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Ask for Kenneth

Mikael Askergren © 2018

A few years ago, when American Joel Garreau was interviewed in a Swedish newspaper1 about cities and city life, he remarked:

“I usually talk about mine canaries, the canary birds you send down in mines to see if they would survive. [In cities, the mine canaries are] the small specialized stores and restaurants. If they are surviving, there is life in the city.” (My italics.)

An ingeniously formulated statement – and seductive in the way it identifies the presence of specialized and odd businesses as a measure of the diversity we all associate with genuine urbanity. Now, whenever I first visit a successful (or less successful) example of city planning that interests me, I am always on the lookout for mine canaries.

Canaries in Upper Johanneberg

Upper Johanneberg (Övre Johanneberg) is a residential district of Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish) located just south of the city center, on a hill right behind Göta Square (Götaplatsen) and the Gothenburg Art Museum – a good example of unified functionalist planning from 1936 by functionalist legend and Gothenburg’s Director of Public Works (förste stadsingenjör) Uno Åhrén. In this respect, Upper Johanneberg’s architecture and urban history can be classified as at least as interesting as the better-known functionalist housing developments at Gärdet in Stockholm or Ribersborg in Malmö, which were built around the same time.

When I visit Upper Johanneberg for the first time in April 2018 (strange that I have never been here before) I note that Upper Johanneberg has plenty of businesses of the specialized, and odd varieties that fall into the category of Garreau’s mine canaries – and they are located not only along the main through-streets, Gibraltargatan and Viktor Rydbergsgatan, but also on cross streets and parallel streets as well. Businesses like a small pet shop and a funeral home.

Plus several hairdressers, pizzerias and grocery shops. (I do not count hairdressers, pizzerias, or grocery shops as genuine mine canaries – these businesses are not sufficiently specialized, not odd enough, not far enough outside the center of everyday life – but they should be mentioned here anyway.)

For a mine canary hunter in Upper Johanneberg, however, a genuine traditional second-hand bookstore would be about the best you could hope to find. So is there a second-hand bookstore in Upper Johanneberg? Yes, bingo, on the corner of Gibraltargatan and Eklandagatan there it is, Antikvariat Pan.

The owner says that he himself is fairly new to the bookselling business, but the store has been in the same place, on the same street corner, in the same building, for decades. And in recent years the store has even expanded its operation rather than scale back. In addition to books they now sell vinyl records and much more. (“Ask for Kenneth,” the sign says on the front door, if you are interested in selling old coins or banknotes.)

Urbanity Index u

But looking for a second-hand bookstore is, of course, not a very reliable method to use when assessing and ranking the urban qualities of a particular neighborhood or district, especially when the area in question is still in the planning stage and there are no buildings for a second-hand bookstore to move into yet. Could there be a more accurate way to measure, even to quantify urbanity? Is there a way to measure urbanity in numbers, curves and tables? Is there a measurement method that also works at the planning stage, before the area in question has even begun to be built? Yes, in fact there is: the u-Index, the Urbanity Index u, a concrete measure of urbanity that I attempted to launch on a broad front in an article I wrote in 2016.2

When you want to measure the conditions needed for creating a genuine urban landscape and a high quality of urban life, the Urbanity Index u is superior to all other methods, by far. No other established measurement method is as reliable for measuring and quantifying urban qualities. The Urbanity Index is, for example, much more effective and much more accurate as a measure of urbanity than what floor area ratios (FAR) can offer – I believe I showed this in my article from 2016. However, my Urbanity Index has not been accepted in the big wide world, neither by academics nor other experts. I am not aware of any expert on urban issues that has begun to use this form of measurement.

I might be able to convince more of you people out there about the simplicity and effectiveness of my Urbanity Index if there could be shown a direct causal link between 1) the admittedly anecdotal but intuitively appealing and seductive idea of the mine canary, and 2) the more technocratic Urbanity Index u. If this is the case: in an area with a ​​high Urbanity Index (u ≈ 1), it should always be possible to find a second-hand bookstore somewhere in the area, while in an area with a low Urbanity Index (u ≈ 0), it would hardly be possible to find one at all.

