Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Monthly Archives: July 2014


This week, I tried living on just $77. I failed.

Thursday, July 24 marked five years since the last increase in the federal minimum wage. Put another way, the last time minimum wage workers got a raise, there was no such thing as an iPad. Because Congress has refused to act, the minimum wage has less purchasing power today than it did in 1968. That squeezes the 20-plus million Americans who make the federal minimum wage more and more every day, as costs keep rising while wages stagnate.

But what does this have to do with me, and a $77 dollar budget? Last quarter, I was an intern at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. At CAP, I helped prepare a national “Live the Wage” challenge to highlight how tough it is to live on $7.25/hour.

After deducting long-term costs like housing and taxes, we calculated that the average minimum wage worker would have just $77 left each week to pay for food, transportation, and all other expenses. Therefore, the challenge asks Members of Congress, state and local lawmakers, community leaders, and ordinary people to try living on $77 for one week.

On Monday, I got an email from another Stanford student who’s working at CAP for the summer. He said that they were launching the challenge, and asked if I’d co-author an op-ed about it for the Stanford Daily. That set off a flurry of research, writing, and emails with the Daily’s art and editorial teams. Since the Daily is mostly read by Stanford students and staff, we focused on how hard it is for low-wage workers to make ends meet in the expensive Bay Area. While California has a higher $9 minimum wage, and service workers on campus earn a $12.85 “living wage,” neither come close to the cost of living in Silicon Valley ($19.39 for a family of four with both parents working). We also discussed issues I’ve blogged about here on Urbanter, such as rising inequality and low-quality security jobs at immensely profitable tech companies. Finally, we issued the Live the Wage challenge to Stanford, asking students and faculty to see what life is like for the workers we rely on every day.

Having asked the Stanford community to take the challenge, I couldn’t very well not try it myself. How did it go? Well, I’m a college student with a quite moderate lifestyle, but $77 was just too tight. I have a twenty-mile commute to work each day, and Bay Area gas prices ate up half my budget right off the bat. Add groceries for a week, and I ended up exceeding my budget by about $8. That might not seem like much, but it’s the equivalent of two nights without dinner.

Also, I cheated. Thanks to a lunch meeting and dinner at a friend’s work, I got two free meals. That’s a perk most low-wage workers won’t have, certainly not frequently enough to rely on. I had free access to Stanford’s gym and pool, so exercise facilities weren’t the unaffordable luxury they would be on $7.25. And I deliberately chose a 7-day period without any extra expenses – the day after the challenge ended I attended an Aikido seminar with an 8th-dan sensei from Japan, which on its own would have cost most of my budget.

So what’s the take-away from this? For me, it reinforced why I’m at Working Partnerships, and the importance of policies like the Silicon Valley living wage. I’m a college student without a family to feed, car payments to make, or health insurance to pay for, and I couldn’t live on minimum wage for one week. For far too many working families, my “challenge” is their reality, and it’s far past time we – and Congress – do something about it.


Dispatch from D.C.

This week, my territory changed as I took Placemaking on the road to our nation’s capital.  Well, almost: my actual destination was Crystal City, VA, a mile-long office and residential park swathed in 1960s-era architecture just across the Potomac from D.C.  Crystal City is a paradox—it is fiscally robust and commercially prominent (the PBS world headquarters make their home there), while also aesthetically and programmatically underwhelming.  It’s public transit-rich and but destinationally poor.  The bare bones have been laid for success in Crystal City, all the usual boxes checked, but the district lacks spirit, human energy, a reason to stay.

The view from Long Bridge Park in Crystal City is a straight-shot to the Washington Mall!

The view from Long Bridge Park in Crystal City is a straight-shot to the Washington Mall!

What Crystal City lacks, it seems, are vibrant public spaces.  And that’s where Project for Public Spaces comes in.

Gateway Park, like most Crystal City public spaces, is devoid of activity because it's BORING and uninviting!

Gateway Park, like most Crystal City public spaces, is devoid of activity because it’s BORING and uninviting!

