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How I became interested in Urban Planning

Author:Andrew Ma

In eighth grade, my dad was sent to London for work and I got to live with him for 2 months. During my stay at London, I had no friends nor spoke good English. All I had was a PlayStation, TV, a Math textbook and a DVD of “Saving Private Ryan.” Whether it was my fascination with war or the movie itself, I watched Saving Private Ryan everyday for 2 months. I originally watched the movie with Korean subtitles, then with English subtitles and eventually with no subtitles at all; in ways, Saving Private Ryan taught me English. By the end of my stay in London, I not only understood what they were saying but also started feeling as if I was part of them. Understanding the power of visual image I started filming.

When I film or edit my documentaries, I am very cognizant of time and space dimensions. Where I film and how much footage I use within the timeframe can completely change the message of the video. At Davidson College, I initially pursued ethnographic filming as my potential career. Through continuum of narrowly focused images captured by a camera lens, ethnographic films have the power to send greater messages to the mass. I had the opportunity to produce the story of life and death of Michael Alvin Maloy, which brought awareness to the adversities he faced as an African American scholar athlete at Davidson College despite his astute performance on the court. Focusing on people’s narratives through ethnographic films, I learned the importance of listening to others stories and salvaging the narratives that are being suppressed and ignored. Film on the issue of race at Davidson College taught me to deconstruct the socially constructed term race, an informational video on Know Your Farms taught me the local food initiatives in the Charlotte area, and a promotional video for Wake Up! Summit, which provides information about colleges for underprivileged inner-city students in Charlotte, taught me the severity of the achievement gap in America.

One day, I stumbled upon a video blog, “Alone in Tokyo,” by prominent video-photographer Philip Bloom. Bloom has made a career producing “time-lapse films,” manipulating time and space dimensions to alter the way that his viewers perceive the action that he is filming. In these films, processes that would normally appear subtle to the human eye, such as the construction of a city, become very pronounced. As I watched Bloom’s films, I began to wonder whether it would be possible to apply similar techniques to my own ethnographic films to portray how people interact within space in different time. I taught myself how to achieve time-lapse, often using multiple cameras to keep space static but manipulate time.

My manipulation of time and space in filming made me acutely aware of the interconnectedness between the actions humans perform and the places in which they perform them. Urban design is the language of the cities; when you walk down a street everything that you see is designed. In cities, it is within this designed space that human beings constantly interact with one another. Through my observations, I realized that built structures transcend the limitations of time since they are the anchor of social interactions of generations past, present, and future. This realization fueled interest in the design of space and particularly in the design of cities. This interest has propelled much of my academic and extracurricular work.

In Fall 2010, I participated in the International Honors Program (IHP), traveling to Detroit, Sao Paulo, Cape Town and Hanoi to explore the natural and intentional forces that guide cities of the Twenty-First century. I learned how to “read a city,” leading to a better understanding of the interconnected social, physical, economic, environmental and political systems that affect urban environments. In each city, I was struck by the stark contrast between the segregated favelas and the gated communities and began to realize that people in power can use design to amplify the gap between the poor and the rich. As I conducted fieldwork in the urban slums of each city, examining how poorer populations have been constantly moved and neglected, I began to see urban design as a powerful force that could be used to achieve social change.

Eager to be an active participant rather than a passive observer, I spent last summer living in a farm in rural Korea. During my stay, I was involved in re-defining the town’s image to attract more tourists without losing its original taste of a farm town. During the process I received a certification as a community developer by the town council. I also had the opportunity to help design a part of the town. This experience living and working with locals on a community project, understanding their culture through the lens of urban design, and using their methods to create space that would revitalize a place, reinforced my desire to pursue a career in urban planning.

I started exploring the philosophy and theories of urban planners such as Jane Jacobs, the author of The Life and Death of Great American Cities. She writes, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Cities have not only failed to serve everyone but often was a root cause of social inequality. In search for smarter urban planning, rather than repeating the costly grand scale projects, urban planners have recently started focusing on small-scale interventions, attacking the “urban pressure points” of the city to revitalize neglected and worn out parts of a city. They call this urban acupuncture.=

I was introduced urban acupuncture through a TED talk by Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba. In his talk, Lerner suggests urban acupuncture as the future solution for contemporary urban issues; by focusing on very narrow pressure points in cities, we can initiate positive ripple effects for the greater society. Urban acupuncture reclaims the ownership of land to the public and emphasizes the importance of community development through small interventions in design of cities. Urban acupuncture varies, it includes community members cleaning up the streets, planting flowers, displaying art or installing a street lamp on a block corner. There are no restrictions or rules of how it should be done. In fact, Jaime Lerner, a renowned urban planner, emphasizes the importance of creativity and innovation, insisting that there is no single answer to making a better city.

Urban acupuncture, like ethnographic filming, is grounded in the belief that working with a very narrow focus can have broad implications. In the same way that a single frame can convey a complex story in ways that a thousand words cannot, revitalizing a worn out section of a city can trigger positive chain reactions throughout a community. More I delve into urban planning and urban acupuncture, I adopted Finnish architect and urban planner Marco Cassagrande’s definition of a city. He sees cities as a complex organism with different overlapping layers of energy that determines the actions of its citizens as well as the development of city. When something is added into a space, it not only changes the physical configuration of the area but the actions of the residents as well. Like Marco Casagrande’s analogy of city as organism, each aspect of a design influences our actions in different ways. The painted walls of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, renovation of the waterfront in Detroit, installation of street lights and community parks in Seoul, and use of Main Street parking lot behind Summit coffee as farmer’s market on weekends at Davidson can revitalize parts of towns and cities with small and cost effective interventions.

With infinite variations of time and space that can be portrayed in a film, a director of a documentary has control over who is filmed, what is filmed, why it is filmed and how it is filmed. Despite such privileges, ultimately it is the viewers’ response to the film that matters the most. Like a director of a documentary, urban planners have most control of how the city is designed but it’s ultimately the residents’ quality of life that makes a good city. Both practices require comprehensive understanding of the complex social relations to have a positive and lasting impact on people. I recognized that my interest in filming and in urban acupuncture was both rooted in my anthropological lens of looking at the world through culture and people. The possibilities of urban acupuncture is infinite. Will urban acupuncture, which was the start to my interest in urban planning be the future solution for urban problems?


Margie McKay said...

I really enjoyed reading your journey to urban planning, Andrew. If you delve a bit deeper I think you will find there are many governments (particularly at a local level) supporting urban acupuncture initiatives. A recent example I can think of was the Urban Realities project in Melbourne Docklands that was part of the Melbourne State of Design festival. This project was led by RMIT but received funding and support from both City of Melbourne and VicUrban (both local and state government). Although the sculptures were ephemeral pieces, many were highly interactive and engaging of the local community and were useful for seeding ideas for future interventions.

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