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.
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.
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.
There’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.”
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.”
The Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) held its biennial meeting in Toronto earlier this month. I was delighted to have been invited by SACRPH’s incoming president, Joe Heathcott (whom I first met courtesy of his appearance in the film The Myth of Pruitt-Igoe) to chair a session on Scholarship Blogging: What? Why? The purpose of session was to bring together scholars who use blogs as platforms for working on research projects. At issue were the merits of blogging as a medium for disseminating research, developing projects, and achieving other outcomes. In this post I’ll report a few of the takeaway messages of this very stimulating session.
Pierre Clavel organized the session. He blogs at Progressive Cities. Pierre uses his blog to archive and analyze documents related to progressive neighborhood planning in American cities since the 1970s. Many of these planning efforts are the stuff of repressed history, especially where they focused on the redistribution of resources to poor neighborhoods and the opening of city halls to wider public participation (e.g., Harold Washington’s work as mayor of Chicago or Ray Flynn’s work as mayor of Boston). These initiatives have been unreported and/or unremembered by scholars and mainstream media alike. Progressive Cities collects and preserves their historical record.
Christopher Leo blogs at Christopher Leo. Chris is a senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg and a former journalist. He tackles another kind of visibility problem as concerns research on the city. That problem is limited public access to the scholarly literature about cities. Chris accurately notes that academic publication systems almost guarantee a minimal readership for scholarly work. Blogs can be a solution to that problem, especially when they combine the best of the academic and journalistic enterprises. Chris not only seeks to make good academic research more widely available, but also to demonstrate its value to the planning professions. Moreover, he uses his blog to provide reading material for students and to challenge them to delve into urban issues much more deeply than they ordinarily might.
Kenneth Fox blogs at the Merton-Columbia Project. Ken is working to develop a concept of “blog publication”, a corollary to the notion of “oral publication” promoted by sociologist Robert Merton beginning in the 1950s. Like Pierre and Chris, Ken wants to get rarely studied material into the public realm. In this case, the material is from the Robert Merton papers held by Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Robert Merton Literary Estate. A central objective for the blog is to engage current activists and researchers in dialogue about theories of urban social structure and development. In his presentation Ken reminded us of the importance of carefully adhering to permission conditions if blogs are to succeed in providing archival material for wider study.
LaDale Winling blogs at Urban Oasis. A historian on the tenure track at Virginia Tech, LaDale is a younger scholar who has been blogging since 2004. For LaDale blogs have several virtues. Echoing Chris Leo, they are a way to create, maintain, and disseminate a personal body of academic work. They are also a way to create an online scholarly identity–something that’s especially important in a world where everyone and everything can be googled. Most importantly, blogs allow a scholar to actively shape the identity that others encounter on the web.
The session was very nicely discussed by Anabel Quan-Haase, an Associate Professor of Information and Media Studies and Sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Anabel writes at sociodigital.info. Like the other panelists, she sees blogging as an excellent tool for disseminating knowledge. She agreed with LaDale about the relationship between blogging and personal identity. In Anabel’s words, blogging helps to “write oneself into being.” However, contributing to a community is also important. To accomplish that goal a blog doesn’t need a huge audience. Bloggers should be aiming for a particular niche, and they can succeed even if the space they establish lies in the “long tail” of a readership’s distribution.
As a first-time SACRPH attendee I wasn’t sure what to expect from the session. I certainly expected participants to be supportive of the blogging enterprise. Ladale Winling has already posted some of his takeaway lessons at Urban Oasis:
One of the things this panel illustrated for me is that academic (certainly historians’) concerns about blogging have not changed much since 2004 when I started blogging. The main one is about taking time away from writing for publication. The second one is about putting ideas out that will be swiped by someone else. Both of these have to do with the publish or perish standard we have adopted for tenure and tenure-track positions, as well as tenure-track hopefuls. If there was a third, I would say it was about the issue of feedback and community.
No one on the panel seemed much concerned about having their blogged ideas stolen. As demonstrated above, the panelists are keen to use their blogs as a way to more widely disseminate scholarly knowledge about the city, especially knowledge that, for whatever reason, has been purposely forgotten or simply fallen between the cracks. Whether there are any institutional rewards for scholarly blogging—e.g., whether the work will be valued by university tenure and promotion committees—is another matter. There seemed to be general agreement that blogging is something younger scholars need to carefully balance with more traditional forms of writing; they need to find the right level of “digital engagement.” But blogging is writing, and LaDale notes in his post how his blogging invigorates his scholarship. I have to agree. Writing regularly for Intercultural Urbanism has certainly liberated and sharpened my thinking about the city. It has also created numerous opportunities—like Joe Heathcott’s invitation to chair the Scholarship Blogging session at SACRPH—that I never would have gained if I limited myself to traditional forms of writing in and for my academic discipline. And echoing Chris Leo, blogging has helped me better focus my teaching while giving at least a few of my students the sense that their writing about the city really matters (e.g., see here and here).
