Below you’ll find the graphic recording, audio, video, and transcript from “Co-designing publics: Radical democracy and transformative urbanisms” presented by Aseem Inam on April 26th, 2023.
About the presenter
Dr. Aseem Inam is Professor and Inaugural Chair in Urban Design at Cardiff University in the UK. Dr. Inam is also the Founding Director of TRULAB: Laboratory for Designing Urban Transformation, a pioneering research-based practice first established in New York City. As a Principal Investigator, he is currently leading multiple funded research projects, including “Co-Designing Publics: [Re]Producing the Public Realm via Informal Urbanisms,” “The Prismatic City: Surprising Insights from Las Vegas into the True Nature of Contemporary Urbanism,” and “Designing an Equitable City: Confronting Gentrification in Creative Pedagogy.”
In addition to numerous award-winning book chapters, journal articles, and professional reports, his books include Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities, and Designing Urban Transformation. He is the editor of the forthcoming book to be published by ORO Editions International, Co-Designing Publics, which further expands on the work presented in this talk. He has collaborated with communities as an urban activist and practitioner in Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Haiti, India, Morocco, United Kingdom, and United States.
About the series
Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, and funding from the Barr Foundation, the Shift Foundation, and The Kresge Foundation.
Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.
Register to participate in future Cities@Tufts events here.
Listen to the Cities@Tufts Podcast (or on the app of your choice):
“Co-designing publics: Radical democracy and transformative urbanisms” Transcript
[The timestamps in the transcript correspond with the audio version of this lecture.]
Aseem Inam: [00:00:42] The starting point for examining the public realm is the fact that the city should belong to everyone — regardless of race, class or gender. In reality, uneven access to resources and to power means that some individuals and groups are more privileged and influential than others, especially in terms of exercising their rights or actively building democracy. At the same time, it is also an important site of resistances, contestations, and alternatives to the mainstream status quo. Such alternatives help to illuminate the full potential of the public realm and for a city that can be truly democratic in every sense of the term.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:01:29] How are informal and formal spaces enabling radical democracy? Can we counter displacement through collective memory? And does public space have the capacity to authentically support community, restoration, and emancipation? These are just a few of the questions we’ve discussed this season on Cities@Tufts Lectures, a free live event and podcast series where we explore the impact of urban planning on our communities, the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice. I’m Tom Llewellyn.
[00:01:55] Today on the show, we have the final lecture of the spring semester — Co-designing Publics: Radical Democracy and Transformative Urbanisms from Professor Aseem Inam. Over the next few months, we’ll be co-hosting several online events to keep you tied over so keep listening until the end of today’s show for more information. And now, here’s Professor Julian Agyeman, who will welcome you to the Cities@Tufts Spring Colloquium and introduce today’s lecturer.
Julian Agyeman: [00:02:34] Welcome to the Cities@Tufts Virtual Colloquium. Along with our partners Shareable, the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation, I’m Professor Julian Agyeman, and together with my research assistants Caitlin McLennan and Deandra Boyle, we organized Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative, which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. We’d like to acknowledge that Tufts University’s Medford campus is located on colonized Wampanoag and Massachusett traditional territory.
[00:03:08] Today, we are delighted to welcome our final presenter of the semester, Professor Aseem Inam. Dr. Inam is Professor and Inaugural Chair in Urban Design at Cardiff University in Wales. Dr. Inam is also the founding director of True Lab, the Laboratory for Designing Urban Transformation, a pioneering research-based practice first established in New York City. As a principal investigator, he’s currently leading multiple funded research projects, including Co-designing Publics, Reproducing the Public Realm via On formal Urbanisms, The Prismatic City: Surprising Insights from Las Vegas into the true nature of contemporary urbanism, and Designing an Equitable Eity: confronting gentrification in creative pedagogy.
[00:03:58] In addition to numerous award-winning book chapters, journal articles and professional reports, his books include — Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities and Designing Urban Transformation. He’s the editor of the forthcoming book Co-designing Publics, which further expands on the work presented in this talk. He’s collaborated with communities as an urban activist and practitioner in Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Haiti, India, Morocco, the United Kingdom and the United States. Aseem’s talk today is — Co-designing publics: Radical Democracy and Transformative Urbanisms. Aseem, a zoom-tastic Welcome to the Cities@Tufts Colloquium and as usual, microphones and video off. And please send questions for Aseem through the chat function. Aseem, welcome. Over to you.
Aseem Inam: [00:04:51] Thank you, Julian. I’m really delighted to be with all of you as the concluding Speaker of the Cities@Tufts and Shareable symposium. Thank you, Professor Julian Agyeman, for inviting me to this prestigious symposium. So the book cover, you see, is a mock up of a book that I’ll be talking about, and it’s going to come out in about six months. The title is Co-designing Publics. The book is an edited book with about 13 different sections and 19 authors and co-authors. The project is funded by a grant awarded by the UK Arts and Humanities Council. The goal of the research project is to build an international research and practice network. The purpose of this paperback book, which is meant to be more affordable and more accessible, is to have a broad international audience, both scholars and activists practitioners.
