Walking along the High Line over the streets of Chelsea on a sunny day, it’s easy to see why the repurposed rail bridge has gained such fervent acclaim in design circles. The High Line is an innovative example of adaptive reuse, made possible by the organized efforts of Friends of the High Line. Despite its triumph as a design project and as a green space, how the park functions in its context points to flaws in its creation as well as flaws in the city itself.
The creation of the High Line had an explosive effect on property values near the park. Real estate prices skyrocketed after the High Line’s construction, primarily within a couple of blocks of the park’s location. Josh Barbanel reported on this ‘halo effect’ in his 2016 article for the Wall Street Journal. This kind of boom is to be expected near an amenity like a new park, especially in such a dense city. Unfortunately, the majority of housing around the High Line is market-rate, leaving out anyone who can’t afford a luxury apartment. In one apartment building next to the park, a studio apartment starts renting at $3,215. An apartment in the Spears Building sold for $350,000 in 1997, $2.2 million in 2008, and $3.15 million in 2016.
The High Line’s design process did not effectively include the community because it did not take into consideration how the park could meet local residents’ needs. While there were participatory elements in the design process, the input residents were asked for was not oriented around their needs as a community. The executive director of Friends of the High Line, Richard Hammond, discussed the flawed process and the group’s new approach an interview with CityLab’s Laura Bliss for her 2017 piece on the High Line.
The flaws in the High Line and its effect on the surrounding neighborhood emerge from both a poor inclusionary process for the original community and the failure of New York City to protect and provide for low-income residents.
The High Line also operates on a contradictory logic of inclusion, at once advocating for an inclusive public space yet explicitly monitoring and restricting who should have access:
The message of the first sign is essential to ensuring inclusive public space, and is admirably explicit during a time of increasing social and cultural division. All people should be able to freely access and benefit from public space as equal members of a community and a city. Why, then, should the needy be excluded? Why should poverty be criminalized even in spaces that tout philosophies of inclusion? The exclusion of the needy from the public realm can only lead to greater bias against and fear of those in poverty or suffering from homelessness, and prevents communities from the self-reflection necessary for positive change.
Andy Merrifield, quoting Marshall Berman, identifies public space as an environment in which “a whole society might begin to confront its collective repressions to call up the specters that haunt it and look them in the face.” One of the specters that residents may be called to face in unrestricted public space is the existence of those in need.
Merrifield asserts in his own words that “a democratic and ‘open-minded’ public space would ensure the shock of recognition” of the existence of poor people. Berman calls this confrontation a way to ‘grow up in public.’ Shared space calls on people to truly share their world and bear witness to its realities. Through this confrontation, communities can begin to critique and improve their social conditions. If the High Line is yet another tool in the city for policing the homeless and impoverished, attempting to erase them from the public eye and cementing their image as a threat, it can’t possibly serve its community and city as a truly public space.
Excluding impoverished people from public spaces denies those people the recognition they deserve as legitimate city residents, while also denying entire communities the responsibility and opportunity of self-reflection and improvement presented by confronting their own realities.
Work cited: Andrew Merrifield, Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, 169–170. 2013.
In October of 2018, I took a train trip from Copenhagen through Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Many of my classmates were traveling as well since we had the week off. Most people traveled with a group of friends or to meet people they knew studying abroad in other cities, but some of us traveled alone. What stood out to me talking to people in my apartment who had spent even a day traveling alone was our common ground of shitty moments.
One of my housemates got hopelessly lost walking through Amsterdam, then shattered her almost-dead phone when she was trying to get directions. Another, who went to Cinque Terre, wound up having to walk up the steep roads of a coastal village in the middle of the night when her plane was delayed and her train passed her stop. Yet another shared how uncomfortable it was at first be the only one eating alone in a restaurant. As for me, the loneliness-restlessness I remembered from other solo trips hit me hard on my third day in Paris and I nearly cried in public three different times. Traveling alone doesn’t always go well and it doesn’t always feel good. But it gives you a stronger sense of self, an emotional connection to wherever you go, and shows you the goodness of the world when you least expect to see it.
You’re On Your Own
In his book Why Travel Matters, Craig Storti advocates hard for traveling alone. To be a traveler (distinct from being a tourist), Storti explains, your perception must be uninhibited by having a familiar person with you, no matter how well you get along. A travel buddy could be a distraction, filtering your experience through their own, or simply make it harder to meet locals (Storti 139). In A Taste for Travel, John Julius Norwich says a companion can ‘cushion’ the traveler, “desensitizing their antennae.”
