August 15, 2012

5 Insights from Conflict Zones for Urban Planners


I've never been to a public hearing on zoning issues or argued with city council over a transportation project.  But I have spent my fair share of time negotiating access to local communities with militia leaders for research and drinking tea with warlords to understand informal justice systems.  Although trained as an urban planner to work in American cities with issues of sprawl, brown fields, and  economic development,  I ended up working with urban planning problems barely touched upon in grad school.

I am an urban planner who works in active warzones and complex environments dealing with issues varying from conflict stabilization to physical reconstruction. These problems  are layered, difficult to engage, and in great need of new creative ideas.  Most people think foremost about the physical risks of the job, but that is actually the easiest obstacle to bypass. Rather, the greatest challenges are usually more cumbersome, like having to decipher local power structures from within the surrounding chaos. After all  the people who appear to have the most decision-making authority and power rarely have the means to implement their will, the most powerful people are hidden from view, and the real stakeholders are somewhere hidden in the shadows.

Technology-Based Economic Development in the Dadaab Refugee Camps, Kenya
Most of the planning literature available, both popular and academic, do not deal directly with the issues I face and therefore my toolbox is a collage of information drawn from multiple disciplines.  Yet am a frequent reader of major planning and urbanism sites, all the while asking, "how is this applicable to the work that I do?"  There is typically some level of application, given that cities such as Kabul, Mogadishu, Juba, or Abuja may be faced with the same problems in the very near future unless different kinds of decisions are made.  If we follow the recipes prescribed by planning texts books and academia, the problems currently found within  American or European cities will become the problems found in Africa or Central Asia very soon.

While I have the advantage of drawing on so much work and research from advanced economies and post-industrial cities, it seems not enough urban planners have the advantage of learning from cities in conflict.   I work in extreme conditions but many of the the lessons learned have widely applicable value.  Here are 5 lessons I've acquired over the years that I apply to almost every job and believe other planners should consider:

1. Organizational Structure.  
There is a reason good planning dies just as quickly as bad planning.  The more sophisticated an organization, the more sophisticated the chain of command and the process for implementation becomes.  Likewise, complex plans require complex organizational structures and  long periods of time.  All plans are also resource exhaustive, but the more resources consumed, also the lower probability of project success and the higher probability organizational structure will modify the utility of the plan.  

The most applicable plans are the ones that are so streamlined in their design that they cannot become contorted by the shortfalls of organizational structure, while also minimizing resource use.  These plans can also be tailored to accomodate the weaknesses of the organization and implementing partner so as to maximize efficiency.  In this manner, the plans become low-input and high-output with a higher probability of success.

Snow Removal in Kabul, Afghanistan
2. Critical Points
If the water is dirty, the streets are broken, the buildings collapsed, the schools are empty, recruitment by militia groups have increased, and no one has any food, what do you do?  You could craft a project for each of the problems but nothing will change fast enough and new problems will emerge.  The solution is to design one or two small, focussed projects that can contend with all of these problems to some degree.  For example, the recruitment of children and the access to education are connected, likely this is also connected to transportation and possibly to food (perhaps the family needs the children to work).  

Planners know how to do the research, so the trick is to find specific geographic locations where all the issues overlap.  Consistent with point 1, it is also important to consider each sector as having an organizational structure, so as to visualize how these dynamics interact in geographic space.  Sorta like working with 4-dimensional legos right?

3. Rapid Appraisals
Often in America it is easy to determine if you have walked into an unsafe neighborhood because of tell-tale signs such as broken windows on cars, drug dealers on the corner, and bars on the windows of every residence.  But what if your sense of danger is actually just an assessment of poverty or a subconscious racism?  Is this neighborhood truly unsafe, or do you only think it is?  Or more so, is it only unsafe for you and other outsiders?

