27 November, 2017

Playing D&D with students of Master Planning and Urban Governance

Thank you to Sina Telaar for preparing the Character Sheets in Wizards of Coast's D&D format, and lending me her dice.
I had a great time playing Development & Discourses with the students of Master Planning and Urban Governance today. The goal of the class is for students to survey different Master Plans from around the world, and learn to analyse and evaluate them, taking into account the differing institutional contexts and planning cultures. With role-play, today, students could hopefully get a sense of the kinds of dialogues that might arise when a Master Plan is presented in a public forum setting.

Opening the game with a roll of the dice by the Game Master (GM), me, the atmosphere was set: 4/20. Ouch! That's was bad news: It meant that there, "was a tense atmosphere at the City Hall today". But congratulations to the five students who played the characters of Mayor, Head Planner, Assistant Planner, Real Estate Developer, and Starchitect, who valiantly defended their fictitious Official City Plan to the attendees at the make-believe City Hall, who were not an easy bunch to convince. The housing activist wasn't particularly pleased about the growth agenda. The environmental activist threatened to block the next meeting with a protest, if promises could not be made about the greenbelt that was going to be built on. Older residents were also not particularly ready to give up property. One resident, who had lived in the neighbourhood for 70 years, as his father and grandfather before him, and as his son will as well, had no interest in the new developments whatsoever.

The students need to be thanked. The five defenders of the City Plan had 15 minutes to come up with an example plan and defend it. Everyone was super spontaneous and ready for the combat of words. Some unexpected outcomes arose, like how should the public respond when the government says, "Thank you for your feedback, we will take that into account"? Or, what how should planners react when the public presents facts about the area that s/he was neither cognisant of, nor were taken into account in the plan?

As for teaching methodology, this was also a learning experience for me. I definitely need to polish my GM skills for one. Constructing a game play, or "Campaign" in D&D lingo, takes quite some planning, and I could have dedicated more time to this. But there is a lot of potential here for role-playing as a teaching method in urban geography: This, of course, is also not new (Livingstone, 1999; Meligrana & Andrew 2003; Oberle 2007).  Livingstone (1999) used role-play as a way to investigate public inquiries in urban development. Providing a number of different settings where role-play could be a useful learning tool, he argues  "Mimicking the public inquiry format in the context of a geography curriculum provides an excellent opportunity to deliver a whole range of pedagogic objectives, associated both with the geographical course content and with key skills" (p. 64). The flexibility of role-playing allows for a variety of different kinds of real world settings that could be tested in the classroom. 

To get more out of the exercise in the format that we pursued today, Oberle (2007) also provides some inspiration. Time in class could be used to research a real-world situation. Further, students could be given time to research and develop a character in greater depth (Oberle 2007). Together, these steps could be then combined with written work that could be graded and in the end could be used as preparation for the game. So far, it seems that everyone agrees: It's fun.

...and in case you haven't caught wind, D&D is currently experience a major comeback (WIRED, 2017).

  1. Livingstone, I (1999) Role-playing Planning Public Inquiry. Journal of Geography in Higher Education. 23(1). 63-76.
  2. Meligrana, J. F., Andrew J. S. (2003) Role-playing simulations in urban planning education: A survey of student learning expectations and outcomes. Planning Practice & Research 18(1) 95-107.
  3. Oberle, A. P. (2007) Understanding Public Land Management through Role-playing. Journal of Geography. 103(5) 199-210.
  4. WIRED, 2017, It's a Living: Meet one of New York's professional D&D Dungeons Masters

21 November, 2017

CFP: IGU Urban Geography Commission annual meeting

IGU Urban Geography Commission annual meeting

Montreal, 12th -17th August 2018

URBAN CHALLENGES IN A COMPLEX WORLD: Key factors for urban growth and decline


Deadline for abstract submission (within the template for abstract submission available on the website): 5th February 2018
Acceptance of abstracts: 1st April 2018
Registration and payment: 1st April– 15 May 2018

The IGU Urban Commission in collaboration with the team VRM (Villes Regions Monde) of the Canadian INRS is pleased to invite you to the next commission meeting. This meeting will take place after the IGC-CAG Quebec Congress.