This is not to say that traveling with someone whose company you enjoy is by default a bad idea. Traveling with those you love is its own kind of wonderful adventure, and one that is worth having. It just depends what kind of trip you want. For me, traveling alone means more direct contact with a place and my experience with it. I can think and reflect in a more authentic way because I’m only focusing on my own experiences.
Because you typically have a more direct channel to wherever you visit when you are alone, and because you have your own emotional journey while there, traveling alone helps you develop an emotional relationship with the places you go. Experiencing a new place alone gives me a personal and emotive connection to wherever I am. I have regrettably few memories of the trips I took when I was younger where I was guided along with a large group of other tourists, or even just with other family members. My experience wasn’t defined by relating to the place, but rather by relating to the people that came there with me.
Solitude Demands Optimism
Traveling alone can be draining. Having only yourself to rely on when navigating a new place, eating alone, and, if you’re like me, overcoming introverted tendencies to make new friends, can all be pretty exhausting. I felt this on my third day in Paris especially (you know, the one where I kept almost-crying in public). That afternoon I found myself walking through the rain, sans umbrella, wishing for someone to magically show up to take me in and take care of me.
That didn’t quite happen, but sticking it out got me pretty close. The first sign that things might be okay was a ceramics shop, which I tried to enter not realizing it was closed for All Saint’s Day. Not a graceful start, but the designer was there and invited me in while she found a card to give me. We made some small talk, during which she validated my desire to learn how to make pottery. I didn’t feel better immediately, and ultimately had to walk back into the rain, but I was glad she was so kind to me.
Later, I went Montmartre, happy to find the Sacre-Coeur shining over everything. My only memory of Paris from my first trip to Europe as a kid is that church, so getting to come back and recognize something washed a lot of my stress away. I walked past it to one of the winding side streets and found dinner at a cozy restaurant with a kind hostess who let me practice what little French I knew as I ordered my food. I was the only one there at first since I was early, and getting that extra warmth helped me start to mend. I wrote on my phone, ‘I don’t feel good, but I feel better,’ and read short stories until it was time to go back down the hill for a concert. These little moments of hospitality answered my wish for getting taken care of, and wouldn’t have been possible if I had allowed myself to give up and stay in for the rest of the day.
Traveling alone is not only defined by loneliness. It gives you moments of euphoria, little gems of sheer joy that come unexpectedly. I have had one of those moments every time I’ve traveled alone. Walking home on a dirt road in Mindo, Ecuador and getting caught in the rain was my first experience with this. I was breathless and laughing, and was able to experience it so intensely precisely because I was alone, thrilled that I had managed wind up in such a beautiful place, not to mention spend three weeks getting by on what Spanish I knew in an unfamiliar country. Later that summer I found the same feeling, this time standing in a lake in the Rockies during my second day of driving to Denver. It’s one of my most precious memories, even if I have no one to remember it with.
I didn’t expect to have that feeling last week. I spent the bulk of my second day in Paris going between a bookstore and a bistro, reading and writing for hours about what I was feeling on my own in a new place. I wound up walking from the Louvre pyramids to the Musée de l’Orangerie, and although it was cold and had started to rain, the joy I remembered from other places came to me and I felt relieved and comfortable for the first time since I had arrived. I bought some roasted chestnuts with my last bit of cash and walked through the park happy and content, finally having found my moment of joy that always makes the solitude feel worth it.
Finding that moment told me I was experiencing not only a new place but new aspects of myself in an authentic way. Last week’s trip changed what I thought I had already learned from other travels because that’s what solo travel does. It gives you experiences with only yourself and can teach you something new even years later. It gives you space to grow and experience feelings fully and lets you create relationships with worlds outside of your own.
On the train out of Paris the morning after going to Montmartre, all my bad feelings had evaporated into a fondness for the city and a vague interest in returning. I had learned what I liked and what I didn’t and added it to my growing understanding of what kinds of travel work for me. It felt like looking back on a long school year, knowing there had been highs and lows but ultimately nostalgic because of how much it felt like I had grown. And all this within a week. I imagine longer, more adventurous journeys both back in the U.S and abroad and feel the excitement that made me want to study abroad and travel alone in the first place. There is so much to see and feel just beyond my immediate world, and I feel better the further out I go, still knowing it won’t always be happy or comfortable. That’s the whole point.
During June of 2017, Danish parliament passed an anti-begging measure to discourage panhandling. The following month, within a fourteen-day span, five people were arrested in Copenhagen by plainclothes officers for begging in public places. When my urban design professor mentioned to us during the first week of classes that panhandling is illegal in Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe there was even a homelessness problem to begin with. Coming from the United States, I had understood the Danish welfare state to be a relative utopia of democratic socialist policy without knowing how that might manifest in daily life. Even after going to Denmark and learning more about how the welfare state operates, it strikes me as a surprising struggle for a country with a famously tightly woven social safety net.