PPS was contracted by the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID) as well as Vornado, a large real estate developer with a gargantuan downtown presence, to bring both design and community outreach expertise into the city’s discourse.  As Crystal City works towards a physical facelift that will inspire migration into its core, PPS is the liaison between the private and the public sectors, bridging the gap between the community’s desired outcomes and the developer’s will.

So, I Amtraked down to D.C. last week with a crew of PPS coworkers.  Our imminent goal was to start a dialogue among those who live and work in Crystal City—the people who know it best—which could catalyze a visioning process for the future of their city.  The main objective of our visit, obtaining community input and feedback on community-driven goals for Crystal City’s public spaces, hinged around an interactive paneled display.

Our street-corner setup at an artisan craft market, which is part of an initial effort called "Sparket" to activate the downtown.

Our street-corner setup at an artisan craft market, which is part of an initial effort called “Sparket” to activate the downtown.

Each panel showcased pictures of successful, tried-and-true public space activations from around the world, and community members were asked to vote on which concept they wished to replicate in Crystal City.  As the pictures showed, it’s not just the public space design that mattered, but also the activities that bring the spaces to life and engage peoples’ attention.

 Part of our outreach strategy included this nifty survey.

Part of our outreach strategy included this nifty survey.

Suggestions ranged from the predictable to the truly creative.

Suggestions ranged from the predictable to the truly creative.

 After a day of voting, the panels reflected some interesting trends--people seemed to love the idea of more markets!

After a day of voting, the panels reflected some interesting trends–people seemed to love the idea of more markets!

The voting system was intuitive and engaging, and passerbys were generally excited to participate.  That is, after they were convinced of merit of our work.  Everyone is wary of “solicitors,” including me, so it was no surprise that had to play up our marketing tactics (Free food!  Colorful stickers!) to get people to stop and vote in the first place.

People realized the Placemaking process can actually be fun!

People realized the Placemaking process can actually be fun!

It turns out that many people had strong opinions about Crystal City’s current ambiance, the role of the BID and Vornado, and the future of downtown development.  But of course they did!  People care deeply about the places in which they live and work.  It matters to not only them, but their children and tax dollars.  And even those who denied a true connection to the city—such as the young corporate workers who scoffed at the prospect of hanging around Crystal City after work—lightened up when activities like live jazz and happy hour in the park were suggested.  Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity to open up a world of possibilities and crack the most consternate doubter.


The rest of our time was filled out by meetings with critical stakeholders who share an interest in Crystal City’s improvement, such as Vornado, PBS, and Crystal Tech Fund, a hip start-up generator located incongruously in the concrete of Crystal City.  It takes massive coordination, funding, and approval to stage a development project like this, which is why PPS’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper” method of short-term public space improvements that generate support and gratification is an apt place to jumpstart the process.

Fabulous views from the Crystal Tech office.

Fabulous views from the Crystal Tech office.

Repeating the process at the Crystal Tech office.

Repeating the process at the Crystal Tech office.

From our short time in Crystal City, the ideas were already whirling.  A PBS-sponsored winter Downton Abbey marathon with hot chocolate and blankets on a Jumobtron in the park, a dog “yappy hour,” lunchtime swing dancing lessons, an urban beach were just some suggestions thrown around…but let’s not get too carried away.  Sometimes, the best place to start is one colorful bench at a time.


Exploration, demonstration, determination

My week in review:

  • Visiting Vienna’s Museums Quartier- a majestic yet personable urban space. There’s lots of open space, many different levels to explore, and funny shaped objects to lounge on. To me that combination of grandeur and relatability makes it a successful urban space. Far from being an intimidating space or a place just for tourists, the quarter seems well and comfortably used by many locals and visitors alike. The complex is made up of many museums including Mumok (the museum of modern art), ZOOM Kindermuseum (children’s museum), and the Architekturezentrum (Center for Architecture). My favorite exhibit was there at the Architekturzentrum: “Europas beste Bauten” (“Europe’s Best Buildings), highlighting some of Europe’s most lauded constructions.

