Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: April 2012

San Francisco’s Population in Real Time

In early 2011, The Wall Street Journal partnered with the geolocating company, Foursquare, to track every user’s check-ins for a week in both New York City and San Francisco.  They then compared where users checked in most (and by type, gender, etc.).

I couldn’t get over the cool slideshow they created with hourly data–San Francisco’s is above.  If we set aside the fact that these data are skewed to a certain segment of the population (namely a young, technologically savvy demographic), it’s incredible to see where the population goes at which hours of the day, and to watch the city slumber each night and awaken each day.  There’s a wonderous quality that comes with being unable to disaggregate the city into its individual organisms and seeing it (as a whole) as a singluar organism.

I wonder how the map would differ one year later.  Or five, ten, twenty years from now.


You can see both New York’s and San Francisco’s heat maps here, along with comparative statistics for each city.


City DNA

What does a city look like when it is reduced to its most basic forms? Lu Xinjian, an artist based in Shanghai, has spent the last 3 years making art out of satellite images from cities taken from Google Earth. He reduces urban settlement patterns to squares, lines, circles, dots, curves.

I was excited to see four of the cities that I know best, New York, San Francisco, Beijing, and Moscow.


New York (2010)


San Francisco (2011)


Beijing (2010)


Moscow (2010)


I was pleased to see that Lu was able to capture the bustling activity framed by the urban grid of New York City, the disrupting curvature of freeways in San Francisco, the hidden alleyways and nooks and crannies of central Beijing, and the medieval rings of Muscovy. Whenever we walk through a city, we are only able to see the next street in front of us; does it become a different place when you can see the whole thing with one fell swoop? Lu’s paintings begin to translate the sensation of the immediate sights, smells, and sounds of a city into an entire landscape. They’re synecdoches.

But on the other hand, a city is a million different experiences. Does distilling it to shapes and lines tell us anything meaningful about it?

I encourage you all to look at your cities and share your thoughts!

http://www.xinjianlu.com/ (seems to be down) and http://www.f2gallery.com/artist/53/ 

The Baths of Caracalla


This weekend I saw the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, and the Vatican, and although all of these monuments far exceeded my expectations, it was a lesser known monument—the Baths of Caracalla—which truly blew me away. The Caracalla facilities (Terme di Caracalla) are generally agreed to be the most elaborate of the Ancient Roman baths. I haven’t seen the others, but I am inclined to believe this after my visit to the ruins.

I have been trying to think of a modern equivalent for the past few days and I simply cannot think of a a place that matches both the scale and social importance of the Caracalla site. As impressive as the other sites are, I can think of contemporary equivalents: the Coliseum is the precursor to the modern stadium (Wembley Stadium in London, Cape Town (FIFA) Stadium, Beijing “Nest” Stadium are a few noteworthy examples), the Forum is to Rome as the Mall is to Washington D. C., and Palatine Hill is the Ancient Roman version of Beverley Hills. It is this unfamiliarity with the public baths that was so captivating, and as difficult as it was, I was determined to visualize the ancient atmosphere of each and every room.

The Baths were begun in the 3rd century AD and it is estimated that 9,000 laborers installed 2,000 tons of raw material each day for 6 straight years in order to complete the massive complex a mile south of the Forum (the ancient city center). And massive is really the best adjective I can think of to describe this place. In total the complex covered approximately 33 acres and the main building stood about 12 stories high. In addition to the three central bathing halls—the caldarium (hot), tepidarium (warm), and frigidarium (cold)—there were two gyms (most commonly used for wrestling and ball games), an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, two libraries (one with Greek literature and one with Latin literature), a courtyard for socializing and performances, shops, restaurants, and even sleeping quarters for visitors.


This sounds like some of the “super” malls that can be found in America, and I would agree except for the fact that that bathing was a daily activity for most Roman citizens. The baths were not a luxury spa experience or an amusement park for the rich, but a public meeting space and a social right in the ancient capital.

Although the baths were left to deteriorate after the aqueduct system was damaged in the 6th century, they remain a significant site for Romans. When Rome hosted the 1960 Olympics, the baths served as a shell for the gymnastics facilities. Since 1937, the Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma has used Caracalla as a dramatic backdrop for its summer season, with performances by legends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. A final fun fact: the architecture of the central frigidarium was so impressive that architects continue to replicate it nearly 2000 years later. The architects of Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, Chicago’s Union Station, and New York’s Pennsylvania Station all visited Caracalla and studied the engineering before making their final blueprints. Does the video below look familiar for those of you who’ve been to these places? 

