Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Oh, to be a (little) kid again


New York City’s massive skyscrapers melt away as you enter Central Park, and with them, so do the dangers of the city’s streets. 

The ordered rectangular geometry of the adult world, where kids are forced to walk rather than run; look every which way before crossing; and stay within arm’s reach of relatives is replaced by planning regimes that are a bit more fun.  In this section of the park near Columbus Circle, the only towering structure is a concrete fortress with water features that keep kids running, jumping, screaming, and giggling as they traverse it.  Trades are made between water balloon holders rather than shareholders, and the calculations being made deal with the arc of those balloons in flight rather than the trajectory of the market.  There is an interesting dichotomy that exists in the park—while it’s a chance for parents to rest, read, gab, it’s their kids’ rare opportunity to let pent up energy loose.  I lost track of time watching a group of kids moving about the structure, running, rather than walking, from place to place. 

I suspect that what I miss most about being a little kid is precisely that absence of the awareness of “cool” that allows you to run from point A to point B just because you want to get there faster.  As I myself stood up from my perch on the big boulder beside the playground (pictured above), a dad stood up and shouted, “Brian, we’re leaving” and for the first time since I had been there, the little boy walked (slowly) to where his dad is waiting with a towel, milking his stay in paradise as long as he could.




The future of redevelopment

This summer I am interning in City Heights, a diverse neighborhood in the eastern part of San Diego known for its large immigrant population. In fact, City Heights has the second largest concentration of Somali refugees in the country. Along with the cultural benefits of diversity come the economic challenges of  low income businesses and residences, perpetuated by a lack of educational opportunities and a population with a fast turnover. Despite these challenges, Price Charities, the organization I am interning for, is working to improve the community holistically. They have led commercial and housing development projects, and keep the community in mind in their projects (see the banners lining the parking structure in the photo below: they were designed by a local art group and reflect the neighborhood’s cultural ties). 


Every morning, I walk through the heart of the redevelopment area on my way to the office from the bus stop. I pass new medical clinics, shopping strips, and apartment complexes. The changes in City Heights have occurred over a much shorter time period than is the norm in redevelopment areas, and Price Charities is the main reason for this.

With redevelopment agencies still in jeopardy, it is interesting to see how public-private partnerships like those pursued by Price Charities can fill the gap. While private charities and nonprofits certainly benefit from redevelopment money, they are not entirely dependent on it. Place-based organizations know the community needs and desires, and can fund their own projects more efficiently. They don’t have the power of eminent domain–which limits their authority–but they can gain community support and provide social services that cannot be accomplished as easily by a redevelopment agency that is focused almost exclusively on the built environment. 

The future of redevelopment in California is still in limbo: the trailer bills that would eliminate redevelopment agencies connected to the budget still have not been signed, and even if they do, there will undoubtedly be lawsuits. While many doubt that redevelopment will be ended completely, it is clear that changes will occur. Charities and nonprofits may become a larger part of neighborhood revitalization efforts as the role of redevelopment agencies is contested and redefined. I am excited to see the possibilities of these public-private partnerships, as they create recognition for nonprofit work and an avenue for real change through collaboration with local government. 


Dining in (__choose a city__)


On Friday night I sat outside in the breezy L.A. air—I was at a Thai restaurant called Saladang Song. Eating outside is not unusual, especially in California, but the atmosphere here was novel and exotic. Exotic is maybe a strange word to use given that there was no lush foliage hanging around, no culture-rich artwork or crafts adorning the walls, no foreign music spicing up our conversation and no decorative images gracing the serving platters. Instead, the only plants were eight towering palm trees, the walls were enormous facades of washed-out concrete, the only music was the steady purr of the downtown traffic, and the place settings were simple silver utensils with white bowls and platters. The ambiguous shapes carved into metal sheets along the walls were the only decorative touch.            

Everything was bare—the exact opposite of the traditionally cozy American diner. I felt far outside the U.S.  I’ve never been to Thailand, but I also don’t imagine this as a typical dining establishment for the Thai. I’ve also never been to the Arabian Peninsula, but no matter; this is where I imagined we were dining on Friday evening. After I’d decided we were located some number of miles outside of Dubai, every car horn and gust of wind that blew through only seemed to confirm my fantasy.  Obscuring the urban skyline made it hard to connect with the L.A. identity, and I could choose whichever urban identity I wanted—even one I’d never experienced.  I would like to try this more often.         