Toronto is a great place to have a conference about cities. SACRPH was one of the more stimulating interdisciplinary conferences that I’ve ever attended. And the Scholarship Blogging session succeeded in sponsoring a fruitful discussion of its subject across the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, and urban planning. Still, participants were puzzled that the session wasn’t better attended given today’s “tectonic shifts” in how information about the city is being gathered and disseminated. This was especially puzzling given what I took to be the most compelling discussion topic that percolated throughout the SACRPH conference over its three days. That topic concerns the relative merits of Big Data Generalizations vs. Particular Narratives of Place as a way 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. But at the end of the day there’s no substitute for the individual, place-based, thickly described narrative that documents city life in all of its sensory glory: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels, the chance encounters, the brushes with human difference. A well-attended SACRPH roundtable discussion on The Physical City: Social Change and Urban Space noted the important role that blogs played in sharing information, connecting strangers, and building community during the Occupy Wall Street insurgency. Some Occupy-focused blogs–like Peter Marcuse’s–offered very useful suggestions to those of us in other cities about what it takes to sustain an urban movement. Several other SACRPH sessions highlighted the importance of place-based narratives for humanizing and, where appropriate, politicizing that which Big Data risks dehumanizing and depoliticizing. Throughout the conference assembled crowds seemed to favor these fully experiential approaches to studying city life, educating planning professionals, and formulating urban policy. If that’s truly the case, then blogging is one of the best ways to advance those understandings of the city that SACRPH attendees seemed keenest to develop.
In a previous post I evaluated the architectural installations of Denver’s Biennial of the Americas exhibition of Draft Urbanism. In this post I examine the billboard art. More than 30 artists, poets, and philosophers contributed pieces covering a 10 square mile area of the city, each annotated with a museum label. According to curator Carson Chan the outdoor exhibition re-sensitizes us to the metropolitan experience. It turns the city into a “space of inquiry”, and invites the public to examine it with “fresh, discerning eyes.” It provides an opportunity “for a communal reckoning of our shared environment.”
Denver’s billboard artists reflect on many dimensions of the contemporary urban condition. Accordingly, the Architectural Record opines that the artwork “feels scattered, both geographically and thematically.” But I think this depends on how you interact with it. Certainly, there are some compelling themes that connect the various pieces. And, in my experience, these themes are often enriched by the location and immediate context of the particular work. Minimally, the distribution of the art invites citizens to physically visit parts of Denver where they might not ordinarily venture. Indeed, this might be the most important accomplishment of the exhibit. This experience in turn suggests that the problems of the contemporary city are going to be a lot tougher to solve than these guys, this bunch, and the advocates of these paradigms, think.
My survey begins with this billboard from Douglas Coupland that’s located on what the Architectural Record calls “a lonely stretch of road in an industrial area north of downtown.” That road is Brighton Boulevard:
As described by the exhibition’s curators, Welcome to Detroit is a
Reaction to Detroit’s long term deindustrialization and depopulation—as well as a chilling foreboding [of] new meanings for a city whose twentieth century raisons d’être have largely vanished. Coupland’s slogan functions as a welcome sign much like those one would find entering other cities of speculation like Las Vegas and Reno, as well as a welcome sign into a new and unmapped era in human history. He says “Think of Detroit as one million primates needing 2,500 calories a day sitting on a cold rock in the middle of the North American continent, with nothing to do all day. It is an unparalleled crisis of purpose, and Detroit just happened to get there first—but sooner or later we’ll all be there.”
The piece works pretty well, especially on the increasingly dark and threatening day when I visited, and when framed against the backdrop of Denver’s remaining industrial center.
Playing on the theme of urban dystopia, Pia Camil’s Rise to Ruin is located on an even more isolated stretch of north Broadway, adjacent to the gated and barbed-wired scrapyard of an electrical supply company:
According to the curators Pia Camil’s practice explores
…the urban ruin—including photographs of halted projects along Mexico’s highways. The image shows the opposite side of the billboard; that is, the backstage, riddled with chaos, detritus, and deterioration. Camil’s work, however, is imbued with a sense of hope, something that is reinforced by the vibrant colors. The phrase “rise into ruin” suggests the cyclical nature of the world, the phoenix that rises from ash to become, inevitably, ash again.
In a stretch of west Denver’s Federal Boulevard that’s dominated by automobile service and pawn shops, Brazilian artist Ricardo Domeneck offers Continental Scar Tissue, a poetic commentary about history that riffs on the American urban grid. The billboard’s message is reinforced by the name of the auto service shop that’s located right below it:
For the curators,
Domeneck’s poem follows a precise measure like downtown Denver’s city grid. It traces both the geography and history of the Americas, mixing the current locale with his native Brazil, illustrating subtle tensions. In the first two stanzas Domeneck jumps from one location to the other, juxtaposing landscape, histories, and cultures. With this hopping from one to the other, the trail of tears from the Araweté tribe can be located in São Paolo as well as in Colorado ski resorts, as if this violence can be seen and felt just about anywhere…By the time we reach “Centennials for the Americas” the poem slowly drifts out of a specific location to the idea of America, claiming that the transcendentalist thinkers Emerson and Thoreau are dead.
A couple of blocks east of this site, on Decatur Street in a food delivery company’s gated and barbed-wired parking lot, is a piece by Dmitri Obergfell called Free Money. The slogan “The Golden Age Was The Age When Gold Didn’t Reign” is taken from a radical 20th century movement called the Situationist International, and was originally written in graffiti throughout Paris fifty years ago. In this early 21st century iteration it appears in conjunction with a burning sports car:
For the exhibition’s curators Obergfell’s critique is clear:
Cars are a symbol of status and freedom in America. Nevertheless, they are also a necessity—in Denver, as in other American cities like L.A., an automobile is a basic requirement to navigate the urban landscape. Obergfell, then, seems to be calling for a change in the system of values—perhaps proposing that our values are entangled in places where they should not be. But questions arise: does reproducing text originally hand-painted on walls validate its claims when it is printed as a billboard slogan? Does it subsume it into a culture of consumption and spectacle?
