Five things a perfect city needs: 5. Diversity

This is the last of a short series on ‘Five things a perfect city needs‘, prompted by a twitter exchange on the subject a few weeks ago.

Typical Ashfield [Sydney] shops. Taken on Liverpool Rd in 2007. (Photo by A. Wise 2005) from: Wise A. (2011) ‘Foreign’ Signs and Multicultural Belongings on a Diverse Shopping Street, Built Environment, 37, 139-154

Typical Ashfield [Sydney] shops. Taken on Liverpool Rd in 2007. (Photo by A. Wise 2005) from: Wise A. (2011) ‘Foreign’ Signs and Multicultural Belongings on a Diverse Shopping Street, Built Environment, 37, 139-154

Diversity of ages, uses and cultures

I stated in my first post in this series that the essential role of the city is to bring together and to organise diversity. Diversity isn’t a random mixing of uses, cultures or economies; it is structured system of interdependence between different uses, cultures, classes and so on and the essential distinctiveness of cities lies is in their ability to accommodate difference. The way in which diversity is structured is essentially to do with how cities are formed and how their intrinsic nature is shaped over time.

The question remains though why diversity is a good thing to have in cities per se. The anthropologist Amanda Wise explains this well, coining the term ‘quotidian transversality’ to describe how differences between people are negotiated in the public realm through a variety of spoken and unspoken signs, such as shop sign in a foreign language. She claims that this is a way for cultural difference to be mediated in a safe way and for different identities to be maintained without one being dominant over the other.

Intercultural interaction allows for differences to be smoothed over and while terms such as segregation and integration remain slippery outside of the domain of the sort of analysis that quantifies residential segregation as being about ‘black’ vs. ‘white’, we need to view cultural mixing as a spectrum of possibilities, allowing for someone to be (for example) integrated at work, but living with their own group at home.

Last week’s post on walking is relevant in this context. In his study of ‘shared space’ in pre-1948 Jerusalem Yair Wallach describes how important it was for the multifarious religious and cultural groups to perambulate streets that connected between social and religious divides so as to encourage cross-group interaction: “the paths and roads used reflected, no doubt, wider social and political patterns; they depended on social status, ethnic identity and gender. Nonetheless, a wide array of people encountered each other in the streets of the city, in planned and chance meetings.” The nature of public space as bringing together what society divides is central to this thinking. Whilst we may choose to remain separated in our homes, clubs and religious institutions, an integrated public realm is an essential component of my formula for a ‘perfect city’.

Street scene inside Jaffa gate, Jerusalem c. 1908-1914. By American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo Dept.

Street scene inside Jaffa gate, Jerusalem c. 1908-1914. By American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo Dept.

Five things a perfect city needs: 4. Walkability

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This is the fourth of a short series on ‘Five things a perfect city needs‘, prompted by a twitter exchange on the subject a few weeks ago.

Rickmansworth, 2008

Bury Lane, Rickmansworth, 2008

Walkability

Walkability has (happily) become one of those taken-for-granted aspects of modern urbanism that no urban planner or designer can ignore. The problem is, like with connectivity, it is easy to have as an aim, but harder to achieve in reality. One of the reasons for this is that first, what makes for a walkable area is not fully understood and second, the way in which walkability translates into actual benefits to individuals and society is quite hard to measure (and if it’s not measurable, it’s undervalued).

Scholars of ancient Rome point out how central walking was to people in the city. Professor Ray Lawrence has pointed out how Martial’s epigrams (published 86-103 CE) are full of spatial signifiers that place him at particular viewpoints towards the city, describing the city in relation to time that is measured by the length of a walk. His analysis shows that walks were planned for given times of day since particular public places were known to be where, at certain points in time, you’d be likely to meet certain people. In the absence of means of communication, if you wanted to see someone, you’d have to plan your walk to find them where they were most likely to be along your route, such as in the baths at sundown. Interestingly, Professor Mary Beard maintains that walking in Roman times was a signifier of status; one’s gait would differ accordingly. The importance of movement is not only to reinforce one’s social status, but it is an essentially social action, not just because it allows for planned encounters, like in this example, but because it allows for unplanned encounters between the world of strangers, the ‘virtual community’ as Hillier would have it [1], that takes form, grows or shrinks as a result of the way in which the pattern of streets brings people to be co-present with each other. Walking is an essential ingredient for urbanity, yet it is soon lost when people become co-absent, transported from one planned activity to another, without the opportunity to build up connections with wider society. Such connections are built up over time, so whilst the Hillierian theory would suggest that co-presence is sufficient to constitute society (at the least, society-in-potential), the opportunities to deepen connections through shared encounters are there all the time as you walk through public space.

For me sociability is at the heart of walkability. All the other benefits flow naturally from it, whether it is economic vitality (or footfall, as the shopping experts term it) or active travel (the health experts’ term for, yes, walking – and cycling), or social inclusion. Design Council CABE has started a campaign on this recently, highlighting the importance of “shaping buildings, streets, public spaces and neighbourhoods so that healthy activities are integral to people’s everyday lives” and my own research with UCL colleagues Dr Jenny Mindell, Dr Ashley Dhanani and others on the Street Mobility and Network Accessibility project use as our starting point in studying community severance the fact that people are more likely to incorporate walking into their daily activities where local streets and footpaths are well connected to the wider street network.

In policy terms it is essential that we build walkability into the decisions we take about the layout of new and old schemes alike. The battle to prevent developers from closing Manchester’s Library Walk at night-time exemplifies how people value the permeability of the public realm, seeing it as an essential public good.

[1] B. Hillier, “The Architecture of the Urban Object” (1989) 334 & 335 Ekistics 5-21.

© Museum of London

© Museum of London

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