Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Broadening our understanding of how different groups interact with their physical environments would be a great first step.
Scientists have proved that the way our brains are wired plays into how we engage with the physical spaces around us. But so, surely, do our life experiences—where we come from, and our cultural values make a difference in how we perceive space and utilize it.
That's certainly what James Rojas believes. In his 20-year career as a city and transportation planner, Rojas has seen members of local Latino communities across the U.S.—particularly immigrants—carry over ideas about public space uses from the countries they've left behind. He's become a prominent proponent of what he calls Latino Urbanism, the idea that including more Latino ideas and voices in design processes is key to planning more inclusive urban and suburban communities.
In many Latin American cities, buildings and their adjacent public spaces were designed following the "Law of the Indies," a 17th century body of laws that influenced town planning in the Spanish colonies, Rojas explains. One reliable fixture in these towns is the plaza—an open space, often with a central fountain, where children play and neighbors gossip.
What concerns Rojas is that in the suburban setting here in the United States (and, for that matter, plenty of urban settings, too), the plaza is absent.
“You build on what you know, so a lot of Latinos will transform their front yards into plazas,” Rojas says. He's traced this transformation of the typical U.S. single-family home in heavily Latino neighborhoods into what he's dubbed the "Latino Vernacular," which can also have specific regional variations, as in East Los Angeles:
“These [private] spaces lead into the bigger context of the city,” Rojas says. But of course, just because many Latinos like and understand the social context of the plaza doesn't mean you can plop down a bunch of plazas in a given city, he cautions. (Plus, Latinos appear to be doing a pretty good job of doing that themselves).
The point, rather, is to look at why some cultures like and use plazas, to better understand how these communities use both alternative public spaces or the spaces outside their homes. Observing what they do with their front and back yards, how much they walk and bike, or how street vendors operate nearby can help determine things like whether wider sidewalks or bike lanes are needed, or where to put benches.
It's a seemingly uncontroversial concept that nonetheless rarely bubbles up into larger conversations about the future of diverse U.S. metro areas. Last month, for instance,The Denver Post's Ray Mark Rinaldi criticized that city's rehabbed Union Station as not doing enough to attract people of color—the "neo-classical" style in which the complex was built was a reminder of colonial rule, he argued, and thus alienates minorities. No statues of minority figures appear in or around the station, and no low-cost multicultural restaurants operate in the food court.
The column came under fire in Denver. In his reply to Rinaldi, Dean Saitta, a professor of anthropology and Director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Denver, countered that putting in a Mexican restaurant or a statue would be a superficial fix. While he agrees with Rinaldi that a conversation about diversity in how we build and design our cities is crucial, "sometimes a neo-classical building should be left a neo-classical building,” Saitta says.
"One size does not fit all,” says Setha Low, a professor of anthropology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who's written several books on diversity in public spaces, and one specifically on parks. "[Creating diverse spaces] requires that you go deeper."
Low includes in her definition of 'diverse' not just ethnic and racial minorities but also class, gender, age, sexual preference, and ability differences. She recommends that urban planners and designers really understand their target audience through ethnographic research, in addition to the ecological and structural research that usually precedes the planning process.
The truth is that the conversation around "intercultural urbanism" or "multicultural urban planning" or "diverse urbanism" (whichever term you prefer) still only exists in small urban planning circles, Saitta says. But maybe that's because planners, politicians, and designers haven't yet come to terms with how quickly the demographics in U.S. metro areas are changing, Saitta offers. "Now, it's going to be time to face the music."