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Sustaining Diversity Participatory Design and Urban Space

May 6, 1998 by Administrator in May/June 1998

by Richard Milgrom

Sustaining diversity” can be interpreted in two different ways. First, there is a need to sustain the human diversity present in urban environments. Diversity has allowed cities to embrace difference, an essential ingredient in the promotion of social justice and the accommodation of marginalized individuals and groups. The presence of difference has been heightened by increased mobility and emerging globalization. My concern in this regard is that cities are being designed and built in ways that belie, and perhaps suppress this diversity. Secondly, this diversity is essential to the sustainability of urban environments. Diversity is the strength of cities. According to Jane Jacobs, innovation is most likely to originate in urban settings where ideas and materials are exchanged. In the culturally diverse cities of the late twentieth century this potential for exchange has increased as a broad range of traditions are brought together in limited areas. This concentration has the potential to produce new, more sustainable ways of life.

Caring to Sustain Cities

Sustaining human settlements requires intentional actions on the part of the inhabitants. In order for cities to be physically and socially sustainable the inhabitants must care to sustain them. In order to have this feeling of responsibility, urban dwellers must find positive meanings, including some sense of identity and belonging, in their environments. These can only be produced through participation in the ongoing design and management of the urban environment. The achievement of this goal is made more challenging, but also more necessary, by the increasing diversity of urban populations in the late twentieth century.

But the idea of users participating in the design of cities runs counter to current trends in urban development that see decisionmaking concentrated in a few powerful hands, and increasingly homogeneous design “solutions” offered by globalizing development industries.

Participation and Design

How can the built form of the modern city be produced in ways that more accurately reflect the needs and desires of its diverse inhabitants and the meanings that they seek? Over the last few years there has been renewed interest in processes of planning and design that focus on the participation of the end users. This has been driven by concerns for social justice. After all, the rich and powerful have always had a say in the design of cities. The concerns of “empowerment planners” and “community architects” have been with those individuals and groups typically excluded from the decisionmaking process. These efforts have attempted to overcome the paternalistic and often universalizing impositions of previous generations of planners, the prescriptions of designers who thought that they knew best how people should live.

While consultation with users may be a step in the right direction, consultation alone is not enough. Frequently designs and plans that result from consultation processes represent lowest common denominator solutions, those that the majority of the users can tolerate rather than those that reflect the full range of needs and desires present in the communities consulted. It is only by accommodating the full range of needs and desires of the population that it will be possible for all inhabitants to find positive meaning in their spaces. Furthermore, because human diversity is not static, this participation should continue after initial planning and design have been completed and projects implemented.

Environment and Social Justice

Following the publication of the Brundtland Commission Report (1987), and the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro, there was also a resurgence in concern for the design of built environments that reduce the human impact on the natural systems that support life on earth. Many of these efforts have originated in the North and have been motivated by the desire to maintain the levels of comfort that the middle and upper classes of the industrial world have come to enjoy (see Peter Marcuse’s comments about sustainability in this issue). These concerns have translated into an environmentalism that places a priority on ecological preservation, but does little to address issues of social justice (see Sandra Rodriguez’s article in this issue).

When viewed in isolation, some cities, or neighborhoods within cities, may appear more sustainable than others. In Sustainable Communities, for example, Peter Calthorpe discusses the energy consumption of two adjacent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, one “gentrified” and the other home to many poor working class residents. Although the built forms of the two areas are similar, the energy consumption patterns are significantly different. Those who live in the gentrified area have well maintained houses and high-efficiency furnaces and drive late model cars. Those in the poorer section “make do with gas guzzlers, leaky windows and elderly furnaces much in need of repair.” Calthorpe notes that although the poorer residents “live lower on the hog they often consume more energy to do it.”

I would suggest that the low wages and poor living conditions of the working class population subsidize the apparent sustainability of their wealthier neighbors. Also, a broader “ecological footprint” analysis of the neighborhoods would probably show that the richer residents use far more of the earth’s ecologically productive area to sustain their lifestyles.

As social products, cities are an ideal site for any discussion of the connections between physical and social sustainability. Planning concerns with social justice and with the reduction of the detrimental impacts of human settlements on the physical environment should be connected. While these two streams of planning often function in isolation, the production of sustainable cities requires them both. I am not arguing that participatory design will result in sustainable designs, but that participation is necessary, though not sufficient, for sustainability.

