Manifesto for an Intercultural Urbanism

I’m pleased to have been invited to write for the urban planning website Planetizen. In keeping with the theme of Intercultural Urbanism my inaugural essay briefly describes the philosophical and practical commitments of an approach to urban planning and design that’s sensitive to cultural diversity in ways of being and building. The essay is inspired by the “diversity deficit” in contemporary  thinking about urban planning that’s been noted by several influential mainstream urbanists. There’s already a strong literature that can serve as a guide for addressing this deficit.  I argue that we need to renew the conversation about cultural diversity and its implications for planning theory and practice, a conversation that’s fallen off a bit in the last 5 years.  Casting widely across cultures, histories, and disciplines for planning concepts and precedents is essential if we desire a more comprehensive agenda for dealing with the many urban challenges that currently bedevil us. You can read the complete essay here.

Has Urbanism Lost All Meaning?

On New Year’s Eve 2013 the staff at Atlantic Cities (now City Lab) ran a story about “Urbanist Buzzwords to Rethink in 2014.” These buzzwords included popular favorites such as “placemaking”, “smart growth”, and even “gentrification.” Readers were urged to use some of the concepts much more carefully and reject others altogether. Why? Because they lack meaning or are too “jargony”, “wonky” or—god forbid—“academic.” Halfway through 2014 it doesn’t appear that much of the advice from the vocabulary police and translators of “academic-ese” at City Lab has been heeded. I think that’s a very good thing.

1. City labTopping City Lab’s Rethink List is the “worst offender” of all: “urbanism.”  Sommer Mathis opined thusly:

At first glance, this word might seem utilitarian: urban is a perfectly fine word, and -ism, meaning a “distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement,” a frequently helpful English language suffix. But this particular combination never fails to makes me cringe when I hear it spoken aloud. Not only does it imply that there exists some universally accepted ideology of the best way to construct, organize, and manage any given urban area, it’s frequently misapplied as a term for the study of urban issues…or the basic interaction of people and things within an urban environment. Deploying this word should be undertaken with extreme caution, and always with the understanding that it almost never carries real meaning.”

In an earlier City Lab piece from 2012 Kaid Benfield anticipated Mathis’s argument by likewise suggesting that the concept of “urbanism” had exhausted its utility. He also opined that the word was stifling creative thought about cities and their planning. Benfield said:

…as a lover of words and language, I am always thinking about their meaning and best use. And I now believe it may be time to send “urbanism” to the same literary retirement as “vibrant.” [e.g., see here]…My first problem with urbanism is that in some circles it has taken on the air of a cult, providing a verbal badge of identification. The word carries an assumption not just that adherents love and promote cities but also subscribe to a growing code of written and unwritten precepts and rules about how our built environment should be organized – starting but not ending with density, gridded streets, mixed uses, priority to pedestrians rather than drivers, and so on…Just as the principles of smart growth have gotten stale, so have the overlapping principles of urbanism. Overly familiar vocabulary can lead to overly familiar thinking.

But perhaps an even bigger problem with “urbanism” is that the word is ridiculously overused…It comes in a bewildering variety of forms—old, new, sustainable, tactical, landscape, pop-up, accidental, adaptive, emergent, Latino, recombinant, magical, integral, green, military, “true,” everyday, postmodern, guerilla, mobile, even an oxymoronic “agrarian” strain, and more [emphasis added]. Various versions of the label are used to justify everything from illegally spray-painting public property to development in places that no sensible person would honestly consider “urban” unless they have drunk gallons of metaphorical Kool-Aid. I could define urbanism in my own way and probably be perfectly comfortable with the result. But communication is about using words in ways that are not just personal but understood in common, and this one has now splattered all over the map, including in ways that I find troubling.”

I appreciate aspects of Mathis’s and Benfield’s arguments. I agree that vocabulary is important and that we need to be precise and vigilant in our use of words. I also agree that inter-subjective agreement about the meaning of words has value given that city building is a collective undertaking. But both Mathis and Benfield push things a little too far. Benfield’s complaint (and perhaps Mathis’s as well) appears to be with a particular strain of urbanism; i.e., New Urbanism.  The word urbanism itself doesn’t imply a single “ideology” or “set of principles” for city building. Indeed, I find the various versions of urbanism that Benfield identifies in the highlighted part of his quote above to be quite meaningful, useful, and even liberating.

YuriUrbanThere’s nothing ridiculous about the variety of urbanisms that compete for the hearts and minds of city-lovers today (see Yuri Artibise’s engaging book for one attempt at stock-taking).  They privilege different entry points to understanding the city. They alert us to different causal powers or forces that shape the city.  In so doing they help explain why the city looks the way it does. They implicate different structural barriers to change and improvement. Comparing urbanisms allows one to critically evaluate their underlying epistemologies, theories, practical consequences, and ideologies (plural!). Comparison helps clarify their distinguishing features and emphases, their irreconcilabilities, and the possibilities for synthesis. Comparison identifies contradictions and blind spots in our thinking and inspires new thought about how to resolve the contradictions and fill the blind spots. Particular concepts of urbanism can usefully serve the purpose of pointed social criticism. They can also serve the interests of minority urban cultures. Jarrett Walker at the Human Transit blog suggests that “dominant cultures routinely co-opt and corrupt the words that the minority needs to think about itself and its situation.” We’re currently seeing this, I think, with the term gentrification. And as David Diaz explores in his book Barrio Urbanism, today’s New Urbanism very much co-opts the values and language of a much older, more widespread, and vastly underappreciated urbanism. Such alternative urbanisms—and the critiques of conventional “ways of doing” that inform them—are more important now than ever before.