In 2018, the special focus for this conference will be on Key factors for urban growth and decline. Papers addressing these issues are particularly welcome for the 2018 Annual Urban Commission Meeting.

In addition to the theme on "Key factors for urban growth and decline", participants are invited to submit individual papers, and/or proposals for panel sessions or roundtables on the following thematic foci of the commission. See further explanation of the content of the topics on here: Project Urban commission 2016-2020:

  1. Complex Urban Systems and processes of cities’ transformation
  2. Technological innovations, creative activities in cities,
  3. Innovative and smart building and transportation in cities
  4. Polycentrism, small and medium size cities
  5. Sustainable to resilient cities
  6. Shrinking and aging Cities
  7. Urban Governance, planning and participative democracy
  8. Contested Social Spaces
  9. Subjective/objective Well-Being in cities
  10. Urban Heritage and Conservation
  11. New concepts and methods in urban studies

Mario Polese, Professor of Geography (Emeritus), Centre Urbanisation Culture Société, INRS-Montréal, "Why Cities fail, and why the roots of urban failure are rarely local?"

ABSTRACT: That “Cities are engines growth” has become somewhat of a mantra among urbanists and urban geographers. Jane Jacob’s now famous thesis that cities are the drivers of national wealth has become mainstream. This presentation challenges that thesis. There is nothing automatic, I shall argue, about cities as creators of wealth. Some cities fail miserably. The reasons for such urban failures, whether in the developing or developed world, can generally be traced back to actions by national and other senior governments. Detroit’s failure was no accident, but the predictable outcome of a governance structure imposed by senior levels of government. Buenos Aires’s descent from global metropolis, the equal of Paris and New York, to third world city had little with local failures. At a more technical level, there is scant evidence for the existence of dynamic agglomeration economies. Agglomeration is an outcome of economic growth, not its initiator. Cities - how they create wealth (or not) – mirror the societies that created them. 

15 November, 2017

RTL Documentary -- Documenting Hamilius Part III

Many thanks to Kevin Schutz, master student in our first year course "Urban Studies and Spatial Planning," who alerted me to Serge Wolfsperger's documentary, Was Iwwreg Bleift (What Remains) published earlier this month by RTL, which documents how the lives of the construction workers and those of residents at 49 Boulevard Royal intersect in surprising ways. In the process we learn about the memories of the residents, such as those of a 90 year-old resident, Arnaldo Ferragni, who arrived in Luxembourg in 1960 to work at the European institutions and can recount how the neighourhood has changed since he moved to the building in 1964. He recalls, for example, how the area used to have trees, gardens, children playing, and people on bicycles. We learn too of another resident who arrived Luxembourg after the war working in manual labour. And lastly, we learn about the construction workers themselves, and their thoughts about their work and their general outlook on life.

This short film (fr/it) is a very nice addendum to previous blog posts:

06 November, 2017

Hipsterland in Toronto's East Downtown

The from forgotten greasy spoon to jam packed hipster diner
From Greasy Spoon to Hipster Diner
Sitting at the George Street Diner for the first time in over 20 years was quite a shock. The old layout of the restaurant was preserved, but now it has a fresh coat of paint (inside and out), a new kitchen complete with a flashy splash behind the new fryer, and new upholstery in the booths. There is friendly and outgoing staff, new music humming over blue tooth, vegetarian burritos on for offer, art for sale hanging on the walls, and 20-somethings everywhere. "Good thing we decided to meet on a Tuesday," Prof. Ahmed Allahwala (Human Geography, University of Toronto) tells me, "because on the weekends there would be line-ups to get in." This happy jazzy joint, an obvious magnet in this boomtown, was quite the contrast to my memories of the place, where cigarettes, instant coffee, white toast and ketchup, canned beans, old homeless men, addicts, the dingy colours of yellow and brown and long silences prevail.

