Guardian Cities has been exploring the phenomenon of cities built from scratch. Here are excerpts from two recent articles in The Guardian.
By Wade Shepard, The Guardian, July 10, 2019
“People have been building new cities from scratch for millennia. When countries rise up, when markets emerge, people build new cities. Today, though, we are taking it to unheard-of levels. We have never before built so many new cities in so many places at such great expense as we are right now.
“We are standing on the precipice of a new city building boom unlike anything we’ve seen before. These shiny new metropolises hold the dreams and aspirations of people and nations from east Asia to the Middle East to Africa. Will they deliver a bright new urban future or a debt-fueled bubble of historic proportions?
“The new city has been sold as a one-stop cure-all for an array of urban and economic issues facing emerging markets around the world — overcrowding, pollution, traffic congestion, housing shortages, lack of green space, and economic stagnation. By starting from scratch, governments hope to move on from their current clogged and dysfunctional urban centers and develop new economic sectors. City building itself can also be a highly profitable endeavor.
“ ‘The major reason for new cities is that there is so much migration,’ says John Macomber, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who has studied new city development in depth. ‘People are moving to cities all over the world to seek opportunity.’
“ ‘The sad thing is that we’re going to develop more urban area in the next 100 years than currently exists on Earth,’ says the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer of New York University. ‘If we stick to business as usual most of it is going to be disorderly and less functional than the stuff we already have. … They’re also an inappropriate response to the real need, which is not for the rich to have a place to retreat to but for people who want to get a first position on the kind of urban, modern escalator that can help lift them and their kids to a better life.’
But, “Macomber says: ‘If you build a new city you don’t have to relocate or work around existing roads or rivers or factories or houses. You also don’t have to work around existing political processes, community groups, civic organizations … or even existing regulations and rules. … The new cities that struggle are the ones pushing against what market forces want to do.’ ”
‘Spectacular time-lapse satellite images show boom in cities built from scratch across Asia and Africa.’
By Antonio Voce and Nick Van Mead, The Guardian, February 15, 2019
“ ‘We’re in the midst of new cities fever,’ says Prof Sarah Moser. The head of the new cities lab at McGill University has documented more than 100 cities that have sprung up across Asia and Africa since the early 2000s for her forthcoming Atlas of New Cities.
“There’s Eko Atlantic, a ‘new Dubai’ taking shape on reclaimed land off the coast of Nigeria, and Forest City, a ‘new Singapore’ being built just over the Johor Strait from the original. There’s the New Silk Road city of Khorgos rising from the barren steppe that separates Kazakhstan and China, the ‘sustainable city’ of Neom in Saudi Arabia, the Norman Foster-designed Masdar in Abu Dhabi, a few in Latin America … and even a Robotic New City in Malaysia.
“Most are in places where rapid urbanization and population growth have overwhelmed existing cities. Sometimes master-planned cities are a way for countries in the global south to kick-start an economic transition out of agriculture or from resource-based economies. They can also allow governments to write their country’s image afresh.
“ ‘The computer-generated models look beautiful – all the old city problems are gone and it looks magically real. It’s compelling for people who live in overcrowded and polluted places,’ says Moser. ‘And the money to be made is staggering – in the trillions of dollars.’ ”
The article shows time-lapse satellite images for
Ordos, one of ‘The Ghost Cities of China’ that is starting to fill up;
Putrajaya, Malaysia, 25 miles south of Kuala Lumpur;
New Cairo, 20 miles east of Cairo, Egypt; and
Songdo, South Korea, built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea.
This article, originally published in Next City, is republished in entirety, with permission.
Like a lot of big universities, Stanford is almost a small city of its own.
Operating in the unincorporated town of Stanford, California, in Santa Clara County, Stanford hosts 16,000 students and employs 13,000 people on faculty and staff. It owns more than 8,000 acres of land in six jurisdictions. And it has plans to build. The university is seeking approval for around 2.275 million square feet of new space through a General Use Permit, a periodically updated document that guides the university’s growth.
As part of the process to update the General Use Permit, Stanford is negotiating with various county officials. A group of students sees this as a once-in-a-generation chance to set the right course for the university’s relationship with the community. They have been working to pressure the school into doing right by its workers and its neighbors by providing more housing, offering more transit benefits to its employees, and giving more money for public investments in housing and transportation. In the process, the group, called the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035), is seeking to elevate the voices of the labor unions and community groups that are most affected by the university’s growth.
“As students, we have a lot of privilege and leverage, but we don’t want to speak over community members,” says John Zhao, a 2018 Stanford graduate who helped start the group in 2016.
At the center of the dispute over Stanford’s General Use Permit is a question of how much housing to build. As part of its growth plan, Stanford says it will build 3,150 new housing units, including 500 faculty apartments, by 2035, and contribute $93 million to affordable housing projects in neighboring communities during the same period. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has called on the university to do more to mitigate the region’s housing crisis by building at least 1,622 faculty and staff units in the next fifteen years, as Palo Alto Online has reported. In its Platform for Equitable Stanford Development, SCoPE is calling for the university to provide more than three times that: 5,300 new housing units for staff, to match what the group has determined will be the growth of the workforce.