[00:05:48] So this research network consists of scholar-practitioners at academic institutions. Since I’m the principal investigator, the network is based at my university, Cardiff University, and we have collaborators at the University of Cambridge, the University of Sheffield, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Newcastle in Australia, and the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. The network also consists of activist-practitioners from grassroots practices in 6 cities around the world: Asociación Mejorando Vidas in Cali, Cambodian Center for Human Rights Phnom Penh, Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru, Project 90 by 2030 in Cape Town, Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, and União Nacional por Moradia Popular in Sao Paulo.
[00:06:39] I will now describe what we did together as a network of collaborators, which is going to be summarized in this forthcoming book. Premises. The 21st century is truly the urban century by any measure. There exist different ways of understanding and measuring what is the urban, but what they all share in common is the growing and increasingly critical significance of the role of cities in the world. Given multiple crises that cities face, such as the climate crisis, urban inequality, inadequate infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, and the recent COVID-19 global pandemic, this project focuses on developing innovative ways in which processes of co-designing publics and co-producing the public realm can more effectively help address these crises.
[00:07:31] So when I use the term cities in this discussion, I actually mean urbanizing regions, also known as metropolitan areas. As the concepts of ecological footprint pioneered by William Reece and planetary urbanization pioneered by Neil Brenner demonstrate, we have to consider cities at the regional and even global scales as sets of interconnected networks of flows with consequences far beyond their administrative boundaries.
[00:08:02] In addition, I utilize what I call categories of convenience. These categories enable us to specify particular types of phenomena, to investigate them in their context, and to better understand the relationalities. All the while acknowledging that such categories contain overlaps and fuzzy boundaries. Examples of such categories of convenience that are relevant here are spatial versus nonspatial aspects of cities, the public realm versus the private realm, and the global South versus the global North.
[00:08:40] Finally, throughout this presentation, I will share some images as you see on the screen that are suggestive of what possible implications for urban practices from this theoretical discussion. Rather than making a 1 to 1 literal shift from theory to practice. So the images are there as visual backgrounds in order to invoke the power of theory, to reflect, to wonder about possibilities, and to suggest pathways towards transformative practice.
[00:09:12] Public realm. Cities are amongst humanity’s greatest creations, and the public realm is arguably their most significant aspect. The public realm is what makes a city so rich, so complex, and so full of potential. The starting point for examining the public realm is the fact that the city should belong to everyone, regardless of race, class or gender. In reality, uneven access to resources and to power means that some individuals and groups are more privileged and influential than others, especially in terms of exercising their rights or actively building democracy. At the same time, it is also important site of resistances, contestations, and alternatives to the mainstream status quo. Such alternatives help to illuminate the full potential of the public realm and for a city that can be truly democratic in every sense of the term.
[00:10:16] There’s an argument to be made about a differing private realm versus a public realm. One way of thinking about the private realm is that it’s largely the realm of the individual, and the essence of the private is the absence of others. On the other hand, the public realm is largely the realm of the encounter with the other and of the collective. Spatially, being inside one’s home is not the same experience as being on the street. Even online, one tends to have more of a public persona on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. While they are different, the private and public realm do interact and intersect.
[00:11:03] I want to make clear the distinction between public space and public realm. What makes the public realm particularly important is that it is the realm of the other par excellence. The public realm consists of spatial networks constituted by places, plural, of encounter and interactions of bodies, cultures and ideas. That’s the most significant aspect of the public realm is the fact that it is public. There are two aspects of defining the many meanings of the public that are most relevant here. One is that of relating to the people as a whole. In effect, that concerns the community or the nation. And the other is that it is open to general observation, view or knowledge — existing, performed or carried out without concealment, so that all may see or hear. From this perspective, the public realm is arguably the most significant aspect of the city because it speaks to the notion of the city as sets of overlapping and intersecting communities.
[00:12:17] The vast potential of the public realm lies in its capacity to act as a catalyst for interactively and collaboratively generating hope by deepening understanding or building solidarity for creating dreams and for pursuing transformative actions. While the public realm is spatially grounded at multiple scales in specific geographic contexts, it is also constantly evolving because the urbanism of a city is constantly in flux. My own investigation into the public realm begins with the spatial manifestations. But by no means do I end it there because it reaches structurally into the dynamics of the spatial political economy of the city and temporarily into its production and reproduction over time.
[00:13:07] Direct engagements with these aspects is what I mean by the spatial production of the public realm. Thus space as a starting point matters a great deal. For example, public life in streets and other public spaces is an inexorable part of a vibrant city culture. In addition, rather than being overdetermined in their specifications, the buildings, open spaces, and infrastructures of urbanism should allow for flexibility and change.
