How does your environment shape how you see and use the world around you?

Much of the work that I have been doing recently has concentrated on various facets of this question:

  • Inventing Berlin asks how street names and monuments communicate who should feel like they belong in the urban landscape,
  • A revised version of my essay for the Hacking Urban Furniture project examines the normative aspects of street furniture and how that shapes how we use public space, and
  • My new role as lead expert for the URBACT action planning network “Gendered Landscapes” will explore the gendered aspects of urban planning and urban life.

To get academic for a minute, there is a social constructionist assumption at the core of all three of these works: the environment shapes the subject, in particular when aspects of the environment become banal, invisible, or taken for granted.

The environment around us is not simply the process of natural, environmental forces. Especially in cities, the environment which becomes natural and normal is fundamentally shaped by humans. So the main question becomes: who has the power to shape the environment and to what ends?

In hindsight, it seems therefore rather logical that I would get interested in projects about social inclusion (CIVACT), direct democracy (The Urban Commons Cookbook), and urban planning (Städtewandel durch Kultur) which put the focus on broadening the influence of civil society as a whole – and specifically underrepresented groups – in urban planning decisions.

If we are going to create more inclusive cities which work towards mending the political and social rifts forming in our society, then we actively need to promote diversity of all kinds at the table where decisions are being made, independent of whether the topic is a new street name, the design of a new overpass, or the street furniture in the park.

More diversity improves the quality of decisions, their acceptance (“citizen buy-in”), and, as an added benefit, builds social capital between groups where ties may be weak or non-existent. This is one of the main topics that we have worked on in The Urban Commons Cookbook, by the way, with plenty of suggestions, checklists, and methods for strengthening communication, inclusion, and participation.

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