Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: April 2011

In background noise, a score for the ‘sidewalk ballet’

This post was going to be about Hypercities, to which @westcenter alerted me today – but boy, is there a lot to dig into: hundreds of years’ worth of maps and media about some of the world’s beloved cities, presented by scholars in a beautiful and novel way.

I’m just getting started, so I’m turning – and taking you along – to “You are listening to Los Angeles,” an audio complement to the views like this one from Hypercities, of Los Angeles in 2010:


The “You are listening to…” site combines three elements to create an urban soundtrack in, well, a beautiful and novel way: a sweeping photo of the cityscape, a track of ambient music and a stream of scanner traffic – the live radio chatter of Los Angeles police. Sibling sites exist for New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Montreal.


The effect of the radio chatter, in particular, must be different for everybody. When I was growing up, the scanner was almost always on at home or at the office of the weekly newspaper my mom edits. She used it to track the news, but lots of families we knew kept scanners at home for other reasons – keeping tabs on a father or son in the fire department, staying on top of gossip.

For us, the scanner narrated city life, such as it was. Slow days and false alarms gave way to emergencies small – cat-in-tree stuff – and large, like the time the Nilsen barn behind Nilsen’s burned down on Main Street on Christmas night. Mostly, the scanner crackled on low volume in the background as we worked or cooked dinner. At my first newspaper internship away from home, the editor kept three scanners on at all times: one at home, one in the car and one in the office. It was a soothing reminder a of home and a way to learn the new city. When the “sidewalk ballet” turned dramatic – a chase, a collision, a fight – the crescendo of the scanner cued us, the city’s characters, to take our places.

The scanner has its own language, the language of some of urban life’s most enduring characters, reviled or celebrated as they were in cities’ histories – police officers, highway patrolmen, firefighters – and reporters pride themselves on fluency. “Brace yourself,” a colleague once told me on my way to cover an accident. “It’s an 1144.” Someone had been killed.

Of course, you won’t necessarily hear tragedy on “You are listening to…”. The creator of the site demonstrates the point by streaming both the music and the scanner traffic continuously: city life goes on and on, mundane mixing with extreme. And perhaps for you, the music, the image or another thought is entirely more evocative than the scanner. I imagine reactions vary widely among people, backgrounds and cities, raising questions such as: what happens when urban noise comes to the foreground, as it does at this site? Which sounds provoke emotion? Which narrate the city experience? For whom and why?

For further reading, I suggest “Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience” by Michael Bull (h/t Urban Studies 114). I’ll get back to Hypercities and the sounds of LA. If you’re tuning in at home: happy listening.

Landscape Architecture Month


At the beginning of April I posted an opportunity to get a free copy of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ magazine. And I promised to write a bit about what landscape architecture is. I’m going to try to make good.

 I have to confess that my first exposure come only last year from the wonderful Kim Wang ‘98, one Stanford’s landscape architects. I met Kim because of a creative writing class. I wanted to talk to her about the surrealism I feel in Stanford’s landscaping. I described it variously as ‘manufactured’, full of ‘hidden work’, a place where ‘the desert of Northern California looks like some English Jane Austen fantasy garden.’ Kim graciously offered to meet with me and walk around the quad talking about this place. She offered a much more nuanced view of the University’s grounds but I still feel like I’m the emerald city everytime I see the Oval.

During this walk Kim described landscape architecture: ‘It’s everything outside the building. But often times, it’s also what creeps. The in-between spaces, between inside and outside and how they connect. It’s an interconnected network of systems’. This is a lot like the American Society of Landscape Architects definition of the field as ‘comprehensive by definition—no less than the art and science of analysis, planning design, management, preservation and rehabilitation of the land’.

If you think this sounds inspiring and as interdisciplinary as our dear Program, I think you’re spot on. Landscape architects are doing and have done some great things. Anne Spirn is exploring the idea of landscape literacy and using it as a tool for social justice. Others landscape architects have (and continue to ) plan the beautiful green spaces that make our cities feel like home. Just look at Olmstead and his mark on Stanford and my home-city of New York.

So while we still have a little time left in this official Landscape Architecture month—appreciate those in-between spaces. That park you love. Those tree-lined streets and plazas. Chances are, you have landscape architecture to thank.


Joanne’s Boutique

The past fall quarter I wrote a senior paper on the newly commissioned public art sculptures on MacDonald Avenue in Richmond, CA. In the paper, I analyzed the archival photographs, text and themes of diversity, community, nostalgia and immigrant narratives. Currently, I am expanding on this paper, but through film. “Joanne’s Boutique” turned out to be my introductory film, the film that prepares me making my larger piece. The process of making this film  brought up many questions over what is the appropriate form (documentary, fiction, experimental, collage?) of film to investigate questions surrounding race, citizenship and inclusion. How do I make a film that explicitly investigates citizenship and race through interviews of Richmond residents? At last, it was very difficult to have these discussions in front of a recording camera.

