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Public Theology: Spatial Justice and Public Places: Designing Cities of the Future
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Spatial Justice and Public Places: Designing Cities of the Future
The author speaks of 'Interculturally Inclusive Spaces as Just Environments'. Designing for people not economics. Read about Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa doing urban transformation in Colombia.

By Julian Agyeman

“We are in a spatial moment.”1 Around the world, there has never been a time when the role and possibilities of public space have been so prominent in the news and on social media as now. From Tahrir Square in Cairo to SlutWalks that originated in Toronto, new spatial imaginaries are opening up. New spaces are being created and used as sites of recreation, such as New York City’s High Line, a disused elevated rail bed that is now a highly used urban park. Other spaces, such as Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, represent “cosmopolitan canopies,” as described by sociologist Elijah Anderson, where there is racial, ethnic, and class intermixing in civil and friendly ways.

Road spaces around the world are being reimagined. In Copenhagen, as in the Dutch woonerven, and in streets such as London’s Exhibition Road, the concept of “shared space” removes the usual separation of cars, pedestrians, and other road users and devices so that curbs, road lines, signs, and signals are woven into a “cities for people” narrative of public space. In this way, walking, cycling, shopping, and driving cars are integral to the “livable” or “complete” street.

Yet, designing inclusive, or at least nonexclusive public space faces many obstacles and challenges in engaging with difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity in creative and productive ways. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris argues that many public areas have “reinforced divisions based upon class, race, age, or ethnicity.”2 Low et al. are even more forthright: “In this new century, we are facing a different kind of threat to public space—not one of disuse, but of patterns of design and management that exclude some people and reduce social and cultural diversity.”3 I argue it is possible to plan, design, and maintain “culturally inclusive spaces,” but this necessitates, among other things, a paradigm shift in our thinking from multi– to interculturalism.


Multiculturalist discourses have fallen short in considering the broader impacts of culture on planning and sustainability. James Tully has noted in his 1995 book Strange Multiplicity that multiculturalism, as it has been conceived, does not require any fundamental change in thinking. Our societies, he argues, are intercultural rather than multicultural because of cross-cultural overlap, interaction, and negotiation—the “politics of recognition”—that occur out of necessity in the formation of our society. Ash Amin calls this the “negotiation of difference within local micropublics of everyday interaction.”4 An acknowledgment of this dynamic cultural nature of society—both the “politics of recognition” and “negotiation of difference”—is a key distinction between intercultural and multicultural theory, demanding a culturally competent and inclusive approach to both planning and policymaking.

Jude Bloomfield and Franco Bianchini make perhaps the most eloquent argument, the full implications of which should be fully understood by politicians, planners, and policymakers: The interculturalism approach goes beyond opportunities and respect for existing cultural differences, to the pluralist transformation of public space, civic culture and institutions…city governments should promote cross-fertilisation across all cultural boundaries, between ‘majority’ and ‘minorities’, ‘dominant’ and ‘sub’ cultures, localities, classes, faiths, disciplines and genres, as the source of cultural, social, political and economic innovation.5

Leonie Sandercock, however, appeals to our emotions: “I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding.” This city, Sandercock explains, would value social justice over balanced budgets, neighborhood discussion before decisions, and its very possibility should seduce.6

Imagine, for a moment, a mayor or city leadership group who had the courage to move in these directions; to contaminate and hybridize across cultures; to feel seduced by the city—a mayor or leadership group that refused to go with the status quo, with what is probable, but instead focused on what is possible. The transformation of Broadway and the High Line under Mayor Michael Bloomberg are small but highly significant examples of possibility, as was the more ambitious development and implementation of London’s congestion charge under Mayor Ken Livingstone, or the “Copenhagen Miracle” under a succession of mayors since the 1960s and the iconic urbanist Jan Gehl. However, the only citywide, culture-shifting examples that even come close to intercultural urban planning are the double acts of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa who literally performed (in the case of Mockus) the most celebrated of urban transformations in Bogotá, Colombia, and more recently the social urbanism–inspired transformation of Medellín, Colombia.

Designing, planning, and maintaining culturally inclusive spaces

The uneven development of many public spaces is a classic case of spatial injustice. Most public spaces serve as meeting places for people who already know each other, and many open spaces are sites of tension and racism that reinforce intergroup separation.7 Certain subgroups express additional difference-based barriers that concern language, disabilities, gender identity, and religion.

