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Making space in the intercultural city by Phil Wood

As another awful, avoidable tragedy unfolds on the seas between North Africa and Fortress Europe and another round of gratuitous political rhetoric captures the headlines, another day goes by when we as a society fail to address the other, longer term question. That question being: given the inevitably of an ever more mobile and diverse world, how can we learn to live together in productive harmony?

Sadly, it seems to me that even outside of the febrile atmosphere of the current refugee crisis we have consistently failed to focus our minds on what it means to make superdiversity work on a practical day-to-day basis. The reasons are not too hard to find. For many, merely having a discussion about how to manage a situation is tantamount to accepting that situation as the new reality – yet large sections of our political class, media and public are still in denial that our society is irrevocably diverse. For them the answers are brutally simple: close the borders to newcomers and oblige existing minorities to assimilate into the ways of the majority. But let’s put that on one side for the moment and address another kind of myopia – that of the liberal who accepts the inevitability of a diverse society yet assumes that if we all simply try to get along, things will somehow turn out fine in the end.

Things may well turn out fine, but I’m a big believer in giving them a helping hand through public policy. In other words, we need to help give people reasons and incentives to prefer cultural encounter to avoidance, and for this we need to create tools, institutions and spaces of interaction. This is much easier said than done, but the rewards make the effort worthwhile. That’s because heterogeneity is superior to homogeneity and throughout history cities and civilisations have thrived on the social, cultural and economic innovations it has thrown up. But, if we want to achieve the diversity advantage, rather than a deficit, for our cities we have to actively work for it.

There are many arenas in which to seek productive encounter and interaction. The most important are in education, the workplace and civil society – but I want to highlight another, public space. As Jane Jacobs said:

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Too often though the place-making professions, when asked what they can contribute, have held up their hands and claimed that cultural diversity is outside of their remit. But Leonie Sandercock has thrown down a challenge

“We are seeing the death of the Rational City and its replacement by Cosmopolis – the city of difference. We need an expanded language to express the city of memory, the city of desire and the city of the spirit. We need a new epistemology of planning.”

To be honest, architecture, planning, urban design and public space management are not going to make the decisive difference in determining whether a city is nasty, brutish and segregated or open and intercultural – but this does not let them off the hook. We now have ample evidence to show that good public space enhances the lives of communities and individuals, and that bad or neglected spaces can aggravate underlying socio-economic tensions and injustices.

I tried to arouse a new spirit of intervention in my book The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage (2008) and since them, I have been working with the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities project to put ideas into action. Within a growing network of over 60 cities, we have engaged with place-making professionals to evolve practical guidelines and tools which can be used in a variety of environments, see

For example, the Intercultural Plan of the city of Barcelona, using a language and a conceptual grasp rarely seen in such documents, talks of finding “a renewed definition of the public space – spaces for relations – as an integral part of the idea of a city and as a space for meeting and generation of citizenship”. The Plan commits the city to a very purposeful set of actions including “incorporating new indicators into the diagnosis of what is really happening on the ground prior to taking action (such as) an in-depth analysis of the socio-cultural reality and the changes and evolutions that occur (and) integrating the perception and knowledge that the different groups and social agents make of their neighbourhood and city as a whole”. It goes on further to commit to “Incorporate into public spaces elements that contribute to generating spontaneous interaction between users: play areas in children’s’ parks, specific offers for young people, bicycle or walking paths”.

The Plan evolved through a very extensive process of conversations inspired by key questions such as “What do you think are the common elements that should be shared by people of different cultural origins in order to live together peacefully in the neighbourhood and in the city?” and “Can you describe any space of interculturality or intercultural coexistence in Barcelona?”

It is, to my mind, the most sophisticated attempt by a city, thus far, to get to grips with these issues and should be a source of inspiration to others stepping tentatively into the field (see

Britain has been a laggard in facing up to these issues, but there is good practice, for example in the London Borough of Lewisham. Waking up to the danger that it was becoming a dormitory for disengaged and atomised commuters, with an unfriendly and degraded public realm, Lewisham has taken effective action on a range of fronts over the last decade.