“We’re really trying to support the service workers on campus who always get kind of slighted in this process, especially housing-wise,” says Kate Ham, an urban studies major who’s expecting to graduate in 2020.
So far, the group has worked primarily on research and teach-ins. The group has been digging through Environmental Impact Reports and other documents that Stanford releases, holding public demonstrations and discussions about Stanford’s development plans, and reaching out to community groups and other stakeholders like SEIU Local 2007, the service workers’ union on campus.
Zhao says the Stanford student body didn’t know how to engage in the GUP process right away, as the first public meetings were happening during finals in 2016. But as the permit has moved through the approval process, kicking up controversies along the way, more people have gotten involved. Last fall, after Santa Clara County passed an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring that 16 percent of Stanford’s new housing units be rented below market rate, the university sued the county, saying that it was being unlawfully singled out. SCoPE 2035 held protests over the lawsuit, which is still ongoing, in February.
“I think what we wanted to do was to really use our leverage as part of this community,” Zhao says. “We can really make a ruckus and try to point out the injustices in Stanford’s intended development plans, which is kind of what we’ve been able to do: Get people to pay attention to what’s going on.”
Stanford has also been working on negotiating a development agreement with Santa Clara County that would supplement the General Use Permit. This spring, the university made a deal with the local public schools, Palo Alto Unified School District, involving contributions that would help the schools manage the influx of students they’d be expected to receive as part of the university’s expansion. But that deal was contingent on the approval of the development agreement between the university and the county. Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said that the university was using that deal as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the county over the development agreement, and temporarily stopped discussion with the university in April, according to reports.
“We want everyone in this conversation to recognize that Stanford tries to pit the stakeholders against each other, but there are holistic solutions, and they can be viewed through a different lens,” says Shelby Parks, a graduating chemistry student who has been working on media outreach for the student group. “It’s not like [the university can only provide benefits to] Palo Alto Unified or affordable housing — those two things can 100 percent work together.”
Simitian was not available for an interview. In response to a request for an interview, Stanford sent Next City roughly the same statement it shared with a student magazine in December.
“We have heard and understand SCoPE 2035’s areas of interest regarding the 2018 General Use Permit,” Joel Berman, the university’s community relations and land use communications officer, wrote in an email. “Stanford staff have met directly with students in the SCoPE group several times and we welcome their participation in this process. We will continue to stay engaged with them and other organizations and groups that have an interest in the future of Stanford as the 2018 General Use Permit proceeds.”
The Santa Clara County Planning Commission held its first meeting about Stanford’s General Use Permit late last month, with two more scheduled in June. SCoPE 2035 is concerned about the negotiation of the development agreement between the university and the county because, Parks says, “The only thing that the county has to give in exchange for whatever benefits Stanford offers is some sort of loosening or adjustment of the original conditions of approval.” The Board of Supervisors is expected to hold hearings and vote on the permit in the fall.
“When we get back to campus in the fall, it’s going to be kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing, because that Supervisors vote is the last opportunity for us to change anything,” Parks says.
Jared Brey is Next City’s housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, APA California Northern News, and other publications. Brey’s “article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable, and more environmentally sustainable.”
When Palo Alto’s California Avenue bicycle and pedestrian underpass was built more than 50 years ago beneath the Caltrain tracks, it was intended to solve one problem: allow pedestrians and bicyclists to safely pass from one side of the tracks to the other. The tunnel’s designers never foresaw that bicycling would ultimately skyrocket — today nearly half of Palo Alto students ride their bikes to school — and thus bicyclists and pedestrians now have to share a particularly confined space.
As a result, pedestrians using the tunnel increasingly perceive those who bike through it as disregarding their personal space and coming dangerously close to hitting them. Bicyclists counter that they are endlessly cussed by pedestrians for not dismounting and walking their bikes through the tunnels, something they are reluctant to do when commuting to and from school or work.
Recently, we were asked by the City of Palo Alto and Alta Planning to help underpass users come up with interim solutions that would allow all users to peaceably and comfortably share the tunnel while the City continued to explore funding options for a completely redesigned and updated passageway. Given the currently contentious state of affairs within the underpass, we knew that whatever engagement events we offered would need to help both types of users — bicyclists and pedestrians — see that many of their core values are shared. We also wanted to craft activities that would allow people to articulate how they experience the existing space and visualize how they might experience a transformed passageway.
For our first set of workshops, we decided to hold two smaller ones, one with younger users of the underpass (almost all bicyclists in junior high and high school), and one with older users of the space (a mix of bicyclists and pedestrians). We intentionally chose to focus each workshop on aspects of mobility and shared spaces that were not centered on the California Avenue underpass itself. Having the first round of workshops with separate user groups allowed each group to feel at ease and thus able to express their unique ideas and needs. Also, by keeping the exercises focused on mobility and shared spaces in general, we allowed participants to think bigger, unconstrained by the limitations of the existing underpass.