In a very poor country it can be difficult to isolate an area as dangerous when the general level of poverty is extremely high and widespread.  To contend with this, rapid appraisal techniques have been around for decades, and while they are plenty flawed, they also are highly underused.   There is typically not enough security or means to conduct big surveys or arrange for community meetings, but decisions have to be made and time is not available.   Also big surveys are flawed, asking a family about monthly income says nothing about their comparative wealth.  The development of rapid appraisal techniques can save time and lives. Perhaps the wealthiest households all have walls of mudbrick while the others have wattle-and-daub construction?  Maybe the dangerous neighborhood is the one with no street vendors compared to the vibrant markets a few blocks away?  But maybe its just empty because everyone is at work?  The best thing to do is ask questions, develop a formula, and apply it.  It won't be perfect, but you'll understand the landscape better than your counterparts.

Social Conflict Indicators
4.  It has become common knowledge over the last few years in Afghanistan that fluctuations in market prices are frequently a tell-tale sign of impending conflict.  It makes sense however that farmers having difficulty getting their goods to market will raise their prices and violence is a viable obstacle.  But how does this apply in the US?  One thing I've noticed over the years is that place making efforts do not always align at critical junctures (see point 2), and yet if place-based development was tied to physical economic spaces, we could better determine future socio-economic trends.  Lets take more responsibility to create conditions as spatial tools for analysis.

The Political Minefield
5. I lived for many years in Cincinnati, Ohio where I repeatedly witnessed great ideas and proposals get watered down and drawn out until no longer important.  Attempts to develop the waterfront, to install street cars, and to renovate historic buildings have all but dissipated so that when the project actually happens, it is 10 years too late and a mere shadow of itself.  If these plans never see the light of day or emerge true to their intent, then I blame the planner, not the city.   

First the planner should have recognized how the organizational structure of dominant power structures would manipulate his/her work.  Furthermore, the planner failed to acquire the moral argument and collective media support to direct the process from the outside.  When working in a war zone, there are plenty of bad ideas and plenty of poorly designed or executed projects.  Funds get wasted and corrupt individuals abuse the system.  But the sense of emergency and moral imperative that something must be done frequently overrides the political rhetoric and aggression.    Not to mention the role of the media frenzy in determining spending patterns or the popularity of a project.  

Planners in the US could certainly learn something from this process.  By utilizing a morally superior vernacular to back their arguments and acquiring an observable network of support,  professional planners might be able to find the strength needed to get their projects through.  Isn't that what Robert Moses did?  He made a fair share of mistakes, but his influence over the city was not an accident.  Will this result in good plans?  Absolutely not.  But it also won't weaken the goods ones beyond recognition.

August 11, 2012

Urban Design and the Indefensible Space


I recall the first time I heard an architect talk about programming a building.  I imagined an elaborate process of computational mathematics and structural engineering blended with social psychology.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that programming was little more than a designer saying "this place is for walking between a and b, this place is for sitting, and this place is is for the mixed use of sitting and/or walking."  

Certainly there is some excellent work out there to understand the relationship between human activity and the predeterminations of physical space.  I have a copy of A Pattern Language sitting on my shelf and can't recommend it enough.   But so often the process of programming is approached as formulaic as master plans (frequent readers are familiar with my disdain for old fashioned master plans).  A quick google search will reveal step-by-step guides to programming, but reading through such procedures, one is simply confronted by the usual "rational strategic planning model" to identify user needs within the framework of budgets, time, and materials.  Bottom up and mixed-methods exist as well, but again, how dissimilar is programming from basic decision making?

I suspect we use the term programming because it sounds more impressive.  But more importantly, there is a desire among architects and urban designers to identify and tap into some cosmic body of knowledge that will explain the structural underpinnings of human behavior.  I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone else.  And the evidence of this desire is everywhere.  We have decades of research on central place theory and investigations into complex adaptive systems  along with today's groundbreaking research on the mathematics of cities.  

But as we mine downward into the underbelly of social order, what do we do with these new understandings?  Do we attempt to restructure all of society according to some personal vision like  Le Corbusier, or do we simply reinforce these patterns with our design efforts, even if they are imperfect? There are plenty of tools out there to understand the role of space in human activity, but how do we build upon that?  In many ways we are beginning already to implement these lessons, such as the efforts by Washington DC police to look at how land use and development trends impact changes in crime.  But in this instance, it is about redistributing police officers to points of potential crime. As an urban planner, how can I apply these same tools and concepts on behalf of governments around the world?

