waste and a public garage activation session, as seen here.

The presentation itself was a remarkable success: around 60 people attended both the presentation at the GRIND studio and the Cube’s unveiling at a public garage below. More importantly than the number of attendees, the diversity of the presentation’s participants reflected the changing Maboneng and Jeppestown neighborhoods quite well. As I finished my presentation, I have now been reflecting on my time in Johannesburg, my work with GRIND, and the unparalleled summer experience I have had.

Finishing the Cube: Final Touches

In the final days before the Cube’s presentation, I changed a few key features and added some new Cube capacities. Working with a local designer named Chesta, we re-painted the Cube’s top. Chesta used rulers, rollers, and brushes to paint the Cube with the same logo we had designed in Photoshop. It looks phenomenal and professional. When the Cube is closed, it can be used a meeting table to discuss community issues and events; the new logo makes using that meeting table all the more attractive.

Chesta designed the cube’s logo, which is found on top of the cube.

Chesta designed the cube’s logo, which is found on top of the cube.

In addition, I worked with local welders from the SA Welding School to devise an ingenious pulley-and-chain system for the Cube’s roof. The Cube’s roof and front side open, but the roof needed a way to stay up vertically so local residents can use the white board below the top. David and France led the effort to create a pulley-and-chain system to hold the roof open. They used only materials sourced in the neighborhood and we became quite good friends in the process. David, who is an immigrant from the Congo, even spoke in French as we discussed politics, immigration, and the Cube’s role in the neighborhood.

Welders David, France, and others design a chain contraption for the top of the cube.

Welders David, France, and others design a chain contraption for the top of the cube.

Finally, local artist Thokozane painted a brilliant mural in the Cube’s interior during the night and wee morning hours before the Cube’s final unveiling. Thokozane is often busy painting murals, walls, and public projects throughout Johannebsurg, so I was quite lucky he was able to help me. Thokozane painted a map of the neighborhood on the Cube’s floor, but this is no normal map: on the sides of the Cube the streets turn into telephone poles and buildings, the river (now an underground culvert) turns into a street sign, and the train tracks turn into a large sign that says: “Welcome to Jeppestown.” The piece was moving because of its creativity and because of its innovative coordination of geography and common neighborhood elements. Thokozane himself is from the neighborhood and all of the Cube’s participants immediately recognized the streets in his map.

Local artist and resident Thokozane designed the cube’s interior and drew it during the wee morning hours before the cube presentation.

Local artist and resident Thokozane designed the cube’s interior and drew it during the wee morning hours before the cube presentation.

For the final presentation, the Cube sat in a public garage, on street level, at the base of the GRIND building. All around the Cube, on the walls of the garage, I posted color photos of the Cube’s design process and of actors who helped make the Cube a reality. The entire space looked and felt like a living museum.

Residents look at the community cube in the GRIND public garage.

Residents look at the community cube in the GRIND public garage.

Event attendees write messages on the cube's chalkboard.

Event attendees write messages on the cube’s chalkboard.

Presenting the Cube

Finally, the big night was here! The entire GRIND office spent much of the afternoon preparing logistics for the presentation. Chloe and Mantsane, two of my friends, cooked a delicious soup for hundreds of people. The goal was as follows: create a free public soup event on the street in front of the garage space to draw locals into the garage and (hopefully) into the presentation. I had coordinated with Alice and the Urban Basket to make sure that the presentation itself also had free food and wine. Sure enough, with the big soup pots and signs saying free soup, people lined up from around the neighborhood to eat. And a large, large number were excited about the Cube exhibit. Others stayed for the entire presentation and drinks. As I stood up to give my presentation, I saw new friends, old friends, local residents, and visitors from around the globe looking back at me.

My friends Jabu and Physical, who are filmmakers in Jeppestown, came in full force. They were 30 minutes early and brought a group of 12 enthusiastic friends. Jabu also helped film the event. Jabu and Physical will be coordinating the “Friends of the Community Cube” effort now that I am leaving South Africa, and their enthusiasm at the event was exciting, to say the least.

