Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: June 2014

Taking on the Big Apple, one public space at a time

What makes a great public place?  Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form?  Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day.  Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity.  How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?

These are some of the questions I hope to answer this summer as I work with Project for Public Spaces in New York City.  My name is Amy Tomasso and I’m a rising junior at Stanford majoring in Urban Studies with a concentration in Urban Sustainability.  Aside from Urban Studies, I’m fascinated by food systems and politics, a personal interest I explore as a passionate cook and vegan.  I am happiest in nature and love to be outdoors, whether hiking, backpacking, skiing, or simply exploring. While this seems oxymoronic to my interest in cities, I assure you it isn’t!; I hope to bring the nature I love to cities through green space and a respect for the urban-rural divide.  I also avidly read, write, and do yoga in my spare time.  After studying cities informally and formally for years and growing up in rural Connecticut, this will be my first time living in a true urban environment!

Image(Exploring a great public space–the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC!)

I believe in the power of public space to define communities and serve as an equalizer between the diverse array of urban residents.  I was first drawn to this idea while visiting my family’s ancestral village high in the mountains of Italy.  Despite my village’s small scale, its central piazza was constantly abuzz with activity and excitement.  The piazza was the focal point of the village from which all social interactions were born; people of all ages flocked to this public space every night to mingle and review the day’s news.  I saw the same ingenious city planning repeated in nearby Rome, which is arguably one of the oldest master planned cities.  This kind of organic, pedestrian-oriented meet-up was so different from the auto-centric strip malls I was so familiar with in the U.S.


(Abbateggio, my family’s village in Italy, was an original source of inspiration on my path to Urban Studies).

I became captivated by public space and its transformative power on communities, both urban and suburban.  Having volunteered for four years at a Boys and Girls Club in inner-city Connecticut, I saw how neighborhoods lacking public space amenities like parks and playgrounds can become traps for their inhabitants.  Public space can infuse downtrodden neighborhoods with life and common purpose.

I am thrilled to be exploring public spaces firsthand this summer in NYC, a city where some of the most iconic monuments—Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Union Square—are classic examples of public space.  Project for Public Spaces, my partner organization, has pioneered the innovate strategy of Placemaking as a way to engage community members in the creation of projects which directly serve their needs.  I can’t wait to see the Placemaking process firsthand throughout the summer.  PPS was founded in 1975 to expand the work of urban maverick William Holly Whyte, whose works such as The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces changed the way urbanites everywhere interact with their cities.  Now, PPS has worked in 43 countries and all 50 states to uplift communities through a strong built environment

ImageWe interact on a daily basis with the immediate world around us, whether subconsciously or consciously, and the built environment shapes our lives and routines.  I invite you to begin to dialogue with the world around you as you pass through the public spaces you encounter.  What do they mean to you?  I hope in time you too will come to recognize the power of public space, and I look forward to sharing in this discovery.


Die Macht des Fahrrads

"Vienna: Cool city, isn't it?"

“Vienna: Cool city, isn’t it?”


Three things I have learned so far in Vienna:

  1. Drivers in the Vienna are so accustomed to cyclists that they roll their eyes and wave at you impatiently if you don’t immediately assert your right of way.
  2. How to order a variety of coffee drinks in German (in the first few days I only ordered espressos since this was the only coffee word I was sure of. However I soon grew tired of this as I don’t like espresso.)
  3. No bike share program in the U.S. is affordable. One euro for a lifetime membership (the price of Citybike Vienna) – now that’s affordable.

It is day 10 of my 2-month internship in Vienna, Austria, with the bicycle urbanism NGO Smarter Than Car. I spent my second day in Vienna riding around the city for four hours with Vienna’s Critical Mass, a monthly event that is part of a global movement where hordes of bicycles take over the major streets of a city for a few hours. It also happened to be the naked-themed Critical Mass, though this was rather limited by the chilly winds and menacing clouds. I went as a non-participating observer, of course. It was a great way to explore the city from the unique perspective of a bicycle, as well as witness how onlookers marvelled at how calm, jolly, and peaceful the streets become when filled with cyclists instead of motorists. Check out some video I shot of the ride:

To get back to the actual reason I came to Vienna, though- last summer I returned to my hometown of Columbus Ohio, after three years away, and at my work became friends with some amazing women who relied primarily on public transportation to get around and were also from a lower socioeconomic class. I soon found out that they spent hours commuting distances that I could drive to in minutes. Not only did this make me really angry, it also (more productively) sparked my interest in equal access to mobility. Too often in the U.S., public transportation can in no way compete with the car, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the primary users of public transportation, a service many local governments seem less than motivated to improve, are poor people. As a part of Fred Stout’s class, “The Automobile and the City,” I began to learn more about bike share programs and the current low rates at which they serve low-income people in the United States. Vienna, on the other hand, is known for extremely affordable and high quality public transportation. Day passes for bike share systems in U.S. can run between $7 and $10 dollars, with annual passes ranging from $60 to $100. The Citybike Vienna system, as I’ve already mentioned, charges a one-time fee of one euro. I am in Vienna this summer because I want to know how this is possible, what other factors besides cost converge to make a bike share program that is accessible, or not, to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and how this might play out within a U.S. context. This summer, with the support of Smarter Than Car, I’ll be conducting a research project with these as my goals.