Vienna’s large-scale yet also personable Museumsquartier


Exhibit at the Architecture Center: “Europe’s Best Buildings”

  • Attending an anti-fascism demonstration that started in the city center and went throughout the city. The demonstration especially protested the criminalization of anti-fascism, such as the imprisonment of Josef S., a German student who was just released from prison after being held for 6-months in custody following his participation and alleged crimes during a protest against right-wing organizations in Vienna in January.


  • Monitoring how our questionnaire is doing! The online questionnaire I helped design, which surveys people’s transportation preferences and views on bike share in Vienna, has been out and about for more than a week now, and we have a few hundred responses so far. Reading through some of the comments people included in the optional “give your opinion” section, was interesting, enjoyable, and at times funny. For one, because of some of the things that come out of Google translate (most comments are in German) but it was also great to hear what people feel about bike sharing, Vienna transit, and the questionnaire.

Media coverage about the questionnaire in Vienna’s newspaper! (article here)

Creating a Cube: Updates on Stefan’s Project with GRIND

The community cube has been assembled and has already gone to good use. Earlier this week, Sandile and his co-workers built and put together the cube just blocks from the GRIND studio in the Mai Mai Market development. The oldest market in Johannesburg, the Mai Mai complex is dedicated to traditional Zulu healing, and is a vital part of the local area. Sandile runs a woodworking operation in the market, and made the cube exactly to our specifications. The cube even includes white boards on the inside that gives capacity for presentations and dynamic workshops. We are excited to connect with Sandile’s operation and the Mai Mai community to make the cube!

Assembling the cube in the Mai Mai Market.

Assembling the cube in the Mai Mai Market.


Assembling the cube in the Mai Mai Market.

Assembling the cube in the Mai Mai Market.


Sandile and co-works help transport the cube.

Sandile and co-works help transport the cube.

With help from Sandile, we transported the cube to the GRIND offices, where it currently rests in the first floor lobby. At 1.5 cubic meters, the cube is large indeed and will complement neighborhood public spaces with dynamic exhibitions. For now, however, the cube is still just wooden and unpainted, with no exhibits, but the next phase of my project: populating the cube with materials and resources, begins next week.



Transporting the cube to the GRIND offices.

Transporting the cube to the GRIND offices.


At 1.5 cubic meters, the cube fills the Situation East Building’s first floor lobby.

At 1.5 cubic meters, the cube fills the Situation East Building’s first floor lobby.


At 1.5 cubic meters, the cube fills the Situation East Building’s first floor lobby.

At 1.5 cubic meters, the cube fills the Situation East Building’s first floor lobby.

This evening, another Situation East building resident hosted a neighborhood gathering and party. To my surprise, when attending I found the cube being used as a table and gathering place by around a dozen men and women who were either about to attend or coming from the party. Although initially surprised, I am glad to see that the community cube is already bringing people together!






The House of Jane (+ new updates!)

555 Hudson Street: the Mecca of Urban Studies (at least in my opinion).  To the urban planning nerd in me, this was it, a hallowed and storied place I had envisioned in my mind’s eye time and again.  What could this place be, you might ask.  None other than the house of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and a pioneer of people-oriented urbanism.  Jacobs fought tooth and nail against Robert Moses’ plans for a highway cutting through her beloved Greenwich Village, and to this day the quaint alleyways of the Village speak to her victory.  She was fearless and articulate, a true champion of cities at a time when an urban voice of reason was most needed.  Her spellbinding tome was an original inspiration for my interest in Urban Studies.

Jane Jacobs lived on the upper floor of this quaint red building on Hudson Street!

Jane Jacobs lived on the upper floor of this quaint red building on Hudson Street!

And maybe it was a little fan girl of me, but I staked out her old home in the West Village and counted down the building numbers to 555 one recent, sweltering day.  I almost passed Jane Jacobs’ house right by, what with the renovations underway and the yuppie boutique below (I wondered what Jacobs would have to say about that), but alas I spent a full few minutes gazing up in awe.  In her writing, Jacobs describes her New York neighborhood in great detail, taking pleasure in the small shops and familiar faces dotting the streets.  Hudson Street itself, with the exception of a few upscale stores, probably looks pretty much the same as when Jacobs lived here–and trod these exact steps!–and I could picture her sauntering around, oversized glasses perched on her nose and notebook in hand.  It was a wonderful day. 

