Cities@Tufts Setha Low

Editor’s Note:

Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special eight-session 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 The Kresge Foundation.

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Below is the transcript from the second session “From Spatializing Culture to Social Justice and Public Space: A Journey from Research to Action” with Setha Low. Learn more about her work with the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York by visiting:

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Julian Agyeman: Welcome to the Cities@Tufts Colloquium, along with our partners Shareable and the Kresge Foundation. I’m Julian Agyeman and together with my research assistants, Meghan Tenhoff and Perri Sheinbaum, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning, and sustainability issues. Today, we are delighted to welcome Setha Low to be our Wednesday colloquium speaker.

Dr. Low is currently distinguished professor of environmental psychology, geography, anthropology and women’s studies — that’s a lot. And she’s Director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, where she teaches courses and trains PhD students in the anthropology of space and place, urban anthropology, culture and the environment, and cultural studies in historic preservation. She’s been awarded the Getty Fellowship, an NEH Fellowship, a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, and a Guggenheim for her research on public space in Latin America and in the United States.

She’s widely published and internationally recognized and translated for her award-winning books on public space and cultural diversity. Her most recent publications are, “Spatializing Culture: The ethnography of space and place,” in 2017, “The Anthropology of the City,” in 2019, and “Spaces of Security,” in 2019 as well. Her today is “From Spatializing Culture to Social Justice in Public Space.” Setha, a Zoom-tastic welcome to Cities@Tufts Colloquium.

Setha Low: From Spatializing Culture to Social Justice and Public Space: A Journey from Research to Action (presentation)

Setha Low: Thank you so much, Julian. Thank you, Megan and everyone else for being here, though you will learn as I talk and I don’t love Zoom talks. I don’t get to see all of you while I talk, but here I am. And first I want to share with you that I am on the Shinnecock Nation’s land and they have graciously allowed me to share this land with them. Those of you who do not know about the Shinnecock tribe’s struggles for recognition out here on the East End should maybe bring it up to date that there has been a lot of activism here and, in solidarity with Jeremy Dennis and other artists that we’ve been trying to do collaborative projects in art to bring more attention to the fact that we are graciously allowed to share this land. And it’s with that, welcome to all of you.

I also wanted to say that I have been inspired by your leader, Julian, in this talk, in that he has gotten into some wonderful talks for me. And what he has been able to do is really integrate his body of work, his career of work, into where he is now. And this is my attempt to do it. And I hope that I can do it in a minimal amount of time. But I’m going to start by taking you on a journey towards justice through some of the work that I’ve done as a scholar to the book I’m currently writing, which is, “Why Public Space Matters,” and then to the meat of the subject, which is, how we can, in fact, create a framework for understanding and planning, evaluating and actively moving towards social justice in public space.

So the journey for me really starts in Costa Rica, in Latin America, where I spent about 15 years doing research, trying to develop a multidisciplinary method for the study of space. Anthropologists have ethnography that’s trying to bring together planning methods, architecture methods, environmental psychology methods, and put them together so we could have a fuller, more robust understanding of public space in general. And during that project, I learned something about co-production and the co-construction of space. I also became — the evidence began to show how vulnerable and fragile any social ecology is in public space. And that when Parque Central, one of the main places that I worked on, the central plaza of San Jose, was redesigned to clean it up, it resulted in the exclusion of users. And more recently, Plaza de la Cultura, they’ve done the same thing, they took out all the benches and all of its diversity disappeared, which is one of the first lessons, I think, about the relationship between the design of public space and social justice.

The next period of fieldwork — and that’s what ethnographers do, they go to the field for a long period of time — in Mexico and Texas and New York. And it was an ethnography of gated communities. I went from looking at really very public places that did have open access like Latin American plazas to the most exclusionary spaces. I was really quite concerned that I should understand spaces that were excluding people intentionally and that where the desire for safety and security really was rationalizing and legitimizing the social exclusionary practices. Gating is a racist and class project. But I also learned a lot about the effect of an architectural infrastructure of exclusionary strategies. By that I mean how walls, gates and guards and so many other aspects of our built environment reproduce the fear of others. And how once we have put that into the landscape, it continues to produce, reproduce and reinforce this fear of others, social segregation, social exclusionary practices.

I should probably say that people often ask me why I do what I do, but it all started that I became very interested in how the middle class and myself included, particularly a white middle class, but it expands whiteness, expands its boundaries, as we know, really designs the world in order to resegregate and reinforce structural racism. It’s one of the structures that I feel, though, Julian, you do a wonderful job of really bringing that to the fore, but I think for social scientists in general, I think they don’t understand how much the built environment is a tool and constantly reproducing, reconstructing, reinforcing racism in the landscape. I always wanted to get to the bottom of it. I wanted to do it by not necessarily just looking at the people who were suffering, but actually the instigators of those programs. I did something, what is called studying up. So, again, a little out of the usual anthropologist mold.

