Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Audience-Driven Storytelling

When you write an abstract for a project, retweak it every time you tell someone about it. That way the story gets retooled at the speed of thought, matching your community and all the information you take in from them. Every time you retell the story for someone just on the edge of your social circle, you entertain another body of knowledge.  How would this story sound to scientists? to working-class folk?  Try to hear their thoughts in advance and tell them a story they'd find meaningful.  Then see how they actually respond, and take on what they know.

This advice particularly applies to graduate students at the end stage of a dissertation.  Retooling your methods won't work, but once you have your data, it can speak to many questions. Most book manuscripts that come out of dissertations suffer by responding to too shallow a literature, too narrow a public.  When you sit down to write the introduction and conclusion to a project, remember the best books you've read, the smartest people you've talked to, the most compelling conversations about changing the world.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Project Summary: "Learning From India: The Modern Commons in Land and Water", May-June 2013

"Learning from India" is the collaboration between a historian of infrastructure, Jo Guldi, and an environmental engineer, Zachary Gates. Because of its traditions of decentralized self-governance and appropriate technology post-Independence, India is arguably the nation in the world with the widest experience of rainwater harvesting, DIY-sanitation, small-scale irrigation, participatory mapping, and other coordinated small interventions, reproduced at scale, that seek self-directed, community-governed, participatory solutions to market and government issues of the allocation of scarce resources like land and water. Our research trip will seek out cases where community map-making has been successfully applied to the allocation and self-government of limited natural resources.

Radical political theorists in the West like Colin Ward and David Graeber suspect that the small-scale, decentralized solutions formulated by local communities in lesser developed nations may hold solutions more egalitarian and sustainable than the top-down, centralized solutions devised by centralized states in the modern era.  Meanwhile, observers like Ananya Roy and John Harriss have been more skeptical, pointing to the cooptation of poor peoples' movements by middle-class NGOs, and the increasing alienation of poor people from state-protected rights to land and water.  Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of community organizers, NGOs, and inventors, India has a rich experience with community map making, DIY technology, and participatory organization going back through the 1970s.  On our travels, we're hoping to learn about systematic small interventions from rainwater catchment to community self-governance, collecting the best set of tools to promote a genuinely self-governed, sustainable urban ecosystem.


Our travels are motivated by questions about truly participatory governance of scarce resources, a problem not limited to the developing world.  As a foot-soldier in the battle to restore New England's industrial landscapes, Zachary Gates witnessed first-hand the limits of private-sector initiatives to channel investment against future flood and water shortage to the benefit of all.  Facingthreats of both flood and water shortage, America's cities have much to learn about the possibility of self-governance.  Can maps and community meetings really promote egalitarian consensus around the administration of land and water?  Where have modern efforts to effectively allocate land and water at scale represented the community as a commons?  In the tradition of Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and Elinor Ostrom, we look to the power of history to help us design resilient environments that enable natural instincts towards community, mutual aid, and the preservation of natural resources.  

Our choice of India is the culmination of ten years of historical study on modern administration of land and water.  In her first book, Roads to Power, historian Jo Guldi concentrated on the rise of the professional civil engineer and the infrastructure state and its role in mediating access to trade for communities that became increasingly dependent upon centralized bureaucracy for their well-being.  Guldi's work in "Learning From India" will form a part of her next research project, The Long Land War, which concentrates on the problem of people's movements to restore local control over land and water, from the Irish Land War of the 1870s through the Latin American and Indian land reform movements of today.  Chapters include the creation of a global consensus around rent control c. 1890, the post-1946 attempt by the UN to engineer a global land reform movement as a peaceful path midway between capitalism and communism, and the rise of an international financial market in real estate after 1974  and the creation of global squatterdom. These stories concentrate around the  global swarm of radicals, intellectuals, and activists moving between Ireland, Scotland, India, California, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil, whose movements created a global flow of technologies for the allocation of land, including surveying, financial instruments, and forms of political organization. 

A key chapter in this story highlights the development of participatory mapping as a tool for community self-government and awareness of land ownership, tracing its origins from the  walking tours organized by British radicals in the 1920s through the promotion of Rural Rapid Appraisal and participatory mapping by development expert Robert Chambers at the Institute for International Economic Development in Sussex and his Indian followers.  In their work, participatory map-making was championed as a way of giving sovereign land-rights to indigenous communities, of promoting self-government through egalitarian forms of consensus, and of holding outsider experts responsible to the realities and desires of the local community.  By the 1980s, participatory mapping was spread to India, where economic scarcity and Gandhian ideologies of self-governance prepared elites to embrace decentralized tools for self-direction.  By 1998 the World Bank itself was promoting training in participatory map-making.  Since then, progress in GIS and map-making online has provided the backbone for community self-mapping of forests, toilet allocation, water availability and squatter settlements.  For these reasons, India has become the site in the world where participatory surveying has the greatest institutional support and the widest array of precedent.  On our visit, we will be collecting and curating a representative range of maps, from hand-drawn maps of indigenous peoples' forest territory to GIS-enabled maps for allocating urban water distribution.  We will be asking the maps' organizers about the intentions for which the maps were assembled, the degree of participation encouraged, and the maps' successes as instruments of political consensus and political reform.