Urban Studies as a Way of Life

My freshman year, I lived in Faisan with a lovely young woman from Los Alamos, New Mexico with whom I had nothing in common. We had similar tastes in music, were both easy enough to get along with, but we never quite clicked and I remember the moment that I realized what it was: I was putting on sneakers to get ready for a run around the Quad (something I still like to do 5 years later, since it is the best lit place on campus) at about 9pm, and invited her to join me. She loved running, and was delighted to have someone to run with at that hour. As she put on her sneakers, she said, “I have to remind myself, I live in a city now and it’s not safe to run at night by myself.”

I was floored. I came from Brooklyn New York, one of the most urban places in America and for me, Stanford was the country. In Los Alamos, my roommate would sleep outside at night and feel completely alone, without anyone around her for miles. In Brooklyn, I felt like I was having dinner with my next-door neighbor every night; that’s how close our dining room window was to theirs. 

As I’m preparing to graduate with a BA in Urban Studies, I have found myself considering the worth of an Urban Studies education. I will be moving on to the graduate program in Anthropology here at Stanford, pursuing my interest in archaeology, I have frequently encountered the question (from myself and others): what does Urban Studies have to do with that?

What I have come to value most about my education in Urban Studies is that it has allowed me an entry into a conversation with anyone. Urban Studies is the study of place; what it means to people and why; how it affects people; how it comes to be the way it is. Everyone is from some place and it is a subject that everyone can talk about. It’s one of the first questions you ask of any stranger you’re conversing with: where are you from? Why is that question important? It’s one of the most basic ways we relate to other people–a connection to place. The places we are from shape our experiences and how we continue to live. Not to be fatalist–we are all so much more than where we’re from– but Urban Studies has given me an appreciation for the basic way we understand each other.

Urban Trekking?

I am writing this post after having lived in a city (Florence, Italy to be specific) for the first time in my life. I have already been here for almost a month, which is exceptionally hard to believe. I have been experiencing phenomenon and urban issues that I have been studying, researching, and blogging about for 3 years now. I walk 20 minutes to school each day, I buy lunch at coffee shops and delis, I ride public transportation if my destination is more than 3 miles away, I live in a small apartment in a mixed-use building, and I am constantly surrounded by people, sights, and smells that are foreign and novel. I expected all of the things on this list.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, is the difficulty of finding a place to exercise. This sounds trivial, but for someone who is used to simply stepping out the front door to a plethora of running paths, hiking trails, bike boulevards, and for that matter, neighborhood parks with recreation equipment, city life is a big departure.  There is really only one park here—Cascine Park—and although it is lovely to run through, it does not exactly invite joggers to stop for stationary exercises (push-ups, jumping jacks, sit-ups, etc.). 

I went on my first run the other day and chose a path that runs along the Arno River and through Cascine Park. To be fair, the route was beautiful and provided ample space to keep my heart rate up for a while. The only trouble was how to navigate the before and after portions of my workout. Walking to the park was not such a big deal (although Italians never wear shorts or t-shirts in the city), but weaving my way back to my apartment, sweaty and flushed, on the crowded sidewalks, was definitely uncomfortable. I see no way around this though, if I am going to go for a jog outside. This brings me to the possibility of exercising inside: buying a gym membership or enrolling in a studio class are the two main options.  Indoor exercise is fine (I do play basketball after all), but there is just something freeing and truly exhilarating about blowing off some steam in the open air.


From the Urban Trekking Website. 

Maybe outdoor recreation is a suburban luxury or maybe it is a Californian’s misconception of how the world works. Alternatively, maybe I am just looking at outdoor recreation too narrowly. Today I saw an ad in the newspaper for the Ninth Annual Urban Trekking Day in Italy. The event takes place every spring and autumn in about two-dozen cities across Italy. The guided walks, which move at a faster pace than normal tours, can cover anywhere from 1 mile to 5 miles and take anywhere from 1 hour to 4 hours. This spring’s treks focuses on the importance of water in urban life. Step aside “yogging” (as the Italians pronounce it)! Urban trekking is my new sport of choice.