The next project was about 20 years of park studies that I did with the Public Space Research Group and  became very concerned with the developing methods that would work to increase and understand a large park. I worked for the Park Service, we did contracts with the state of New York. We did work with the city of New York. We worked in the city of Philadelphia and we developed a REAP, a Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure, something you could go in very quickly and help parks or plazas or public space or city officials really understand what was going on there from a cultural point of view. And then from that work, we came up with a number of lessons that we really feel undermined cultural diversity in parks. Including the fact that if people aren’t represented in a space and their landscapes and buildings of importance are erased, they will not use the space. And of course, we think a lot about how space is commemorated now with the statues of Confederate generals and how that might create an affective and symbolic gesture of counter representation of injustice. We worked on how access to space is not just whether it’s open with bars, but whether there’s economic and cultural access. And there are lots of barriers to the use of space that people don’t think about when they think about culture and how people want to use it.

Which leads to that you must accommodate cultural differences in your public space, if you want the kind of diversity that we were reaching for, you need to provide safe and adequate territories for all. And even if you do that, you want areas that will circulate, like Prospect Park, where there are many, many ways that you can be in the park. And yet there is a central walkway where people come together. And finally that you need to restore the function, not just the facade, in historic preservation projects.

And finally, this ethnographic work sort of culminated in this book, “Spatializing Culture,” that came out in 2017, where I tried to put together the theories that I’ve been developing about co-production, effective infrastructure, and the methods, the REAP method and the original sort of multidisciplinary ethnography into this book called “Spatializing  Culture,” and be focused on and really made a much clearer statement that by spatializing culture, making it visible, we can uncover hidden strategies of social injustice and exclusion. I also began to work on a community-based tool. As I began to feel more confident in my work, I became really aware that this is work that we all can be doing in our own communities. And people were asking me for some way that they could evaluate their own parks and use these ethnographic methods, be it in Caracas or in Kuala Lumpur or in Nairobi, and developed with my colleagues a toolkit for the ethnographic study of space called TESS (Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space), and that I actually go around and train local communities in using so that they can do their own kind of ethnography.

So, what this background did for me was to give me a sense — I was always asked, like, what is a good public space? From the very beginning, when I was teaching landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. I was always being asked, what is a good public space, Setha, what should I do? And I wouldn’t answer. You know, I’m a social scientist. I wanted empirical evidence. That I really wanted to understand public spaces and I didn’t feel like I knew enough. But after all of that work, collectively, I began to feel that I needed to speak up. I needed to use my voice as well to say what I had found and what I thought good public space was. And I needed to have an answer when people came to me and say, well, what for me is a good public school, what am I trying to design? And of course, our first question is good for whom. So, I mean, after asking good for whom, I still have to come up with something and I will share this with you, again, this is very similar to Julian’s sort of thing, but I am interested in creating public spaces for everyone, for all. And because it provides an opportunity for social interaction, especially among people who would not normally encounter one another. I think that this is the basis of the possibility of democracy, be it cooperative or conflictual. It is the center of problem-solving and it is the basis of a social justice, and inclusive society.

And the next move from this is the book I’m working on now, which is called “Public Space Matters.” And I’ve been trying to explain, so, how is it that we create these inclusive, vital public spaces? And this is a very crude sort of graphic, this is a reiterative process. But what I wanted to point out is what I’m saying and why public space matter is that the good public space, that there are antecedents, of course, of history, demographics, policies, geography, environmental factors. And there are these outcomes that we’re interested in, the health, the resilience, the sustainability, social justice, the one I’m most interested in, creativity, social cohesion. I could put so many lives on the way in which public space contributes to a flourishing society.

But how is it that we get there? And I know that many of us know that it’s contact among people who don’t necessarily know each other, that is really critically important. But I really didn’t feel — or don’t feel, and that’s what I’ve come to, that That’s enough. I think that people can come into contact and still not produce the kind of solidarity, resilience, the kinds of things that we’re really talking about and wanting to promote in public space. That it takes two more elements. And that’s what this most recent work is about. One is public culture, and the second is a particular kind of affective atmosphere. And that we need contact, public culture and certain kinds of affective atmospheres in order to get to the sustainability and social justice that we argue is an outcome of socially just public space.

So, just a moment to say just a tiny bit about contact, which means connections, circulation, communication. This is a parade, a festival in Kerala in the south of India. But the important thing is that we have 60 years now, I think it is, Julian, 60 years of evidence, that inter-group contact is an agent of liberalization, of people reducing prejudice, promoting social harmony. You don’t even have to talk to one another. Even that can improve flexible thinking, creativity, problem solving. Contact, in and of itself, is a liberalizing agent and it shapes human cognition. And contact is good for a lot more than we’ve ever recognized. And it’s little by little becoming a central theory of human psychology. So it’s not a surprise that contact is important. I mean, we’re right about that. But there is more, I would argue, than contact. Because contact can occur and not become anything. And that’s where public culture, I think, comes into play,

I mean, public spaces — this is my plaza central that I was talking about before, are symbols of civic life. They’re forums for discussion. That’s where a recognition occurs and information circulates. It’s where the inclusion of counter publics can occur and can, in fact, work towards the expansion of the public sphere. So public culture, I’m arguing, is this dynamic negotiation of beliefs and practices that happen when people come into contact but create norms of open access and response. And these negotiations involve conflict, fights, contestation and all kinds of race, class and gender struggle. But they also include community building, collaboration and the social construction of meaning. Public culture is socially produced, but it mediates, I would argue, the relationship between public space and the public sphere. By that I mean it mediates how public space, in fact, influences the entire sort of political dimension and the communication and circulation of ideas in society, the public sphere, as we talk about.

