To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

While designers of the built environment only improve at creating sustainable, technologically-savvy, and beautiful places, they aren’t succeeding at “creating belonging,” a feeling of “respectful co-existence in shared space,” argued Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. More “culturally-competent” planners, landscape architects, architects are needed to create more just places.

In a keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism in Savannah, Georgia, Agyeman said “there is an equity deficit in the sustainability movement. The green movement is socially unjust.” Agyeman believes that in many cities “the old red-lining of neighborhoods have been replaced by green exclusionary zones — just a new form of socio-economic segregation.” Instead, true sustainability “involves justice — and equity in recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes.”

With true sustainability, it isn’t possible to have “spatial injustice,” in which life chances are not distributed in a fair way geographically. (Sadly, in the vast majority of countries, your zip code determines everything from your income to your life expectancy).

With true sustainability, public spaces are for everyone. He held up Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a “space of respect, engagement, and encounter.” Agyeman wondered whether we can design places like this anymore?

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

Too often public spaces labeled as sustainable aren’t just. While the contemporary Complete Street movement is lauded as a way to make transportation systems more equitable — by providing equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — complete streets that remove street vendors and spruce up public spaces with new amenities can end up killing the cultural and social lives of streets.

“Places have no fixed meaning; they are social as much as physical entities. Complete streets can disconnect streets from the social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities of a place.” Agyeman asked: “Who gets to say what a complete street is anyhow? They can’t be complete if they fail to include the livelihoods and economic survival of vendors.”

Park planning and design needs to be re-thought in terms of boosting cultural diversity, instead of just ecological diversity.

As an example, he pointed to a local park in Bristol, Massachusetts. At great expense, the park managers created a wildflower meadow in order to increase biodiversity. But the new garden had the effect of driving away Caribbean immigrants who used to spend time in the park. “They have a residual fear of places that could harbor snakes.” Aygeman said “if someone in the parks department was Caribbean, they would have known.” The question in instances like this is: “do we drop the cultural or social diversity or respect the cultural side?”

Given urban communities are evolving, we must better engage new immigrant communities in the planning and preservation of park systems.

In Boston, many immigrants “aren’t connecting with the old parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They just don’t resonate with them — and these groups, which are growing, could be deciding the future of Boston’s parks.”

Immigrant groups instead yearn for landscapes that remind them of home. In Boston, Herter Park draws immigrants from Latin and South America, because it provides spaces for extended family gatherings by a river, which feels familiar to them (see image at top).

Aygeman thinks landscape architects must intentionally design for immigrants and encourage encounters between ethnicities.

In Supekilen Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, teams of designers with BIG, Topotek 1, and Superflux, created a “controversial park” in a highly-diverse immigrant neighborhood where ethnic groups “could see themselves in the space,” but also encounter other communities. Each ethnic group in the neighborhood around the park had a designated space meant to reflect some aspect of their cultural identity.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

Parks-for-all like Superkilen may just be the start. Aygeman foresees a future in which landscape architects first do “deep ethnographic research to really understand a community before they get started.” Landscape architects trained in “cultural competency” then eliminate disparities in access to public space, creating true urban commons. “More diverse professionals who know what these new societies think” will partner with diverse communities to “co-design and co-create more just places.”

The result could be something like Medellin, Colombia, where a participatory approach rooted in the philosophy of “social urbanism,” led to the “urban transformation of the century,” in which the poor were given equitable access to all the city has to offer — parks, libraries, museums, and transit.

One thought on “To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

  1. David Hopman 07/10/2018 / 9:16 am

    The impetus to understand shifting populations as a regional and district design parameter is laudable and has been embraced by many designers, particularly since the inception of the post-modern period. We have to be very careful that it does not become an either-or proposition in opposition to environmental and ecological imperatives.

    It is time for all cultural groups to adapt to ecological designs or we are going to accelerate the trajectory of what Edward Wilson calls the “Eremocene” period: the lonely epoch, as humans continue to cause the latest mass extinction. Landscape architects are at the front lines of environmental quality/degradation and ecological imperatives. The decisions made on a daily basis, particularly in cities, will have long term consequences for both. Any discussion of cultural variables and participatory design should always emphasize and encourage an inclusive view of design lest they be perceived as a backlash to environmental and ecological imperatives which need constant nurturing and are still not a normative part of most landscape architecture designs.

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