What is the Role of Public Spaces

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What role do public spaces play in the integration of new immigrants in cities:

[Presentation for the Urbanistas]

Earlier this month, The [204] Design Collective joined The Urbanistas, a network made up of women working in the built environment who are passionate about cities, to deliver a talk on the role of public spaces in the integration of new immigrants in cities. In this talk, The Collective discussed issues including the unfair pressures of assimilation in segregated urban environments, designing for cultural inclusion, placemaking, and identity. The Urbanistas meet roughly once a month to facilitate collaboration between attendees, and to debate issues facing today's urban environments.

Below is an excerpt from the talk that was delivered at the Urbanistas Expo 20.0:

“What role do public spaces have in the successful integration of new immigrants in cities?

If we see the interactions between humans and space as constructing narratives, the marginalization of immigrant communities in cities literally puts immigrants in the margins, or in the footnotes of the urban story.

This leads to disenfranchisement, isolation, imposed and self segregation, alienation, and discrimination.

Within this discussion emerges the very important distinction between integration and assimilation. The experience of assimilating differs from that of integrating because assimilating implies the losing of one’s identity.

Assimilation undermines cultural identity - If you can only become integrated by assimilating the history, traditions, behaviors, language and appearances of the majority – is it even possible for marginalized communities to fully integrate? Assimilation then becomes an extension of colonization.

In a sense, integration can also mean desegregation, or a dismantling of the physical spaces that we’ve created, and the spatial barriers we’ve designed within our cities.

Minority communities do not have a moral obligation to integrate into the majority community. Such a suggestion assumes the majority communities’ values, lifestyle, cultures and customs are superior.

We have to make room for other cultures in the public realm, which is something some cities will do better than others. Seeing your culture validated in public space makes you feel safe, welcome, proud, and seen – that’s what integration looks and feels and feels like. With that in mind, we need to reconstruct/restructure conventional approaches to urbanization, and design our cities for cultural integration.


What does this look like?

Urbanization is often read as an aesthetic shift towards modernism and not as the radical imposition of a system of organizing space according to colonial rationality.

Public spaces afford people with the opportunity for conductive encounters and community life. Can we design versatile public spaces to make room for increased migration and cultural mix?

Immigrants are increasingly being portrayed as a threat to social cohesion. Often, they are physically isolated from society through both imposed and self segregation.

Segregation can result from cost of living/renting where more affordable housing is located in the urban fringes as well as the location and design of social housing. Affordable housing is predominantly designed at high-density commonly amidst low-density urban typologies – these are examples of the materialization of social and racial segregation that contributes to segregation of new immigrant communities in cities.

Self-segregation results when new immigrants seek out existing ethnic pockets typically away from more expensive city centers. Within these fringe communities, there are fewer opportunities, fewer transportation links to urban centres and all that they offer (economically, culturally, spatially), and therefore there becomes a lesser chance of urban mixité.“

Questions were posed at the end of the talk to open up the discussion to the room:

What are ways in which immigrant communities have manipulated/adapted the use of public spaces to make a place for themselves?

Built space/form has the social power to make life better but also has the power to disenfranchise, segregate and isolate - What is the spatial articulation of isolation/segregation?

How can the spatial articulation of the segregation of new immigrants in cities be remedied while simultaneously creating a sense of belonging, identity and home?

Is there an architecture that can serve the decolonizing struggle of the immigrant?

Excerpts from the discussion:

The discussion point: How can we begin to dismantle spatial segregation in cities? What are some examples in design?

The discussion point: New immigrant populations can feel illegitimate in penetrating the public realm when first arriving in a new country and therefore tend to stay in cultural/ethnic niches within the urban fringes. How can we begin to address these issues as designers?

The discussion point: While new immigrant communities do not have an obligation to integrate into the majority, room must be made for other cultures within the public realm in order to encourage an urban mixite that has social, cultural and economic benefit for cities as a whole.

The [204] Design Collective is currently designing an installation for an exhibition on “Assimilation and Public Spaces”. If you are currently studying or working in a related discipline in the U.K. and would like to get involved with this project please send us an e-mail at the204designcollective@gmail.com.