How, then, do we get to Anderson’s “cosmopolitan canopy” or Bloomfield and Bianchini’s intercultural dream where “different cultures intersect, ‘contaminate’ each other and hybridize?”8 These observations and ideas underlie Gordon Allport’s “contact theory,” which posits that interactions between members of different groups can reduce intergroup prejudice under the right conditions.

Clearly, parks, public spaces, markets, and streets have a role to play. Unfortunately, culturally inclusive spaces—those designed intentionally around intercultural engagement, the recognition of difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity—have not been a major focus of study in the planning literature, nor are they well understood by practicing urban designers, planners, and policymakers.9

Public spaces can be sites of huge intercultural opportunity. Organized events, such as football matches, festivals, or youth group activities, may offer important opportunities for intergroup contact and for generating shared experiences. People who have emigrated from one country and culture to another tend to use public open spaces, community gardens, and parks to gather and congregate in ways that are reminiscent of their home country, transforming the parks of their adoptive community into familiar spaces, creating an “autotopography” that links their daily practices and life experiences to a deep sense of place. In effect, they are writing their cultural stories on the land- or cityscape. This is a type of cultural place-making and is commonly done in community gardens through the growth and celebration of culturally appropriate foods.10

When planning and (re)designing inclusive spaces, it is useful to understand both Doreen Massey’s point that places and spaces are “constantly shifting articulations of social relations through time”11 and, related, Julie Guthman’s question, which is not “Who is at the table?” but “Who is setting the table?”12 The first principle of culturally inclusive practice is therefore recognition that “community” is a fluid notion, constantly in flux. It is critically important to draw from different cultures and subcultures and to include a variety of user-derived options. It is also important to focus efforts aimed at designing inclusive spaces on places that accommodate meaningful interaction among users, rather than simply on areas with the greatest number of people crossing paths.13

But, Ali Madanipour cautions: “If public spaces are produced and managed by narrow interests, they are bound to become exclusive places.”14 Therefore, the planning process must be inclusive. Planners are advised to heed Massey and forget about a monolithic “public” or the “average” user and instead begin the open space planning process with “deep knowledge” of the preferences of the actual communities who are likely to use those spaces.15 Yet, Yasminah Beebejaun reminds us that “complexities exist both within and between cultures. One issue for planning in culturally diverse contexts is that different cultures, subcultures, and generations have different assumptions and conventions about who uses public space…”16 Generating deep knowledge may involve ethnographic work to learn about the cultural backgrounds, perceptions, and needs of those in the local community regarding open space use.17 Equally important is an understanding of how users’ past experiences in public spaces have shaped their use of or aspirations for the space now and in the future.18 Fred Kent and others believe the best ideas for the future come from the community, and they should be actively engaged in creating public spaces at every stage of the process.19

Following good design principles is fundamental in creating high-quality open space but not sufficient in ensuring inclusivity. A culturally inclusive space should offer amenities, rules, and landscapes that accommodate people of all ages and backgrounds. Designers can create spaces that resemble “home,” such as the Ryerson University student-led designs based on Bollywood for the Gerrard India Bazaar, an ethnic business enclave in East Toronto.20 Officials can also assign culturally relevant names (toponyms) in order to promote a specific sense of identity.21 Inclusive spaces must provide appropriate seating (not the “standard” park bench) for individuals or the nuclear family, and also for extended families and groups of individuals simply hoping to socialize. Safety is a major barrier to park usage: people report feeling unsafe in spaces with overgrown vegetation, insufficient lighting, and high walls.22

Design and utility blend easily. Sometimes simply better design and/or maintenance of existing facilities can resolve problems instead of building new facilities.23 Therefore, the “use” stage of open space development must include proper maintenance and management. Additionally, open-space management and programming staff must adopt new, culturally competent approaches to interacting with diverse users. Hiring staff who resemble users or who speak the language of diverse users can go far in reducing perceptions of discrimination, which has been shown to be an important deterrent. Targeted marketing strategies could also be used to respond to the diverse needs of various groups in order to re-establish a park as a welcoming place for all.24

Accessibility depends not only on the location of parks, but also on the built environment that surrounds them. Good street lighting, adequate sidewalks, street interconnectivity, local land use, infrastructure, and facility maintenance—the so-called “whole journey approach”—all influence when and how urban residents participate in outdoor recreation.25 Numerous studies, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, have shown that there are fewer accessible parks and public spaces in minority and economically disadvantaged areas. In addition, the parks and spaces in these neighborhoods also tend to be of lower quality, making quantity and quality especially important in low-income communities.26 If the community is not helping “set the table” during the design process, spaces attempting to cater to everyone can tend to be impersonal.

