Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Complete Food Equation

Food movements generally have one of two purposes: they seek to address social issues on the production side or they seek to address gastronomic concerns on the consumption side. The issues are of course intertwined, but it is rare that a single group or organization tries to tackles the entire ground-to-table spectrum. The Fair Trade movement, and the Alliance for Fair Food are examples of supply-side efforts that ensure living wages for farm laborers and sustainable production practices. The Raw Food and Vegetarian movements are demand-side issues that promote health benefits, purity of ingredients and an awareness of one’s gastronomic habits.  The Slow Food Movement and the Locavore movement are unique examples that do actually examine the entire culinary process.


The Food Wheel tells you which foods are in season when. Find out more here.

In urban areas, even in suburban areas like Palo Alto, the locavore movement, which encourages people to buy ingredients that are in-season and as close to their house as possible, does not seem to be an attainable pursuit. Urban areas are defined by density and are often thought to be concrete jungles pushing out nature, including any hope for agriculture.  As urban studies majors we are, of course, aware that this is not the reality, and the most appealing cities are those that balance nature and civilization.  In urban and suburban areas alike, small farms and even large farms are not as uncommon as you might think.  The tools are there if you are interested in becoming a locavore—if only a casual iphone locavore. 

Whether your biggest concerns rest with the environment or your tastebuds, these food movements that bridge the production/consumption gap are the appropriate way to reflect on your food choices. As Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini says, “A gastronome who is not an environmentalist is stupid. An environmentalist who is not a gastronome is boring.” So maybe he has an agenda, but the point is that just doesn’t make sense to work with only half of an equation.  



The Psychology of Heritage

Studying abroad in Florence has been a dream come true for someone as interested in urban history and architecture as I am. My walk to school every morning passes in front of the Piazza del Duomo, past Piazza della Repubblica, and across the Ponte Vecchio. The cobblestone streets mean that bicyclists can only go so fast, the narrow streets mean that drivers can only be so aggressive, and the cold weather means that flu-fearing Italians and tourists are only present in small numbers.


What has been particularly interesting, beyond my changed physical environment, is the new psychological environment in which I have placed myself. The Italian pride in their identity is unmistakable, and very different from my own feelings towards the United States. Growing up in San Diego, I was conscious of my home city’s limited history, stretching only as far back as the eighteenth century. Of course, San Diego has been inhabited by native populations for thousands of years, but its history as an actual urban center began in 1769—many years after the palazzo that currently houses the Stanford Center in Florence was built. I like to think of Florence as a lasagna city–to borrow the term from Saint Clement’s Church in Rome, which is referred to as the lasagna church. There are layers upon layers of history, beginning before the birth of Christ in Roman times and extending to the present day.

Barbarian invasions led to the Byzantine and Lombard periods, followed by Florence’s role as a state in the Holy Roman Empire. The Middle Ages were interrupted by conflict between the Ghibellines and Guelphs, a period finally to be replaced by the Renaissance, the eventual end of Medici rule, the decline of the city, and its ultimate resurgence to the regional capital it is today. For a sense of perspective, when the first European set eyes on San Diego in 1542, Michelangelo had already completed his sculpture of David, which sat outside of the Palazzo Vecchio. How’s that for two different worlds?

While in Italy, I will be a tour guide at Florence’s Baptistery, the oldest structure in the Piazza del Duomo that also includes the Duomo cathedral and Giotto’s campanile. Learning the history of the baptistery has only reinforced my perception of a strong Italian heritage, almost ideological in its intensity. The structure, built in the 11th century, is one of the oldest buildings in Florence and is imbued with an aura of mysticism.  Up until the 19th century, it was popularly thought that the baptistery had originally been a Roman temple to the god Mars, but it is now know that this is false. However, this identification with the past exists even today, and is based in the medieval Florentine desire to claim honor by being related to an ancient Roman past.


When visiting any main site, it is necessary to peel back the layers of history that together validate Italian pride, and more specifically, Florentine pride. In Californian cities, it is rare to identify with the founders of the city as Florentines do, especially because we know how poorly the Spanish colonists treated the native populations. In Italy, however, a persistent monoculture, so to speak, eliminates charges of racism and instead pits geographical territories against each other; in Tuscany, Florence, Siena, Lucca, and Pisa have traditionally vied for dominance. It’s refreshing, actually, to be in a place where pride in the past is not equated with questionable ethics!


The City in Your Head

There are many types of maps: road maps, topographic maps, political maps, 3-D globes, thematic maps, interactive digital maps—I could go on.  The one thing that all these maps have in common is that they are (usually) created by professionals and distributed to the public. Cartography is an underappreciated art, as I learned last quarter in my GIS course, and accurate maps are crucial to our functioning as a society. That said, wouldn’t it be interesting (albeit not as useful for navigating) if maps were created by the individual user? Kevin Lynch, an urban planner and author, thought so and devised a standardized system in his 1960 book The Image of the City, for residents to sketch personalized, mental maps of their neighborhoods and cities. The maps were created using only five components: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Everyone’s maps turned out differently and the most common components comprised what he termed the “public image”.