Light streamed down on Jacobs' house as the urban studies nerd in me rejoiced at my discovery.

Light streamed down on Jacobs’ house as the urban studies nerd in me rejoiced at my discovery.

And now, back to my job!  First, here are some snapshots of my daily office duties:

I wake up around 7 so I have enough time to read before work; I love mornings!  My “commute” to work is a lovely 10 minute walk in which I pass some of the same people setting up their shops and starting their days each morning.  

My walk to work starts here on my street (the flag was up for the Fourth of July).

My walk to work starts here on my street (the flag was up for the Fourth of July).

Project for Public Spaces is located on Lafayette Street right next to the Public Theater, under Astor Place, and kitty-corner to Cooper Union.  It makes for such a scenic block!

Looking North on Lafayette Street; PPS is located on the right-hand side before the Public Theater.

Looking North on Lafayette Street; PPS is located on the right-hand side before the Public Theater.


The view from PPS, on the 7th floor.

I spend a lot of time doing research at my desk, but most days also include meetings with my wonderful and patient supervisor Casey or other co-workers.  In the afternoons, I usually take a walk into the surrounding neighborhoods–my favorite places to explore are SoHo, Greenwich Village, and the NYU campus, all of which are within a 5 minute walk.  Then there are always the surprises, such as when the other PPS interns and I got to help with a Placemaking exercise in Union Square for a grad class at Pratt a few weeks ago. 

My desk at PPS, where I spend most of my time researching, reading, writing, and compiling presentations.

My desk at PPS, where I spend most of my time researching, reading, writing, and compiling presentations.

The office is filled with light and curious objects/photos/memorabilia the staff has collected over the years. 

Check out that book collection!

Check out that book collection!

The front of the office facing the street.

The front of the office facing the street.

As for my projects, after some shuffling around I am now working full-time on a Placemaking project PPS is doing with none of than–Stanford!  PPS has been hired to activate Herrin Lawn, which is the relatively empty green space right next to the Herrin Biology Laboratories, and White Plaza.  I have been breaking down the space into different zones or “bubbles,” each of which corresponds to design recommendations, as well as doing research on benchmarks for similar spaces as inspiration for each bubble.  It’s so interesting for me to be engaged in the transformation of a space which means so much to me–the Stanford campus–while working at PPS.  It’s funny to watch my different worlds align.  I will share more about my projects next week as they progress!  

Tomorrow, I head to Crystal City, VA, which is right outside Washington, D.C., where PPS will be conducting a series of pop-up Placemaking workshops.  I can’t wait to share my photos and on-the-ground experiences from Crystal City next week!



Going Live…

This week, my first project of the summer went live.

As I discussed two weeks ago, Working Partnerships USA has been leading a campaign to enact a new comprehensive Living Wage Ordinance in Santa Clara County. This would ensure that County workers and employees of County contractors earn enough to make ends meet, receive healthcare coverage, and can take paid time off if they get sick. It would also encourage full-time jobs, predictable shifts, and give workers the right to request flexible schedules so they can take classes or take care of kids. The County is currently in the process of studying the costs and impacts of such an ordinance, and we’re building community support for the living wage.

For this campaign, I’ve been creating materials to explain what the living wage policy is and why it’s so important. The first of these is a one-page micro website. Eventually I’ll be expanding this into a full website with more details, but we wanted to get an initial page up quickly. It looks like this:

Silicon Valley Living Wage

For me, creating this site was a great project. I’ve built plenty of websites in the past, but this was different in two key ways: it was only a single page, and there was very little existing content to work from. These two factors created some fun challenges.

When I started work on this site, we were still in the early stages of the campaign, and no one had dug into how to talk about the living wage. That meant I got to figure this out, which was really interesting. I read through a bunch of background research and met with our policy experts, then thought about the best ways to organize what I’d learned. After a few iterations and discussions with other member of the campaign team, I settled on three themes:

  • Better jobs for working families: explaining how the living wage would include a range of policies to create quality jobs and help workers access the middle class.
  • Smarter policy for our County: laying out how a living wage leads to more reliable service, improves public health, and reduces reliance on the County’s social safety net.
  • Stronger communities for all of us: highlights how the living wage benefits far more than just the workers it directly affects, such as by giving workers the flexibility to participate in their communities and generating additional spending at local businesses.

