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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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