Book Review Preview: Sustainable London

By Samantha McLean

Rob Imrie and Loretta Lees (eds), Sustainable London? The Future of a Global City (Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2014)

‘Sustainable development’ has become a buzzword in the vernacular of urban policy, yet the term’s ambiguity has made it conveniently adoptable by policy makers wishing to further their own development goals.

Sustainable London? The Future of a Global City examines the effects of sustainable development policies in an era of austerity in London as functions of the government are reduced or delegated to the private sector. The book aims to challenge this mode of development and present alternative models that address social justice.

The book is divided into four sections and a postscript. Part One of the book establishes the foundation of London’s sustainable development policy and presents its challenges. Part Two examines ways in which austerity led to changes in governance and privatization of public services and infrastructure, while Part Three discusses the results of sustainable development policy. Part Four has an environmental health focus, looking at transportation, public health, and urban greening.

The book accomplishes the authors’ goal of challenging current sustainable development policies and their outcomes, or at the very least, presenting their shortcomings. Yet, the true shortcoming is the book’s inability to proffer a feasible approach for working toward a more just city within the confines of a capitalist system.

Imrie and Lees issue a clarion call: we must stop regarding sustainable development as “post-political” and realize that it is linked to politically-motivated causes. However, this call is the only solid outcome of this book. While the editors ultimately want to challenge the economic structure in which unjust sustainable development exists and work towards community controlled development, this is beyond the scope of attainable.

As a recent masters in city planning graduate, I benefited from this book as it provided historic, social, local, and economic context to the global city of London. However, as a future urban planner, I was left without an applicable action plan. In fact, I would think that the authors would want planners and developers operating in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors should be this book’s audience in addition to like-minded academics or grassroots professionals. That would allow for a more integrated approach to promoting the just city.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Samantha McLean
University of Cincinnati
samantha.m.mclean@gmail.com

Book Review Preview: The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

By John Shapiro

William B. Helmreich, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2016).

Did you know that…

  • Barak Obama once lived in Park Slope. So did Al Capone.
  • Bushwick’s unconstrained graffiti art is really a changing exhibit managed by a collective.
  • In Gerritsen Beach, a favorite pastime is giving wrong directions to outsiders.

Such facts are dispersed throughout William B. Helmreich’s first contribution to his intended Nobody Knows series for New York City’s boroughs, expanding on his successful The New York That Nobody Knows. For each of 44 neighborhoods, Helmreich reports on his observations from and conversations while walking 816 miles through Brooklyn. Read it one neighborhood at a time before making a visit, and it is a guide book. Read it cover-to-cover as I did, and you realize the thoroughness with which Helmreich describes the people and condition of Brooklyn in the 2010s, at the height of the Brooklyn hype.  As is the case for the WPA Guide to New York City of the 1930s: while the reportage will become dated, it will enjoy a second life as an historical record.

As a local city planner, I can vouch for his accuracy—though there are places where the common wisdom he retells is incomplete, the urbanism story goes unreported, and he might have delved deeper into the community development movement, which originated here. But as a fourth-generation Brooklynite, I say fuhgeddaboudit: If you love walking cities, buy the book.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

John Shapiro, Professor, Pratt Institute

 

Book Review Preview: Space and Pluralism

By Anne B. Shlay

Stefano Moroni and David Weberman (eds.), Space and Pluralism: Can Contemporary Cities be Places of Tolerance? (New York, NY: Central European University Press, 2016).

Spaces and Pluralism is a tough read that speaks to issues that have plagued humanity for centuries but have intensified in recent years.  It asks “can contemporary cities be places of tolerance?”

The book is a collection of essays, case studies and research articles from many points of view including philosophy, planning, political science, design, geography, social theory, anthropology, and urban studies.  It asks basic and important definitional questions: what is pluralism, what is public and private space, how place is created from space, is tolerance culturally specific, how does private property interfere with tolerance, what can be expected from design and planning, what are human rights for space collectively and individually, and how does space exclude, separate and control particular social groups?

The two major concepts explored are pluralism and tolerance.  This idea of the good is central: not that there is right or wrong or winners and losers but that different perceptions are good whether they are good or bad.  Tolerance entails “mutual tolerance of the other” (p.8).  A pluralist approach to space encompasses the idea that different ideas of what is good exists and that we should accept and tolerate these differences.

Space and Pluralism recognizes that one cannot theorize about tolerance without talking about space.  Race, ethnicity, gender, class and more are grounded in space.  Tolerance and intolerance are spatial.  Human rights are spatial.  How can one even begin to understand human conflict without incorporating space as a key dimension? This focus on space may be the best feature of this book.

