Saturday, January 21, 2012

Urban Focus

Freetown Christiania is a collectivist semi-autonomous settlement in of the world's major capitals where capitalism is rejected. It was created by squatters on a military base in 1971.
COPENHAGEN — Last summer, the Danish state offered to sell a good chunk of the 80-odd-acre former military base at the edge of downtown Copenhagen to Christiania, the alternative community whose residents had been squatting there illegally for four decades. For the residents, who fundamentally reject the idea of landownership, this presented an ideological quandary.

“Christiania has offered to buy it,” said Risenga Manghezi, a spokesman for the community. “But Christiania doesn’t want to own it.”

To resolve the contradiction, Mr. Manghezi and a handful of others decided to start selling shares in Christiania. Pieces of paper, hand-printed on site, the shares can be had for amounts from $3.50 to $1,750. Shareholders are entitled to a symbolic sense of ownership in Christiania and the promise of an invitation to a planned annual shareholder party. “Christiania belongs to everyone,” Mr. Manghezi said. “We’re trying to put ownership in an abstract form.”

Since the shares were first offered in the fall, about $1.25 million worth have been sold in Denmark and abroad. The money raised will go toward the purchase of the land from the government.
Free-Spirited Enclave’s Reluctant Landowners Fear Capitalism’s Harness (New York Times)

Also from the Times - Dismantling Detroit:
Detroit lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, and now, broke, finds itself on the verge of a possible state takeover. Yet visual reminders of a better time both haunt and anoint the residents here. The past is achingly present in Detroit, and the way its citizens interact with the hulking, physical remnants of yesterday is striking.

A few years ago, there was a rash of power outages in Detroit, caused by people illegally cutting down live telephone wires to get to the valuable copper coils inside. The Detroit police created a copper theft task force to deter the so-called “scrappers,” young men who case old buildings for valuable metals, troll cemeteries to steal copper grave plates and risk their lives to squeeze any last dollar out of the industrial detritus.

One freezing evening we happened upon the young men in this film, who were illegally dismantling a former Cadillac repair shop. They worked recklessly to tear down the steel beams and copper fasteners. They were in a hurry to make it to the scrap yard before it closed at 10 p.m., sell their spoils and head to the bar.

Surprisingly, these guys, who all lacked high school diplomas, seemed to have a better understanding of their place in the global food chain than many educated American 20-somethings. The young men regularly checked the fluctuating price of metals before they determined their next scrap hunt, and they had a clear view of where these resources were going and why. They were the cleanup crew in a shaky empire. Somebody’s got to do it.
I imagine that this is just a preview of what the majority of urban areas in the United States will look like in twenty years' time. As William Gibson famously said - the future is already here, it's just evenly distributed yet:
A new report released Wednesday, to coincide with a U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Washington D.C., finds that only 26 of the nation’s 363 metropolitan areas had recovered the jobs lost during the recession by the end of last year.

Michael Cooper reports on the bleak outlook found in the study commissioned by the Conference, "It will take at least five years for the 80 hardest-hit areas to recover the jobs they lost."

The report comes as the country's mayors -- Democrat and Republican -- grow increasingly frustrated that the Federal Government, rather than providing cities with tools to improve their economies, have in fact cut many of the programs that cities have come to rely on to fund operations and improvements.

"Not only has Congress failed to overcome partisan gridlock to agree on a way to created much-needed jobs by spending more money on infrastructure, mayors said, but even the small sources of federal support that cities rely on — whether the Community Development Block Grants that were devised by Republican administrations in the 1970s or more recent federal programs that help struggling cities pay for more police officers or firefighters — are being scaled back as Washington has made cutting the deficit a priority."
Few Cities Have Regained Jobs They Lost, Report Finds (New York times)

Oh, and that's on top of thirty years' worth of deindustrialization and shrinking jobs. I suspect that many urban areas will never be developed, and some may even be depaved - dismantled and turned back into soil. As I wrote in this post, it's likely something similar happened after Rome's fall. One can imagine marble stripped from buildings and heated in ovens to produce soil amendments. In Cuba, abandoned urban lots were extensively depaved to create urban gardens. Another face of collapse:
Urban areas are great for increasing density and reducing collective resource use, but they're not quite perfect. The asphalt that covers so much of cities retains heat and is impermeable; it leads to stormwater pollution and is bad for air quality. Not to mention that every block of pavement is a block where plants can't grow.

Yet all over American cities, there are abandoned parking lots and public spaces that could be a lot more pleasant, and healthier, if it weren't for the layer of asphalt covering them. But one group is slowly taking back the land in an effort to create more green space and improve the local environment, by ripping up unwanted asphalt.

Depave is a Portland-based non-profit that organizes volunteer "depaving
Urban Depavers Return Parking Lots to Paradise (Treehugger)

Meanwhile, in Asia, the world's most populous country is now more urban that rural. How much longer can we keep cramming people into cities and depopulating the countryside?
Just over 680 million now live in cities – 51.27 per cent of China's entire population of nearly 1.35 billion.

Most have moved during two decades of boom in search of economic opportunities, and the historic mass migration from fields to office and apartment blocks ends the country's centuries-long agrarian status.

But the rapid modernisation and demand for improved living standards is piling extra pressure on society and the already blighted environment, experts claim.

With 75 per cent of Chinese expected to be living in cities within 20 years, the demand for more transport, energy, water and other vital infrastructure is set to test resources and city planners.

"Urbanisation is an irreversible process ... It will have a huge impact on China's environment, and on social and economic development," Li Jianmin, head of the Institute of Population and Development Research at Nankai University told reporters.
China's urban population exceeds rural for first time ever (Telegraph)

One quibble...urbanization is irreversible? So, people can't move back, ever? Does he know what's happening in Greece right now? Meanwhile, back in the U.S., affordable housing seems to be a faded memory:

Decline of affordable housing has many causes (Washington Post)

Reading such an article is maddening. It seems the economics of putting a roof over people's heads just don't pencil out. How is it that the magical "free market" can make a pencil with no guiding hand, but fail to provide the most basic of human necessities? Maybe the free market isn't the well-oiled machine we're all supposed all believe it to be. When millions of houses sit empty in a land ravaged by homelessness, I have a hard time believing resources are being allocated correctly.

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