One Place at a Time

Photo of people working with bricks in DharaviAesthetics seem completely subjective. Although some people have similar tastes (based partially on shared experience?), variation is more the rule. So when it comes to the look of common spaces, attempting to please everyone may not be the best approach.

Quality might be a better standard. By quality I'm thinking of things like healthy environments, strong materials, ease of use, sound construction, and responsiveness to changing needs. Maybe quality can be attended to by governing bodies, but the direction must come from those who live in an area.

Shared space reveals distinct and often conflicting values. There are many who aren't concerned with the quality of urban settings. They may be more interested in maximizing profits, or just surviving from day to day. At the same time, they may have a high degree of influence over the way cities take shape. This combination often leads to inhospitable environments.

Part of the appeal of suburbs must lie in the provision of small plots of land over which we have control, places we can maintain, separate from the disorder of the commons. It's more difficult to care for areas shared by many people with different sensibilities and ways of doing things.

Although everyone's ideas for better cities are subjective and often conflicting, this doesn't mean we shouldn't gather as many people and resources as possible to realize them. I'm inspired by people who take account of their surroundings and make improvements one place at a time. While the improvements may be valued only by those who make them, their ideas will be tempered by the ideas of others, and the results will always be subject to change.

When it comes to shaping environments into places we love, it's up to us to care enough to make this happen. Those who aren't concerned with the quality of urban settings are pursuing their interests, so there must be others who will counter these interests. It takes people like Arthur Ziegler, urban farmers, and squatters to reshape cities.

But how can we find the time? Ideally, this would be something rewarded, or at least facilitated, on a societal level. As things stand, we have to make a living. The work that takes most of our energy is usually disconnected from the places we live. Unless we start some kind of enterprise dedicated to improving our surroundings, we have to struggle to find time in between other commitments.

If we don't have time, we can still support those who are working to realize ideas we believe in. Neil Smith has said that many people support movements for change when they feel desperate or when they see a chance of success. What would it take for us to get involved in improving our surroundings? And what would this improvement mean?

(Photo of Dharavi residents by Peter Sigrist)


Anonymous said...

“The work that takes most of our energy is usually disconnected from our immediate surroundings. Unless we start some kind of enterprise geared toward improving our surroundings, we have to struggle to find time in between other commitments.”

The are many professional individual firms and individuals whose work is directly involved in making better places and making places better. These people are particularly obliged to lobby decision makers to improve shared spaces. They have the particular skills. Although having said that community lobby groups also have had large influence over shared space in the past. Given accountability and transparency are in place, change will happen.

The photo appears to be from the Indian subcontinent. The scene is of a poorly maintained shared space. Do you know of any examples of successful public realm projects in this part of the world?

Good post!

petersigrist said...

Yes, thank you for adding this. As for the photo, I meant to show an example of people directly improving their surroundings (they've just received a shipment of bricks, possibly for an addition to their home in Dharavi, Mumbai). I hadn't considered that at first glance it looks like a poorly maintained public space. I hope it also appears to be in process of improvement.

In answer to your question about successful public realm projects in India, there are many that have been built over time by residents of Dharavi and other informal settlements. Here is one example from airoots.org: http://www.airoots.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/p1020150.jpg. Here is a more formal public space in Shimla, from the Project for Public Spaces:
And here are some recent presentations on New Architectures of India from the Architectural League of New York:

I love the landscapes featured on your site. The place along the Zayandeh River in Iran is beautiful, and your examples of plantings and building materials are also very compelling. I'll look forward to following your posts!

Diane said...

I have been following this blogger's attempt to garden in a public space and found it a very sad story if a bit overwrought: http://www.yougrowgirl.com/thedirt/2009/04/12/it-is-finished/#more-2261
There must be a difference between ruining the commons out of greed or convenience and doing it out of spitefulness.