Care in the City: An Introduction to Mutual Aid

In the week following the Northeast’s bomb cyclone, the sidewalks in New York City are a mess. Melting snow thaws along every curb, pooling at every intersection. It’s often impossible to cross the street without hazarding ankle-deep icy sludge. Holly Ojalvo has neatly classified the affected crosswalks into four charming types: the abyss, the sludge, the channel, and the holy grail.

But as the days pass with the same 19-degree weather, boot prints begin to appear in the snow, offering some guidance for how to cross safely. I know it’s an unintentional thing, but it always feels a little bit like someone is helping me out as we each make our way around the city. I’ll never know who made those particular tracks, but I certainly benefited from them. 

This is maybe a tenuous connection to the other thing that has been on my mind these last few weeks, which is how a community cares for its members. Sometimes, it’s ultra-passive, like the boot prints, or leaving free stuff on the curb. But sometimes, it’s active. People organize, form phone trees, create community fridges and closets, and volunteer to do grocery runs. These types of assistance all fall within the umbrella of mutual aid. Mutual aid’s grounding ethic is “solidarity, not charity,” and the concept has deep historical roots. It hasn’t always had a name- mutual aid “predates colonialism and capitalism” as a long-standing practice among Black, Indigenous, and people of color (Mutual Aid NYC).

A long history

Mutual aid has received a lot of attention in the last few years because it helps neighbors support each other during times of crisis (hello, pandemic). But for many communities, mutual aid is nothing new, and has actually been routinely criminalized for its anti-capitalist strategies (Mutual Aid NYC). Rather than a short-term solution to the impacts of a single event, mutual aid is meant to be a lasting commitment to the community, involving each member to contribute as they are able. Contributions can be financial but are often exchanges of services, skills, and other resources. A local mutual aid group is not simply a fundraising mechanism, it directly engages community members and attempts to address their needs. For instance, the Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid group in Brooklyn does grocery shopping and delivery for those who request it, perform wellness check-ins via phone call, and trains community members to process and fill requests for assistance, as well as collecting funds to be redistributed (Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid). 

Mutual aid as a form of care is radical because it defies the capitalist logic of concentrating resources. Instead, it focuses on sharing and exchanging resources equitably. This has long been a valuable strategy for communities whose access to resources has been routinely and systemically restricted. A famous example is the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which did exactly what the name indicates (Blakemore). Another case is the Young Lords’ “garbage offensive” of 1969, which entailed demands for adequate sanitation services in East Harlem (Museum of the City of New York)- Interestingly, New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) ties into this story again very shortly.

Yet another example is the work of Chinese Six Companies, a federation of mutual aid groups in San Francisco’s Chinatown which, during the late 19th century, addressed inadequate medical care and violently racist “medical scapegoating” by creating its own hospital. It was the “first Chinese-American medical facility in the continental U.S,” which eventually “became the Chinese Hospital, which now has locations all over the Bay Area” (Wang).

The important thing here is that countless groups over the last several centuries have performed mutual aid and have been villainized for it, because they are responding to oppressive conditions. As intuitive as direct community-based assistance may seem, its history is an essential piece to consider as so many neighborhoods explore mutual aid for the first time in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A crisis of care

Several compounding crises of care have become starkly visible over the course of the ongoing pandemic. First, healthcare workers all over the world became the first line of defense against a virus we knew far too little about. Overwork, acute stress, and being undervalued and underpaid created a dangerous whirlwind for the people risking their lives to save ours. Then, as schools shut down, parents faced a crisis of homeschooling and a lack of childcare as they tried to balance their own work, if they were lucky enough to still have jobs. The severe strains of the pandemic are highly familiar by now, so there’s no need to emphasize any more details. But this cultural moment has prompted a lot more questioning of how we value our care workers and systems of care. Luckily, there is a useful volume of writing and research on this very subject. 

One text that is especially helpful in exploring problems of care in a capitalist economy is the Care Collective’s The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (2020). The Collective identifies a societal failure to “care for each other, especially the vulnerable, the poor, and the weak” (The Care Collective, p. 2). What’s more, neoliberal market logic has made profit “the organizing principle of life,” relegating care and wellbeing to the sidelines (The Care Collective, p. 3). 

In a 2010 interview with Amy Goodman, economist Manfred Max-Neef proposed a new economic paradigm altogether, an alternative to this profit-centered system currently in place. To Max-Neef, life should be at the center of everything, not profit. Growth has limits, which we are approaching rapidly, and, Max-Neef states, “the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life” (Goodman). 

Folded into the capitalist framework is also, of course, the patriarchy. Care work has historically been linked to women, contributing to its undervaluation. Care is not associated with productivity and is not quantified in the same way as the roles we tend to value and compensate. The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles explored this divide over the course of her 50-plus year career.

