By Kevin E. Jones
Excerpt from Curb 6.2. “In the making…”
The nature of towns and cities is far from straightforward or consistent. We might simultaneously think of the city as the urban (or concrete) jungle, a place of potential corruption of the human experience, and as a place of creative energy, culture, and human possibility. An urban environment can be seen as unsustainable sites of economic growth and environmental degradation, with vast ecological footprints that span cities, towns, and regions. However, we can also think about the possibilities of promoting sustainability in our communities through better planning, reshaping how we inhabit these places. Such tensions and inconsistencies run throughout academic thought and debate about cities, but also within our lived experience of these places. Not only do different communities experience urban environments in different ways (and often from highly unequal positions), but our own individual experiences can be inconsistent and involve any number of intangible interactions which don’t fit into a neat package of “urban experience”. Towns and cities, in other words, don’t simply exist as one thing or another, but they are lived, participated in, made and re-made.
This suggests that, to at least some degree, the built environments of our towns and cities are potentially open and malleable to change and alternate futures. We have to be cautious not to overemphasize this point, as many factors are at work pushing development in certain directions (often reinforcing the status-quo). However, recognizing urban centres as open to alternate interpretations is important, because it creates a crack in the door, through which citizens are increasingly passing as they seek to participate in building positive urban (and rural) futures. This counters the historical perspective that city-building has been the privilege of an elite group of developers, professional planners, scholars, and municipal leaders. Today, citizenship — not in the formal activities of democracy and policy making, but rather in relation to residents’ ability to learn about, participate in, and transform place through everyday interactions with their environment — is providing new opportunities for city-building and individual empowerment.
In this issue of Curb Magazine, we explore recent trends in placemaking that involve discrete participatory interventions, coupled with long-term planning solutions, that provoke us to think about how we experience our urban environments and how we can build safe and sustainable communities. Our contributors unpack these trends, bringing our attention to a series of urban experiments, interactions, and engagements that encourage thought and action in relation to the social vibrancy of urban places, social equity, and the environment. They probe citizens’ ability to access and participate within the city, addressing longstanding inequities and social justice issues such as citizen mobility and community trauma. The cases they present do not provide a clear roadmap for the future, nor do they promise one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, as Donovan Finn argues in his article, DIY urbanism is inherently partial, despite its altruistic intentions, raising questions of gentrification and citizens’ rights. However, its value is not as a planning model itself, or something that can solve the uncertainty of the urban experience, but as a provocation and invitation to participate. It perhaps cracks the door of possible futures open a little bit further? Alongside other strategies explored in this issue, it certainly sets the stage for more inclusive and sustainable urban interactions.
This article appeared in Curb issue 6.2: “In the making…” Check out our table of contents for a sneak peak into the rest of this fun issue!