The cracks in our cities have been exposed but in these unprecedented times there is a unique opportunity to reimagine a better future.
At Connect the Dots we believe now more than ever it is critical for citizens to be involved in designing the cities and spaces they live in. In a true consultative process, equity, trust and confidence have space to grow as we tackle some of today’s colossal challenges – COVID-19, racial inequality, social inequality and climate change.
New thinking is needed to help us reshape our cities so they are more than purely economic hubs, but literally living, breathing places, shaped for and by the people that live in them. Places that are designed to contribute to the health and happiness of all citizens
With this in mind Connect the Dots recently brought together a group of passionate urbanists, architects, and innovators from Ireland and the US to share their thoughts on what our cities can be for citizens and why now is the perfect time to accelerate innovation. Here are some of the key insights that emerged.
On Public Space, Green and Blue Infrastructure:
As some of our largest public spaces, examples have emerged from all over the world of how communities have taken ownership of their streets and repurposed them in a range of different ways.
“We’ve seen them used as exercise and play spaces, outdoor dining spaces, and spaces for celebration and mourning”, David Vega-Barachowitz, a New York-based urban design expert and an Associate at WXY Studio explained.
“We’ve seen how governance processes that usually take months or even years, have shrunk to days which have allowed streets to work for people in much better and broader ways than previously thought possible. Ordinary people have become de facto ’‘Place Managers’’ and through this it has brought more diverse and often unheard voices into the conversation.”
But the big opportunity is the potential for a more systemic change in the relationship structures between the local authorities who govern these spaces and the citizens and communities who actually live in them.
“If people feel their voices are being heard and they are given access to continue to test and experiment with their spaces, then they gain confidence in contributing which in turn builds trust and ultimately a more equitable and balanced relationship emerges.” Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, a Philadelphia-based urban anthropologist pointed out.
We are also seeing how our public spaces are playing an increasingly important role as venues to congregate because of the demise of the more traditional gathering spaces like the church, the community center or the bingo hall”, explained George Boyle the award winning Irish architect, social innovator and founder of Fumbally Exchange.
“These areas of encounter are incredibly important for an open city as they act as Crucibles of Equality where people of all ages, creeds and colour, mix and move as equals. And now with COVID19 this has been amplified even further because we are now being driven outside by the virus to socialise in ‘safe’ open spaces”.
On Transport and Movement in General in Cities:
“If we could plan our cities through the lens of a child that would fix many problems. If children can navigate your city with comfort and safety, everything else tends to fall into place”, explained Denise Cahill, Co-ordinator at Healthy Cities. Cork, a WHO initiative.
“Children are a ‘key indicator species’ for Health Livable Cities, if we include them as a key metric it would really help refocus what we need to prioritise”.
Initiatives like Corks Healthy Cities ‘Open to Play’ have demonstrated how shifting the focus onto children can open up spaces for both adults and children in new and better ways.
But it is not just children we need to be conscious of. To change things it will also mean “recognising and proactively untangling some of the underlying biases” that we have become normalised to given that our cities were originally designed by and for ‘middle aged white males who drove to work’.
“We have to become much more inclusive and give a better voice to our minority groups, otherwise we will continue to compound the racism that is embedded in our planning system” Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman points out.
This need for “a more empathic city, with metrics that measure the quality of the experience, and bring in the voice of underrepresented groups” was reiterated by Claudia Hoareau Gichuhi, a diversity and inclusion expert and Board Member of the Irish Network Against Racism.
The re-election of Paris’ first female Major, Anne Hidalgo exemplifies this shift in values towards a more empathic city, “a Paris that breathes, a Paris that is more agreeable to live in, a more caring city that leaves no one by the wayside.”
If there is one change COVID has accelerated that everyone agreed with it is the recentering in our cities and society towards the hyper local, a trend that will only continue, not just because future waves of the virus are predicted, but also because of its positive impact on climate change and its ability to make our cities more livable.
On the critical role of community and stakeholder engagement going forward:
Ireland’s rigid planning system means that the public’s input into Local Development Plans is often “very artificial and time pressured” Noel Dempsey former Minister of Transport in Ireland explained.
Working at a community level through projects that bring planners, local public representatives and local groups collaboratively together, outside the Development Plan is a better approach. “It not only helps the community articulate better what they need but it also brings people who would not normally engage with the planning system into the process”.
However with this there usually comes a need to build the citizen’s capacity through some level of ‘community ambassador’ training.
Equally though, as Denise Cahill commented, “planners, architects, and recreational managers also need to be open to capacity building too”, so they can engage with communities in more collaborative ways.
“Building parity of esteem is the goal as it promotes relationships that fosters co-creation and allows for more innovative and practical solutions to emerge”, she advises.
“By encouraging communities to take ownership and not to be afraid of demanding that their spaces are functional and aesthetically pleasing BUT also safe and inclusive is key”, explained Claudia Hoareau Gichuhi.
This idea of empowerment and personal responsibility was also echoed by George Boyle “having the people on the ground exercise their power to contribute gives them the courage and confidence to move up the decision making ladder. But this also needs to be balanced with ensuring those people in positions of power are not made fearful that they are going to lose something in this process of engaging. It’s a careful balancing act”.
Denise Cahill cautioned that it is alway key when engaging communities to “identify the existing structures that are in place and build relationships with them”, this is the quickest and easiest way to build solutions.. Secondly, never just rely on a survey or quantitative data alone, qualitative information is always enlightening, “nothing beats the richness of getting into a room with people to talk it out”.
Finally Noel Dempsey outlined that in the context of local government the two things that are extremely important are the openness and approach of the planners to real engagement at a local level. And secondly without directly elected city mayors there will always be a lack of accountability at a local level which we need to be aware of and factor in.
In summary, creating the cities we want to live in will require a review of all aspects of urban life. This will include a combination of planning, development, transport, infrastructure in order to develop a culture of placemaking and universal design that supports our social and cultural development in sustainable ways. This complex task cannot be carried out using a top-down approach as we have done in the past but instead we must look at democratizing our cities for long lasting change.
Bravery is needed from our leaders in order for them to listen and adapt to what they are hearing. Bravery is needed for citizens in order for us to appreciate the unique insights only we can contribute and the impact we can each make towards solving something. Once we build capacity for this bravery we build a resilience in our cities that allows us to tackle any future complex challenges we encounter.
Why Engagement Matters
This event, placed alongside the conversations we have been having with clients and collaborators since mid-March 2020, has made us more convinced than ever of the core necessity of thoughtful, intelligent engagement strategies to the future of our cities.
We believe that the careful engagement of diverse voices, in a collaborative, thoughtful way is critical when forming solutions to the challenges we are facing and to moving forward. Before March 2020, the lack of a well-planned, end-to-end, impact-driven stakeholder engagement strategy was tolerated. Community and user insights were not always consistently sought out. Sets of assumptions were made based on the views of a small number of people, or no-one at all. Services were designed and delivered. Spaces and places were built. If these assumptions were half-way correct, everyone did ok. COVID-19 has changed this.
Connect the Dots believes in a world where citizens do not stay at home or stay away. Listening carefully and engaging thoughtfully and consistently with our communities, clients and end-users is now the only viable option we have to build the cities we want to live in safely and sustainably. If we want citizens to return to work in our buildings, to use our public transport networks, to buy our products and engage with our services, to congregate in our public and private spaces, we have to consult with them. We have to develop an understanding of how they feel as this new reality unfolds. We have to ensure that literally week by week, we can follow their lead. That’s how the future of our cities will be decided.
*To watch the full Future of Cities webinar that this article is based on, you can find the recording below: