urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Have You Noticed the Construction?

Imagine if the average city recycled, renovated and constructed buildings as fast and as often as Stanford does. This might not be so remarkable until you realize how much construction Stanford actually carries out. I have lived on the campus for 10 years, and in that time buildings that I pass through at least once a week, such as, Maples Pavilion, the Football Stadium, the Alumni Center, the Arillaga Family Recreation Center, the Munger Graduate Residences, the majority of the Med School, the Hewlett and Packard Buildings, and the entire Engineering Quad were either built from scratch or completely gutted and built anew. Not to mention the Gunn Economics Building, the Knight Management School of Business, the new section of the Law School and the Arillaga Family Dining Commons that were all completed in the past year alone.  

Currently, Stanford has about 40 major projects underway (including the Bing Concert Hall, the Medical Center Renewal and Replacement, and the West Campus Wellness Center). What?  Maybe it is because we are always in a rush, maybe it is because we are biking not walking (See On the Road on Two Wheels), maybe it is because we only see the projects take baby steps, but I often overlook this substantial reshaping of our campus.  It took a massive crane and a heap of wreckage on Santa Teresa to open my eyes to the changes around me (in reality I had to close my eyes to avoid the clouds of debris). 

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Demolition of the Terman Engineering Quad

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Explore the full map of Stanford Projects here.

Stanford will always be Stanford by its landmarks—Hoover Tower, Mem Chu, The Quad, Palm Drive—but each generation of graduates leaves with a much different map of the campus than the last. I talked with a woman from the class of ’56 during Reunion Homecoming who said she barley recognized the campus and was simultaneously sad to lose the physical entities attached to her fond memories, but happy to see the progress of the University. How many reunions will it take until I don’t recognize the campus? At the rate Stanford’s building right now it seems like the 5th is a pretty good bet.   


A glimpse at the Stanford of the Future. Source

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City of Smarts

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to the Institute for the Future’s Technology Horizons 2011 Fall Conference for a workshop on the bottom-up innovations of the smart city. I will be writing my honors thesis on the smart city, so this was an incredible way to leaders from nonprofit organizations, corporations, activists, and government officials come together around the issue of the future of the smart city and its implications for the future.

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From inside one of the hackathons; source

The evening presentation was led by Jay Nash, the Director of Innovation for the City of San Francisco, and Peter Hirschberg, co-founder and chairman of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. Their talk was on the Summer of Smart, a city-wide project designed around three hackathons and months of development and prototyping, culminating in a 9-member mayoral debate setting new precedents for the way that citizens interact with their government.

Each of the hackathons was centered on a particular topic: community development and public art; energy, sustainability, and transportation; and nutrition and public health. While clearly social problems, three areas also have in common a relationship with the environment. While not explicitly related to green behaviors, environmental sustainability is perpetuated through clean streets, waste tracking, and food source monitoring. The winners of the last two categories presented at the conference and shared their innovative ways of addressing chronic problems in the city through mobile phone applications. The SMART Muni app solved problems that the City thought would take 5 years to tackle by combining a GPS feed of Muni buses with an interface that allows MTA managers to fix problems when they occur. The Garden Guardians app gives Bayview-Hunters Point residents real-time information about the availability of healthy food, even incorporating a game function that incentivizes youth leaders and adult mentors to gather data about their local food supply.   Read more of this post

Retrofitting Suburbia

Ellen Dunham-Jones makes a few very interesting points that sometimes reaffirm and sometimes challenge our beliefs about suburban norms in this TED Talk from June 2010.  She states, unsurprisingly, that urbanites have about one third the carbon footprint of suburban dwellers.  On the other hand, most jarring might be that in the year 2000, about two thirds of suburban households were without children.

What interests me, however, is her discussion of where generation Y is choosing to live, and where most jobs are going to be over the next few decades.  Today, people are choosing to live in urban areas, and they are commuting back to the suburbs for work—Google and Facebook both send shuttles into the city to pick up their employees and bring them back to Palo Alto and Mountain View.  Urban hubs have been stripped of their industrial centers, and some of those cores have been repurposed as the newest trendy places to live (think Meat Packing District in Manhattan, or SoMa in San Francisco). Read more of this post

Rural sectors becoming urbanized

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity sit down and chat with Professor Germán Correa at Universidad Central. I initially contacted him under the recommendation of the Santiago Bing Program’s director, and had somehow forgot to Google him before our meeting. It was in our meeting I came to find he was more than an expert in the academia of urban issues (with a sociology background), he had been designing urban structures and representing urban constituents for years. While I won’t go into the detail of his career here please do check out the linked Wikipedia page.