Coachella as City


The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, so large that it is now spread across two weekends, just finished its first.  If you are to believe performers Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, over 90,000 people attended the festival on Sunday.  Some estimate that between two thirds and three quarters of festival-goers camp at the offered camping spots.  That makes about 65,000 people—an area more populous than Palo Alto!  And certainly more dense, since the Coachella grounds are only a few square miles at the most.

So what makes a city a city?  In the institutional sense it might be obvious—clearly incorporation for Coachella (at least the music festival—there is a city named Coachella, CA, even though the festival takes place in Indio, CA) is an absurd proposition.  But Coachella has residences, entertainment centers, public toilets and showers, and it even acts as a marketplace for a certain kind of product, although the sellers of those wares must be a bit covert about their operation for obvious reasons.  It’s population swells during the day, much like Palo Alto does (Palo Alto grows an astonishing 81.4% each day) and shrinks at night when its commuters return home to neighboring cities.

Could our definition of an urban space include a site that exists only for three days per year?  A pop-up city?

There’s also Burning Man, which may merit a whole book-length study unto itself.  Festival-goers populate what the organizers call “Black Rock City” for a week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. 


Good Luck, GM

In case you missed this article–I can’t decide if it’s frightening or hilarious–from the New York Times, here’s the gist of it: today’s youth are less interested in cars than ever before, so GM has resorted to hiring MTV to help them with their marketing. It’s genius, if you think about it. For a company to make rash, misbehaved Italian-Americans or exploited pregnant adolescents (Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant, respectively) hit shows, they have to be experts in the business of marketing. 

What’s slightly more disconcerting, though, is that trends are finally pointing towards more sustainable lifestyles, but it is in the financial interests of corporate giants like GM, and by association, MTV, to reverse this. I’m sure that the statistic that “Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car” would be even higher within university student demographics–those who theoretically will have the most buying power in the coming decades. What if the choice not to own a car isn’t one just of opportunity cost (if they made car and parking payments, they couldn’t pay their iPhone bill or go on a vacation) but one of values? What if cars are no longer a priority for the Millenial generation because of the ethics behind the source of their oil, or the pollutants they emit, or the time they waste in gridlock? 


Even if Chevy releases it’s small and efficient vehicles like the Spark in “techno pink,” “lemonade,” and “denim,” I have a hard time believing that people will be buying it for the color. Today’s hyper-aware youth clearly are not as interested in the brand as the bottom line, and with Chevy’s recently troubled history, it’s going to take a lot more than a coat of paint to change their minds. What will, though, is less visits to the pump. 

The reverse migration back into the city by the Millenial generation is proof enough that the car cannot be saved by television. Yes, we will still watch MTV and yes advertising will have some effect on GM’s sales, but ultimately it isn’t about GM. They’re going to have to change the current opinion about the car as a consumer item, and prove that Zipcar and other car-sharing platforms are not sufficient. With increasing investment and attention being paid to these alternative forms of automobile use, I wish MTV luck. 

The Urban Park (part 1)

My previous post discussed an emerging arts district in San Francisco. The density of a city allows for experimentation and diversification within many different fields, arts included. Along those lines, the density of cities also allows for expansive public spaces, which suburbs and rural areas cannot accommodate for. In this post, I will discuss just that, the key components (in my opinion) of parks within urban areas.


Before I delve into that though, let me introduce myself… My name is Ma’ayan Dembo. I am studying Urban Studies and Communications at Stanford University. I am interested in the role of the effective transportation systems, arts, and parks within cityscapes. I enjoy drawing, painting, listening to music, bike riding, adventuring, and exploring various cities and cultures. As a native Palo Altan, I consider the Bay Area my area of expertise and playground. My Israeli roots allude to my love of water and coastlines– a warm sandy beach coupled with cool waves are all I need for any afternoon. When I am older, I plan on traveling the world (cliché and naive, maybe).