It doesn’t take much digging, however, to notice the increasingly complex approach to issues of squatting and homelessness in Copenhagen. As more central neighborhoods get tapped for redevelopment and public space is further commodified, homelessness is being relegated further away from the public realm. Local ignorance regarding homelessness in Denmark makes the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty unlikely, too. A study on perceptions of homelessness in Copenhagen and one of its suburbs identified a theme in residents’ understanding of homelessness: The Danish government provides assistance to those in need, so why wouldn’t someone take it if they had to? Homelessness must be a choice.
Generally, those most removed from daily urban life (in this case, residents of the more expensive and suburban Hellerup neighborhood) were more likely to hold such convictions. The interviewees from Copenhagen proper had more varied responses, with a more sympathetic bent. What the study found was, unsurprisingly, that homelessness is not a choice but rather a matter of repeated poor circumstances that strip away a person’s economic and social resources. This can make it difficult for folks struggling with homelessness, often along with addiction or mental illness, to go through the official steps to claim their benefits. They may not even know they are qualified for the benefits in the first place. And even then, there have been reports of government employees turning people away for their behavior while visiting the office to fill out paperwork.
Clearly, there are social and bureaucratic barriers that still keep those experiencing homelessness from getting the help they need. This condition is not unique to any city. Thankfully, Denmark has such a strong welfare system that homelessness is unlikely to reach the proportions it has in the United States. The criminalization of poverty and need, however, does nothing to help the most vulnerable residents in any city. Denmark’s recent anti-squatting laws are only the most recent legal apparatus developed for clearing urban space for more desirable occupants; but it is certainly not their first or most dramatic attempt to do so (for example, the destruction of the Youth House, which involved police violence and mass arrests). As redevelopment and gentrification continue here and in cities around the world, protection and resources for those least likely to benefit should remain a priority.
Public space is not public if it isn’t for everyone.
After a few weeks of traveling alone in Ecuador in the summer of 2017, I had decided to go home early. It was my first solo trip, and I had ambitiously planned for a full three months of backpacking and exchanging labor for lodging. I had planned things so I would end up on the beach in time for my birthday in July, but by early June, loneliness had caught up to me, and the beach no longer felt that important.
It felt good deciding to come home and knowing that I only had one more week to see Ecuador renewed my sense of adventure. I changed my route and decided to end the trip at a hostel located several hours outside of Quito.
I took a bus back to the city, and the next day I clustered with other backpackers on a narrow sidewalk, waiting for a shuttle to whisk us away to the mountains. The last hour of the drive was on a dirt road, going about 15 miles per hour, winding us slowly past vivid green farmland in the low valleys of the Andes.
After we piled out of the van and stretched our legs, an Australian ushered us inside to a cozy living room, sheltering us from the chilly mountain air. We were handed ceramic cups of mulled wine, and listened with warm bellies as the staff explained the house rules and described the activities that were scheduled for the next few days. We would have group meals at a long, wooden dining table. Food was prepared in a large kitchen adjoining the living room, where there was always fresh banana bread waiting on the counter.
There were a few separate cabins for shared dorms, complete with bunk beds. My roommates for the weekend included two women and a few French guys on a trip together. They were all in their twenties, making me the youngest at eighteen.
Later one of the staff took us on an introductory hike, leading us as we stumbled after him in our borrowed galoshes. Our small parade of foreigners alternated between hacking through the deep moss of the forest and slipping upstream in cold water. The stream, it turned out, would widen and eventually reveal a waterfall in the midst of the volcanic jungle.
I sat with the other girls and we watched the French boys strip down and plunge into the icy water. The scene was like some kind of mythic painting- our young, happy bodies splashing around in near-perfect wilderness.
The clouds were so low where we were- and we were so high up- that we only saw the mountain tops a few times from the hostel itself. The best view would come the day before I left, rewarding us for the several hours we spent huffing and puffing our way to a total elevation of 4200 meters.
From the peak we had muddied and exhausted ourselves to reach, the clouds granted us fleeting glances of the swaths of farmland below. Shades of green were knitted together with curving seams of vegetation, and the edges of the mountains around us framed everything like jagged curtains.
On the way back, we passed wild horses. We slowed to watch them as they gazed down at us from their grassy hillsides.
The days passed quickly, and suddenly it was time to coordinate my delivery back to Quito, along with the other travelers on their way to the next place. I felt torn as I packed my bag, fielding questions about why I was leaving already. I felt I had finally found something good, and people I wanted to be with. But I couldn’t get out of my flight- I had already changed it once- and it was time to say goodbye.
