Designing “porous cities” for regular interactions by all people

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes a heterogeneous marketplace in India and wonders why more urban spaces can’t have a broad mix of people:

Nehru Place is every urbanist’s dream: intense, mixed, complex. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building. Instead, the dominant forms of urban growth are mono-functional, like shopping centres where you are welcome to shop but there’s no place to pray. These sorts of places tend to be isolated in space, as in the offices “campuses” built on the edge of cities, or towers in a city’s centre which, as in London’s current crop of architectural monsters, are sealed off at the base from their surroundings. It’s not just evil developers who want things this way: according to Setha Low, the most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community.

Is it worth trying to turn the dream of the porous city into a pervasive reality? I wondered in Nehru Place about the social side of this question, since Indian cities have been swept from time to time by waves of ethnic and religious violence. Could porous places tamp down that threat, by mixing people together in everyday activities? Evidence from western cities answers both yes and no…

If the public comes to demand it, urbanists can easily design a porous city on the model of Nehru Place; indeed, many of the architects and planners at the Urban Age events now unfolding in London have made proposals to “porosify” the city. Like Nehru Place, these larger visions entail opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions, schools and clinics amid Tesco or Pret; they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. These thoughts sound similar to what sociologist Elijah Anderson was getting at in The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Anderson asked of American cities: what happens in the rare public spaces where people of different class, race, and ethnic backgrounds regularly mix? Sennett has asked this of international contexts which have their own unique mixes of people.
  2. Key to the mixing of people may be the presence of “normal” commercial activity. Anderson observed a shopping mall in central Philadelphia; Sennett references an electronics market in India. Prices have to be low enough for everyone to have access and there needs to be a range of mixed use activity with some nearby places to work, shop, and eat.
  3. It strikes me that exclusivity is something imposed by the upper classes. One function of higher priced stores is that it tends to keep certain people out. Gated communities, cited by Sennett, are a function of class. As people acquire more wealth, they tend to design or buy into settings where people below them are minimized or removed. Thus, having more porous cities or spaces within cities would likely require significant changes from those with more power and wealth.

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