With these themes in place, I then had to decide how to organize the site. A one-page site meant that I had only a limited amount of space. Research suggests that visitors will scroll down a webpage, but only up to a point – people have short attention spans on the internet, so an overly-long page will overwhelms and drives users away. After trying a few different options, I went with four sections:

  1. An initial overview that laid out the need for a living wage, and introduced the three themes I mentioned above.
  2. A section that explained the elements of living wage policy, and linked to additional sources of information.
  3. A section that discussed each of the three themes in more depth. At first I wasn’t sure how to prevent this section from being too long, then decided to make it interactive with one slide for each theme.
  4. A get involved section that encouraged visitors to take action, such as signing up to receive email updates on the campaign.

With both the themes and structure in place, it was then just a matter of writing up all the content, coding the HTML/CSS/JS, and debugging everything to make the site work with various smartphones and old web browsers. This last step is never much fun, but is sadly necessary (shameless plug: make web developers like me happy by upgrading to a modern browser).

After I emerged from the purgatory that is Internet Explorer pre-version 9 and got some final approvals, I took the site live on Monday. So far, the reception has been pretty good. While I can’t discuss exact numbers, analytics data showed a clear traffic spike as we promoted the site via email and Facebook, and it’s currently one of the most visited pages on Working Partnerships’ website. More importantly, it’s a tool we can use to pass a strong living wage and create quality jobs in Silicon Valley.

Little victories

Lesson One: Austria is beautiful, its motorists kind

On Thursday morning I took Vienna’s U4 subway line to the very last stop, walked out of the station, and stood by the highway with my thumb out. Six hours and two rides with some very nice people later I was at my high school friend Peter’s house in a village in the mountains near the city of Innsbruck. The first person to pick me up was an immigrant from Chechnya driving with his two kids to visit his mother in Salzburg. It was a funny time talking because we were both speaking German, neither one of us very well, and so every so often his 9-ish year old son, who I assume had lived there for a few years and so was fluent, had to supply a word or explain something when we had completely not understood each other. Something we definitely agreed on, though, is that German is hard.


View from my friend Peter’s home near Innsbruck


Rest stop in between rides. A lot of people stopped or even walked up to me to ask where I needed to go, but unfortunately most of them were headed in the opposite direction as me. Found a ride in the end though!

Lesson Two: Research takes a long time

One thing I have learned from this experience is that research in the real world takes a lot longer than the research you do for that paper that’s due in 12 hours and you haven’t started yet. It’s nice to realize, though, that I don’t mind taking the time to do this kind of research because I find the topic so interesting- but it does make me wish I had more than 2 months to spend here in Vienna. However I mention this because we finished the questionnaire on people’s transportation habits and use of Citybike Vienna! (see below) We’ve gotten a large amount of responses in just a few days, so I am very excited. Florian Lorenz (my research supervisor) and I developed an English version and a German version, which included a lot of translation headaches, especially for Florian, and made me appreciate what a hard skill translation is. Now that the questionnaire has been released, I am going to be focusing on interviewing and talking to as many people as possible about their views on transportation and Citybike. Check back in for more updates!

Part of the finished questionnaire (German version)

Part of the finished questionnaire (German version)


The youth center which Peter and other young people in the village built up together, a really cool communal space


“Community Cube”, Local Neighborhood Engagement, and Cross-Organizational Collaboration

This week afforded more adventures both with GRIND and in and around Jeppestown and Troyville. I will share three experiences with you now: my new “Community Cube” project, visiting the home and neighborhood of local legend Bheki Dube, and meeting and discussing urban ideas with Boundless City founder and co-director Alexandra Cunningham.