When Ukeles had her first child in 1968, she was upset by the duality she experienced as an artist and a caretaker. She committed the rest of her career to blending caretaking with art, identifying as art the care work performed by herself as well as others. She famously became the artist in residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) (remember them?), a position which she has maintained for over 40 years (Steinhauer). She spent 11 months from 1979 to 1980 shaking the hand of every sanitation worker in the city, totaling around 8,500 people. She also challenged traditional dynamics of care work by cleaning the floors of an art museum while it was open, displaying the type of labor typically performed by people of color and not made visible (Wetzler). Her most recent project has been engaging with the Staten Island landfill Fresh Kills, which she considers a “true social sculpture” of “individual decisions and acts of rejection” (Steinhauer). Systems of care and cycles of waste are often linked in this way and have a lot to do with how our economies and cities are structured. 

This piece is the first in a three-part series on care in cities. The next installment will focus on how zoning and architecture undervalue care and the history of care cooperatives. For more history on mutual aid, I highly recommend Ariel Aberg-Riber’s visual history of mutual aid, which can be found here, as a starting point.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, please consider subscribing to email updates from the blog and following @thepeoplecity on Instagram.

Sources

Blakemore, Erin, “How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government,” Updated January 29, 2021. History. https://www.history.com/news/free-school-breakfast-black-panther-party

Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid, “About us,” Accessed February 4, 2022. https://chfgma.org/

Goodman, Amy, “Chilean Economist Manfred Max-Neef: US Is Becoming an “Underdeveloped Nation,” Democracy Now! September 22, 2010. https://www.democracynow.org/2010/9/22/chilean_economist_manfred_max_neef_us

Museum of the City of New York, “Power to All Oppressed People: The Young Lords in New York 1969-1976,” Museum of the City of New York: Activist New York. Accessed February 4, 2022. https://activistnewyork.mcny.org/exhibition/economic-rights/young-lords

Mutual Aid NYC, “The History of Mutual Aid + Ways to Keep Showing Up,” June 12, 2020. https://mutualaid.nyc/2020/06/12/the-history-of-mutual-aid-ways-to-keep-showing-up/

Steinhauer, Jillian, “How Mierle Laderman Ukeles Turned Maintenance Work into Art,” Hyperallergenic. February 10, 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/355255/how-mierle-laderman-ukeles-turned-maintenance-work-into-art/

Wang, Claire, “When Chinese Americans Were Blamed for 19th-Century Epidemics, They Built Their Own Hospital,” Atlas Obscura. April 13, 2020. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chinese-blamed-19th-century-epidemics
Wetzler, Rachel, “Meet the artist who called out a museum by scrubbing the floor for hours,” Timeline. December 15, 2016. https://timeline.com/mierle-ukeles-cleaning-museum-64d274a0a19c.

Walking the City: Belonging & Identity

I spend a lot of time walking. Almost everything I need is within walking distance of where I live, which is an enormous luxury, and I have a body that is able to get to most of those places on foot. Of course, whether or not something is within walking distance really depends on the person. Culturally we have a fairly normative idea of how bodies move through space, but what is accessible for some is definitely not accessible to all. The act of walking can be physically and socially accessible or inaccessible. Physically, each individual body has a different set of abilities. Despite this, cities are designed with a particular idea of a standard body, which then limits many people’s access to them. Socially, the feeling of access or belonging in space has been manufactured and restricted over time, making walking a highly subjective experience depending on one’s identity and expression. These types of inaccessibility have personal impacts, but they also limit how we plan our cities.

Who gets to be a flâneur?

Walking is not an exclusively urban act, but the image of the urban walker plays an important role in history. The idea of the flâneur is perhaps the most recognizable archetype of someone walking in a city. The flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 term which Walter Benjamin introduced “into the academy,” was composed of several ideas (Stephen). Firstly, the flâneur is a male figure. Second, the most technical definition of the word is that of a “stroller” or “loafer,” per the Tate Modern (Tate). Their signature activity was the distant observation of modern life as they strolled through the growing cities of this period.

A more complex image of the flâneur, however, is one of a “modern artist-poet” who was at once an “amateur detective” and a “sign of alienation of the city and of capitalism” (Stephen). The flâneur was not simply a natural progression of human behavior but a direct result of the emerging capitalistic city of the 19th century. The flâneur archetype is one of privilege and yet also of anonymity. Anonymity is an important theme when discussing walking in the city, as it is only afforded to those privileged enough to pass by unnoticed.