My presentation about to begin at the GRIND Johannesburg studio.

My presentation about to begin at the GRIND Johannesburg studio.

I was also enthralled to see no fewer than 10 welders from the South African welding school at the presentation. They hooted and hollered in the back, and joked with Edet, the local baker. I also saw young people from Curiocity, like my friends Tshepo and K, who worked hard on the Cube’s exterior. I saw a dozen Maboneng and Propertuity employees, GRIND residents, and even contacts like Cuba, who works at Architects of Justice in the Newton neighborhood. My heart jumped when I saw Mariska April, the Stanford in Cape Town coordinator, walk into the room with three friends. The Sciences Po Maboneng Exchange Team also attended in full force, bringing an international perspective to the event. And half way through, Bheki and his friend Cintle walked in, which drew a tremendous smile to my face; I could not have had half of the success I did in Johannesburg without Bheki’s support. All in all, I was dumfounded and in awe to see the outpouring of support for the Cube and for my presentation.

Welders from the SA Welding school at the presentation.

Welders from the SA Welding school at the presentation.

After the event itself, I spoke with dozens of young people about how they could plug into the Cube effort. I heard ideas about putting videos and lights on the Cube, and David from the welding school talked of a solar-powered battery. Physical mentioned a fashion exhibition. And Edet asked if he could have and frame a copy of his interview on the Cube. The most amazing comment, though, came from Bheki: “I’ve never seen such a cross-section of people at an event, Stefan. Wow. Talk about a diverse group of people enjoying themselves and coming together.” I held back tears of joy. I had trouble imagining that I could soon be leaving Johannesburg.

Presentation event participants sit and listen as I begin my presentation on the community cube.

Presentation event participants sit and listen as I begin my presentation on the community cube.

IMG_8597

Me during my presentation on the cube.

A Final Night in Johannesburg

With an upcoming trip to Bloemfontein scheduled for the next day and my GRIND presentation finished, Alice had scheduled a goodbye party at a neighborhood bar, the Zebra Inn. We closed up the office, leaving the Cube on the public street for lingering locals, and went to the Zebra. It was filled with around 40 friends, co-workers, and neighborhood residents. Some of my friends, who were a bit too busy to attend my presentation or perhaps unsure about going, found no problem attending the after party. Never since my Bar Mitzvah years ago have I had such a large celebratory event organized in my honor. I could not contain my joy and excitement as I thanked and hugged friend after friend after friend. We danced away the last night in Johannesburg, and I felt contented.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

Reflection

Johannesburg was not an easy place to live. The Maboneng and Jeppestown neighborhoods were not simple places. As I was leaving the neighborhood, my friend Mantsane asked me:  “So how was it? Did you have fun this summer?” I wanted to explain to Mantsane the roller coaster of emotions, the love, the pain, the inequality, the hussle, that I felt these last few months. But I had somewhere to be, as always seems to be the case in Johannesburg. So I said: “One word about this neighborhood: energy. And it can be harnessed to create so much beauty.”

I can tell you what my summer was not.  It was not easy. It was not relaxing. It was not “chill.” It was a wild ride of beauty, of pain, of love, of crime, of friendship. I have so much respect for local residents in this neighborhood, and I was honored that they took my in for the last three months. I return to the United States a much, much wiser man. I have much more respect for community development work and I know what it takes, and how both beautiful and exhausting it can be, to live in a low-income urban neighborhood. I know I’ll be back to Johannesburg in general and to Maboneng specifically. There are too many friends with whom I must reconnect. There are too many stories unresolved. Will Bheki open up a new backpacker hostel? Will Mantsane from the Urban Basket follow her dream and open up a produce grocery cooperative? More importantly, will the camaraderie and friendship still be there when I return? Will Alice be thriving as an urban consultant? I need the answers to these questions. And, more importantly, I want to see my friends again. So I will, without question, be back.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

My final night in Johannesburg was a joyous one filled with friendship.