The concept of urbanism is also essential to our vocabulary if it’s understood as a process rather than a product. If we’re looking for words to jettison, then urban planning—a word that neither Benfield nor Mathis nor other City Lab staffers recognize as problematic—might be the better choice.  I’m struck by the distinction between urban planning and urbanism that’s made by Barcelona architect Itziar Gonzàlez. Jeb Brugmann describes Gonzàlez’s distinction in the chapter on Barcelona’s Gràcia District in his book Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World. For Gonzàlez, urban planning:

…starts from the premise that “we want to reach this goal.” Urbanism, in contrast, asks “how do we reach this goal?” [Gonzàlez] draws a picture of a boat on a large sheet of paper. Then she shows the boat being buffeted by strong winds, just like the pressures a city faces during its redevelopment, which threaten to push its vision off course. “To reduce the pressure of the winds on the boat,” she argues, the planner makes the boat bigger and bigger. In other words, the project becomes less responsive to local values and priorities. It increasingly focuses on the needs of the boat. In contrast, she explains as she continues her paper illustration, ”urbanism is adding and developing solutions for all the different interests.” She draws each interest as a little boat. “Urbanism is getting lots of little boats moving in a similar direction.”


Street in Gràcia District, Barcelona (Wikipedia)

At the time of Brugmann’s writing Ms. Gonzàlez complained that urban planning was still substituting for urbanism in Barcelona. It likely continues to substitute in many other cities worldwide. The challenge to urbanists working for positive change in the city is to get an accurate assessment of “little boats”—or, the interests of community stakeholders—and their implications for designing the built environment. Interestingly, “stakeholders” and “built environment” are two other buzzwords identified by City Lab staffers as needing rethinking or replacement. The cynicism of their arguments is palpable, and their critiques unpersuasive. That’s why I like the work of folks who champion urbanisms that put cultural diversity and difference first in our re-imagining of the built city. They focus on identifying and working with different interests instead of assuming they don’t exist, ignoring them, caricaturing them, or declaring that they don’t matter because they’re outnumbered by a dominant majority interest. We need to understand, accommodate, balance, and integrate majority and minority interests if we’re going to build better, more livable, and more sustainable neighborhoods and cities. I think we already have some pretty good concepts for achieving that goal, and these include the many variants of “urbanism” that currently surround us.

It’s in that more charitable spirit that I’ll give the last word of this essay to the final commenter on City Lab’s New Year’s Eve story, John Anderson. Mr. Anderson provides a thoughtful, optimistic, and convincing position on language use that simultaneously legitimizes an “academic” perspective on the urban issues that currently bedevil us:

I can understand why folks who wordsmith for a living would want to overhaul the lexicon every year. Over exposure to some terms probably causes irritation—a buzzword rash perhaps. The discussions of the built environment that take place at the level of the neighborhood, the corridor, the municipality, or the region are already dumbed down significantly for lack of a common technical vocabulary. [City Lab] does a good job of writing about these issues with a little more depth than say, USA Today, but there is plenty of room to do more with the words that are available.”

Sadistic Urbanism

The New York Times just ran a story about the steps that Honolulu is taking to crack down on the homeless in an effort to shore up its tourism industry. Homelessness is up 32% in Honolulu over the past 5 years. This has produced aggressive panhandling and frightened tourists. The city’s response includes seizing the property of homeless persons, fining them for public urination, prohibiting lying or sitting on sidewalks, closing public parks at night, and banning tents and lean-tos in public spaces. There’s some set-aside money for building low-cost housing, but that’s a longer-term goal. Honolulu’s mayor Kirk Caldwell describes this set of strategies as “compassionate disruption.”

Honolulu Homeless (Elyse Butler, New York Times)

This story appears at a time when other kinds of strategies for disrupting the lives of the homeless—strategies of a more direct, material nature—are back in the news. These include the tactic of placing spikes or studs in doorways and ledges to prevent sitting or sleeping by homeless persons, and furnishing public spaces with uncomfortable benches that have the same disruptive and displacing effects.

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Metal Studs on Southwark Bridge Road, London (Andrew Horton, Worldviewmedia)

The spikes in the London case (above) were removed after great public outcry, including criticism from London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. But they remain widely used in other cities.   Also widely used is the “bum proof bench”, whose variants are most recently catalogued by Georgia Tech’s Robert Rosenberger.  The Guardian‘s Ben Quinn describes these tactics as “hostile architecture.” He reminds us that sound can also have a hostile effect, such as the use of classical music, birdsong, and mosquito devices to discourage loitering by teenagers and other undesirables. Aurelian Bouayad refers to such tactics as “disciplinary architecture.” Bouayad’s piece does an especially nice job of directing readers to the seminal literature that demonstrates the power of urban materiality to shape, constrain, and regulate human behavior. This includes Langdon Winner’s famous 1980 article in Daedulus called “Do Artifacts Have Politics?,” and Mike Davis’ terrific 1990 book City of Quartz that’s indispensable for understanding sadistic street environments in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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Tubular, Stainless Steel Bench in Ikebukuro West Park, Tokyo: Hot in Summer, Cold in Winter (Yumiko Hayakawa)

“Hostile” and “Disciplinary” architecture are apt terms for describing much of the contemporary built environment of cities. Other observers use terms like “Defensive”, “Aggressive”, and “Fortress” architecture. However they’re described, these material interventions are perhaps most usefully classified—following Mike Davis—under a broader category of Sadistic Urbanism that would also include the socio-legal interventions that Honolulu’s Mayor Caldwell proposes as solution to the problem of homelessness. The alternative to Sadistic Urbanism is not the “compassionate” disruption championed by Mayor Caldwell but rather a humane urbanism that provides safe and affordable housing plus the other amenities that we citizens ought to reasonably expect in any city that’s planned and designed for use by multiple publics: comfortable street-side seating, widely accessible parks and other common spaces, safe and reliable mass transit, value shopping and healthy eating alternatives, and a critical mass of free public restrooms.


Retrofitting the Bum-Proof Bench: “Archisuit”, by Sarah Ross

There are some clever, tongue-in-cheek proposals for how today’s increasingly sadistic street environment might be reclaimed by citizens via architectural counter-interventions. These include inflatable benches that convert to homeless shelters and suits that allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them (above). At the end of the day, however, we’ll certainly need solutions that are more substantive and democratic. They will only be found in the area where participatory planning, humane design, and political will intersect.


How We Ought to Live: Bench in Peter Minuit Plaza, Manhattan (Jabin Botsford, The New York Times)

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.