The “Community Cube” Concept: A Maboneng Living Museum Exhibition

In a neighborhood development context, community spaces need to be flexible and welcoming for all. I also want my community projects to be sustainable and “owned” by community members themselves. As a part of this goal, Alice Cabaret (GRIND Director) and I have thought of the “Community Cube”: a 1.5m square cube that showcases local talent and potential, functions as a space for events and performances, and ultimately boosts social capital. It is owned and managed by community members, who will also assemble and construct the cube, and help design it.

When the cube is closed, it serves as a meeting table and gathering place. A cube design logo (designed by neighborhood residents) marks the top, and the sides include participatory chalkboard spaces, areas to post about local events and career resources, and spaces for crowd funding initiatives.

When the cube is closed, it serves as a meeting table and gathering place. A cube design logo (designed by neighborhood residents) marks the top, and the sides include participatory chalkboard spaces, areas to post about local events and career resources, and spaces for crowd funding initiatives.

Cubes are known for their pronounced, sharp edges. Places like Maboneng are beautiful because of their edges, their boundaries. People of different races, classes, and backgrounds come together and meet, and the result is not separation but intersection and diversity. Maboneng’s cube brings hundreds of living faces together to illustrate the diversity—and commonality—of South Africa’s ultimate urban experience.

On the inside, the cube opens and includes spaces to showcase local talent and civic leaders through ethnographic testimonials. The inside top also includes a whiteboard space for presentations. Small foldable two-board chairs are stored inside the cube for civic events. The floor will include a neighborhood map.

On the inside, the cube opens and includes spaces to showcase local talent and civic leaders through ethnographic testimonials. The inside top also includes a whiteboard space for presentations. Small foldable two-board chairs are stored inside the cube for civic events. The floor will include a neighborhood map.

A “community cube” is a light, mobile, and innovative site of collective neighborhood memory. On the inside, the community cube documents an area’s “story” not merely through traditional historical accounts, but through ethnographic testimonials of a great diversity of community leaders, residents, and workers. Such testimonials will take the visual form of a “Faces of Community” exhibition that shows faces and stories of neighborhood leaders, and also shows neighborhood talent, like art, poetry exhibitions, or music. As a light and mobile object, civic leaders can move a community cube to different events and functions. The cube can be located in outdoor public spaces and in museums with sufficient space. A cube is the simplest and neatest of shapes, and a community cube reflects the many complex stories and the messiness that exists in even the most even of shapes. Ultimately, a community cube empowers a district’s local residents to consider not just the spatial dimensions of their neighborhood, but the faces and histories of a local conglomerate. The cube can later be expanded as the basis for a larger exhibition or full community museum.

Adventures with Bheki Dube

Bheki Dube was born and raised in neighboring Troyville, just a ten minute walk from where he currently resides. Now featured in countless magazine and newspaper articles about the Maboneng Precinct and serving as the official “neighborhood host” and known as an essential community broker, Bheki was once just an ambitious Troyville boy photographing his city. As we walked towards his original home, Bheki explained some of his history to me. He showed me where old restaurants stood, where neighbors had lived. It was an impressive experience. It still shocks me that Bheki is 22 years old. After his first job, Bheki began taking photographs of urban Johannesburg, of places no tourist wanted to visit. And Bheki’s photography caught on. Soon he started a highly successful Johannesburg touring company, Main Street Walks, that continues to give inner city Johannesburg tours on “Art and Social Justice,” “Public Art,” and more. Bheki’s company was recently featured in the New York Times; he now employs half a dozen other tour guides to manage his many tour operations. And, most famously, Bheki partnered with Jonathan Liebmann to start Curiocity Backpackers, a Mabondeng community institution and essential place for people like me to meet and engage with local neighborhood residents. We passed the Jeppe Train Station, and then walked through to Jeppe Park. Bheki had grown up playing here, and today it was filled with eager youngsters surrounding the skatepark. Skatistan, an American NGO originally serving Afghanistan, had just built a new skatepark and American volunteers were helping local kids learn to skate in the dying sunlight.

Jeppe Station from above.

Jeppe Station from above.

Skateistan in Troyville Park.

Skateistan in Troyville Park.

Johannesburg skyline from Troyville.

Johannesburg skyline from Troyville.

