... in urbanism

On urban cycling and electricity

20 Nov 2019 | 141 words | cycling urbanism

I have always considered myself to be a fairly accomplished urban cyclist. Much of this confidence stems from having worked as a bike messenger between 1993 and 2004, mainly riding fixed with no brakes. Over the years, the rules of the urban cycling game have not changed much even though cycling became massively more popular during at the same time.

However, over the last few months the game is changing by the emergence of a new class of participant, the electrical motor assisted cyclist. As a result i am finding myself learning again, this time trying to master the art of drafting-off e-assisted cyclists navigating though urban traffic1, which is a fun game to play… (these days on bikes with imperfect brakes which significantly increases the difficulty)

  1. These days i am riding bike with brakes, although this does not necessarily help. ↩︎

Terrorism and urban planning

16 Jan 2017 | 244 words | terrorism syria urbanism united states

From the novel I am currently reading:

Back in his hotel room he remembered that Mohammed Atta , the famous World Trade Center hijacker, had been a student of urban planning in hamburg in Germany. Was there a connection between the two things – terror and planning? It was possible. Atta in his religious way, had wanted the perfect religious city &emdash; his thesis was on Aleppo in Syria. In the end though his urge to design took a different form &emdash; het took down the twin monstrosities of the towers over Manhattan, and there, in a single day he accomplished what no other planner could have, erasing the cold shadows of those vile boastful buildings of the sun-filled streets of the city.

While “the association of small bombs” is a work of fiction it appears that the fact that Mohammed Atta has indeed written his thesis on Aleppo is not. Given this the recent events in Aleppo, which have lead to the almost complete destruction of the city, feel like the completion of a circle of violence that has been started by Atta and his companions on 9/111. It is probably vain hope to expect this to be the end of the circle, but with the whole geo-political situation changing quite dramatically, nothing seems impossible these days.

Live broadcast of russian drone footage monitoring the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo (15/12/16)

  1. the area where the twin towers stood used to be ‘Little Syria’ ↩︎

Capital or the erosion of the social farbric of the city

05 Sep 2014 | 1024 words | capitalism delhi india cities urbanism

Capital by rana dasgupta

This is the second book i have read this year that has the words ‘capital’ and ’21st century’ in its title. While this smells a lot like free-riding on the popularity of the other book, it is not 1.

Capital by Rana Dasgupta chronicles the last one-and-a-half decades of the Indian capital Delhi. It is a mix between encounters (not in the indian sense of the word) with (moneyed) inhabitants of Delhi, snippets of history and more abstract reflections on the city in an globalized world.

It is a fascinating book that describes a city that is torn loose from its history and thrown into the maelstrom of globalization. I have been privileged to vist the Delhi a number of times between 2003 and 2006 and observing some of the transitions that Dasgupta describes. I also spend some time among the ‘bohemian artists and intellectuals’ that he found himself among and who were fueled by the energies unleashed by Delhi’s transformation:

But the anticipation of those years has a much larger scope than the city itself. It sprang from a universal sense: What will happen here will change the entire world.

The people i met were cosmopolitans, and they were delighted to see the walls coming down around india. They disdained nationalism and loved the new riches that reached them via the internet. But true to their own skepticism – and the history of anti-imperialist thought in this part of the word – they were also critical of the economic and social bases of western societies – and the last thing that they wanted from this moment of India’s opening-up was that a similar society be established here, Much of their intellectual inspiration came from Western capitalism’s internal critics: from American free software theorists, from the squatter movement in the Netherlands, from artists in Great Britain who challenged corporate food and property cultures, from Harvard and Oxford legal scholars who imagined alternative possibilities for the ownership of seeds, images and ideas.

Mingling with these people has had an enormous influence on my own intellectual development and the same is true for witnessing the transformation of the urban landscape of Delhi. Compared to what was going on in Delhi at the time, the social dynamics back home felt stagnant. The most obvious illustration of this was provided by the Delhi Metro2: When i first came to Delhi the first section of the Delhi metro had just become operational, yet by the time of my last visit at the end of 2006 the Delhi metro was already having more daily riders than the entire dutch railway system.

