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Pensamientos Genericos Posts

Pre-modern Water Infrastructure

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.  Loren Eiseley

Fluvial Cities.  The history of fluvial structures in pre-modern times is a fascinating story of ancient technology and its sacred imaginaries.  Water Infrastructure and the vicissitudes of its composition as flow, philosophical subject, memory, the discrete, the self-assembled, and exploitation of belief systems produced oral histories and folklore—water infrastructure is a technological driver of myth, logic, and environmental history. 

Storytelling is one of the most compelling and deep-rooted methods of passing knowledge between cultures.  “Narrative enables connectivity in the present, sharing knowledge in an accessible form, which can change the ways we approach an uncertain future” (Morgan & Smith, 2013).  Anthropologist Esha Shah interprets the intermixing of folklore narratives and techniques in India’s tank irrigation technology as “talking literature,” unlike post-colonial historiography and European technological discourse based on rationality.  Shah describes the pre-modern tanks of South Karnataka made by builders called Voddas (AD 1300-1750) as “social storage.” Tank construction was performed under the mandate of village chieftains for rice field irrigation and in exchange for successful operation conditions, they offered their daughters to deities   The fluvial infrastructures of Karnataka are embedded with folk tales, songs, and oral history of the region, cultural evocations rooted in the tanks that resonate as sediment on the present (Shah, 2008).

Digital Photo: Vishwanath S. 2021.  As part of Damasha, farmers decide how much land can be irrigated from the tank with the help of the traditional distributor of water. 

Karnataka’s irrigation infrastructure reveals how traditional (oral, written, and technical) systems form a different water ontology, beyond performance (what it does) or representation (what it is).  However, a third formal manifestation of indigenous knowledge is temporal and aesthetic, producing a deliberate foundation or “entrance” (Kubler), a space-time aura of the work itself.  As Shah states,” folk literature, not as an inviolate historical record, but a work embedded in memory” (Shah, 2008).

In architectural and urban post-colonial critiques, the reexamination of native techniques from Mesoamerica is influencing academic research.  For example, raised bed wetland agriculture known as chinampas built by the Aztecs in the Chalco-Xochimilco drainage basin of the Valley of Mexico (AD 1428-1519) functioned as a source of food for the lacustrine city of Tenochtitlan.  These food islands system took 40 years to conclude, and their construction was part of a forced work regime of 25 million person-days in lands under Aztec control (Arco & Abrams, 2006).

An unidentified author’s representation of a Chinampa [Colour figure can be viewed at]

According to James Maffie, Aztec metaphysics is based on the concept of teotl.  An ontological monism, a reality characterized by becoming instead of being.  Within this philosophical belief, along with olin and malinalli, the principle of nepantla binds together creative and deconstructive agonistic tension of transformation.  Therefore, all processes of becoming occur through weaving and the woven (a smooth Deleuzian space, if I may).  Aztecs lived in woven houses and fabricated woven clothing, and their agricultural fields (chinampas) were correspondingly woven (Maffie, 2014).  The chinampas were part of the extensive hydrological infrastructure, which played a significant role in the population’s subsistence and linked the empire and their gods (Coe, 1964).

The collective memory embedded in these structures aggregated through hybridization of knowledge, beliefs, and indigenous know-how solved particular infrastructural demands of Meso-American civilizations.  However, during Spanish rule and centuries of hydrological dredging, the clay subsoil of the lakebed began to dry and erode.  Five centuries later, the ground in Mexico City has subsided approximately ten meters, causing the collapse of sewer and storm drain infrastructure. Hydrological systems can fail through discrete perturbations when natural and human processes respond to climatic or systemic variability.

Like Tenochtitlan, the ancient city of Angkor in modern Cambodia, Southeast Asia, suffered from infrastructural deterioration from seasonal rainfall, erosion, and sedimentation, creating unpredictable network topological failure (Penny, et al., 2018)  During its 600-year history (AD 800-1400) and similar to its Mesoamerican counterpart, Angkor established a system of canals and reservoirs to capture and distribute water for a city with an area of 1000 km2.  The sophistication of the spatially extensive system, with its thousands of components, made it challenging to maintain and coincided with climate variability.  Angkor’s palimpsest water network produced a cascading set of failures that made its inhabitants abandon the city.  Angkor’s demise research demonstrates that pre-modern urban settlements suffered an infrastructural failure, a critical phenomenon of a self-organizing system when transformed by human or climatic perturbations (Penny, et al., 2018).