Upper Johanneberg as a Calculation Example

In Upper Johanneberg there is as mentioned a second-hand bookstore. A second-hand bookstore with a history, which has done well and has survived for decades. So far so good. To find support for my thesis that the presence of a second-hand bookstore in a given neighborhood coincides with a high Urbanity Index in the same neighborhood, one needs only to calculate the Urbanity Index u for the block where Antikvariat Pan is located, and hopefully the u Index will be high (u ≈ 1).

All that is required to be able to calculate the Urbanity Index is a map with all of the block and property boundaries drawn in. Then all one has to do is pull out a ruler and measure the length of each boundary, separate all the total lengths into two groups (as described below), sum up all of the measurements in each group, and finally divide the two resulting sums into each other. See the adjacent illustration, a schematic representation of the property divisions in our second-hand bookstore block:

The sum of the lengths in meters of the block’s “inner” property lines (marked in blue) is: 45m + 45m + 17m + 17m + 54m + 45m + 36m + 113m + 30m + 30m + 30m + 30m + 49m + 40m = 581m.

The sum of the lengths in meters of the block’s “outer” property lines (marked in pink) is: 49m + 37m + 6m + 271m + 21m + 9m + 186m + 21m + 10m + 30m + 46m + 43m + 31m + 6m + 6m + 31m = 803m.

The block’s Urbanity Index u is obtained by dividing the sum of the lengths of the block’s “inner” (blue) property lines by the sum of the lengths of the block’s “outer” (pink) property lines:

∑property linesinner / ∑property linesouter = 581m / 803m = 0.7

By comparison, it should be pointed out that if the block with the second-hand bookstore had consisted of one single property, where the sum of all the lengths of the “inner” (blue) property lines of the block would be equal to zero, then the Urbanity Index u for the block would have also been equal to zero, since 0m / 803m = 0. Or if the land was not divided into blocks or building plots at all, if all the land in Upper Johanneberg had been common lands and park areas, that is, even if the sum of all the lengths of the block’s “outer” (pink) property lines had been equal to zero, in that case it would have been futile to try to calculate the Urbanity Index value, since division by zero (even in the special case of zero divided by zero) is mathematically undefined. Which intuitively feels reasonable – it feels reasonable not to count common lands (allmänningar) and parks as urban phenomena. Common lands and parks are, of course, things that appears here and there in cities, but in spots, more the exception than the rule, and it seems reasonable that it is simply not possible to calculate an Urbanity Index, that it is simply not possible to define “the degree of urbanity” of common lands and parks.

But back to our calculation example. Neither the sum of the “inner” nor the sum of the “outer” property lines is equal to zero in our example. Upper Johanneberg is actually divided into conventional city blocks, and the block with the second-hand bookstore at the corner of Gibraltargatan and Eklandagatan has also been divided into a large number of individual building plots. As a result the block has a fairly high Urbanity Index value, u = 0.7. Which is a rather good result for a multifamily housing development located outside of the actual city center. In this respect, the example of Upper Johanneberg supports my thesis that the presence of a second-hand bookstore in any given neighborhood coincides well with a high Urbanity Index in that neighborhood.

This relatively high u-value can be surprising to a visitor who lacks access to a detailed plot map, since the neighborhood is a very typical modernist-style suburban area in the genre of isolated-buildings-in-a-rolling-park-landscape without traditional street corridors. A first glance instead gives the impression that the area was never divided into building plots, so the Urbanity Index value should therefore be quite low.

A site plan of Upper Johanneberg, however, with all the block and property lines drawn in, reveals that the initial impression, the impression of public parkland not subdivided into smaller parcels, is misleading. In fact, not only are the housing blocks divided into parcels with relatively small independent buildings (each constructed by a different builder, who in turn hired a different architect), but the area’s lush green lawns and oak-dotted hills are also divided into parcels. Very little of the area’s open landscape, much less than you would first think, actually consists of public parkland. Most of the parkland consists of small lots in long rows, similar to the arrangement of gardens in single-family housing areas, a little piece of “garden” for each individual building, where only the fences between the “gardens” are missing.