It is easy to assume that all urban walkers in history have been male. But of course, this is mostly a result of a lack of documentation. Lauren Elkin addresses this lack in her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (2015). In an interview with Arnav Adhikari at the Atlantic, Elkin identifies some key figures as flâneuses, or female walkers. These figures include Virginia Woolf and George Sand as well as war reporter Martha Gellhorn, whose “technique [was] to wander the streets of Madrid to get the story from people on the ground” (Adhikari).

Elkin’s discussion of the ways women have occupied the role of urban observer expands the definition of what a flâneuse is beyond the conditions of a flâneur. For instance, Elkin points out that since the city has never been a neutral space for women, they can instead go the opposite route of the flâneur and consciously adopt “extreme un-detachment” and “instead choose to be very engaged.” (Adhikari). In this way, the flâneuse is not simply a mirror image of the flâneur- not just a woman adopting the same values of a male standard- but is instead a unique archetype with its own historic and social significance.

The “little mysteries” of walking the city

As the slowest and most intimate form of transportation, walking involves a direct physical connection to the earth (or at least the street). It places the body in direct contact with the elements and allows it to observe the intricacies of a place that get blurred together when passed at a greater speed.

There’s an illusion within modernist planning that is still present today that a neighborhood or city can be fully understood if it is measured or observed correctly. Matt Green offers an alternative approach to the city that centers on its inherent mystery. In his walks through every neighborhood in New York City, Green discusses the “little mysteries” and “visual discoveries” that he has learned to read, and that may or may not lead to something interesting (The New Yorker).

Another man, the late author, and scholar William Helmreich, famously took on the same project of walking every block of New York City- approximately 6,163 miles (Chang). He maintained that walking was the best way to explore the city and get a real sense of each neighborhood. Anonymity was a part of his strategy- ahead of a profile by The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman, Helmreich advised Rothman to dress casually in order to not stand out too much on their walk (Rothman). However, Helmreich did not act as a removed observer on his strolls around New York. He made a point to make eye contact with passersby, say hello, and engage with whoever he could. By not being selective about his interactions, Helmreich aimed to get a decent “cross-section” of the area (Rothman).

Helmreich’s tactic strikes a balance between the flaneur’s imagined objectivity and Elkin’s “extreme un-detachment.” He described the ways in which walking so many neighborhoods helped him debunk stereotypes of those communities, getting a more authentic feel for their character and quality.

While Helmreich’s work is pioneering in its intimate exploration of the city at the micro-scale, it is worth noting that even if he was aiming for anonymity, Helmreich’s whiteness and male body granted him inherent access to the city in ways that other bodies may not have experienced in the same way. Rather than disqualifying his findings (or discouraging others to undertake a similar project), it simply adds a lens to the work which would shift depending on who is doing the walking.

Walking in nature and subjective belonging

The physiological and psychological experiences of walking are the focus of Frédéric Gros’s book A Philosophy of Walking (2014), in which Gros explains various (white, male) philosophers’ relationships with walking. Gros also elaborates on his own convictions on walking and notes other cultural practices involving walking, including a pilgrimage to Tibet’s Mount Kailash or the Huichol people’s annual “great peyote walk” associated with cosmic rebirth and harvesting (Gros, p. 122-124).

Overall, the image Gros paints in his reflections on walking is very specific, taking place mostly away from towns and instead through ideal, unspoiled nature. However, the idea of an unspoiled landscape (at least in the United States) is largely a myth-making tactic rooted in speculative Westward expansion and the erasure of Native American populations and cultures. Plus, these days, “nature” does not really exist, as the impacts of human development completely permeate every ecosystem.

Whatever version of landscape that Gros is situating these philosophers in, he still falls into the trap of assuming that bodies in nature are inherently neutral. However, as with the case of the flâneur/flâneuse, identity plays a key issue in how one experiences their surrounding environs.

A helpful challenge to Gros’s portrayal of landscape is Jamaican scholar and poet Jason Allen-Paisant’s lyric essay “On Being a Black Body in ‘Nature.’” In this “walking lyric,” Allen-Paisant examines the long-held cultural default of white bodies ‘belonging’ in nature, those bodies’ right to watch and observe nature, and their assumed right to leisure and slowness. Beginning his critique through the lens of nature writing, Allen-Paisant asks why nature writing “does not address the concerns of people who look like me?” He observes that the white body lacks the “existential uncertainty of belonging” that Allen-Paisant identifies within himself (Settee Seminars).

Allen-Paisant frames walking as a subjective experience depending on one’s identity, rather than something that is inherently anonymous or neutral. In discussing his experience walking in a park in London during November of 2020, Allen-Paisant intertwines issues of capitalism, colonialism, and identity. On one hand, the park is the sole refuge of “nature” available to most of its visitors- visitors who are “released” from their labors on Sundays and spend that time in the park.

