Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Post-Olympic Torino

Turin’s relationship with, and some might say reliance on, the automobile company Fiat is fascinating. On our Bing trip to Turin this past weekend, we visited the Fiat factory and had the Director of Communications give us a presentation about the role of the company in Turin’s history and future. Fiat was founded in 1899, becoming the largest automobile company in Italy by 1910, a title it would never lose. The company employed huge numbers of Italians and brought about the expansion of the city to provide housing for the workers.


An interesting component of Fiat’s power, however, was its ability to affect the physical planning of the city in a way that today would be unacceptable to most urban planners. The city is large—the third largest in Italy, many easily forget—and planned very rationally, with a grid pattern and wide streets. Fiat’s opposition to the development of a sophisticated public transportation system, however, made it impossible for Turin to install a metro system or tram system until decades too late. Fiat wanted its workers to buy cars, naturally, and its economic dominance of the city translated to political dominance. A metro was finally begun for the 2008 Olympic Games, but due to limited funds, is largely still under construction.

Due to sustainability being the new buzzword, though, Fiat has switched its attention to environmentally friendly vehicles, including futuristic prototypes that if nothing else, inspire thought about the future of automobiles. While low emission cars are still on the whole more polluting than low emission buses, it’s a start that should be recognized, especially in a country where the environmental movement seems to be limited in its effect. Fiat models are inherently more environmentally friendly than most American cars simply because of the infeasibility of driving huge, gas-guzzling cars in Europe. The Fiat 500, for example, is a hugely popular car because of its classic Fiat look and beautiful design, not because of any associations with masculinity or power.


Transportation is clearly a huge topic in Turin, but on the other side of the spectrum is the city’s central position in the Slow Food Movement (which Taylor also discusses). Begun by Carlo Petrini in 1986, the movement encourages traditional and regional cuisine, offering an alternative to the influx of the fast food culture. A symbol of this movement is the flagship Eataly grocery store, which specializes in gourmet artisanal food. I’ve been able to visit the one in New York City as well, and while seriously tempting, both are oases of high quality food outside the price range of even wealthy residents.  Eataly’s success has led to the opening of restaurants worldwide, with one planned even for Japan, and is putting Turin back on the map.


Turin, as one of our guides remarked, is the most important city you’ve never heard of. With its huge importance in transportation and food, two topics currently of huge interest to urban planners, its innovations serve as an example to many other cities in Italy that haven’t fared so well through the economic downturn.



Cities are Complicated

The Palo Alto post office was built in 1932 by “Palo Alto’s best-loved architect” (Palo Alto Weekly), Birge Clark.  (Some of his other works include the Lucie Stern Community Center, the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, and the Lou Henry Hoover House, a.k.a. the Stanford President’s House.) It is one of downtown Palo Alto’s oldest buildings and registered on both the municipal and national lists of historic places. With the financial meltdown of the U.S. Postal Service, the Palo Alto office, at 380 Hamilton, is looking for a new owner.  Ideally, the building would be restored as a city property, but with price estimates of $6 million (not to mention re-purposing costs), the council members will have to get creative. 


Photo Credit: Palo Alto Online 

Across the highway, the Palo Alto Municipal Services Center, a 16-acre complex of maintenance, storage, and construction, is looking to abandon its current space and relocate east of 101. The Municipal Services Center offices and garages were built in the early 1960’s using the least seismically sound construction methods possible. Given that the Municipal Services Center is supposed to be one of the key responders during an earthquake, I’d say this is one infrastructure project that the City cannot afford to ignore.  Unfortunately, with a price tag of $93 million, the City cannot really afford to retrofit the Center either. 


Municipal Services Center show in the purple box.

Every year, the budget is divided up and every year important needs get left out. If you were on the Palo Alto City Council, would preserving the post office or upgrading the Services Center take precedent? These cases, along with a dozen others, are currently waiting in line at City Hall. I put them both in this post today as a reminder of how complicated it is to run a city. As Urban Studies students we have the luxury of critiquing and pondering from the classroom.  We study the tough decisions, but we never have to make them.  The classroom setting is nice, but every once in a while we should consider our assignements in light of their real-world consequences.   


