Archive for the ‘Urban planning’ Category

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

image1Matthew Desmond deep dives into the lives of some of the most wretched people in America and produces findings that are an affront to any civilized society, let alone the world’s richest

Tracking eight families through Milwaukee’s dumpiest neighborhoods we get a first-hand account of the misery and the grinding poverty of their existence.

The reasons why they are there and why they can’t break out are mired in complexity but their prospects are unremittingly grim. Nationwide, according to Desmond, there are millions more like them.

Lack of affordable housing with subsequent evictions, exploitation and ghettoization is the core problem and one Desmond believes should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda.

He makes a good case: Not having a roof over your head clearly perpetuates the cycle of suffering and hopelessness.

Had the book given more detailed attention to possible solutions I’d have given it five stars. As it is, there are a scant few pages in the epilogue vaguely outlining a universal housing voucher system and the need for greater legal help for tenants taken to court by landlords.

For anything to really change however, a massive shift in societal attitudes (to this largely black underclass)  is required and that’s a tall order. Still, it’s a start.



This moving war memorial to merchant seamen sits on the dockside in Cardiff Bay, south Wales.

Approach from one direction and you see the ribs of a ship resting on its hull. Seen from the other you see the face that represents all the mariners who lost their lives keeping Britain’s shipping lanes open.

The Bay area is now a place of plush apartments, swish hotels, yacht marinas, fancy restaurants and arts venues. But it wasn’t always so.

When Cardiff was a thriving port, booming on coal exports, the lure of plentiful work and good pay drew people from around the globe.

With them, too, came ladies of the night, enticed by the prospect of separating lonely sailors from enforced celibacy and fat pay packets.

The area then was known as Tiger Bay and was a notorious red-light district, but as the coal trade went into decline so did the port and dereliction and dole became the new realities.

Despite the regeneration effort that began in the late 1980s, the scheme continues to be controversial.

Cardiff-born planning specialist Adrian Jones recently called it a contender for the worst example of waterside regeneration in Britain.

That seems a bit harsh considering what was there before, but it does reinforce how hard it is to build communities and that the intricate web of everyday life requires more than simply money and shiny new architecture.

Geography of Nowhere

Prince Charles accused them of being artless, mediocre and contemptuous of public opinion. The old joke was that they had inflicted more damage on London than the Luftwaffe, but it wasn’t funny and nobody was laughing.

‘They’ are the post-war urban planners and ‘they’ have a lot to answer for. But the bumbling British versions are as nothing compared to American counterparts reinforced by ludicrous zoning restrictions and lunatic laws.

It’s why the simplest of tasks here almost always require a journey by car. It’s why strip malls brutalize the landscape, appalling ‘architecture’ abounds and attempts to escape become an engine of urban sprawl.

Try buying a loaf in the suburbs, or looking for a corner shop that sells fresh fruit and veg. Honestly, don’t bother. It’s a fool’s errand. The closest you’ll get is non-food at the nearest gas station.

More than 20 years ago author James Howard Kunstler poured his rage onto the page about the state of America’s “crudscape”in his book The Geography of Nowhere and in the intervening years not much has changed.

His withering invective is a delight to read. He’s beyond grumpy. This is a crimson-faced man ranting in foam-flecked, spittle-spraying fury as he pours contempt onto anyone and everyone who has contributed to the monstrous blight

Here’s a sample: “Eighty per cent of everything built in America has been built in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading – the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin-village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth”.

It wouldn’t be much of a book if it was just a rant, though. Kunstler takes a scholarly stroll through 400 years of New World development, points out features of special interest, changes that could, and should, be made and makes a delightful, spiteful, opinionated companion along the way.

As he explains, the rise and demise of America’s man-made landscape has all the usual venal underpinnings you’d expect, but the book also includes some of the well-meant but subsequently disastrous efforts to create idyllic surroundings.

As far back as the 1950s economist JK Galbraith was suggesting that the US had become a nation that tolerated “private affluence and public squalor” and there are echoes of this throughout Kunstler’s assessment.

Civic pride has been supplanted, individual rights have trumped wider public benefits and coherent communities have been ghettoized by wealth apartheid.

Kunstler reserves most of his bile for the effects the car has wrought on everyday life and the landscape, but there’s plenty left for the automobile’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, who favored the car over public transit at every opportunity.

When he wrote the book in 1994, Kunstler thought rising gas prices and environmental concerns would force the US to rethink its ideas about urban planning and community. Not so. Fracking will keep the wheels turning for a long while yet.  And while our heads are buried in the tar sands the temperature keeps on rising.