However, Allen-Paisant also notes that dog-walking, a popular activity at the park, is a uniquely “Northern white bourgeois ideal vested in ownership and property.” As people walk their dogs through the park, they express certain ownership of the space. Such feelings of entitlement to space are linked to money and privilege, what Allen-Paisant calls an “unhindered relation to space,” as opposed to his own. Allen-Paisant wonders about the specificity of his own physical experience in space, and how it differs from that of others, asking, “what is it to walk in this body?”

Our identities change how we walk the city

Despite what mid-20th century Modernist planners would have had us believe, cities have been planned according to subjective social concerns for decades. Redlining created extreme racial segregation in American cities which is still very much intact today. Highway construction and suburban development created spaces for white families to flock towards ethnic and economic homogeneity. These types of planning legacies create messages of belonging and non-belonging that are built into the city and felt on an individual level depending on the context and the individual’s identity. As Gabby Tuzzeo notes in her article on flâneuses, the city can at once be a “performance space and hiding place” (Tuzzeo).

Thank you for reading! This blog is a passion project, so if you enjoy it, please consider subscribing to email notifications and @thepeoplecity on Instagram. If you would like to read more about walking, here are a few books that informed this piece-

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William Helmreich (2013)

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin (2015)

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros (2014)

Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont (2016)

And here are the sources referenced in this piece-

Adhikari, Arnav. “The Case for the Flâneuse.” The Atlantic. 2017. 

Chang, Ailsa. “William Helmreich, Sociologist Known for Walking Every Block of New York City, Dies,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio. 2020.

Gros, Frédéric. A Philosophy of Walking. Verso London. 2014. 

Rothman, Joshua, “A Walker in the City,” The New Yorker. 2013. 

Settee Seminars. “Jason Allen-Paisant- On Being a Black Body in “Nature”: A Walking Lyric,” 2021. 

Stephen, Bijan. “In Praise of the Flâneur,” The Paris Review. 2013. 

Tate, “Flâneur.”

The New Yorker, “The Men Walking Every Block in New York City,” 2015. 

Tuzzeo, Gabby. “The Flâneur and the Flâneuse: the culture of women who wander cities.” boshemia. 2021.

The Colonial History of New Zealand’s City Parks

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.

Auckland, N.Z. This view is compiled and drawn as from a point one thousand feet above and one hundred feet to the rear of the hospital during the year 1885 and part of 1886, by George Treacy Stevens.
Auckland, N.Z. by George Treacy Stevens (1886). Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZ Map 374.

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).

An image of a team enjoying a practical assignment - nursery layout.
Te Whanagi Trust is a charity that focuses on educational and employment opportunities in ecological restoration. They have multiple locations across New Zealand.

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.

Works Cited

“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.

Arthur, Jake. “‘Fond human enclosures’: Gardening and belonging in Bethell’s From a Garden in the Antipodes,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (No. 35:1) 2017. Pages 28-49. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/90015304.

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.

“British colonists reach New Zealand,” HISTORY. Ed. history.com editors. Accessed 11 May 2019. Last updated January 21, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-colonists-reach-new-zealand.

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.

New Zealand Sovereignty: 1857, 1907, 1947, or 1987? – New Zealand Parliament, http://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/research-papers/document/00PLLawRP07041/new-zealand-sovereignty-1857-1907-1947-or-1987.

Pollock, Kerryn. “City parks and green spaces,” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-parks-and-green-spaces. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Walker, Erana T.; Wehi, Pricilla M.; Nelson, Nicola J.; Beggs, Jacqueline R.; Whaanga, Hemi. “Kaitiakatanga, place and the urban restoration agenda,” New Zealand Journal of Ecology (Vol. 43, No. 3) 2019. Pages 1-8. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26841824

May 2020

Psychedelic Design in Seville’s Casco Antiguo

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.

A curving walkway guides visitors around the top of Las Setas, here offering a panoramic view to the south.
Visitors observe the sweeping view of the city from the uppermost observation deck at Las Setas de la Encarnación.

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.

Winding walkways allow visitors to absorb the Seville skyline and its monuments from many different vantage points.

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.

View of Las Setas from street level.

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.

View of nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación from Las Setas.
The northeastern view of Seville from Las Setas.

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.

Steep staircases are among the design flaws at Las Setas that have been criticized for being inaccessible.

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.

Illusory Inclusion at Copenhagen’s Superkilen Park

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.

The Black Market at Superkilen Park

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. 

Dust blows into the bicycle lanes during reparative construction on the Red Square at Superkilen

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. 

A bench tiled with Portuguese tile, heavily eroded

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. 

Cited

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. 

October 2018