Mary Rowe: Cities Are About Place

September 12th, 2014

Mary_Rowe_CoM_2014_200x300Mary Rowe is Director, Urban Resilience and Livability, at the Municipal Art Society of New York City. This article has been adapted from her keynote speech on City Building at the 2014 International Cities of Migration Conference in Berlin on June.

I work for the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), a venerable institution and 120-year-old advocacy organization in New York City. It was set up in 1893 when there was something called the municipal arts. That was how we created cities: through design, planning, imagination and beauty, qualities that we often take for granted. In a city like Berlin, we are reminded of these qualities in every place that you turn.

Cities are about place and all the different ways in which things interact to create a city. You have spent the last two days [at the 2014 Cities of Migration Conference] talking about different forms of capital.  I want to remind you that what makes capital work in a city is people. Cities are containers for an important principle of urban life called self-organization. Jane Jacobs, the wonderful, adopted Torontonian and native New Yorker, made her extraordinary contribution to urban planning with ideas like these.

How do we enable self-organization in cities?  That is really what you have been trying to do in the past few days. What we ideally want to promote are cities that enable connectivity so we can move from a more atomized interaction to a connected one and on to a really hyper connected one.

The other thing that you’ve addressed is diversity. Diversity is a broadly held term, one that crosses many domains and underpins civilization. Biologists care about diversity because it’s how the species make themselves resilient and able to adapt to change. As you advocate for certain kinds of diversity, remind yourself that cities are about every kind of diversity –cultural, racial and economic diversity; diversity of use, diversity of user and diversity of place.

A sense of place

Diversity thrives as long as it’s connected. You see it in natural systems but it also manifests in how our public spaces are organized. Conversations about integration often overlook the city as a physical place. However, your work can also contribute to how physical places are organized and how they enable (or inhibit) the kind of connection and the kind of diversity that you have been exploring and celebrating at this conference.

I spent five years in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina watching how resilience was incubated at the most local level.  A sense of ‘place’ was incredibly important to how New Orleanians re-imagined themselves and configured their cities. When all the pundits and all the experts were saying we couldn’t rebuild new Orleans, the people said “excuse me, oh yes we are, this is where I am from and this is where I am going to stay”.  Urban resilience starts at the most personal level, the places where people live.

Another example of place-based urban resilience is in Medellin, Colombia. Medellin was the home of the world urban forum this year and I was fortunate to be there with a MAS program that connects practitioners around livability and resilience issues. We visited some of Medellin’s lower income communities called favelas, or slums.

Medellin’s commercial core developed down the valley, but its lower income neighborhoods went up the sides of the mountains, creating a  problem for all the lower income communities at the top of the mountain who couldn’t get down to work or school. It took too long, the passage ways were too narrow. So what did they do? The city built escalators up into the favelas that have utterly transformed the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, allowing people to get to work, get to school, to see their family.

Along either side of the escalators are fabulous murals made by local communities that tell stories of the rural migration into Medellin. Little businesses have sprouted up. You get off the escalator and there is a business selling cell phone minutes or another doing tailoring work. ‘Transit oriented development’ is what we call it in North America. In Medellin, that includes escalators.

The city also gave residents materials so they could paint their houses, including the roofs which you see from the top of the 13-odd escalator ramps. The success of this extraordinary intervention underscores the capacity of cities to self organize if the enabling conditions are present.

Local solutions

In the United States and elsewhere, we have these arbitrary things called states; arbitrary when you consider how they operate given that most of us live in cities and urban life is really organized around a local unit determined by economics and social kinship ties.

Digital technology is helping us understand that self organization propels itself in spite of what governments might do. Mapping Craigslist users, for example, shows us how communities organize themselves according to trading patterns. Today the largest proprietor of accommodation around the world is AirBnB.  It’s taken them 10 years to  have an inventory of 500,000 units of housing that lets people stay in their properties, rent them out if they can’t afford their own mortgage, and for you and I to have a different kind of travel experience.

At the moment AirBnB continues to be illegal in 70 or 80% of the cities that it operates in because our municipal governments do not yet understand that this is actually a viable and sustainable way to accommodate people and help people stay in the homes. It is a brilliant example for those who are fascinated with public policy and think that large systems are the only answer when we should be learning to trust local solutions on particular problems over the big, simple one size fits all approach.

We are all city-builders

I’ll leave you with the remark by former London Mayor Livingston, quoted on opening night, that “Cities may be humanities greatest invention” and remind you again that you are all city builders.  We are in this great business together: of city-building,  of creating a combined, shared life that is only going to get more intense, more demanding and require more from each and all of us. Those of you who come from a rights-based perspective need to remember that urban life is actually place-based. As much as you may want to focus on the larger entitlements and broader issues, remember where the rubber literally hits the road:  people’s authentic experience,  their attachment to place and who they are, how their everyday life gives them meaning and a sense of belonging.

Our associations may be national or cultural, but where that is felt is where we live. It is extraordinarily important for us to take seriously what the physical environment looks like and how we as stewards of these cities can shape that experience for people who are just arriving or for those who have been here for generations. We need to remind ourselves that the city is the great communal experience. It’s how we create the civic commons. Isn’t it fabulous that around the world we are increasingly voting yes to live in cities, adjacent with one another and to be more proximal, to have more common, shared life?

A global campaign is underway to get the UN’s new millennium development goals to focus on cities. There is a concern among urbanists that nationally cities are invisible and that policy between nation-states continues to ignore what is really happening on the ground in favour of large, ambitious, esoteric goals that will actually get lost in cities. The campaign aims to get the UN and UN nations to focus on cities, on place, on local. One of the sustainable development goals must be urban.

So, city builders, google #urbanSDG and have a look.

You can read about audience reactions at the end of Mary Rowe’s keynote here and also watch the whole event here.

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