Kerfuffle Up in Buffalo

The dust-up exemplifies a wider fuss among urbanists, and the Buffalo front is just the latest one to be opened up. Colin Dabkowski of the Buffalo News started it, with an “open letter” to New Urbanists who had just completed their 22nd annual conclave in the city (disclosure: I’m a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, but I didn’t attend the Buffalo meeting). Dabkowski took aim at Jeff Speck’s CNU speech advocating “urban triage”, which Dabkowski understands as a call for investing in the development of a city’s most prosperous neighborhoods and then hoping for some positive trickle down effects to others that are less prosperous. For Dabkowski this strategy is a reflection of New Urbanism’s general “lack of concern” for the disadvantaged residents of blighted areas. He pulls no punches in criticizing New Urbanism for failing in its expressed commitment to develop more diverse “mixed income” neighborhoods. He labels as “juvenile and regressive” New Urbanism’s tendencies to celebrate the “good old days” of a traditional, small town America that, in his view, never really existed. New Urbanism’s architectural preferences reflect an “aesthetic blandness” that is similarly regressive. In short, for Dabkowski New Urbanism is “deluded, myopic, and dismissive of the actual problems faced by American cities face today”: poverty and income segregation. These problems beg for broad-based economic development and a “convincing or coherent strategy” for creating social equity on large scale.


This is strong stuff, and fightin’ words. Accordingly, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns quickly struck back on behalf of New Urbanists everywhere. Marohn takes Dabkowski to task for fundamentally misunderstanding the concept of urban triage. Urban triage is not about privileging rich neighborhoods over poor, but about prioritizing infrastructural investment where resources are limited so that you get the biggest bang for the buck while serving the greatest good. Rather than sprinkling what Speck calls the “fairy dust” of compactness and walkability everywhere, we’re better served by seeking out places in the urban fabric that have the greatest promise for achieving New Urbanist goals, and making those places better. Thus, urban triage is about thinking and acting strategically. In other talks (like this one in Phoenix) Speck references downtown Denver as a model of how urban triage can work. Denver’s Lower Downtown is generally heralded as an urban redevelopment success story. Speck notes that Lodo’s renewal wasn’t “district-wide.” For Speck it was one street, and really just one block, that got it right (which one, he doesn’t say). When people saw how well that one block did, they began replicating its success throughout Downtown Denver.

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“Urban Triage” at 20th and Market Streets, Denver. The legendary El Chapultepec, left, and LoDo’s Grill with rooftop bar, next door and center (D. Saitta)

Online comments by the readers of both Dabkowski and Marohn (as well as contributors here and here) are instructive in that they appear about equally divided in their support of each viewpoint. Supporters of Marohn agree that Dabkowski mistakes Speck’s point about urban triage and misses some important nuances in his argument. Others point out that New Urbanism’s charter is explicitly concerned about social equity and welcomes diversity in architectural form. On the other hand, supporters of Dabkowski suggest that the New Urbanist manifesto has fallen far short in producing equitable communities and visually interesting built environments. Even Marohn has to admit (in a response to one of his readers) that New Urbanism has a certain “pretentiousness” about it. Just about everyone on both sides agrees that civic officials don’t generally think strategically or holistically about what cities need. More often than not they will pander to constituents, especially the more vocal and better heeled. As for New Urbanism here in Denver, if it hasn’t exactly produced an aesthetic “blandness” it has certainly produced an aesthetic sameness that may not inspire much love among a rapidly diversifying urban population. And it’s pretty clear that strategic investments in Denver’s urban fabric haven’t stemmed the tide of displacement and gentrification. A spatial structure of haves and have-nots persists, and thus the jury is still out on Denver’s experiments with socially equitable urban triage. This also appears to be the case in Buffalo.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the back-and-forth between the respective supporters of Dabkowski and Marohn is the preservation of an opposition between New Urbanism and the old urbanisms that produced “Sprawl.” Where Dabkowski misses in his understanding of urban triage he hits in recognizing the “false choice” between New Urbanism and Sprawl. This report on CNU 22 notes that the Buffalo conclave offered up a variety of alternative urbanisms, among them “Good Urbanism”, “Better Urbanism”, “Tactical Urbanism”, “Lean Urbanism”, and “Situational Urbanism.” I either know or can guess what each of these mean, and it’s almost certain that they’re all rooted in that one urbanism that has long been considered “New” and, for many, our best chance at creating a walkable, sustainable city.  However, other urbanisms exist (see here and here) that begin with cultural and class difference and prioritize social equity. They too seek a more sustainable urban order.  Dabkowski intended his piece to provoke a conversation among the adherents of different urbanisms. Marohn suggests that the conversation needs to be more “substantive” and “adult.”  Both are right, and thus both do good service in promoting a broader dialogue. Participants in this dialogue should be less defensive about the particular urbanisms to which they adhere and more open to taking a warts and all look at each. Along the way we might consider other kinds of strategies that can usefully triage our contemporary urban condition, including working at the boundaries of different neighborhoods and not just in the centers. In so doing we might begin knitting back together that which the Age of Inequality is rapidly tearing apart.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Multicultural Planning, Citizen Activism, and the Lived Experience of Urban Place

My title identifies three powerful themes in contemporary urban thought that were highlighted at last fall’s biennial conference of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History held in Toronto, October 4-6, 2013. What follows is a lightly revised report on the conference that was just published in the International Journal of E-Planning Research. A pdf of the original IJEPR report is also available free of charge here.

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The Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) held its biennial conference in Toronto on October 4-6, 2013. I was invited by incoming SACRPH President Joseph Heathcott to chair a session on “scholarship blogging” and thereby contribute an anthropological perspective on urban planning history. Below is a review of the conference based on sessions I attended over the course of three days. These sessions spoke to my particular anthropological interest in the relationship between urban planning and cultural diversity.

The conference began with an opening address by the outgoing president of the Society, Lawrence Vale, entitled “Twice-Cleared Communities: The North American Struggle For (and Against) Public Housing.” Vale discussed two prominent examples of public housing projects that were built in the mid 20th century, and then demolished 50 years later once the projects came to be regarded as “slums.” One was the Techwood/Clark Howell Homes in Atlanta, and the other was Cabrini-Green in Chicago. “Twice clearing”, however, is a widespread phenomenon. Sean Purdy of the Universidade of São Paulo discussed Vale’s presentation with respect to Regent Park in Toronto, the host city’s best example of a twice-cleared community. The provision of adequate public housing remains a planning challenge across North America. People still want access to public housing despite its checkered history and the associated social stigma. Boston and Buffalo were identified as cities that are doing better than most in providing affordable housing without displacing residents.