A well designed park has the appropriate amenities for playing, supervising, and relaxing. Firstly, parks need to be equipped with safe, interactive and stimulating play things for children. These should be brightly colored, differently textured, and also allow for imagination and interactivity. Children must be able to intuitively play on them in a safe manner without causing harm to themselves or their peers. Spaces should be low enough to be safe to fall from (it is inevitable), but also high enough to provide for an adrenaline rush! Secondly, an effective park will also accommodate for the adults supervising the children. Comfortable spaced seating with viewpoints overlooking structures and play areas are crucial. If a parent cannot see their child playing, then the park will be less favored. Finally, spaces for relaxation for others to enjoy the park are necessary too. Parks are also a public area for the childless or young adult. These patrons have neither the children to supervise, nor the youthful spirit for high- energy imaginative play. Parks must provide space for their “play time” as well, in the form of expansive green spaces or strolling paths. A successful park will be able to draw in all three of these seemingly disjointed crowds to come into contact with one another.



Pictured above: Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, which successfully accomodates both families and non-families, but does not provide ample space for comfortable parental supervision.


An Emerging Art Neighborhood in San Francisco

        In between the up and coming Design District, and the famous Mission District, lies an unnamed piece of San Francisco full of high tech companies (Adobe, Zynga), cafes, and most importantly—an underrated art presence. This area in the shadow of Potrero Hill contains CELLspace, a collaborative community focused on showcasing local emerging artists. Founded by a group of artists and educators in 1996, CELLspace is housed in a former screen printing warehouse on Bryant Street. The entire building (as well as the attached metal and wood working shop) is covered in paintings created by their artists in residence.


         CELLspace has had an enormous and noticeable influence outside of its walls as well. Just three blocks away, the Southern Exposure (SoEx) main gallery is housed. SoEx is a similar community oriented program focused on “supporting emerging artists and youth in a dynamic environment in which they can develop and present new work and ideas”. SoEx hosts such events such as the “Monster Drawing Rally”, an event which invites members of the community to observe artists in the act of creation in the public domain. According to SoEx, the Monster Drawing Rally sets the stage or extraordinary interaction. Although SoEx has had an active presence in the Bay Area for 37 years, only in 2009 it relocated its main gallery to be right by CELLspace.

        Besides artist supporting programs, many individuals are renting lofts and studios in this area. The largest space, 1890 Bryant Studios, currently accommodates 43 artists. Founded in 2006, these studios have expanded and now host the largest and most anticipated party in the annual “San Francisco Open Studios Weekend”.


          First introduced by CELLspace, the artist community in this area has had a profound effect on the neighborhood. Many of the buildings are covered with huge murals—from apartments, to restaurants, to even the furniture store depicted above. Creativity is bursting out of the seams of this neighborhood, and it takes the form of a unique artistic identity. I highly recommend a walk or bike ride through this area on a nice sunny day. Every corner you turn, you will literally find a beautiful work of art.


Protest is Power

Coming from “chill” Southern California, the only protests I’ve ever come into direct contact with have been peace marches or other ideologically-oriented forms of dissent like walk-outs. My past few months in Europe have taught me something about the power of protest as an art, though, as disrupting the lives of all of a country’s citizens certainly captures a government’s attention. 


Our orientation trip to Barcelona coincided with Spain’s largest strike of the year, a general protest against the government’s labor market reforms. Shops and museums were closed, streets were blocked off, smoke from small explosives clouded the sky, and police in riot gear ran towards the crowds. Cities and industry grinded to a halt with unions claiming that 80 percent of members participated. 


What exactly was it that caused the country effectively to shut down for a day? The Spanish government passed labor reforms in an attempt to ease the effect of the economic crisis and lessen unemployment. One reform, for example, reduces severance pay to a maximum of the salary of 33 days for each year worked from its current level at 45 days’ salary. While this doesn’t seem too severe for the average American (not used to mandatory social protections this generous), the BBC makes a more clear statement on the problems associated with the reforms: 

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will unveil measures on Friday aimed at saving tens of billions of euros and making it easier for businesses to sack employees. (source)

What these austerity measures bring to a population already anxious about employment is a greater fear of what will happen if they too lose their jobs. The savings of 30 billion euros are attractive in theory, and are meant to boost international confidence in the Spanish economy by reducing the deficit, but the wellbeing of the residents of Spain cannot be forgotten. 

In Spain, though, these fears are translated to working individuals, the unemployed, and visitors alike. Unlike company-specific reforms in the United States, this across-the-board legislation was the most important news of the week. Regardless one’s opinion on the matter, it is clear that this kind of public awareness makes the Spanish population much more educated about labor and economic relations than we can claim in the United States.