[00:13:42] Public spaces such as squares, streets and parks tend to be defined and bounded spatially and administratively. The public realm speaks more to interconnected spatial networks that contain such public spaces and the flows across spaces that they enable.
[00:14:05] The best example of this is the sidewalk, which truly embodies the everyday public realm, because in most cities it is the most frequented public space by the largest variety of people. The public realm also integrates less obvious and more informal public spaces such as farmers markets and skateboard parks into a city’s network of publicness. I question the standard notion of public space as more or less a container for human activity. A notion that continues to pervade conventional design thinking. In fact, the exclusion of some groups from democratic processes via their failure to attain recognition in public space underlines the critical importance of materiality. Although many scholars recognize the democratic character of public space, this idea is also contested, as public space has paradoxically long been a site of exploitation, oppression and prohibition for women or ethnic minorities, for gays and lesbians, for the elderly and the young, for the homeless, and for people with disabilities.
[00:15:19] At the same time, public space remains the most important site where public claims can be made visible and contested. In order to fully understand this critical aspect of public space as part of a larger public realm, we have to view it as part of its spatial political economy. Spatial political economy signifies two key aspects directly related to urbanism — one is a set of power structures and dynamics that exert influence on how, why, by whom, and for whose benefit the city is produced and reproduced over time. Second, within this set of power, structures and dynamics are the decision-making processes and outcomes that result in urban priorities and human financial and material resources allocated towards urban interventions.
[00:16:13] Moreover, the concept of the spatial political economy acknowledges that the production and reproduction of space do not simply represent aesthetic, technical or policy interventions of conventional design practices. Rather, they are profoundly ideological and political acts. Some of the vast untapped potential of design in the context of urbanism can be unleashed by more fully embracing and engaging with the realities of its spatial political economy.
[00:16:48] Ultimately, one of the most significant design issues for cities is the design of its governance, which extends equally to the public realm. Who designs the public realm over time and by access to which types of resources? Who controls the spaces? What is allowed? What is not allowed? Who benefits from it — and why or why not? Here the question of power examined through political economic dynamics is central to our understanding of the public realm. Power is not only deeply embedded and spatially expressed, but it is exercised on an ongoing basis to control. An especially significant way to examine the uneven distribution. And wielding of power has been through the perspective of social injustice.
[00:17:40] Informal urbanisms. A key aspect of my interest in the public realm is a deeper understanding of the often underestimated role played by informal urbanisms. I use the term informal urbanisms broadly to describe a wide range of informal strategies and informal outcomes in the spatial production and reproduction of the city. Informal urbanisms are not marginalized forms of places and practices. Rather, they are central to understand the logic of urbanism because they constitute debates about what is illegal and illegal in the city, what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, and with what effects. In fact, the formal informal are intertwined with some clear and existing delineations of coded regulations and mechanisms of finance, such as municipal budgets and bank loans; legality, such as planning regulations and public policy; and administration, such as institutional routines and procedures which serve as a kind of reference to engage with.
[00:18:53] Thus informal urbanisms are both procedural strategies and tangible outcomes that are deeply intertwined and should be understood as such, rather than as separate and discrete phenomena. For example, in design terms, spatial outcomes such as buildings, open spaces and infrastructures emerge out of particular strategies by further reinforcing those strategies. In this context, what I mean by design is a direct and regular engagement with the material city, including and especially with the spatial political economy, without which design would not be possible. For example, developer-led and profit-driven urbanism in which land and property are primarily commodities to be bought, sold and invested in reflects the capitalist system that so dominates the economy and the political structure that enables it both locally and globally.
[00:19:51] I propose an investigative approach towards informal urbanisms about what we know, how we know, and what we don’t know. Cities are highly complex and constantly changing. So even if we know a lot, we need to know more by digging deeper and stretching our understanding of informality. In recent decades, three schools of thought have emerged with informal urbanisms being positioned within a dualist framework, which is about marginal economic activities for low-income households distinct from modern capitalism; a legalist framework which excludes people from the modern economy due to adverse bureaucracy; and a structuralist framework in which subordinated economic units are adversely related to formal enterprises within a capitalist economy.
[00:20:45] In addition, informal practices extend beyond the urban poor to encompass the actions of different sectors, including middle and high-income urban residents, the state and business interests. One of the most significant repercussions of such a theoretical and methodological approach towards informal urbanism is to recognize that citizens are agents of urbanization, not simply consumers of spaces developed and regulated by others. In much of the global South, for example, people build their houses, neighborhoods and even districts step by step according to the resources they are able to put together at each moment in the process. Each phase involves a great deal of improvisation and bricolage, complex strategies and calculations, and constant imagination of what a home, a neighborhood, a public realm might look like.
