Invoking (a different kind of) blight to take land for Foxconn

The term “blight” is more likely to conjure up images of slums and urban decay (example of Detroit) than farmland and single-family homes. Yet, the Wisconsin village of Mount Pleasant earlier this week invoked blight to take land for a planned Foxconn facility:

Trustees voted 6-1 to declare as a blighted area some 2,800 acres of open farmland and a few dozen homes, all of it earmarked for Foxconn and the development expected to spring up around the planned electronics factory. Trustee Gary Feest was the lone dissenter, and one of only two board members to speak before the vote…

Still, holdouts remain — people who believe the 140 percent of market value the village has offered is unfair when owners of larger tracts of farmland were paid several times the pre-Foxconn price such property was bringing…

As proponents have in the past, DeGroot emphasized not the eminent-domain power the blighted-area designation gives the village, but rather the financial advantages the measure confers. Communities with plans such as the one Mount Pleasant just approved can finance the redevelopment by issuing bonds exempt from both state and federal taxes, which DeGroot said could save the village millions of dollars…

In taking its action Monday, the village is using a section of state law that broadly defines blighted areas. Besides the commonly understood definitions of blight — dilapidated housing, overcrowding, high crime — the statute says an area can be deemed blighted if it is predominantly open and, for any reason, “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.”

Here is the Google Maps satellite image of the Foxconn location (according to news reports). All the farmland is clearly visible.

Google Maps satellite image of Foxconn site

Taking land for a sizable or notable project like this is not always easy. The argument that this is good for the community will not strike all land owners as consonant with their property rights. And there may be some irony later in this story involving property rights. A Democratic gubernatorial candidate will be protesting the use of eminent domain as part of his larger concerns about the project. When Republicans are characterized as supporting both big business and property rights, which one wins? And are Democrats pro-property rights?

While Wisconsin has a slightly different definition of blight, this could be compared to urban renewal plans of the mid-twentieth century that used similar reasoning to mark certain properties as blighted. In both cases, officials and developers have a redevelopment plan for the land that is billed as an improvement for the community. In this case, the trade-off is largely open land for increased local tax revenue and a significant number of jobs. With the urban renewal plans of decades ago, history was not kind to some of the proposals as redevelopment could clear affordable housing units, target minority communities, and accelerate suburbanization (in the cases of highways constructed right through urban neighborhoods). Even without declaring some land as blighted, a project this size could be viewed by some as a significant change to the character of the community. “As many as 13,000 jobs” may sound good but this will affect local traffic, housing, and civic services. I would guess that following up with the community in five, ten, or twenty years could relay both intended and unintended changes if all or most goes as planned with the Foxconn facility.


The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

“An urban slum in the countryside” marked by a lack of McMansions

McMansions may be everywhere (including Iraq) but one writer notes their conspicuous absence in the suburbs of Cardiff, Wales:

“Out on what were the squelchy red muds, bluebell woods, beech-clad hillocks and bosky blackberry hedgerows of the ancient parish of Llanederyn, prices have collapsed and nothing sells. Few want to live in a no man’s land 40 minutes by bus from the city centre, an unloved, invisible of executive Mcmansions, roundabouts and superstores, sagging lintels and dripping gutters.”

We also learn that Trowbridge is “shabby and lacklustre” and that Llanederyn’s Maelfa indoor precinct is “a post-apolcalyptic boarded-up no-go zone, spurned by market forces uninterested in poor people.

“Thus was created an urban slum in the countryside.”

Some vivid descriptions that evoke a bleak image. It is interesting to compare this description of bleakness with how such things are discussed in regard to American McMansions. Outside of depictions of “zombie subdivisions” due to unfinished developments or suburban neighborhoods ravaged by foreclosures, American critics of McMansions tend to emphasize their emotional bleakness. Having McMansions implies having plenty of money or resources (or at least the means of acquiring debt). Yet, critics suggest neighborhoods with McMansions lack community, are lonely, project images of power but are empty inside. In the future, all those McMansions may suffer the fate of many homes: people who have moved on to newer and better things, the need for many home repairs, and a lack of exterior sheen due to age. The bleakness is not class-based or like urban blight with empty and boarded-up buildings but rather is based on a lack of soul.

