An invitation to create equity in cities
At Act Urban 2016 in Philadelphia, a recurring theme of the discussions was the importance of exposure to differences. Research in anthropology, psychology and sociology has proven that a high degree of social mixing fosters understanding, tolerance and respect between people (Sennett, Hajer & Reijndorp, Cortright et.al.) – traits that are invaluable in cities, where people will inevitably represent a broad spectrum of socioeconomic, ethnic and demographic backgrounds. Therefore, a key obligation of the city is to create a framework for bringing together all kinds citizens in any part of town. It is not enough to simply create invitations in the downtown areas, as Antoni Vives from the City Transformation Agency pointed out in his keynote reflections, invitations must also draw people across neighborhoods along the fringes, regardless of their individual social status.
To achieve this, cities must ensure an equally high quality network of streets and squares that connects the entire urban fabric. Note here, the importance of the streets. Simply creating great (local) squares without convenient access by foot, bike or public transportation, achieves little in regards to exposure, because there is a tendency that the neighborhood surrounding a square is already fairly homogenous, due to our homophilic tendencies; birds of a feather, flock together (McPherson, Smith-Loving, Cook, Neal et.al). Alex Peay from Rising Sons, who works with children and young adults in deprived neighborhoods, remarked in the opening panel discussion that bringing the kids out of their comfort zones and out of their neighborhoods was an integral part to teaching them about society – experiences that are necessary to take control of one’s own opportunities, especially in the city. These kids do not necessarily lack places to meet, but they lack places to meet people that are different from themselves, people that can inspire and challenge them (– of course, high status neighborhoods can be just as isolated with equally unfortunate outcomes).
Luckily, most people need to exit their neighborhoods at least every once in a while, to reach destinations in other parts of the city, and if they can do so in any other way than by isolating themselves in cars, then these journeys across the urban fabric has the opportunity to expose them to a wide variety of different impressions. Which brings the discussion back to the streets, and to the pocket parks and local squares along the streets. This network must be a physical manifestation of the social connections we hope to encourage. A network that exposes us to every single variety of person sharing our city, to make us understanding, tolerant and respectful citizens – to make us equal.