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.
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’.