Delhi metro - a dream comes true

During those years I have spend a fair amount of time in the city exploring it by bicycle and i recognize lots of places that Dasgupta describes in Capital (most vividly parts of a hike along the west bank of the Yanuma that he describes towards the end of the book). While i am familiar with many of the localities featured in the book i have been almost entirely unaware of the secluded oases of wealth that Dasgupta describes rather vividly. Reading about them, and the role played by the moneyed business elites explains a lot of what i observed but did not really comprehend back then.

This is also where Capital comes very close to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Woven through Dasgupta’s book is a recurring theme of how a small business elite is ruthlessly riding the wave of transformation and harvesting almost all the wealth generated by it. In this sense Capital can almost be read as a case study illustrating the effects described by Piketty (r > g) in a turbo charged economic catch-up scenario3. In line with Piketty’s main argument Dasgupata recounts how the business elites leveraged existing capital assists (mainly in the form of real estate) to disproportionally benefit from the transformation of the urban economy.

Unfortunately for Delhi and the majority of its inhabitants, this accumulation of wealth is unlikely to benefit the city as a whole. In what is maybe the most important insight provided by Dasgupta he points out that the relationship of Delhi’s elites with the city that provides the foundations for their wealth is fundamentally different from the relationship between the past elites of places like New York, Amsterdam or Berlin and ‘their’ cities. He observes that 21st century elites seem to have stopped to invest in the social fabric of their citie because the incentives to do so have largely disappeared in a globalized world:

Delhi does not hold the overwhelming significance for the super-rich that New York did for the [American elite of a century ago]: it is just a place where the accumulate income, and they have rather little inclination to turn it into an urban masterpiece. They have no personal need of such an enterprise because they have been used to seeing the world’s existing ressources as their own: they do not need to build great universities for themselves because they have already been built for them – in the United States.

Such a feeling is not confined to Delhi. It applies to elites everywhere. members of the Dehi elite are identical to their peers from Paris, Moscow or São Paulo – in that they possess houses in London, educate their children in the United States, holiday in St. Tropez, use clinics in Lausanne and keep their money – offshore, nowhere. That circumstance in which great quantities of private wealth were ploughed back into the needs and concerns of one place, which was ‘our place’, no longer pertains. Not here not elsewhere.

  1. I have to admit that when an internet search for Piketty’s book turned up this one i almost filed it away as click-bait. Only when i noticed the name of the author i realized that this might actually be worth reading. ↩︎

  2. The impact of the then new delhi metro is beautifully captured in Vivek Narayanan’s poem ‘In the early days of the Delhi Metro‘ ↩︎

  3. If you trust Amazons frequently bought together feature this seems to be exactly what people doing‘ ↩︎

Imaginary suburban futures

31 Aug 2014 | 380 words | drones future google urbanism

Friday morning when we left the cab that had brought us and our newborn from the hospital the mail carriers on their bicycles where swarming out around us (we live 3 houses down from a postnl distribution location where the mail for the neighborhood is transferred from delivery vans to bikes). Having spend some of the waiting time in hospital reading Alex Madrigal’s Atlantic feature on Google’s delivery drone programme this made me briefly contemplate if our daughter would grow up to see a world filled with mail carriers or one filled with flying delivery drones.

In spite of the hype caused by said article which seems to have made otherwise reasonable people abandon their analytic rigor, i am pretty certain that delivery drones will not play a significant role in my or my daughters life anytime soon1.

Primarily because i can’t really see the economics making sense (certainly not for the silly examples of flying spare batteries or electric drills around) but more importantly because these things have clearly sprung from a suburban mindset that assumes that people have exclusive control over the vertical space belonging to a swath of land. For the majority of people in cities this is simply not the case and as a result they don’t have a place where the delivery drones could land (or lower their eggs).