[00:21:44] In fact, the meaning of home, neighborhood, and public realm may very well be something radically different from those concepts either theorized in the literature or in the practices of the global North. Their spaces, and thereby the public realm, are always in the making because they’re not quite done, always being altered, expanded and elaborated upon.
[00:22:13] Co-designing publics. The most potent aspect of the public realm lies in its capacity to cause the design publics. Publics never simply exist. They are always created. Publics are created or co-designed by citizens themselves, or of groups of people who are made and remade by the actions of other people. For example, when there is a common concern or desire that emerges out of a crisis such as urban inequality, lack of affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, or the COVID-19 global pandemic, there is often a call to actions, and groups of people are willing to act upon these concerns or desires and a public is created. A public is thereby summoned into being. In this manner, co-designing publics is part of an ongoing process of designing and redesigning democracy with the city as its site and its context.
[00:23:14] My work builds on this phenomena to better understand how informal urbanisms in the public realm can become catalysts for co-designing publics. As much as conventional urban design tends to be about the creation of spatial outcomes such as buildings, open spaces, infrastructure, equally, or perhaps even more formidable, is design as a process of creative brainstorming and crafting radical imaginaries in the context of issue-based publics.
[00:23:47] Issues are rarely given — and if they are given, tend to be so in the broadest of terms, still requiring further inquiry to make them apparent and known. Discovery occurs through a process of inquiry which can be characterized by direct research, by analysis, reflection and synthesis, which then produces a whole that is able to be made apparent and known. Design also aids discovery through engagement with the everyday materiality of the city as a datum as well as the ways in which the action-oriented sensibilities of design reveal much through critical reflection on issues. Analysis of sites of action and ongoing understandings of larger contexts. Thus, critical design issues and problems are to be discovered as much as given by a client.
[00:24:42] The nuts and bolts of co-designing publics are far from smooth. The process of co-designing publics draw citizens into vital urban realms where they encounter each other and engage in collective and meaningful negotiations about what kind of city they desire. These encounters build a shared sense of common purpose and solidarity among citizens. But the encounters also make citizens aware of the substantive differences among them, and they are forced to confront and manage these differences together.
[00:25:16] There are various ways of dealing with such differences. For example, anarchists in the strictly philosophical sense are much more willing to see things work themselves out in the process of unfolding through collective efforts and direct actions subject to ongoing revision and revitalization, rather than following a set course towards some imagined end goal. Similarly, pragmatists also in the strictly philosophical sense, advocate open-ended collaboration, where what matters is ongoing conversations in which participants figure things out as they go along. A process that can yield new ways of thinking and new ways of doing.
[00:26:00] Such radically democratic approaches can be excruciating, but ultimately liberating and share similarities with the iterative and reflective processes of design. Such intensive and collaborative open-endedness is one of the ultimate promises of co-designing publics to informal urbanisms in the public realm. Informal urbanisms can generate new modes of politics through practices that produce new kinds of citizens, claims, and contestations. These politics tend to be rooted in the spatial production of the public realm, especially in collective residential spaces and their attendant neighborhood spaces. In many cities, social movements and grassroots organizations have created new discourses of rights and put forward demands that are at the basis of the rights of new citizenships. The formulation of new constitutions, the experimentation with new forms of local administration, and the invention of new approaches to social policy, planning, law and citizen participation.
[00:27:13] hus informal urbanisms are both processes and outcomes. In fact, processes are privileged over outcomes, not only because urban forms and spaces emerge out of specific types of processes in particular contexts to the benefit of some more than others, but also because the city is always in process as buildings, spaces and infrastructures age and are repaired or demolished, modified and built anew in a series of never-ending activities.
[00:27:47] The ultimate goal of co-designing publics via the public realm is radical democracy. Radical democracy is the process of exertion, where the path towards social justice might be opened in place of utopia as a permanent means without end. Through this process. Radical democracy is about emancipation, which can be understood as an awakening or a rediscovery of power that is deeply rooted in processes of mobilization and transformation. And since the city belongs to everyone, we are in fact, all together in this process of emancipation.
[00:28:31] Global South. I contextualize this discussion by paying particular attention to the cities of the Global South, because place matters in shaping urban thinking and practice. There is an increasing interest in thinking and practicing from the cities of the Global South rather than just about them. Looking from the cities of the global South provokes specific types of inquiry because of the particular nature of their urbanism. The cities of the Global South are mostly located geographically in the southern hemisphere, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The series of the Global South also tend to be historically the oldest occupied cities, as well as currently the fastest growing cities in the world. These cities are also when one finds empirical conditions of precarity in which large majorities of the population are politically, economically and ecologically vulnerable.