Many of these forms of participation are, in practice, extremely corrupt and their actual involvement of communities limited.   Maps have been used in some instances merely to collect information on how much a community is willing to pay for a pump installation, rather than as a tool for questioning the allocation of water between industrial agriculture and the urban poor. Elsewhere the aims of map-making are rather more grand.  In Bangalore, a Public Laboratory-affiliated mapper has been creating maps of GMO's and their relationship to traditional crops.  Can those community-sourced maps be used to generate a broader conversation about ownership, responsibility, and the public good?  Is the map by itself a technology for creating ongoing debate and resolving issues of management and maintenance? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sample Teaching Module on Participatory Mapping

Some time ago I had a great Skype call with Thomas Steele-Maley, one of the great forces in the deschooling movement. He was interested in some of my historical work on the uses of participatory mapping since 1920, and we started talking about what an out-of-the-box starter kit for kids (7th grade to 12th grade) (or for that matter undergraduates) might look like.

Meeting one:Discussion of landscape as an object of made history. Chapters on following "lines" (power lines, railways, roads) to understand the geometry of power from John Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic.

Meeting two:1-page handout on radical walking tour. The radical walking tour invites people of different generations and at least two different economic classes to participate in walking through a one of the city's older neighborhoods together, collaboratively building a story of what used to be there, who owns the land, who used to live there, who lives there now, and why. Participants should expect to tell the story based on particular buildings, using clues such as brick work, stone work, cemeteries, infrastructure, and property lines to talk about how the place was divided and by whom. In preparation for the radical walking tour, the teacher should acquire at least three different maps of the neighborhood from three different points in its history, teaching the students basic skills of map reading and providing some. Teacher should read Henry Randall, History in the Open Air (hard to find), or his article "History in the Open Air" (gated access), as well as perhaps the chapter I wrote, "Landscape," in Simon Gunn and Lucy Faire, eds., Research Methods for History (2011). Also consider the two-paragraph summary of the Boston group of Interested Critical Explorers of Publicly-Owned Private Spaces, "About Walking Tours."

Meeting three:
Students use walking papers and/or their cell phones to tinker with the technologies of changing a collective map. They might then upload their traces to Open Street Map, the shared, open-source version of Google Maps, which allows communities to annotate in enormous detail the parks and community gardens and other recreation spaces around them (check out Berlin for a really well-annotated city). The "hello" moment is typically one like the one I had a few years ago, where in an hour-long ramble with some librarian colleagues, I downloaded a new program onto my cell phone and used it to map three of the ornamental gardens at the University of Virginia campus. Two hours later I was gobsmacked to realize that putting a squiggle on a map, indeed a public and shared map, was as easy as writing a paragraph for a blog entry.

The red squiggles here were ornamental walkways actually walked by me, cellphone in hand. Here they are, and you can look them up and glimpse them for yourself by looking up the University of Virginia at Open Street Map.

Technologies such as these are a new form of writing, a new means of communication, and ease with them is one of the defining features of literacy of the digital age. It's experiences such as these that allow the teenager vaguely aware of urban policy issues to turn into a Bill Rankin, for instance, accomplished mapper of race in America's cities, among other things, who got his start as a boy scout sketching maps of the encampment for his fellow scouts to use. Map literacy is the tool of those who have it, and in their hands it becomes the means of entering conversations about privilege, access, and poverty in ways that put to shame more unwieldy forms of textual description.

Meeting four and after:
a collaborative project w Mapping Main st or million dollar blocks

Monday, February 04, 2013

Two courses for Brown University, Fall 2013

This summer I will close up shop at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where I've enjoyed three years of uninhibited research time, and return to the life of teaching as Assistant Professor of Britain and its Empire at Brown University in Providence, RI.  I'm immensely looking forward to the transition.  Research time is fantastic, but teaching is generally where our best ideas and most rigorous thinking comes from.  Students, even more than colleagues, challenge us to remain relevant, to take opposing points of view seriously, and to witness directly to voices from the past.

The History Department at Brown takes its undergraduates seriously, and I've been urged by my colleagues to offer courses that will attract non-majors from a variety of fields, and to overtly engage with my commitments to land and water use and the history of capitalism.