The class divisions and racial segregations produced by consumer culture and speculative capitalism—inequalities that are very effectively reproduced by even the (theoretically) egalitarian urban street grid—is captured by Isabella Rozendaal in her New Orleans 2011, on Champa Street in central Denver:
For the curators, Rozendaal’s piece
… takes the innocuous, a road sign at an intersection, and charges it with the political. Every city is replete with clues as to how it can be read, and Rozendaal’s photo—which has the name of the city where it was taken—exposes New Orleans as a city clearly divided by racial and religious lines…Rozendaal reveals the store of information that is hidden in plain sight but crystallized when reexamining everyday objects through art.
This particular piece is enhanced by its location in a vacant lot at the precise juncture of three electoral precincts within the Five Points neighborhood. It draws additional strength from the opposition of a rehabbed apartment building to the right of the billboard and the dilapidated houses directly across the street on the left.
Also in central Denver, the Canadian artist (of Turkish descent) Erdem Taşdelen’s Postures in Process reflects on another aspect of today’s urban condition, the popular uprisings occurring worldwide in response to government efforts to privatize public space. The piece is inspired by the insurgency in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Looming (appropriately) above a gated and barbed-wired Enterprise Car Rental lot on (appropriately) Broadway, Taşdelen’s work presents a string of adverbs that describe the strength and fortitude of those who are protesting the privatization of public space in Turkey and elsewhere:
Finally—and staying with the theme of popular insurgency—there’s this remembrance, from Steve Rowell, of the early 20th century working class struggle at Ludlow, Colorado. I’ve occasionally written about the Ludlow Tent Colony—now a National Historical Landmark marking the 1914 killing of striking immigrant coal miners by the state militia—on this blog because of what I take to be its relevance for theorizing, and tactically implementing, intercultural city ideals.
For the curators,
Ludlow is now a ghost town and a sense of conflict and desolation is apparent in the photograph of a man [actually, a Colorado militiaman] inside an odd-shaped grave [actually, the tent cellar where the bodies of 13 suffocated women and children were found after the colony was burned in a militia effort to break the strike], with one hand jutting out…Nearly a hundred years later, Rowell reminds us that this struggle is still present. Rowell…aims here to convey a site of memorial through an economy of means.
Ludlow is located on Brighton Boulevard just a few blocks south of Welcome to Detroit. Thus, it brings us back to the industrial heart of north Denver, and the related themes of urban struggle, ruin, and renewal. Like the other pieces, it draws power from its evocative context and/or associations. In this case, the piece is squeezed into a small, dark, cellar-like space between a Latino grocery store (there was a significant Latino presence in the southern Colorado coalfields both during and after the troubles of 1913-1914) and the fenced-in house next door.
In conclusion, there’s lots to like in Draft Urbanism’s city-wide exhibition of artwork. There’s certainly lots of meaning for one to construct for oneself. Citizens and urbanists alike are richly rewarded by seeing the city in this way.
This essay was reposted to Sustainable Cities Collective.
In March 2012 Better Cities and Towns posted an article by Robert Steuteville suggesting that a “poorly planned, exclusionary built environment” was a factor in Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman. Steuteville posited that gated communities create fortress mentalities characterized by paranoia and suspicion of anyone who looks out of place within the walls. Steuteville implied that if the site of the Martin shooting—The Retreat at Twin Lakes—had been more walkable then the Trayvon Martin tragedy might have been averted. In a post on this blog I noted, using data from a couple of Denver neighborhoods, that even highly walkable communities have their issues with crime and personal assaults.
Yesterday, in recognition of the Zimmerman trial verdict, Atlantic Cities re-posted an essay by Sarah Goodyear from April 2012 that was originally prompted by the Steuteville piece. Goodyear reported that available research is inconclusive about whether paranoia and suspicion are promoted by life behind the gates. There’s better evidence that gates do not deter the kinds of crimes that are experienced in other kinds of communities. However, Goodyear quotes a bit of a UN Habitat Report suggesting that gating does have broader social impacts. According to the report,
[The] significant impacts of gating are seen in the real and potential spatial and social fragmentation of cities, leading to the diminished use and availability of public space and increased socioeconomic polarization. In this context, gating has been characterized as having counterintuitive impacts, even increasing crime and the fear of crime as the middle classes abandon public streets to the vulnerable poor, to street children and families, and to the offenders who prey on them. Such results also tend to broaden gaps between classes insomuch as wealthier citizens living in relatively homogeneous urban enclaves protected by private security forces have less need or opportunity to interact with poorer counterparts.
Reader comments on the re-posted Goodyear piece include a few different takes on the issue. Here in Denver, “chris1059” acknowledges that, while no community is perfect, there are certain virtues to gated living:
When I moved into my gated community a couple of years ago, my wise neighbors were quick to note that this community would not make me safer from crime. I knew that. However, an enormous benefit of the gated community is that is drastically reduces nuisance traffic in the neighborhood. Fewer ice cream trucks, door to door brush salesmen, etc. A Mormon missionary the other day was quick to point out to me after interrupting my dinner that the court has given him an exemption from the word “soliciting”, so the gates don’t keep the Mormons out. But a 90% reduction in other nuisance traffic is well worth the extra money I paid for my house.
Alternatively, “dfasfgl” in Los Angeles describes the downsides of gated living in a way that offers qualified support for Steuteville’s argument:
I live in a gated community. Unfortunately it is a decidedly working class gated condo complex in Culver City…The only people who aspire to live here are our neighbors in Inglewood. But the people who live here have a weird paranoia anyway. Mostly it is my elderly neighbors. Boredom slowly creeps into insanity while they sit on their couches growing more wrinkles. They have nothing better to do all day except spy on their neighbors and freak out and make some drama at the sight of a stranger. When that is over they yell at the children about making too much noise. Poor Trayvon would never have been shot if he climbed the fence to cut through my condo complex. But if he hung his laundry out to dry, they would make him wish he was dead.