But it is no coincidence that visitors can be fooled into believing that all the land between the housing blocks in Upper Johanneberg is public parkland. The fact that this is not the case has been intentionally camouflaged by Uno Åhrén. He actually wanted all the land between the housing blocks in Upper Johanneberg to be public parkland, owned and managed by the city of Gothenburg. The division of the land into individual parcels was imposed on Åhrén from above – the real estate manager of Gothenburg preferred to divide up the city’s land and sell off the parcels.3 It is thus not thanks to, but rather despite Uno Åhrén that the district of Upper Johanneberg today enjoys a relatively high u-value.

If Upper Johanneberg had been designed and planned much later, say in 1966 instead of 1936, then social changes would have caught up with Uno Åhrén’s vision of an Upper Johanneberg without separate parcels – suburban development in the 1960s tend to have larger property sizes and fewer properties per block than that of the 1930s. If the area had been built first in the 1960s, then the block with Antikvariat Pan would have consisted of one single continuous property, and consequently it would have had an Urbanity Index value of u = 0, no question about it. This would have had a highly negative impact on the possibility of establishing a successful business in the area. If the area had first been built in the 1960s, there simply would have not been as many urban mine canaries in Upper Johanneberg as there are today.

It has to be mentioned that the number of mine canaries in Upper Johanneberg has been positively affected by the fact that a fairly busy street, Gibraltargatan, borders the area. It is no coincidence that most of Upper Johanneberg’s businesses (including Antikvariat Pan) are gathered along this stretch. They have gathered here because Gibraltargatan is a street where more people are present than on Viktor Rydbergsgatan, which is higher up. Along Gibraltargatan, not only the residents of Johanneberg but people from all over Gothenburg travel to and from the city center. Viktor Rydbergsgatan does not have the same volume of through-traffic – most of the people moving along this street live in Johanneberg. All the more remarkable then that there are actually so many mine canary businesses along Viktor Rydbergsgatan (more than one would generally expect in a relatively isolated suburban enclave high up on a hill). And this very noticeable chirping of mine canaries throughout all of Upper Johanneberg, not only along Gibraltargatan, is due to the division of land into separate parcels.

It is the division of land into separate parcels, and nothing else, which in the end, when all is said and done, actually determines how an urban landscape works, that actually determines how people who inhabit the urban landscape behave – socially, culturally, legally, and financially.

In addition, if Uno Åhrén had chosen not to make unusual city block layouts in Upper Johanneberg, if Åhrén instead gave each single block a simpler geometric form that was not so absurdly windy and awkwardly complicated, then the sum of all the lengths of the block’s “outer” (pink) property lines would have become smaller, and the calculation would have resulted in a higher Urbanity Index for our block with the second-hand bookstore – which is exactly what one would expect from an appropriate and reliable measure of urbanity: the conditions for a particular district’s business and commercial success are affected to the highest degree by the geometric patterns of the property boundaries appearing on a property map. The simpler and more general the pattern, the more banal the street and block pattern, the better the conditions for a long-term lively city. With simpler and more general city block forms in Upper Johanneberg – but with the blocks still subdivided into at least as many smaller parcels! - the Urbanity Index would not only have been higher, it would have produced even better conditions for all kinds of business activities. Even for the more or less odd canaries. With simpler and more general city block forms, there might have been the possibility for even more second-hand bookstores in Upper Johanneberg.

Effective & Ineffective

Note that the size of the blocks in and of themselves (or the size of the parcels in and of themselves) is not critical for the final result when calculating the Urbanity Index. The Urbanity Index is not about the absolute dimensions of the blocks and parcels – the Urbanity Index is about the proportions of the block in relation to the parcel sizes within the block. The Urbanity Index u is high when there is a favorable proportional relation between 1) the outer dimensions of the block on the one hand, and 2) the subdivision of the block into smaller parcels on the other – regardless of whether the blocks themselves (or the parcels themselves) are very large or very small.