Active Citizenry and Social Learning

The convergence of these two streams of thought is evident in several recent works, including David Orr’s Ecological Literacy, and Alexander, Gibson and Tomalty’s “Putting Cities in Their Place” (in Mark Roseland’s Eco-City Dimensions). Orr calls for more urban dwellers to take active roles in sustaining environments, advocating for “ecological” over “technological” sustainability (see July 1997 PN for a more complete description). Technological sustainability might be characterized (or perhaps caricatured) by the work of Paulo Soleri, whose 1960s designs for megastructures were intended to separate human activities from natural areas, concentrating human settlements in small areas. Soleri suggested that his “arcologies,” a term derived from architecture and ecology, would not only preserve the natural environments of the planet, but would also represent the work of “man the creator.” His proposals were highly centralized and relied heavily on industrial processes to sustain the lives of inhabitants. But, perhaps most importantly, the structure of the societies that were to inhabit these “arcologies” would have to adapt to their new environments, rather than take part in their design and implementation. There was no thought given to the potential for the co-evolution of societies and the built forms that they produce. The form of the city would not have reflected the make-up of its citizenry, rather the citizens would be forced to conform to the mold of the “creator.”

Ecological sustainability, on the other hand, accepts that humans (including planners) are fallible and recognizes that human societies and their economic systems exist within ecological limits (sustainability as a constraint, as Marcuse notes). As Orr suggests, ecological sustainability includes a central role for an “active and competent citizenry,” placing a priority on the involvement of all segments of society in the production of human environments, rather than simply consuming those limited options that are offered by the market. Orr sees an educational role in this production, helping citizens to understand their built environments by participating in their creation. Similarly, Alexander, Gibson and Tomalty seek broader citizen involvement. Their paper is a critique of “ecosystem planning” as proposed by the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront (RCFTW). The RCFTW recommended planning on the basis of natural, rather than political boundaries, consultation with the many communities involved, and the consideration of the inter-jurisdictional effects of decisions. Although Alexander, et al. agree with most of the principles put forward, they note that the goal of sustainability cannot be imposed, and that “willing cooperation is crucial.” This cooperation requires changes in attitudes that can only be brought about by linking the planning processes to “other aspects of democratic change, social learning, community building, and environmental enlightenment” – in other words by linking aspects of social and physical sustainability.

New Urbanism and Eco-Villages

It is disappointing that many of the most recent proposals for sustainable human settlements have been either anti-urban or anti-diversity, or both. The developments proposed by “new urbanists” hold out the promise of less car dependency by providing amenities and jobs within walking distance of residences, and greater densities that reduce the amount of land consumed. Despite their claims of moving towards more sustainable urban development, they still promote new consumption (few new urban communities are located within existing urban areas) and the resulting environments do little to improve the physical sustainability of urban areas.

More importantly, they do nothing to address social justice issues or to make space for diversity. For a prototypical neighborhood, new urbanists look back to the pre-1940s American small town, a form that was derived by a decidedly more homogeneous population than is now present in most North American cities. Societies in the 1940s were less tolerant of difference than current urban populations and the model that is invoked as an ideal is a white, middle-class environment. The strict aesthetic rules imposed in new urbanist neo-traditional developments, and highlighted in marketing strategies, make clear who belongs and limit the expression of personal identities that might differ from those of the community as a whole. While new urbanist Peter Katz may claim this is the “architecture of community,” it is an exclusionary version of community. Many proponents of “eco-villages” fall into a similar trap. Eco-villagers propose new self-sufficient settlements of no more than a few thousand inhabitants living in direct relationship with their hinterland. The populations of these communities usually share common sets of beliefs and ideals (villages do not have a tradition of diversity), but there is also a rather disturbing isolationist element to the idea of starting new and separate settlements. The luxury of this choice is only afforded to a privileged few who might be seen as abandoning the city (the environment that helped generate their economic and intellectual wealth) without addressing the long term sustainability problems of the whole population, a problem that they themselves have helped to identify.

Participation and Difference

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre argues that under capitalism there has been an emphasis on the production of “objects in space” (commodities) rather than the production of space itself. This has resulted in the production of “abstract” space, space that “tends towards homogeneity, towards the elimination of differences and peculiarities.” Space, he suggests, is the result of the interrelationship of three components (simplified for our purposes here): form, use (spatial practice) and meaning. A greater understanding of these connections should eventually lead to a new “differential” space. This new space would accentuate, enhance and celebrate difference, rather than suppress it. Lefebvre further claims that seeds of this new space can be found in the contradictions present in abstract space. For example, despite the predictions of planners and architects, homogeneous housing forms are used differently as new waves of inhabitants move through them. And the meanings found in these forms are not associated with the freedoms that modernist designers anticipated, but with the repression of traditions and identities.

The acts of design and planning fall broadly into Lefebvre’s category of spatial practice (use). Within his understanding of space, design methods that embrace the participation of users should result in different built forms and strengthened varied meanings for the range of participant/ users. Understanding that space, meaning and built form are all socially produced is essential to the development of sustainable human settlements.


Guest Editor Richard Milgrom is a doctoral student at York University in Toronto.

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