He started our conversation with the ballpark estimates that 85% of Chile’s population resides in cities while 43% reside specifically in Santiago. Shortly after he stated that even the rural sectors have become urbanized. In the first five minutes of our meeting I had reason to be rather skeptical- first I was not sure where his numbers came from or how they were calculated and second rural being urban simultaneously just seemed like a very counterintuitive thing to say. But as we discussed more I began to understand his second statement more.

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Like the U.S., Chile has migrant workers who work in the fields seasonally. But unlike the U.S., agricultural fields are in closer proximity to urban settlements. It is common for workers in the rural sector to work in the fields during the day while residing in a neighboring city at night. The distance may be covered by bus, truck, bike, etc. It is actually possible to physically be a part of these two worlds simultaneously. But even for those who live deep in the desert or mountains the radio is a key source for them to stay informed of urban happenings and issues. Chile has a number of national network programs based out of Santiago and other cities and thus focuses a lot of their programming on city news.

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Of course how we define urban and distinguish what is a city and what is not will allow us to either support or refute Professor Correa’s statement, but for myself it was refreshing to reconsider what urban can mean to Chileans as opposed to how I have conceived it growing up.

The photos are from our Bing Trip to Valle del Limari. The first includes two images on the right from a Saturday market at an old railway station and on the left are pidgeons in a large urban park that was 5 minutes walking distance away. The second is of an antique radio we came across on our trip.  

 

 

Ulterior Motives?

Two urban planning initiatives have piqued my interest recently.  I encountered one of them firsthand while I was in San Francisco last weekend.  On Powell Street (between Geary and Ellis Streets), planters, benches, railings, and tables—all made of precision cut and twisted pieces of aluminum—have popped up on both sides.  They sit atop aluminum grates with wood accents, extending out from the sidewalk, occupying the space that was formerly used for parking.  LED lights are installed along the walkways, with solar panels on both ends of the block to power them.  This project is called Progress on Powell Street and it was “launched with the purpose of improving the pedestrian experience on Powell Street in a way that transforms it into a vibrant destination and alleviates the congestion.”  Although I can’t say that this promenade did too much for congestion (the street was still pretty crowded when I was there), it certainly was eye-catching.  People were hanging out along the railings and tables, as well as using the benches to chat with friends or take a rest.  Thus, it was not only visually arresting but useful, too.

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The other initiative employs something called “the fun theory,” which is the idea that “something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.”  The change can be for people, for the environment, or for anything else, as long as it achieves the goal of effecting change for the better.  One of the projects in this initiative is called the “Piano Staircase.”  I did not experience it for myself but I still enjoyed watching the video of people who did.  The “Piano Staircase” was installed in a metro station in Odenplan, Stockholm.  Each stair was converted into a piano key that, when stepped on, played a corresponding note.  The amusing and interactive staircase was designed to encourage people to be more active and use the stairs, rather than the escalator.  As the video shows, it was quite a success.

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Traffic Axes to Grind

Marked as an object of contempt or peril on Urbanter this past week, the lowly bicycle is in need of a public relations boost. As maligned as the two-wheelers may be, the bike remains the main transportation mode for students, to the tune of 13,000 bikes and 11.7 miles of designated lanes on campus. These numbers are hardly an accident. Rather than an afterthought, the tilt toward cyclists has its roots in the University’s 1972 decision to reroute private vehicles and parking away from the core campus. Over the last four decades, this shift, combined with the ban on freshman car ownership, has created the pedestrian and bicycle circulation of today.  

 

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(The campus traffic arteries follow the spirit of the Olmsted-Stanford plan. Photo credit: William Johnson, FASLA)

That morning ride to Mudd chemistry building, then, is shaped by factors beyond a biker’s whim. The pathways that are heavily used are more a product of the school’s built environment than most cyclists would choose to believe. From the bollards to the strategic traffic calming elements (e.g. planters, fountains, the infamous circle), manmade fixtures largely dictate the routes cyclist follow. Both speedy cross-campus trails and accident-clogged intersections may then be alternately attributed to, or blamed on, the University’s planning department. 

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Be Purposeful, Not a Potato

As a New Jersey native and a Cory Booker follower on Twitter, I went to the Black Community Services Center this afternoon to hear Cory Booker’s, inspiring, funny and insightful speech. He is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, a Stanford alum and one of TIME’s most influential people of 2011. Like many twenty-somethings, myself included, as a student, Mayor Booker did not have a clue about what he wanted to do. Being at a school with so many opportunities and dealing with the day-to-day grind, we sometimes forget about what lies outside The Stanford Bubble. For Mayor Booker, his “best professors were in the streets in the city of Newark,” not in the classroom, though he had many great Stanford professors. On campus, he “got tired of talking, talking, talking,” and began to look outside the bubble to do service, and engaged in the East Palo Alto community. 

