urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: May 2012

The 15-M Strikes Close to Home

It wasn’t until this week that I realized that I am actually studying in the birthplace of the movement that, in addition to the Arab Spring, was a precursor to Occupy Wallstreet. El Movimiento 15-M, as it is called here in Spain, began a year ago Tuesday, on May 15th, 2011 in response to the economic crisis that Spain is still facing. The citizen-led movement advocates for participative politics and reduced dominance of banks and corporations, offering several proposals including reforming their electoral process and assisting with debt and bankruptcy. The protestors are called los indignados, or the indignant, and like Occupy Wallstreet, they cut across class, race, and age boundaries.

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The leftist movement flared back up again this weekend as the one year anniversary was approaching and Spain’s economy had reached new lows, with unemployment up to 24% at a record high of 5.6 million, which has only gotten worse since the country’s debt was downgraded last month. This last weekend was also Madrid’s first weekend of real heat, too, so countless people were out on the streets at night. Coinciding with San Isidro Day, a holiday dedicated to Madrid’s patron saint, May 15th and the days leading up to it were dominated by the voice of the people. The night of May 14th, I saw the protests in Puerta del Sol, the “kilometer zero” of the city, which was completely filled with workers, students, unemployed people, and journalists. When I walked back several hours later, the plaza was surrounded by dozens of police vans and policemen in riot gear, getting ready to disperse the gathering. 

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The following night, the protesters ventured away from Puerta del Sol, reaching the stock exchange, city hall, and blocking Plaza de Cibeles, the main point of bus departures in the center of the city. Encounters with the police were surprisingly peaceful, though, as both the government and 15-M protesters want to distance themselves from the civil unrest in Greece. Advocates of the movement see it as representative of the people as a whole, explaining that everyone comes for their own reason and the only ones who aren’t affected by the issues for which they are seeking reform are those with “their hand in the cake.”

The Urban Park (Part 2)

The Bahai Faith is a monotheistic religion emphasizing the spirtual unity of all humanity, while maintaining a harmony with nature. This religion only has 5-6 million followers within more than 200 countries and territories world wide. Originally created in the late 19th Century in Iran, it was soon percieved as a threat to Shi’ite Islam and banned. The Bahai people, while largely concentrated in Iran, have now immigrated and created large communities throughout the world. The Bahai faith preaches service, meditation, and accepting others.

But why discuss a religion in such detail on the Urban Studies blog? In order to achieve their outlines goals, the Bahai people create luxurious temples on each continent—but not in the traditional sense of a temple. Their temples are simply elaborate no-cost-admission urban parks, which invite all to stroll through on a contemplative afternoon. They include terraces, temples, event areas, rooms, and of course flora.

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In today’s second installment of The Urban Park, I will be looking at the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, Israel. These giants, lavish parks are in my hometown of Haifa, Israel. I have had the pleasure and opportunity to visit them. Astounding in their design, these terraces serve as a beautiful model for urban parks throughout the world. 

The Bahai Gardens, formally known as the Bahai World Centre, serve as the largest meeting spot worldwide for Bahai. This center houses the Shrine of Bab, the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts, and the Seat of the International Teaching Centre, which were completed in 1909, 1982, 1999 and 2000 respectively. This massive monument to the Bahai faith attracts both local and international tourists and is a Haifa must-see.

 

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These gardens, located in the heart of Haifa, are comprised of nineteen staircase terraces extending all the way up the northern slope of Mount Carmel. The golden-domed Shrine of the Bab, the resting place of the Prophet-Herald of the Bahai Faith, stands on the central terrace, and looks across the bay towards Akko. While different parts of the gardens offer a variety of experiences, they speak a common language of graveled paths, hedges and flowerbeds groomed and nurtured by dedicated gardeners. One could argue that these gardens may be overly manicured, and do not reflect a natural display. While this is true, their overall design is astoundingly smart—paths leading to views, flower colors accenting buildings, and bushes hiding eyesores from below. The gardens frame panoramic views of the city, the Galilee Hills and the Mediterranean Sea. While these views alone are stunning, coupled with the plethora of both natural and urban beauty, the Bahai Gardens are truly monumental design achievements.

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The Original High Line

This past weekend I took a day trip to Lucca, a small city about an hour northwest of Florence, Italy. The city’s history is visible everywhere and legible even to an uninformed outsider. The shape of the ancient Roman amphitheater has been maintained in the shops and homes that ring the central square, the meticulously-planned Roman street grid is preserved in sharp contrast to the surrounding rabbit warren, and the medieval defensive walls, Lucca’s claim to fame, are 100% in tact and crucial to the city’s functioning as a tourist destination.

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For me, however, the walls were a spectacle because they were not simply an historical vestige, but a functioning part of the modern city. In 1818, during Napoleon’s occupation, the walls (12 curtains and 11 bastions) were converted into a distinctly stunning urban park that runs the parameter of the city.  City planning is a product of zeitgeist, and much like fashion, cuisine, architecture, and music, trends are revived and recycled with each new generation.  As I biked atop the walls on a well-maintained recreational path, I was reminded of more recent urban repurposing projects—Lucca’s Parco del Muro (Wall Park) is the predecessor of New York’s High Line, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and Seattle’s Pike Place Market

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Each of these projects required a willingness to think outside the box (a railway became a park, a port became a community market, etc.) as well as a conscious decision to preserve history in the urban landscape. Records from the post-Renaissance era, in fact, prove that there was a conscious effort to restore and modernize rather than raze and rebuild. This mindset was absent during the post-war boom and obsession with progress, but thankfully has been restored to modern planning conscience.     

Conceptions of Poverty

Over the past five days, I walked the final 110 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route starting in various European countries and ending in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the Apostle James (Santiago in Spanish) are said to be. The journey provided much time for reflection, and one of my recurring thoughts was about the level of poverty that these rural Galician villages are defined by. These villages dot the countryside and rarely have more than 50 inhabitants, by my estimation. I am particularly interested in the lifestyle of this region of Spain because I have several great-grandparents who were born in Galicia, but more than anything I was struck by the normalcy of poverty. A recent statistic states that over half of Galicia falls into Spain’s lowest levels of poverty.

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Not only are many structures completely abandoned and overgrown by weeds, but there is no municipal authority attempting to do anything. Coming from a state that is hyper-conscious about its real estate, it was strange to think that these houses, lying on Galicia’s most important tourist route, would be left unattended. Homes that would surely be condemned in the United States or more urban parts of Spain are the norm, and many backyards look like junkyards, piled high with old cars, mattresses, appliances, and weeds. As we walked west towards Santiago de Compostela, the region’s coastal prosperity became more aparent. Galicia’s wealth is very heterogeneous, with western cities like Vigo and Santiago dominating the economy while the more rural eastern towns continue as they have for hundreds of years, working difficult terrain and raising livestock. 

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But just because these homes are not protected by double-paned glass, decorated with crown molding, or covered by tiled rooves does not mean that their inhabitants are not happy. I witnessed a truly simple lifestyle that was different in every way from the bustling city life I have seen in Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. It is easy to judge the life of these people and question why they remain there, but it is also the site of an incredibly vibrant and unique culture. Galicians speak Gallego, and like many of the autonomous regions in Spain, are fiercely proud of their culture and its individuality. While not rich in money, Galicia is incomparable in its landscape, and the beauty of rural life was accentuated even more by our shivering bodies, growling stomachs, and pained feet. 

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My journey was able to show me concrete things, like how accelerated the changes between urban and rural are becoming, whether in terms of access to technology, communication, or goods. My walk, however, as long as it was, could not possibly teach me how Galicians live and how their apparent level of poverty changes their quality of life.