Getting at the DNA of places

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“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

This quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has always fascinated me because I feel it conveys poetically, and yet effectively, the intimate bond between social processes and the spatial form of cities. Cities are a product of time, and time, in turn, is shaped by the people who live there. It is this continuous cultural forming and re-forming of place that is so fascinating.

Gone are the days in which cities were imagined by planners and urban specialists from a blank sheet of paper and a set of rules for ‘off the peg’ urban living. Today, cities are more diverse, cosmopolitan, fluid, their urban molecules in a perennial state of agitation, so that when we talk about place making, I like to think, we are in uncharted territory and that’s a good thing!

It’s a good thing because city making is not just about putting dots on a map, it’s also about making and growing lives, and providing opportunities for increasingly diverse communities to come together and contribute to the public good.

As a cultural planner, my emphasis is above all on the process of mapping, and getting at the DNA of a place. It’s a methodology for interpreting the city through the lenses of the collective and the ‘different’. In practice this means constantly piloting iterative, process-led, ways of engaging communities and stimulating those who have the expertise to advise, and simultaneously to help them come out of the protective blanket of their profession.

In my view, mapping processes provide ways of publicly articulating diverse perspectives and meanings in a non-hierarchical way so that the result is a shared understanding of what should change in a place, and why. I believe that it is only through such open processes of ‘collaborative urbanism’ that we can kick-start change while taking manageable risks. But it all takes time. It is not a quick fix!

Image: Karina Puente

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