Can Words Transform Cities?

Aseem Inam:  Words can be powerful.  Words can inspire [e.g. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech], move [e.g. Pablo Neruda's poetry], and spark debate [e.g. Is "sustainability" a meaningful term?]. But can they actually transform cities?  I believe so.

I make such an argument in my research, written work, and my projects.  In my first book, Planning for the Unplanned:  Recovering from Crises in Megacities, I craft a compelling argument through empirical field research about the ways in which urban crises are opportunities for redesigning institutions and redesigning cities in ways that are more responsive to the needs of their citizens.  In Designing Urban Transformation, the argument is multifaceted.  First, I analyze the term "urban design" and propose that it is overly narrow and even outdated due to its obsession with three-dimensional form and project-oriented architecture at the cost of engaging with the larger systems and longer processes that actually produce cities.  Second, I propose calling the practice of city-design-and-building processes and their spatial products "urbanism," a term which can now be embraced as embodying nothing less than transformation.  Third, I demonstrate how this can be done by drawing lessons from critical analyses of case studies from all over the world (e.g. Brazil, Egypt, France, Spain, U.S.).  These are all words written in a book.

How can such words transform cities?  One is through a reading and interpretation of the book itself.  There are examples of books such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, who was voted recently--albeit in a non-scientific poll--to be the most influential urban thinker.  Of course, her book took a few decades to become truly influential.  Another way is through public discourse and dialogue that is generated by the book, which is one reason I so enjoy talking about the book and engaging in conversations.  The challenge in such talks is that people tend to prefer a relatively simple and fairly upbeat "take-away" message from the talk.  I argue instead for deeper and more sophisticated thinking especially since cities are such large, complex and constantly changing phenomena.  A third way is to test and further develop the ideas that words represent through on-the-ground strategies and projects.  I do this through experimental studio projects, such as one in the Mexicantown area of Detroit at the University of Michigan, another near Chinatown in Boston at MIT, and most recently, in the Guarapiranga area of Sao Paulo.  I'm happy to report that they have all been excellent experiences and we have learnt a lot about the true nature of urban transformation.  AI


Photo of Vila Rubi favela / communidade [i.e. informal settlement] in Guarapiranga, Sao Paulo.  Source: Aseem Inam.