Getting Back

There’s just a few weeks left in our European trip. We have traveled to many great sites and stayed in some wonderful places. But since we’re heading back to the States, I’m thinking about what I have missed most and what I will most enjoy getting back to: (1) my cameras and film developing; and (2) GIS mapping. If there’s a third, it is the sit-and-work cafes Stateside.* I don’t prefer them outright to Italian caffe bars, but I do wish we could have a good mix of both in the U.S.

*It goes without saying that I miss my family and my cat.

My Soundtrack

If I could, I’d make this the soundtrack to my summer every year. The open air market in Syracuse, Sicily.

Greg Hise once suggested to me the greatest change in urban history brought about by the rise of digital technology would be the ability to create a sonic history of a place. He could be right.

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Find the Shade

Prior to starting my position at Virginia Tech, I will be living in Italy and England for the next 6 months. I am very fortunate to have this wonderful opportunity and this period will not only provide me with material for teaching and research, but also for some digital media projects.

We arrived in Rome yesterday morning after an overnight transatlantic flight. A key feature of Rome (and other parts of Italy, from my experience) is that it is both warm and cool here, depending on whether you are in the shade or not. Because of the limited humidity in the Mediterranean, the air feels pretty moderate in temperature and the sun (or its absence) provides a real heating or cooling effect. Thus, walking around the city you are in a constant race to find the shade and walk or sit or stand in it in order to keep from sweating through your clothes. There is a several degree difference (I might venture to say 10 or more) and especially in really hot places like Sicily during the summer, the shade can be the difference between hot and unbearable.

On the Overuse of Air Conditioning

A feature of summer that aggravates me to no end is the excessive use of air conditioning in public places and shops. I just had to flee from ERC because it was too cold in there — and I’m wearing long pants. Another great thing about Italy and Greece was that caffes only used AC enough to provide relief from the outside heat, basically keeping the indoors 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outdoors, rather than the 30 degree difference we often see here in the US. The summer I worked in DC, my office building was so cold I would walk out into the 90 degree weather and the humidity outdoors would condense on my cold hands.

Questioning Economic Development

I still haven’t put together my theory or at least thoughts on a better evaluation of economic development, which I promised last summer. Based on my travels in the Mediterranean (which I will hopefully revisit this fall), there is a great deal to be said for a more complex and multi-faceted evaluation of what economic development means, what it enables, and how it can be measured.

At times like this my mind drifts back to Marshall Berman’s book All That is Solid Melts into Air. In part of a larger argument about development and the creation of the modern world, Berman focuses on a surprising section of praise Karl Marx holds in his writings for the European bourgeoisie. Essentially, he praises them and the world they are creating because through their destruction of the feudal economic, political and social system, they are creating a world in which the proletariat has an opportunity to realize a whole new set of possibilities in economic, social, and political life, as well. It is this cognitive realization in addition to the physical realization that will help provoke them to socialist revolution. Essentially my thinking is that economic development must provide a better set of possibilities in terms of health, education, and social life in addition to basic needs such as subsistence living, income, and national wealth. I would submit that many of the villagers of Sicily are richer than a good number of Americans because they need not sacrifice their health or family ties for increased income or wealth, which comes with added stress, a poorer diet (and, as we have seen, mediocre to bad health care), and a worse overall family situation. The rub, of course, is if Sicilians, for example, have the chance to pursue career or wealth as the number one priority if they so choose.

Anyway, I’m revisiting this because of something I read at Economist’s View on Bill Gates.

[T]here’s more to Adam Smith, he added. “This was written before ‘Wealth of Nations,’” Mr. Gates said, flipping through a copy of Adam Smith’s 1759 book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It argues that humans gain pleasure from taking an interest in the “fortunes of others.” Mr. Gates will quote from that book in his speech today. …

To a degree, Mr. Gates’s speech is an answer to critics of rich-country efforts to help the poor. One perennial critic is Mr. Easterly, the New York University professor, whose 2006 book, “The White Man’s Burden,” found little evidence of benefit from the $2.3 trillion given in foreign aid over the past five decades.

Mr. Gates said he hated the book. His feelings surfaced in January 2007 during a Davos panel discussion with Mr. Easterly… To a packed room of Davos attendees, Mr. Easterly noted that all the aid given to Africa over the years has failed to stimulate economic growth on the continent. Mr. Gates, his voice rising, snapped back that there are measures of success other than economic growth — such as rising literacy rates or lives saved through smallpox vaccines. “I don’t promise that when a kid lives it will cause a GNP increase,” he quipped. “I think life has value.”

I’m interested to hear what he has to say this year at Davos.

Essence of a City

Recently I attended a dinner party with some fairly well-to-do suburbanites who all seem to pretty well rely on their automobiles. The conversation illustrated just how great the difference between American and European urbanism is. Basically, all the attractions of life in Chicagoland (and particularly the North Side) for our dinner company were individual shops or entertainment venues miles from any public transportation but providing the “best” form of whatever good or service was under discussion.

“Oh, you can only get the best carrot cake at Magoo’s Bakery about 4 miles west of here, just before the interstate.”

“Yeah, when I’m out there I like to get the best soaker garden hoses at a place a mile north of there — they’re handmade by Gypsies!”