[00:29:33] Looking from the cities of the global South, then, points to certain characteristics of urban practice in those contexts, such as fluidity, uncertainty, and speculative action. These prevalent characteristics challenge all the certainties that evidence-based urban philosophy urban policy tends to take for granted. For example, that systems will work as they should, that people will act predictably, and that the rules of the game are fair and stable. In this manner, the view from the Global South challenges dominant forms of knowledge and practice. This view is particularly timely because both the COVID-19 global pandemic and its policy responses have revealed the precarity of cities by exacerbating the class inequalities and structural racisms upon which many of them have been built, including through deeply rooted legacies of colonialism in the global South. However, the cities of the global South are also filled with the types of plural and overlapping collectivities and the density of interchanges that lend themselves to co-designing publics.
[00:30:46] Illuminating case studies. I’m going to illuminate some of these points through case studies that are part of a research network in collaboration with our activist practitioner partners who I mentioned earlier in the presentation. So we are extremely fortunate to have a number of highly dedicated and accomplished activist-practitioners from 6 different cities in the global south [click]: Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru, Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, União Nacional por Moradia Popular in Sao Paulo, Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, Project 90 by 2030 in Cape Town, and Asociación Mejorando Vidas in Cali. I [00:31:33] will briefly describe three of these examples as illuminating case studies.
We are extremely fortunate to have a number of highly dedicated and accomplished activist-practitioners from 6 different cities in the global South, Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru, Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, União Nacional por Moradia Popular in Sao Paulo, Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, Project 90 by 2030 in Cape Town, and Asociación Mejorando Vidas in Cali.
[00:31:41] The Centre for Urban Studies is based in Jakarta. Their main focus is on economic sustainability via issues such as housing, mobility, water and air pollution and the informal economy. They always work together with communities and believe in the co-production of practice. One of the main issues that Rujak Center for Urban Studies has been fighting is the forced eviction of low-income families in informal settlements. One of the key strategies is to better understand and work with people in Kampungs, which are traditional villages or informal settlements within a city. They work at multiple scales simultaneously. They advocate for and provide technical assistance at the street and neighborhood scales while simultaneously placing that work at the larger regional scale of infrastructure networks and bodies of water. Hasiru Dala means green force in the regional Kannada language of South India. They work with waste pickers in the city of Bengaluru, who are those that pick up waste on the street and with their labor they sort grade and make it into recyclable and tradable commodity.
[00:33:01] The main objective of Hasiru Dala is to provide space for these informal waste pickers within the formal waste management system by promoting appropriate, decentralized, and cost-effective solutions for solid waste management and decent livelihoods. One of the crucial ways they do this is through the creation of solid waste management centers in the neighborhoods. These centers are run by the waste-pickers themselves. Hasiru Dala really invest time in designing long-term processes to work collectively by building alliances across multiple stakeholders. Thus, for them, the public realm is not only spatial, but also an ongoing process that opens up to broader groups of people. Waste-pickers and their work are often invisible and unacknowledged. Hasiru Dala creates change not only through policy, but also through public spaces. One illustration that you see here is a recently completed mural on the walls of one of Bengaluru’s prominent iconic building and consists of portraits of a sanitation worker and a waste picker.
[00:34:17] Project 90 by 2030 is a grassroots organization that wants to reduce carbon emissions by 90% by the year 2030. They work with stakeholders and decision-makers, and they try to identify policies and actions that support climate justice. They have a specific focus on developing environmental leadership in the youth and increasing people’s ability to engage government through public participation to address climate change, energy, poverty and social injustices in their communities.
[00:34:54] This is an image of one of the community leaders at a political debate where communities had the opportunity to ask the political candidates what their views were on energy access and climate change. This was organized by five different civil society organizations with seven political party leaders there, and they were targeted by community leaders to answer some serious questions. Community partnerships like this allow for peer-to-peer learning to build campaigns, to take on public participation, and to write and engage with local government on access to energy within their communities.
[00:35:31] One of the strongest aspects of Project 90 by 2030 is youth mobilization. There are frequent events where everything is organized by youth, including all the background work, and there’s a team behind the scenes of older people just to support and to guide as need be. The belief that youth are real active citizens in addressing a lot of the issues and inequalities that they see. In this case, co-design also means working across generations.
[00:36:06] I will now conclude my talk with some reflections on the ideas and case studies we have investigated in this international research and practice network. The real goal of producing and reproducing the public realm is to enable the ongoing co-design of publics such that we move rapidly towards a far more just, equitable and radically democratic city for all — especially for those who are marginalized. Co-design with this direct engagement in the spatial and non-spatial aspects of urbanism and its inherent creative thinking and interdisciplinary approaches is ideal for discovering and articulating radical imaginaries for the public realm.
[00:36:50] Scholars from different perspectives agree that hope lies in these ongoing processes and in formal aspects of the public realm. Hope for designing the truly equitable future of our cities might thus very well reside in this messy, multifaceted, and ultimately political nature of the spatial production and reproduction of cities. In fact, perhaps more so than in professionalized urbanisms.