Self-identified urbanist “k_bee” urges cautions against invoking this kind of “spatial determinism” and, alternatively, emphasizes the role of culture in conditioning how people think both within and beyond the gates:
Our built environments are shaped by our cultures, not the other way around… What we need to talk about are the mentalities and fears that suggest we are in danger, that inform our ideas of who may be dangerous to us, that tell us what steps seem necessary for personal protection, or that teach us we need to have the absolute right to self-defense without any duty to retreat. How do those mentalities produce certain modes of living? How do they affect the way we perceive and use public space, and how we choose to encounter our neighbors?
These are excellent questions. But we can allow the causality to go both ways without succumbing to a crude spatial determinism. In a response to “k_bee” commentator Josh Michtom suggests that
You’re surely right that the growth of living arrangements that put people at a remove from others is caused by culture, but it also reinforces attitudes across generations…As the years pass, the realities of [these] people become more abstract, and for children the abstraction is all the greater. The result is a whole class of people who see danger in the unknown in a way that is fairly disconnected from reality. It is a view of the world that sees more peril and more need for aggressive self-defense than I think is warranted, a view that makes stand-your-ground and concealed carry laws feel more necessary than they otherwise might, and a view that can lead an arguably well-intentioned neighborhood watch volunteer to shoot an unarmed teenager.
For her part, Sarah Goodyear concludes that we will likely never know if the built environment played a role in Trayvon Martin’s death. However, that particular jury is still out. Assuming a reciprocal relationship between built environment and culture–or between place and psychology–might usefully frame future inquiries into the issue.
There’s an “equity deficit” in our thinking about urban sustainability. Mainstream green theory is long on environmental justice, but much shorter on social justice. Sustainable development agendas largely serve middle-to-upper income populations at the expense of lower income people of color, immigrants, and refugees.
These are some of the basic claims that anchor Julian Agyeman’s terrific new book, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice. Agyeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. He writes an excellent blog called Just Sustainabilities. Agyeman speaks of sustainability in the plural because he believes—reasonably so—that there can be no universal prescription for sustainable urban practice. Rather, policy and planning must be tuned to the increasing ethnic and class diversity of urban areas, or what others have called “cities of difference.”
The book is efficiently and cogently organized around three key themes, with a chapter dedicated to each: (1) Food, (2) Space and Place, and (3) Culture. Agyeman suggests that each theme is under-theorized and under-researched as an aspect of Just Sustainabilities. He does a masterful job synthesizing recent literature and case studies that relate to each theme, and adds original material that enriches our thinking. There are many takeaways from this book. I focus here on just a few cautionary tales from each chapter that speak to equity deficits and illustrate how even well-intentioned efforts to plan and build for urban sustainability can have significant unintended consequences.
For Agyeman, the equity deficit in the “locavore” food agenda—one that emphasizes local and organic foods, farmer’s markets, and the desirability of community gardens—is that it doesn’t yield affordable, healthy, and culturally-appropriate food for low income populations. The local is always heterogeneous, riven by power (and other) differences. Thus, we err in thinking that community gardens in “food deserts” will be welcomed by everyone. Agyeman usefully considers the cultural symbolism of such initiatives. He suggests that community gardens or “urban farms” can remind non-white citizens of the oppression their ancestors experienced under plantation and share-cropping systems. Alternatively, what’s really desired by many inhabitants of food deserts is the same sort of basic, full service grocery store that’s available to the inhabitants of food oases. Agyeman channels Branden Born and Mark Purcell’s notion of the “local trap,” the assumption that the local is inherently good. He reaffirms their conclusion that the local food movement confuses ends (a more sustainable and socially just food system) with means (a system of localized food production and consumption). In so doing it fails to adequately serve minority and low income populations.
Mainstream placemaking can produce an equally compelling equity deficit. The “complete streets” and “transit oriented development” (TOD) movements are geared to middle class visions, values, and narratives. They especially resonate with the much-coveted “Millennial” demographic. However, these agendas can signal something very different to people of color. Newly established bike lanes and pedestrian zones can breed resentment when biking and walking—often the only available transportation options for low income people—become fashionable for people of greater means. More importantly, bike lanes and pedestrian zones can increase anxiety because they often portend gentrification and displacement. In reading Agyeman I was reminded of citizen comments about the local light rail line that emerged from a Better Block project in the historically black Five Points neighborhood of Denver. The Welton Street light rail line connects Five Points to the rest of the city and, to that extent, is welcomed by many residents. For others, however, it creates an internal boundary that must be carefully navigated in order to access a public park. That is, the rail line is viewed by some as “gating by other means.” The specter of social exclusion is also raised by New Urbanist infill developments designed to pedestrianize streets by concealing or eliminating surface parking lots. This effectively eliminates spaces where “informal economies” can develop; economies that—by and large—benefit minority populations. Agyeman describes various bottom-up and top-down place-making initiatives in cities like Boston and Bogota that are more congenial to the needs of urban minorities and underclasses, thereby exemplifying “shared narratives of equity and justice.”
Achieving urban places conducive to cultural interaction and cross-fertilization depends, for Agyeman, on changes that are transformational and not simply reformist. The urban planning and design professions must be transformed in ways that not only put Just Sustainabilities on their agenda but also diversify the ranks of practitioners. Likewise, we need to develop more innovative methods and strategies for soliciting broad-based citizen input about sustainable development options. Throughout the book I was reminded of David Harvey’s famous essay about another kind of “trap”, the communitarian trap. The communitarian trap assumes that neighborhoods are intrinsic and equivalent to “community.” Harvey shows how deployment of the concept of “community” can effectively marginalize and silence resident minority and low income people, especially those lacking the time to participate in public meetings with developers and planners and/or the technological means to engage in conversations with their neighbors on social media (again, this is nicely illustrated by development debates here in Denver). Agyeman and others (e.g., Talja Blokland) effectively substantiate Harvey’s insight by showing how a dominant picture of community is defined by the historical narratives that residents tell about a place, and that this picture can be selective, partial, and exclusionary.