The changes in the George Street Diner are kind of indicative of change in the whole neighbourhood. The eatery used to be called a greasy spoon (i.e. a place whose food and service was dubious at best, but where judgement was withheld), and was surrounded by homeless shelters, soup kitchens, second hand flea markets (not "antique markets"), substandard housing, parking lots -- lots of parking lots -- pawn shops, strip clubs, and mostly dark empty streets. Nowadays, Toronto's downtown east and the rapidly integrating waterfront are hip and cool.

There is much that has been written on the area. Bunce, Desfor and Laidley, Desfor and Keil are obvious starting points here for a deeper analysis into these processes and the interrelations between urban development and politics. My view is somewhat more personal, as this was the neighbourhood where I grew up. What shocked me so much last summer was the change. I knew it was coming. "It's just incredible how many people there are walking around these streets these days," one resident said to me back in 2014. 

From the St. Lawrence Market over the Gooderham and Worts Distillery and towards the Don Valley, developments along the northern coast of Lake Ontario boast a new George Brown College for students of Health Sciences, a booming set of film production studios and IT firms, skater parks and galleries, re-naturalized parks, and an ever expanding palate of gastronomic services. Red Path Sugar, still in operation, is also now visible from the lovely new Sugar Beach, where students can watch the arrival of shipments of sugar upfront and close while sun bathing or -- during the longest season as it were -- making snow angels or otherwise mucking about in the slush. There is a latter or a smoothie at every corner, and every coffee table is equipped with a USB port.  

Condominiums are everywhere. Again, condo development in downtown Toronto has not gone unnoticed in the scholarly community.   AmborskiKerns,  Lehrer et al., or Moosare good starting points here. High rise condominiums have been shooting out of the earth like wild mushrooms for about 15 year now, apparently keeping pace with the rapid population growth in the city. Condo developers advertise fabulous apartment views -- with those facing southwards towards the lake being the most prized -- dense and therefore "good" urbanity, optimal location to employment, and general lively urban life. Many buildings claim sustainability, waving LEED certification of their green building standards. Not terribly surprising, many apartments are rather pricey (Amborski 2016). Equipped with swimming pools, gyms, and concierges, condos also represent a new style of life – upscale, private high-rise living. Developer led, it is a life popular with singles, couples, elderly, and youth.

While the promise of piece of the sky is clear, there are a variety of issues that still seem a little hazy:

  • How do families fare in this environment? Earlier studies (e.g. here and here) have shown that apartment block living is difficult for families, especially those with young children where buggies can be awkward of windows can be dangerous. In the case of recent condo developments in Toronto, rapid population increases have also led to overfilled schools and residents now complain that children have to trek across the city to attend school. Condo developers are now required to demonstrate whether or not the children of buyers will have a spot in a local school.
  • What will happen when buildings age? How will this affect health and safety? There have already been reports of falling glass. Of course, recent tragic events in London are a reminder to the dangers, and social inequities therein, of what happens when building managers decide to invest in cheap building materials such as flammable siding. And, while every condominium development is different, some residents complain that companies do not keep up with maintenance, or that Condo Boards are not responsive (or co-operative) to complaints. (Websites that have condo reviews, are a good source of data.)
  • There are also several uncertain dimensions concerning governance. First, one might ask who the developers are and what their interests might be. Some buyers have also complained of construction timelines (late), that developers are not responsive, or that the company telephone is suddenly out of service. Second, while apartments are for sale (and an endorsement of the 1st housing sector), there is no guarantee that owners will be involved in decisions concerning property management (e.g. security, décor, maintenance). High monthly operating costs indicate that developers have a stake in making further profits after sale. Third, some have discussed recurring tensions between, and diverging interests of, owners and renters, between wealthier owners (who can afford prize apartments) and those with less financial backing. While these can lead to social conflicts and grievances between neighbours, the larger problem might be about how these occupants can forge and make democratic decisions.
  • In terms of the sociology of housing, some have observed that a shift is taking place as life within many of these developments are over securitized. It has been observed, for example, that when party rooms are booked, extra security is ordered in order to keep party guests from wandering to other parts of the building. A new normal has developed.