Behind us I saw one of the best views of the city’s skyline. As we continued walking, I was ever more impressed with Bheki’s acute historical knowledge of the neighborhood. “See these house foundations?” he told me: “This is old Johannesburg, that’s why they have foundations of old stones, not bricks.” Finally, we arrived at Beryl Court, where Bheki grew up and where his mom still stays. Bheki enthusiastically greeted neighbors. Bheki introduced me to neighbors of all backgrounds. From there we went to the roof of his building. “This is the best view in Joburg,” he said enthusiastically, and he was right. We continued walking, and he showed me a small art gallery, the Spaza Art Gallery, run by a local artist and antique dealer.

Meeting with Boundless City Founder Alexandra Cunningham

Yesterday, I also had the chance to meet with Boundless City founder and co-director Alexandra Cunningham. Alex is another American, born and raised in San Jose, who runs a people-based urban development nonprofit (http://www.boundlesscity.com/index.html). We met at her newest operation, a community café, bar, and gathering space. It was beautifully built and is located right in the heart of Johannesburg’s CBD. Alexandra and I talked about urban development techniques, event and performances, and more generally how to make positive social change at a neighborhood level. Alexandra and Boundless City also produce dynamic consultation reports for neighborhood products. She ensures that neighborhood residents conduct all surveys and gather data and are compensated for their time and efforts. Our conversation was very inspiring and I look forward to working with Boundless City more in the future.

More updates to come in future weeks. I will tell you about the status of my community cube project and will highlight more adventures from the City of Gold!

Arts programming at Bounless City

Arts programming at Bounless City

Collaboration Cafe space at Boundless City.

Collaboration Cafe space at Boundless City.

Friends of Boundless City

Friends of Boundless City


Shorter thoughts and longer thoughts

I have been in Vienna for almost a month now- which I’ve decided merits a “my typical day” post:

Typical day

1. Have intentions to eat breakfast and instead sleep extra


Beautiful morning view out my kitchen window

2. Cycle to work (all of 4 blocks)
3. Set up camp at my desk:


My essentials: laptop, water, chocolate croissant

4. Work for a few hours
5. Eat lunch in the office’s hella nice kitchen:


Hella nice office kitchen

6. Afternoons are varied: meetings in the city, cycling around exploring the city’s bicycle networks and infrastructure, working more at the office
7. Evenings often consist of sports- either playing them myself or watching them on television somewhere in the city (although now the World Cup is over, I’ll probably just be playing them)

Now some thoughts:

“How does this city have so much money?”

I found out the answer to this question from Josh Grigsby, one of Smarter Than Car’s directors, during a conversation about the differences between Vienna and many U.S. cities: notably, the absence of “bad areas of town,” the relative lack of socioeconomic and racial segregation, and the generally much more affordable cost of public transit (the all-encompassing annual pass for access to subway, bus, and tram costs €1 a day). I’ve heard a lot of people refer to Vienna’s prosperity, and coming from the U.S. where cities now seem more likely to go bankrupt than be labelled “prosperous,” this was rather incredible to me. However Josh explained some of the long-term trends that have led to the reality that the city government actually owns or controls almost half the housing stock in Vienna. To quote from the city government’s webpage, “housing has been seen in Vienna as a public task for more than eight decades.” Josh explained that this really is the case: there has long been an emphasis on not just public housing, but quality public housing. Four criteria all equally inform the development of new projects: architectural quality, environmental performance, social sustainability, and economic parameters. This Governing article points out that this emphasis on community building and good design, coupled with the fact that virtually all public housing projects are mixed-income as residents can keep their original contracts even as their incomes rise, means that Vienna doesn’t have the problems that have plagued many poorly designed, poverty-concentrated projects in the U.S. like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, bound for demolition just 15 years after it was constructed. There is also no stigma in Vienna to living in public housing when almost half the city lives in some kind of public housing.