Angkor Wat in Cambodia Mike Fuchslocher / Alamy

 Sacred water.  Intimate and autonomous forms of monastic living were made bearable by water infrastructure during the Middle Ages.  Ritual and seclusion have correlated well with water’s presence, flows, and containment throughout human history.  Water casts a spiritual and mystical aura in addition to its health and sanitary properties.  In the medieval Carthusian Charterhouse of Bourgfontaine (ca.1323), water was provided for personal use.   According to historians Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines, “Compared to the monasteries of other orders, charterhouses were relatively few in number, and very few of their water-management systems have been studied.  Bourgfontaine offers good information about a relatively well-preserved Carthusian site and provides new information about medieval methods of locating underground springs, channeling water, and transporting it by means of a siphon across a topographically irregular site” (Bonde & Maines, 2012) In the design of the charterhouse, we see hydraulic infrastructure combined competently with knowledge of topographical grading and site modification.  “Medieval hydrologists harnessed a variety of technologies and exploited the natural potential of their sites” (Bonde & Maines, 2012).  In Bourgfontaine, the drive to build an allocated hydrological system contained a set of requirements that produced adequate living conditions enabling its occupants to have water in their monastic cells.  Water systems were managed, scaled, and detailed during the Middle Age for diversified needs.  Bond and Maines suggest that monasteries were repositories of technological knowledge, and Christianity viewed the domination of water as a statement and powerful form of spiritual intent (Morgan & Smith, 2013).  

Plan of the Bourgfontaine charterhouse, including the extramural parts of the water-management system. The structures in solid black are extant; the contour lines are from IGN Carte topographique 2512 Est–Villers-Cotterêts (1:25.000), confirmed by onsite GPS measurements and Google Earth. (Sources: After the frontispiece in Lucien Marchand, Essai historique sur Bourgfontaine ou la Fontaine Notre-Dame: Ancienne Chartreuse du diocèse de Soissons, 1323–1792 [Château-Thierry, 1953], after a drawing by Dom Sochay. The extramural parts of the water-management system are by the authors.) (Bonde & Maines, 2012)

Water as Muse.  In the last 200 years’ water has gone through a process of secularization.  As our theories of nature and the cosmos scientifically evolved, they transformed the relationship of water with society.  Today water is part of the instruments of political and resource structures.  However, a constant narrative permeates the landscape of water systems, from infrastructures of power like dams and reservoirs to the most intimate water features designed for contemplation, an ongoing dialogue between the metaphysical and the rational.  According to Morgan and Smith, “historically, water management has been predicated upon belief; belief in divinity, belief in human agency, and belief in scientific progress” (Morgan & Smith, 2013).

A contemporary example that comes to mind is the central courtyard of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1962-1965).  Renowned architect Louis Khan designed a building for Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine and imagined the complex as a scientific monastery.  From the onset of the building design, Khan had proposed an “architecture of water” as part of the concept (Brownlee & Long, 1992).  The concrete brutalist forms of the building are reminiscent of contemporary Bourgfontaine, a monastery of knowledge, laboratories, and offices cloistering around a central open courtyard.  A water trough cuts through the middle of the courtyard and disappears into the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, expressive of the essence of wellbeing, reflection, and scientific discovery.



Arco, L. J., & Abrams, E. M. (2006).  An Essay on energetics: The Construction of the Aztec chinampa system.  Antiquity 80, 906-918.

Bonde, S., & Maines, C. (2012).  The Technology of Medieval Water Management at the Charterhouse of Bourgfontaine. Technology and Culture, 625-670.

Brownlee, D. B., & Long, D. G. (1992). Louis Khan: In the Realm of Architecture.  New York: Rizzoli.

Coe, M. D. (1964).  The Chinampas of Mexico.  Scientific American, 90-99.