For example, it would be a mistake to believe that very small blocks and very short distances between the street corners are by themselves something that automatically ensures a positive city life, just because such streetscapes may be perceived as “small-scale” and picturesque. One must always, in all circumstances, be able to reach every single property by foot, with emergency vehicles, with electricity, water and sewers, and so on, but from a practical point of view it is enough to be able to reach each property from one direction. To make the block so small and the pattern of the street grid so tight that it is possible to reach each property from several directions, perhaps even from all four directions (in other words, with only one property per block and a u = 0) is ineffective and expensive. It costs money to build and maintain more streets than are actually needed, and the unnecessarily high costs for the construction and maintenance of too many streets in the long run undermines the economics of the real estate development and the viability of local businesses (including Garreau’s mine canaries), which in turn undermines the experience of a neighborhood as “alive.”

An unnecessarily dense and ineffective “small-scale” street network also means that street life is diluted onto a larger surface area – a street life that would be perceived as more intense and dynamic if it was concentrated on a smaller number of streets and fewer street corners.

No, picturesque and “small-scale” are not in and of themselves a recipe for urbanity – not unless the property sizes in the area are at least as small-scale as the block is. Not if the parcels are too big in relation to the small-scale blocks. Businesses and city life benefit primarily from a long-term cost-effective system of city blocks and individual properties, that is, a city plan where the block is not too small and the parcels are not too large in relation to each other. And how do you know as a builder or as an architect or as a city planner or as a politician if the block is not too small and the parcels are not too large? One calculates the Urbanity Index for the blocks and the neighborhood. A city plan where the blocks and the parcels have a favorable proportional relationship will have a high Urbanity Index u.

No other measurement method, none currently in use, emphasizes the crucial importance of precisely this proportional relationship. Which explains why the Urbanity Index is superior to all other methods for measuring and quantifying urban qualities.

And so: A high Urbanity Index in any given neighborhood means in all cases that the conditions are good for the emergence of this kind of genuine urbanity, which means, among other things, that not only the more prosaic types of local services but also a number of highly specialized, more or less odd mine canary types of businesses can both appear and survive in the neighborhood. A low Urbanity Index value will mean the opposite. It’s as simple as that.

Many thanks to Lars Marcus for mentioning the interview with Joel Garreau in Dagens Nyheter and Garreau’s concept of the mine canary. Thank you to both Lars Marcus and Johan Johansson for reviewing my first drafts of this article. Read more about the Urbanity Index u in my previously mentioned article from 2016.

P.S.

By the way, when I first published my theses a couple of years ago about urbanity and the Urbanity Index, which included calculations of the Urbanity Index for selected urban areas, I focused only on Stockholm. I was content to only calculate u-values, and did not document the possible occurrence of any mine canaries at that time. (Garreau’s clever description was still unknown to me then.) So are there any urban mine canaries in any of the Stockholm areas I examined in 2016? There should be, I have some clear memories of that. I remember among other things that there was a second-hand bookstore in at least one of the four Stockholm districts that I used as city planning examples. In any case, I have looked into it and I document the results here now, after the fact.

I start by looking for mine canaries in Skarpnäck and Skärholmen, more specifically in the Ballongen block in Skarpnäck and the Oxholmen block in Skärholmen, and find – nothing. Not a single chirping canary anywhere.

Which is not surprising, since the Urbanity Index is always extremely low in such relatively new areas. Younger developments tend to have lower u-values (larger parcels and fewer parcels per block) than in older developments, and quite rightly in 2016 the u-values for the Ballongen block in Skarpnäck and the Oxholmen block in Skärholmen in both cases were zero (u = 0).

I continue my search in the other two districts I investigated in 2016, both of which had very high Urbanity Index values (u = 1.2), namely the Röda Rosen block in Gärdet and the Lägret block in Östermalm. And as expected, in the Röda Rosen block in Gärdet one finds the second-hand bookstore Aspingtons Antikvariat. And in the Lägret block in Östermalm, even though one finds no second-hand bookstore, there are other types of mine canaries, such as the restaurant Coco & Carmen, the pastry designer Ateljé Tårtan and the upholsterer Lars Blomkvists Tapetserarverkstad.