Yonge Street, Toronto (D. Saitta)

The conference’s plenary session considered the question of “Toronto: An American City?” Four participants addressed the distinctive elements of Toronto’s urban landscape, the immigrant impact on neighborhoods, how those neighborhoods have come to reflect growing social inequality, and the challenges of urban sprawl. Over the course of its history Toronto has exhibited less formal planning than most American cities. Historically this “light zoning” had a number of virtues. It allowed new immigrants to form welcoming enclaves in the city center while keeping consumer markets close at hand. It also kept housing affordable and minimized spatial inequalities of income. However, things have been changing in the post-World War II period, in keeping with broader American trends. Slab apartment towers—identified as a quintessentially Canadian form of suburban housing—came to dominate the metropolitan landscape. In the 1970s suburbs began to replace the city center as the primary reception area for immigrants. Despite efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to maintain mixed housing in the center the “ethno-spatial” divide has been increasing, with black citizens especially segregated. Since 2006 New Urbanism has become the dominant approach for regenerating suburban communities, given that high-rise suburbs are not conducive to immigrant business building. All of these trends are paralleled in the United States. Thus, Toronto is, and isn’t, an American city. The plenary session was extraordinarily helpful in contextualizing a city that is often celebrated as one of the world’s most progressive and multicultural.


Slab Apartment Tower, Jane and Finch, Toronto (D. Saitta)

A session on “Multicultural Landscapes and Planning in Toronto Since 1970” zeroed in on issues of planning and ethnic diversity, especially in the suburbs. Toronto’s suburbs are not only growing and diversifying faster than the city center, but the immigrants themselves are different. They are coming from a much greater array of countries and they are highly skilled. Mohammad Qadeer reprised his important argument that planning for cultural diversity is not a distinct genre of planning. Instead, multicultural placemaking is best evidenced in the routine practices of planners, specifically where they make “reasonable accommodation” for ethnic differences (e.g., in the siting of religious houses, in the provision of different types of housing, and in street names and signage). Qadeer noted that the common critique of urban planning as technocratic and value-neutral is shopworn. One can find examples of multicultural planning if one looks for reasonable accommodation. Thus, progress is being made.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto, by Francesco Perilli (Wikipedia)

A particular highlight of the conference was an all-day Roundtable on “The Physical City: Social Change and Urban Space.” The morning session considered “Historical Narratives” while the afternoon considered “Learning from the Recent Past.” A clear unifying thread was Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City”, including the degree to which it is exercised in the suburbs. Presenters sought to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Suburbs were identified as potentially emancipatory spaces, while public spaces in city centers can be disciplinary and authoritarian. Multiple examples showed how citizen activism and protest can break out anywhere, at multiple spatial sites. The Right to the City can be asserted from the top-down as well as the bottom-up. A participant asked if there is a set of “best practices” for exercising the Right to the City. Answer: we might generate one by finding commonalities in the histories of how different groups have experienced urban and suburban space.

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A session on “Everyday Urbanism: Seeing and Making the City” also channeled Henri Lefebvre, and the concept of “lived experience.” Margaret Crawford, with whom Everyday Urbanism is associated, spoke about American garage sales. These weekend events turn the front yard of the suburban house into an inclusive, public space. In so doing they become “heterotopia”: spaces with multiple functions and meanings. Garage sales help reproduce an alternative, bargaining economy. They serve the cause of sustainability by recycling goods across households. They undermine zoning laws by transforming the private recesses of houses into commercial public spaces. In short, garage sales have “transformative potential” to make suburbs different, more social places. Another paper analyzing the front yard garden as a public “commons” communicated the same message. Listening to both papers I found myself thinking about how Latinos and Latinas in American cities have, for quite some time, been transforming yards and streets into social spaces (the equivalent of Latin American “plazas”) where economic and other transactions can take place. Are Everyday Urbanists simply re-discovering a “Barrio Urbanism” that has existed in other cultures for centuries? Minimally, the Everyday Urbanism session nicely illustrated the need to incorporate lessons learned from the lived experience of ordinary spaces into our planning discourse.

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Big Data Bus (Wikipedia)

One of the more compelling discussion topics that percolated throughout the conference was the relative merits of “Big Data Generalizations” vs. “Particular Narratives of Place” as ways to understand the life of a city.   Aggregated Big Data (e.g., individual transactions gathered from smart phones, credit card purchases, and other sources of information) invite all sorts of interesting studies of consumer choice and human behavior as they relate to urban planning. Still, the crowd’s sympathies seemed to lie with place-based narratives. Many participants championed the importance, for planning purposes, of accounts that detail city life in all of its sensory glory: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels, the chance encounters, the brushes with human difference. This theme was also picked up in a session on “Teaching the Built Environment Outside of the Professional Box.” Participants explored innovative classroom strategies for teaching urban planning and design. The most compelling of these pedagogies directed students to gain a sensory experience of cities via fieldwork. For example, Dan Campo’s assignment at Morgan State University asks students to walk between two places in Baltimore and then tell a story about that experience that references particular sights and sounds. Margaret Crawford’s assignment at Cal-Berkeley assigns students the task of experiencing the city by playing five different roles: as tourist, flâneur, detective, somnambulist, and bricoleur. These calls for incorporating participant observation and other ethnographic methods into planning education would warm any anthropologist’s heart.

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The Roundtable on “The Physical City” noted the important role that online blogs played in sharing information, building community, and promoting the Right to the City during New York’s Occupy Wall Street insurgency. The session I chaired on Scholarship Blogging: What? Why? considered how blogs can accomplish many other goals. It brought together scholars from history, sociology, and urban planning.   Participants demonstrated the utility of blogs for archiving original research material, disseminating scholarly research to the public, creating and nurturing an online scholarly identity, and achieving other outcomes. The session succeeded in sponsoring a fruitful discussion of academic blogging—its possibilities and, for younger scholars, its potential pitfalls—across academic disciplines. A journal article co-authored by session participants is currently in preparation.