Maffie, J. (2014).  Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a world in motion.  Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Morgan, R. A., & Smith, J. L. (2013).  Pre-modern Streams of Thought in Twenty-First-Century Water Management.  Radical History Review, 105-129.

Penny, D., Zachreson, C., Fletcher, R., Lau, D., Lizier, J. T., & Nicholas Fisher, D. E. (2018). The demise of Angkor: Systemic vulnerability of urban infrastructure to climatic variations.  Science Advances.

Shah, E. (2008).  Telling Otherwise: A Historical Anthropology of Tank Irrigation Technology in South India.  Technology and Culture Vol. 49, 652-674.


In the next weeks, I will be posting short essays on the theme of infrastructure. Ideas about the nature and impact this concept has on our daily life. I will revisit some historical infrastructures and contemporary versions of them.

Notes on what (and when) is infrastructure

A Lecture, the Classical and the Machine.  In October of 2009, as part of the Post-Industrial Landscape Symposium at Woodbury University in San Diego, architect and critic Peter Martinez-Zellner presented a lecture titled Architecture is not Infrastructure.  Zellner argued that architecture has an aesthetic quality that physical infrastructure does not possess.  The mere utilitarian function of today’s lived space has outmoded functionality.  He reminded us that in the Vitruvian Trinity of firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis (Vitruvius, 1826), a kind of Hippocratic Oath for architects, Firmness (i.e., structure) is implied and therefore not an essential subject of discussion for architects in the 20th century.  However, in western culture classical architecture influenced the design of buildings for hundreds of years via a platonic theory of objects.   Primarily, infrastructure was consigned to the parts of a larger, sometimes unachievable, ideal form.  Consequently, we can argue that after a couple of centuries, architecture is being redefined aesthetically from a singular object with a defined hierarchy to an intellectual component relevant to the discipline of sensory arts such as painting or music.  A post-Kantian attitude where “beauty” in architecture is non-dependent on solely function and form (Guyer, 2011).

Woodbury School of Architecture in San Diego Lecture poster 2009


According to anthropologist Ashley Carse, in its fundamental definition infrastructure is a mere “collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking”. During the post-war era infrastructure became an abstract concept beyond engineering (Carse 2017).  Similarly, the term Architecture is going through a re-assembling and recoding. Nowadays additional forms of architecture(s) such as data architecture, software architecture, architectural engineering are part of the technology lexis.  Another argument would entail the possibility of architecture and its influence in the world through material effects (new contemporary forms of inhabiting the earth) and conceptual world making (speculative views of the world). Architecture’s ontological foundation operates in disciplines that produce material effects in the world, such as landscape architecture, interior architecture, etc. Infrastructure and Architecture not only coincide in the attempt to redefine their agency in the pursuit of world-making, but they both also have a stake in the spatial sphere. “Infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space” (Larkin, 2013).

During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the modernist architectural movement advocated a disruption from social and economic monarch power and idealized the birth of a modern, independent universal subject.   Machines such as those used for the world’s industrialization and transportation infrastructures (boats, planes, autos, and trains) were ideal metaphors for architecture since their functionality and esthetic come together harmoniously.     The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who promoted the Machine for Living aesthetic as a functional and formal style, imagined that functionalism and rationalism would produce urban environments that could embrace new concepts of democracy and homogeneity (Corbusier, 1982).  Since then, the valorization of efficiency and development via industrial technology influenced theories in architectural pedagogy.  

Original schematic from the Foundation Le Corbusier


A few decades before Le Corbusier, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos declared war on building ornamentation and classical architecture.  He advocated for the stripping away of symbols of hierarchy, class, and power in public and private buildings and proclaimed ornament as a ‘crime’ (Adolf & Adolf, 1998).  These new theoretical underpinnings facilitated infrastructure to emerge from behind the scenes.  During this period, agricultural infrastructure such as grain silos, barns, and other industrial structures inspired new imagery for future architecture in the USA.  These structures, even in decay, were viewed as a form of optimism in the same way Roman aqueducts were during the neo-classical period (Cymene, 2016).