Some things I’ve done/experienced in these 10 days:

  1. A public think-tank presentation of our project/feedback session that turned into an almost three-hour conversation amongst participants, who included Dr. Hans-Erich Dechant (down-to-earth, extremely knowledgeable head of Citybike Vienna who goes by HAE, pronounced “Hah-ay”)
  2. Braved the summer rain with Smarter Than Car and friends to cycle to different embassies to promote the World Bike Forum
  3. Remembered how much I enjoy sitting for hours alone in cafes

That’s all for now. Bis bald! 🙂

– Sara Maurer (Urban Studies ’16)


(Me, the Parliament, and Critical Mass)



Summer Fellowship 2014: Greetings from San Jose

Hi there, I’m Jeff Barrera. I’m a rising senior and Urban Studies major, with a concentration in Urban Society and Social Change. I’m interested in public policy advocacy – finding ways to drive meaningful policy initiatives through our political system. I believe that typically the biggest obstacle to addressing major issues is not a lack of potential solutions, but the difficulties of implementing these proposals. Our politics are biased towards the affluent, the engaged, and the status quo, which makes significant policy change hard. This is especially true when the benefits take time to emerge or when a policy is aimed at the needs of disadvantaged communities who lack leverage.

I’m working to overcome these biases by organizing communities and building public support for action. I’m especially focused on advocacy communication – using storytelling and technology to help people understand policy issues and why they matter. I’ve built websites for political campaigns, shot videos for an education reform coalition, written op-eds and email newsletters for a DC think tank, and developed a get-out-the-vote program for a community organizing group.

This summer, I’m building on this background by interning with Working Partnerships USA. Working Partnerships is a nonprofit public policy research and advocacy organization based in San Jose, California. It focuses on issues that affect working people, such as livable wages, affordable housing, efficient public transit, and quality healthcare. WPUSA conducts research to identify where change is needed, then builds coalitions and leads organizing campaigns to address these problems. It works closely with the labor movement and with communities of color, helping to ensure that disadvantaged people aren’t left behind as Silicon Valley prospers.

Working Partnerships also serves as an innovation laboratory for the progressive movement, pioneering new initiatives that are then adopted by allies across the country. Over a decade ago, for example, it helped create a universal health insurance program for children in Santa Clara Country, a model which has since been replicated in thirty other counties. More recently, WPUSA helped lead the 2010 Measure D ballot campaign, which raised San Jose’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. This was one of the first times a city had raised its minimum wage, and helped spur the string of state and local wage hikes we’ve seen in the past year.

At Working Partnerships, I’m building the organization’s communications and new media capabilities. My main projects are creating microsites (small, focused websites) for a couple of upcoming campaigns. I’m also helping WPUSA’s staff incorporate research on best-practices for digital and advocacy communications into their work. And, to learn more about organizing and coalition-building, I’ll be assisting with several leadership development programs that WPUSA runs.

All told, it should be a great summer! See you next week for an update on how these projects are shaping up…

Urban Studies Summer Fellowship 2014 – First Week in Johannesburg

Writing from Johannesburg, I am Stefan Norgaard, a rising senior at Stanford University in California double-majoring in Public Policy and Urban Studies. My academic work is shaped by my interests and passions: to find institutional and sustainable solutions to vexing challenges, particularly in urban settings. Originally from Boulder, Colorado, I am an avid hiker and mountaineer, and hope to bring my high-altitude energy and enthusiasm to my fellowship this summer with the Global Regeneration Initiative for Neighborhood Development (GRIND). After leaving Stanford for two quarters to study with Stanford in Washington and Stanford in Cape Town, I now return to South Africa to work at the level of community engagement just east of the city center.

This summer I am a Stanford Urban Studies Fellow at, GRIND (http://grindcities.com). GRIND is a nonprofit organization that seeks to start an inclusive conversation about urban regeneration at the local—and global—level. Locally, GRIND brings together various stakeholder groups and tries to ensure that urban development projects benefit indigenous residents and not just new community members. Globally, GRIND is working to create a network of urban neighborhoods across the world, and a platform where neighborhood leaders can share best practices in urban regeneration.

Other projects in GRIND’s Johannesburg Studio include an organic community walks initiative, a produce cooperative called the Urban Basket, a demographic and sociology project, work building an ICT resource and career development center, and a project called re:sort which converts a neighborhood recycling facility into an art gallery and more efficient recycling center.

