Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The urban condition..

Rush hour today - the morning one, 7:40 am to be exact - I was on the tram into the city center when a curious passenger came into my generally oblivious field of vision. There was no obvious dirt or telltale smell that would have alerted me that the passenger was a bit different than others, but something about the fit of the coat and casual way they sat their bag on the visibly dirty tram floor caught my attention. My gaze would not have lingered on the person long except that I noticed them pick a fallen bandaid off the filthy floor and reapply it to their hand whence it had fallen. Curiousity, boredom, and the person being in my field of vision held me then captivated to watch as said passenger proceeded to open their backpack, remove one large can of beer and slip it ever so obviously into the opening of one of their leather gloves. If the bandaid reapplication made me a bit uncomfortable, the (quite illegal in Oslo) public beer drinking so early in the morning got the attention of others - people shifted uneasily in their seats, averted their eyes, and subtly inched whatever few centimeters were possible in the opposite direction.

It is not comfortable to encounter different people, particularly those so far from the social norms we're accustomed to. But, I believe that simple encounters like mine this morning helps urban residents to grow as people.. I think to myself: 'This is the urban condition!" - just as much as being able to go to a fair trade cafe, see an independant theater production, or follow a live international lecture series. The everday act of living in a city offers countless encounters will people whose descriptions, proclivities, and lives in general might be unfathomable to us. We share public transportation, in fact all kinds of public infrastructure with all kinds of people. And in a city as evolved as Oslo (at least for now,) we all share the same rights to public space.

Being able to live in and encounter all kinds of people in public space is important, so that we don't begin to forget or deny the problems that plague cities, so that we don't forget that the people with problems are humans too. Sure, it makes some people uncomfortable, and enough research has come to convenient solutions that say "similar children play together best" (more or less as the Norwegian saying goes), but if not in public spaces, then when and where else will the average resident come across people who are different than they, outside their friends' circle, their income class, or other ethno/religious/you-name-it-self-segregating-group? It is all too easy to fear the unknown and create the sense of a risk where there is actually only strangeness. The way I see it, the only counter to such fear is the learning experience offered by chance encounters in public space. Very few are going to go out of their way to have a conversation with a stranger (particularly a strange stranger), and they are very unlikely to suddenly drop by for a coffee, so it is only out in the public, in cities, that this learning chance is offered. By instead distancing and allowing the segregation into whatever types of people, all people - humans - are denied the reality of their own diversity. Perhaps if we all had to face the plagues of our society each day, more motivation and resources would be found to attack the roots of the problems (be they alcoholism, drug abuse, pyschological issues, poverty, or otherwise), rather than using resources to attempt a falsely clean and homogenous image in public spaces and the creation of gated communities.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


We often take for granted that we know each other - the people around us in the world where we live. Beyond assumptions one may make of their neighbors are those who work to shape the places inhabited by others in the city. Traditionally urban planners and architects have attempted to - perhaps even been forced to - simplify the problem of complexity in the city - undercutting the tasks before them. The "public" is grouped into a neat term that characteristics and wishes can be assigned to, or it is divided into social groups to attribute some normative trends towards activities and different general preferences to work towards. Today, many of these professionals tout participation as a mode of hearing the peoples' voice (or that of the ubiquitous public) in projects and debates, but question remains if they are getting as much as they could from that forum.

For one, we know that public participation events often informs us of those who are particularly eager to dominate planning and development discussions. In both Norway and the US, this type provokes a familiar image of an aging or retired male or female, outspoken, and fueled by very precise personal interests that may or may not be related to the project at hand - cue whatever reaction is a professionally acceptable form of rolling eyes. Of course, we know that it is wrong to dismiss these types, no matter how difficult they make consensus building or decision-making. Still, I am not sure how often they are really heard, short of when they manage to rally others behind their cause. While many a planner and architect may dread the uncomfortable encounter with these types, I wonder if it isn't more of just those insights into specific people that we need.