The answer for the desire to have relatively quick access to things is living in a city. Cities provide quick access to shops and via mail carriers on bikes. If any part of the delivery process will be replaces by autonomous vehicles i would bet on the trucks serving the trunk routes and maybe the those serving neighborhood distribution centers. Autonomous flying delivery drones, may sound like the future, but they almost certainly aren’t, unless we envisage the future to be a version of suburbia that has been perfected so that there is no need to venture out into the world and interact with anyone anymore.

I would certainly hope that the future will look a whole lot more urban.

  1. At least where it comes to the developed world. Madrigal also points to a number of ideas about unmanned arial vehicles as parts of a future distribution infrastructure in Africa, which sound somewhat more plausible. ↩︎ ↩︎

On organisations stunning ability to absorb nonsensical claims about technology

20 Apr 2014 | 1046 words | cities urbanism smart cities technology

So i have finally managed to finish Adam Greenfield’s Against the smart city (i had lapsed soon after this picture was taken). The book is well worth reading and contains a number valuable insights but there is one passage that stands out for me.

Towards the end of the book (or pamphlet as Adam refers to it) he explains why his method of examining the language of marketing and promotional copy of IT vendors is important even though the same vendors, when challenged on the claims contained in it are quick to dismiss its as mere marking language. This passage is one of the best explanations of how marketing language (and more particular: claims about technology) gets absorbed by organisations (in this case municipal governments):

But refusing to take this sort of language seriously means succumbing to a certain naïveté about the ways in which knowledge tends to be reproduced nowadays, and the processes through which it does its work in the world.

At the launch of any new corporate smart-city initiative, content promoting it and aligning it with the enterprise’s overarching brand proposition is generated by the marketing department, and released into the wild on the global website, where it will be indexed by Google in less than a minute. This initiative almost immediately comes to the attention of the planet’s several thousand technology bloggers, writing for outlets of various provenance, who generally have automated keyword searches set up to notify them whenever an item of interest is published. Because these bloggers are simultaneously under intense contractual pressure to post several times a day, are by definition enthusiastic about technology and are, by and large, unschooled in the arts of skeptical reportage, they tend to take the claims they are offered at face value. (This is true of bloggers writing for the Guardian or the New York Times every bit as much as it is of their less well-positioned peers.)

In a manner of minutes, talking points from the original press release are paraphrased in the blogger’s idiom of choice and bundled into a new post, and this may happen across dozens of competing sites in a very brief span of time. Links to these posts are, in turn, instantaneously produced by automated Twitter accounts, endlessly replicated both on Twitter itself and via other social-media channels linked to it through its API; these in turn spur a wave of response from a far larger number of people around the world who are equally excited at the prospect of living in the future, and within a few hours at most a rich loam of online commentary has been laid down. Very little of this commentary evaluates what is being claimed in any depth, or even compares the item at hand to previous assertions made by the same institution, but the volume of buzz is impressive. And due in no small part to the way Google itself works, this distributed colloquy creates an immediate impression that there is a there there. Over the space of a few hours, a framing or perspective originating in a deeply interested party has simply become an unquestioned part of the fabric of consensual knowledge.

What happens on the receiving end, inside the municipal bodies that constitute the primary presumptive audience for such a marketing campaign? Low-level bureaucrats, pressed for time and starved for insight, stumble onto this thicket of conversation via a cursory keyword search; they copy-and-paste a few lines from the first reasonably credible-looking search result into their PowerPoint slides, unmodified; and these slides then get submitted up the hierarchy. The language propagates across the institution — and, what’s more, it meshes with that found in the hurriedly-downloaded white papers on the subject that someone found on the website of a name-brand management consultancy. The savvier staffers start to feel confident using these terms: speaking in them, thinking in them. While misgivings may in fact be prevalent, there are likely to be relatively few in the bureaucracy who are able to express them forthrightly — that is to say, who are sufficiently comfortable with the technology to understand precisely what is being proposed, familiar with the way their city works to convincingly articulate why this is problematic, assured of their own position to feel safe in doing so and passionate about the issue to willingly shoulder the risk involved. (If, as the saying has it, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s also the case that one may find oneself on shaky ground contradicting something printed straight from the IBM website.) When finally pressed to make a “recommendation as to how the city’s resources should be allocated, the easiest thing for a committee member to do is go with the flow, to at least outwardly agree with the person at the table who seems to know what they’re talking about, simply to bring the drawn-out process of decision-making to a close.