In my time as a researcher, I've visited leaders in land reform and international infrastructure investment and worker cooperatives who have emphasized how hard it is to find undergraduates sensitive to both ecology and governance, and how important the lens of history is to their work.  In particular, I've found myself in conversations about the future of land use around the globe, which entertain the challenges of driving investment towards clean water and sustainable cities (consider this map of coming water crises prepared by NASA).  Investors, governments, NGOs, and community groups all need to hire students prepared to understand how flows of capital and participation have failed to serve communities in the past.  History majors, far more than economists, political scientists, or area studies majors, are prepared to understand the wider shape of institutions, the long legacy of colonialism and bureaucracy in general, and the challenges of capitalism, both its potential to reform and its potential to exclude.  I hope to raise up an army of undergraduates who understand how to look at contemporary crises, from the environment to economic breakdown, from the perspective of institutions in our shared past.

The traditional categories of the history discipline are at work here in an emphasis on the story of institutions, social movements, capital flows, how their nature changes over time, and what resources are necessary to understand them.  The History of Britain and its Empire remains a subtext in the range of examples that will appear in both classes.  Examples for the histories of cities and the rise of infrastructure and back-to-the-land movements and environmental and organic successes and failures will be drawn disproportionately from the realm of British historiography, which remains, for reasons of geographical spread and political innovation, an excellent place to examine transitions to modernity in all its forms.  Digital history will be urged in the form of text-mining and mapping exercises, which will support student-driven explorations of aggregate movements over time, for instance, geoparsing World Bank reports with Paper Machines to show how patterns of intervention in infrastructure vs informal development have progressed over time.  There will be a lot of critical reading in the history of economics as well -- Adam Smith is almost always a figure on my syllabi -- and a good deal of recent reading in the history of recent flows of capital, likely including Nicholas Shaxton and Wendy Wolford among others.  I hope to instrumentalize the traditional tools of historical analysis to look at the world around us now, to understand how it differs from the challenges of environmentalism in Rachel Carson's era, or the challenges of floods in the early modern Netherlands -- and to give students the confidence and tools to commit similar forms of analysis themselves.

Utopias and Other Wastelands 

Advanced undergraduate/grad student seminar.

 Radical thought has urged upon us a return to utopias and alternative geographies, both in the form of living movements like the MST (Landless Workers' Movement), World Social Forum, Occupy, or StrikeDebt, as they proclaim, “Another World is Possible,” and in the form of intellectual treatises affiliated with this movement that explore the agency of “heterotopias” or “Temporary Autonomous Zones” as geotemporal sites of utopian agency. In general, historians have been skeptical about the role of utopias to trigger social change, viewing them at best as escape valves for privilege during economic downturns, at worst dangerous experiments in surveillance. Yet from generation to generation, social movements have challenged the world around them, imagining the transformation of particular retreats, cities, and nations as a laboratory for experimentation with the future.

 What factors are necessary for a social movement to grow? Where have international coalitions of reformers or rebels exempted themselves from the contemporary world system, or forged tools for reform and resistance, or carved out a temporary autonomous zone for critique? We will look at the international Progressive movement, appropriate technology, trade unions and cooperatives as examples of modern movements that, doomed in one nation, occasionally flourished elsewhere. Themes will include the esoteric and geographically isolated examples like back-to-the-land movements and psychological/sexual reform movements, as well as mainstream movements that began as utopian plans for remaking the world: democratic reform, scientific collection and curation of a more abundant or sustainable agriculture, Fabian socialism, and the welfare state. We will interpret the conservative utopias of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman alongside the radical utopias of Theosophists. Twentieth-century stories will trace the fates of these utopias through the rise of organic farming, cooperativism, civil rights, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the Green Revolution, and human rights. We will be looking into the alliances of professionals, experts, national legislators, capitalism and the organs of world government, trying to understand the alignments of power that caused some of these movements to flourish and others to falter. The class will raise questions of agency, asking when individuals and collectives have the opportunity to change the world around them and how we measure their success across the grander sweep of historical time.

 Land Use and Capitalism, 1350-2060 

 Undergraduate introductory lecture course, no prerequisites.

 We live in an era of enormous storms, ecological genocide, evictions, and pollution. While all cultures interact with the territory around them, modern political institutions have developed the means to transform landscapes at an unprecedented scale for the purposes of political security and economic growth. How are the failures to relate to our environment continuous with those of earlier civilizations? 

This course offers an overview of major traditions for analyzing landscape in political economy, theology, literature, and anthropology, asking how the imaginary landscapes of the mind become the material realities of farm and highway. Themes will include the rise of modern, surveying, engineering, cities, infrastructure systems, and land reform. It will ask how historic models of government have played out in an era of environmental disaster, famine, mortgages, and evictions. The course will explore tensions between political centralization and heterotopias, nomadic and settled people, peoples' movements and finance, exploring questions about the spiritual, economic, aesthetic, ecological, and political relationship of people to their territory.