May 22, 2013

Crowdsourcing the End of War to Rebuild Cities in Conflict


Gunfire and bomb blasts have a way of wearing one's nerves.  But sometimes the silence afterwards is more ominous.  And after the dust has settled and the guns are silenced, someone needs to walk into the street and lead the cleanup.  Someone needs to fill the craters, sweep up the rubble, glue the pieces back together, and build something new.  But glue costs money.  And people with money tend tend to avoid bomb craters.   When I first moved to Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint about 50 meters from my house.  The explosion destroyed cars, shattered the windows of nearby houses, and left a massive hole in the road.  The hole in the road, where the man ignited his vest, is still there.  

I no longer live in the same house, but I do occasionally drive down that road and I always look at the gaping pot hole.  I also tend to stare bleakly at all the other massive potholes in the city and wonder how many are a result of  bad construction and severe weather, and how many were a person.   Problems such as these are too small and decentralized to be fixed by the big contracting agencies that lead most reconstruction efforts today, but solving them is critical to moving the city forward from a phase of conflict, into a phase of healing and eventual renewal. Small and widely distributed problems need parallel solutions, but community mobilizing is limited if there isn't sufficient capital to actually do something.  The problem has weighed on my mind for years.

Then today I stumbled across Fundrise, a site that crowdsources real estate development by allowing thousands of investors to purchase a small share of the property and make a profit on its resale a few years later.  I immediately wondered if this tool for crowdsourcing real estate investment could be useful in development and conflict.  Of course I have immediate concerns about a bunch of people with expendable income using it to advance gentrification in low-income neighborhoods in Washington DC, and and am furthermore weary of applying the tool within fragile states because it would exacerbate the same problems.   But it could potentially offset my biggest obstacle in post-war reconstruction.

My biggest obstacle working in conflict is to procure sufficient levels of private sector investment.  The high risk can yield a high return, but the high probability of watching your investment explode is too much of a deterrent for the typical speculator.  Had I grown up in a wealthy family like Michael Stock, I admittedly would use a similar model as his company Bancroft International.  To function both as the security contractor and as a developer allows one to maximize profits and also hedge the risks of conflict.  But such organizations are not void of complications.   Personally I'm not too interested in the traditional methods of training soldiers for security, but it could be ideal too personally invest in the territories where my urban planning work is facilitating security and improving the local economy.  

So what if I create a channel for anyone in the world to invest in real estate in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq or S. Sudan?  The small level of investment would be attractive because most investors would not be deterred by possibly losing 100 USD when the potential return could be 1000%.  No reason Bancroft needs to make all the money right?  The potholes get filled, the buildings rebuild, locals have access to new capital, and external investors make a profit.  The winnings are smaller but everyone gets a piece of it.

As a strategy to side-step the complex power relations that are incurred with such an investment strategy, the projects could be structured to function within a broader humanitarian initiative. Efforts could be coordinated with other strategies and planning efforts to rebuild a city affected by war.  Something would need to be done to contend with the tenure issues for local and IDP populations, as my greatest fear is that the land would be developed at a faster rate than the community can access and participate in the economic growth, thus further marginalizing an already vulnerable population.  Ideally these investments are directed in a manner to facilitate not only the physical rebuilding, but also the engage a greater variety of stakeholders in the reconstruction process, effectively reducing the role of massive international mega-corporations that tend to pop up in such places.

Clearly this proposal is a minefield of problems.  But it also just might clear a minefield.  Maybe I'll try it this summer.  Would you use it?

May 21, 2013

Crafting Cities Truly Responsive to Climate Change

The Original Green Roof. Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2013.

I know very little about climate change.   I understand the basic arguments, and having worked at the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences a few years ago, I am familiar with some of the recent research.  But as an urban planner, I admit that I know very little about the role of climate change in urban development.   I often feel like I'm woefully ignorant on the subject because I do not know how to measure emissions from traffic densities or how to determine the carbon offsets from an infrastructure project.  It turns out I'm not alone, most planners can't do this, including many who label themselves as sustainability experts.  Whats the deal?

Yesterday during a Skype meeting with a US nonprofit about an urban violence project, climate change was mentioned and it made me wonder, why do so many of us urban professionals know so little about this subject?  It is a significant variable in the health and function of cities, it has tremendous long-term implications, and it is particularly relavent for coastal settlements.  It is also frequently discussed in terms of conflict, sustainability and the debate over environmental refugees,  although that case is something of a misnomer.  Food production and national security are frequently mentioned in the conversation.  From the quantity of channels in which climate change is discussed, we can evaluate it as a significant variable, but then I must ask myself, after all these years of school and work, why isn't it a standard part of every conversation, plan, and most projects?