This summer would not have been as amazing as it was without the friendship, kindness, and support from local residents. Thank you for welcoming me into the neighborhood!

Auf Wiedersehen, Wien

My bags are not packed, I have not cleaned the flat, and I still have to try Sachertorte (the famous traditional Viennese cake). Nevertheless, in less than 48 hours I will say goodbye to Vienna.

Far from “winding down,” the past week has been one of the most exciting as we presented our research at our final public think tank and I continued to finalize the writing for the reports. Also exciting has been looking ahead to potential future opportunities to continue the project (submit the project to the World Bike Forum in Colombia in February? Drop out of Stanford and become a bike share equality consultant? ;) )

As fast as these two months have gone, I’m realizing just how much I’ve learned and been able to experience in that time, from designing, implementing, and writing up my first real-world research project, to hitchhiking across Austria.

But before I get too nostalgic, here is a highlight reel from my last week:

Final Think Tank Presentation

I’ve stopped thinking that quantity is quality, because the small audience at last Monday’s think tank generated a ton of great discussion. I presented the findings from the paper I’ve been working on, detailing the barriers that exist within bike share programs to low-income and other disadvantaged groups using them. Our case studies were Nice Ride in Minnesota, Capital Bikeshare in D.C., and Citibike in NYC, looked at in comparison with what we’ve found out here in Vienna.

Bike share- a mobility game-changer? foto

Our think tank at Paradocks. Bike share: a mobility game-changer?

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Recap: a lot of bike share programs face criticism, justifiably, for their lack of inclusion of low-income and minority communities

Barriers fall roughly into five categories: financial barriers (e.g. cost, the need for a bank account), geographic barriers (e.g. placement of stations, lack of cycling infrastructure), cultural barriers (e.g. social stigma surrounding cycling within certain communities), barriers of representation (e.g. bike share advertising only showing the typical young, white, male user), and usability barriers (e.g. lack of minority language options, need for internet access).

Presenting on the access barriers for low-income and minority communities benefiting from bike share

Presenting on the access barriers for low-income and minority communities benefiting from bike share

For me one of the most interesting parts of the discussion that followed was talking about how one would politically approach improving the bike share system here. In many ways, reducing access barriers within Citybike Vienna for low-income and immigrant communities is in keeping with the city’s tradition of social policies. As the bike share program here continues to develop, there are excellent opportunities for making the system more accessible for these disadvantaged communities, as a by-product also making it more accessible for other non-traditional riders, and give Vienna another source of civic pride. It’s a win all around.

Other fun things

A photo highlight of some last Vienna sights:

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The low-key imperial summer residence, Schönbrunn Palace

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Friendly zebras at the world’s oldest zoo on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace

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Auspicious weather signs

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Another low-key building

Summer rainstorm!

Summer rain!

I am very fortunate to have been able to spend these past two months working with amazing people in this unique city. A last thanks to the Urban Studies department, my fellow fellows of the Urban Studies Fellowship, and Smarter Than Car for making this possible, as well as to readers for sharing this experience with us. Chau, though just for now.

It’s Over?

This was my final week at Working Partnerships, and it was hectic.

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday preparing for our community hearing on earned sick leave. I created a set of materials for the hearing – an infographic version of the report we were releasing, graphics to share on Facebook and Twitter, and large signs with the key findings to put up on the walls. (This last product had an extra challenge – the first versions came back from the printer with some strange colors, and we had to get them reprinted ASAP). I also worked on a web version of the infographic, which should be online soon.

Wednesday brought the hearing itself. I was in charge of making all the technology run smoothly, which kept me on my toes. First, Powerpoint on the computer we were using kept crashing, so I had to convert our presentation into a PDF. Then we discovered that one of our key speakers – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has introduced legislation to guarantee all California workers at least 3 paid sick days each year – was stuck in Sacramento due to last minute negotiations over a water bill. That meant we had to Skype in two speakers (Assemblywoman Gonzalez and a researcher in DC who wrote the report)… and on a weak wifi connection.