Essay originally published in Swedish in the Swedish architectural review Kritik, #37-July 2018:
Fråga efter Kenneth

English translation by Michael Perlmutter.

The original Swedish version of this article was published with two appendices containing excerpts from e-mail conversations with Johan Johansson and Lars Marcus on the subject of urbanity and the Urbanity Index (not yet translated into English).

More by Mikael Askergren about the Urbanity Index:
Urbanity: What is it? or How to Calculate the Urbanity Index u
Ideologiteater

Illustrations

• Canary. Photographer unknown.

• Upper Johanneberg (Övre Johanneberg) is a residential district located just south of the Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish) city core, up on a hill right behind Göta Square (Götaplatsen) and the Gothenburg Art Museum. View towards the northwest. Aerial photo by Oskar Bladh. Image source: Arkitektur- och designcentrum

• Uno Åhrén, Director of Public Works of Gothenburg and a legendary functionalist architect. Photo: Jan de Meyere. Image source: Stockholmskällan

• Examples of urban mine canaries in Upper Johanneberg, Gothenburg. A pet store Gibraltargatan Zoo on Gibraltargatan, and a small funeral home Vila Begravning on the corner of Richertsgatan and Olof Rudbecksgatan. Photo by Mikael Askergren, 2018.

• The second-hand bookstore Antikvariat Pan is located on the corner of Gibraltargatan and Eklandagatan. “Ask for Kenneth” says the sign on the door, if you are interested in selling coins or banknotes. Photo by Mikael Askergren, 2018.

• Montage of road signs by Mikael Askergren, 2016. The fictive signs “Urbanity” and “Urbanity Ends” are a play on/paraphrase of the Swedish Transport Agency’s actual road signs “Urban Area” and “Urban Area Ends.” Image sources:
Image source 1
Image source 2

• Sketch by Mikael Askergren, 2016. How to calculate the Urbanity Index u. A building development is classified as urban if the ratio ∑property lineinner / ∑property lineouter ≥ 1.

• Montage by Mikael Askergren, 2018. How to calculate the Urbanity Index u for the block containing the second-hand bookstore Antikvariat Pan in Gothenburg’s Upper Johanneberg district. Gothenburg’s Director of Public Works Uno Åhrén authored the city plan in 1936. The X marks the location of Antikvariat Pan.

• Views from the park landscape along Viktor Rydbergsgatan in Upper Johanneberg. Note that the area’s park landscape is not actually a park in the true sense; from a legal and technical standpoint it is divided into individual parcels with each belonging to a specific property. Photo by Mikael Askergren, 2018.

• Miner with a canary in a cage. Photographer unknown.

• David Mitchell & Robert Webb with a mine canary in a cage. That Mitchell and Webb Look, second series, BBC 2008. YouTube

• In search of urban mine canaries in Stockholm. The Ballongen block adjacent to Skarpnäck Park in the suburban town Skarpnäck – view with an unhappy, droopy light post. The Oxholmen block at Ekholmsvägen in the suburban town Skärholmen – view showing a typical building with outdoor corridors. Second-hand bookstore Aspingtons Antikvariat in the Röda Rosen block at Värtavägen in the Gärdet district of Stockholm – view with store sign. Upholsterer Lars Blomkvists Tapetserarverkstad in the Lägret block at Riddargatan in the Östermalm district of Stockholm – view with store sign. Photos by Mikael Askergren, 2018. Maps showing block and property lines from the City of Stockholm’s webpage: Stockholms stad

Footnotes

1 Bo Madestrand: “Livet i utkanten” (Life on the Edge), Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, August 31, 2006. In architecture circles Joel Garreau is best known for his influential book Edge City from 1991.

2 Mikael Askergren: Urbanity: What is it? or How to Calculate the Urbanity Index u, published in Swedish in the architecture journal Kritik, Stockholm, #32-December 2016.

3 Eva Rudberg: Uno Åhrén, Byggforskningsrådet, Stockholm, 1981.

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