After learning in the weeks prior how isolating traveling alone could be, I was grateful for having arrived somewhere that felt so comforting yet still pushed me towards adventure. I felt especially affectionate to the people who had been so kind to me along the way, buoying me through it all. In the airport, I took stairs instead of escalators, paying a small homage to the mountains my body had so recently scaled.
In the trips I have taken since then, I have learned that the loneliness of traveling by myself is almost always offset by scattered sparks of joy. For me, those sparks often come from connecting to other people. That feeling of mutual care, even for a split second, has propelled me through all kinds of sadness. There have also been moments that I am reanimated by something inside of me- maybe a realization of where I am and how wonderful it is to be tiny on an enormous earth.
Traveling alone challenges me to make my own joy despite the loneliness, and to see myself for where I am. Then, when I finally arrive in the company of others, it feels that much more precious, and I find that I would happily do it all again.
At the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles had a population of about 100,000 people. In the middle of it all was the wealthiest neighborhood in L.A, West Adams Heights, located just west of downtown Los Angeles, and in recent terms just south of Koreatown. Architecturally, West Adams Heights had elaborate homes in practically every style, from Queen Anne and Victorian to Beaux Arts and Craftsman. Someone once described the central neighborhood as “an island in an ocean of bungalows,” referring to the more common style in the rest of L.A. This was just before the start of Hollywood, so the wealthy residents of West Adams Heights were mostly titans of industry, like oil barons and bankers.
The neighborhood changed in the 1910s as the film industry moved to Los Angeles and actors began making their fortunes. They got off to kind of a rocky start, with older residents trying to prevent actors from moving in, but West Adams Heights was soon closely linked with the film industry and its stars. Whatever icons of the silent film era you can think of, they were probably living, or at least partying, in West Adams Heights. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were regulars at ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s huge parties, and later on, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would frequent parties thrown by the director Busby Berkeley, who moved in during the late 1930s. Busby wouldn’t have had many neighbors, though, as many West Adams Heights residents would move out in the 20s and 30s. This was in part due to the development of a new neighborhood for the rich and famous- Beverly Hills. The arrival of the Depression in the late 1920s also meant that a lot of residents of West Adams Heights were forced to sell their homes, basically taking whatever money they could get. The rush to sell also meant that the restrictive covenant that had been adopted before all this, the one forbidding white residents to sell or rent to African Americans, was not the first thing on sellers’ minds. So, Black families began moving into West Adams Heights.
The Black population of West Adams Heights started taking off in the late 30s, after the Depression, when many of the historic mansions were still up for sale. Middle and upper-class Black folks from L.A and other American cities began making their homes in West Adams Heights, renaming it ‘Sugar Hill’ as a tribute to Harlem. Sugar Hill became an icon of Black Hollywood, acting as the home of stars like Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind, and Louise Beavers, who was popular for playing maids in several films including Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home. Mr. Blandings was essentially propaganda for white suburbia, which was booming at the time (How To Kill A City, 157). Meanwhile, Louise Beavers and her neighbors would soon become involved in legal action that would find restrictive covenants, like those keeping the suburbs white, unconstitutional.
By the mid-1940s, around 57 Black families lived in Sugar Hill. However, white residents were upset that the old restrictive covenant was being violated, so they sued to have the Black families evicted. Black residents began organizing. Hattie McDaniel held meetings at her home to plan their defense. Loren Miller, the attorney representing Black residents of Sugar Hill, argued that racially restrictive covenants were a violation of the 14th amendment. The presiding judge agreed, and in a historic legal victory, became the first judge in American history to find racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional based on the 14th amendment. Loren Miller would go on to argue Shelley v. Kraemer, another landmark case dealing with racially restrictive covenants which would go to the Supreme Court in 1948. That case would determine that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, paving the way for the Fair Housing Act twenty years later. But, again, new developments began drawing residents away from Sugar Hill. This time Baldwin Hills played a major role, attracting wealthy Black actors and filmmakers beginning in the 1950s. So, we see the same cycle as Beverly Hills, with a second generation of residents. This period of decline made the neighborhood vulnerable to local planning interests. The Santa Monica Freeway was constructed through the middle of Sugar Hill in the early 1960s (The Color of Law, 130). This was a huge loss for the Black community of Los Angeles and of the United States as a whole, where Black neighborhoods were routinely destroyed in the name of modern infrastructure projects, particularly highways.