Spaces and Pluralism would be a useful addition to graduates courses associated with the fields of urban and global studies.  It will generate debate, frustration and hope over the possibility of tolerance and the role that designers can play in fostering understanding.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Anne B. Shlay
Georgia State University
ashlay@gsu.edu

Geographies of Impact and Readership

By Nick Schuermans, Bruno Meeus & Pascal De Decker

Last year, we were caught by a very pleasant surprise. With “Geographies of whiteness and wealth: White, middle class discourses on segregation and social mix in Flanders, Belgium, we won the 2016 best paper award in the Journal of Urban Affairs. Meanwhile, our paper has also been included in a virtual issue on ‘Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in the City’, which is available open access on the journal’s website. In this blog post, we want to share some reflections about the impact of our research and the importance of combining academic and non-academic publications.

In the assessment by the award committee (which was made up by scholars working in the U.S. exclusively), we were very happy to read that “while the study was situated within a particular metro region, its insights are particularly far-reaching and relevant across myriad socio-spatial contexts.” As Belgian researchers, we hope that the lack of a paywall and the increased attention for the paper will help it to find an academic readership beyond the confines of our small country. Currently, our article has 12 citations in Google Scholar: six self-citations and six citations by other Belgian scholars. Does this mean that research in Belgium is usually only considered to be relevant by other Belgians? Does the spatial division of academic theorization, as criticized by Jennifer Robinson (2006), stop researchers from other countries to read a case study on the metropolitan area of Ghent as potentially informative for their own research questions and theoretical frameworks? Or should we refrain from generalizing based on such a small sample?

In any case, we do not consider the impact of our research to be limited to the number of citations it attracts or the impact factor of the journal in which it has been published. Elsewhere, we have already indicated that we urge Belgian scholars to publish in peer-reviewed, international journals such as the Journal of Urban Affairs, but that we are also worried that the one-sided focus of funding bodies and hiring committees on such publications might hamper the role that our scholarship plays outside academia (Schuermans et al., 2010). “By asking which civil servants are going to pay to access our articles, by wondering which policy makers will struggle with our academic English and by questioning which public sector employees are going to do the effort to translate our conclusions into policy recommendations,” we wrote in a reply to Ben Derudder (2011), “it becomes clear that we – and the systems designed to evaluate us – have to value more than our bibliographic records in the Web of Science alone” (Meeus et al., 2011, p. 114).

This also explains why the findings we communicated in the Journal of Urban Affairs paper have also been shared in a two page article in a major Flemish newspaper, policy reports for the Housing Department of the Flemish government and a Dutch language book called De Geest van Suburbia (The spirit of suburbia) (Meeus et al., 2014). Obviously, the question remains which impact such newspaper articles, policy reports and academic books in Dutch can have. While we – and many of our colleagues in Belgium – have been criticizing social mix strategies deployed by city councils and regional authorities since the 1980’s, it is clear that alternative policy measures are still in their infancy. Calls to provide social housing as a way to combat the displacement of the poorest of the poor from our inner cities are plainly ignored, for instance. Instead, local city councils emphasize time and time again the need to attract taxpaying inhabitants through urban revitalization projects in order to improve their tax basis and the social cohesion of their city. Research that questions the desirability and feasibility of these social mix strategies  – such as our Journal of Urban Affairs article – keeps on falling on deaf ears.

This is also evident from two research projects we have been asked to undertake since the publication of the Journal of Urban Affairs article. On the one hand, the city of Genk, a former coal mining city, has asked us to conduct a housing pathway analysis of young people and families leaving the city. On the other hand, we have secured a three-year grant from Innoviris, the Brussels institute for Scientific Research, to study the housing trajectories of well-off people leaving the Brussels Capital Region. While the political representatives of these cities fear that suburbanization of higher income groups has a detrimental effect on their social fabric and city treasury, we are concerned that critical studies on segregation, social mix, suburbanization and urban revitalization in Belgian cities are not only ignored by policy makers here in Belgium, but also by scholars who are not familiar with the Belgian context.

As such, we do hope that the attention sparked by the best paper award can convince both local policy makers and international colleagues that “the findings [of our Journal of Urban Affairs paper] are important not only for informing current urban renewal efforts, but also speak to the unique challenges that will emerge as we begin to see more and more mixed-income neighborhoods undergo gentrification,” as the award committee put so nicely. Thank you for that!

 

References:

Derudder, B. (2011). Some reflections on the ‘problematic’ dominance of ‘Web of Science’ journals in academic human geography. Area, 43(1), 110-112.

Meeus, B., De Decker, P., Claessens, B. (2014). De geest van suburbia. Antwerp: Garant.

Meeus, B., Schuermans, N., De Maesschalck, F. (2011) Is there a world beyond academic geography? A reply to Ben Derudder. Area, 43 (1), 113-114.

Robinson, J. (2006). Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. Milton Park: Routledge.

Schuermans, N., Meeus, B., De Decker, P. (2015) Geographies of whiteness and wealth: White, middle class discourses on segregation and social mix in Flanders, Belgium. Journal of Urban Affairs, 37 (4), 478-495.