This sort of thing, of course, happens across the entire range of issues a municipal agency may be asked to face. But it appears to be especially true where questions of information technology are concerned, given the unusual amount of mystification that shrouds even consumer-grade products and services, to say nothing of the degree of intimidation otherwise competent adults routinely feel in their presence. Where there is a decision to be made, a confident point of view being advanced and no party with the necessary bona fides stepping forward to challenge it, the natural, the human thing to do is defer. And so this body of ideas gets reproduced, just as surely as code libraries are when they are downloaded from open-source repositories like Github or SourceForge. And every time this happens, a very particular set of valuations and priorities is reproduced alongside them. What was once merely a sequence of words crafted by a marketing department for their euphony, service to a business model and alignment with a particular set of brand values becomes inscribed in, or as, a city’s official program.

This, in broad outline, is how a premature and preemptive consensus formed around the desirability of something called the smart city. I should emphasize that the individuals

If you like this passage you almost certainly should read the entire pamphlet which can be obtained here.

On self driving cars

17 Nov 2013 | 775 words | cars robots technology urbanism autonomous

In his most recent deezen columnDan Hill provides some much needed perspective on the self driving cars hype. I completely agree with him, that while endlessly fascinating, self driving cars are rather problematic idea. Instead of improving the way personal mobility is organised they primarily attempt to improve a deeply flawed system:

Here we see such companies are not actually interested in genuine change, for all their bluster about “radical disruption”. Self-driving cars are a sticking plaster over existing conditions. They actually reinforce the ‘Californian Ideology’ that underpins today’s mobility problems: suburban sprawl, based around the possibility of lengthy car-based commutes, in turn predicated on a highly individualistic view of society. It is an entirely conservative move. Self-driving cars provide a way of changing the veneer of this system, as no-one is brave enough to suggest changing the system itself. They replace who, or what, is holding the steering wheel, but not the underlying culture that contributes to mass depression, obesity epidemics, climate change and economic crises.

[…] The real way to prevent accidents would be to have fewer cars on the road, not just the same number with different control systems. But is the car industry really going to suggest that? Self-driving cars may move traffic a little more efficiently, but the laws of induced demand suggest that the supply of cars might also increase to counter any such benefits.

The most interesting question arising out of this observation is if this is just short sightedness of the people involved in pushing self driving cars (very much in the way that the first cars were advertised as ‘horseless carriages‘) or if this is a genuine attempt to extend the social acceptance of a failed system:

Few industries could get away with as much blood on their hands as the automobile business does. That we are prepared to expend so many lives – 1.24 million killed each year on the roads, and who knows how many other lives ruined – for the sake of our freedom to drive to work is fairly objectionable.

In his column Hill points to existing alternative to this failed system. Cities designed in such a way that individual car ownership does not make sense:

[…] Yet imagine the possibilities of a city oriented around people living closer to their work and play, and so built around cycling, walking, quality public transport and a massively reduced number of electric cars for individual errands. It doesn’t exactly have the airbrushed sheen of Google X, but it would be a city with a lower carbon footprint, healthier people, safer streets, more frequent social interaction, better air quality, quiet enough to hear conversations, to hear birds and to build lighter, more experimental building envelopes, with a higher economic performance through serendipity, agglomeration, richer mixed-use land use, and with increased citizen engagement in the city itself. The benefits are virtually endless, and few are even addressed by self-driving cars, never mind achieved.

[…] You choose the vehicle fit for your needs at that point, thus reinforcing the idea that mobility is a bespoke, mass-customised on-demand service shared across bike-sharing, public transport, and through shared self-driving cars for those times when you really need one.

For people lucky enough to live in places like Amsterdam this is not something that needs to be imagined. My personal mobility arrangements include pretty much all of the above: two different bikes (depending on what needs to be transported), a car2go account, a uber account, a car rental company around the corner and a yearly subscription for all public transportation in this (admittedly tiny) country.