Urban planning has been historically racist and damaging to communities of color, and this is just one example. Central Park was built on one of the most stable integrated neighborhoods in New York City. The 15th Ward, a poor Black neighborhood in downtown Syracuse was split in two by a highway in the 1950s. St. Louis bought out middle-class Black families in Kinloch in the 1980s so Lambert Airport could expand. Robert Moses, the notoriously racist and generally destructive urban planner from New York, divided and destroyed neighborhoods like the Bronx in the name of highway construction. There are countless more examples of the role urban planning has had in the 20th century in segregating cities and setting Black communities up for failure.
These days, Sugar Hill is getting some much-deserved attention. People began repopulating the neighborhood in the 1980s, and that new generation is taking strides in protecting and restoring the historic homes in the neighborhood. A lot of the information I used in this story is from articles on the West Adams Heritage Association website, if you’d like to learn more. If you’re interested in how federal policies segregated American cities in the 20th century, I highly recommend Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law.
Undoing the Colonial History of New Zealand’s City Parks
New Zealand has a long colonial history, from the arrival of James Cook in 1769 to the nation finally gaining full independence from Britain in 1947. The origins of parks and green space in New Zealand are centered around colonial practices in the country during the 19th century (New Zealand was annexed by the British Empire in 1840). While the indigenous Māori had their own belief system, which was largely centered around man’s relationship with nature, British colonists built towns and cities according to values that they translated from their home context. For instance, the British tradition of gardening became central to colonial homes in New Zealand, not only as a way to reassert British culture but to offer an ecological buffer between settlers’ homes and what many regarded as a forbidding natural landscape.
In Jake Arthur’s analysis of Mary Bethell’s From a Garden in the Antipodes, the author suggests that gardening was taken up for aesthetic as well as political values. Arthur frames gardening as an expression of power and order, as settlers expressed dominion over the colonized land by manipulating and controlling what it produced. Despite its role as an expression of British hegemony, the garden also offered “an escape in its enclosure,” as settlers sought something familiar to insulate them from an otherwise unknown and possibly threatening environment (Arthur 29).
Beyond gardening, which remains an important tradition in New Zealand today, British settlers also imposed principles of urban planning which prioritized parks and other green space. This was, in large part, a response to the condition of London and other British cities during the mid-19th century. The settlers in New Zealand had witnessed the social and physical ramifications of industrialization run amuck in dense cities like their own, so city plans were designed to ensure green spaces that could prevent the kind of externalities which their home country was facing. Demand for parks increased as the New Zealand colonies developed and British transplants acquired more leisure time. This resulted in the accelerated development and diversification of green spaces, as planners introduced more active sources of recreation like sports fields.
Despite settlers’ early trepidation regarding New Zealand’s landscape, the country was and still is incredibly biodiverse, and quickly became famous for its natural beauty. British settlers learned to capitalize on this, hailing the colony as the “Pacific’s Wonderland” (Duggins 102). Along with more traditional exports like cattle, New Zealand began supplying native species to gardens around the world, with a special emphasis on ferns, due in part to their “association with a fast-disappearing wilderness” (Duggins 102). The fern, along with other indigenous species, “became a symbol of pride” in New Zealand (Duggins 104). Furthermore, the production of fern albums- books of pressed and bound leaves, pods, and blooms- allowed these species to serve as a “tactile medium through which [outsiders could] intimately connect with the New Zealand landscape” (Duggins 105).
The long history in New Zealand of planned green spaces as well as the psychological and economic value of its many native species have created practices today that are centered both around recreation and preservation. However, the role of green space and parks in New Zealand’s cities is ultimately a colonial legacy, formed by European perceptions and motives.
As one might expect in a colonized nation, the indigenous perspective has been excluded from the planning of green space in New Zealand. Importantly, and perhaps also expectedly, the Māori understanding of nature veers widely from the European approach. One example, which cannot begin to unpack the complexities of this issue but at least offers a concrete instance, is that of swamps. For the Māori, swamps “teemed with life and resources, providing sources of food and materials, besides serving as centres of communal activity” (Beattie 595). In contrast, British settlers imported Victorian ideas of health and cleanliness and viewed swamps as unpleasant landscapes which produced noxious smells that were, at the time, believed to cause sickness (Beattie 588). As colonization proceeded, swamps were drained and planted, “transformed” into parks with “open spaces, woodlands and recreational facilities.”
It is important to note here one of the many instances of colonist hypocrisy, in specific reference to the use of and profit from the indigenous species which settlers so distrusted. While swamps were being drained and Māori tribes subjugated, local species were collected and developed into treatments of varying medical validity, which were “derived from this country’s native plants, often by drawing extensively on Maori knowledge systems” (Beattie 586).