Following a widespread listening exercise, a toolkit for intercultural place-making was produced and this informed a new approach to public space in Lewisham. A programme of targeted improvement has transformed numerous locations within the district – and Lewisham’s commitment has aroused widespread recognition and approbation. Four of the Borough’s public spaces have received prizes in the London Planning Awards in the last few years: Ladywell Fields, Deptford Lounge, Cornmill Gardens and Margaret McMillan Park. The Park was also awarded first place in the Urban Green Space Category of the Local Government News 2011 Street Design Awards, and the Civic Trust Award in 2010 for Community Recognition.

The Metropolitan Police crime statistics for Lewisham suggest that the Borough’s approach may be paying dividends and, in a survey conducted by the Council, 78% of local residents said they now use the park more, whilst 93% said they felt safer.

Lewisham has also sought to animate its public spaces, organising ‘Big Lunch’ Street Parties in residential streets as well as several larger ‘Big Conversation’ events in which strangers from across the borough are encouraged to make new contacts over a meal, in association with the philosopher Theodore Zeldin. The Borough’s approach to intercultural place-making is described in a short video at

So, to conclude, it now seems to me that the emergence of MELA Social Enterprise is very timely, bringing a much-needed focus upon the oft-overlooked skills and insights of intercultural place-making. There’s much to be done.

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Crafting Cosmopolis: The American Challenge

American cities, like cities worldwide, are being challenged to better accommodate the growing cultural diversity of their residents in ways that will produce greater social inclusivity and equity. Rethinking the design and distribution of public space must be central to accomplishing these goals.

Public space in American cities shrank in the last half of the 20th century as the nation’s love affair with the automobile deepened, residents fled the eroding urban core for the suburbs, and the city center was taken over by parking lots and blight. Today we’re experiencing something of a historical reversal. The so-called “Millennial” generation—well educated and culturally creative—is returning to the city center in search of mixed use live-work environments, upscale cafes, galleries, and other amenities, and walkability. At the same time, insurgent movements like 2011’s Occupy Wall Street have called attention to the scarcity of truly open, public spaces in the urban core and the limitations of “POPS”—Privately Owned Public Spaces—for serving the citizen assembly requirements of healthy, vibrant democracies. The recent violence in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland reminds us that we haven’t moved that far beyond the race-based civic unrest of the 1960s. It has prompted some useful soul-searching about the relationships between urban design, security, prosperity, and community.

Demographic changes are compounding the challenge. The United States is on course to become a “majority minority” nation by 2050. For example, there is an exploding Latino population here in the American West. Consequently, alternative ideas about what public spaces (plazas, parks, and streets) should look like, and the various activities they should serve are percolating from the ground up.

The planning and design professions, however, are currently ill prepared to meet the challenge. Architecture and planning schools do not typically teach about cultural differences in how people imagine and use public and private space. The community outreach techniques employed by professional planners and developers (including the scheduling of meeting times and the techniques employed for soliciting citizen input) are largely geared to accommodate the majority culture. There is a well-intentioned commitment to “engage the public” but few understand that there are many publics. We talk the virtues of multiculturalism and the appeal of “diversity”, but in everyday practice we walk monoculturalism. Grass roots planning and place making movements like “Tactical Urbanism”—an ostensibly revolutionary effort to experiment with temporary, short-term projects that reclaim streets and parking lots for public use—show what’s possible but are still promoted by majority culture actors having the time and the means to experiment. Such experiments can also easily lend themselves to what George Lipsitz describes as the “white spatial imaginary”, a worldview steeped in privatism, consumerism, and implicit racial superiority. Tactical urbanism and other forms of experimental place making simply can’t address the structural conditions that produce inequalities in access to the public realm and the differential involvement of cultures and classes in the enterprise of city building.

