Jeremi talks with Ken Greenberg about urban planning and cities. They touch on various topics including the power within cities and the difficulties faced during and after a pandemic.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Actualizing Emerald City.”
Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer, and former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto. For over four decades he has played a pivotal role on public and private assignments in urban settings throughout North America and Europe. He is the author of two influential books: Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder and Toronto Reborn: Design Successes and Challenges. You can read more about his work at: https://www.kengreenberg.ca. See also, “Density Done Right:” https://www.citybuildinginstitute.ca/portfolio/density-done-right/.
- Ken GreenbergUrban Designer, Teacher, Writer, and Former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
Announcers: This is Democracy, a podcast that explores the interracial, intergenerational, and intersectional unheard voices living in the world’s most influential democracy.
Jeremi Suri: Thank you for joining us for our new episode of This is Democracy. Today we’re going to talk about cities, and the ways in which the design and redesign of cities across history and in our current moment can enhance the nature of our democracy, and the ways in which urban design can undermine the nature of our democracy. We’re joined by one of the foremost practitioners in this area, someone who’s also written about these issues, Ken Greenberg. Ken is an urban designer, teacher, writer, and former director of urban design and architecture for the wonderful city of Toronto. For over four decades, he’s played a pivotal role on public and private assignments in urban settings throughout North America and Europe, and if you go to his website, which is kengreenberg.ca, we will have this on our website, you can see all the many cities that he has been working with over the course of his career. Ken has written two major books. One called Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, and a second one called Toronto Reborn: Design Successes and Challenges. He has a number of interesting pieces on his website, particularly a number of reflections on cities in light of our current pandemic and how we should think about city life. Ken, thank you so much for joining us.
Ken Greenberg: It is my pleasure.
Jeremi Suri: Before we turn to our discussion with Ken, of course, we have our scene-setting poem from Mr. Zachary Suri. Zachary, what’s the title of your poem?
Zachary Suri: Actualizing Emerald City.
Jeremi Suri: Let’s hear it.
Zachary Suri: Actualizing Emerald City. Cities, I wonder what you must have looked like to my grandparents and my great greats, when they steamed into Detroit from Hungary or New York harbor from Russia and India. The gleaming towers, heavenly like the residue of Atlas holding up the sky, or some actualization of the Emerald City they were yet to read about. But when they walked and fell into the Garment District, when they quietly spread out into Traverse City, Chicago, Northern Maine, it must have seemed so different then, the cities. In the ’80s, my dad was growing up in the ruins of the American city, like a Springsteen song, or the ashes at Pompeii, tramway, subway, on foot into the city, and my mom was in suburbia, glistening, dull suburbia, Highland Park on the edge of the lake. No wonder they were driven to California, generation of urban decay, and sometimes I think I was born in the age of the rebirth of civilization, that once again we would walk the Great Walls of Uruk and bask in the greatness of Bibliotechnical urban libraries, and sometimes I think I was born in the age of the final death. These are the times when the concrete presses down the rusty parking lots, the smoke stack towering over the hill, the towers over my high school. These are the times when I can’t remember the way the sunrise glistens off the overpasses in the morning, rising from sleep and over the high weight hill, and boy, do I feel like a fool sitting here in a grass island of the house in the middle of a great city, unable to move past the fence. Even when I crawl off on evening walks, I am held like a tennis ball on a string swung by centripetal force around the neighborhood park. Boy, do I feel like everything has stopped. The developing houses on the edge of the eroding creek that were supposed to tower over the sacred blue bonnets of the other bank, and it scares me to think of so many like me in San Diego, Philadelphia of the charming rust, and Mexico City, holed up in houses waiting like open heart surgery on the nucleus of the city soul. All those hundreds of urban hearts pleading on surgical stands, waiting for the lights to come on so they can be put back together by some miracle, Frederick Law Olmsted in a surgical smoke.
Jeremi Suri: I love your closing, Zachary with a miracle, Frederick Law Olmsted in a surgical smoke redesigning Central Park and all these things for us. What is your poem about?
Zachary Suri: My poem is really about what it’s like as someone who has grown up in American cities all over the place, and what it’s like to be a real cosmopolitan urban citizen. But also to recognize the major problems that face our cities and our urban communities today.