[00:37:24] We can already see glimpses of a powerful new urban society in the midst of precarity. While they may seem fleeting and fragmented, they are still urban practice of social, autogestion, and spatial appropriation undertaken by real inhabitants. As we have done in our network, one can closely examine these practices in their specific contexts, compare them across contexts, exchange experiences and ideas, and extrapolate further to generate common understandings and new knowledge. We can use this new knowledge as a lens to help us see better and further, because such practices can be difficult to acknowledge in the current spatial political economies of corporatism and neoliberalism. Moreover, we can, together, as co-design publics, use these understandings and tools to move toward a new horizon of radical democracy. Such examples abound. We have to learn collaboratively to see them, to understand them, to nurture them — and ultimately we have to be them. Thank you.
Julian Agyeman: [00:38:36] Thank you, Aseem. That’s a fantastic talk. So profound that, you know, I need some time to think about some of the implications here. But we do have quite a few questions in the chat, and I’m just going to go through them here. So Mary Valiakas is asking, can you give examples of how meanwhile use — Mary did you mean “meanwhile use”…is being used as a tool to turn private spaces into public realms?
Aseem Inam: [00:39:05] How meanwhile spaces can be turned into public spaces? That’s a very good question. So one of the things about the public realm, of course, the most basic definition of a public realm is spaces that are publicly owned. And it’s actually quite common in many cities around the world where spaces are publicly owned by the municipality, by the provincial government or by the national government, and especially the municipality, they’re actually leased to private businesses, but the ownership rests with the municipality, including in meanwhile spaces. The other type of very public ownership that is increasingly coming about is a different kind of public ownership or community land trusts, where it’s a collective, a community, usually not with a lot of money, who purchase and kind of steward land for the benefit of the community. And usually it’s very public-facing activities like community center.
[00:40:04] The other day, it was very interesting, I was in Liverpool and I went to a pub. And it looked like a very lively sort of typical English pub. But it was community owned and they had pop-up cooking, they had poetry nights, etc., geared towards the community, towards the neighborhood. So those are some examples. But I think, so part of it is, what I’m getting at is something I said earlier is the design of governance, how public realm is managed, governed, controlled. I think that’s a big issue, not just how it’s designed, I think. So we have to find different ways of exerting the public interest in those places.
Julian Agyeman: [00:40:45] Thanks Aseem. We’ve got a question from Shmuel Yerushalmi — he’s asking what, according to you, must be the role of the state and municipal authorities in creation of the public spaces in cities and towns? And how, according to you, can public spaces support improvement in social well-being in urban territory?
Aseem Inam: [00:41:07] Wow. And that’s a very good and very big questions. I’ll try to be keep it short and precise. The state — that’s a very interesting idea. I was just talking to a friend of mine. I think we have to start seeing the state in different ways. I think the question also suggests, first of all, there are different levels. There’s the local provincial, state, national, etc., regional. That’s one we have to start differentiating different types of state. But more than anything, this is my experience in practice — and I know many of you probably have this. It’s also about individuals in the state that you can work with and you can create alliances. The state is not monolithic. It’s not homogeneous, it’s not static. So actually, it’s — and I have done that, I know many others have done that much before me — about building bridges, creating alliances again, informally, really coming to some agreements about what’s good. And there are many, many examples in planning and policy of that.
[00:42:01] And in terms of well-being, I think with neoliberalism, it’s not just neoliberalism, that is probably its latest manifestation. But if you study the history, the contemporary history of the state, in many cases it is there to foster the capitalist system. It’s to increase revenue, whether it’s private revenue, tax revenue. And that continues, I know, here in the UK with, you know, austerity budgets for many, many years, last 30 years or so, cities and local municipalities have really been desperate to attract private investment. So the goal becomes more private investment rather than public benefit. And I think the finances also matter, just like in previous cases, we have to understand how it’s funded. So it is an uphill battle. But as some of the examples which are very quickly showed you, there are many examples we find around the world where those are being challenged and alternative practices are being put forth.
Julian Agyeman: [00:43:03] Great. Thanks. We have a question from John Furman. What are some practical action steps community-based groups can do to democratize urban neighborhoods? I’m thinking community land trusts, which of course you’ve mentioned, housing co-ops, worker co-ops, more public parks and public squares. What are strategies we can use to demand a more equitable city? And John is from Utica in New York State.
Aseem Inam: [00:43:30] Thank you, John. Thank you for joining us. Great to have you. All the things you just mentioned, there are different modes that different kinds of community land trusts there. It’s very interesting, community land trusts are now starting all over the world, but they started from the US in the 1960s out of the civil rights movement, taking on — it’s not easy to do. In fact, I happen to be — I was just recently elected to the board of a community land trust where I live, and it’s very interesting to see it from the inside and kind of doing it. That is one way of protecting land. But cooperatives, you mentioned, again, those are all over the world, different types of cooperatives.