Today, around eighty percent of New Zealand’s Māori population lives in cities, and yet many are living in urban areas that are disproportionately poor and lack access to nature. This has made it challenging for such communities to adapt to urban life while preserving their culture, since much of the Māori belief system is centered on connecting with nature. One specific concept, kaitiakatanga, describes “a way in which Māori manage the natural environment based on Māori worldviews” (Walker 2).
Denied the opportunity to manage the environment in such a way, due to the Euro-centric planning approaches that have defined New Zealand cities and the removal of Māori tribes from their indigenous lands, urban Māori populations experience more difficulty maintaining “traditional relationships to the environment” (Walker 2). In their paper on the role of kaitiakatanga in contemporary Māori experiences in cities, Erana T. Walker, Priscilla M. Wehi, Nicola J. Nelson, Jaqueline R. Beggs and Hēmi Whaanga recommend the adoption of more Maōri principles in ecological restoration projects in New Zealand cities. The authors argue that this shift might allow urban space to act as a tool in promoting “the retention of cultural knowledge” as well as provide educational and practical resources to underserved Māori communities (Walker 2-3).
With this more intercultural approach to improving the quality of and access to nature in New Zealand cities, green spaces may evolve to serve more communities more effectively. Despite the colonial legacy of New Zealand’s city parks, this approach signals one way that such spaces might adapt to a more equitable vision of nature in cities.
“A History of New Zealand 1769-1914.” RSS, nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/history-of-new-zealand-1769-1914#:~:text=By%20the%20time%20the%20first,New%20Zealand%2C%20in%20December%201642.
Beattie, James. “Colonial Geographies of Settlement: Vegetation, Towns, Disease and Well-Being in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1830s-1930s,” Environment and History (Vol. 14, No. 4) November 2008. Pages 583-610. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20723698.
Duggins, Molly. “‘The world’s fernery’: New Zealand, fern albums, and nineteenth-century fern fever,” from New Zealand’s empire (2016). Pages 102-123. Manchester University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1b349tv.13.
Seville has a sizeable historic district, which contains twelve different neighborhoods as well as three different UNESCO World Heritage sites. The district is known as the Casco Antiguo, or ancient district (although one could also translate this as “ancient shell,” to add a bit of romantic intrigue). Among the many landmarks and monuments worth a visit in the Casco Antiguo is an installation called Metropol Parasol, though it is more often recognized as Las Setas (The Mushrooms), or Las Setas de la Encarnación, for the plaza where the work is located. Las Setas is the product of a design competition initiated by the local city council amid efforts to renovate Plaza de la Encarnación in 2004. The winning design, submitted by Jürgen Meyer-Hermann, was inaugurated in 2011, seven years after it was selected.
Given the rich history of its center, the Seville’s willingness to incorporate a modern and playful installation into a major plaza is a lesson for other historic cities grappling with questions of modernization and looking to reinvigorate an existing public space. Las Setas is nothing if not innovative- at the time of this writing, the Metropol Parasol is the largest wooden structure in the world. The figure provides a striking contrast to the colorful, flat-faced buildings surrounding it, ballooning out of a plaza that offers reprieve from the narrow, winding streets that weave through the city center. Despite its size, Las Setas has a strangely DIY feel, as its wooden frame appears to be constructed from simple balsa wood pieces that have been notched and fitted together like some kind of psychedelic model airplane.
While massive sculpture-building appears to dwarf the architecture that surrounds it, the scale of Las Setas does not prevent it from engaging with and even complementing its context. The sloping lines of the stairways leading towards the central figures offer a natural line of sight that guides the viewer’s impression of the installation. The abstract, curved forms of the setas themselves offer a gentle contrast to their rectilinear surroundings while paying tribute to the meandering, curved streets which converge on this plaza. Furthermore, the gridlike pattern created by the work’s interlocking pieces complements the many right angles of walls, windows, and balconies that decorate the plaza’s border.
That Las Setas was allowed to exceed the height of neighboring attractions, such as the nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación, is significant. Some European cities have adopted regulations to ensure that new structures cannot exceed the height of a given historic monument, most often a church. For instance, Budapest’s Saint Stephen’s Basilica as well as its Parliament Building are each exactly 96 meters, and no building is allowed to exceed this height. This policy is in large part a result of the city’s specific history, as the area that would become Hungary was first settled in the year 896. Beyond Budapest, deliberation over height restrictions has permeated policy debate in many other European cities as modern demands challenge historic, human-scale urban fabrics.