Jeremi Suri: Well, Ken this is your area of expertise. What is it that city planners and city designers like yourself do to help cities deal with these challenges?
Ken Greenberg: Well, cities are one of the most remarkable of human creations, one of the most complex and one of the most interesting. I think we’ve learned a great deal about a certain humility in approaching the design of cities. That it’s not really a matter of command and control, but it’s understanding human society and how it interacts with the places that we inhabit, and how we can intervene in interesting ways in collaboration with the inhabitants of cities to shape change, as opposed to dictate top-down what will happen. I cut my teeth at a very interesting moment of great transformation. When we were coming out of a period of urban renewal, which you may remember, was the disemboweling of city centers, a rejection of the historic city and the great exodus from cities out into suburbia, and I became part of a movement which was really about recognizing the great value of cities. I was lucky enough as an architecture student to find myself in Toronto within months of the arrival of Jane Jacobs.
Jeremi Suri: That’s amazing.
Ken Greenberg: I had the nerve to actually call her as an architecture student. I had read Death and Life. I was enthralled by the book, and I asked her to give me a crit of one of my student projects, and she was kind enough and generous enough to do that, and that became a lifelong friendship and a mentorship which I enjoyed from 1968 to her death in 2006.
Jeremi Suri: Wow.
Ken Greenberg: Pretty extraordinary.
Jeremi Suri: That is, Lucky man. Ken, for our listeners who might not be as familiar with Jane Jacob’s work as they should be, what was her critique that’s obviously embodied in your own work of this disemboweling of cities, as you put it, the critique of the Robert Moses’, and the Ed Lowes, and the others who were hollowing out the cores of cities?
Ken Greenberg: Jane, her involvement with cities really started as somebody who just loved to walk the pavements of New York City as a young woman, driven by an insatiable curiosity as to how things work. She ended up being a journalist. She wrote about everything, from how the Jewelry District, how sewers functioned, pretty much any phenomenon that caught her eye or caught her attention worked in the city. She married an architect. She ended up writing for an architectural journal, and she got caught up in the whole modernist project to redo the city as a urban renewal, as I mentioned. As an observer, trusting her eyes and not so much theory and not so much what she read, she began to see that that project was fatally flawed, and that led her to a lifetime of trying to understand how cities actually functioned. She brought a concept from biological sciences called organized complexity, to explain that what people had seen as chaos and had reacted to wanting to organize human life in a very regimented and systematic way actually had a order and akin to ecology, akin to what we now understand about how different habitats function, and interactions in an ecological setting. She brought that understanding, ending up writing a whole series of books, but beginning with a powerful book called Death and Life in Great American Cities in 1961, which really questioned what was going on, questioned the whole profession that I became involved in. She was immediately a celebrity. She was highly critiqued by certain people who felt very threatened, who called her a housewife out there, she intervened and raised these kinds of questions. Others who began to see the truth in what she was saying, which led to a whole different way of thinking about the city. A lot of it had to do with the overenthusiastic embrace of the automobile in the aftermath of World War II. So my first book, Walking Home, was really about decades of work having to do with getting us back on our feet, getting back to a better understanding of how cities actually function, and my work with cities across North American and in Europe and other places on that project of revalidating the city and its workings, and especially dealing with the public realm and things public. It touches very closely on your theme of democracy because the city is the great place where democracy is acted out in space, where people occupy public space, where they can express their views freely, where they interact with their fellows, and where issues of equity become extremely important. That period of intense transformation was where I started. We’re probably going to get around to what’s going on today. But in a fascinating way, the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic has overtaken the previous agenda, which was the trajectory of my entire career, and in a sense is piggybacking on and accelerating it.
Jeremi Suri: Interesting. Before we get to that, I want to hear a lot more about that. I know our listeners do too. But just to understand this paradox that I know you’ve thought about more than almost anyone else, maybe you and Jane Jacobs. If cities are these sites of democratization in their public spaces, but yet we know as historians, they’ve traditionally been, as you said before, very top-down, very much controlled by bosses of one kind or another. How do you manage that paradox? How do we work our way out of it? How have you thought this through in your work.