As an academic, I can (fortunately) consider this proposition removed from the very practical need of making decisions and meeting deadlines. Nevertheless, I, for one, am not convinced that participation is a useful tool for decision-making - it is rarely as democratic, including, effective, or bottom-up as our theoretical ideals would have it. If we removed consensus building from public hearing goals yet continued to ask for participation, we might end up with an interesting array of perspectives. By inviting everyone to offer their view where everyone else could see it, perhaps we could form better ideas about whom the others actually are - of how little we understand about them, and just maybe, how professionals could find mediating ways to work amidst their local complexities.

There are plenty of academics more qualified than I researching this idea - trying to figure out the practical implications of, for example Chantal Mouffe's "agonism" - the inherent benefits that may come from open conflict and the true embrace of diversity (of opinion and of being) through pluralism. I think it is equally important for regular people (members of the public, if you will) to become aware of those around, the incredible diversity that is often paired with a lacking awareness of others - those other than each themselves. Therein lies the real value of the public sphere, and the reason it could be quite dangerous to lose it. Public life seems to be tottering towards filtering itself into like groups - on one hand through commercialization or privatization of public spaces and  through computer algorithms showing us only the viewpoints we want to see in social media on the other. It is important that we support the few forums left where we might encounter strangers and different perspectives rather than allow each to enclose themselves in their familiar and fear the rest.

While planners and designers continue using participation techniques to attempt solving questions that usually actually fall under their own expertise, it would be interesting to instead see participation as a learning tool - where the professionals and all involved participants might come together to learn about each other. I am reminded now of a recent lecture in Oslo where the speaker said – we have to stop planning as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic! It seems quite likely that what is more important than everyone agreeing is actually bringing everyone to acknowledge their disagreements and more openly consider the motives that inspire each point of view.

We are all the same in the fact that we are each different. Tolerance of the other might not be achievable through consensus so much as it might be through open awareness, acknowledgement and consideration of differences.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Oslo, a City of Farmers?

It's been a busy summer, inching my way into Oslo's seemingly young scene surrounding the topics of urban development, design, and planning. At a 'urban and local development' conference a few months ago, a politician from Bergen challenged the room with an accusation that Oslo has never been urban. Local rivalry between Bergen (Norway's second city with its rich Hanseatic trade history) and Oslo aside, I have noticed repeats of this sentiment echoing with Oslo being called a "city of farmers" or even "accidentally urban."

These terms typically come under critical views of Oslo's development progress and the city's sometimes seemlingly inconsistent plans for the future. Densification and sustainability but everyone needs a parking place for their car and buildings shouldn't be placed too close together. Sometimes it does seem that many Oslo-ites aren't quite sure how to handle the mass of people coming into the city - neither in day-to-day life (read: Justin Bieber concert cripples downtown traffic) nor in planning for future growth. With Oslo being one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, it's an exciting time to be here.

The "city of farmers" analogy is one that has stuck with me this summer - not in the negative way the comment was perhaps first intended, but rather in wondering what it means to bring farmers into a city. I've been preoccupied with the stewardship of land - the connect between people and places, something that I often find lacking in urbanity. Farmers have the tradition and history of stewarding land, so I wonder if there is something in the mentality that could be collectively motivated in the city. Perhaps following this line of thought, an American artist here, Amy Franceschini, has succeeded in starting a provoking urban gardening project in the midst of infrastructure and construction - 'Herligheten'. I braved the awkwardly signed road detours and chain link fences and managed to find the entrance to it on my bicycle during last month's 'open Bjørvika' day.

The garden lies at the base of vent towers going down to the traffic tunnel below.

Proximity to Bjørvika, one of Oslo's main development zones on the fjord front.

There are 100 plot boxes in total, not many people were working them this day.

...but, things were growing! 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Aesthetic Differences

Now that spring has arrived, my preoccupation has been in urban gardening. My own window sill is full of small-scale cultivation attempts which have finally also taken over a small portion of our fire balcony. I have been following a local initiative to encourage organic urban gardens and localized food production - MAJOBO (Mat og Jord der du Bor, or "Food and Earth where you Live"). Participants and enthusiasts in this group seem to agree in being more concerned about the health and nutrition of the land and production than the traditional aesthetic expected of the garden, as can be seen in various dialogues regarding weeds. These conversations generally follow a pattern:

Q - But how do you keep weeds away without chemicals?
A1 - They are only weeds if you don't want them - plenty of "weeds" are useful, edible, beautiful, etc.
A2 - Planting the right density of the right species will naturally inhibit unwanted growth.
A3 - Get in there and pull them out yourself!