Schuermans, N., Meeus, B., De Maesschalck, F. (2010) Is there a world beyond the Web of Science? Publication practices outside the heartland of academic geography. Area, 42 (4), 417-424.

Book Review Preview: Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus

By Benny Carlson

Stefanie Chambers, Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017).

On November 6, 2016, two days before the U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump branded the Somali community in Minnesota “a disaster”. On February 18, 2017, he pointed to Sweden as a failed immigrant country. These statements make it interesting to highlight the situation for Somali refugee immigrants in the U.S. and Sweden. Now, very timely, a book about Somalis in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and Columbus, Ohio, written by political scientist Stefanie Chambers of Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, has been published. She has compared the “incorporation” of Somalis in these city environments in a systematic way, using 14 political, economic and social indicators and a rich empirical material, not least interviews with 114 respondents. Her conclusion is that although much remains to be done, the Twin Cities come out on top of Ohio according to most indicators.

If one compares Somalis in Minnesota and Sweden, the former community does not appear as “a disaster”. Over a five-year period (2011-15), employment among Somalia-born in Minnesota (age 16-64) was 62 percent, compared to 26 percent in Sweden. (The figures are going up in Sweden, though; in 2015 they were 31 percent.) Self-employment over the same period was 5.9 percent in Minnesota, 0.7 percent in Sweden. Furthermore, I have myself interviewed several Somali entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities and have been impressed by their patriotism and belief in the American dream. To brand this whole community “a disaster” is apparently counterproductive for the group – it may increase the risk of identity problems and radicalization among young people – as well as for the U.S. in general, where the American dream seems to be fading in segments of the middle and working classes. This branding apparently rests on scanty knowledge. Fortunately, this knowledge gap will to a large extent be filled by Stefanie Chambers.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Benny Carlson
Lund University School of Economics and Management
benny.carlson@ekh.lu.se

The Reviews are Coming in on the New JUA!

By Jeanette Eckert

As Editor-in-Chief Igor Vojnovic wrote on the blog last month, 2017 is an exciting year for the Journal of Urban Affairs. A new publisher, new cover art, several planned special issues, and more issues per year are among the changes, and we’re getting great feedback already. But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Professor Jonathan Davies, a member of the JUA Editorial Board:

davies

We hope everyone is enjoying the new JUA as much as Professor Davies! What do you think so far? Feel free to let us know!

 

Jeanette Eckert is a doctoral candidate and instructor at Michigan State University and is the Social Media Editor for the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Book Review Preview: Good Neighbors

By Dennis E. Gale

Sylvie Tissot. Good Neighbors. (London and New York: Verso, 2015)

A study of Boston’s South End, Good Neighbors examines the once-declining neighborhood’s revitalization from the 1960s to 2010. Tissot’s ethnographic approach yields a multi-layered account of her interviews and observations of South End residents, as well as insights gleaned from print media. We “hear” the voices and words of gentrifiers and observe their tastes in interior decorating, dining and yes, even alcoholic beverages. Several pages are devoted to the culture and class distinctions of gentry preferences for various dog breeds. We also glean insights from neighborhood activists, preservationists, realtors and others.  Tissot’s methods, alas, leave precious little room to address the city renewal agency’s role and tactics in catalyzing reinvestment. Nor is there much in the way of statistical evidence or maps to document the demographic or physical changes that ensued. Thus, some readers may wish for a more holistic perspective.

When the Boston Redevelopment Authority undertook the South End’s renewal in the mid-1960s, small numbers of homes were already being renovated by new in-movers. Mob violence in several cities and widespread criticism of urban renewal’s wholesale neighborhood clearance strategy persuaded the BRA to capitalize on the South End’s nascent gentrification. The Authority increased citizen participation in planning, minimized housing demolition and concentrated on rehabilitating existing structures. The stated goal was a diverse neighborhood of social classes, races and ethnicities with market-rate and subsidized housing. Good Neighbors traces the outcome of this diversity policy. Tissot argues that as the decades passed, the neighborhood’s increasingly up-market residents, businesses and historic preservationists became progressively more resistant to new affordable housing. Their economic and class hegemony allowed them to impose their own tastes and preferences on substantial areas of the South End. Although the community’s current diversity exceeds levels found in most of Boston, it is found wanting by the author.

Of special note is the sarcasm Tissot reserves for her gentry informants. While gaining their confidence and availing herself of their good will, she acknowledges her own class biases against bourgeois privilege. Flirting with deception, she seems to assure readers that – in effect – the ends justify the means. As is the fashion now in some scholarly circles, Tissot seems to surrender the goal of objectivity, leaving readers to decide for themselves how much credence to place in her not infrequent subjective assessments.

The full review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Dennis E. Gale
Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
Lecturer, Stanford University
Dennis.Gale@fulbrightmail.org