One of my housemates was just eating what was purported to be an organic, seedless watermelon.

(on metamodernsim, post-postmodernism, digimodernism)


Urban Studies Colloquium: A Celebration of Senior Honors Theses

First of all, I would like to congratulate every senior who presented at yesterday’s Urban Studies Colloquium. As a sophomore in the program on Urban Studies, I was both impressed and inspired by the incredible range, depth, and dedication that went into every thesis and presentation. It was incredibly exciting to see the level of research and analysis that can be achieved as an undergraduate.  I have had the opportunity to take classes this year with many of the seniors who presented, and it was fascinating to see what they had been working on behind-the-scenes throughout the year.

The colloquium was a six-hour event resulting in my taking many pages of notes and dozens of pictures. I would like to provide a brief description of their work and provide some comments about each of the presenting seniors. Sorry for the long post, but this over-achieving senior class had an unprecedented number of thesis-writers. Again, Urban Studies seniors, congratulations!


Read more of this post

Color in the City


Olafur Eliasson‘s ‘your rainbow panorama’ in Århus, Denmark

More info/pics here

Mexico City Can Share Bikes Too


My summer job—working toward the Bay Area’s pilot bike share program—is fast approaching and I have been thinking a great deal about cycling in San Francisco and the surrounding peninsula.  Apart from here on campus, I am not really a fan of biking into Palo Alto, and I think that people who bike up Market Street and Van Ness Avenue in SF are crazy. There are no bike lanes in downtown Palo Alto and I often find myself having to walk my bike because there are so many one-way roads with no alternative for cyclists. There are bike lanes in downtown San Francisco, but there are also hundreds of oblivious tourists and confusing traffic signals, not to mention the hills. A number of people I told about my summer job, were enthusiastic for my sake, but less than sold on the idea of biking in San Francisco.  I guess I was beginning to cave to their pessimism because I felt relieved when my internship supervisor said they might give me a different task. BUT…then I saw an article on Good.is called “Bike Sharing Thrives, Even in Mexico City’s Chaotic Streets,” and all hope was restored!

If biking and bike sharing is possible in Mexico City, then San Francisco should be no problem. Mexico City launched its program in February of 2010, and the numbers are remarkably similar to the Bay Area Pilot Program that will launch next year. Mexico City started with 1,200 bikes and the Bay Area will have 1,000 in circulation as of 2012. Mexico City’s ECOBICI Program has been extremely successful and generated widespread interest in biking among the residents. Not only is ECOBICI recording a good number of trips, but also use of private bicycles has increased 50 percent since the system was launched. Mexico City closes major streets for bike-only traffic on Sunday mornings and plans to build 100 miles of bike paths by next year. The positive resident response and the supplementary government initiatives are a good reminder that a little faith in great idea goes a long way. Bike Sharing truly is a great idea, if not for the direct effects of the program itself, but for the indirect effects of community building and awareness of alternative modes of transportation. I was switched to a new task for the summer, but I ended up asking my supervisor if I can still be included in all the meetings regarding bike sharing. She said “of course,” and now I cannot wait to see what creative responses we can come up with in the Bay Area.    



An anti-urban nation in an urbanizing world


David Leonhardt, New York Times economic columnist and recent Pulitzer Prize winner:

You don’t hear much about these [urban] issues in the first year of a presidential campaign, though. No wonder. Iowa, New Hampshire and the next two states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, do not have a single city among the country’s 25 largest. […]

So the presidential calendar becomes another cause of what Edward Glaeser, a conservative-leaning Harvard economist, calls our “anti-urban policy bias.” Suburbs and rural areas receive vastly more per-person federal largess than cities. One big reason, of course, is the structure of the Senate: the 12 million residents of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have eight United States senators among them, while the 81 million residents of California, New York and Texas have only six.

Bruce Katz, a Brookings vice president and veteran of Democratic administrations, points out that the world’s other economic powers take their cities more seriously. China, in particular, has made urban planning a central part of its economic strategy.

“The United States stands apart as an anti-urban nation in an urbanizing world,” Mr. Katz told me.

Read the full column here.

Photo: brandoncripps/Creative Commons