After talking about this study in Intro to Urban Design, I decided to make my own Lynch Map of the Stanford campus. And to make it a little more interesting, I recruited my friend Ryan Satterlee to make his own version of the campus. With only our mental images of Stanford as reference, here is what we came up with:


My Map.  


Ryan’s Map.

Remarkably similar! Dashed lines are paths (double dashed are major paths), solid lines are edges, circles are nodes, stars are landmarks, and hatched polygons are districts. We didn’t specify extent and yet we drew almost the boundaries. (Jackelyn Hwang, class of 2007 in sociology, did an incredible honors thesis on the perception of neighborhood boundaries and urban isolation in West Philadelphia. Check it out!) Within our boundaries, we included all of the same districts, nodes, paths and landmarks, with only a handful of exceptions. Stanford is a much smaller area than a full-size city, and I would imagine that there would be much more variation within city-scale Lynch maps.  Even still, I think Lynch would agree that Stanford is a “legible” landscape—it is both easy to recognize its individual parts, as well as organize it into a coherent landscape. 

If you feel so inclined, please post your own Lynch maps (either of Stanford or your own hometown) as a response to this post or as a new post. It’s really fun (and challenging)!  


“War on Graffiti”: Crackdown on Creative Expression in the 1970s

In historical narratives, protagonists’ stories are the ones highlighted, or the only ones told. Although history begins with city streets, it is still typical that the writing was about actions and events in the hands of the monarchy and “great heroes”. The notion of hero has always been about action, and through this action, making a difference and making a mark. An example of a shift in historical narratives and modern-day heroes can be seen in New York City and the “War on Graffiti.”


In New York City’s “War on Graffiti” demonstrates the latter: city taxes are used in excess to remove this expression. In 1972, Mayor John Lindsay, a hopeful presidential candidate, launched the “War on Graffiti.” Restrictions were placed on markers and aerosol paints, there were increased security measures, increased use of chemicals, solvents and paints to deter graffiti, in addition to the use of psychological measures. In 1975 Metro Transportation Authority efforts to stop graffiti only came to a momentary halt because the city was on the verge in bankruptcy. However, soon enough, the War on Graffiti was back in full swing and graffiti artists continued to be the political scapegoats for the many real crises occurring in the city. Because the municipal government were incapable of dealing with those problems, of which bankruptcy was most pressing, they covered it up with these ‘quality of life’ campaigns. Merely symbolic and expensive in nature, they appeased the voting populace. In 1976, despite the city’s near-bankruptcy, in addition to the annual $25 million spent on the War on Graffiti, it scrounged up $20 million more of taxpayer dollars to establish ‘the buff.’ This was a chemical washing of graffitied trains that harmed hundreds of workers.  During government-pushed image-cleaning campaigns, youth engaged in this were villainized – scapegoats used by city officials incompetent in handling real problems plagueing the city. But in this very criminalized act, youth are engaging reverse colonialism, going against commercialization and capitalism.




As Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, put it, “violating notions of property and propriety, graffiti writers found their own kind of freedom.” In the 1960s, Ivor Miller, an advocate for anti-graffiti measures, said that subways used to be a symbol for freedom. However, Lee Quinones, a popular graffiti writer, retorted: “Subways are corporate America’s way of getting its people to work. It’s used as an object of transporting corporate clones. And the trains were clones themselves, they were all supposed to be silver blue, a form of imperialism and control, and we took that and completely changed it.” Chang goes further, stating this youth movement was “an expression of the soul, unmediated by corporate money, unauthorized by the powerful.” While critics of the movement looked at this youth movement as physical proof of the degradation of society, in 1973 New York Magazine, journalist Richard Goldstein stated that graffiti was “the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties”. This reverse colonization was reclaiming the streets, the buses, the subways, and the city.  


I took the photo above and won an honorable mention in Drexel University high school photography competition in 2009. What grabbed me was the artistry, but what also drew me in further was the happenstance was a disarrayed, worn flyer on top, which in summary told the viewer: “Life is Art.” This part of an exterior wall in New York City also exemplified to me how art is a never-ending process, building on all the history that has come before it. Art is not something, in my opinion, to be dismissed as a youthful public indiscretion. It is vital in sustaining expression, and particularly voice, when all other channels have been blocked.

Faces on Fences


In 2011, Mentalgassi, an anonymous German street art collective, collaborated with Amnesty International to bring to light 2011’s most pressing human rights abuse cases around the world. Called “Making the Invisible Visible,” Mentalgassi created images of six individuals on pieces of fences. Staring straight at the fences, one doesn’t fully see the picture. One must stare at an extreme angle for the individuals’ faces to come into view. Individuals made visible include Fatima Hussein Badi—sentenced to death after an unfair trial, Natalia Estemirova—a murdered Russian human rights activist whose murderer has not yet been punished, Jabbar Savalan—imprisoned in Azerbaijan pacifist anti-government activism, which includes Facebook commentary. 

Click the link to watch the art process.


In 2011, after the infamous execution of Troy Davis, the Huffington Post posthumously acknowledged Mentalgassi’s attention to the Troy Davis case through working with Amnesty International.

Mentalgassi is one of the many examples of how street art is an important aspect of city culture and how this public art can be public dissent for against government or corporate policies, laws, and convictions that seem unjust, unfair and/or inhumane.