The community and their knowledge is fascinating to me - it is great as a beginner in urban gardening to have such an accessible local resource base. Of course, as with most topics in urbanity, it is naive to assume that everyone in the hobby of gardening gets along. I have recently encountered a situation where the spirits of organic and guerrilla gardening are being challenged by a post-war structured flower bed mentality.

Property yard overview - photo from Google Maps Streetview.

It all began in a Gamle Oslo housing cooperative whose lawn and land area are perhaps equal again to the building footprint. A long term resident has developed and nurtured a series of flower beds over her tenancy - each spring buying and transplanting flowers in bloom and weeding out any 'out of place' species to beautify the property. A few years ago, a friend of mine with an incredible passion for plants moved into the cooperative with her husband and asked permission to garden in an unused swath at the property's edge - between a fence and a row of hedges. With permission, she cleared the long swath, added edging and a retaining wall and began planting. Strawberries, arugula, peas, chives, and tomatos grew interspersed with some herbs and flower bulbs. The planting was dense, following a natural aesthetic and many of the species would take years to establish blooms.

A couple growing seasons passed, then came an interference. My friend went out to survey the plot for this year's season and noticed several of her plants had been removed and some blooming flowers had been recently relocated into the bed. Beyond this, the chive stalks had been torn unevenly and the nozzle had been cut off of the garden hose. Conversation with the flower bed gardener uncovered an ongoing (and priorly passive) agression, complete with protests that my friend's garden swath was an eyesore and full of weeds. The other gardener admitted to moving and removing several plants, but it seems that responsibility for the hose and chive harvesting lay elsewhere - potentialy in a passerby. The most intact part of the garden remaining is pictured above with a currant bush, some wintered timian, and yes, a bit of actual weeding to be done.

These are the frustrations of urban gardening - beyond worrying about the plants, we have also to worry about all the other species around - especially fellow humans. While I had hoped to be introduced to this Gamle Oslo garden and see it as a potential pilot project that other property owners could learn from, I am instead introduced (yet again) to the complexities of dense cohabitation.

At this point there are a few potentials for this garden swath asides from neglecting it completely. Depending on how much the adjacent hedges now shade the land, some species may be introduced and the garden continued as before - with perhaps enough camoflage provided by the hedges to appease the neighbor gardener. It seems prudent if planting harvest-ables, that they should perhaps favor roots or vegetables that are more difficult to access. Another tempting idea is to cover the swath in a local type of nettle - which can be eaten similarly to spinach or made into tea - with the added benefit of discouraging meddling.

However, none of these options are particularly conducive to mitigating the neighbor relations. These types of opinion conflicts were quite prevalent in my thesis on communal urban spaces here and work to prevent change. As long as the concept of space personalization and aesthetic differences are at play, consensus and community are difficult goals to achieve. I find myself wondering if an introduction to permaculture would benefit the boards of such housing cooperatives or if the attitudes that support asphalt surfaces, expansive lawns, and weedkiller chemicals run too strongly for reason or change.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bicycle friendly?

I hope these bicycle racks looked nice on someone's drawing at least. I found a way behind the trash and up two stairs to lock my bike with minimal disturbance to the perpetually feeding pigeons. (@ Youngstorget, Oslo)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Traffic machine vs. Human machine

I took a walk down to Oslo's ever-developing neighborhood of Bjørvika the other day - primarily to get some pictures of the de-constructing of the Bispelokket "trafikkmaskin." Literally called a "traffic machine" in Norwegian, it was a series of stacked rotaries that handled the highway seeking traffic along the Oslo fjord over the last 40 to 50 years. Not unlike the Big Dig project in Boston, this raised construction has been replaced with a traffic tunnel, so its demolition has been planned as a part of this new neighborhood development that is meant to connect the Opera district with the rest of the city.

The pedestrian and automobile routes to, around, and from this current construction site continues to perplex Oslo residents. People are rerouted on a daily basis, with a variety of signage that describes the circuitous at best detours. I found myself somewhat amused at the physical effort currently required of a pedestrian to make a simple loop around the new neighborhood. It all began with the need to cross a road, which is no longer just a road but a multi-lane rotary.

