Friday, November 13, 2009

The Salvation of Our Environment Lies at the Feet of the Poor

After three days of intensive lectures and presentations about the environment, climate change, ecology, economy, development, theories, corporate progress and grass root success example; there were a lot of messages flying through the air of Canada Place ballroom. Yet, at the end of it all, I grew rather depressed reading all the data and equations of how long we as human have time on earth before we totally corrupt it.

In the midst of this ‘Smart’ jungle, I was reminded of a great message from Paul Hawken’s speech and lecture. When asked whether he is an optimist or a pessimist about the future, he replied with what became his most famous quotation: “If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” And then Hawken later used the word ‘heart’.

For me, I’m a scientist with a heart, which by Hawken’s definition, makes me a pessimist-optimist. But when I thought of Hawken’s words, the scientist side of me linked Hawken’s inspiring ideas to Hernando De Soto’s theory which talks about giving the poor full rights over their illegal properties they live on as the first step toward a better future for us all.

These two ideas may sound different at the beginning but, in my humble opinion, when we link property rights and social justice with sustainability and green development; we are actually working towards greater social justice for the people who need it while simultaneously developing their neighborhoods into a safe and sustainable environment. This is the very soul of the current global movement of sustainability and what it means to be green. We must be just and fair to everything around us: air, soil, plants, animals and, above all, humans.

Think about it, when the majority of the world’s population lives in poverty that means all the development we have today is only happening for the lucky few of us who don’t live within the black market with no access to credit, proper basic services of energy or water and live in concentrated and highly polluted environments.

Do we dare imagine we are contributing to world-wide social justice and cleaner environments when only few of the world’s population reap the benefits? And of that few only roughly 3% to 5% are consciously taking measures to be environmentally friendly? How can we achieve the goals we set for our planet if we don’t include the majority of us – the poor – into our plans?

My straight answer is – we cannot. Period.

Regardless how much we recycle and build green; or how much we develop and force corporations to do their clean duty; or even how much we try to produce environmentally friendly materials and programs; it is all fruitless if the majorities of us humans don’t or can’t participate in the global movement.

Therefore, we must address the issues of poverty in order to tackle the problems with our environment.

To illustrate further I would like to give a short and quick explanation of De Soto theory:

It explains that unregistered properties under any person’s name means there is no proper ‘value’ to that land. For instance, if a person were to take an unregistered piece of land, build on it and use it, the property will still have no value because it is not officially legal. If this person decides to sell their developed land to someone else there is no proper documentation that can connect this person to that property or transfer the property title from one name to another therefore anyone or any governments can simply take the land at any time because it is not properly registered and push those people outside without any legal protection for them and as a result, these properties are entered into the ‘shade’ or black market and are not accounted for in the official market.

In order to grasp the magnitude of this problem, we need to multiply this one property by a million to understand that entire neighbourhoods, communities and even villages that have residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural value currently exist only on the black market. And since these groups are not officially recognized on paper, they do not have any official value to support them in the real market.

So the first step we need to take to get these ‘shade’ properties into the market is to connect each property to its owner and then help them enter formal markets. There, they can retain official value of what they own and have the ability to engage in real business or apply for legitimate loans and credits without fear from any person, organization or law that may have intimidated them before.

Yet before we can implement such a theory, where it is needed, and for it to work properly, several supporting steps need to precede it. This includes remedial action such as fixing political problems and fighting corruption, as well as providing awareness and incentives for environmental improvement and sustainability

We also need to factor in the cultural, traditional and custom layers into the property right laws to discourage any corruption among the poor. We simply want to make business easier to do in these communities instead of killing it.

Educating the poor about property rights and then teaching them to be responsible land owners and how to incorporate green practices into their daily lives would be our best contribution to help slow down climate change. Meanwhile, we must also continue pushing corporations to do their share in research and find new ways to clean up the earth that includes everyone, even the poorest one of us.

Majora Carter, one of the speakers at the Smart Growth Conference, shared with us her success story of bringing justice back to her own neighborhood of South Bronx, New York. Carter worked with her community to improve their run-down neighborhood by treating polluted areas, planting parks and building community centres that introduced education programs to help improve community wellbeing.

Yes, we must educate the poor. Yes, we must improve their corrupted systems. And yes, we have to introduce a democracy to them in the way that works for the main goal and not to our western standards. I believe that we can achieve it all by connecting theories and working with organizations that have clear visions and passionate people who work hard for their community, like Majora Carter. This is the key to slowing down environmental deterioration and it is for this reason I have chose the title to my article.