This issue has been on my mind a great deal lately I have been designing a public green space for construction in the spring and have been thinking a great deal about how the space can be used, and more specifically, abused.  Unique architectural features that might stimulate social responsibility or interest can easily become transformed into vantage points for sabotage, crime, and violence.  Although security has always been a critical part of city planning, the modern idea of creating a "Defensible Space"  has emerged in the 1960s when Oscar Newman was attempting to reduce crime in low-income housing communities in the US.  His conclusions such as the use of street lights, defined walkways, and indicators of clear ownership have all been successfully implemented in communities around the world to deter urban crime.  

Unique Feature or Tactical Vantage Point?
But as I work in an areas where militant aggression and terrorism are daily realities, I'm curious how I can do the opposite.  Everyday in Kabul I see big massive walls surrounded in razor-wire with reinforced steel doors and windows glazed in blast film.  Not to mention that tall buildings have been utilized multiple times now as strategic points of attack by insurgents. Just the other day I was walking past Share-e-Naw Park and I was looking at its tall iron fences, the clusters of foliage, and the undulating terrain.  Now the park isn't exactly an offensive vantage point, yet nothing about its design actually would deter or undermine an offensive actor.  In fact, many of the elements designed in line with Newman's prescriptions just would just well serve as an asset to a criminal - with limited points of entry and exit, absorbing shadows at the edge of the spot-lit walkway and continually obstructed sight-lines formed by vegetation and corner shops.  

Perhaps a better solution is to create the Indefensible Space.  A space or structure that can only be used for its intended purpose that cannot be destroyed, vandalized, or misused as a means to conduct offensive operations.  Such a space or structure could not be formulaic, but site sensitive, and its programming would emerge more from the process of responsive decision making and data collection rather than from within a studio.  But the intentional proliferation of such spaces could transform global conflict.

We already have cities full of defensive structures, and when programming a public space in a conflict zone, it cannot be assumed that the typical recipe for creating secure structures meets long-term social interests.  In fact, I would argue that the more classical interventions are utilized to secure a city, the longer that city will struggle with transitioning between conflict to post-conflict stages and beyond.  If you want to undermine the resiliency and economic sustainability of a city in conflict, then build massive walls.  But if you want to reinforce social forces to maximize social order, then a different prescription is needed.

As for cities like Kabul that are already overwhelmed by defensive architecture, the infusion of indefensible spaces into such a landscape could help lesson the oppression of concrete barriers and checkpoints.  The free-flowing indefensible spaces distributed throughout the city could bolster stability and even economic growth.

Clearly the counter-intuitive nature of the concept yields many weaknesses.  But we already have plenty of tools from which to analyze social spaces and to measure the impact of the built environment.    So how do we transform the knowledge gained through all the analytical tools into an effective programmatic and design solution remains an unrefined art.  So while my proposal for the indefensible space isn't perfect, it poses an opportunity to explore the analytics while lessoning the potential for negative consequences.  The greatest risk is that some unimaginative planner will situate a flat, empty parking lot in the middle of a city and do nothing more.  But as for the potential opportunity for design and the art of programming?  That remains to be explored.

August 7, 2012

Psycho-social healing as Urban Reconstruction and Planning in Somalia


For the last several weeks I haven't been regularly posting here on the humanitarian space, but with good reason.  I'm working on a series of projects right now that have occupied all my attention.  However, I have also been writing and submitting work for online and print publication throughout the fall. 

Today I have a new article coming out over at the Polis Blog, a collaborative blog about cities across the globe.  The article, A city in healing after two decades of war,   introduces the notion that post-war reconstruction isn't just about rebuilding streets and buildings, but is about healing and overcoming trauma.  This is specifically highlighted by the last 21 years of violence that has consumed Mogadishu, Somalia.