Ok, so how does the city have the money to do all this? Well, rent, was the answer I got. There are perks to pretty much having a monopoly on the housing market. Vienna just might be the most benevolent landlord in existence, however, because it puts that money back into places like Sargfabrik, a public housing project with cultural programming, kindergarten, and bathhouse. I’m guessing it also partially makes possible things like €1 a day public transit, university tuition that resembles a U.S. college student’s textbook budget, and, lest I not say this enough, €1 for a lifetime membership to the bike share system. Pretty crazy stuff. What this has me thinking about, though, is how context and history are so incredibly important- Vienna’s housing system did not spring up overnight, it is the ongoing product of decades of culture and policies that simply were different from the U.S.’s. So if you have an opinion, let me know what you think. Should the U.S. try and adopt a similar system? Would it even work?


I figure I wouldn’t be a real Urban Studies major if I didn’t stop to take pictures of street art.

Calling on Apple to think different(ly)

This week, I visited Apple HQ for the first time. Now, I’m a recovering Apple fanboy, but I wasn’t there to see “the Mothership” or pick up Apple-logo swag at the Company Store. Instead, I was there to protest.

You see, while Apple takes a great deal of care when designing its products, it hasn’t taken nearly as much care of its employees. Engineers and programmers are well compensated, but support staff – the people who keep Apple’s buildings clean, its workers fed, and its secrets safe – are not. While Apple’s profits have skyrocketed over the past decade, its food-service workers, janitors, and security officers haven’t seen any share of these gains. In fact, they (and their counterparts at other tech companies) have seen the opposite: between 2000 and 2010, the median household income in Silicon Valley actually fell 19%.

At Apple, a group of security officers has been trying to change this. The average Silicon Valley security officer is paid just $30,971, around $10,000 less than the Self-Sufficiency Standard (a measure of the cost of basic expenses for a family of four, assuming both parents are working). That’s simply not enough to make ends meet in expensive Silicon Valley, so security officers have been pushing Apple to put just a fraction of it profits ($10.2 billion last quarter alone) into higher wages. Apple’s response, however, has been to pass the buck. When asked by KCBS radio about its treatment of security officers, Apple’s response was “technically, these guards are not our employees.”

Technically that’s true, but it’s disingenuous. Apple contracts with companies like Security Industry Specialists to provide security services, which then hires (and sets wages for) security officers. SIS has a history of paying low wages, not providing quality healthcare coverage, forcing officers to work part-time with unpredictable schedules, and intimidating workers who speak out. Apple chose this contractor, and could easily make better conditions a requirement for its contract (as it does for its manufacturing contracts in China) or switch to a more responsible security company.

Yet despite CEO Tim Cook’s statement in 2012 that “workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment,” Apple has continued to ignore the unfair conditions for security officers right at its own headquarters. That’s why I was at Apple on Wednesday – to send a message that was a little harder to ignore.

With about 40 other volunteers from Working Partnerships USA, the South Bay Labor Council, and other labor and community organizations, we turned Apple’s Company Store and “1 Infinite Loop” sign into a rally site. Armed with megaphones, banners, and blue t-shirts (similar to those worn by Apple store employees, but with a slightly different message), we called on Apple to do right by its workers. We also handed out flyers and spoke with Apple employees and visitors, explaining why we were causing a ruckus. Apple management apparently decided to pretend we weren’t there, but then again, what could they really do? Send their security officers to kick us out for demanding fair wages for security officers?

Our banners outside Apple HQ

Thanks to growing up around community organizers, I’ve been to plenty of protests and rallies, but this one felt really good. The engineers and other Apple employees we talked with seemed receptive, even taking photos of our banner comparing Apple’s profit growth to the declining median income in Silicon Valley. From talking with programmers and my computer science friends at Stanford (some of whom have gone on to work at Apple), I believe most tech workers would support fair wages and decent working conditions, but simply haven’t thought much about the problem. Unlike some other industries (such as fast food or Wal-Mart) where profits largely come from squeezing and underpaying workers, providing decent middle-class jobs to security officers and other support staff would barely dent profits for most tech companies.

Talking with Apple engineers and visitors

Hopefully Apple and other tech giants will come to this conclusion, and begin paying wages that allow workers to take care of their families and grow our economy. Until then, we’ll pull out our banners and megaphones, and keep coming back.