My heart rate definitely jumped a couple times, but the hearing actually went surprisingly smoothly. We learned about the extent of the problem from policy experts, heard gut-wrenching stories from workers (one got fired after getting cancer and missing too much work, and now lives out of her car), and discussed efforts like Assemblymember Gonzalez’s AB 1522 and our Silicon Valley Living Wage (which will provide paid sick days among other job quality standards).

And that was just Wednesday morning. As soon as the hearing ended, I needed to write our follow-up email. This recapped the hearing for those who couldn’t make it, and asked them to help expand access to earned sick days by supporting our living wage proposal.

Thursday and Friday only heightened the pace. I needed to finish up all my projects, especially completing an expanded version of the living wage site I’ve been building. This meant a lot of mode switching – jumping from writing about who the living wage will cover, to designing an additional section on the homepage, to figuring out how to use AJAX to send emails via PHP then submit an invisible form via jquery (don’t worry, it’s as confusing as that sentence). It took some ten-hour days, but the site is now live!

It was a packed week, but I really enjoyed it. The adrenaline of racing the clock kept me going, and though it sometimes came down to the wire, projects got done. Most importantly, I was doing really meaningful work – driving public policy that improves people’s health and livelihoods.

I’m writing this from the terminal at LAX, where I’m about to fly to Australia for a couple weeks of sleep, sun, and swimming. It’s hard to believe that I’ve finished at Working Partnerships, especially since I keep thinking of ways to improve some of the hacked-together code I’ve written in the last couple of days. Working Partnerships has been one of the best internships I’ve held. I’ve had responsibility for important projects, a great team to work with, and feedback and training that’s been incredibly valuable. While I’m ready for a break, I’m going to miss WPUSA, and spending all day fighting to improve public policy, support working families, and build stronger communities.

A Cube Takes Shape

Back from Durban, I have embarked on my final week (already!) with GRIND in Johannesburg. The focus of my week has been physical work on the community cube. The cube has been built and designed; it now needs to be activated. The past week has been spent working on community cube logos and themes, painting the cube, and populating the cube with features including artwork, designs, and the “Faces of Community” interview exhibit. I will close my time with a public presentation about the cube.

The Cube’s Theme

Working collaboratively with community members, I found the best community cube logo would be much like the GRIND Studio’s multi-colored logo, showcasing the structure as an energizing, welcoming space. Therefore, the logo uses GRIND colors and includes a multi-colored, bright design theme. I worked with and sought out support from local graphic designers, community members, and artists to finalize the logo. Special thanks go to my friend Andile, local resident Chesta Al Gawdly, and a professional graphic designer named Jared who works with IHEARTIDEAS. I also received logo feedback from GRIND Director Alice Cabaret.  Ultimately, I came up with the following logo and theme for the Cube:

The cube's logo and theme.

The cube’s logo and theme.

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The cube’s logo and theme.

Painting the Cube

Given the cube’s unique logo and theme, I went to work painting it with help from GRIND residents and community members. Each side of the cube is a different solid color, matching the logo colors. The cube’s top is blue, and three of the sides are yellow, green, and red, just like the logo. The cube’s fourth side is a chalkboard, which allows residents and community members to write thoughts and ideas.

GRIND residents and community members paint the cube collaboratively.

GRIND residents and community members paint the cube collaboratively.

The cube’s bright colors activate the exterior and bring to life the theme.

The cube’s bright colors activate the exterior and bring to life the theme.

Activating the Cube

Now that the cube has been painted, I am working to activate the cube. The first step is the exterior “Faces of Community exhibit”: strings and burlap fabric serve as the background to feature colorful interview testimonials from community members. The burlap background is designed to be permanent while interview testimonials rotate frequently. It is important to note that all cube materials have been purchased within the Maboneng and Jeppestown neighborhood by independently-run businesses. Future projects for the cube include a hand-drawn local map, art exhibition space, and a space for posting community events and job opportunities.