And then the solution for it..

The ramp and bridge to the left crosses the rotary directly to the front.

 It seems that we've gone from ramping cars out of the way overhead in the traffic machine, to this solution I am naming the human machine - ramping pedestrians up and over traffic. Of course the resulting view gives an interesting perspective on the otherwise un-crossable road.

Eventually on the other side I came to the site of the old Bispelokket - where not much of it is still intact.

Behind the Opera this and other construction has taken over for the time being. Pedestrians who are typically put first on Norwegian roadways are channeled between concrete barriers and reminded to watch for turning traffic. 

The sign here says "Careful! Does the car see you?"

Traffic to be crossed between the Opera plaza and the next pedestrian bridge.

View over old Bispelokket site from Opera's pedestrian bridge.

These aspects of planning and engineering the movement of traffic and humans in machines brings the 1920s German movie Metropolis to mind. There is something particular dystopian about development, especially while it is underway. It is difficult to look at this site today and imagine that in the future it is to be a progressive pedestrian friendly neighborhood that will magically connect the new buildings along the fjord to the existing urban fabric behind the train tracks. 

The plaza in front of the Opera currently stands as a pedestrian friendly island amidst chaos.

More photos from this site here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

'How should Oslo be?'

Last night at Oslo's center for design and architecture (DogA) opened an exhibition on the conceptual and actual planning for the future growth of the city. The day before, a news article covered one set of concept projects by MVRDV plus some local offices, which were meant largely designed to provoke. As seems to be the trend in urban planning, the questions are very clear but the solutions less so.

MVRDV image from Aftenposten, ring of high rises around city center.
Source: http://ap.mnocdn.no/incoming/article6759467.ece/ALTERNATES/w780c169/FS00015036.jpg?updated=110220121826

I was struck first by the article with MVRDVs proposals. They cleverly cover a great deal of the city and surrounding districts with variations of feasibility. Many of the options suggest densifying and/or developing national landmarked parks and other points of interest which has made for intriguing local debates. In the end, I cannot help feeling a bit underwhelmed by the work. Somehow it seems that the richest country on the planet with some of the most progressive environmental policies might be able to push for something new. These published "solutions" instead transport me directly back my undergrad education flipping through Koolhaas' 1998 book S, M, L, XL. Then the forms, graphics, and principles seemed new and innovative, but I cannot identify any points of departure from urbanism in the late 90s and that of today - nearly 15 years later.

Other proposals held a great deal of emphasis on the development of infrastructure and the creation of small villages in the areas around Oslo. While I appreciate that these villages took an amount of density, services and public transportation into account, I am not sure that they will lead to anything different from American sprawl.

I cannot help but notice many missed opportunities already existing in Oslo proper which may or may never be addressed. Some friends of mine live near the forest border in the north. Their neighborhood is served by several public bus lines - it is less than a 20 minute ride to the city center, a 5 minute walk to the forest trails, but it is nearly 15 minutes walk to the nearest grocery store. There are many preschools, some sports fields, but not a single cafe or restaurant. The address is Oslo, but the lifestyle quickly becomes that of a suburb - cars seem more useful than the buses and both vehicles in mass compete dangerously with bicyclists, skaters, and joggers along the one major traffic route that has never held a sidewalk.

The new village development plans shown in the exhibition hope to address such concerns for new neighborhoods, but what will happen to the current ones? Rather than maps of transportation corridors and ring roads and walking distance to train stations, I think it might be a good time to think about a different scale. It would likely paint an amazingly unsustainable picture if we looked at Oslo from the current location of other services to population density. How far must people commute to work, yes, but also how far must people commute to the grocery store? If we want to densify Oslo, part of the solution should be including all the services that draw people to, and support them within, a place. Allow and encourage the elements that draw people to new developments in the existing ones - if we can make more people want to live in existing neighborhoods then density will come on its own. In my opinion it would promote healthier growth to add a post office, cafe, and market to an existing residential neighborhood and let the next farm over contribute to the food supply instead of the residential footprint of the city.