Why climate change is ignored or under utilized in urban planning and development

1. Part of the answer has to do with the nature of the variable. Climate is a huge phenomenon that cannot, as a whole, be directly observed.  Consequently, it is unwieldy.  Climate science tends to rely upon large quantities of data, collected and combed by climate experts.  The data and the outcomes are also designed for use by climatologists, not necessarily for urbanists or social scientists, and consequently there is a disconnect between the data and the populations that could create solutions from it.   Greater partnership between policy makers, specialists, and climate researchers could lead to more directly useful information.

2. Previous social science research concerning climate change has been poorly defined and messy.  I'm sure there are plenty exceptions, but looking through google scholar, I found that so many projects pursue participatory or perception-based methods that also mix climate change with other issues such as public health risks.  

Take for example this page for community health concerning soil and food.  This project advocates a community based research process in Malawi among farmers to develop response strategies to climate change.  That sounds good, except it also manages to include HIV awareness/prevention, and the methodology "focusses on gender/age inequalities."  I can only imagine that the research designer was trying to diversify the project in order to acquire funding, because such a schizophrenic research design will prompt a blurred mess of outcomes.  I appreciate the complexity intended in the study, but keeping specific to goal (adaption strategies for climate change among farmers in Malawi) provides a higher probability of success for those farmers.  Aids education, gender, and age, do not need to be a part of the project and only creates distractions.

3.  Social science research and development projects that take a strategically proactive approach to climate change tend to have a rural focus (such as this project with farmers in Ethiopia).   It makes perfect sense to work with farmers to experiment with strategies to contend with climate change in coming seasons.  Excellent.  But how does this translate to urban environments?

There are plenty of examples of climate change and poor urban planning causing problems (such as flooding in Argentina), but what about the successes?  Current "best practices" tend to focus on novel solutions such as green rooftops and house boats.  Seriously?  This sort of approach to problem solving perfectly exemplifies everything that is wrong with the field of urban planning.  May I ask, how many square meters of roof-top gardens in a city/state/nation/world will be required to reduce carbon emissions by 2% in a year?  How many liters of water collected in rain gardens will produce the same impact?  This is not a legitimate approach.  It is ad-hoc and based more in good will than good thinking.

Also, many of the messages propagated among urban-dwellers is to conserve - recycle, turn off lights, use public transit -  or to rely upon technology (such as sustainable architecture and infrastructure) rather than to individually experiment with livelihood strategies to produce environmentally advantageous outcomes.  I'm not a big believer in social programming for baseline behavior change, and the notion of experimentation has more pro-active connotations than the emphasis on reduction.  While there are likely some urban projects that take the proactive, experimental, and strategic approach, these are in an extreme minority.  In the meanwhile the public sphere is dominated by media messages constructing conservation as long-term responsibility, not messages of environmentally-positive production because of urgent necessity.

4. There is a lack of concise research methods for urbanists and social science researchers.  I've spent the last 24 hours searching for published, quality research concerning urban settlements and climate change at the individual, human scale (not the sort of research pursued by climatologists).  There are many papers concerned with participatory action research methods with farmers to research the affects of climate change on their livelihood and to develop solutions to contend with this.  Where is the same kind of for cities?  It must be out there somewhere, but its not omnipresent, and that is a problem since cities generate the greatest quantity of carbon emissions.  It seems feasible to use the same strategy for cities, but we can assume that the impact will be more difficult for urban residents to discern. 

The Outcome

If climate change is to become a valid concern for urban populations, it must be removed from the abstract and exposed among the lived day-to-day reality of the population.  We must first ask ourselves what sort of clear and tangible evidence for climate change exists within our cities and neighborhoods. The best social research and work today seems focussed on developing coping strategies for the victims of climate change, such as rural African villages and farmers.  But this social research needs to happen in our cities and suburbs as well, not because urban dwellers are to be positioned as the evil propagators of climate change, but because without a proactive approach, they will be the future victims.

We also must drop the fantasy assumptions about the so-called solutions on land use and green space to which we presently adhere.  Upon identifying the specific incidents of climate change, we can create relavent methods within our communities to internalize the evidence to then develop strategic, pro-active responses to contend with the harsh reality of climate change.  Furthermore our responses must contain a series of relavent tactics that can a) quantitively reduce carbon emissions in our cities and b) develop coping strategies for the negative impact of climate change.  