I had known of Joanne’s Boutique before my research project, but I never entered the shop to see what was inside. Yet, once I started reading articles, the boutique and owner were repeated, often declaring her as one of the survivors of 1970’s urban renewal. I knew I had to interview her. What resulted is this video. An introduction to Richmond history and larger social themes (race riots, urban redevelopment, post World War 2 society) through the account of one woman. 

-Edgardo Cervano-Soto


Meet Steve. He describes himself as an urban historian. He tries to get into the parts of the city that we rarely see, walking through tunnels and scaling bridges. In the video I’ve included above he takes a videographer (Andrew Wonder) to some of his favorite underground places in New York. The first time I saw this I was enthralled. He seemed like an Indiana Jones of cities, interested and seeking a deeper understanding of what are cities are built upon. The most interesting part is that he is not alone. There are people who have lived in tunnel rooms for decades. There are other college students who adventure illegally on their weekends.

On one hand they seems brave and are seeing the history of cities that I only read about. On the other hand there’s something really uncomfortable about their discovery of this hidden world. About their exposure of it, especially of the people who don’t just visit between classes, NPR interviews and  NYT articles, but live in those underground places. I love seeing the century-old bricks that show just how much history my city has. I don’t like the kind of awe he exhibits towards people who aren’t just doing this for fun. The NYT article points to some feeling of exploitation and I can’t help but agree. I think Steve respects these people and loves New York but somehow this feels less like urban history and more like urban entertainment. And that, it is very, very good at. (see more)


Urban homesteaders face trademark challenge


Via The California Report:

In cities across California and the U.S., the term “urban homesteading” is being enthusiastically adopted by people growing their own food. Now that the movement has gone mainstream, it’s run up against mainstream problems — including an intellectual property battle.

Listen to the full story here.

Photo: buckshot.jones/Creative Commons

The Incorporation of East Palo Alto

Last week I started work at the City of East Palo Alto Planning Department as part of the service-learning requirement for one of my classes (History 260—California’s Minority Majority Cities, if you really must know) and was tasked with reading the city’s General Plan (constructed by all cities to outline plans for growth, service, and development for the following ten years as mandated by the State of California). 

I came across something startling—East Palo Alto was incorporated as a city into San Mateo County only in 1987 having existed as an unincorporated community since its settlement in the early nineteenth century.  This is important because unincorporated communities rely on their counties for policing, planning, water, government, and generally lack self-determination, which is why its residents voted in favor of incorporation in 1983.  The most interesting part of this story, though, is that the area that would become the City of East Palo Alto requested annexation into both Menlo Park and Palo Alto (three times: in 1961, 1978, 1981), its bordering communities, and was rejected by both municipalities!  This was after East Palo Alto struggled through the sixties and seventies losing its industrial and commercial lands (tax boons in cities because of the sales tax revenue they provide) to annexation by these very cities.  Of course, Palo Alto and Menlo Park considered the residential areas to be undesirable. 

Why is there a four-year gap between the vote and the city’s actual incorporation?  Well, Pete McCloskey, a prominent Palo Alto attorney appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court (they chose not to hear the case, ending the appeals process) arguing that East Palo Alto didn’t have an adequate tax base.

But why didn’t East Palo Alto have a tax-base that could serve its residents adequately?

You can read the East Palo Alto General Plan here.

-Gerad Hanono

Event: Music Between Nature and Architecture

What: Stanford Presidential and Endowed Lecture, Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, on music’s connection to nature and architecture.

When: Tuesday, April 26th, 6:00pm

Where: Cubberly Auditorium (Free and open to the public)

Description: Since at least the early 19th century, how we hear and understand music has been linked to our views of nature and the built environment. Join us as President Botstein charts these parallel developments. He will explore the work of composers — among them Mendelssohn, Mahler, Sibelius, and Stravinsky — and compare their music to the work of the architects Schinkel, Wright, Saarinen, and Le Corbusier

You know where to find me

The stir this week over mobile devices’ tracking and storing users’ locations has raised a bunch of consumer-privacy concerns, but in the spirit of The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal regarding the “weird privacy snafu,” we might as well learn from it. Herein: a recap, a map and some queries for the urban-minded among us.

If you’re catching up, here’s my best attempt at a quick synopsis:

I mapped my own data using the researchers’ app. Here’s a snapshot of my Bay Area movements since September:


The privacy concerns are valid: anyone with access to my phone or computer could get this data, the researchers point out. But we can still ask other types of questions about our newfound troves of spatial information — and as I overheard someone saying today, our attitudes about all this may well evolve.

