I’ve been thinking a lot recently about public spaces and spatial justice (which “links together social justice and space”). Two books have greatly influenced my thinking on this. In his book, Convivial Urban Spaces (Earthscan 2008), Henry Shaftoe talks of inclusive and exclusive urban spaces. Inclusive spaces he argues are the aim of “the New Urbanists, Urban Villagers and 24 Hour City people who want to ‘crowd out crime’ through mixed use and maximizing activity in public areas”.
Exclusive spaces, by contrast are the domain of “the ‘designing out crime’ proselytizers who seek closure and limitation of use of spaces”.
In Setha Low et al Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity (University of Texas Press 2005) the authors note that: “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. In some cases this exclusion is the result of a deliberate program to reduce the number of undesirables, and in others, it is a by product of privatization, commercialization, historic preservation, and specific strategies of design and planning. Nonetheless, these practices can reduce the vitality and vibrance of the space or re-organize it in such a way that only one kind of person — often a tourist or middle-class visitor — feels welcomed”.
Clearly, both Shaftoe and Low et al are highlighting the role that design of urban spaces can play in who actually uses them and how they are used.
However, Shaftoe’s main concern is crime: both inclusive and exclusive approaches have at their heart either “crowding out crime” (inclusive spaces), or “designing out crime” (exclusive spaces). This is understandable given the “anti-social behavior” debates in the UK which have lead to a raft of government reports from the late 1990s such as the 1999 report Towards a Strong Urban Renaissance which favors inclusive space approaches, whereas the 2004 publication Safer Places. The Planning System and Crime Prevention tries to bring inclusive and exclusive space approaches together. Shaftoe’s book frequently mentions terms like “urban security”, “surveillance”, “CCTV” and “public safety” and he reluctantly concedes that “on the ground, the default drift seems to be towards closure, fortification and exclusion”.
Low et al’s main concern is different: the effect of design and management on social and cultural diversity. Consider two parks, one in the City of Denver, Colorado, U.S. the other, Aldenham Country Park in Hertfordshire, UK, who take very different management approaches.
The sign board of The Department of Parks and Recreation in Denver states “please keep charcoal grills 12″ above the grass”. Contrast this with Aldenham Country Park, where I undertook a study in the early 1990s for Hertfordshire County Council to investigate the (multi)cultural uses of the park, where fires were explicitly not allowed much to the chagrin of the Turkish, Greek and Cypriot park users I spoke to who, in their extended family groups, liked to barbecue as a part of their socialization process. This park management policy was not designed as a culturally exclusive practice, but that was its inadvertent effect. In my presentation to senior managers in the parks department, I realized that they hadn’t considered the cultural implications of a no fires policy, only the (very reasonable) safety implications. Following Low et al’s reasoning, cultural impacts it seems weren’t even on their radar. Maybe they could learn from The City of Denver Department of Parks and Recreation? In a later Blog, I’ll talk about this problem of (lack of) awareness of the cultural implications of policy (also know as cultural incompetency) and its effects on urban design.
In a similar vein, during my study, the park benches at Aldenham, and in most parks around the world looked like the photo on the right of the “standard” park bench. William H. Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces notes that “They’re not so good for sitting. There are too few of them; they are too small; they are often isolated from other benches”. Absolutely! So how does the extended family group, or the larger family or the group of 15 Asian women I saw at Aldenham, sit and talk together? Do four sit on the bench, the rest on the grass? Couldn’t we have “forum” style seating to accommodate these increasingly common larger groupings?
Clearly, as our cities become more diverse, we need to provide appropriate public spaces; ones that provide opportunities for inter- and extra- group mixing, interacting and communication. Former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, in his keynote address at the Urban Parks Institute’s “Great Parks/Great Cities” Conference, July 30, 2001, noted that “parks and public space are also important to a democratic society because they are the only places where people meet as equals“. Furthermore, as Shinew, Glover and Parry (2004:338) have noted: “contact theory posits that….interracial interactions that occur in leisure settings [e.g. parks and public spaces] have the potential to be more genuine and sincere compared with the more obligatory interactions that take place in formal settings”.
If we are to have any hope of developing more intercultural, as opposed to our present multicultural cities, public space policy, design and management will be a critical factor. More on this in a later blog.
Another variant on Shaftoe’s points about inclusive and exclusive urban spaces, concerns the fact that most park signs use a bewildering mixture of confusing language and an almost solely exclusive discourse. How about this in Cambridge, MA: ‘No disruptive skateboarding or roller skating’. OK, what if someone skateboards or roller skates in a non-disruptive way?! Don’t ‘they’ want us gathering, in inter-generational and intercultural groups, getting to know each other in urban spaces? Is that somehow dangerous?
This discussion of public space(s) as being inclusive or exclusive is a lens through which we can develop ideas about how to rectify our current urban spatial injustice through more thoughtful public space policy, design and management. I think Low et al are absolutely right in stating that [policy] design and management can, and has reduced social and cultural diversity in many places. This will not lead us to more just, sustainable and intercultural cities. I’ve given two small but significant examples of what I call culturally exclusive practice, one by rule, and one by design.
Kumar and Martin (2004:5), in their urban design study conducted for the Gerrard India Bazaar Business Improvement Association (BIA) in Toronto call for a culturally responsive urban design in order to produce “culturally responsive designs for places that have a particular ethnic character”, but I would go further. Planning and design professionals need to do more than respond to increasingly diverse publics with albeit innovate ideas and designs. They need to more fundamentally include these diverse publics in ‘their’ work such that they are seen to be demonstrating culturally inclusive practice. In this way we as communities have a hope of creating culturally inclusive spaces.
In this blog entry, I have touched on some of the issues of spatial and cultural practice and inclusivity which will be central in our moves toward intercultural cities which go hand in hand with a more just sustainability.
Kumar, S., and Martin, G. (2004). A Case for Culturally Responsive Urban Design. Ontario Planning Journal Vol. 19 No. 5 pp. 5-7.
Shinew, K. J., Glover, T. D., & Parry, D. C. (2004). Leisure spaces as potential sites for interracial interaction: Community gardens in a segregated urban area. Journal of Leisure Research, Vol. 36 No.3. pp. 336-355.