A City with a Life Span

Recently I had a fantastic experience exploring Venice, but all the while was wondering how many more generations would get to do the same. The rate at which the city is sinking is still controversial, ranging from 7 centimeters a century to 24, but the concern over the potential effect of recently intensifying natural disasters worldwide is certainly in agreement. Global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps, of course, are critical issues and ones that cannot be solved by Venetian lifestyle changes. How does a city plan for constant flooding, unstoppable tourism, and population instability, all of which aggravate the other, and which cannot be directly controlled?


The earlier General Town Plan (1959) and New Town Plan (1962) have proven ineffective at combatting the shortage of living space and difficulty of mobility that Venice suffers from. A new solution was created in 1997 with the founding of INSULA, an engineering consortium that provides maintenance services to the city. A great example of a successful public-private partnership, INSULA is divided in ownership between the city and four utility companies. Recently, INSULA merged with a company specializing in historic preservation and restoration.

The most dramatic plan to alleviate the problem of flooding is called the MOSE Project, which would erect 79 gates between the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. When the water level rises more than one meter, the gates would be activated, creating dykes to protect the city. Environmental critics claim that this would stop influxes of water from rushing into the canals and cleansing them of sediment, while others disapprove of the project simply because of its €2.5 billion price tag.


An aerial view of the MOSE Project, as built north of Lido in Venice. Source.

But it seems that these efforts are just keeping up with deterioration, instead of pushing the city forward and advancing the quality of life. INSULA repairs bridges damaged by flooding, dredges canals periodically and restores utilities like the sewage system. These all are expensive undertakings, in terms both of time and money, and ultimately just keep the city afloat. When the water rises, tourists find it difficult to see the city, boats can’t pass under the bridges, and most importantly, buildings are irreparably damaged. The so-called tides of optimism seem quickly to be washing away. Even if Project Moses were to be agreed upon, Italy’s current financial situation makes it unlikely that it would be feasible to implement. My advice? See it while you can!


Global Problems, Global Solutions

Every city is unique, but many cities are plagued by the same problems.  I see the phrase “think globally, act locally,” and I can’t help but imagine all the global thoughts that are waiting for someone to put them into action. Living Labs Global, a non-profit based in Copenhagen does just that; it takes a city’s problem and matches it up with solutions proposed from all corners of the globe


At the beginning of May, the 3rd Annual Living Labs Global Awards Ceremony will take place in conjunction with the Rio [de Janeiro] Summit on Service Innovation in Cities. 21 cities have posted 21 very specific and detailed service challenges on the Living Labs Global website.  Any individual, non-profit, or business can propose a solution on the website. A team of city officials and global experts in the challenge “category” will wade through the proposals at the end of this month, and send some onto a second round where the solution-providers will be asked to beef up their proposals.

“This is not an ideas competition” clarified the general director of Living Labs Global, “it is an award for technology that can save our city tomorrow.” In other words, it is a competition about fitting a square peg into a square hole. Most importantly, that square peg can already be in use and thriving elsewhere. It doesn’t make sense for cities to constantly experiment with new systems when a sister city is already modeling a feasible and established option.


The 2011 Living Labs Global Competition awarded contracts to Barcelona, New Taipei City, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Lagos among others for categories including autonomous telehealthcare, smart parking for urban living, and venture capital funding.  This is definitely a competition and trend worth following…or participating in if you’ve got a solution.  

Photos from Living Labs Global flicker. 

The Psychology of Heritage, Part II

When I wrote my post about Florence and the palpable civic pride that I had encountered thus far, I hadn’t yet been to Berlin. While spending a weekend there, I was shocked by how different the effect of the city’s history was there. Throughout my visit I reflected on the completely opposite effect that the past has had on Berlin, with its recent history constantly resurfacing in an emotionally-trying way. This effect must have been heightened by the fact that Saturday marked the anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, so Holocaust-focused television programs were in full force.

Berlin’s proudest achievements in city planning, from their extensive commuter and urban train systems to the reunification of the city after the fall of the Berlin Wall, are also tainted with stories of violence. The S-Bahn, the very symbol of German efficiency, can take you to Sachsenhausen concentration camp within an hour. The Allied bombings that destroyed 90 percent of the center of the city and gave rise to completely different styles of architecture in East and West Berlin after the construction of the Wall also created economic patterns and an unequal social history unlike any I have ever seen.