One question this raises for me is: if such rich visualizations of data become widely available to us someday, how will it affect us as consumers? Voters? Admittedly, my map above — both simple and personal — got me thinking about security even more than, say, the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series on digital privacy, which paints a much fuller picture of the issue. Is data visualization — especially when consumers and voters can personally connect to it — on its way toward focusing wider audiences on issues important to them?

(I say “wider” because in my own field, journalism, in the so-called “digital humanities,” and surely elsewhere, data visualization already finds itself a catchphrase. A couple great examples I’ve gotten to see up close are The Texas Tribune, where I interned last summer, and in the course “Tooling Up for the Digital Humanities,” which I’m taking this quarter.)

Second: let’s assume the massive trove of personal data we’re accumulating in the digital age can someday inform scholarly research. What, as urbanists, would we use it for? Could we learn more, or more easily, about trends in suburban commuting? Activity patterns in national parks? Urbanization in the developing world?

Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

City Shock!

I grew up in center city Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I understand how a city works, right? I get what it means to live an Urban Life, at least I thought I did until I got to Stanford. With only a few visits to draw experience from it has already become evident that the urban game here is totally different. Now I see why Urban Studies is not a field that can be contained in any sense.

Dear San Jose,

Where is your downtown, what happened to the towers that scrape the sky and the population density that I crave? What do you mean that there is a river running along a trail near the train station? The closest thing I could find was a cement runoff channel. These racial, social, and economic dynamics are not familiar to me.

I thought that once you had seen one city, or even 5 cities, you had seen them all. But nothing could be farther from the truth. I was naive and foolish to think that my high school case study of Philadelphia class could teach me what Urban Studies is. It did not even scratch the surface. San Jose, you will teach me a whole different array of what Urban Studies can look like. And your nearby brother and sister cities can open my eyes to a multitude of different dynamics that are unimaginable until witnessed. And for that I am thankful. Thankful to be at a place called Stanford, where not only will I be able to have a mind blowing Urban Studies education in the classroom, but also the opportunity to experience cities of all different shapes and sizes. 

So maybe it was foolish to think that I could learn Urban Studies through one class about one city, but what I am realizing is that it was a start to a beautiful process, and an introduction to the beautiful, interdisciplinary, dynamic, and often tragic world that is Urban Studies.

Thanks again Philadelphia for the lessons you have taught me, but now it is time for this urbanite to spread his wings, and his outlook.


Excited new Urban Studies Undergrad


Olthuis Floats a New Idea

A week ago Gerad posted about the difficultly of building massive, supposedly sustainable, structures that are then left in disuse after they’ve served their purpose. He gave the example of the Cape Town Stadium, built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which now struggles to find a host team capable of filling and paying for the venue.  Events such as the World Cup or the Olympics do require facilities of extreme proportions, and it is often the case that building these new venues is beneficial for the local economy.  I racked my brain for a good 5 seconds for a solution that would allow host cities access to adequate facilities while ensuring that these facilities would actually live up to their sustainable potential and be used for years afterwards. I have found the solution!

To be fair, I did not come up with the solution out of thin air or really as a result of my brain racking—I found it via the always trusty Google search. I realize that you are not supposed to believe everything you read on the internet, but Koen Olthuis’s floating structures are one thing I am willing to throw a considerable amount of belief and, by way of this post, hype behind. Olthius is the founder of Waterstudio, a world-renowned architecture firm that specializes in floating structures with the goal of “sustainaquailty.”  No, I did not spell sustainability wrong; “sustainaquality” is the term Olthuis has coined to refer to the environmental and economic benefits afforded by structures built to float entirely on water. Floating solar fields; wind cooling effects; wind, wave, and tidal energy production; no lasting physical footprint; and a negligible carbon footprint all contribute to the sustainaquality of floating structures or even entire floating cities.


A floating stadium “app” taken from Koen Olthuis’s new book Float!  (source)

But again, how is this helpful for the leftover stadium dilemma?  Well, Olthuis actually proposes floating stadiums as one of many possible uses of water development in his new book called FLOAT! (yes, there is actually an exclamation mark in the title)  The most obvious benefit of constructing a floating structure is that cities would not need to reserve land space years in advance that might end up as dead space after the event is over anyway. The second, more mind-blowing proposition made in the book is the concept of using floating structures like rental units. Essentially, London could build a floating track and field stadium for the 2012 Olympics and then Rio de Janeiro could simply tug that same stadium across the Atlantic for the 2016 Olympics. Olthuis has named these transportable infrastructure pieces “apps” and you can add them to your city just like you add “Words with Friends” to your smart phone 😀 It’s crazy, I know…but something crazy has got to happen if we are aiming for truly sustainable cities.    

~taylor mcadam