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Archive for August, 2010

New Cairos?

About a decade ago, the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto captured the informality of land use practices in developing countries in his book, The Mystery of Capital.  The popularity of de Soto’s writings has made it almost a cliché to point out that people in developing countries carve out many of their land uses beyond the formal boundaries of the law.  In light of that, or maybe in spite of the oversimplification of de Soto’s premise, it’s interesting to read the Times‘s coverage of Egypt’s response to the crowding and sprawl of Cairo with a policy of large-scale, government-sponsored urban planning, which is actually reminiscent of some of the socialist practices in Latin America and Eastern Europe during the second half of the 20th century.  Is Egypt’s policy an anachronism, or could its success herald a return to the sorts of grand-scale, government-sponsored development policies of the past?

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Communities of Experience

This article in today’s Times touches on a couple of recent memes: First, that in the pursuit of happiness, memorable experiences are a better investment than mere possessions; and, second, that people are seeking to find these kinds of experiences closer to home.  In a discussion of the retail economy, Ms. Rosenbloom writes:

Once upon a time, with roots that go back to medieval marketplaces featuring stalls that functioned as stores, shopping offered a way to connect socially, as Ms. Liebmann and others have pointed out. But over the last decade, retailing came to be about one thing: unbridled acquisition, epitomized by big-box stores where the mantra was “stack ’em high and let ’em fly” and online transactions that required no social interaction at all — you didn’t even have to leave your home.

The recession, however, may force retailers to become reacquainted with shopping’s historical roots.  “I think there’s a real opportunity in retail to be able to romance the experience again,” says Ms. Liebmann. “Retailers are going to have to work very hard to create that emotional feeling again. And it can’t just be ‘Here’s another thing to buy.’ It has to have a real sense of experience to it.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether the economic behavioral patterns that are now a reaction to bad times become abiding priorities that transcend the recession.  But the value of experience to individual happiness seems to be borne out by a fair amount of psychological research.  And there’s hardly a more important context for experiences than where one lives.  So, what are the implications of these realizations for town planning?  Is a neighborhood something that fosters experiences, or is it simply a collection of houses and apartments?

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Professor Kleiner includes a fair amount of discussion about town planning in her lectures.  Examining the Greco-Roman approach provides a tremendous amount of insight about the classical roots of the modern planning tradition.  If you’ve read Vitruvius, Kleiner’s lecture topics will be broadly familiar: town plans, the architecture of the forum, public baths, private houses, and so forth.

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