I have never owned a car and will very likely never own one since proximity of work and home is one of the most important considerations i apply when considering alternative scenarios for the future.

So why am i fascinated by self driving cars then? Firstly because of the technology involved, but also because they are probably nicer (read more predictable) to deal with when cycling in the city. More importantly though, i would expect them to unify the rental-car/car2go/uber/taxi part of my mobility mix at some point. That will probably be to the detriment of the taxi drivers (in the end they are robots replacing manual labour), but should make shared individual mobility more attractive (hopefully to more people outside of my early adopter demographic). In his column Hill suggests pretty much the same:

[…] Folding self-driving systems into car-sharing schemes, as part of a wider rethink about how we live together in cities, however? I could share that vision. So again, what is the real question that suggests self-driving cars are the solution?

Rio de Janeiro as a smart city

04 Mar 2012 | 499 words | brazil rio smart cities streetart urbanism technology

The New York Times has a longish article portraying the Operations Center of the City of Rio that has been build by IBM’s smarter cities unit.

In the article both the city of Rio de Janeiro and IBM portray the operations center as some kind of magic wand that enables the benevolent city government to steer the daily life of the city’s population using video feeds and text messages:

City employees in white jumpsuits work quietly in front of a giant wall of screens — a sort of virtual Rio, rendered in real time. Video streams in from subway stations and major intersections. A sophisticated weather program predicts rainfall across the city. A map glows with the locations of car accidents, power failures and other problems.

[…] Rio represents a grand challenge. A horizontal city sprawled between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, it is at once a boomtown, a beach town, a paradise, an eyesore, a research center and a construction site. Oil-industry giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger have been rushing to build research centers here to help develop massive oil and gas fields off the coast.

Special police units have moved into about 20 slums, called favelas, in an effort to assert government control and combat crime. Rio is also reconstructing major arenas and building a rapid-bus system ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

This is a city where some of the rich live in gated communities while some of the poor in the favelas pirate electricity from the grid. And where disasters, natural and otherwise, sometimes strike. Rainstorms can cause deadly landslides. Last year, a historic streetcar derailed, killing five people. Earlier this year, three buildings collapsed downtown, killing at least 17.

[…] In real flood conditions, the operations center decides when to set off the sirens. That decision is based on I.B.M.’s system, which uses computer algorithms to predict how much rain will fall in a given square kilometer — a far more precise forecast than standard weather systems provide. When the program predicts heavy rain, the center sends out text messages to different departments so they can prepare.

The article lists a number of criticism of this surveillance based approach to smart cities:

Some wonder if it is all for show, to reassure Olympic officials and foreign investors. Some worry that it will benefit well-off neighborhoods more than the favelas. Others fear that all this surveillance has the potential to curb freedoms or invade privacy. Still others view the center as a stopgap that does not address underlying infrastructure problems.

Which seems perfectly summarized by this graffiti that i came across in central Rio last january (two days after the building collapse mentioned in the NYT article above, which took place within 10 minutes walking distance from the location of the graffiti).

Smart city graffiti

Makes me wonder if the graffiti artists was referring to a general tendency or to the Operations Center of the City of Rio in particular.

Beyond City Limits

Kimon pointed me to this impressive article by Parag Khanna in which he argues that (mega)cities are slowly emerging as the dominant international actors replacing nation states along the way. His article titled ‘Beyond City Limits’ is well worth a read and a refreshing take on the subject of urban growth.

Ever since the publication of Mike Davis’ ‘Planet of Slums‘ in 2006 contributions to the discussion about this subject seem to have deteriorated to become a constant stream of repetitions of the observation that since very recently ‘more than half of the worlds population is living in cities’. In his essay Khanna examines what this development means on the level of international relations and politics. One of his most interesting observations focusses on the relationship between urban centers and international borders:

Instead, [Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo] seem to be headed toward division, with the new borders following and surrounding the main cities that are their gravity points, like Juba in South Sudan and Kinshasa in Congo. Or perhaps borders don’t need to change at all, but rather melt away, so long as locals have access to the nearest big city no matter what “country” it is in. This is, after all, how things really work on the ground, even if our maps don’t always reflect this reality.