This was my first SACRPH conference. I was impressed by the interdisciplinary quality of the presentations and discussions. It was useful to have the ideas of Big Names like Jane Jacobs, Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Marshall Berman and others both re-interpreted and problematized. The various efforts to demystify suburbs were provocative. An anthropological sensibility was clearly in evidence. In addition to championing anthropological methods, panelists noted the role of culture in shaping the questions we ask about cities and anthropology’s utility in drawing larger meaning from individual narratives about city life. There was a clear concern to unify planning theory and practice, and to engage the public in participatory planning and design. Many presentations were concerned with how to incorporate the humanities into planning education while remaining mindful of professionalization and accreditation constraints. All of this was intoxicating. I’m hooked, and I look forward to attending the next SACRPH conference in two years time.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective and the World Architecture Community.

Race and Equity in Urban Nature

My title is that of a session at the recent Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s (RMLUI) annual conference, in which I was privileged to participate. The session was among those in a featured conference track on “Conservation in Metropolitan Regions.”  Other sessions in the track featured topics like “Framing an Urban Agenda for Nature”, “New Frontiers of Land Conservation”, and “Coalitions to Advance Urban Nature.”  An opening conference address by former Secretary of the Interior and Colorado US Senator Ken Salazar set the stage for the conference and for discussions within the various sessions.  Among his many good points Secretary Salazar emphasized the need to “put ideologies and jurisdictions aside” in creating an agenda for urban conservation that can be implemented in the United States and perhaps serve as a model for other countries.

1 Track PicParticipants in the Race and Equity session (myself excluded) were a group of charismatic, minority-culture conservation leaders.   Belinda Faustinos, Principal of BVF Consulting in Los Angeles spoke to the “nature deficit disorder” in minority communities. The relatively few parks and open spaces in these communities contribute to serious human health issues like childhood obesity. Belinda identified some successful, sustainable models for creating equity in access to urban nature, such as the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Coalition.  Roberto Moreno, Executive Director of the Alpine Mountain Sports Foundation, spoke about the overnight mountain experiences provided by his “Camp Moreno”, a collaboration with the National Park Service that introduces kids from minority cultures to public lands. An overriding aim of the initiative is to show inner city kids that public lands are welcoming, rather than dangerous, places.  Jo-Elle Mogerman, Vice President of the Chicago Zoological Society, spoke to the successes that she and her colleagues are having in increasing minority group visitations to the Chicago Zoo via more inclusive planning and marketing strategies.

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The annual RMLUI Conference is always a well-organized, informative, and inspirational meeting.  I was invited to participate in the Race and Equity session because of my involvement here at the University of Denver with our Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)equality (IRISE), in particular an initiative to study race and class-based inequality in access to open space along Colorado’s Front Range.  My contribution to the session was predicated on the notion that even where access to parks and open space is relatively equal, and conditions relatively safe, these places can still be unwelcoming to minority groups depending on how they are designed.  There is a significant literature suggesting that members of minority groups experience parks and open spaces in different ways in keeping with different cultural values and needs. My favorite texts include books by Setha Low and Julian Agyeman, and some useful studies of particular parks like Chicago’s Lincoln Park (e.g., see here).  The risks of cultural stereotyping notwithstanding, this work identifies different preferences among ethnic groups with respect to park attributes (e.g., water, trees, scenic vistas, etc.), developed vs. undeveloped (“wild”) space, and patterns of use (as individuals vs. in larger groups, for recreation vs. relaxation, with vs. without food, etc.).


Minimally, what emerges from this work are some important questions for planners and designers concerned about the cultural inclusivity of urban parks and open spaces.  Given a diverse user population, is there spatial sufficiency for different kinds of activities?  Is there sufficient differentiated or bounded space for accommodating cultural groups having, say, proscriptions against genders or ages mixing in outdoor settings?  Are there culturally appropriate facilities and amenities, especially around food?  Is there sufficient parking for minority groups who must rely on automobile transportation to get to a desirable park?  Encouraging car use in an agenda for sustainable urban living is problematic, but it could be the price we have to pay for parks that are truly culturally inclusive.

Minority groups can read other visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in a park’s landscape. Is minority group history appropriately recognized with monuments and other historical markers?   Less than 3% of all US National Landmarks are designated for women, Latinos, African Americans, or other members of minority groups.  That’s a pretty significant historical sites deficit.  Do place names and signage reflect, where appropriate, multicultural histories?  Even the quality of park vegetation is fraught with cultural meaning and significance.  Julian Agyeman notes how replacement of non-native short rye grass with native long grass wildflower meadows in a Bristol, England park discouraged use by Asian and African-Caribbean people because it provoked what Agyeman describes as a “residual fear of snakes in long grass.”  Thus, hewing too closely to a sustainability agenda that prioritizes native vegetation over “alien imports” can work against cultural inclusion.

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Intercultural Garden near the River Rednitz, Germany (click on image for credit)

Where can we turn for design models and practices that promote minority group interactions with nature? One source is the Intercultural Garden movement, which is geared toward better integrating immigrants and political refugees into European cities (for a detailed overview and analysis, see here).  Initiatives within the European Intercultural Cities Network provide other models and practices, such as installing specific plants and landscapes that resonate with members of particular cultural groups, zoning park space to meet the needs of particular groups (which can include hardscape surfaces without water features and greenery), and networking green spaces with infrastructure and amenities that connect different ethnic communities. Some urbanists (e.g., here) are now examining what appears to be a pan-human need for nature as shaped by evolved psychological predispositions (see also here), presumably in the interest of making urban parks better for everyone.  To the extent that Africa, and not Europe, is the continent where humankind’s psychological love and fear of nature first evolved, I often wonder what Africa can teach us about good intercultural placemaking and landscape design. Is there anything embedded in the planning and design of African cities and other built landscapes of both present and past that’s transferable to other contexts?