Ken Greenberg: Well, there’s all tradition in the history of cities of republics, if we go back to the Greek city states, which of course, had slaves. When we talk about race, it wasn’t a republic for everybody, but the notion of a citizen. We’ve gone back and forth in history between autocracy, dictatorial rulers with cities, and then periodically movements that were about empowering citizens, not just subjects. It’s interesting how that has played itself out over time. As in the earlier stages, there wasn’t universal suffrage. Obviously for a long time, women didn’t have the vote. We had terrible inequities. We have the whole history of slavery throughout the world, but particularly in the US, overcoming who was a citizen and who had equal rights. Now we’re at a moment where all these issues about refugees, about emigrants, about people who are most affected, who are turning out to be most vulnerable in this period of COVID-19, all these inequities are being revealed. There’s constantly been a push to extend the full rights of citizenship. I don’t just mean legally in the sense of who has a passport, but the sense that all human beings in our city have a basic set of rights and ability to live together peacefully. Cities in essence are about cooperation. Virtually nothing in a city can be accomplished without people collaborating and cooperating at a fundamental level. So there is that tension that plays itself all the way through, but the other thing that’s interesting about cities is the idea of diverse populations actually cohabiting the same space as opposed to a homogeneous tribal society in which everyone in the society is of one type or kind. So you have really interesting examples like Andalucia before the Inquisition in Spain, where you had Christians, Muslims, and Jews sharing the cities and bringing great prosperity to the city as a result, great discoveries, hygiene pool that was incredibly valuable. My own city of Toronto, to take that all the way to the present day, has some very unique characteristics which I wrote about in Toronto Reborn. One of them is that over 50 percent of us come from another country, born in another country and many other countries, I mean, literally a couple of 100 countries, and over 50 percent identify as visible minorities. In Toronto, what’s fascinating is that, whereas in many other places, this fact of difference is seen as problematic or troubling. It happens to be for us to thing that Canadians generally, and Torontonians and Vancouverites and Montreals are very proud of because they see that it works if actually it gives us enormous advantages.
Jeremi Suri: Sure. I guess, and this brings us up to COVID-19 also. How do we understand the two sides of this coin? Especially in US cities like New York, you have this incredible diversity that we all recognize as the energy of the city. It’s exactly what Jane Jacobs commented on as she was walking through Greenwich Village and elsewhere. On the other hand, these cities are also places of corporate power, Ken, right? This is where the big corporate entities are located. If you’re talking about New York or Chicago or Austin, Texas. A lot of the power is centered on these organizations that don’t necessarily reflect the experience in the street. How do you as an urban planner think about that and think about giving agency to these citizen attributes, these resident attributes that you’re describing?
Ken Greenberg: So I think a lot depends on what we do with what COVID-19 is showing us. I, like many others are arguing that it is shining a really harsh light both on remarkable things that are working as we collectively face this human tragedy that’s upon us, but also on the things in our society that have not been working. One of those has to do with a combination of an over-reliance on the markets, on market-driven capitalism, the shrinking of res publica, things public. That coupled with the austerity agenda, and this really goes back several decades. You can trace it back to Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, our own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, which really inculcated a belief that they were running for office, but they were basically enemies of the public sector. They succeeded in reducing it, and at the same time, the working out of the marketplace, particularly with globalization, chasing a competitive advantage, outsourcing the manufacturer of pretty much everything we rely on creating these tenuous supply chains, but also taking away decent salaries, putting people in precarious employment without benefits. All of these things were just accumulating and accumulating and, in fact, getting worse and worse. So now we see with this pandemic, to take a dramatic example, what we’ve done to our seniors.
