making cities more livable together with you
making cities more livable together with you
Re-thinking Services

I am happy to be a part of an extraordinary team of fellows at the Public Policy Lab, a young non-profit that brings together designers and government agencies. Together with a great team of people, we are working on better understanding the world of HPD -the Department of Housing Preservation and Development- and explore ideas how HPD engages with citizens they intend to serve.
We just wrapped up Phase 1, in which we developed a whole series of recommendations from the “lottery applicant’s tool kit” to “yelp for housing”. Too many ideas to pursue all of them, but we will develop some of them in Phase 2 to be piloted by HPD in 2013.



workshop  phase1workshop02

Guilty Landscapes

The Spring 2012 Issue of Volume features the Field Lab for Phytoremediation in its issue on Guilty Landscape.

“Guilt has been effectively used to control and manipulate the masses. But it can also be the start of a change for the better: awareness, concern, action. Engagement and guilt are never far apart. Engagement is sublimated guilt. We can build on guilt, but can we build with guilt? Is guilt a material to design with?”

guilty landscapes

Publication 2011

The Field Guide to Phytoremediation is finally printed. This 40-page booklet translates scientific research into easy-to-understand graphics and text, gives some background about urban vacant land, contamination and how plants can help to fix it. We will distribute copies at upcoming workshops this summer at our field lab in the South Bronx.  You can download a pdf here. If you are interested in receiving a copy email us.

sample page field guide

Workshop 2011

How do scent, sound, taste, sight, and touch influence our feelings of comfort or discomfort in public space? Can design improve happiness? The urban landscape produces feelings of anxiety, fear, pleasure, and excitement.  Invited by writer Charles Montgomery, who is writing a book about happiness and cities, I recently moderated two workshops at the BMW Guggenheim Lab. As part of the lab’s theme “Confronting Comfort”, Colin Ellard, a research psychologist at the University of Waterloo had collected data on a variety of sites surrounding the lab, monitoring the state of excitement, mood and ability to concentrate of participants. Borrowing from Haus-Rucker-Co.’s Environment Transformers we spent one day intervening in this perception by building wearable objects to explore the way our five sense experience public space and a second day building site specific interventions to generate discussion about our perception of public space, what drives it and how can design responds to the five senses.

Picture 1






more images are here at the Lab’s flickr site.

Lakefront Station in Competitions Magazine

Competitions Magazine published the winners of the Cleveland Lakefront Competition in its most recent Fall 2010 issue. Our entry got a full page (left) as one of the honorable mentions. The competition was organized by the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. The city has no plan to realize any of our proposals anytime soon as far as I know, but good ideas for high speed train stations are hopefully needed all over the country in the not so distant future.


Unspoken Borders

We submitted a paper to the “unspoken borders 09″ conference at UPenn in April this year. The publication just came out and can be purchased here. It is a compilation of articles under the theme “Ecologies of Inequality”, an investigation of the systems, infrastructure, and design processes that create or perpetuate socio-economic and environmental stratification of our communities. This theme asserts that social inequities are unsustainable, not only in terms of socio-economic injustices, but also in regards to the amount of resources invested in maintaining or creating these inequalities. Download a pdf version of our article Ecologies of Urban Migration (with Julie Behrens).



In the summer of 2007, I spent a few weeks around the construction site of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. I was interested in the disparity between the different people populating the messy area: On the one hand, the area was filled with curious tourists like me. Most of them Chinese, who came to check out the progress and take the classic ‘I was here!’ picture that is normally the privilege of traditional tourist destinations such as the Eiffel Tower. But in even greater numbers, the countless migrant workers, who built the stadium, the aquatic center and the infrastructure surrounding both occupy the site. My interviews and images with these workers became the first in a series of investigations on migration and urban spaces, a research project to be published in 2011.

The monumental urban revitalization of China’s cities currently underway is being performed on the shoulders of 29 million migrant construction workers. Most of them are recruited in their villages by construction companies for short-term jobs, with very little training or regard for construction standards or health and safety requirements.

An estimated number of 1.5 million so-called floating people are working on construction sites in Beijing comprising10% of the city’s total population. High costs of living and the strict hukou system, which divides China’s population into rural and urban residents leaves them with no choice but to remain floating.  The hukou household registration system, introduced in 1958 to keep peasants on the land, regulates access to government services such as housing, education and health care. Chinese can access such services only in the place in which they are registered. About 950 million Chinese, 75% of the total population possesses a rural hukou.

Migrant workers travel back to their villages between jobs or for the harvest and send 90% of their salary to their families who rely on this income to survive. Migrants earn lower wages than urban residents, an average 540 yuan ($80) a month in 2004, compared to 1,350 yuan for registered urban residents. Remittances from urban to rural China are estimated to exceed $80 billion a year.

Employers provide housing at minimal cost and minimal standard on the work sites. A room of 250 square feet is typically shared by 10 people. Overcrowding is a common phenomenon and lack of electricity, potable water or heat during the winter months are often reported as the general condition in company provided housing.

Li Chuan Xin from Hunan province came for the summer of 2007 to work for a cleaning company on the site of the Olympic Stadium. A company recruiter came to his village to enlist several hundred men from the region. His salary of 50-60 RMB ($6-8) per day would only be paid out to him at the end of his stay before returning home for the harvest. Until then, he only got a small allowance, which he used to pay for food and a bunk bed in the site’s housing barracks.

For Li Chan Xin, this was his first visit to the capital, but many of his colleagues were returning for the third or fourth time to work on construction sites in the city. Spring festival at the end of April, or the harvest season in the fall are always reasons to go back to the villages but like most other migrant workers, Li Chuan Xin sees no chance to move to the city permanently and relocate his family.

Most migrants do not get health insurance from their urban employers and cannot easily access public health facilities. Similarly, the lack of access to schools and housing prevents migrants from relocating their families. They therefore remain transient, often for decades of their lives.

The Chinese government has been debating whether to loosen the hukou system since the mid-1990s. The most recent review by the Ministry of Public Security in 2005 concluded that local governments would have to extend to migrants the right to housing, education and health care, at significant cost to local governments.[1] So far, local authorities have not been able to address this challenge. Providing housing and other services is still largely left to the employer with very little government oversight. According to Human Rights Watch, the inability to present an urban hukou, still denies migrant workers basic rights within their urban environment.[2]

[1] Migration News, October 2008 Volume 14 Number 4

[2] “One Year of my blood” HRW Report, 2008