While we strive to do our part to mitigate or even reverse the trend of global temperature increase, we must also accept that temperature change has a longstanding history and will continue, although at a slower pace.  Our cities need not be prepared for climate change, but accept the responsibility in the present tense and thus become responsive.  Whereas preparation implies a coming event, response suggests a current and ongoing engagement.  

May 17, 2013

Seeking Urban Planning 2.0


I love watching movies about the future.  I'm not exactly a major science fiction fan, but I  love to see other people's visions of what the future of cities could be like.  As a boy, I had a Back to the Future poster on my closet door and I lusted for a hovering skateboard.  I knew from an early age that I was to graduate high school in the year 2000, which even in the mid-90s tempted my mind with thoughts of glass sidewalks and gravity-defying cars.

So now, where is my floating car?  

I can't blame urban planners for our lack of aerospace transit options, but when I look at the evolution of tools for urban planning and development in comparison to the rate of growth in other technical fields, I'm struck with pangs of jealousy.  Within a matter of years, telecommunications have undergone a revolution.  Sustainable architectural technologies have leaped forward.  We can travel further, faster, and quieter than ever before and to any part of the world.  All I need is a laptop and a decent web connection to receive an education, start a business, market it, manage it, and sell it.  But regarding the decisions we make to improve our cities, the change has been slow moving.  Our modern cities very much resemble cities of 100 years ago.  Certainly they are cleaner and more efficient, but if you remove all the sleek products, they are more or less the same in organization.

Today the major obsession is big data for urban management.  We all want maps and data on everything in the city so we can cut down traffic, reduce taxes, improve utilities, and target infrastructure projects. Excellent.  To obtain this data we relay upon a variety of digital tools, which means we have to rely on computer scientists to produce the tools, manage them, and conduct much of the analysis to explain the data.  Consequently many of the best GIS users today are programmers not geographers.

The better urban designers are also often trained as architects.  They have a more specific knowledge of materials, spatial form and the construction process.  Engineers remain essential to make certain that everything has the structural capacity to function.

So with the influx of computer/data scientists and the strong role of architecture, what is today's urban planner left to do?  Mobilizing community engagement and employment within local legislative powers tend to be the two primary areas where urban planners work.  But why such a limited scope of work? 

Most urban planners I know work in one of the above positions.  I recall once meeting a planner who went on to get a JD and then worked doing rule of law in Afghanistan.  He said he would "never go back to urban planning" but I was shocked!  Building governance and law in Afghanistan is an excellent task as urban planner.

I suspect that one reason for the lack of vision and the slow growth of the profession is because the lack of imagination within urban planning education.  Many schools train their students to be mid-level bureaucrats, GIS technicians, and community workers.  They are not trained to be creators.  They are trained to be strategic.  The strategy is based upon a directed, assumed, or commonly determined vision. Within the pursuit of the strategy, many of the tactics are antiquated. In graduate school I was taught how to measure the quantitive impact of industrial job creation in a community, a rarity in today's economy.  Classes covered business incubators, industrial clusters, zoning laws, city accounting and historic preservation law.  But there were no classes that explained how a business functions, how to be an entrepreneurs, how to craft a vision for the city, how to write a computer program, or how to build a database.  There were also no specific classes on urban security, immigration, or food production or similar pressing issues.

When I left grad school I began targeting the world's hardest problems of refugee camps, urban violence, and war.  Fortunately, before pursuing planning, I started my career as an artist where I learned to create.  In graduate school,  I then acquired the ability to be strategic.  Yet it was clear that I didn't have the tools I needed.  I then went back to school for an additional year in Egypt to study international law and migration. That helped... but only made it more clear that more work needed to be done.  In the last couple years  I've spent countless nights reading books about business, working on business plans, and conducting exercises on until the early morning hours.  Unfortunately, while I have some tools now that are more relevant to the problems at hand to create markets and work with information, I still have much work to do and these tools are far from sufficient.

If we are to make our dreams into a reality, we need to start training our urban problem-solvers and change-makers with more relevant tools. It doesn't all need to be digital.  They could be simple and organic tools too.  What matters most is that our tools evolve to reflect not only the demands of the present, but to better identify and pursue the opportunities of the future.  Until then, our cities will remain far removed from the possibilities of our dreams.