Robert Fishman has described the auto-based American city as a “city a la carte,” in which the individual no longer takes the good and the bad of his or her neighborhood. Nowadays, he finds the best house for himself, goes to his favorite grocery store, visits with his friends on the other side of the city, and doesn’t trouble himself with all the stuff in between.

I neither have the means nor the desire to patronize the best places scattered about the metropolitan region. What I really like and what seems to be the most responsible form of urbanism is not having or patronizing one best place for something. In Sicily and Greece, the rule seemed to be that there were several similar types of places (bakeries, cafes, groceries, butchers, etc.) that were all pretty good but without clear distinction as to which was the best. You walked to the one near you and were confident of good bread or cheese or salami or pizza. This seems to have been a product of demand as much as of supply; that is, a “best” place wouldn’t have an advantage over other bakeries because customers wouldn’t pay extra to have the best when all the bakeries were pretty good.

I can only name one restaurant in the whole 6 weeks that was particularly notable in terms of being better than any other of the same type of place we went to (Trattoria Archimedes in Ortygia [Syracuse], Sicily). Every other place we went was just a typically good, local bread, granite, meat, cheese, fruit, espresso or whatever store or market. And it was awesome because it meant that just about every street was an attraction, every neighborhood was enjoyable, and every place we wanted to go was walkable. Sicily was the attraction, not the three restaurants or 2 coffee houses. I highly recommend going to Europe if, rather than loving particular restaurants, you love having a choice of restaurants and their all being accessible. In short, if you love cities, not stores.

Package Free/Waste Free

So this is a project, unlike the last one, that will see some results. You’ve of course heard of the 100 mile diet and other such fads, challenges, or lifestyles. One of the things my wife and I are interested in is reducing our packaging and waste. To almost zero. When we composted at our old house (meaning we just threw our food scraps in a hole in the back yard) and shopped at the Ann Arbor People’s Food Co-op, just about the only waste we had was Kleenexes and toilet paper rolls. While we went to Europe and shopped at the street markets every day, we saw how easy it is to live without much packaging (particularly if you lay off the processed stuff).

New domicile, new challenges. We’re in an apartment in a denser, more walkable area, but now we don’t have the compost hole or the PFC. These days we’ve got about one tied-up plastic shopping bag a day of waste, which I think is too much. Our apartment complex also doesn’t recycle, but we’ve found a place across the street where we can drop our recyclables under cover of night. The first solution is a free-standing composter. If you have any experience with these, send along an anecdote or a recommendation. They pretty much all look good to me online when I don’t have to smell them or wave away fruit flies. If I remember correctly, Murph has a composting drum. How much did that cost and how much trouble is it?

Next up is reducing our bottles and other plastic containers. The PFC used to have bulk olive oil, laundry detergent, and dish detergent. I had no idea what a blessing those were. Nearby we have a Wild Oats with a decent (if expensive) bulk section, but not those three liquids (which we use quite a bit). Farther away is Whole Foods where I am reluctant to shop and I don’t think those are in bulk. Generally not looking good, so we’ll have to think more about this.

In other issues, I’ve introduced my wife to paper towels for cleaning rather than newspapers, which we should get back to at least part of the time. We probably waste too much food, too, which comprises a decent part of our daily bag o’ rubbish. We take cloth shopping bags to the grocery store, but we still get a few plastic bags per trip to use as garbage liners. Most of our plastic stuff does double or triple duty before it hits the garbage can.

Anyways, given this varied activities, how have you all been reducing your waste? What are some areas I’m missing. This seems like another area that we could make dramatic improvements on without losing any quality of life (like cutting out our cars).

More Than a Thousand




Pantheon oculus

Originally uploaded by urbanoasis

Here’s a sample from my first round of film from the European trip. This is the Pantheon, one of the, if not the, most important buildings from antiquity. It was rebuilt on order of the Roman emperor Hadrian in 127 AD on the site of another temple. It is mainly composed of an immense interior space enclosed by a concrete dome with an oculus, an open hole, at the top. As you can see, the coffering (the squares) eliminate some of the concrete and thus the weight that the lower parts of the dome and the walls have to support. What you can’t see is that the materials get progressively lighter as you near the top.

During the winter, rain and snow fall into the interior through the oculus. This may be the first building I have ever studied that has lived up to the hype in person.

Anarchy in Athens




Hungry massesdetailed

Originally uploaded by Xrisindustrial

Greetings from Exarheia, a former anarchist neighborhood in Athens that is turning decidedly upscale. Gee, where have I heard that story before? Still, read the wikipedia link on the university uprising that ended in a tank crashing through the gates of the polytechnic university in November of 1973. I’m always struck at the stark contrast between my consumerist cohort (myself included) and our predecessors at universities a generation ago. Damn, those kids were gutsy.

Greece is no Sicily, but Athens is pretty nice.

Wednesday Acropolis Blogging




Athenian Acropolis

Originally uploaded by urbanoasis

Athens seems to be a textbook case in how attracting a major event like the Olympic Games can spur economic development. They lost money hand over fist in the preparation and putting on the Games (as is typical), but they built their infrastructure and solidified a reputation as a global city that continues to attract and delight Greeks and foreigners alike.

Here one of the subway lines runs through the old Roman forum in the shadow of the Acropolis. The lighting on the site is just amazing. More to come.