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Ken Greenberg: Putting them in places where we thought a market solution to the last years of their lives with people who found it convenient to feed them badly, to have poorly paid people who were the most marginalized people themselves performing those acts of care in their final years, and they’re the ones who are dying. It’s most dramatically revealed. We’re also seeing it in equal way in which the pandemic is affecting disadvantaged populations, minorities, people of color in the US, particularly immigrants, people who are forced to take transit because they can’t work from home, they don’t have any options. Ironically, those are the people we’re now calling the heroes. They’re the ones who are keeping us alive. We suddenly look and say, “Well, you know what? We haven’t allowed them to have a decent living. We’re paying them so badly that they’d been working on contracts. They haven’t been able to have a single place of employment.” So it’s making us vulnerable because of what we’ve done to others. One way in which we may come out of this with that recognition, and it’s one of the great recognition, it’s not the only one from COVID-19, is certainly there’s a lot of talk in the world that I live in of dealing differently with the issues of homelessness, of lack of affordable housing, of precarious salaries, of all these kinds of things that have created these terribly inequitable and damaging conditions.
Zachary Suri: How can we use urban planning specifically to alleviate inequality and poverty in North American cities and across the world?
Ken Greenberg: Well, I think we have to have deliberate strategies that deal with a number of things, how we move around the city. Housing, understanding that housing from a significant percentage of our society cannot be supplied successfully only by the private market. I think we have to understand health care. There is a really interesting analogy that Malcolm Gladwell has been quoting from someone else, which I think is just remarkably captures the whole idea. It’s about a soccer team, and if you want to improve a competitive soccer team, who do you lavish your attention on, if you’re a coach? It’s not your stars, but it’s your worst players. Soccer is a team sport and it depends on the strength of the whole team. Another way of saying that is the city of Helsinki brags that it has the best worst schools of any city. That is the reason why Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. I think what we’ve seen is the fallacy of the kind of winner takes all philosophy with the idea that people will somehow hit the jackpot, leaving so many people behind. So if you apply that to pretty much everything that goes into making up a city, you end up with a different city. A lot of the work that I’m doing now is talking about something called the 15 minute or the 20 minute neighborhood. Where the two my life’s work around dealing with the aftermath of the automobile, segregation of land uses, dispersal, urban renewal is intersecting with COVID-19 and our reaction to that. So the idea of the 15 or 20 minute neighborhood is you build neighborhoods that have housing for the entire population, all ages, household types, income levels together anchored by community hubs that have libraries, schools, daycare, recreation, healthcare, opportunities for young entrepreneurs to gather, community services, which makes them inherently resilient. Because one of the things we’ve learned as a defense against something like a pandemic is social cohesion, is a very critical factor in resilience. A famous example in Chicago in 1995 with an extraordinary Heat Wave, and they discovered that in the neighborhoods of equal income level, but in the neighborhoods where people knew each other and looked after each other, the mortality rate was much, much lower.
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Ken Greenberg: Because they were looking in on each other. So I think it’s just a basic understanding of what makes society work. There is no running away from this. The idea that wealthy people can somehow shield themselves from the impacts of this pandemic is an obvious fallacy. They will end up as prisoners in their own city because they won’t be able to move around freely. That’s what we’ve learned in terms of all the people who do all the work for them are the very people who potentially are spreading the virus. So it basically comes down to we are ultimately going to succeed together or we will not.
Jeremi Suri: I love the idea of the 15 to 20 minute neighborhood. It sounds to me like that 15 to 20 minutes is the time it takes to walk through the neighborhood, right?
Ken Greenberg: Exactly, exactly.
Jeremi Suri: How do you think about density in that context though? Because one of the concerns coming out of the pandemic is a concern about density, about elevator buttons, crowded hallways.
Ken Greenberg: So interesting enough, in Death and Life, the book by Jane Jacobs in 1961, she wrote about the difference between density and overcrowding. The reason she wrote about that is the great social planners of the early part of the 20th century when they were reacting to the cities created by the Industrial Revolution, and particularly we’re looking at places like the Lower East Side and New York we had the tenements. They basically drew the conclusion that it was density that was the evil, and that’s why they wanted to spread people out either in the form of what they call towers in the park, based on the French Swiss architect, Le Corbusier, and his plans for the Radiant City, which became the model for much of public housing across North America or spreading out into the suburbs. It was a false correlation because what we’ve seen is that even though New York City, which caused a lot of people to jump to that conclusion, was terribly hit, there were so many other factors at play and so many other cities in the world denser than New York, Asian cities, cities like Berlin, who were better prepared in the first place, who had a different response to the pandemic. There were so many other factors at play that it was not density itself. So the question is, just density in self is not a good or an evil, it’s how you do it. Now the advantage of density is going back to my 15 or 20 minute neighborhoods, you need enough people to support that range of services that I was talking about. That doesn’t mean a world of spiky 40, 50, 60 story towers altogether without that social infrastructure, without the public spaces. So the part of Ryerson University in Toronto and the City Building Institute of which I’m a co-founder, has just put out a study called density done right. Which I would recommend to the listeners of this podcast, and perhaps you can put a link to it on the site.
