Urban Edge Conditions

(The following notes summarize the 2011 Raoul Wallenberg lecture* delivered by architect, urbanist, and sociologist Richard Sennett at the University of Michigan this semester.)

Last night, Sennett discussed urban edge conditions and their role and meaning for the public realm. Specifically, he distinguished between two kinds of urban edges — “boundaries” that segregate and establish social closure, and “borders,” which facilitate selective, but active exchange between and among communities. “Boundaries,” he explained, “are akin to cell walls, rigid and impermeable, while borders are similar to cell membranes, at once resistant and porous.” Sennett supported this theoretical distinction with examples and further qualified boundaries as immovable limits (e.g. Israeli security walls, “protecting” Israeli civilians from their West Bank counterparts); defined by motion (e.g. traffic intensive super highways in Caracas, Venezeula separating the affluent subdivisions from the poor favelas, one race from other); vertical in form (e.g. tall residential towers employing verticality as means of withdrawal from horizontal connections with the landscape in which they sit); and absolute in character (e.g. severely policed housing for the rich in Sao Paolo dramatizing the difference between poverty and wealth).

In contrast, he described borders as urban edges defined by rituals and social norms — active, alive, and changeable (e.g. Dharavi – at once blurring everyday distinctions between living and working, mixing complex activities and differentiating space, temporally); resistant to outsiders (e.g. parking lot in East London transformed by neighbourhood residents into a beach during day); typically informal (e.g. open spaces in Johannesburg temporarily colonized by vendors and food sellers); local (e.g. pavement schools in Bombay repurposing compound walls and transforming the space by giving it a new life); and often acting as places of refuge for the disenfranchised (e.g. Avignon, S. France).

“The 20th century planning motion has served as an instrument for making boundaries rather than borders.”

Between boundaries and borders, Sennett suggested that architects and urbanists should emulate the properties of borders and create urban conditions that encourage a dialectical and dialogical relationship between different community groups. He criticized the 20th century urban models that privileged centres over edges and led urbanists to concentrate activities at the centre of cities and neighbourhoods. Sennett gave the example of his own professional involvement in locating La Marqueta right in the middle of Spanish Harlem in NYC. In retrospect he realized that they had planned wrongly. They were (mis)guided by the singular objective of serving the resident Hispanic community. Had the market been located at the edge of this neighbourhood–where it could have interfaced with other social groups–they could have helped create border-like porous conditions, one facilitating greater interaction and connectivity with the rest of the city. In closing, Sennett stated that if the history of 20th century cities was all about boundaries, the present and future of cities—particularly those of the western world—should all be about borders.

I couldn’t help but connect Sennett’s urban place-making argument to the broader question of interdisciplinary scholarship, that is, how might we go beyond the limitations of disciplinary boundaries and create borders of active and engaged scholarship involving wider communities? How might we realize this ambition from within the specific practice and pedagogy of architecture and urban design? How might we create frameworks that keep alive both disciplinary and inter-community concerns with regards to their respective boundaries and shifting borders? Sennett’s understanding of boundaries and borders ended on high inspiration. I will continue to post stories on this blog that help advance some of these questions in directions useful for my current and future work.

Related post: “Producing Goodness,” March 2010 (2010 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture)

*Raoul Wallenberg Lecture is dedicated to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and one of the outstanding heroes of this century. As First Secretary of the Swedish delegation in Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg is credited with saving more than 100,000 Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. During the WWII, he created shutzpasses (or “protective passports”) to save thousands from the concentration camps. The following year, he was captured by the Russians. Wallenberg’s fate remains unknown to this day. The Raoul Wallenberg Lecture was initiated in 1971 by Sol King, a former classmate of Wallenberg’s. For more on the Wallenberg theme and invited lecturers, visit The Taubman College Wallenberg Lectures. For more information on his family’s search for him, read: The Wallenberg Curse – The Search for the Missing Holocaust Hero Began in 1945. The Unending Quest Tore His Family Apart (WSJ Europe, February 28, 2009) / Source: The Taubman College

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