I am honored to serve as a GRIND Studio Resident from June 23—August 23 of this year. My project is called the Maboneng Living Museum. I seek to dynamically document the history of Maboneng and Jeppestown while simultaneously providing a platform for community members and indigenous residents to chart a course for the precinct’s future. The museum will reflect on the district’s past, but not merely through static archival footage; residents will add their memories and shape a dynamic conversation about the rich and diverse history of what was once Johannesburg’s first suburb. As a living museum, this space will document present efforts in Maboneng and serve as a space for residents to envision their neighborhood’s future. Dynamic and participatory community maps, for example, will allow residents and local retailers to “tell their Maboneng” story, and the use of chalkboards, audio recording technology, and community meetings will allow residents to ensure that every story of the neighborhood is told. A space like Maboneng is home to a remarkably diverse set of communities—all of which interact with the space for different reasons and in different ways— and each and every one of these communities will have the chance to explain their neighborhood’s history, reflect on its current situation, and chart a course for its future.

Of course, I cannot (and should not) design and operationalize this museum on my own. Rather, I am seeking out key community leaders, respected by many and possessing intimate local knowledge, all of whom will help chart a course for this space. I have already had great success meeting remarkable community members and look forward to passing the baton to these individuals in the near future.

In the short term, the Maboneng Living Museum will be housed in the neighborhood’s Museum of African Design (MOAD). In the longer term, the museum will grow in size and ultimately be a key part of a neighborhood Community Hub. The hub will begin design and implementation in January 2015, and will be a comfortable and inclusive space for all residents. The space will also be located next to a new neighborhood school and a public skate park sponsored by a nonprofit called Skatistan. What better place to house an interactive site of memory and site of design than this community hub?

Through my work with GRIND, I hope to grow as an individual and as an aspiring urban planner. Personally, I am eager to embrace the challenge of working alone in a new environment. My hours are flexible as I will spend my time delving into this project, making community connections, and continuously reflecting on how the Living Museum can best serve the community’s interests. I am excited to make friends of different backgrounds from my own. I am also excited to engage with and better understand an urban neighborhood—the street blocks of Maboneng and nearby Jeppestown. Professionally, this summer residency builds on a lifelong interest in and passion for sustainable urban development. I am excited to work on my own urban project which will hopefully inform career plans in global urbanism or regional urban strategy.

Here are some pictures from Maboneng. The first is a view of Johannesburg’s skyline from my office.  GRIND is located on the top floor of the Situation East building just east of the city center and allows for unbelievable views of the city’s Central Business District, or CBD:


The second picture shows the proposed location of an eventual Maboneng Communtiy Hub and my living museum!  Originally occupied by MoTech Recycling, this space is now vacant:


Finally, I included a picture of a low-density residential housing complex in Maboneng.  GRIND has added street murals both to beautify the surrounding public spaces and to help create small private yards for local residents:


Over the course of my summer, I will be continuously reflecting on my own development and on the development of the museum. Please do not hesitate to reach out at any time!




SA, Mobile:  078-744-7453

Email:  stefann@stanford.edu

Sara Maurer: Social Justice on Two Wheels

This is the third paper in a series “The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities”, from the Automobile and The City course taught by Frederic Stout at Stanford University. Written by Sara Maurer ’16, and titled “Social Justice on Two Wheels: Why Bike-Share in the US Must Be Made Accessible to Low Income and Disadvantaged Communities”, this paper discusses the current mobility gap that exists in American society today, and how changes in current bike-sharing practices have the capability to close this gap in the future.

This is not an attack on cars in America. For sure, there is no shortage of criticisms of cars: that they are dangerous, polluting, oil-sucking, traffic-congesting incubators of social isolation. But this is not an attack on cars in America. While there is truth to those claims, it would be untrue (and unreasonable) to claim that cars, in all their popularity, offer no advantage to the people who use them. Cars are popular in large part because of the link between mobility and opportunity: the more easily you are able to get around, the greater your chances are to find a job, build social connections, and generally live life on your terms, and in a country set up for car travel, cars tend to allow the greatest access to opportunity. So this, instead, is an examination of an alternative mode of transportation, a mode that has the potential to mitigate the social and economic inequality that exists in large part because of unequal access to mobility. That mode is bicycles. The recent rise in U.S. cities of bike-share programs –systems of bike stations that allow people to check out, ride and re-dock bikes for short rides– is an opportunity to address the advantage gap that currently exists between those who have the greatest access to effective transportation and those who do not. But the mere introduction of bike-share programs will not bridge the gap, because the way in which bike-share programs are implemented and integrated into urban places has as much potential for widening socioeconomic gaps as it does for decreasing them. U.S. bike-share programs right now are not set up to be accessible for low-income groups: they are set up for the educated, the well-off, and the tech-savvy. If they continue like this, bike-share will be another mode of transit where, just like with cars, those with access to that means of transportation are at an advantage and those without, at a disadvantage.

That is why here I hope to discuss the advantage gap that exists in terms of mobility: why mobility is so important for equal opportunity, what the potential of bike-share programs is, what barriers to entry exist for low-income people currently, and what improvements people are discussing. But most of all I hope to drive home that because of the importance of mobility for socioeconomic opportunity, we must make bike-share systems accessible to more people than middle-aged yuppies and green living enthusiasts. Bike-share must be accessible to as many people as possible so that, far from worsening inequality, it can fulfill its potential to help low-income communities overcome the mobility gap that currently exists. 


To read the full paper visit: http://issuu.com/urbanter/docs/mauerpaper.docx