I started my post with Paul Hawken and now I will close with him saying:

‘Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich’

Resilient Cities, Urban Strategies for Transition Times, Vancouver, Canada, October 20-22, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

m9d9n Initiative, Task one: Damascus 2040, Population 10M

Should we plan for Damascus in 2040 to be a city with a population of 10 million?

Or in a more general context: Should we be planning for growth or trying to slow it down?

m9d9n Intiative

m9d9n initiative

As an Urbanist and an Architect I want to start this mission to build a virtual group of professional planners, architects, writers, designers and developers committed to our Syrian cities and urban issues by donating articles and comments that explore issues relating to urban affairs, regional development, architecture and public art.

I want to engage our ideas with other public and professional organizations who participate in the shaping of our cities and work with them to get the best results.

I believe that the promotion of smart public involvement in the evolution process of our urban environment and being part in the decision making will help us to reach our goal faster which is to build better developed and sustainable cities with enhanced visual environment and smart growth.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Son of Jane Jacobs

This is a humble comparison case it’s a simple one to see how we did manage to lose our balance and how we stuck in our miserable low life standard when we don’t know right doing from wrong doing, when a hero become a criminal and that an innocent idea to save a protect what is in the interest of all Syrians history and social fabric not for the money of a greedy developer become a taboo!

I’m talking about the case of Mr. Waed Mouhanna, I never meet the man that every Syrian in and out of Syria should read his articles, how can’t the judge didn’t see his passion for doing the right thing and only looked at his rage instead, how a minister of culture have the courage to personal attack Mr. Waed and making a law suite against him while he should be ashamed of his short sight and not doing the job that we the people of Syria trust him to do?

How is the heritage administration doesn’t do it’s research and protect our history instead of being a useless body of bureaucrats forgetting that they are protecting a prime locations in the cradle of civilization? Those two bodies should stand in the Syrian court of law and pay for their mistakes and lack of taking action when needed. And explain to all of us why they failed to do their job.

This Syrian hero story is nothing but a tragedy for all of us and for our Syrian system as a whole, reading about my new hero Mr. Mouhanna, I compared his story to the legendary Jane Jacobs, an American/Canadian urbanist, activist and a famous writer, she is well known international figure and her books are a must read for anybody who know the word ‘city’ or ‘urban’ she is also known for organizing grass-roots efforts to block urban-renewal projects that would have destroyed local neighbourhoods. She succeed in stopping couple major highway projects in the United State and Canada, yet she kept her dignity and no politician, developer or a planner dare to take her to court of law, she won the respect and admiration of everybody even her enemy, she was treated as a hero, even after she passed away her legacy continue.

As a tribute to Jacobs, the Rockefeller Foundation introduces the Jane Jacobs Medal, “to recognize individuals who have made a significant contribution to thinking about urban design, specifically in New York City.”

Are we as Syrian less human than an American-Canadian who did the same 40 years ago but they were treated with utmost respect and appreciation.

Mr. Mouhanna, deserve to be treated as Jane Jacobs and there should be a creation of a ‘Waed Medal’ to recognize individuals who have made a significant contribution to thinking about urban design, heritage and community protection, in EVERY SYRIAN City.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Japanese City according to Ashihara and Nitschke

  1. The experiential city
  2. Fosters harmony through uniformity, fragmented image makes the individual feel part of the larger whole
  3. Special relationship
  4. Molecular structure: additive, clustered, non-hierarchical
  5. Ambiguous in map and plan



Network of access routes; disperses and slows movement

Few straight roads

Increases experiential time


縁 (en):

Transactional space; simultaneously the connection and / or separation between spaces

Connects/separates, inside and outside, public and private, city and nature, etc.



Part split from and belonging to the whole

Basic unit of the city, like the ward and block, fragmented and repeated

Creates uniformity throughout the city and among Japanese cities


間 (ma):

Place or space; understood as the place for tea ceremony or formal space

Implies both an objective and subjective reading meaning both the physical space and its sentimental evocation


Natural context:

Topography and surrounding natural elements

Mt. Fuji

The Western City according to Kevin Lynch

  1. The imaginable city
  2. Fosters pride through distinction, clear image allows the individual to feel the whole within them
  3. Linear relationship
  4. Skeletal structure: bones (path), joints (nodes), muscle tissue (districts).
  5. Understandable in map plan



Lines of vision and movement; channels and speeds movement

Military and ceremonial axes

Efficient transportation flow

Reinforcing public image of city and populous



Boundary or break in continuity

Acts to reinforcement of the path and delineation of the district

ie. Defensive wall

Represents subtractive nature of western cities



Area of a city with common identifying characteristics

Differentiation of social class, activity, building type creates the district’ and city’s identity



Convergence of paths or concentration of paths or concentration of activities,

Often demarks important public spaces, like commercial center, transportation center, ceremonial center, etc.