In short, there’s lots to think about if we want to build cities that are culturally-inclusive and sustainable in the most comprehensive sense of that term. Julian Agyeman brings great passion, intelligence, and imagination to the task, and nicely primes the pump for the rest of us.
This question has been considered by multiple urbanists over the last few years. Some of the more visible conclude that an urbanism grounded in science rather than art—that is, one that is quantitative, predictive, and law-like rather than qualitative, aesthetic, and context-based—best serves the project of city building today. Santa Fe Institute scholars Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West opened the door with their paper in the British journal Nature back in 2010. Their “complex systems” analysis revealed that cities manifest some universal features that are determined by population size. Size predicts variables like the average income of citizens, the number of patents per capita, and other aspects of urban socioeconomic productivity, interdependency, and creativity. Size also predicts levels of violent crime, the number of people with AIDS, and annual tonnage of carbon dioxide emissions. Bettencourt and West conclude that population size determines 85% of a city’s character, with the remaining 15% determined by other factors such as local history, geography, and culture.
In September 2012 Richard Florida called for a better science of cities via an interview with Planet of Cities author Shlomo Angel. Angel suggests that we need a better understanding of global norms in how cities function, and not just those of a particular subset of cities that, though worthy, are entirely inappropriate as comparatives. Around the same time, Stephen Marshall appealed in Urban Design International for more science in urban design education, meaning greater attention to the testing and validation of design ideas, critical assimilation of findings from disparate sources, and better dissemination of findings. He suggests that even taken-for-granted, Jacobsian ideas about the desirability of mixed use, short blocks, architectural variety, and high density—characteristics that enhance urban aggregation and vitality—should be subjected to rigorous testing.
Earlier this year William Solecki, Karen Seto, and Peter Marcotullio, writing in Environment Magazine, asserted that it’s time to turn from urban studies to urbanization science. They urge us to look beyond the surface appearances of cities to the fundamental laws that underlie them. They suggest moving away from the study of cities as places to the study of urbanization as a process. Understanding the processes by which cities develop and change across time, space, and place will, in their view, allow us to better understand the requirements of sustainable urbanism.
This interest in urban processes and laws is most recently expressed by Bettencourt in the American equivalent of Nature, Science. He notes that successful theories in science are not about the form of things but rather about their function and process—how and why things change. He offers a metaphor of the city as a “social reactor” that evolves according to a small set of basic principles. These principles, in order to pass muster as science, must be quantifiable.
These appeals for more science in Urban Studies have provoked varied responses (for a representative sample, see the comments section of Eric Jaffe’s Atlantic Cities piece about the work of William Solecki and colleagues). Many respondents applaud the call for greater systematization of the field. Some see the search for universal laws as a refreshing break from the more popular focus on local, place-based design. However, at least as many folks are unimpressed. These critics wonder what’s really new here, given that a concern for laws and quantification hallmarked the Chicago School of urbanism and, later, 1960s urban geography. Both frameworks for understanding the city were subsequently found wanting. Other critics accept the correlations established between population size and its dependent variables, but note that correlation is not causation. Some suggest that these findings are essentially trivial, arguing that we already know that people accomplish much more in groups than they do individually. Still others say that we don’t need to scientifically test Jacobsian ideas about city building because their application in the real world has already proven successful in many places.
Given that humans are evolved organisms it would be surprising if the city, as a human construction, wasn’t subject to scaling forces, even to a significant degree like 85%. But the remaining 15% that’s subject to culture and context can be decisive. Certainly, the built form of urban spaces within which human interaction takes place–depending on how they’re designed–can make a big difference to the character, quality, and social inclusiveness of the interaction. That is why, for some observers, city building is best viewed as a healthy mix of art and science. As reported here, the Portland, Oregon urban designer Michael Mehaffy suggests that
…urban design theory and urban design practice could have a relationship like that of life science research and medicine. A doctor doesn’t spend all of his time in a research lab, but he relies on scientific knowledge to guide his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The art comes in the form of tailoring diagnoses and prescriptions for each individual patient.
“Questions remain about the morphology, or formal characteristics, of a hyperdense city. This is a relatively new arena, and we can draw great lessons from international cities such as London and Vancouver as well as emerging urban areas like New Songdo City outside of Seoul and Beirut’s new waterfront…New York, San Francisco, and Chicago provide fine examples of clustering hyperdense towers on grids of streets, but this is by no means the only way that hyperdensity can or should be planned. With rapid urbanization worldwide, experiments in hyperdense morphology will continue, and questions about best formal qualities of intense, vertically dense, transit-based cities remain open-ended.
Of course, it’s also possible to go overboard in emphasizing form and design. Zaheer Allam and Zarrin Allam offer a critique of what happens when aesthetics are celebrated and commodified to the point that they become “invasive.” As part of a manifesto for city-building in a world—like today’s—where everything threatens to look the same they suggest that
We are neglecting vibrant contextual elements and hence constructing a generic world lacking humane facets of design. Would it not be a tragedy if Paris, Venice and Barcelona all looked similar? Would we not mourn the vibrancy of Parisian streets around the Eiffel Tower, the romanticism of Venetian waters and the monumental Sagrada Familia that dominates the skies of Barcelona? Do we really want a world that is basically a mirror image of the US?