[00:44:09] I think the answer is partially in your question, which is forms of collective action. But as you know, just because it’s a community group doesn’t mean the community group is democratic. So democracy is an ongoing process of questioning, challenging etc. I mean, the two of the philosophies that I’ve been reading lately, I know there’s some sort of misunderstandings about anarchism, but the philosophy of anarchism is quite beautiful, actually. And there’s some wonderful people that, in fact, was involved in this project, the anarchist geographer by the name of Simon Springer. And we had wonderful conversations. He was talking about direct action, mutual aid, things like that that people can do and have been doing. So yes, I agree, there are many different forms of doing that. But it does require being assertive, it does require some sacrifice, it does require time. That’s the other thing — some of these issues take years, if not decades or more to accomplish. So I think we have to be quite patient.
Julian Agyeman: [00:45:13] Chris Edmonds says, speaking of anarchism, can you speak to the importance of illegal and illegitimate actions in co-designing the public realm? And Chris is from Brooklyn.
Aseem Inam: [00:45:26] Thank you for that question, Chris. So yeah, when I talk about informality, that is true. It’s a little — it’s a gray area. As you know, life is not black and white. Life lives in the gray, really. I’ll start with the extreme. Absolutely, in the name of informality, there are criminal actions, there are sort of oppression, exploitation. Absolutely. There’s sort of you know, the mafia is informal, but at the same time, you have to be careful to see what is defined as legal or illegal. I mean, if, you know, for a long time slavery was legal in the US and other countries, that was legitimate. Denying women their rights and the right to vote was legal.
[00:46:19] So I think we have to be a little careful how we define those activities and who’s doing the defining. And that’s where, I think, what I talked about earlier, the power structure, who’s defining what is allowed, what is not allowed. We have to be a little careful of that. A very concrete example in urbanism that I’ll give you. In many American cities, it was actually illegal until recently to do mixed-use development. It was illegal to do high-density development. It was illegal to do walkable development. Fortunately, that’s changing. So sometimes one has to challenge what is legal and illegal and examine that more carefully.
Julian Agyeman: [00:47:01] Thanks, Aseem. Mahender asks — a very impressive talk at a theoretical level and then says, I’m sorry, but I didn’t see any examples where it was described how public space was created by, quote-unquote community action. Could you share such examples of public-based processes used to achieve specific outcomes?
Aseem Inam: [00:47:23] Yeah. Thank you for that. Due to limitations of time, obviously I was summarizing, I thought I’d try to touch very quickly on the three examples I gave, [00:47:34] Hasirui Daila, which [00:47:35] creating these waste treatment centers, which is creating these murals in public space. Project 90 by 2030, where the forum, the community meeting, the form of protest forms of occupying the public realm and expressing. The [00:47:57] Rujak center, [00:47:58] which is fighting really very public kind of things like evictions.
[00:48:03] I want to — I don’t know if this was your question, I might have misunderstood. One of the things we try to really avoid — because again, if you saw half the network was scholars, half was practitioners, very real world practical stuff, but we all resisted coming up with formulas that, oh, if you do these three things, you’ll have it. What we saw was six different ways of acting. Some of our colleagues, practitioners have landed in jail for their protests and their very legitimate concerns. And I’m sorry to make this about selling the book, but we do have certain principles you can look at in the concluding chapter about how this notion of co-design public works and in what ways. So I would say it’s more about principles which are interpreted according to the context rather than best practices.
Julian Agyeman: [00:48:55] Great, thanks. We’ve got a question from David Farnsworth. Many of the spaces within and around New urban development in the UK are privatized so that the public don’t have free access or are inhibited by surveillance and regulations. So the city has less and less public space and there is less and less space for public protest or demonstration. I think, David, is that that’s more of a statement. Is there any comment you’d like to make on that? The privatization of public space?
David Farnsworth: [00:49:29] No, thank you. It’s just an observation really, arising from listening to a very good talk.
Aseem Inam: [00:49:36] Thank you. David, If I may add quickly to your observation. I think it talks about when I was showing that image of Madrid, one of the things I said was co-designing publics is not easy. It’s far from smooth. It creates friction amongst different people. And part of it, I think, sort of the hard-nosed way, we also have to do some self-reflection. So what you’re talking about, David, is very often also — people are also complicit in that. I mean, as you know, there are groups of people who want CCTV, who want people to be excluded. And I think we have to examine that as well. Sometimes the public is also complicit in these kinds of issues.
Julian Agyeman: [00:50:18] Okay. I’m going to ask you a question — moderator prerogative here. Many of the people on this call are students and they’re going into their first jobs. Your ideas here are disruptive of the status quo. How do students who are fired up from our departments go into their first jobs at a lowly level and start to grow your ideas so that they can make change in their workplace?
