Here’s an interesting take on equity and diversity in  planning places . Simon Fraser University’s Duke of Data Andy Yan sent this cogent article from CityLab  on the thought and philosophy of Richard Sennett at the London School of Economics. Sennett explores the intersection between the complexity of cities and the need to accept the innate diversity of place, and has written about that in his new book Building and Dwelling: Ethics for a City.

And he’s come up with some startling conclusions.

“You celebrate the complexities and oddities of cities, and you offer some helpful comparisons that can make cities somewhat more understandable. For example, you make a distinction between “space” versus “place.” You move through a space and you dwell in a place. It’s a distinction for me that has to do with speed and automobiles. When people start driving at a certain speed, they lose awareness of where they are. They are just getting through it. And when you dwell in a place, you have a slower relationship to it. It’s a difference that is founded in our bodies. When you are moving very fast, your peripheral vision, for instance, is very weak. When you bike or you walk, your cognitive field is much bigger because you’re taking in much more from the sides.”

Looking at cities in Europe and South America, Sennett observes that for cities to survive in a time of “populism and urbanization” it is important to create “places” for walkers and cyclists, and to realize that for vehicle users at faster speeds the environment around them is not a “place” but a “space”. That means that vehicular users have “little cognitive data” about their whereabouts.

Sennett also differentiates between “gregarious parks” where large crowds and diverse people and uses occur, and how different that is to a “neighbourly” park  where people who are like-minded and of like backgrounds gather. He defines a “prescriptive smart city” as the city that “does your thinking for you, leading you to the best retail street, the best recreation facilities. The “co-ordinating smart city” allows for choice, giving data about options, and allowing the user to choose.

Historically cities  separated the rich from the poor through zoning and subdivisions, and formalized uses separately based upon their functions. The gated community is the ultimate expression of this, with the purpose “to keep people or activities unlike you out”.

Planners and urbanists have to  “create spaces for interaction and integration rather than spaces that are so segregated.” 

While Jane Jacobs championed slow organic growth, it is not a 21st century reality in third world cities receiving thousands of people, and ordering uses, like a school within walking distance may not be able to be financed.

And Sennett sees the street as vital to creating ethical people places.

Once you’ve got a street, people have choices about whether to use it or not. And they’ll use it in surprising ways. Nobody expected the boulevards in Paris to become the sociable places they were. But people chose to use them that way because they wanted to see what was happening out and about in the city. That sort of curiosity—if the space enables it—tends to overcome people’s fear in the long run.”

Cities should be connected by “public space” instead of by transport, providing scale and a way to read the city. This decade’s interest in big plans and Brutalist architecture is a trend that Sennett does not think helps the grain of understanding the city at a slow walking pace. And that is what is needed for diverse, ethical cities for all citizens.

 As Sennett states :”The thing that makes people really get along with each other is physical comfort in the presence of others. Online, whenever you don’t like something, you just press a button and you’ve left. In cities, people don’t have that option. If people feel bodily comfort, I’ve come to feel that that’s enough. That is what makes people more peaceable, less aggressive, less prone to violence. Going through verbal hoops and mutual understanding and common shared purpose, and so on, to me, that’s a lot of bullshit. The almost lawyerly emphasis on being with other people is so divorced from the physical experience of feeling comfortable with someone who’s not you, who’s unlike you.”

It’s not what people say, but how people feel that makes a space a place. At a time when master plans and big gestures are present in planning, the richness of connection in a string of public places and streets may indeed be the way forward.

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Image: ara.cat

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