New SimCity expansion pack moves toward dystopian cities

I still haven’t played the latest version of SimCity but there is now an expansion pack that portrays a bleaker urban future:

If this sounds like the setup for a disturbing science fiction novel, you’re not far off: This is actually the premise for SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow, a deeply cynical expansion pack for the SimCity game, set to be released November 12. The original SimCity game, of course (along with its most recent fifth edition), allowed players to act as mayors and design the ideal modern city. But the evil genius behind the game play was always that sustainability was illusory: even the most well-designed cities eventually imploded. Players thought they were all-powerful mayors, but they were merely delayers of the inevitable. The best they could do was stave off their city’s collapse…

It’s impossible to miss the socioeconomic and political commentary embedded within Cities of Tomorrow. That the affluent live in the epicenter and the poor are relegated to the suburban fringes feels like a direct commentary on the demographic inversion cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco are currently experiencing. The concentration of wealth calls to mind what’s left of the Occupy movement. The Sims’ addiction to Omega despite its negative effects on the environment mirrors the developed world’s dependence on oil. Even the MagLev is nearly identical to Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop (especially since it only seems plausible within the construct of a video game)…

Whether inspired by real or fictional events, the expansion pack has an inescapable, soul-crushing pessimism. Any idealists who try to a construct a pollution or poverty free utopia are engaging in a Sisyphean task. And this is out of necessity, Librande explains.

“Utopia, in general, is boring for game play. So if we set up a utopian city there’d be nothing for the player to do,” he says…

Librande doesn’t worry about the game’s bleak view of the future turning off any prospective gamers. If anything, they’ll be attracted to the challenge. SimCity has a notoriously die-hard fan base, and what he thinks will make the expansion pack so alluring is not what the game play says about society, but what it says about each player. Players must divide their faith and resources between two purposefully ambiguous entities: OmegaCo and The Academy. OmegaCo’s goal is profit, and The Academy’s motive is to make its technology ubiquitous. What players choose will reveal their attitudes toward capitalism, class, and the balance between privacy and utility.

Utopia is boring! Well-being is overrated! Bring on the morally impossible choices and decaying cities! SimCity has always had a little of this built-in into its gameplay. I clearly remember the scenarios in the original that asked the player to rebuild a city after some sort of disaster, whether an earthquake or Godzilla. I didn’t take much joy in this but other players did; it can be fun to destroy a city with no real consequences.

Perhaps this says more about our current mindset: we’d prefer to deal with decay than positive construction. Cities aren’t “real” until they are clearly gritty and suffering is around the corner. (I’ve heard presentations from urban sociologists on this: there are some gentrifiers who want to “live on the edge” and have to keep moving to find that line between nice neighborhoods and neighborhoods with problems.) Again, there are no consequences for the player for having a dark city where either capitalism or the NSA has run amok. Compare this to the real problems faced in poor neighborhoods in the United States or in the slums in Third World cities where real lives are affected and life chances are severely diminished.

Developing new architectural ideas from Third World slums

Here is an interesting discussion of how some architects are looking to third-world slums for innovations in design:

The lofty vision of “Favela Cloud” touches upon several trends cycling through architecture today. First, it responds to the rising popularity of “architecture for social change,” for which the profession nobly renounces its service to the rich to address the issues of the poor. But the “Cloud” purportedly distinguishes itself from more conventional do-good design because its principle source of inspiration is the slum itself. As eVolo explains, the success of the design hinges on its “additive system that can grow and adapt to its site conditions,” motivated by the existing self-organizing logic of the favela. In other words, the intervention draws from the social and organizational qualities characteristic of the very environment it seeks to improve, a methodology that has its own backstory in architectural discourse, as I’ll explore later. By returning to its point of departure and theoretically folding back into itself, the shiny edifice straddling Santa Marta brings into question if and how architecture can intervene in communities that have developed in the abject absence of a welfare state…

With basic rights to food, potable water, and shelter categorically denied to slumdwellers, decent public architecture is but a pipe dream. Without functioning infrastructure, working sewage systems, proper housing, and designated civic spaces, slum-dwellers are forced to engineer their own systems of order. Waste from the city proper is salvaged in the slums to form constellations of cinderblock shelters fortified with sheets of tin and plastic-bag insulation; the meager space of a home easily and often doubles as a workshop; makeshift marketplaces sprout like weeds in every available space. As urban sociologist Erhard Berner wrote in his 1997 book examining land use in Manila, “Virtually all the gaps left open by city development are immediately filled with makeshift settlements that beat every record in population density.”…

Around the same time when Koolhaas was traveling to Lagos, San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz was visiting Mexico’s border towns with a similar resolve to study under-the-radar urban phenomena. Cruz observed in Tijuana how developers were importing a superficial image of the American dream across the border in the form of cheap, miniature replicas of the suburbs. “What I noticed is how quickly these developments were retrofitted by the tenants,” Cruz told the New York Times, bringing attention to the makeshift mechanics’ shops and taco stands that quickly took over front lawns and the spaces between the homogenous suburban shells. Here along the border, the ersatz American utopia could not help but evolve into something much more layered and complex.