The striking scale of Las Setas, then, might be read as an indication of the city’s priorities. Notably, Las Setas is not a skyscraper. It is not residential or commercial, but rather, a creative endeavor that represents an aesthetic departure from the historic, medieval typology that dominates the Casco Antiguo. At the same time, this design object is also a major tourist attraction in an already heavily visited city. The city’s selection of a non-Spanish designer for the work may also have been meant to indicate Seville’s international sensibility and appeal. International reputation is important for the city, as tourism generates around 15% of Seville’s income, making it an essential local industry.
As with any city, extra money in the coffers likely provides Seville more fiscal flexibility, which could result in better local services or further design innovation, among many other possibilities. However, when tourists become too much of a priority, the local character of a city is threatened. Furthermore, efforts to extract value from previously overlooked or underinvested spaces- the site’s neighborhood is described as “run down” here– can threaten existing residents, as has been witnessed at varying scales in plenty of cities around the world. Plus, the work is not without its technical flaws.
From a design perspective, the height of Las Setas may present the city to tourists as something to be consumed rather than engaged from street level or inspected up-close. Despite the physical and visual distance of the viewer from the street, however, the monument’s modern, innovative form offers tourists a new mode with which to observe the city. Whereas church towers would typically offer the most expansive view of a medieval city like Seville, Las Setas acts as a more flexible, expansive, secular alternative.
The cloudlike structures appear lovingly incorporated into their plaza home, animating yet never threatening the space. Las Setas encourages viewers to imagine what the future may look like for a historically and culturally significant city like Seville. It is then the responsibility of the city to ensure that Las Setas gives to the city and its people- both socially and economically- more than it takes.
A little over a year ago now, I was walking around the Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon. It was my first time in Portugal, and I was overwhelmed with how gorgeous everything was. I admired the trams, sweet pastels against azulejo-tiled buildings, and the narrow medieval streets winding up and down hills with views of the Tagus River meeting the sea. I romanticized everything, like travelers often do, imagining that one day, maybe, I could move here.
Lisbon’s purported beauty was one of the main reasons we had decided to go at all, drawn in by the idea of a city not yet crowded with tourists, at least a small distance from the usual bucket list destinations like Paris and Rome. My first impression was of a city that was beautiful yet approachable, with a wealth of culture and history but still very much a people’s city. Turns out, I was mistaken, but Lisbon itself wasn’t to blame. During my walk that day in the Alfama, still soaking everything in, I came across a phrase spray painted on a wall:
We want to live here”
Despite how comfortable I had felt in Lisbon, local life was being affected directly by the thing I was benefitting from. The message was for people exactly like me. We had booked an apartment on AirBNB for the trip, without having encountered critiques of the service before. Seeing that message, nestled among other graffiti, I thought again about the apartment we had rented. When we had checked in a few days earlier, it was clear that it was not the only apartment our host owned. I hadn’t encountered such a commercial AirBNB before, as my only other AirBNB experience had been staying in the other side of a young couple’s duplex in New Orleans. And, despite being an urban studies student, I hadn’t come across the many articles on the perils of AirBNB that I would read soon after.
So, I was staying in one of several investment properties in a desirable neighborhood in Lisbon. A place where, because of those kinds of investment properties, local people were no longer able to live. I found myself indisputably part of the problem. Is it the fault of people like me that apartments have gotten too expensive, that long-term rentals are disappearing from the market to instead be listed on AirBNB, rented week by week year-round? I was also staying in an AirBNB because it was a third, if not a quarter, of the cost of a hotel. It was a sweet apartment, convenient, and for a few days I got to pretend I really was living in this incredible new place.
I am certainly on the privileged side of the AirBNB debate, the one who gets to stay in a nice apartment while others confront limited housing options. I haven’t personally been priced out of a place I used to live. But, even if I stopped staying in AirBNBs altogether (I do avoid them, due to my own ethical dilemma), there are plenty more people like me, which is why AirBNB is so successful to begin with.
It’s my responsibility to understand the implications of my choice to stay, or not stay, in an AirBNB property, but as an individual I am not able to change the impact the company has had, as much as I try to improve my own actions. What does have the capacity to protect communities and housing markets from AirBNB is strong local policy committed to prioritizing affordable housing and livable neighborhoods.
New Orleans, which is now at the forefront of the struggle with regulating AirBNB, has introduced several policies in the last couple of years with the aim of protecting the hospitality industry that is so central to the city’s economy while promoting and preserving affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city.