For each workshop, we had participants first pick from an array of found objects and build their earliest mobility-related memory. We did this as an icebreaker but also as a way for participants to tap into their core values. The memories we hold nearest and dearest oftentimes say something about what we value now, no matter how distant the memories.
In the first workshop with middle- and high-school students, one participant, Owen, built a model depicting the first time he had ridden a bike on his own. His dad had been lecturing him on safety, and right in the middle of the speech, Owen decided he’d heard enough, and pushed off and rode away on his bike. The memory evoked feelings of freedom through mobility, but it also was directly related to family and the outdoors.
Another participant, Haley, built a model of Old Palo Alto and riding there in her stroller when she was very young. Her memory spoke of traveling through a place but also of the sensory experience of being outside and moving through the landscape at a slower pace, how one notices so many more details while walking than when driving. In fact, not one participants’ memory involved driving, and each described a mobility experience that was less about getting from point A to point B and more about the experience itself. Additionally, friends and family figured prominently in most of the memories, as did nature, exploration, and freedom.
In the second workshop, with older residents of Palo Alto, one participant, George, built a model of his childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia and described how he used to walk to school and the shopping center with friends, but also how he used to bike well outside of the neighborhood, unbeknown to his mom. Another participant, Rich, built a model of his walk to and from school in New Mexico, where the sandstorms were sometimes so strong that they had to walk backwards to school. That year for Christmas, his grandmother bought him ski goggles so that he wouldn’t have to walk backwards. As in the first workshop with youth, these participants’ memories had less to do with simply getting from one point to another and more to do with feelings of freedom and exploration, being outside, navigation, friends, and family.
The second building exercise for both the younger and older groups involved working in teams to build an ideal shared mobility space. The models each team built had recurring themes of providing not simply ample space for bicycles and pedestrians traveling at varying speeds, but also space to simply hang out with friends, play a game, or relax with family. In other words, the spaces allowed for people to get from point A to B but didn’t make that the sole purpose. And in each model, cars were relegated to a less prominent role within the space than what we currently experience.
A few weeks after the participants had had the opportunity to build and tell stories separately and free of the constraints of the actual site, we brought them together for a joint workshop at the California Avenue underpass itself. To show how much overlap there had been among seemingly conflicting groups we went over the recurring themes that had come out of the earlier separate workshops.
After establishing this common ground, we dove into a sensory exploration of the existing underpass. In this exercise, we had every participant walk around within the underpass, taking cues from their senses to find a spot that they liked anywhere within the space. We then went to each chosen spot as a group and had each participant tell us why they had chosen that place. Answers ranged from liking the feeling evoked by the ocean-themed mural, to a spot where you could see who was approaching from the other end of the tunnel.
For the final activity, relating directly to the existing underpass, we headed to an adjacent park where tables were available. It was a team-based model-building exercise in which residents, young and old, worked together to build an ideal California Avenue underpass. The teams built a number of creative solutions into their reimagined underpasses: skylights; whale sounds, or other signaling mechanisms indicating that a bicyclist or pedestrian was approaching; a slightly raised or painted indication of separate lanes within the space; and rotating art exhibits on the underpass walls. Equally as important as these visionary and creative ideas: all of the team members got along and collaborated. They were able to find common ground both within their own experiences of the underpass and in their ideas for redesigning the space.
This respectful, convivial, and collaborative dynamic most likely could not have come about had we simply brought everyone into a room and asked them what they thought about the current state of the underpass. Such an approach typically favors those who feel most comfortable talking in front of large groups (and who are not afraid of conflict), and never encourages participants to step away from the project itself to reflect on core values and how those values could be reflected in the infrastructure that surrounds them. As a result, participants in more conventional approaches often take an adversarial stance and talk about why they dislike the current infrastructure, rarely offering creative solutions.
While our proposal to save any activities directly related to the underpass to the end of the engagement process might have seemed counterintuitive, we took this approach to get participants who already saw themselves as adversaries to step back, reflect on core values, imagine spaces that were free of the constraints of the existing underpass, and — once common ground and shared values were established — plan and build.
The positive and productive results of this process reveal that when creative community engagement is integrated into the planning process and not simply a perfunctory step to get out of the way, the results can be infinitely more productive. Not only do you avoid the conflicts and negativity that often arise in a town-hall-style community meeting, but you also end up with a broader cross-section of folks participating, most or all of whom contribute creative and meaningful ideas toward a productive outcome — in this case, a more walkable, bikeable, and equitable city.
John Kamp is a landscape and urban designer, a licensed landscape contractor, and a facilitator with Place It! He has his own design practice, Prairieform. He holds an M.A. in urban planning and design from UCLA and a B.A. in sociology from Wesleyan University.
James Rojas is an urban planner, community outreach specialist, and artist with Place It! He holds an MCP from MIT and a B.S. in interior design from Woodbury University.
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