Latin America’s Infrastructural Redux.  During the modernization of Latin America in the middle of the 20th century, many large cities searched for alternative and contemporary models of urbanization beyond the principles of colonial planning.  Countries explored urban concepts that emphasized public health infrastructure rather than aesthetic representation (Almandoz, 2009).  Spanish city planner Ildefonso Cerda coined the term urbanism in his Teoria General de la Urbanizacion published in 1867 to differentiate city-design and aesthetics from more technical aspects of city-making (administrative, infrastructural, and socio-political) that conforms to the contemporary city (Soria Y Puig, 1995).  In Latin America, cities such as Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City had regained control over their natural resources after centuries of colonial rule and planning patterns based on The Law of the Indies.  These new republican cities believed in modernism’s anti-aesthetic and large infrastructural projects as a path to their modernization.  However, during this era of modernity and technological development in city-making, most decisions were left to the state apparatus, which promoted international views on development strategies—specifically those from the USA towards Latin America (Escobar, 1995).

Etapa inicial de la urbanización de la zona del río Tijuana. 1974


In contemporary architectural philosophy, infrastructure shows up in speculative theories. In all its characterizations, infrastructure is a significant part of our conception of the world.  In the work of philosopher Benjamin Bratton, the world is composed of stacks that include our physical and spatial reality and numerous digital infrastructures that project image/system realities.  The Stack is a political design theory at a planetary scale (Bratton, 2016).  Infrastructure has a role beyond the material; it is part of a gauzy geopolitical architecture. Like Bratton, the work of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio has had a profound impact on the way we conceptualize the ‘structures’ of the world through their potentials and perils.  Virilio is known for the comment, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution…Every technology carries its negativity, which is invented simultaneously as technical progress” (Virilio, 1999).

In the era of the Anthropocene, various ways of relating to infrastructure have emerged, especially those dealing with non-human living organisms or actants, as Latour calls them, that modify or produce action in an assemblage.  Infrastructure has become relevant for the development and survival of life on the planet within our time frame and beyond.  Our infrastructures are becoming social, biological, and digital.  It is a thing and a relationship (Cymene, 2016).

For clarity (at least my own), in this short essay, I have intended to follow the transformation of the term “infrastructure” along with theoretical positions in urbanism and architecture. Initially, I argued that infrastructure in architecture was related to ‘structure’ via classical architecture.  All things should be designed and built conforming to a divine set of principles.  These principles are later replaced by theories of aesthetic perception rather than formal rules.  At the onset of the 20th century, the industrial revolution and new modes of political sovereignties around the globe give infrastructure an essential role in rebuilding cities and society.  Our current view of the built world(s) is now studied through an epistemological approach that includes a redefinition and re-conceptualization of infrastructure’s role.   


Adolf, L., & Adolf, O. (1998). Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays.

Almandoz, A. (2009). Planning Latin America’s Capital Cities 1850-1950. NY: Routledge.

Amin, A. (2014). Lively Infrastructure. Theory Culture and Society, 137-161.

Bratton, B. (2016). The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press.

Carse, A. (2017). Keyword: Infrastructure. How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world. In P. Harvey, J. B. Casper, & M. Atsuro, Infrastructure and Social Complexity: A companion (pp. 27-39). Routledge.

Corbusier, L. (1982). Towrads a New Architecture. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

Cymene, H. e. (2016). Paradoxical Infrastructures: Ruins Retrofit and Risk. Science, Technology & Human Values, 547-565.

Dennis, R. J., & Simpson, D. (2011). The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Guyer, P. (2011). Kant and the Philosophy of Architecture. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 7-19.

Larkin, B. (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology, 327–43.

Soria Y Puig, A. (1995). Ildefonso Cerda’s General Theory of ‘Urbanizacion.’. The Town Planning Review 66 no. 1, 15-39.

Virilio, P. (1999). Politics of the Very Worst. New York: Semiotext.

Vitruvius, P. (1826). The Ten Books of Architecture. London: Priestley and Weale.