Ideas about city building that are percolating on other continents, in particular The Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Program, provide guidance in imagining what an inclusive, cosmopolitan city should look like. It was at an Intercultural Placemaking Seminar in Venice, Italy in 2012 that I first met Noha Nasser. In discussing one of her place-making projects in Birmingham, England Noha highlighted the outreach methods used to engage a diverse public in the process of neighborhood regeneration; i.e., in a process of co-creating the city. Multiple methods were employed during the mapping phase of the project to gain an understanding of what the place meant to a diverse population of residents and to collect their suggestions for improvement. These methods included visual observations, informal and in-depth interviews with passers-by and business owners, participatory arts workshops for kids that used images and music as prompts for starting conversations about place, and a variety of other social media and digital tools. A couple of major public events brought the community together to discuss findings and aspirations. One of these turned an entire street into a public venue that allowed goal setting and networking discussions. Citizens were recruited to disseminate community news and information in exchange for training in skills that would bridge the “digital divide”—a condition that can easily impede community involvement in urban planning and development even in stable Western democracies. Other techniques empowered residents to take ownership of their community—to share experiences, communicate their hopes for the future, and seek new ways to work with others. These methods encouraged residents to identify as citizens who have a shared stake in the collective good of the neighborhood rather than as members of a distinctive ethnic group. The process employed in this particular effort was not simply consultation but rather novel engagements in a kind of “citizen-driven master planning.”

Leonie Sandercock, in her books about Cosmopolis and other writings, suggests that the 21st century project of city building is a long-term process of crafting new ways of living together, requiring what she calls “new forms of social and spatial belonging.” American cities, including my home city of Denver, Colorado, are going to have to embrace such a project if they hope to become more equitable and inclusive. While the more insidious racialized policies of urban renewal, residential zoning, and population distribution are for the most part a thing of the past, social segmentation or “gating” is occurring by other means. We need better ideas for planning and design of the built environment that reflect our shared heritage as members of Homo sapiens and our shared identity as citizens. But we’ll also need to respect ethno-historical differences in the way that people create and “own” public space. MELA Social Enterprise will be a go-to website for insights and ideas as we work through the design, planning, and citizen engagement challenges here in Denver.

Dean Saitta is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Denver, Denver, Colorado USA. He writes for Planetizen and Intercultural Urbanism.

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MELAssociates first networking meeting 7 May a huge success

IMG_1972 MELAssociates agree that MELA’s commitment is to be a catalyst for positive change in culturally-diverse neighbourhoods to bring people together across all cultures for peaceful, enjoyable, creative, celebratory, and friendly co-existence, with a deep-rooted sense of belonging

IMG_1945 MELA’s 3 year vision is to have successfully worked in 30 neighbourhood projects in the UK and in Holland, France, and Israel testing socially innovative ways to create social cohesion and inclusive public spaces

IMG_1967 MELA to have done research for 10 clients on social innovation

IMG_1931 MELA to be an award winning social enterprise

IMG_1925 MELAssociates to have co-produced ten joint publications on the success stories of social innovation

IMG_1922 For neighbours, communities, city governors, managers and commissioners of public space to have measurably experienced the benefits and sustainability of MELA’s social innovations

IMG_1915 To be MELAmbassadors by pledging support

IMG_1907 For MELAssociates to use their collaborative and multi-disciplinary ideas to creating social innovations