Similarly, do we really want a world—and an Urban Studies—that is overly driven by nomothetics, where a concern for process supplants a concern for place, or even people? Interestingly, in an SFI working paper Luis Bettencourt admits that science alone is insufficient for meeting the challenges of city-building, and implicates the need for attending to history and local culture in design practice. For Bettencourt, the complex systems approach
…says nothing about…the elementary choices in planning such as the shapes of streets or neighborhoods, houses and buildings, specific uses of space, zoning, etc. …Both urban history and fundamental scientific concepts about how complex systems are created and evolve suggest [that planning should be developed locally by individuals, organizations, and communities]…The planner cannot possibly know in practice all the myriad ways in which people would like to develop urban spaces over the history of a city. Better choices are usually made by agents with more specific information, adequate to their goals and aspirations, so far as these are constrained not to limit similar choices made by others and their integration across urban scales. Thus, ensuring general constraints…together with basic rules at the local level, such as those inspired by vernacular architecture over many centuries now, or by some forms of new urbanism or generative design, may provide a practical model for planning, especially in cities that are largely built informally anyway…
This is prudent advice and a good place for me to stop. But I’ll give the last word to Daniel Latorre who, in commenting on Solecki et al.’s call for an urbanization science, articulates what I take to be the most pressing need in Urban Studies today. It’s something that is absolutely crucial if cities are to achieve the kind of social inclusion that allows them to achieve their full socioeconomic potential:
What the understanding of urbanism needs is a more mindful cultural awareness of the [diverse] communities of practice that contest, battle, and cooperate in myriad idiosyncratic, political, [and] irrational ways…the map is not the territory.
Apparently not, according to Michael E. Smith in a review of the new Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History over at his blog Wide Urban World. Smith argues—rightfully—that cities developed in many areas of Central and South America well before the time of the European conquest. And, that these indigenous urbanisms were substantial enough in their form, geographical reach, and cultural impact to warrant chapter-length treatment in any comprehensive compendium of cities in world history (if we understand “history” to include the entire time period of human existence on the planet and not just time periods for which we have written records). Yet, they go largely unrecognized and unappreciated by urban historians.
An argument like Smith’s can also be made for North America. If Mesoamerica is Mars to urban historians then North America is Neptune—a place that lies even further beyond the orbit of world urbanism. As previously discussed on this blog (as well as by Smith himself), North America has good examples of both near-urban and fully-urban phenomena. The ancient city of Cahokia (dating roughly AD 1100-1200) in the Mississippi Valley got some run recently in the pages of Science magazine with a consequent mention in Atlantic Cities. This sprawling metropolis of huge earthen mounds and clearly differentiated public space attracted tens of thousands of people and created an impact felt hundreds of kilometers away. The Mesoamerican archaeologist John Clark is quoted in the Science article as saying that if you found Cahokia in the Mayan lowlands its urban status would not be in doubt; indeed, “it would be a top 10 of all Mesoamerican cities.” And, as reported in a Science sidebar, even earlier mound building cultures of the lower Mississippi Valley may have had a role in actually shaping the origins and development of the great Central American civilizations described by Smith.
In short, for Smith urban history
…covers the entire world, through time from the earliest cities to the present. If we really want to comprehend cities and urbanism, a broad perspective is essential. Archaeologists have long appreciated the value of an inclusive comparative framework, and scholars of contemporary urbanization are starting to look to ancient and pre-modern cities as a source of ideas to better understand cities and their problems today and in the future.
This goes for me too, and probably John Clark as well. Smith suggests that scholars of “world history” are not yet clued in to what we can learn about urbanism from the cities of ancient America. They’d be well-advised to get a clue if they’re interested in better understanding the city’s role in imperial expansion, its virtues as a socially integrating and culturally creative force, and its limitations as a sustainable form of human settlement.
Now that the dust has apparently settled from the exchange in The Daily Beast (Kotkin’s opening salvo is here and Florida’s response is here) it’s useful to ask what’s been learned. I think the short answer is “not much.” These sorts of confrontations usually generate more heat than light. Both authors have passionate critics and loyal defenders. Robert Steuteville at Better! Cities & Towns rushed to Florida’s defense before the ink on Kotkin’s essay was dry:
Do educated professionals contribute to the economy, to the tax base, to jobs, to the educational system? If the answer is yes, then an influx of the “creative class” does indeed help the entire city and offer some benefit, directly or indirectly, to most of the citizens. How about the amenities that attract the creative class? Are they worth investing in and do they benefit a broad swath of the public? These amenities include: walkability, transit, culture, quality public spaces, historical architecture, high-end jobs, education, connection to nature, and housing in walkable neighborhoods. The answer, again, is yes, yes, yes.
On the other side, Jamaal Green at Sustainable Cities Collective wasn’t going to dignify the exchange by commenting on it. But he couldn’t resist a piece in Rustwire suggesting that the attacks on Florida are “overblown and insidious.” Here’s Green on the “amenities” question and Rustwire’s claim that the interests of the poor and of the “gentrifiers” are aligned more than one might think:
Frankly, this argument is pure neoliberal, trickle-down economics. Thirty years of local, state and federal policies that have favored the interests of economic and political elites have shown us that simply assuming that the success of an elite group will help non-elites is wrong. Amenity-based development, “placemaking” projects, the varied accoutrements of the sustainable city like farmers markets and bike infrastructure, the intense redevelopment of central cities, the conversion of industrial land, and any other array of city or regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations… The way many of these policies have been rolled out in American cities have seeded and exacerbated displacement, gentrification, housing affordability crises, and increased income inequality. To say that the interests of “creatives” and the poor or communities of color are one and the same implies an overlap that in many cities simply does not exist. There are legitimate trade-off decisions and real winners and losers when it comes to policy and planning decisions and we should honestly interrogate the disparate impacts of amenity-based planning strategies instead of effacing the real conflicts and decisions that undergird creative class policy.