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(click for photo credit)

Though now the mayor of the largest city in New Jersey, if you had told Mayor Booker that would be his future, he wouldn’t have believed you. He followed his passions, nothing else. He said, “Life is more about passions and purpose than about positions.” So take that passion and apply it inside and outside the classroom. 

Mayor Booker described Newark as a tale of two cities. Poverty rates are up, but buildings and businesses have sprung up. He’s “trying not to let the city gentrify in a negative way.” He has more than doubled production of affordable housing and has made great strides in education reform. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million in donations to the Newark educational system, but much work still needs to be done.

Despite the business and building booms in Newark, a majority of the workforce won’t be qualified to hold jobs in the economy. A lagging education system is detrimental to those children, their families, the city, and a nation as a whole. And the cycle of poverty will keep spinning if the lagging education system isn’t fixed.

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(click for photo credit)

He said many people are stuck in a “sedentary agitation.” They’re sitting on their couches getting upset at the news. They’re getting upset about the world but not doing anything about it. They think somebody should do something, but they’re not looking within. Mayor Booker told us he looks to “find ways to join together with people in a cause greater than myself.” Don’t be a couch potato and watch life pass you by.

What’s one way college students can help? Mentor a student. 

He told college students, alums and other guests that mentoring a student for four hours a month reduces at-risk behavior among youth. He said that would be the equivalent of watching your favorite Jersey-centric reality television show, e.g. The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jersey Shore, or Jerseylicious. And let’s be honest, it’s like that extra, extra piece of chocolate cake. You’d enjoy it in the moment, but it doesn’t really add any nutritional value to your life.

So, dear reader, do something! And don’t let adversity get in the way of your dreams. Mayor Booker reflected on his career, and his first year as a city councilman was the toughest for him as a professional. But, he added, “the times when you’re most frustrated…most discouraged…are the greatest moments of your life.” And frustration is the precondition one must breakthrough to get there. 

Don’t know where to start? Type in your closest city or location at Idealist.org and check out all the different volunteer, internship and job opportunities available. This weekend, dream big, give back, spread good.

Occupy the Left

On Tuesday, I listened to Frank Fukuyama speak about political and economic development. He talked about how confusing it was that populist movements in the United States, and even worldwide, are coming from the right despite the highest levels in economic inequality in American history. In 2007, the top ten percent controlled 49.7% of American wealth. And this produces the Tea Party? Social democratic states in Europe are also facing this paradox. The next era of politics in the Netherlands may very well be dominated by the xenophobic, far-right wing Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders (of the infamous line: “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam.”)

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This interesting article published by Fast Company seems to suggest that Occupy Wallstreet is a more holistic, demographically representative movement including mostly independents and Democrats (they can’t escape the fact that only 2.4% identify as Republican), middle class, both employed and unemployed, educated and less educated, old fashioned and technologically savvy. Is this where our more leftist movement will come from? Check it out to read more. 

Transantiago at Peak Hours

On the days that I have classes at the Stanford Center I experience a double-edged sword that goes by the name of Transantiago at peak hours.  I usually leave my host family’s house around 8:15 and will enjoy a nice morning walk through the park on my way to the subway station where I catch the train around 8:30 in hopes of making it to class by 9. That is if I am lucky, which I often am not. As I make my way to the platform I usually struggle to slide myself into the dense crowd. It is always so crowded that I won’t make it onto a subway until the 4th or 5th train that passes. And even when I make it there comes a price- pushing, shoving, and sharing very personal space with Chilean strangers.  Trying to get out can be equally difficult and requires the same aggressiveness as getting on. Although Transantiago can often be a negative experience, I realize with awe each and every time I get off how widely used it is and as an avid people watcher find some joy in observing how people interact with each other during their daily commutes.


Here’s a snapshot of Santiago’s public transport prior to the existence of Transantiago in 2005:

  • Used by 6 million people
  • Distinct peak hours
  • Frequent routes transported passengers between the metropolitan periphery and city’s activity centers (running on a variety of residential and commercial streets)
  • Santiago Metro (subway system) covered 85 kilometers with 5 lines
  • 8,000 buses and informal shared taxis (run by separate companies)
  • Buses came frequently and the driving was aggressive  (for bus drivers more passengers meant more income)
  • Flat fare of $0.50 USD

 

Transantiago was introduced in 2007 as part of a multi-modal transportation plan that was implemented by the Lagos and later Bachelet administration. Transantiago consolidated the bus companies into one bus rapid transit system (Micros) with the Santiago Metro subway system (Metro). This was based on a trunk and feeder system designed by Chilean specialists and consultants who were inspired and influenced by the very successful Tranmilenio from Bogotá (Colombia) and RIT (Rede Integrada de Transporte) from Curitiba (Brazil). Side note: we actually study about RIT in URBANST113 with Professor Gast.