The area is clearly cool now where it wasn't before, and while I am the last one to romanticise the memories of these neighbourhoods - I didn't like eating at the George Street Greasy Spoon or even particularly enjoy being anywhere within a kilometre radius of it (which included my own home, on George St South) -- one might wonder, as Ahmed reminded me: Where are all the homeless people now? Where can one get cheap 2nd hand clothing these days? Is this, in fact, what the neighbourhood was intended to be about all the long?

Digital Cities - Toronto trying to get ahead

View from rooftop of Woodsworth Housing Co-op, overlooking the co-op's 40 year old housing stock below, the eastern Gardiner Expressway, waterfront condo developments, and other derelict industrial lands that will be sold to Alphabet/Google.

Trudeau made the international headlines again at the end of October, not only because of his grief over the passing of Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip whose Secret Path is hopefully not only an operatic requiem to his own life but to colonial power in Canada as well (one be hopeful), but also because Toronto will be home to Alphabet's new smart city and Trudeau was there ready to lend a face to the project. Given recent policy initiatives back home on this side of the pond -- the 3rd industrial revolution, wooing Google, and ogling at asteroid necklaces -- I can't help but wonder if Luxembourgish leaders are either getting jealous or starting to salivate at the possibilities.

Below are a collection of newspaper articles (EN and DE) that will give you a taste of the project, so it in unnecessary to reiterate that content here. In short the, project:

"is a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a new kind of mixed-use, complete community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, beginning with the creation of Quayside. Sidewalk Toronto will combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighbourhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity," (Sidewalk Toronto).

Needless to say, the project has larger implications for urban development in general, as it is targeted for an area that is currently undergoing massive transformation as a result of certain policy frameworks that enable various kinds of interrelated turbo investments. In fact, as information about Sidewalk Toronto hit the newspapers, I was already preparing a blog post on this topic, because I took two tours of the area this summer (more on this in a follow-up post).  But this project has received widespread attention in the news in recent weeks -- most of it rather skeptical, asking some rather hard questions.

English Articles

German Articles

01 November, 2017

PhD Opportunity in Urban Geography

The University of Luxembourg invites applications for its Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education (FLSHASE)

Doctoral candidate (PhD student) in Geography and Spatial Planning
Ref: F3-130010
14 months fixed-term contract, renewable up to 48 months, full-time (40h/week)

Student & employee status
Area: one of the research fields mentioned below, such as Human geography, i.e. with regard to conceptions of space and territory, Urban studies, preferably theoretical or empirical explorations, Urban and metropolitan governance, i.e. conceptions of power, The science-policy interface in geography and planning, Port cities, logistics and urban planning, Land use planning, housing and sustainable spatial development

Your Role

  • Prepare a doctoral thesis in Geography (see the possible research fields above)
  • Assist the professor in his teaching activities, one to three hours per week.

Your Profile

  • Master or Diploma in Geography or Spatial Planning/Urban Planning; Master or Diploma in Political Science, History or other Humanities/Social Sciences linked to geographical issues Strong interest in urban development, policy and planning Interest in interdisciplinary work and a reflective methodology
  • Excellent command of written and spoken English. (Additional knowledge of either French/German/Luxembourgish is an advantage)
We offer
  • Opportunity to participate in the development of a newly created university
  • An exciting international environment
  • A competitive salary
  • Well-equipped research facilities
Applications must include the following:
  • CV and copies of diploma
  • Motivation Letter
  • Support letter from at least one recent scientific advisor/professor
  • A PhD proposal (2,000 - 2,500 words excluding bibliography) using the following format:
  • Introduction and literature review
  • Research objectives and expected contribution to the field
  • Innovation/originality
  • Methodology (including intended dataset to be used if empirical analysis)
  • Work plan and expected timetable
  • Bibliography

Interested candidates are invited to send their complete application exclusively through the on-line application system of the UL (http://recruitment.uni.lu/), until 30th November 2017.

The University offers highly competitive salaries and is an equal opportunity employer.

The University of Luxembourg is a multilingual, international research University. For further information, please contact: Prof. Dr. Markus Hesse, Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning: Tel. +352/466644-9627

More info here