Cruz studied the individuated forms and programs and exported these lessons back across the border to suburban San Diego, where he was working on a design for a residential development for Latino immigrants. His resulting prototype weaves 12 affordable housing units, a community center, offices, gardens, and spaces for street markets and kiosks into a concrete frame. “In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support each other,” Cruz explains in an article for Residential Architect Magazine. “This suggests a model of social sustainability for San Diego, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography.”

Combining technical and theoretical expertise with how people “live on the ground” seems like it could be a winning combination. It is one thing to impose a particular design or program on a group and another to work with them and utilize their own expertise. This can require some humility on the part of trained professionals…it would be interesting to know how this is viewed within the broader discipline of architecture.

I’ve highlighted Cruz’s work before.

French suburbs known as “zones of banishment”

The French suburbs are getting more media attention in the lead-up to the run-off election. This article talks about the current status of the “urban sensitive zones”:

Inside the French suburbs, referred to here as “zones of banishment” or “the lost territories of France,” the 2012 presidential elections seemed like a good time to wake up the nation.

In a small office in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, a group of mostly Arab and African 20-somethings hit on an idea: Create a “crisis ministry of the suburbs.” It would address France’s ignorance about the 731 areas ringing the country’s biggest cities, known officially as “urban sensitive zones,” where most of France’s non-European minorities live. Geographically, they are suburbs, but socioeconomically, they resemble the US inner city.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe gave the upstart “ministry” a temporary office next to City Hall. For two days, rappers, artists, and activists merrily held court with a French media that rarely makes it to the suburbs and worked on a 120-point reform plan. Several presidential candidates, including front-runner François Hollande, showed up.

But the good vibe didn’t last. Days later, Mohammed Merah, a self-styled Islamist radical born to Algerian parents in a Toulouse suburb, shot and killed two soldiers, three children, and a rabbi. The killings seemed to reinforce all the stereotypes and fears about the troubled suburbs.

A fascinating overview.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I think many Americans would have difficulty processing this given our images of the suburbs.

2. Issues of race/ethnicity and class take place all over the world. The article suggests French students hear that their country is “an egalitarian utopia without issues of race and religion” but the situation on the ground suggests otherwise.

3. It would be interesting to read a more complete story of government involvement in the suburbs. How did this happen (politically and funding-wise) and is this what the government prefers?

“Intellectual slums” in China

China’s economy may be growing but this doesn’t necessarily mean that young engineers have great living standards:

However, life as a Chinese engineer is not necessarily paradise or even a guarantee of decent living. Some of Beijing’s most recent graduates are labeled “ants” for their hardworking attitude but cramped living quarters. Until being relocated by recent redevelopment, many young Chinese engineers lived in small, 20 square-meter rooms in the poor Beijing suburb of Tangjialing. According to Chinese sociologist Lian Si, there are no fewer than 10 “intellectual slums” near Beijing.

Not exactly the choices that we assume the “creative class” has in the United States.

Here are some photographs of a Chinese “intellectual slum” that is slated for a transition from a poor village to new development. In a 2009 story, Lian Si describes his work summarized in the book Ant Tribe.

I became interested in this problem in 2007. I then spent two years researching; I visited seven ‘colonies’ on the outskirts of Beijing, living in them each for some time, and in total, interviewing 600 graduates.

I noted that the graduates earn an average of 1950 Yuan (€200) a month. Most of the time they work on stalls, as waitresses or doing other temporary jobs. The rent costs around 400 Yuan (€40) a month. They spend a lot of time travelling to and from the centre of the city on public transport.

The ‘ants’ have three characteristics in common. They’re graduates, they’re low earners, and they stick together. They’re labelled ants because they’re undersized and have limited living space, but at the same time they’re intelligent and they don’t grumble about their situation.

About 80% of them come from isolated villages cut from the world. They try to make a living in big cities like Beijing. It’s also because of this that they stay in a group, to have the feeling of community and security in their unfamiliar surroundings.

At what point will people in these communities start to grumble?