One other passage that caught my eye (given today’s news it seems very appropriate to examine relocation options) is Khanna’s praise for Doha (a place that i will have the opportunity to visit next month):

Already the result in the Persian Gulf is something truly new, as a once-barren cultural zone features increasingly global melting pots like the Qatari capital of Doha, where residents hail from more than 150 countries and far outnumber the locals. If these new five-star hubs play it right, they could convince Westerners to give up their citizenship for permanent homes in a friendlier, tax-free environment.

go read the full article here.

Kabul tourist guide

The city of Kabul (and Afghanistan in general) is still pretty high on my list of places i want to visit. Unfortunately, the closest place to Kabul that i got to so far is Delhi. Fortunately, however, there is the fabulous internet where Safi Airways ‘the international airline of Afghanistan’ is publishing PDF versions of it’s fabulous in-flight magazine. Browsing through the three available issues only reinforces my desire to go and visit the place.

As far as the standards of such publications are concerned the Safi Airways in-flight magazine boasts a number of rather unconventional topics (dog fighting, opium addiction) and a somewhat chaotic layout (a story about ‘man eating lions’ is run right next to an article about Kabul’s christian cemetery). Among the quirky stories and hidden in-between a fair amount of ads for armored cars are some real gems like this one about a olympic-size swimming pool on a hill overlooking Kabul that was never filled with water ‘due to the difficulties of pumping water uphill’:

Some of the parts of the magazine are outright amusing. This is especially true for the section of the publication that serves as a city guide for Kabul. The (apparently expat) copywriters seem to have inherited a certain casualness from their work in Kabul which readily expresses itself in the descriptions given in shopping section that covers everything from shopping malls:

Kabul city center is Afghanistan’s first modern style indoor shopping mall that opened in 2005. it is approximately 9 stories tall and is located in downtown Kabul

… to open air bazars offering counterfeit entertainment products …

Chicken street is famed for it’s tourist fare (carpets, carvings knifes etc) and pirated CD/DVD’s

… to sellers of misappropriated goods:

Karimi Supermarket […] make sure to head upstairs for some great stuff that’s fallen off some PX trucks.

Another area where the copywriters really shine are directions to restaurants and shops that are provided alongside these descriptions: The ‘Red Hot & Sizzling” restaurant can be found after making …

… a left at the next traffic circle. slow down, the first gate to the right used to have a red chili pepper hanging up on a pole. Not easy to find.

And in order to get to the ‘Corner Pizzeria’ you have to …

… head down the barricaded street to almost the end. You’ll see big misspelled banners showing you the way.

Update (6 sept): Spiegel online has an interview (in German) with the editor in chief off the in-flight magazine. turns out that the whole thing is intended to be ‘honest’ (as opposed to all other in flight magazines out there).

What is a bike messenger?

22 Aug 2010 | 224 words | cycling drugs traffic work urbanism

Couple of days ago boingboing ran a post about a SF bike messenger who claims to work while tripping on LSD. Today i finally read the whole text (as opposed to just the short quote on boingboing which focusses on his cycling while tripping experience). Turns out that the his entire rant is rather amusing and that it contains one of the best descriptions of how the bike messenger business works i have ever come across:

In big cities, cars are fucking everywhere. It’s a wonder people still buy them, because they move at approximately the same speed as tortoises with arthritis, are goddamn expensive, and you use up more of your gas tank waiting at stop lights then you do actually driving. And because some people in big cities need packages transported from Point A to Point B in a very short amount of time (faster than the tortoises with arthritis can carry them) these people pay us an exorbitant amount of money to us, bike messengers, to bust our asses to transport said packages from Point A to Point B in a very short amount of time. Then, the company that hires us takes a small finder’s fee (approximately 90% of our wages) and gives us our pittance sum of cash that we get for risking our lives on a daily basis.

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: