February 27, 2014

Cairo Egypt - A Contentious Veneer of Political Nothingness

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This last weekend I was in Cairo, Egypt thanks to a 12 hour layover on my way to work in Ethiopia. Having previously lived in Egypt, I was excited and nervous to see what developments have occurred in Cairo since the Arab Spring.  I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed.

Here is what I found:

One, there has been an incredible explosion of street art throughout the city.  Not only in Tahrir, but everywhere one can find evidence of artistic expression and protest.  This is rather incredible.  Below is a photo from the old social science campus for the American University of Cairo, located on Mahmoud Mahmoud street.  The quantity of texts and imagery that adorns the building is not unique, but such messages can be found elsewhere in the city.



Admittedly however, Tahrir is the focus of more extraordinary works. On the wall of the original American University campus one can find massive murals and other large-scale works which are less clear in their political intent, but remain aesthetically striking.



Beyond the presence of street art, near Tahrir is an extensive array of defensive fortifications.  Large concrete blast walls and stone structures are arranged for about 1 or 2 blocks in every direction around the Ministry of Interior.  Concave walls line some of the streets, striking because their design would be clearly ineffective against explosives (such as the role of the traditional T-wall) but make human access nearly impossible.  Furthermore, large steel gets have been erected near the Mugama on the edge of Tahrir which can be used to close access to the square.



Yet beyond Tahrir, the city remains fairly unchanged.  Vegetables are sold, donkeys pull carts, and traffic barely moves.  Only one block from Tahrir, one can see that daily life has remained the same as before the uprising.  After meeting with some Egyptian friends, I voiced my concern that nothing has truly changed.  The jobs are the same.  There are still police posted on every corner.  There is still a large quantity of easily identified secrete police scattered throughout the city.  In terms of formal political systems, it appears no different than when I left in December of 2009.  They agreed.



Yet one change remained clearly observable.  The divide between the rich and poor has continued to grow.  Outside the city in Qahira Jedida (New Cairo) the suburbs have exploded in size.  Massive malls, large water fountains, and sweeping grass lawns (in a desert!) stretch as far as you can see. There is even a massive, brand new Ikea located nearby in New Maadi.

In the meanwhile old Maadi, which has been the longstanding neighborhood residence of the elite, has grown old and tired.  There remain some beautiful houses, yet much of the neighborhood has lost its upper class allure.  The rich have vacated for the suburbs and the poor have struggled to fill the gap.

In addition, large scale construction projects can be found everywhere.  Capitalism has run rampant in the interest of the upper class.  Just below is  photo from Tahrir, where on the very edge, massive new office buildings are under construction.



In the end, government has remained unchanged, the security of the common people no different, and capitalism has had its way.  Even the revolution has been co-opted.  Below is a photo-synth of 2 images I took of Tahrir with the Mugama in the background.  Perhaps the revolution was televised, but today it is bought and sold, to no benefit of those fighting for change.


February 19, 2014

Kiev Before and Now

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I will admit, I have not followed events in Kiev Ukraine very closely in the last few weeks as my attention has been overly absorbed with work.  However, I felt the photo-synth above perfectly illustrates what is happening. Also it highlights just how much an environment can change when under duress. I'm not sure who made it, but I found it via journalist Jared Keller at twitter.

February 13, 2014

Detroit Urban Development and Communication with a Drone

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Recently while assembling a project in Detroit Michigan, I came across some videos utilizing a consumer drone to document parts of the city.  They are truly gorgeous.  This particular one below documents the Heidelberg Project, an neighborhood-wide art installation by Tyree Guyton.  

I've been a fan of the Heidelberg Project since my days in art school, when I learned that Tryee was using his method of found-object art construction to highlight the excessive needs and attention of his neighborhood. Adjacent to the abandoned Packard plant, and situated among endless blocks of abandoned buildings, Tryree constructed the Heidelberg project as an act of beautification, neighborhood protest, and empowerment.  For many years people were outraged by his actions, but as it brought attention to the landscape, one could argue that the Heidelberg Project has been an important catalyst for change, now that Detroit is on an upswing.  If you cannot view the embedded video, find it here.




Recently a series of arsons have been consuming this urban installation. Rumors abound regarding the motive and source of the fires and investigations on on-going.  The drone footage captures the landscape just before the most recent fire.

I've theorized in the past how drones could be used by urban planners, yet the documentation of Heidelberg illuminates a new, and fairly simple prospect.  

It is difficult to convey the qualitative, intangible feeling of vast spaces.  While photography and film has the ability to convey strong emotion, it does not necessarily have the means to do connect a viewer to an entire neighborhood.  The power of shaped and empty space is the ability make a person feel large, small, connected, or alone. Standard videography does not effectively transfer the essence of space to a viewer.  Yet perhaps this is a new opportunity for drones.

When I watch the video above, irregardless of any music, I get a sense of the atmosphere, I get a sense of the weather, and I get a glimpse of what it is like to move through the installation.  I get an idea what it is like to participate with the space, from the physical perspective of a small child, as a grown adult, or even perhaps from within the imagination of Tyree, who arguably has a more concrete vision of the installation than anyone.  He knows its details yet can see the large picture of interlocking pieces.  As a viewer and participant, we can eventually acquire an equally sophisticated relationship with the space, but to transmit this relationship is a challenge.  The drone imagery does not solve that problem, yet it may get us a step closer toward communicating the ethereal.  Perhaps drones will do more than cause new problems, perhaps they will give us the chance to be one step closer of experiencing the multilayered syntax of place.  That is a powerful thing. 

February 3, 2014

The Danger of Development

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When I tell other urban development folks that I don't care about resilience or empowerment, they tend to look at me like I'm an idiot.  How can resilience be bad?  Empowerment is good!  And yes - those things are true.  However, in my work I argue that we should never start with the idea, we should start with the people.

Everywhere I work, the process is similar because it starts with building real human relationships.  I can work in Detroit or Mogadishu or the Bahamas because I go in with no assumptions or expectations.  I only ask that I can spend time with people, observe them, and learn from them.  The more people I meet, the more relationships I can create, and the better I can offer something of value.  Maybe my proposal will fall into the domain of resilience, maybe not, it doesn't actually matter.  I've also written extensively about this in the article, Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine.

Unfortunately, this approach to "Development" with a capital "D" is not universal.  Many of my peers embrace the certainty of formulas and answers, and are more than happy to debate endlessly on the works of Sachs vs. Easterly.  But I suspect those rockstars of international development would agree with me to say the debate misses the point.

Today a friend of mine shared this fantastic video on the perils of international development.  It is funny but it is also sad because these things do happen.  I have personally witnessed such tragedies occur, and even wrote about one such incident in the article Deep Water in a Geography of Conflict.  I strongly recommend the video below, if it doesn't load in your browser, feel free to visit the source at http://www.survivalinternational.org/thereyougo.