Visual reference points within a city often acts to reinforce the node

Defining elements on the skyline, like churches

Monuments and sculptures

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Needs of Contemporary Urbanism and the Missing Rules of Smart Growth*

Here, I will offer a new perspective on urbanism. I seek to effect change in the ways that urbanists, policy makers, and local planners design our cities and towns.

Many disciplines, particularly scientific fields, have been experiencing continual growth and development for several decades. It would seem that they have anticipated the arrival of a new century, a new millennium, a new era and have prepared themselves well to participate in revolutionary advances. Urban design, on the other hand, seems to be constantly looking backwards for ideas about design for the present, depending on pre-World War II theories and dismissing over half a century of progress and development. Instead of simply duplicating the plans of our ancestors, it is the time for us to make a step forward into this new era? We should finally begin to develop our living spaces to meet the requirements of the twenty-first century.

Neighborhoods are shaped in various ways depending upon the residents’ needs, desires, traditions and the environmental concerns. Therefore, any community planning should be organized into seven layers which are the proposed rules of Contemporary, Forward Urbanism:

  1. Zoning Layer--residential, educational, commercial, and public service facilities as well as new and necessary facilities such as senior service centers, media centers, technical service points, heating and cooling points and finally green spaces and environmental protection centers.
  2. Residents’ universe layer which includes the residents’ movement network and the urban furniture as it is related to a universal design for children as well as senior and physically challenged residents.
  3. “Transportation” decision layer, which will be used to link the project with various modes of transportation. Though the means used for traveling to and from communities is a major issue on the planning level, we should think of connecting all the neighbourhoods using original ideas that could affect the development of the transportation system itself.
  4. The site environmental and sustainable dimensions’ layer. Every site has its advantages and disadvantages, which necessitates a unique design plan as well as using the best energy that site can sustain.
  5. The traditional and cultural elements of the region layer. Local arts and cultures need to be reflected and implemented in the master design.
  6. Up-to-date reflection layer. The necessity of reflecting the era in which a building or city is built, because every period has its basic necessities, requirements, and priorities.
  7. The concept of "life cycle" analysis of the neighbourhood. This layer should include detailed reports on the lifetime costs of new communities. This type of study really reveals the long-term savings of intelligent new growth policies and processes.

The mentioned rules are the tools that could be the links between contemporary urban theories and future theories. Where the ideal future communities should be more diverse, more organized, and better connected. And the ability to reflect the new dimensions on several projects, new communities, Infill, development and redevelopment projects.

*I did some minor changes on the original paper to fit into my blog

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Funky Fukuoka

by Robert Nagata Zingg and Jihad Bitar

This month two young international architects point out the quirks of Fukuoka's often funky landscape.

Fukuoka, our Manzoku City*... but is she really built to please? To love her form requires steeling yourself for some brutal knocks on the head. Architecturally, there is plenty of love to go around. Naturally, no one argues over her splendid temples, and picking on the trendy American-style shopping malls is well, just too easy. Remember, those beloved temples were once the imported Disney Lands of their day.

Maintaining more recent structures has never been a priority, and for good reason. Frankly, they could all go tomorrow. The "Big One," typhoon, economic bubble, renegade airliner or Godzilla could wipe our urban slate clean. Kobe and September 11 illustrated again just how hard they can fall, so coveting the city and its dated engineering is courting an inevitable heartbreak. Many precedents exemplify how ancient architects rolled with the punches, and bent with the times. Traditional wooden buildings if shook violently were designed to fall apart neatly, and then easily reassembled. Kyushu farm houses were laid out in groups, providing a hedged bet that at least one would survive whatever an angry God or army could throw at them. Repairing the more recent buildings results in hybrids at best, and unfortunately, more than often, nasty mutants.

Here, renovation is dubbed "renewal." And renewal means new. "New"carries a special cleansing power which often takes precedent over aesthetics. The poorly maintained structures of the recent past are purified with aseptic, introverted concrete cubes in a flash. Ise Shrine could last a thousand years, but is rebuilt every twenty. So, what happens when town planners want to soften the jinx of a former graveyard or hospital for the chronically ill? They'll anesthetize the neighborhood with pure geometry and grandiose badges like "Pure Romanesque Earther Core de Maison Vague" (for your so-called European life). Ugly, but potent. Fukuoka's buildings, however funky, are married to a modern, semi-nomadic lifestyle and have become more of an apparatus than a home. In the future our tiny capsule apaatos will be as cool consumer products as today's keitai are. So watch your head, and find solace that even if you hate it now, relax: it won't be around for long.

*Manzoku: Japanese for "satisfaction," taken from Manzoku City, a tall shiny new pleasure dome in Nakasu.