Insensitivity to cultural difference in mainstream design and planning practice is perhaps the second biggest threat to public space after neoliberal privatization.  Changing urban demography will almost certainly force us to better accommodate cultural difference.  In the RMLUI Conference’s conservation track session on “Framing an Agenda for Urban Nature” Bob Ratcliffe of the National Park Service rightly noted that the United States will very soon be a “majority minority” nation.  We will have to think about what this means for the land conservation movement, including practices for locating and designing open spaces.  Even the coveted Millennial generation that’s migrating to cities is more ethnically diverse than all previous generations.  If planning and design are not sensitive to cultural difference then we will not only exclude large numbers of people from public space but also limit opportunities for intercultural interaction and, by extension, the creativity and innovation that such interactions can foster.

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Three suggestions for planning intercultural urban nature follow from the above:

  1. We should think not only about the locational and political factors that impede equitable access to urban nature, but also about the culturally exclusionary aspects of design;
  2. We should focus on communities that need access to urban nature the most, and experiment with alternative, non-traditional forms of community outreach and consultation in acquiring information about cultural values and needs;
  3. We should cast widely across geographies, cultures, and disciplines for models and practices for doing urban nature equity work, where “best” practice means “culturally appropriate” practice. We might triangulate between ethnography, evolved human psychology, and archaeology to arrive at new models, and seek the right balance between designing with particular cultural uses in mind and more flexible uses that encourage spontaneity and intercultural interaction.
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RMLUI Conference Plenary Lunch Panel on “Planning the Future of the Rocky Mountain West” (D. Saitta)

Culturally inclusive planning for urban nature would also likely benefit from more diverse leadership in metropolitan planning departments.  The RMLUI Conference’s Plenary Lunch Panel discussion on “Planning the Future of the Rocky Mountain West” was striking for the lack of gender and ethnic diversity of participants, all of whom were leaders of planning departments in major cities between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.  Given the homogeneity of this color palette it’s only reasonable to wonder how sensitive metro planning departments are likely to be to issues around cultural inclusivity in access to urban nature.

Finally, Bill Fulton, president of The Civic Canopy, suggested in the RMLUI Conference’s conservation track session on “Collective Impact: A Model for Collaborative Problem Solving” that it might be time to shift the premise for social action in conservation from an individual rights paradigm to a community rights paradigm.  An individual rights paradigm nicely served national independence movements in the late 18th century. But it has perhaps exhausted its utility in the current context where sustainability of the larger whole is in serious question.  Julian Agyeman nicely describes how the “transcendental” ecological sensibility received from that earlier era turns on problematic distinctions or binaries between humans and nature, native and alien, individual and society, “us” and “other”, etc.  Alternatively, an intercultural ecological sensibility that rejects prevailing binaries will better serve cultural difference in urban nature planning for an increasingly cosmopolitan 21st century world.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Spare The Bear, For Sustainability’s Sake

One of the joys of teaching and researching urban issues in London—at least for some of us—is experiencing pub culture and partaking of its liquid assets.  Thus it was with great concern that I read an article in yesterday’s New York Times detailing the threat to pub culture posed by shifting cultural tastes, escalating real estate prices, and predatory takeovers of “locals” (as England’s distinctive neighborhood pubs are known to regular patrons) by large independent companies.  One out of every 5 locals in Britain have disappeared over the last 20 years.  They’ve been turned into private residences, markets, and other uses.  The pub is an iconic, tradition-soaked setting for much that is good in British social life, especially in very small communities.  Brandon Lewis, Parliament’s Community Pubs Minister, is quoted by the Times as saying that pubs serve as “the focal point for fund-raising for the community, for the local football club, for the dance class, for the moms’ coffee morning.”  Thus, their increasing extinction rate doesn’t bode well for community sociability and possibly other cultural institutions. One might even identify the disappearance of locals as a serious challenge to community sustainability.

The Old White Bear, Hampstead, London (D. Saitta)

The Old White Bear, Hampstead, London (D. Saitta)

The Times story profiled one pub at risk, The Old White Bear in Hampstead, a village that’s part of the north London borough of Camden.  The Bear has occupied its spot on Well Road for 300 years.  It was recently bought by a group of developers and closed its doors on February 2.  My wife Martha and I know it well, because Hampstead was our base of operations for two terms teaching study abroad in London (in 2004 and 2008), and a research trip last year to study post-Olympics regeneration in the capital and intercultural urbanism in Leicester.  I’m sure that there are stories to be told, as one Times reader did, about the “less salubrious impacts of pubs on local communities.” However, some of our fondest memories of England are of enjoying a pint (or two) in the wonderfully rustic and atmospheric Bear while waiting to pick up our young son Joe from Heathside Preparatory School (visible right above the rim of Martha’s glass in the picture below) just up the New End road.

A Toast to The Bear (D. Saitta, M. Rooney)

A Toast to The Bear, from The Bear (D. Saitta, M. Rooney)

Fortunately English law, through the Localism Act of 2011, allows citizens to petition to have a pub designated as an “asset of community value.”  Two thousand petition signatories have allowed The Old White Bear to be so designated, and the Camden Council has so far refused permission to turn the building into a private residence.  The developers have vowed to fight, and The Bear’s future is uncertain.  On this side of the pond we’re hoping for the best, and we toast one closing night patron’s ode to a venerable community asset:

“Let’s be brave, let’s be bold,

Let’s believe in this White Bear of old;

Raise a glass and say,

We close tonight, to return another day.”

Inequality in the Provision of Access to Urban Open Space

For a reason articulated a bit more specifically below, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is an appropriate day for my first post of 2014. Our new Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of Social (In)equality (or, IRISE) at the University of Denver is seeking a Post Doctoral Fellow for a two year position dedicated to studying inequality in the provision of access to open space.  The position begins September 1, 2014, and we’re actively soliciting applications.  A position description containing complete details is at the end of this post, and also available here.