Tijuana Covers

Tijuana Covers

It was worth the wait! Tijuana Covers, a project by Gerardo Molina and Fritz Torres, is finally on my bookshelf what an enormous job was to plot the city’s musical history via LP, Cassettes, and CD covers of the many bands that originated in Tijuana. Tijuana Covers is primarily a photo book with a few yet very well-curated texts at the beginning chapters of the genres represented. I am honored to have written a short text for the jazz section and grateful to the authors for including a 45 rpm vinyl cover of my father’s band Los Travelers

The book was published by the cultural office of the State of Baja California and is free to the public. I believe there are no physical copies anymore, yet you can download the PDF also for free at the link below.

Photos from the authors
Photos from the authors
Photos from the authors
Photos from the authors
Photos from the authors

Herb Greene Mapping the Mental Continuum

In 2019, I was honored with the Herb Greene teaching fellowship at the University of Oklahoma. Since then, I have been part of the faculty and had a chance to visit Herb Greene’s legendary Prairie House just a few miles away from the campus. Herb Greene was a disciple of Bruce Goff while at OU and designed the Prairie House in 1961. You can see Goff’s influence on him, yet there is an abstract quality to Greene’s work that is not latent in Goff’s designs.

The Gallery Mainsite Contemporary Art in Norman, Oklahoma, shows Greene’s other collage painting talent. The Herb Greene Mapping the Mental Continuum exhibition is a well-curated show of his best paintings from the 1960s to today and architectural drawings with photographs of some of the houses he built. The paintings are emotional, the collage of images from newsprint or magazines is seamlessly applied to the composition, paint, and image are blurred. The exhibition catalog has an excellent essay by my collogue, Francesca Giani, and sells for a mere 15 dollars. The exhibit will run until November 27, 2021.

For more info, visit the gallery website:

Tijuana_San Diego as World Design Capital

Estoy muy entusiasmado con esta propuesta para que nuestra región de SD/TJ se convierta en Capital Mundial del Diseño 2024. Esta propuesta incluye excelentes proyectos y amigos de ambos lados de la frontera. Y tengo que decir que ayudamos a recopilar una lista de personas y lugares que se incluyeron como parte de la presentación. Sin embargo, como todos ustedes me conocen muy bien, tengo que ser crítico y tratar de darle algún sentido a esto. La WDO es una organización no gubernamental que promueve el diseño industrial y comparte los objetivos de sostenibilidad de la ONU. El esfuerzo principal se dirigió desde SD. Esto es evidente en el vídeo de presentación, ya que las tomas de Tijuana son de imágenes de drones de la parte mas prospera en la ciudad y algunos interiores de lugares particulares. Se podría haber incluido más de las zonas de manufactura. Además, la narrativa inicial de la historia de la región se desarrolla bien con San Diego (ciudad costera), pero no representa a Tijuana y su origen de economía del ocio; no son una totalidad o una síntesis como se dice al principio del video. Tienen historias disímiles en muchos aspectos. En resumen, creo que la propuesta presenta a Tijuana como una extensión de los deseos de San Diego en lugar de la unión de dos oportunidades distintas que evolucionan como una nueva comunidad de diseño o diseñadores. Se me ocurre que el video está predispuesto a cómo San Diego se beneficia de tener a Tijuana al otro lado de la frontera en lugar de tratar de señalar su propia idiosincrasia. “TJ es un próspero centro tecnológico muy similar a lo que tenemos en San Diego”, esta afirmación aparece como una imposición de un futuro deseado, como un padre excesivamente controlador con altas expectativas. Otro ejemplo de esto es cuando el arquitecto y fundador de ELA, Jorge Gracia, explica que sus alumnos aprenden a diseñar en sistema métrico al igual que en unidades imperiales, lo cual no es un acto progresista ya que Estados Unidos debería haber cambiado su sistema hace mucho tiempo. Como diseñador y académico que ha estudiado la relación entre ambas ciudades durante más de 20 años, debo criticar la imagen futura de la región. Creo que ambas partes aportan deseos relevantes pero muy distintos de un futuro colectivo. Sin embargo, como tijuanense, mi corazón reclama una victoria.Que opinas?

