Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The urban condition..

Rush hour today - the morning one, 7:40 am to be exact - I was on the tram into the city center when a curious passenger came into my generally oblivious field of vision. There was no obvious dirt or telltale smell that would have alerted me that the passenger was a bit different than others, but something about the fit of the coat and casual way they sat their bag on the visibly dirty tram floor caught my attention. My gaze would not have lingered on the person long except that I noticed them pick a fallen bandaid off the filthy floor and reapply it to their hand whence it had fallen. Curiousity, boredom, and the person being in my field of vision held me then captivated to watch as said passenger proceeded to open their backpack, remove one large can of beer and slip it ever so obviously into the opening of one of their leather gloves. If the bandaid reapplication made me a bit uncomfortable, the (quite illegal in Oslo) public beer drinking so early in the morning got the attention of others - people shifted uneasily in their seats, averted their eyes, and subtly inched whatever few centimeters were possible in the opposite direction.

It is not comfortable to encounter different people, particularly those so far from the social norms we're accustomed to. But, I believe that simple encounters like mine this morning helps urban residents to grow as people.. I think to myself: 'This is the urban condition!" - just as much as being able to go to a fair trade cafe, see an independant theater production, or follow a live international lecture series. The everday act of living in a city offers countless encounters will people whose descriptions, proclivities, and lives in general might be unfathomable to us. We share public transportation, in fact all kinds of public infrastructure with all kinds of people. And in a city as evolved as Oslo (at least for now,) we all share the same rights to public space.

Being able to live in and encounter all kinds of people in public space is important, so that we don't begin to forget or deny the problems that plague cities, so that we don't forget that the people with problems are humans too. Sure, it makes some people uncomfortable, and enough research has come to convenient solutions that say "similar children play together best" (more or less as the Norwegian saying goes), but if not in public spaces, then when and where else will the average resident come across people who are different than they, outside their friends' circle, their income class, or other ethno/religious/you-name-it-self-segregating-group? It is all too easy to fear the unknown and create the sense of a risk where there is actually only strangeness. The way I see it, the only counter to such fear is the learning experience offered by chance encounters in public space. Very few are going to go out of their way to have a conversation with a stranger (particularly a strange stranger), and they are very unlikely to suddenly drop by for a coffee, so it is only out in the public, in cities, that this learning chance is offered. By instead distancing and allowing the segregation into whatever types of people, all people - humans - are denied the reality of their own diversity. Perhaps if we all had to face the plagues of our society each day, more motivation and resources would be found to attack the roots of the problems (be they alcoholism, drug abuse, pyschological issues, poverty, or otherwise), rather than using resources to attempt a falsely clean and homogenous image in public spaces and the creation of gated communities.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


We often take for granted that we know each other - the people around us in the world where we live. Beyond assumptions one may make of their neighbors are those who work to shape the places inhabited by others in the city. Traditionally urban planners and architects have attempted to - perhaps even been forced to - simplify the problem of complexity in the city - undercutting the tasks before them. The "public" is grouped into a neat term that characteristics and wishes can be assigned to, or it is divided into social groups to attribute some normative trends towards activities and different general preferences to work towards. Today, many of these professionals tout participation as a mode of hearing the peoples' voice (or that of the ubiquitous public) in projects and debates, but question remains if they are getting as much as they could from that forum.

For one, we know that public participation events often informs us of those who are particularly eager to dominate planning and development discussions. In both Norway and the US, this type provokes a familiar image of an aging or retired male or female, outspoken, and fueled by very precise personal interests that may or may not be related to the project at hand - cue whatever reaction is a professionally acceptable form of rolling eyes. Of course, we know that it is wrong to dismiss these types, no matter how difficult they make consensus building or decision-making. Still, I am not sure how often they are really heard, short of when they manage to rally others behind their cause. While many a planner and architect may dread the uncomfortable encounter with these types, I wonder if it isn't more of just those insights into specific people that we need.

As an academic, I can (fortunately) consider this proposition removed from the very practical need of making decisions and meeting deadlines. Nevertheless, I, for one, am not convinced that participation is a useful tool for decision-making - it is rarely as democratic, including, effective, or bottom-up as our theoretical ideals would have it. If we removed consensus building from public hearing goals yet continued to ask for participation, we might end up with an interesting array of perspectives. By inviting everyone to offer their view where everyone else could see it, perhaps we could form better ideas about whom the others actually are - of how little we understand about them, and just maybe, how professionals could find mediating ways to work amidst their local complexities.

There are plenty of academics more qualified than I researching this idea - trying to figure out the practical implications of, for example Chantal Mouffe's "agonism" - the inherent benefits that may come from open conflict and the true embrace of diversity (of opinion and of being) through pluralism. I think it is equally important for regular people (members of the public, if you will) to become aware of those around, the incredible diversity that is often paired with a lacking awareness of others - those other than each themselves. Therein lies the real value of the public sphere, and the reason it could be quite dangerous to lose it. Public life seems to be tottering towards filtering itself into like groups - on one hand through commercialization or privatization of public spaces and  through computer algorithms showing us only the viewpoints we want to see in social media on the other. It is important that we support the few forums left where we might encounter strangers and different perspectives rather than allow each to enclose themselves in their familiar and fear the rest.

While planners and designers continue using participation techniques to attempt solving questions that usually actually fall under their own expertise, it would be interesting to instead see participation as a learning tool - where the professionals and all involved participants might come together to learn about each other. I am reminded now of a recent lecture in Oslo where the speaker said – we have to stop planning as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic! It seems quite likely that what is more important than everyone agreeing is actually bringing everyone to acknowledge their disagreements and more openly consider the motives that inspire each point of view.

We are all the same in the fact that we are each different. Tolerance of the other might not be achievable through consensus so much as it might be through open awareness, acknowledgement and consideration of differences.