Berlin’s lack of a single identifiable center made it much more difficult for me to “read” the city and develop my own Lynch map, as Taylor discusses. The city’s most recognizable and impressive monuments, from the TV tower to the Victory Column, though impressive in their own right, are imbued with a history that comes back to struggle; the TV tower epitomizes the power-struggle between the East and West, and the Victory Column was co-opted by Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, as a symbol of Nazi strength.




It is clear that Berlin has gone through more than most cities ever will, particularly in modern times. Maybe this is the reason that its heritage strikes much more of a somber note than that of Florence. The wars and deaths ordered by Florentine rulers happened so long ago that we are able to completely eliminate any sort of emotional connection; this capacity to remove ourselves does not exist in Berlin, nor should it. More than the chilly fog that enveloped the city this weekend, there was a collective guilt embodied directly in the Holocaust memorial only blocks away from Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag.


Much of this discussion goes back to the idea of the urban imaginary, as well. The popular perception of Florence as a romantic, artistic city is quite dissimilar from Berlin’s stereotype as a cold, divided (albeit fun) city. The psychology of the city is impacted by foreign perceptions of it, I would argue, even though residents usually refuse to admit that they ascribe to their city’s labels.  The average Berliner, of course, must not live in this perpetual state of forced remembrance, or the emotional trauma would make any normal person move. Furthermore, the city has so much cultural vitality and reasons to be proud that are completely unrelated to its past. But all the same, I was surprised by the amount that Berlin’s recent history dominates the spirit of the city and the extent to which tragedy is made known. 


What Does a City Gain from Hosting the Super Bowl?


NPR’s Planet Money Podcast team took some time to think about what exactly Indianapolis gained or will gain from hosting the Super Bowl.  You can listen to it here.

In 2008, Bloomberg published an article looking at the Super Bowl’s economic effects as a whole, and last year, Forbes examined the flow of revenues from the Super Bowl game itself.

Finally, you can read College of the Holy Cross economist Victor A. Matheson’s paper here.

Second Cities


What does it mean to be a nation’s second city?  If New York is our first, which is our second?  Boston?  Los Angeles?  Washington, DC?  Chicago?  Does it have to do with being, as I suppose the name would imply, the city with the second largest population?  Wikipedia provides a nice list of countries and their largest and second largest cities (notice all the largest cities with emboldened names; those are each nation’s capital).  Or maybe it has to do with influence or culture or wealth or history.  A nation’s second city has generally separated itself from the also-rans—perhaps it is also world-famous.  But it is always inferior, always the underdog—especially in sports.

What does second city status mean to Barcelona?  Why does the Barcelona-Madrid sports rivalry (courtesy of Futbol Club Barcelona and Real Madrid Club de Fútbol) reach hysteric heights (or is it depths?) each time the two teams face off, as they did in the Copa del Rey quarterfinal? 

In Spain, as in other countries, municipal and provincial identities translate to sports affiliations.  However, in Spain, unlike in other countries, historical political divisions neatly correlate with sports affiliations.  Each time 95,000 Catalans fill the Camp Nou to take in a Clásico the stadium collectively recalls the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalists’ (led by General Franco) aerial bombardment of Barcelona, and an almost half-century of subjugation at the hands of the Madrid-based (and Madridista) government.  Real Madrid, with its all-white strip—and of late, its physical tactics—begets recollections of the White Terror.

Last Wednesday, Barça had a two-goal lead going into the second half.  Moreover, Barça has dominated Madrid in recent times, winning nine, drawing three, and losing one match against their eternal rivals in the last three years.  Madrid scored twice in the second half, and a hush fell over the stadium.  Hands were wrung, nails were bit, and hearts pounded as Barça nervously defended its position in the competition’s semifinals (Barça won 2-1 in Madrid two weeks ago in the tie’s first leg, but aggregate scores are decisive, with away goals used as the tiebreaker).

An educated viewer, in those last twenty minutes, could feel the fragile confidence and psychological advantage of the Catalan supporters strain.  Sports pundits like to write about the psychological advantage this Barcelona team has over its counterparts, but what is more interesting is the ingrained underdog identity of Barça’s Catalan supporters.