Aseem Inam: [00:50:57] That’s an excellent question because it’s close to my heart. I also teach. I love teaching. I love to see my students do well. And I’m happy to say a lot of them ddo very well, not just in the conventional sense of sense of financial success, but they are real troublemakers in a very constructive way. So two things I would suggest. One is look for openings, again, look for the informal look for, you know, beyond the rules and regulations and procedures and kind of by the book things. And you’ll see a lot of — there is actually a lot of room for negotiation, for conversations, for slightly modifying things. That’s one.
[00:51:35] The other thing, unfortunately, this is being recorded, so I’ll be on the record, that’s okay, is what I call subversive practice. And I won’t give an example because then I’ll be on the record of a project I did where I deployed subversive practice quite successfully by accident. I don’t want to take too much credit, but I kept doing it. And now as a result, there’s a city in the US which I shall not name that refused to have an affordable housing policy, but now has an affordable housing policy because of this kind of persistent, subversive practice. So look for how you can practice in subversive ways. I’ll leave it there and think it’s for you to interpret what that means.
[00:52:18] Of course, not illegal, but again, if you see the informal, the space of negotiation, the space of conversation, the gray area, rather than just the clear cut, black or white, you will actually see a lot of openings. And then quite soon, actually, I think students actually very bright. They’re constantly underestimated. Young people are very bright, very motivated. Like you said, if you look for opportunities for injecting certain ways of doing things, you will find a theme.
Julian Agyeman: [00:52:47] Aseem, that’s a great way to wrap this up. And, you know, I’ve known you for a long time. And, you know, to quote a US lawmaker, Aseem, keep making good trouble.
Aseem Inam: [00:53:02] Thank you, Julian. My Pleasure.
Julian Agyeman: [00:53:03] And Robert Raymond’s response to that last question is— unionize. So thanks for that, Robert. Can we give a great warm show of appreciation for Professor Aseem Inam’s excellent presentation. Thank you Aseem.
Aseem Inam: [00:53:22] Thank you. Thank you very much. Really enjoyed it.
Julian Agyeman: [00:53:24] And you bring to to a great end a fantastic semester of Cities@Tufts presentations. Please look out in your email for the full semester roster. We’ll be having another six great speakers and thanks for supporting Cities@Tufts on behalf of Shareable, Tufts, the Kresge Foundation, and the Barr Foundation. And can I just say that it’s Caitlin McLennan’s last appearance — Caitlin is now in Utah. She’s got a job. She’s graduating this year. And so we’ll well, we will try and find somebody, Deandra is obviously our RA at the moment, but we’ll try and find somebody for the next semester. But Caitlin, thanks for all you’ve done and all the best in Utah.
Caitlin McLennan: [00:54:10] Thanks, Julian.
Julian Agyeman: [00:54:11] All right. Thanks, everybody. Bye.
Tom Llewellyn: [00:54:19] We hope you enjoyed this week’s lecture. You can access the video, transcript, and graphic recordings of Aseem’s presentation on Shareable.net. There’s a direct link in the show notes. And while you’re there, please take some time to get caught up on all of our past lectures and our ever-expanding library of stories, podcasts, how-to guides and other resources.
[00:54:38] As Julian mentioned, this was the final lecture until the fall semester. With that said, we have a new series focused on the imaginal cells of the solidarity economy, which will showcase the myriad ways that solidarity economy practices are providing models and pathways to build a more cooperative, democratic, equitable, and sustainable world — one in which many worlds fit. This series is co-presented by the Resist and Build’s narrative circle, the US Solidarity Economy Network, the New Economy Coalition and Shareable. And the first event, focusing on community ownership, will happen in two weeks on Wednesday, May 17th. Click the link in the show notes to register for a free ticket and if you can’t make it live, we’ll share the audio right here on the Cities@Tufts Podcast.
[00:55:24] Cities@Tufts is produced by Tufts University and Sharable with support from the Kresge, Barr, and Shift foundations. Lectures are moderated by Professor Julian Agyeman and organized in partnership with research assistants Caitlin McLennan and Deandra Boyle. “Light Without Dark” by Cultivate Beets is our theme song, Roame Jasmine is our co-producer, Robert Raymond is our audio editor, additional operations, funding and communication support are provided by Allison Huff, Bobby Jones and Dean Garcia, Anke Dregnet illustrated the graphic recording, the original portrait of today’s speaker was created by Caitlin McLennan, and the series is produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn. Please hit, subscribe and leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts and share it with others so this knowledge can reach people outside of our collective bubbles. That’s it for this week’s show. Here’s a final thought:
Aseem Inam: [00:56:10] The vast potential of the public realm lies in its capacity to act as a catalyst for interactively and collaboratively generating hope by deepening understanding, for building solidarity, for creating dreams, and for pursuing transformative actions.