As you may already have noticed from my description in the beginning extreme crowding is an issue. This is in large part due to the systems coverage and vehicle design. The consolidation of buses and shared ride services also meant rerouting so that Micros primarily run on main streets thus increasing walking time to get to a boarding location and the need to make more transfers which overall increases a commuters travel time.  The newly designed buses and trains have fewer seats but are not space efficient, there is a lack of fixtures to hold onto for stability during movement, and when passengers cannot board this further increases delay. Chilean people are clearly not impressed and some have spoken out against these and proposed upcoming changes for very valid reasons.


At the beginning of this past August, domestic workers took to the streets in protest for better public transportation service. In this article The Clinic interviews a street vendor about his observations of the domestic workers’ protest, the challenges faced by working-class commuters, and stress and exhaustion of bus drivers. Some challenges he discusses includes how commuters make large efforts to adjust to the increased travel time for work, “levantándose a las tres y media de la mañana, tomando la primera máquina que va a Los Trapenses pasadas las cinco, saliendo del trabajo a las seis de la tarde y volviendo a su casa a las nueve y media de la noche…” He also discusses the implication of fare hikes on the working class and the use of the SmartCard making it more difficult to monitor spending. “De partida el trabajador llega malhumorado a la pega, tiene problemas económicos, le pagan hoy día y a los dos días se queda sin plata…Uno le dice a la gente si supo lo del pasaje, pero como ahora es con tarjeta, no se dan cuenta lo que están pagando. Antes, cuando pagábamos con monedas, nos dábamos cuenta.” While all commuters suffer when a rapid transit system is implemented poorly, it is important to recognize that working class commuters suffer on a different level.


In drawing connections to Transantiago I was reminded of student protests in Boston during my high school years that strived to negotiate with the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) for keeping student fares affordable, more frequent buses and later train service, and respect and better treatment from transit police towards youth. This culminated into a campaign for youth transit justice called Youth Way on the MBTA that is presently active today. But the idea of youth transit justice though is not just a recent concern of Boston students. They have been protesting fare hikes as early as 1968 when students marched from Dudley Street Station to the mayor’s office on School St. in Boston stating their reasons were that fare hikes were aimed at the workers and poor in order to pay off debt to wealthy bond-holders. Thus this issue was not just an issue of being able to afford the fare but it was also a fight for socioeconomic justice.


Creating effective, efficient forms of public transportation not only contributes to the design and productivity of metropolitan areas and cities but it also ensures a form of justice in which all people have the right to move freely around the city for fundamental activities like school and work.

 

 

On The Road On Two Wheels

In New York (and everywhere else, I’m sure), one of the biggest arguments against the growing movement of biking around the city was—and, no doubt, still is—safety.  Pedestrians, city officials, and drivers alike have complained about the rising number of cyclists that have shown up over the years to compete for coveted space on the streets.  They criticize the cycling culture, stating that cyclists are hazards not only to themselves, but also to everyone else.  Although I am a supporter of the biking movement and believe that biking is a viable alternative in a city as congested as New York, I can understand where the opposition is coming from.

Perhaps it stems from a lack of knowledge and information, or just complete disregard for others; but a number of cyclists are not following the rules of the road.  I see it a lot in the city: people riding their bikes on the crowded sidewalks and crosswalks (when there are clearly marked bike lanes on the street), causing vendors and pedestrians to jump out of the way.  There are cyclists who do not wear helmets and reflective gear.  There are those who do not make hand signals to show which way they are turning or who do not call out to make their presence known.  There are those who do not stop at red lights and stop signs.  And there are those who ride against traffic on a one-way street.  These cyclists are making it very difficult for other people to accept and take seriously biking as a form of transportation.  Instead, those who do not follow road rules just add fuel to the opposition’s fire.

The same things happen right here on campus, too.  I’ve seen people riding their bikes in the arcades at the Main Quad.  Cyclists go against the turnarounds at White Plaza and near the Clock Tower.  And in the lot between Tresidder and Florence Moore Hall, I’ve seen cyclists blatantly ignore the brightly and freshly painted signs that the pathway there, flanked by hedges, is now intended for pedestrian use only.  This would be a tad less huge of a deal if there weren’t also newly marked bicycle lanes right beside this pathway.  How many injuries and collisions need to occur before people pay attention to the signs?

Roadsigns

As I mentioned, it might just be an issue of outreach and education.  If that is the case, in order to gain more supporters, cyclists must give less reason for the opposition to complain by following vehicle laws, riding safely, and being aware of the signage and the layout of the road.  Stanford University’s Parking and Transportation provides a wealth of tips on its website.  They also offer bike safety classes.  Everyone should take advantage of these resources and perhaps we can all create a more positive image of the biking movement.