Jeremi Suri: We will.
Ken Greenberg: It really talks about dispersed density, that you, rather than having these extreme concentrations of hyper density tall and then sprawl, the missing middle both in physical terms, mid-rise buildings, buildings that forms streets, and blocks that form neighborhoods that have walkable public spaces. Those are extremely important. But also the missing middle socially, that we don’t have the extremes of enclaves of the ultra rich, and then areas where only the most disadvantaged and the poorest people live. Mixing it up in the city, giving everybody access. It’s not, income is one factor, but we’re also learning something about the isolation of seniors, the warehousing of seniors, which is in fact what we had done. Having them be part of society. The benefits that come with that are also very important. So being intentional about that, I think is extremely important.
Jeremi Suri: It’s a wonderful vision. It fits with a lot of democratic theory also. So it sounds like a wonderful way of moving forward. How do you design a process for that though? Because you’re obviously not in favor of some benevolent city mayor dictator doing this, right? So how do you create a process for this recognizing the cacophony of interests and motivations that people in a city like Toronto, or Austin, or New York will have.
Ken Greenberg: So the city is in its very essence, a cultural enterprise, a cultural artifact. There is people like me who work in this area, we’re dealing with a serial creation, which goes on for generation after generation. People who work in European cities, the cities are often 2,000 years old at most, 1,000 years old. In our cities, we’re talking about a few 100 years, but we basically get to spend the length of a career working on something that so many people have worked on before or so many people will work on after, and ultimately on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a yearly basis. It’s shaped by the autonomous, semi-autonomous actions of thousands of people. That said, what has been a hallmark of all of my work, and this goes back to Jane Jacobs, who became reluctantly a citizen activist. She certainly didn’t intend to be. She didn’t want to be. She was drawn into it because of various things that were happening in her neighborhood in Greenwich Village, and then when she moved to Toronto encountering similar things, really led to the notion of a high level of community engagement. Again, like density done right, community engagement done right, is extremely important. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely.
Ken Greenberg: Okay. Fantastic book, which really talks about creating the right table and getting the right people around the table under the right circumstances. That if you do that, the crowd is smarter than the smartest individual sitting at the table.
Jeremi Suri: Right.
Ken Greenberg: So that has been the underlying thesis of everything I have ever done. Working with professional colleagues, working with politicians, working with citizens groups, working with people in the development industry. I have remarkably found that if you approach that in a spirit of openness, as a good listener, with goodwill, and you try to understand people’s points of view and most importantly, get them to listen to each other. This inevitably leads to good outcomes. It’s not as easy as saying, I have a blueprint for what success looks like and I’m going to tell you what it is and I hope you like it. It is complicated, it can be messy, but it is so rewarding in the end. I’ll just tell one anecdote, when I left the city of Toronto, one of the first places I ended up working was Saint Paul, Minnesota. I ended up working there for over 10 years advising a city that was hemorrhaging, losing jobs, losing population that had been disconnected from the Mississippi River, that was really in trouble. I was called upon by Mayor Norm Coleman at the time, who was a Republican, who became a Democrats, switched parties. I ended up working for three mayors, Democrats and Republican, so in a sense, it was nonpartisan, Randy Kelly, Chris Coleman. I’m actually going back to Saint Paul to talk to my former colleagues about what happened, but we ended up on a 10 year adventure for me of being involved with that city and basically doing a remarkable series of community workshops and eventually developing a framework that would guide how development would occur, which was about reconnecting with the Mississippi River, connecting neighborhood to neighborhood, leading with public spaces, making every chess piece that came along add to a larger vision that the community bought into. One of the highlights of that was a celebratory dinner that was held every year by my employers, the Riverfront Corporation, which was a non-profit, where they would get everybody together, hundreds of people to celebrate the successes of the previous year and all the heroes, the people who had led to those successes. It was one of the greatest experiences of a community engaged in reshaping itself that I have been privileged to be part of. I’ve used that method everywhere I have worked ever since, and invariably it works.