The IRISE Fellow’s research should focus on the relationships between racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequality and decisions about the location, funding, and protection of public open space in the metropolitan United States. As we’ve argued many times in posts for this blog, Denver is an excellent city for studying the relationship between minority group interests and the quality of our built environment.  Denver tends to rank highly in terms of availability and accessibility of parkland, but there are worries that the city is slipping.  The IRISE Fellow might examine how open space legislation and its conservation partners have developed priorities for distributing funds in the Denver region and the extent to which such funding has rectified, ameliorated, or aggravated inequity in access to open space. Or, the Fellow might analyze bond measures or federal sources of funding, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, for their impact on open space accessibility. Other research foci are welcome, depending on the candidate’s interests and skills. I’m personally interested in how the planning and design of urban parks and other open spaces can discourage use by minority groups even where access is relatively equal.  There’s a small but growing literature on intercultural parks (e.g., see here) suggesting that minority cultures easily read visual cues of inclusivity and exclusivity in the landscape.  Is minority history marked in urban parks?  Are place names and other signage a turn-off to minority groups?  Is there spatial sufficiency for conducting a variety of outdoor activities? Are culturally appropriate facilities and amenities available?  Is space activated in a way that attracts minority group interest?


Rendering of City Loop Project (PORT Architects)

Denver’s city government and citizenry are currently very concerned with how we “activate” our urban parks.  The biggest issue right now concerns redevelopment in City Park, Denver’s largest.  The “City Loop” project proposes to replace a decaying playground with 13 acres of skate parks, rain gardens, spiral slides, kiosks, and other amusements circumscribed by a half mile long, brightly colored “kinetic” plastic tube that bends, folds, inflates, and twists into a variety of programmed spaces and enclosures.   The proposal has prompted great debate among citizens in adjacent neighborhoods worried about traffic, noise, loss of open green space, and maintenance costs.  Many are concerned that the city’s desire for something novel and even iconic in parkland activation will produce a “Disneyfied” landscape that’s disconnected from the park’s environmental and historical context and corrosive of any sense of urban place.  Some are concerned that close proximity of City Loop’s plastic structures and anticipated noisy activities to the park’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument will violate the dignity and contemplative quality of that solemn space.  Mostly, citizens are concerned that there’s been almost no community involvement and consultation in the City Loop planning and design process, something that’s prompted development of a Stop City Loop website.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument, City Park, Denver, 20 January 2014  (D. Saitta)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument, City Park, Denver, 20 January 2014 (D. Saitta)

Other Denver parks are undergoing redevelopment and more are targeted (e.g., Civic Center Park is a longstanding source of concern). There are compelling questions about community access and participatory decision-making where all of Denver’s parks and open spaces are concerned.  These questions beg historical, archival, and ethnographic research in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment. Actively promoting collaborative, integrative thought is the purpose of our Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the study of urban open space, and the orienting mission of IRISE generally.


This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Demolition Denver: What Matters in Urban Renewal?

The demolition in question is the campus of the former University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Denver. We’ve been chronicling this development, and the struggle between developers and citizens over what it should look like, since June of 2011. The story goes back farther than that, however. Plans for redevelopment have been in the works since 2003.  The site has been completely abandoned since 2007.  The campus has seen three would-be developers come and go. There have been break-ins and vandalism.  Graffiti artists have made their mark.  Last July 22 the campus was officially designated as a blighted urban renewal area by the Denver City Council.  The section now being demolished is a 6.74 acre piece destined for luxury residences, a deal that was closed in June 2013.  The fate of the rest of the site—22 acres intended for mixed use commercial and office development—is still undetermined.  Developers are currently submitting plans. The Colorado Boulevard Healthcare District (CBHD) board—a volunteer citizen’s group responsible for sharing information with the public—hasn’t met for several months as things sort themselves out.

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University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Campus, Looking Toward Architecture of the Central Quad (D. Saitta)

As quoted in the Denver Business Journal, Denver City Council president Mary Beth Susman asserts that the local neighborhood and the city share a common vision of “mixed use development that has density and walkability.”  The Council-approved development plan calls for promotion of a “diverse, sustainable neighborhood economy.”  Denver Urban Renewal Authority executive director Tracy Huggins says that “everyone is very much aligned about overall objectives.”

Citizens in adjacent neighborhoods have a website that articulates what they want a bit more specifically. Elements include a mix of unique local restaurants oriented around a year-round indoor farmer’s market.   A local brewery.  Retail that provides higher end fashion and furnishings. A luxury/boutique hotel. Businesses dedicated to marketing, design, technology, and financial services.  Art studios and venues.  In short, the desire is for an upscale urban village offering a distinctive—and by all indications pretty exclusive—live-work-play experience.  Aspirational models include Denver’s tony Cherry Creek neighborhood (“where Denver comes to shop, sip, and be seen”), which is located just a stone’s throw away.  Other suggested models draw on elements found in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, Seattle’s Pike Place Market, San Francisco’s Ferry Building, and Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market.

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“Crime, Art, Fetish” (D. Saitta)

The plan for urban renewal at 9th and Colorado is an irresistible topic because—as we establish in our series of posts—issues of race, class, culture, historic preservation, corporate ethics, citizen activism, city council politics, and urbanism (specifically New Urbanism) collide in some particularly interesting ways.  As implicated above, the scales have clearly tipped to favor the desires of a particular demographic with the time, technical means, and political influence to shape the conversation.  One vanquished developer frustratingly described that demographic as One Percenters.  That’s not entirely accurate, but it’s an effective partial framing of the issue.  Certainly, public CBHD meetings—routinely scheduled during working hours—haven’t attracted much class or ethnic diversity.  Other forms of outreach to potentially affected groups have been non-existent.  Public dialogue hasn’t considered sustainability in its sociocultural sense.  It’s clear from census data that there are people and families in the local neighborhoods who might appreciate some affordable options when it comes to housing, eating, and shopping. Thus, Councilwoman Susman might know what the city wants, but I’m not so sure she knows what the citizenry wants—in all of its messy, complicating diversity.

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Building Demolition (D. Saitta)

My personal view is that one Cherry Creek shopping district is more than enough for this part of Denver.  Denver has enough microbreweries to secure its place on that particular Top Ten list for years to come. I’m sure the aspirational development models identified for other cities have their virtues. But it would be good to know how effectively they connect to place and how effectively they appeal to class and ethnic diversity.