A few other quotes from Kotkin’s and Florida’s interlocutors at The Daily Beast capture a bit more of the third party mood and suggest that patience for both men is wearing thin:
“Jasperinboston” goes after Kotkin thusly:
It seems to me Kotkin…has of late become something of a shrill, reverse parody of Florida….Maybe the latter’s claims about the creative class are sometimes exaggerated. But Kotkin writes as if we’ve seen ZERO improvement in the position of America’s cities…Kotkin seems to blend his often insightful observations with large-ish dollops of hippie-punching and resentment, and an overemphasis on the hipster phenomenon. But not everybody who trades in suburban living for life in an urban core does so in order to party with long-sideburned PBR drinkers. Clearly the amenities and lower crime available in many of today’s cities are highly appealing. And then there’s simply the shorter commutes for those lucky enough to walk to work… I mean, for all the growth in jobs found in suburban office parks, the urban cores of America’s cities are still home to vast numbers of (often very high-paying) jobs in areas like banking/finance, business services, government, publishing, architecture/design, academia, medicine/medical research, tourism hospitality, etc. Simply living near one’s job is, again, appealing to many people. Also, by all accounts much of the boom in urban living is driven by empty nesters — so it’s not just young, in-their-prime knowledge workers who are driving the phenomenon. Anyway, at the end of the day perception drives reality, and indeed becomes reality. And increasingly for better or worse the perception influencing the decisions of consumers, businesses and elected officials is that city life is desirable, and advantageous. I think Kotkin’s fighting a losing battle.
“QueensArt” offers this about Florida:
New York, especially creative class poster child Brooklyn, is hemorrhaging economic and racial diversity. The fact is that regardless of professed political beliefs, the effect of the so-called creative class is to make a place whiter and richer. It’s gentrification with city resources accelerating the exile of whole segments of its citizens, in favor of attracting upper class settlers. Without cities enacting policies that balance the needs of the wealthy with the working and middle classes, creative class policies are nothing more than an act of contempt of a city against its own people. In the end, this will historically be viewed as destructive on the same level as red-lining and Robert Moses.
Michael E. Smith goes after both of them and suggests that maybe these aren’t the guys we should be listening to:
It is interesting that Richard Florida chooses to counter Joel Kotkin by personal attacks and critiques of things that were not part of Kotkin’s article. And he ignores the critiques of his creative class theory by urban scholars (e.g. Jamie Peck) cited by Kotkin. On the other hand, Kotkin ignores many aspects of Florida’s argument. But then these two are cultural entrepreneurs and not scholars, and they make their points in popular books and internet journalism, not peer-reviewed scholarly papers. I’d be more interested to hear what Edward Glaeser and other scholars of contemporary urbanism have to say about the views of both writers.
“Barabbas” is even more pointed:
Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida are both irrelevant. Kotkin’s little fetish for suburban sprawl and nuclear families is an obviously failed experiment if households have to commute. It’s amazing that Kotkin can’t figure that out while he resides in the North Hollywood area. But cities are also a relic of the industrial past. Whatever economy of scale can be achieved with urban density is quickly erased by housing scarcity issues. Why do cities need to cluster population anyway?…The effects of the digital revolution are unclear beyond the fact that it has rendered many traditional occupations obsolete as well as the necessity of clustering population in cities. It would be more interesting, though less profitable, to prophecy the emergence of resource-based organic communities throughout these magnificent United States of America. We have the technology and we have the indomitable spirit of the American people. The genius of America is the cultivation of genius. Kotkin and Florida are shills. The painful residue of the intellectual class rendered irrelevant by technological innovation. The demise of capitalism from within, exactly as Schumpeter predicted…
These, as well as the many dozens of snarkier comments on both sides, suggest that there’s little more to this “debate” than entertainment value. At the end of his essay—and perhaps to his credit—Florida seeks to re-direct the conversation:
Enough already with this tired and divisive debate about families versus hipsters, cities versus suburbs. We know that cities and skills power growth and we know that we’re facing real divides and real inequalities. Let’s get on with the critical task of drafting the new social compact that our urban age requires. Now that’s a debate worth having.
Agreed. Florida’s proposed new social or creative compact is wide-ranging and has its virtues. But other urbanists whose work I’ve highlighted on this blog—Jamaal Green, Richey Piiparinen, Neeraj Mehta—are doing much more to advance the placemaking conversation. Aaron Renn and Susie Cagle ain’t bad either. Theirs are the voices most worth listening to.
Like many institutions of higher learning, the University of Denver is committing resources to greening our campus and encouraging teaching and research on sustainability. We have a Sustainability Council, a Sustainability Minor, and a nascent Center for Sustainability. Because of my interest in urban sustainability—and to mark the 100th post of this humble blog—I thought I’d reflect a bit on what’s happening on my campus and where we’re going.
The catalyst for this essay was a recent panel discussion about sustainability initiatives on campus. Sponsored by the Sustainability Council, the event kicked off a series of cross-curricular dialogues about sustainability-focused teaching and research at DU. The panelists were from a variety of traditional academic units and professional schools (e.g., Law, Social Work, and International Studies). The goal was to encourage discussion across disciplines and identify cross-cutting themes for future events, given sustainability’s inherently interdisciplinary character.