I am very enthusiastic about this proposal for our region of SD/TJ to become a design capital of the world. Many great projects and friends from both sides for the border are part of this proposal. And I have to say that we helped put together a list of people and places to be included as part of the submission. Yet, as you all know me very well, I have to be critical and try to make some sense out of this.

The WDO is a non-governmental organization that promotes industrial design and shares the UN’s sustainability goals, and the lead effort was directed on the SD side. This is evident from the presentation video because the Tijuana shots are from drone footage of the upper-class part of the city and some interiors of particular places. It could have included more of the manufacturing zones. Also, the initial narrative of the region’s story plays out well with San Diego (waterfront city), yet it does not represent Tijuana and its origin of leisure economics; they are not a totality or a synthesis as stated at the beginning of the video. They have dissimilar histories in many ways.

In summary, I believe the bid presents Tijuana as an extension of the desires of San Diego instead of the coming together of two distinct opportunities that evolve as a novel community of design or designers. It occurs to me that the video is predisposed to how San Diego benefits from having Tijuana across the border rather than trying to point out its own idiosyncrasies. “TJ is a thriving tech hub very similar to what we have in San Diego.” this statement appears as an imposition of a desired future, like an over-controlling parent with high expectations. Another example of this is when the architect and ELA founder Jorge Gracia explains that his students learn to design in metric as in imperial units, which is not a progressive act since the US should have changed its system a long time ago.

As a designer and academic that has studied the relationship between both cities for more than 20 years, I should criticize the region’s future image. I believe that both sides bring relevant but very distinct desires of a collective future. However, as a tijuanense my heart begs for a win!

City Of Migrants

Tijuana has always been a city of migrants seeking a better standard of living. This includes the opportunity to cross to the other side_(USA) or to remain in the city and find employment in the manufacturing industry (which represents almost 50% of the economy) or in the service sector, which is supported by leisure tourism, medical tourism or the culinary industry.

Currently, the city is experiencing an influx of migrants from Central America and the Caribbean. They settled along the border between San Diego and Tijuana in organized groups. Their hope is that the Biden administration will respond to their request in a more humane manner. The photographs depict the current and growing migrant camp in Tijuana, including families, young adults, individuals with disabilities, and vulnerable people.

Deep Deuce

Deep Deuce es una colonia histórica en la ciudad de Oklahoma. Desde el siglo XX la mayoría de sus habitantes han sido afro-americanos, fue una comunidad donde se tocó mucho el jazz, donde Martin Luther King dio un gran discurso en la Calgary Baptist Church antes que lo hiciera en Washington (1963).

En la década de los 80’s y como en muchas ciudades de Estados Unidos, se construyó una carretera (por donde pasaba una via de tren) que dividió a la comunidad en dos partes. Hoy estas dos partes son desiguales, la del Oeste y más cercana al centro de la ciudad ha tenido un desarrollo urbano “progresivo” convirtiéndole en un barrio hípster con nuevos edificios de vivienda, cafés, cervecerías (de 9 dlls por pinta) entre otros “amenities”. Mientras el lado Este está olvidado con la mayoría de sus casa y comercios históricos derrumbados, una zona donde solo quedan pocas casas y pequeñas construcciones adaptadas en guarderías y centro comunitarios. Esta es la realidad del desarrollo sin ciudad, urbanismo de mercado, gentrificación, racismo y olvido.

Deep Deuce is a historic settlement in Oklahoma City. Since the twentieth century, most of its inhabitants have been African Americans, it was a community where jazz was played, where Martin Luther King gave a great speech at the Calgary Baptist Church before the one in Washington D.C. (1963).

In the ’80s and as in many cities in the United States, a highway was built (where a railroad used to pass) that divided the community into two zones. Today these zones are unequal, the west side is closer to downtown has gone through “progressive” urban development turning it into a hipster neighborhood with new residential buildings, cafes, breweries (9 dollars per pint) among other “amenities”. While the east side has been forgotten and most of its historic houses and businesses demolished. Only a few houses and small buildings have been adapted into daycare and community centers. This is the reality of development without urbanism, market development, gentrification, racism, and complete oblivion.