In multiple posts on this blog (e.g., here) we’ve advocated for an approach to Health Sciences campus redevelopment that (1) reflects—in both substance and architectural style—the site’s history as a medical research facility, and (2) welcomes the burgeoning ethnic diversity of urban cores. The first of these considerations prescribes—drawing on “healthy city” and “heart of the city” metaphors—an identity-establishing signature building, the adaptive reuse of a few more historically significant existing structures, full enclosure of the proposed central Quadrangle to create a more intimate and pedestrian-friendly public space, and better and safer pedestrian and bicycle connections to the playing fields of adjacent parks (children, like class and ethnic “others”, have been conspicuously missing from the public discussion).  The second consideration prescribes—drawing on intercultural city ideals—a critical mass of value shopping alternatives, at least a little “hard” public/plaza space (including parking lots) where “informal economies” can be encouraged and supported, and housing to accommodate not only multi-generational families but also the varied living arrangements that characterize a broader swath of cultural and economic diversity.

When the next developer for the Health Sciences Center campus is selected, it would be good to renew the conversation about development by asking–of a much wider community of stakeholders—the question that one campus graffitist poses below:  What matters?

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What Matters? (D. Saitta)

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.

Is ‘Sustainable’ Urban Placemaking Elitist?

Jamaal Green thinks so.  Playing off of a recent post by Kaid Benfield, he suggests that mainstream sustainability advocates must “move beyond a consumptive conception of cities that’s based on attracting a preferred social elite, whether they be footloose millennials or middle class families.”  Too often ignored are current residents who typically have limited options about where to live and can be easily displaced by the force of gentrification as newcomers move in.  The benefits of gentrification don’t readily trickle down.

Green’s message is important.  There’s still a dearth of voices addressing the “equity deficit” in our thinking about sustainable urbanism.  Some other standouts are Richey Piiparinen, who usefully asks of the urban “livability” trend: for whom, and at what cost?  Like Green, Piiparinen suggests that the focus falls disproportionately on the coveted group of “cultural creatives” having disposable income.  Consequently, current urban interventions—tactical or otherwise—too often reproduce the divide between amenity-rich and amenity-poor neighborhoods.   Similarly, Roberto Bedoya detects in creative placemaking practice a blindness to the social and racial injustices at work in society.  He challenges placemakers to become more aware of “the politics of belonging and dis-belonging,” noting that “before there is the vibrant street one needs an understanding of the social dynamics of that street.” Neeraj Mehta builds on this theme, asking:

For whom are we trying to create benefit when implementing our creative placemaking strategies?…Which people do we want to gather, visit, and live in vibrant places?  Is it just some people?   Is it already well-off people?   Is it traditionally excluded people? Is it poor people? New people? People of color? ….We need to create an explicit pro-equity agenda to our creative placemaking efforts, be explicit about who benefits from the beginning, put it in our logical models and include it in our measurement.

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The Three E’s of Sustainability: Environment, Social Equity, and Economy (Wikipedia)

Julian Agyeman takes up this challenge most comprehensively in his recently published book Just Sustainabilities.  Agyeman usefully considers both the physical and symbolic character of the urban built environment.   The “complete streets” and “transit oriented development” agendas are rooted in middle class visions, values, and narratives.  They can signal something very different to people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other urban underclasses. Newly established bike lanes and pedestrian zones can breed resentment when biking and walking—historically the primary transportation options for low-income people—become fashionable for people of greater means. Their appearance can also increase anxiety because they often portend gentrification and displacement.  Other celebrated sustainability initiatives like community gardens and urban farms can remind non-white citizens of the oppression their ancestors experienced under plantation and share-cropping systems, when sometimes all that’s really desired by residents is a simple, affordable grocery store.  Even equally accessible urban parks and other public spaces can signal cultural and sub-cultural inclusivity or exclusivity depending on signage, amenities, and whether adequate space is available for different kinds of outdoor activities. Agyeman describes various bottom-up and top-down placemaking initiatives in cities like Boston and Bogota that are more congenial to the needs of urban minorities and underclasses, and exemplify “shared narratives of equity and justice.”

Certainly, there can be some significant overlap between mainstream sustainability agendas and explicit pro-equity agendas.  In the Sustainable Cities post that provoked Green’s critique Benfield embraces a broad notion of sustainability that reflects concerns well beyond pollution and resource consumption.  He notes that cities must be made to work for all people given a rapidly diversifying urban demographic. Benfield admits that some tactical urban interventions are frivolous and self-indulgent (see also here).  He has also written about the dangers posed by commercial gentrification to minority businesses in suburban areas that attract immigrants. He has written positively about the rejuvenated South Lincoln (Mariposa) neighborhood in Denver, and its developer’s use of a “cultural audit” to solicit a broad spectrum of community opinion about desired features and services.  The Project for Public Spaces channels both Mehta and Bedoya in articulating the challenges facing inclusive placemaking. The new MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning report on Places in the Making takes equity concerns to heart where it problematizes the concept of “community” (typically invoked far too casually in most platemaking discourse; for a Denver example see here), urges greater attention to the “right to the city,” and advocates a more “nuanced” understanding of political power and social capital. New Urbanists acknowledge the need to better engage with working class and minority groups.

“La Alma de la Mariposa” Mural by Jeremy Ulibarri (left) and “Mestizaje” sculpture by Emanuel Martinez (right), Mariposa Development, Denver (D.Saitta)

“La Alma de la Mariposa” Mural by Jeremy Ulibarri (left) and “Mestizaje” sculpture by Emanuel Martinez (right), South Lincoln Neighborhood, Denver (D.Saitta)

Tactical urbanism has its virtues.  The Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) interventions celebrated by Places in the Making attract attention and spark the imagination.  And where imagination is sparked, permanent changes that enhance livability and vibrancy can follow.   But not everyone has the time, resources, freedom, or interest to experiment with LQC.  The approach is no substitute for a more substantive focus on questions of housing, transportation, and affordability that prioritize social equity and the accommodation of cultural difference.  Advancing the equity agenda requires changes to planning theory and practice that, in Agyeman’s terms, are transformative and not simply reformist.  In this regard, Bedoya usefully recommends that placemaking practices be informed by critical race theory as well as more conventional spatial planning and economic development theories. Learning from history also helps.  Failure to do so risks—as Green notes—reproducing earlier forms of urban renewal that resulted in the marginalization, containment, or displacement of our most vulnerable citizens.

This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.