The event was both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring, because of the good work on sustainability that’s taking place within the academic units (e.g., on human-animal connections, business ethics and sustainability, global health). Depressing, because a common note struck by speakers and audience members alike is how hard it is to do substantive interdisciplinary team-teaching (i.e., something more than the typical dog-and-pony show) about any topic across academic units at DU. Indeed, this was the main takeaway message of the event. The obstacles are structural, relating to the demands that individual units make on their faculty but also—perhaps more importantly—to the system for crediting team-teaching across units. Several participants noted that faculty with interdisciplinary teaching interests have to work in the “interstices” of what, at DU, is a very traditional academic structure. This certainly can produce some good results, as the panelists demonstrated. But a scattershot approach is no substitute for a broader institutional commitment that would better value this work and perhaps make DU more competitive in attracting top-flight faculty and students having interests in sustainability.
Academic territoriality is another serious obstacle. Several years ago my colleagues within the arts, humanities and social sciences sought to create an Environmental Studies program. They had a fully-justified proposal, courses ready and waiting, and participation pledges from faculty in a critical mass of departments. But the proposal was squashed because academic deans feared competition that would draw off students from the already established Environmental Sciences program. We’re trying again this year to get something going in the area of Environmental Humanities or Eco-Humanities. However, the ancient survival impulse to claim and protect turf is apparently still alive and well on campus. Last year DU’s Department of Geography received approval to change its name to the Department of Geography and The Environment. It’s not clear how this was accomplished; it could be that all it took was submission of a self-interested request to the university’s Board of Trustees, a governing body that’s un-populated by professional scholars. At any rate, this is astonishing stuff because I thought we were beyond seeing the “The Environment” as an object of study to be owned by particular academic departments and divisions. It also runs counter to the widespread recognition that sustainability—as something that’s intimately wrapped up with “The Environment”—is an inherently interdisciplinary concept. Anthropologists sometimes get territorial about the study of “Culture”, but I think we’re smart enough to realize that “Culture” is a complex phenomenon on which multiple disciplines can shed bright light. “The Environment” is similarly complex, beginning with the fact that it is cognized and used differently depending on cultural context and history. Any comprehensive understanding of human-environment relationships and, certainly, any effort to specify sustainable “best practices” for managing human-environment relationships requires exposure to theories and methods that span the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities.
Promotion and tenure criteria can also impede the development of interdisciplinary teaching and research. Like many institutions, a “star” mentality rules at DU, with the single-authored monograph and peer-reviewed journal article serving as coin of the realm. The quest for star status can produce a certain insularity. Over the last 25 years I’ve seen some very fine collaborative scholars and scientists leave the university because they ran afoul of the star system for evaluating faculty talent (for a particularly egregious case, see here). Others have left because of academic climate issues, like the particularly talented ecologist who, at a York University (Toronto) workshop on comparative urbanism in 2008, riveted a roomful of participants with a discourse on the importance of wildlife corridors to sustainable urban environments. Stories like these relate to the challenge of building a faculty for 21st century interdisciplinary work on sustainability. I’m not convinced that my institution knows how to meet that challenge, nor thought very much about it. Having star academics (whatever that means) in the fold is important, but so too is having the team-players who, because of their presence, make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. And it seems that holism and balance in all areas of academic life is what any institution looking to gain street cred in the area of sustainability should be aspiring to achieve.
Even the structure of the curriculum itself can hamper efforts to teach about sustainability. One place in DU’s curriculum where team-teaching about sustainability might flourish is our Common (General Education) Curriculum. The “Advanced Seminar” piece of that curriculum invites interdisciplinary and experimental courses. However, the established requirement for these upper-level courses is that they be writing intensive. This can work against courses with sustainability themes that might be better taught with pedagogies that are field or lab intensive like, say, a course on urban permaculture.
The parting shot to the Sustainability Council’s panel discussion was a comment from one participant who declared that DU is positioned to do some “amazing stuff” in the area of sustainability. I completely agree, but I don’t see how we can do this stuff without some financial and academic restructuring. How hard can it be to produce a budgetary and credit-allocation model that actively supports interdisciplinary team-teaching across the traditional units and the professional schools? Or, to structure a curriculum that allows pedagogy—whether writing-intensive, field-intensive, lab-intensive, performance-intensive, or some other intensive—to follow subject matter and course goals rather than being stipulated a priori? Or, to combine programs with sustainability emphases—environmental science, eco-humanities, urban studies–under a single comprehensive umbrella? We don’t have to go so far as to create a separate School of Sustainability Studies like they have at Arizona State University, although the ASU model of academic structure is producing some really interesting teaching, research, and public outreach initiatives. Something along the lines of the University of Utah’s program in Environmental and Sustainability Studies would do. This program brings together scientific, humanistic, historical, and cross-cultural approaches to understanding the human-nature relationship. However, it’s not clear whether the University of Utah is doing better than any other institution in supporting interdisciplinary team-teaching or building a faculty for 21st century work on sustainability.
It’s probably not a coincidence that western cities provide the geographical setting for this progressive sustainability work. Phoenix is a favorite poster child for unsustainable urbanism. But that makes it an exquisite natural laboratory for thinking about, and testing, ideas about how to do things differently. Salt Lake City is currently poised to get some run as a model of urban sustainability given that the Congress for the New Urbanism meets there later this year. If some CNU leaders have their way, we could soon be talking up the 21st century relevance of 19th century Mormon town planning. Denver has accumulated plenty of credibility as a place to watch for trying out different approaches to creating sustainable urbanism. It‘s a shame that Denver’s university is not leveraging our faculty talent and unique location to create the amazing program in sustainability studies that, given a little structural and paradigmatic change, lies well within our reach.