Eat the City: A Tale of Producers Who Built New York

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Although man has moved past his agrarian roots and settled in cities built of concrete and asphalt, you can sense an inherent longing to till the land, tend the animals, or simply produce something natural. Plenty of city dwellers do their share of producing food even if its a simple pot growing coriander leaves on the window sill. Robin Shulman in her book, Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poulty Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York (Phew! A shorter title would’ve helped).

As the title suggests, Shulman divides the book into chapters based on the product and takes a deeper look at how each is produced in the city of New York. Although I’m sure there are plenty of products, she focuses on honey, vegetable, meat, sugar, beer, fish, and wine. Within each chapter, she beautifully captures the current efforts of entrepreneurs and places it within the context of historical narratives. The prose is beautiful for a non-fiction book especially the historical background that, I admit, I loved more than the present. Although I’m well aware of New York city’s history and its development over the past two hundred years, even I was surprised by some facts. Did you know that New York was once considered the most fertile land and had the most bountiful coast in all of the country? If trade hadn’t been imposed on the city’s coast, the estuaries would’ve easily qualified to be a national park with a thriving natural ecosystem. As the book conveys, Shulman has done extensive research and has talked to hundreds of people in writing this book and has done a commendable effort in weaving a fantastic narrative of the city and the resilience of its natural producers.

The book also helps in clearing some myths that you would associate with city life. Beekeepers have it easier than beer breweries just on account of high real estate prices. I would hate to share some narratives and spoil the reading experience for you so I’ll try to keep them to the minimum. The first chapter on honey was for me the most fun. I’m, as any ordinary person, terrified of bees so I can’t imagine someone willingly spending time around them. The urban beekeepers not only fought legislation that banned their practice in NYC but also worked with other industries that generally dislike bees. One beekeepers’ bees produced red honey because they got their ‘catch’ from a cherry candy factory nearby. The vegetables chapter explored the sylvan history of Harlem and described the amazing amount of fresh produce that Willie farmed that even I can’t dream of producing in my backyard. The fish and the beer chapter were the most difficult to read because you would imagine those two to be a perfect fit for a coastal urban city like New York. But unfortunately, due to rampant pollution in the waters and skyrocketing prices of real estate have made the two activities the most difficult.

In conclusion, Shulman writes a very engaging read and I highly recommend buying the book. If you’re not interested in urban farming, you will still love it for its indepth look into New York’s history from the perspective of each of those products. The history not only describes the products transition but also the underlying sociocultural impact on the city’s demographics.

Urban Planning Books as Gifts

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Tis’ the season for gifts and what better gifts than books on urban planning. I revived the Urban Planning Bookstore on this blog after abruptly shutting it down last year. I later realized that plenty of people had in fact used it to find interesting books. Anyway, I am listing some books that I had the pleasure of reading this past year and think they’ll make excellent gifts:

Couple of books in this list are available in Kindle format. I have been using the Kindle app on my iPad to read books and find it really convenient.

Century of the City

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One in every ten people lived in urban areas a century ago. Now, for the first time ever, most people live in cities. By 2050, the United Nations projects, almost three-quarters of the world’s population will call urban areas home. The majority of this growth is centered in struggling, developing countries of the Global South, but cities in developed (or Global North) countries face increasingly complex challenges as well.

To help manage and plan for this accelerating urbanization, the Rockefeller Foundation convened an exceptional group of urbanists–leading policy makers and government officials, finance experts, urban researchers, members of civil society organizations, and other innovators–for a Global Urban Summit at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. This book shares their diverse perspectives, creative approaches, and urgent agenda for harnessing the vast opportunities of urbanization for a better world.

Order this book free.

Last Harvest – A Review

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I am a self-professed critic of sprawl development which unfortunately isn’t saying much because any urban planner especially in this new age of planning is exactly that. Yet we see sprawling sub-divisions crop up everywhere around us and chances are that we will end up living in one of these cookie-cutter homes that we so love to hate. Call it trying to do the best thing for your children or just finding a good deal on your investment dollars, we see that in spite of the growing criticism of sub-division development, it continues to flourish. So are we just trapped in our ivory tower while the common people go about making the perfectly rational choice?

