The Practical Radical

Of Graffiti, Space and Youth

April 4, 2010
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Rio is a gorgeous city – stunning really. The city is up against both the mountains and the ocean. The people are vibrant. The music amazing.

Yet one thing that I missed that my 12 years old son, Liam, noticed immediately was the graffiti. It was everywhere. The last time I noticed graffiti was in Rome, where I found the incongruence between the ancient monuments such as the Coliseum with the proliferation of graffiti everywhere quite striking. The graffiti in Rome struck me as a way that youth were trying to take back a city they did not feel part of. The graffiti had an angry, gritty feel to it. The young against the old – an urban inter-generational argument of sorts.

Graffiti in a Rome Subway

What was different with the graffiti in Rio was that though there was seemingly an equal amount of it, the graffiti was, according to Liam, “#$%^ awesome”. These were truly graffiti artists, a cut above the scrawl that I saw in Rome. At Liam’s behest we took a quick urban safari and took photos of the different graffiti, some pictured here. From this safari I learned a lot about graffiti culture such as what “toying” is  (“toying” or writing over someones graffiti is a way to show  disrespect for inferior work); that EVERYONE has a tag, dad; and that you have to be careful not to toy or copy a gang’s tag. Complicated, illuminating and yet another thing I as parent had to get a handle on.

In stepping back and reflecting, there were are two things struck me about the graffiti. First, on my two experiences with graffiti – the angst filled graffiti of Rome vs the graffiti art of Rio – I think the difference between the two cities has a lot to do with the demographic context within which the graffiti was being done. Italy, as is most of Europe and the developed world, is demographically much older; compared to Rio where, like in much of the developing world, there is a much larger percentage of the population which is youthful. You can see this in the age pyramids below, where the bulge for Brazil is from 0-25 years old, and Italy where the bulge is between 30 and 50.

My experience in some developing country cities is that though youth often face oppression, there is also a growing realization that they are the majority, and, if the country is moving in a positive direction and they are able to engage meaningfully in everyday life, they are the ones to benefit first and their is a sense of hope.[1] In the developed world youth make up a much smaller percentage of the population and  they have a level of say in their city equal to their numbers. This lack of power and influence can breed discontent and often leads to violence. We have seen  some of this urban violence in Europe in the last few years, often  by youth from immigrant communities who are in the majority, but have little power within in their society. See an excellent article done by Jackie Amsden on the violence in France in 2005 – Fires, Festivals and Franchise – Youth Citizenship in France.

Second, it strikes me that graffiti is an important way for youth to claim their space within their respective cities. Research has shown that cities are not an inviting or engaging space for youth – in fact planners often design cities to “manage” the youth “problem”. Urban design is often focused on assuring youth activities such as skateboarding, biking, or hanging out are discouraged. Often recreation space and services for youth are in short supply. Through graffiti youth are able to symbolically claim their space and mark their territory so to speak. It is  important to note that some cities and international agencies recognize that space for youth is in short supply, and so are working to create space which can  engage their burgeoning youth populations. For example, UN-HABITAT and local governments have  developed programs such as the One Stop Youth Resource Centres, which are youth led and initiated, and focus on providing a safe and generative space for youth to work.

So, in the end, I come back to where I started – Rio is a beautiful city. What is less obvious but arguably more important for the long-term sustainability of the city, is that it is the cities youth who in large part are responsible for bringing about this beauty. They are its principal inhabitants, and through public demonstrations such as graffiti we can see both what they are capable of today and what promise they can bring for tomorrow.

[1] Having said this, if the country is not going in a positive direction, then youth can as well be the ones who bring violence to the streets. The violence following the Kenyan elections is an example of this.

* this post can as well be found on the Sustainable Cities blog


The Practical Radical

March 30, 2010
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The origin of this blog has been a 20 year idea in the making of a practical radical. A little of my brief personal history might help this make more sense.

I left my highschool years a conservative politically – my parents were conservative, and i didn’t have much time for any flighty lefty ideas. My first political involvement in grade 12 was to protest the then “solidarity” movement in British Columbia led by the unions against the government of the time. I never completely left my conservative ideology – this i would consider to be the “practical” side of me.

University — well — it was initially a bust. I ended up failing out in three semesters straight – mostly due to dating, friends and card playing. I as well did a stint in Europe (Strasbourg) where I was to go to school and learn french. Well, I found love, partying, and failed out of school there as well. In the words of an old girlfriend “I really didn’t think you were going to make much of yourself”. No kidding.

My “turning point” was an experience in the developing world through a program called Canada World Youth. I initially wanted to go to Thailand – better food – but ended up in Ecuador. This  opened my eyes to what was going on in the world – I found my passion. I came back from Ecuador determined and energized. This would be the start of my “radical” side – – fighting the good fight – social justice and all

I met a guy – Jeff Gibbs – after reading about his new organization the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) at University, (which I went back to and finished 10 years after starting). Within 6 months I was working/volunteering at EYA, and there is where I found my path for the next 17 years. This is where i learned to be a “practical radical” or “pradical”.

As all people who work for small NGOs  know, you never really have one job, but 10, from administrator to programmer to janitor to confidant. I worked with budgets from $50,000 when i first started, run out of a shoebox under Jeff’s bed, to 1.5 million in my last years running the youth program for the World Urban Forum. I loved and hated my job, reveled in the chaos, worked insane hours, got paid little at first, met life long friends, made life long enemies, and affected change. I never could answer “so what do you REALLY do?”, but nor did i care. I loved what I was doing.

Along the way I met my wife, who worked (initially) with an NGO, and we found common focus that has kept us together for now 15 years: social justice, “experiences” over “things” (especially travel), and kids (2 boys). We as well prove the adage “opposites attract” – which is what in the end keeps us together – we are NEVER bored.

I continued my schooling – I decided that I need a practical degree to drive my radical direction – so got a Masters in Management. It is there i learned more about chaos as applied to management and immersed myself in “complexity theory”. Following the World Urban Forum, I began working with UN-HABITAT, the agency within the UN focused on cities. It is from that point on that I left EYA, and I re-focused my work internationally. I have had the honor of working with youth from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Rio de Janeiro – much of our focus has been on how we can meaningfully engage youth in cities and slums. This work has led to another facet of my life – academia – where I have received a fellowship from the University of Colorado to do a PhD in urban planning. I have discovered that space, specifically how youth and other groups live in urban space, fascinates me. I have found that how one defines, claims and names space in our urban wilderness is key to social change. More on these concepts in later blogs.

In the end, I am practical by nature, radical by design. I believe in patterns not lines; paradox not certainty; and the chaotic not the orderly. Systems are stories not boxes, people not positions, which change and grow at each retelling.  To succeed one must be tenacious, open to new ideas, and able to act decisively when the time is upon you. Humor is often the best form of communication, and kindness and belief in humanity is essential. I judge myself, and hoped to be judged, in the moment, and by my actions. My intent is unfinished business.

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