Jeremi Suri: I love the idea of celebrating rather than dividing and bringing people together to talk about their common interests. In many ways, it sounds like you do as much facilitation as you do design work, Ken. How can our listeners, this is what we always like to close on, how can they make a difference? So many of our listeners are young people who are moving back to downtowns where they were at least before COVID-19, taking jobs, but also struggling to find affordable housing. Thinking about avoiding cars, my students, when they enter professional life now they’re less likely to want to drive. How can they be a part of this movement that I think you’re describing here?
Ken Greenberg: I was very honored to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Toronto, my alma mater in architecture this year. I was supposed to give a convocation address, which I obviously couldn’t do. It was published in the local newspaper.
Jeremi Suri: It’s on your website, I think I read it there.
Ken Greenberg: Yeah. I’m actually going to do a webinar with some students coming up next week on this. But I’m going to go back to what I said to the graduating students and I think that applies to the young people you are talking about. You didn’t choose this moment to enter into the next stage of your life, it chose you and this is a moment like no other that any of us have ever experienced. The challenges are enormous, but the opportunities are also enormous, the opportunities to think differently, to not accept received wisdom, to not accept old ways of doing things, to bring new ideas, to form new coalitions, to engage with other people in new ways. I think it’s opening up a vast terrain of opportunity for people to engage in all kinds of ways with the city. What we’re seeing in Toronto and cities around the world is how the civil society is stepping up in the breach to come up with extraordinary ways of dealing with vulnerabilities, inventing new ways of transforming public spaces, reaching out to people through digital media in ways that nobody had ever imagined. Everything that’s happening immediately, which is so fascinating. But also it’s an opportunity to think about the next couple of stages as we move back into a different society, both before and after we have a vaccine. This in a way, more is possible now than would have been so, and I’ll give you one example. We’d been working on taking back streets space in cities around the world for active transportation, for pedestrians and cyclists, and this has been a slow, painful transformation. Some cities have done better than others. Suddenly, with COVID-19, this is erupting all around the world and hundreds and hundreds of kilometers in city after city are being transformed and people are discovering walking because there’s not much else they can do. But also this will be the age of cycling.
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Ken Greenberg: Cycling is becoming a form of transportation that we’re not going to walk away from. I take that as one example. I think the way we’re going to deal with seniors will be another example, the way we’re going to deal with affordable housing, the way we’re going to deal with public space, the way we’re dealing with healthcare, the way we’re dealing with education, all of these things are open to people in extraordinary new ways. I would just say to those young people, grab the brass ring, this is your moment.
Jeremi Suri: I love it. As a cycler myself, this is one of the most positive things I’ve seen. I will say you probably saw this, Ken, I think it was the New York Times recently had a piece on how there’s a shortage of bicycles now because everyone is buying bicycles.
Ken Greenberg: Yeah, now it’s amazing.
Jeremi Suri: Zachary, do you find this vision, this optimism, this call for innovation and civic renewal and civic engagement that Ken is talking about, do you think this resonates with your generation?
Zachary Suri: I think it definitely does, and I think what’s really powerful about this moment of pandemic and of crisis is that it’s forcing young people to think in a collective sense of our smaller communities and our larger communities. I think this will allow us to start to really have serious discussions about what the future of our cities will look like because it really matters to the future for all of us.
Jeremi Suri: I think that’s great. Ken, you’ve given us so much today, I encourage our listeners to go to Ken’s website. We’ll have his website linked to our podcasts website. It’s kengreenberg.ca. I think, Ken, your vision of cities has centers of change and optimism and democratic renewal. I think is so powerful and so historically correct, if we look to the past, which I think is our best guide to the future. Thank you for joining us, Ken.
Ken Greenberg: It’s really been a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Jeremi Suri: Our pleasure. Zachary, thank you for your poem, and thank you as always to our listeners. Thank you for joining us for this episode of This is Democracy.
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