Cultural competency: Toward culturally inclusive practice

What is the role of the planning and urban design professional in the shift toward interculturalism? It is important to note that the placemaking professions most closely associated with the policy, planning, design, and development of public and open spaces are not known for their tolerance of difference, diversity, or cultural heterogeneity. There is a solid case to be made that the training, recruitment, and retention of professionals who more fully reflect the makeup of our “cities of difference,” as Ruth Fincher and Jane Jacobs called them in their 1998 book of the same title, would help speed the production, quality, and maintenance of culturally inclusive spaces, and, critically, the embedding and mainstreaming of culturally inclusive practice within those professions. Until that mainstreaming happens, current professionals must take added care to ensure they embark on culturally inclusive practices where difference and diversity are intentional and are represented throughout the design process.

The move toward more just environments will require rethinking our paradigms, policies, and plans for public spaces. Elsewhere, I have taken a necessarily broad look at what these plans might look like through the lenses of space as security, resistance, and possibility.27 I argued that the sense of possibility and hope that was emerging in democratic and democratizing projects, spaces, and places around the world could serve as models to inform the creation of new spaces along lines more befitting the notion of just environments. Here, I am adding another layer by arguing that the provision of high-quality, culturally inclusive spaces is essential in any society that “embodies a dynamic and multi-faceted culture.”28 However, we must not fall into a deterministic trap: we must recognize the limitations of design to solve deep social injustices. There are two aspects to this. First, as Phil Wood and Charles Landry point out:
The intercultural city depends on more than a design challenge. It derives from a central notion that people are developing a shared future whereby each individual feels they have something to contribute in shaping, making and co-creating a joint endeavor. A thousand tiny transformations will create an atmosphere in public space that feels open and where all feel safe and valued.29
Second, as Jason Byrne and Jennifer Wolch note: “The cultural landscape perspective shows us how landscapes can become racialized, shifting the scale of environmental injustice from the home, the factory, or the neighborhood to entire landscapes.”30

In addition, community-based planning processes surrounding open space may foster collaboration during planning sessions, but may not radically alter the lack of power of disadvantaged participants after the process has concluded. Similarly, there is a threat that residents engaged in planning for open space may create more exclusive, rather than more inclusive, spaces. Clearly, there is a role for the planner to advocate on behalf of inclusivity, recognizing that this may require different treatment of individuals and groups based on need.31

Let’s start from a position of humility. Do we want to live in a world where we tolerate the tedium and misery of cities of indifference, or do we want to live in cities where we recognize, understand, and engage with difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity that could transform civic institutions, the public realm, its discourses, and city management practices? As Wood and Landry argue: “If we want the intercultural city, we cannot leave it to chance.”

Read the whole article with footnotes at the Social Science Research Council.

Julian Agyeman is professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University. As an ecologist/biogeographer turned environmental social scientist, Agyeman has both a science and social science background, which helps frame his perspectives, research, and scholarship. He thrives at the borders and intersections of a wide range of knowledges, disciplines and methodologies, which he utilizes in creative and original ways in his research.

He was cofounder in 1996, and is now editor-in-chief of Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability. His books include Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (coedited with Robert D. Bullard and Bob Evans; MIT Press, 2003), Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice (NYU Press, 2005), Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (coedited with Alison Hope Alkon; MIT Press, 2011), Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice (Zed Books, 2013), Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities (coedited with Stephen Zavestoski; Routledge, 2014) and Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities (coauthored with Duncan McLaren; MIT Press, 2015). His latest book is Food Trucks, Cultural Identity and Social Justice: From Loncheras to Lobsta Love (coedited with Caitlin Matthews and Hannah Sobel; MIT Press, 2017).

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Date Added: 6/29/2017 Date Revised: 6/29/2017 5:16:12 PM

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