Last Harvest Witold Rybczynski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and the acclaimed author of Home and A Clearing in a Distance tackles this paradox in a subtle narrative of his experiences of a new development in his latest book, Last Harvest – How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-first Century, and why we live in Houses Anyway. If the title and the subtitle hasn’t tired you, I’m sure it certainly has piqued your interest. Simon and Schuster was kind enough to send me a review copy because the conflict of promoting new urbanism in the face of persistent popular choice for regular homes has always been a subject of interest for me. Rybczynski takes us along on the slow path of a real-life development of a residential sub-division in rural Pennsylvania called New Daleville. Located on a former cornfield, New Daleville was conceptualized by its developers as a neotraditional development, complete with homes built close to each other to encourage a sense of intimacy and community.

Rybczynski assumes the role of a bystander as he witnesses the often slow-moving process of real estate development that is often fraught with bureaucratic redtape and technical limitations. However, at no point do we sense a feeling of hopelessness or exasperation with the process but instead reveal in the everyday process of getting things done in the real world. At one point in the book, Rybczynski shares an incident regarding disposal of treated waste water and how an unexpected change in plans requires working around a sub-optimal solution that would inordinately delay the project. As students in architecture or land development school, we often tend to overlook such petty details but in the real world, they often tend to be the biggest obstacles in getting the work done.

The underlying theme of the book is utilizing and remaining true to the form of neotraditional development. We read plenty of background literature on the development of New Urbanism and Celebration and Seaside, Florida make repeated appearances in the narrative. While arguing for a different perspective in our living, Rybczynski does not shy away from emphasizing the decisions of owning a home and even having larger bathrooms as perfectly in line with our real-world needs. Rybczynski underlines the fact that new residential development although encroaching on natural agricultural land need not resort to unoriginal cookie-cutter homes that we have come to hate. Customized home building that emphasizes on architectural treatment of facades gives as much importance to the exterior as it lends a subtle yet strong complementary effect on the neighborhood. This effect on the community is not lost on the developers who are not only selling a house but are also looking to create a community that blends in with the rest of the town.

Overall, I quite liked the book. It was an easy and refreshing read quite different from overbearing polemics that often chastise us for giving in to our selfish need and indulging in sprawl-encouraging homes. Rybczynski’s book gives us an insight into how the developers understand this growing need for neotraditional development and highlights their efforts through this engaging anecdotal read.

China’s Manufacturing Cities

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Just when we thought that the nature of our urban spaces has been altered by the changing forms of economy and technology, the manufacturing-based cities make a comeback. In the previous half-century, we moved from a manufacturing-based economy to services-based economy thus altering the form of our cities from being centralized to being disperse. No longer was a single industry the major employer and the working class didn’t necessarily have to live near their place of employment as commuting to work became easier. This held true even in developing economies until of course, China took over the mantle of being the world’s manufacturer. Of course, manufacturing never died as someone has to manufacture the countless goods that we desire; it simply moved to places where it was more affordable to do so.

china manufacturing cities

[source]. Edward Burtynsky recently released his pithily-named book, China that contains several photographs like the one above that depict the vast manufacturing industry in China. The mass employment pattern of such industries have spawned townships that are akin to manufacturing towns that dotted the Rust Belt in the United States in the earlier part of last century. Almost all workers are employed by a single industry and work and live together in high rise apartments. Characterized by long working hours, most workers either have no need for activities apart from work or aren’t given opportunity to indulge in any such activity. The other day I was talking with my significant other regarding the proclivity of having acquaintances and friends outside of our working environment and if lack of such options would have any detrimental effect on our lives. It looks like these workers simply don’t have the luxury of such options. The images of the workers housing as shown below are indicative of their work-centric lives:

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