Community members work on activating the cube.

Community members work on activating the cube.

The cube includes burlap material used as a background for interview testimonials and artwork.   All materials are sourced from the Jeppestown and Maboneng neighborhoods.

The cube includes burlap material used as a background for interview testimonials and artwork. All materials are sourced from the Jeppestown and Maboneng neighborhoods.

Presenting the Cube:

As I end my time with GRIND, I will use this Thursday evening as a time for a public activation and presentation about the cube. From 7:00 – 8:30 pm at the GRIND studio, I will present the cube and my iterative design process. The event is open to the public and I am hoping to attract a diverse audience to the event. The cube itself will not be at the GRIND studio but illuminated on the sidewalk below: the cube is meant to be on “street-level” in a sufficiently public space. More information about the event can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/857885194224741/.

If you find yourself in the Johannesburg area, please attend!

 

One last reflective blog piece about my experiences will follow next week.

 

Money madness & furniture “shopping”

Like basically any project anywhere, public space improvements depend on well-structured budgets.  Without the money to activate a space, any plan, no matter how savvy, will flounder.  After the fun of pop-up workshops, photo roundups, and user analyses is over, it’s time to hunker over a desk for some serious number crunching.

Which is what I’ve been up to for the past few days.  With just one week left at Project for Public Spaces—unbelievable!—I’ve been busy compiling cost estimates for my main projects, namely the Stanford Public Spaces and Balboa Park in San Diego.  That way, I can send off the final recommendations before I depart in a weeks’ time!

The trial-and-error task of cost estimating takes patience, good communication skills, and a creative dose of exterior (as opposed to interior) design.  Or, as I’ve come to think of it, a willingness to play “dress-up” to some of the country’s most iconic public spaces, which is actually quite fun.

An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.

An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.

But first, a word about funding.  PPS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose funding comes from a variety of sources including private donations, grants and, recently, a first-ever corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines.  However, the majority of projects are directly commissioned by municipalities or private entities such as Harvard University’s Common Spaces Project who set an upper budget limit for the public space activation.  They also cover the cost of PPS’s site visits, workshops, and other incidentals.  As expected, this can either afford flexibility or parsimony in just how “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” our recommendations become.

The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.

The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.

In the case of Herrin Lawn at Stanford, the initial activation plan is benchmarked at $20,000—which isn’t a whole lot considering the size of the space and the vast potential for improvement.  Before costs even came into play, however, I spent the past few weeks breaking the space into a Power of 10 diagram, which denotes major zones of energy/activity.  This will serve as a conceptual plan to guide the rest of the activation.  I also identified issues and opportunities for the site and then devised overall recommendations accordingly.  PPS has a massive database of benchmark images from great public spaces around the world which are used as inspiration for current projects.  It’s always entertaining to take a virtual trip to the streets of Paris or Perth.

Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.

Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.

When selecting amenities, cost is an obvious factor, as are basic principles of color and style.  However, the job is much more intricate than simply admiring pretty pictures of furniture and contacting manufacturers’ representatives.

Will these chairs bring a space to life?  Do these colors create synchronous harmony or do they distract from the historic buildings which frame them?  Are these tables designed for the comfort of people or the pursuit of image?

These are some of the many questions I’ve asked myself from my desk in New York while my mind is focused somewhere under the California sun.  Put together, it’s these little considerations that attract or deter people.  And a great public space should always attract, which means that no detail should be spared in a conscientious plan.  The hard part, then, lies in humanizing the cells of a spreadsheet or the accompanying numbers and envisioning a place of beauty, functionality and spirit.

Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.

Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.

Of course, staying in budget is always beneficial, but sometimes an amenity (say, the colorful mini ottomans pictured below) are just too eccentrically cool to resist.  And that’s how the future of public space evolves!

Don't you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!

Don’t you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!

Check back next week for my final reflections on my summer in New York City!

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