Most recently, New Orleans City Council member Kristen Gisleson Palmer introduced a ban on ‘entire home’ short-term rentals, allowing hosts to rent extra space as long as they are also on the property. This prevents homes from serving exclusively as short-term rentals, bringing different neighbors to a neighborhood every week, and removing housing from a market that desperately needs it. New Orleans ranked in the top ten cities at risk of a housing crisis last year, and while AirBNB is not the sole cause of the city’s housing troubles, stronger regulations are certainly part of the solution.
New York City faces similar issues, with an already deeply strained housing market and a bustling tourist industry. New York has also been found to have a large quantity of vacant apartments that serve as investment properties, like the one I stayed at in Lisbon. Stronger regulation of short-term rentals and vacant apartments, for instance taxing those investment properties as described by Adele Peters in an article for Fast Company, is part of a toolkit cities need to adopt in order to maintain, or perhaps regain, affordability.
That being said, the profound importance of public policy should not excuse individuals from their responsibility to promote inclusivity in their cities and towns. Yes, it’s unlikely that as an individual I can make much of a dent in AirBNB’s actions as a company or the massive scale on which they operate. However, I can vote. I can advocate for better housing policy. I can act in solidarity with those struggling to remain in their homes or find a home at all. Piece by piece, and lot by lot, we can all contribute to creating more equitable and inclusive cities. We have a responsibility to push our cities to be better, not as investments but as homes and communities.
Nørrebro’s Superkilen park, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, Topotek1 and Superflex attempts to design for integration in the most diverse neighborhood in Copenhagen. The architects chose to represent the diversity of the area surrounding the park using symbols of the many different nationalities present in Nørrebro. For example, the park is furnished with a Portuguese tiled bench and a small collection of palm trees from China. The park offers a variety of activities for different users, like assorted play structures for children and a row of chess tables partially sheltered by small trees. The park is visually striking, particularly in the Black Market section, contributing a modern aesthetic to a neighborhood with otherwise older building stock. The park also connects two busy streets running through the neighborhood, Nørrebrogade and Tagensvej, providing an interactive and interesting route for cyclists and pedestrians on their ways home or to other parts of the neighborhood.
While the park’s distinctive visual statements appear to operate on contrasts and representations of a wide range of objects and cultures, they are a central tool to the park’s intended message of inclusion and unity. However, according to Brett Bloom’s critique of Superkilen, the park’s design process was much less inclusionary than the park’s widely publicized origin story would indicate. Bloom claims that designing the park, heralded by the city administration and BIG Architects as a highly participatory process, curated an image of participation rather than involving the community on a radical or tangible level (Bloom 15).
The park’s design also seems to disregard the demands of its physical environment, where rain and snow are to be expected and adaptive design is increasingly important for cities facing the impacts of climate change. The majority of the park is paved, which leaves much less room for the green space that residents requested. The Red Square, for example, was paved with bright materials not intended for outdoor use, resulting in constant need for repair and a walking surface that became hazardous in rainy or icy conditions. The surface has since been repaved with brick, although this change still leaves that section of the park covered with hard, heat-absorbing material.
This design choice also has negative consequences for the trees in the design scheme, as rainwater cannot permeate the paved surface. The palm trees in particular are poorly suited to the environment regardless of pavement type, because they are not native to Denmark and are unlikely to survive the next couple of years. The durability of imported materials is questionable for many other symbols in the park. For example, the Portuguese bench mentioned earlier is currently in a state of disrepair from enduring a much harsher physical environment than the one it is native to.
Representation generally is an issue in the park, although Superkilen was conceived as a space for integration and multiculturalism. While the aim was to represent the more than 50 cultures present in the surrounding neighborhood, there are multiple monuments from the United States while there are very few American immigrants living in Nørrebro, particularly as compared to immigrants from the Middle East. This indicates a possible rift between the intended inclusionary effects of the park and what choices were made purely for aesthetic reasons.
In Rem Koolhaas’s treatise on the ‘generic city,’ he critiques how cities become oversimplified images of themselves, over-preserving their historic core and abandoning complexity in order to become ‘logos’ of themselves (Koolhaas 218). Through this process, a city verges on becoming generic, rather than remaining dynamic and interesting. The reduction of culture to specific visual symbols in Superkilen is a similar process, threatening the over-simplification of non-Danish cultures and failing to acknowledge the complexity of those cultures and their role in Denmark, which has built its society on assumptions of cultural homogeneity (Jespersen 79). While the park makes a visually and conceptually bold tribute to the diversity of the most culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood in Copenhagen and provides important recreational space for residents, its execution has not ensured the level of inclusivity that was intended in its conception.
Brett Bloom, “Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme!”
Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City.” The City Reader.
Knud J. V. Jespersen, “The Danish Model of the Welfare State.” A History of Denmark.
People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.
People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.
The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.
As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.
Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.