IMG_1903 For MELAssociates to influence people, places and policy

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I am pleased to see efforts at linking cultural diversity, social inclusion and public space. Today’s cities are magnifying a challenge that has long been facing the modern urban condition: increased social diversity and inequality. These challenges are not new, and can be found to have characterized cities throughout history, as cities have always been places of diversity and inequality; but they were intensified after the industrial revolution, and they are now being highly amplified through globalization. The response has often included, in various degrees, the creation of an infrastructure that would bind people together: through myths and communal narratives, shared experiences and practices, and collective institutions and spaces. While some of these integrative frameworks have been manipulative and exclusive, others have been generous and inclusive. One of the most powerful responses in recent history has been the development of a welfare system that could address these two challenges through an inclusive infrastructure of support. The collective provision of common goods provides a backbone around which social inclusion can be developed and strengthened. Public spaces are one of these common goods, as well as an important ingredient of the common infrastructure that makes urban life possible. Inclusive public services and institutions, which include the urban public spaces, however, need strong and persistent work to survive and thrive. As private gains are given priority over public value, as individuals use private cars to pass through the city, communicate with others through the medium of abstract bureaucratized institutions and libertarian technologies, segregate themselves from others into exclusive areas and neighbourhoods, withdraw from the public sphere for the fear of crime or the mistrust of public institutions, or improve the public spaces only as a catalyst for gentrification and real estate gains, the need to pay attention to an inclusive public sphere is more evident than ever before. This is why I am pleased to see efforts like MELA, which are essential in keeping this drive for inclusion alive.

Ali Madanipour is Professor of Urban Design and Director of Global Urban Research at Newcastle University and author of his most recent book ‘Urban Design, Space and Society’ Palgrave Macmillan (2014)

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Social Innovation for Cosmopolitan Cities


Noha is pleased to announce she has signed a book deal. She is the author of the upcoming book on Social Innovation in Cosmopolitan Cities. She has secured a publisher and the Foreword will be written by a New York Times Top Ten Best Selling author.

The book is for people who want to learn about the latest social innovations transforming people’s lives and neighbourhoods in ways that build community and conviviality across cultural boundaries. When you have read this book you will understand:

• What challenges cosmopolitan cities face to prevent segregation and conflict
• What the community needs, dissatisfactions and blockages to social cohesion are at street level
• Some of the latest ideas in tackling segregation and conflict in neighbourhoods by people, organisations and the state
• What worked in a number of international success stories
• New future possibilities for social innovation in cosmopolitan cities

The book will offer city leaders/governors ideas and models to adopt, as well as empower local people to make changes in their neighbourhoods themselves.

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MELA is part of John Thompson and Partner’s Southall masterplan success

MELA was commissioned by JTP to research the socio-cultural identity of Southall and ask the question: how can Southall’s culturally-diverse identity be an integral part of its future growth?

To really understand what is special about Southall as a place is to understand the town’s history as a focus of immigration. Although physically and spatially its built form is that of the prototypical Victorian and Edwardian industrial suburb, its socio-cultural dimension is what has changed quite radically in the past 60-70 years and accounts for the town’s nickname, ‘Little India’. With around 63% of the local population classified as ‘Asian’, and more accurately Punjabi Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, Southall has an undoubtedly Punjabi identity exemplified in its retail offer, the cultural events and activities that take place throughout the year, and the architecture of its community halls and religious places of worship. This project explored the nature of Southall’s place identity and questioned how the Gas Works development can provide the setting for Southall’s existing and incoming communities that promotes what is special about Southall.

The project concluded Southall has a visible and distinctive Punjabi place identity in which the identities of smaller communities can co-exist. This is best exemplified in the different community niches and the creative innovations and fusions in the artistic sphere.

It may not be desirable to mimic the architectural styles and intensity of The Broadway shopping experience in the Gas Works site, but it would be a serious oversight to neglect the socio-cultural pulse of the area that makes it so special. If the Gas Works site is to be a true mixing of existing and incoming communities, the designs of buildings and public spaces should provide the setting for cross-cultural understanding. The most powerful means by which this understanding can take place is through the sharing of food, recreation, festivals, arts, and performance. Southall already has a long history of these cultural practices that can be enhanced in the new development.

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MELA launches in January 2015

It gives me great pleasure to announce the formal launch of MELA. We are excited about the prospect of working closely with organisations committed to bringing peace, harmony and a shared sense of belonging to places. Cultural diversity has for some time been seen as a problem for neighbourhoods; associated with crime, anti-social behaviour, and poverty. We believe cultural diversity is a force for good, and with the right engagement with local groups can become a source of inspiration, positive place branding, and economic success.

Join us in being part of the transformation of entire neighbourhoods!