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Editando Ciudades, Transformado. Vidas

julio 26, 2014

i recently attended the event Transforming Cities, Transforming Lives: Future Perspectives, hosted by the UK in Paris at the British Ambassador’s residence, tucked away behind embellished iron gates on the bustling Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The event sought to explore the ways in which evolutions in the urban environment of Paris and London will impact the daily lives of those who live, work and play in the city through three workshops on enterprise, sustainability and community. You can watch the concluding roundtable discussion here, and follow the UK in Paris on Twitter here.

Sitting around a table in the gilded throne room, architects, planners, community consultants and academics shared professional expertise and everyday anecdotes on planning for more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities. Experienced at a human level, a city exists as a crossroad of relationships, whereby a wide range of networks are formed and acted out on a variety of different stages.

Embarking upon what was to be a fascinating discussion in our afternoon “community” atelier, we were stalled from the outset when we came up against the question central to any discussion of urban development: ‘what exactly do we mean by “community”?’ Do we all share the same understanding of what a ‘community’ is? Is there even one overarching understanding of the concept? “Community” is an active, living organism of everyday life with a unique and multifarious identity. Acknowledging the haziness of this understanding, all were in agreement that it is crucially important to place these intertwined networks at the centre of the decision making process in order to support and foster the inclusive growth of cities.

To further confuse us, the Francaphone representatives in the group inform us that the French prefer to speak of ‘neighbourhoods’ rather than ‘communities’, for the latter conjures up notions of revolutionary politics, and the ‘provocation of the proletariat’. This contentious concept further reminds us that, regardless of our understanding of the term, ‘communities’ in one form or another, are woven into the historical fabric of our cities.

But what comes first? Does the community precede the built environment by dictating the facilities and services needed to support it, or is community simply born out of the built infrastructure existing in place? The answer is clearly not so straightforward, but each facilitates, shapes and articulates the growth and design of the other.

However, in large-scale ‘regeneration’ schemes, existing communities are all too often ignored as being an integral layer of an area, and are instead erased – or rather decanted – along with their homes, services and memories. In turn, this reconfigures the balance between ‘community’ and the built environment, and as our chair Dr Kevin Thwaites put it, “identity is delivered right off the drawing board” and is therefore difficult to relate to at a human level.

What we need is spaces that are adapted, manipulated and reconfigured by ‘communities’ at their locality, carefully “edited” by built environment professionals in a gradual, organic process. This is big city design on a micro level, and in order to successfully blend the processes of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ change, a “fertile” middle ground must be in place to allow the seeds of resilient communities and neighbourhoods to take root.

Questions of community engagement featured centre stage in our discussion: how do we get the right people around the table? When should community be involved in the process? “From the very start!” was the answer chorused around the table. This really is crucial to the whole process – do your research, identify key stakeholders who will lead you to community representatives, business owners etc to establish a relationship and begin to build trust. Involve the community from the very outset of any project, before any decisions have been made, before designs have been drafted or any contracts have been signed. The idea is to preserve, cultivate and recycle the life that exists in a neighbourhood, not to erase the very human structure that keeps a place afloat. This is the nature of the relationship between “community” and the built environment – it is difficult for something built for the needs of a community to function successfully once they have been moved on.

But it does seem that we are slowly moving forward. Around the table, planners and architects spoke of how community engagement initiatives are becoming an integral part of the process in the early stages of a project’s development, from the minuscule to the enormous. But while the actuality of practice might be steering towards a more inclusive future for cities, is the educational system following? A city is a human and environmental melange. It cannot be reduced to a simple physical object, but it is “fashioned, shaped and invested by social activities” (Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space). Design must have an invested interest in the wellbeing of citizens and the nurturing of sustainable communities, and we must therefore “change what we ask of and pay architects for”, because the material product is not the be-all-end-all of a metropolis. We cannot simply design for an unidentified “community” city-wide, but we must “edit” our urban landscapes to cater for and facilitate human interaction across a multiplicity of different stages and contexts.

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