Culturing Community in Urban Design

(A version of the following appeared in The Denver Post, co-authored with Kyle Cascioli, February 7, 2011).

Former mayor Federico Peña once implored Denverites to “Imagine a Great City.”  The Denver Post is regularly filled with opinions about how we might build something more akin to a “Good City.”  The concept of Good City was first introduced in the 1960’s by the philosopher Lawrence Haworth.  Haworth believed that the Good City must offer its citizens economic opportunity as well as the means to build strong community.  He noted that these two “ingredients” are often in conflict, so they need to be carefully balanced.  Today the Good City is also conceptualized as one that is environmentally sustainable.

In pursuing Good City visions planners and developers have generally looked to the outside for inspiration and best practices. They’ve looked to other cities (like Portland, Oregon) for guidance in creating mixed use, walkable, and tightly-knit communities.   Such communities are exemplified locally by Belmar, Lowry, and Stapleton.  They’ve also looked to  foreign architects (like Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava) for civic building designs (Denver Art Museum, Denver International Airport) that signal Denver’s economic viability and world city ambitions.

Largely ignored in the Good City dialogue are the cultural values that shape how ethnically-diverse groups respond to and use the urban built environment.  Given the increasing ethnic diversity of Denver and other American cities we believe that urban sustainability should be broadly viewed in cultural as well as economic and environmental terms.   In contrast to the typical “outside in”  approach to urban redevelopment described above, we favor an “inside out” approach that starts with locality—local culture and history, local community needs and aspirations—in planning for vibrant and sustainable urban communities.   We thus view real estate development as “Contemporary Urban Anthropology” (CUA).

Building community in a way that is sensitive to social and cultural difference is a central value of New Urbanist approaches to urban redevelopment.  However, this goal is rarely achieved in practice.  New Urbanist developments often don’t provide the variety of affordable housing that would allow even minimal social mixing, much less the kinds of architecture and other built spaces (e.g., parks and plazas) that appeal to the cultural tastes of different potential user populations.   The problem is amplified by the fact that land prices rise exponentially the closer a parcel is located to the urban core, where public civic space is most needed.   As Haworth understood, the project developer’s need for economic  profitability can easily impede efforts to build community.

Balancing opportunity and community is central to the inside out approach of Contemporary Urban Anthropology.  CUA has proven its value when applied in other American cities.  In Houston, for example, the real estate profession’s traditional “Highest & Best Use” (HBU) approach to development failed to produce a successful anchor tenant for a retail center called Westchase Plaza, located in one of the city’s most ethnically diverse trade areas.  HBU analysis seeks to find a balance between plans that are legally permissible, physically possible, financially feasible, and maximally productive…where productivity is measured as profitability.   Alternatively, the CUA approach added “culturally sustainable” to the HBU formula.  It specified that the best anchor tenant for Westchase Plaza would not be one of the more typical retailers or office users but rather a Hispanic cosmetology school.  The school has not only served the local population’s need for jobs training but has nicely integrated into the wider community’s diverse ethnic fabric.

Effective, culturally-sensitive urban planning will depend on changes in the way that we educate real estate professionals.  Not much has been written in the Post about the next generation of planners, developers, and contractors who would accomplish this work. We believe that higher education can and should be the catalyst for imagining new ways of thinking about real estate redevelopment, as well as the infill architecture and other built space that might better allow the users of redeveloped real estate to create distinctive identities for themselves. The academic studies of real estate and anthropology are bound by a common interest in the relationship between people and their built environment.  We need better ways to integrate the two.  Students must learn to view urban design and development as both an economic challenge and a cultural opportunity.   They must learn that where designed space can be culturally transformed by its users into lived place the prospects for sustainability are improved.  More and better collaboration across established academic disciplines promises to deliver ideas and plans that better serve the cause of building viable, sustainable, and good cities.

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About Dean Saitta

I'm a Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Denver.
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2 Responses to Culturing Community in Urban Design

  1. Will Smith says:

    Re: “Culturing community in urban design,” Feb. 7 guest commentary.

    While it was wonderful to see a recognition of the importance of urban design, it was sad to read that the authors only commend the new designs — i.e., Belmar, Lowry, Stapleton. They ignore a wonderful history that defines much of the character of Denver and to which many folks now flock as a desirable place to live, work and play, the “old” neighborhoods that make up much of Denver. Those sites they cite, in fact, are based on and copy much of what was constructed around 100 years ago. It would be nice if all these new urbanists would give proper due to these older neighborhoods as being the lead for what they call “new.”

    Will Smith, Denver

    This letter was published in the Feb. 9 edition of The Denver Post.

  2. Dean Saitta says:

    We appreciate letter writer Will Smith’s feedback on our Guest Commentary (“In with the old,” Feb 9). We should clarify that it was not our intention to commend New Urbanism over the older Denver neighborhoods—the “Old Urbanism”—valued by Mr. Smith. In fact it was just the opposite. Our commentary noted that several key community-building goals of New Urbanism are rarely achieved. Our call is for an Alternative Urbanism that’s responsive to both local history and the changing ethnic character of the 21st century American city.

    Dean Saitta and Kyle Cascioli
    Denver

    This letter was published in the Feb. 15 edition of The Denver Post

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