And there’s one more piece, this I have less worked out, but I’ve recently added it based on Anna Barker’s work and some work by Ben Anderson that I’m quite familiar with. I mean, I talk about affective atmosphere and spatializing culture, but I hadn’t talked about its importance in public space. And what I mean is the ambience, the emotional tone, the sound and smell, what people say about a space, but particularly events taking place. You imagine being in the Bronx of New York, in the Yankee’s Stadium and the Yankees win, versus the Yankees lose. Think about the nature of social interaction that occurs in those two situations. When they win, everyone’s high fiving, everybody’s honking their horns. People freely talk to one another, maybe even hug each other, in some cases, maybe not during Covid. But there is a certain sense of atmosphere and freedom that pervades the space and makes social interaction and the possibility of public culture more possible. Versus when they lose where everyone’s quiet and nobody talks to each other. Everyone is disappointed.

So when I guess I’m arguing is, during 9/11, there was some very negative affective of atmosphere. But in public spaces, when people came together, they could produce an atmosphere of care. So, I think we need to be thinking about affect as well. And here is and a Anna Barker, fields of affective atmospheres create conviviality. This is a term that they use a lot more in Europe. This notion of feeling connected, kind of a mutual affinity to place, and promotes indifference to difference. She feels that the affective atmosphere can make a difference. When people come together, that difference becomes less important. And of course, Ben Anderson has always been talking about aspects of atmosphere and he sees it as a part of the formation of of subjectivities.

So that’s kind of my theory of how we get to public space and why it matters. But it still brings me back to my initial question, which I haven’t answered, which is, what is good public space? And I would say good public space outcomes, however we want to define it, equals just public space. And it still brings me back to the question that I am trying to answer, is, how can we create this just an inclusive space? What criteria should we use to evaluate it? How can we improve the spaces we have and that we need to develop a framework? And very quickly, I would like to show you this framework and talk about some of the details.

So I did start with just city models. I’m not going to talk about this, but certainly, Susan Fainstein’s work on the just city, and Ruth Fincher and [00:19:11] Kirk Iveson [00:19:11] and Peter Marcuse have talked about the just city. The problem with the discussions of just city, it’s not that they don’t work, it’s that they don’t work enough when I go down to the scale of public space, I hope this is clear. There is a normative goal, and I want normative goals, I want something we’re reaching for that’s value laden. And it works — these ideas work very well at the city scale. But one, Feinstein’s only talking about distributive justice, and two again, the scale doesn’t work when we want to talk about specific public spaces, if you want to look at the public space in your neighborhood. So I began to pull from [00:19:51] Rawles [00:19:52] and Iris Young, and [00:19:54] Honneth trying to [00:19:55] think about comparative evaluation, social Values, notions of recognition and participatory Equality, avoidance of humiliation and disrespect, and of course, also reading the work of David Harvey and Ed Soja who are talking about spatial justice and bringing us to more territorial understandings of what the just city would be. I love this quote from Soja, which is that “unjust geographies are the way that people experience the negative effects of an unjust society.” So I feel like if we start with a just public space and we are in fact at least feeding back not the same old same old social segregation, social exclusionary.

But none of these models took me far enough. And so I began to work at Work Psychology and where there is a focus on what is fair in an organizational setting. And in their work, they found that you can’t just look at distributional justice to understand an organization or an organizational culture. But you need to think about procedural justice, interactional justice, informational justice. And they found, by this huge meta analysis, that such attributes as trust, helping, courtesy, positive effects are outcomes of these kinds of justice attributes. And then to finish my framework, I went back to my ethnographies, and the work that I previously looked at, and I included two additional elements that are not in the work psychology or the more psychological organizational framework, recognition of difference and an ethic of care and repair. The ethic of care and repair that came from my many students and being involved in Occupy Wall Street. And care and repair, as you all know, is very heavily very prominent in the environmental justice field. Literature is the key piece.

And so I developed this framework. These are the elements of a framework that I’m arguing we can use to both evaluate public space, but we can also use it to produce more socially just spaces. I really started with evaluation, looking at the spaces that are there and my examples will give you some idea. So distributive justice, which considers how wealth rewards, benefits and burdens should be distributed to achieve a just city. And here we have the Bronx. This is at the site specific level. Remember, I wanted a framework we could use at the site level, not just the city level. This is what I mean by site level, a deteriorating playground in the Bronx and a well maintained Central Park in Manhattan. — an unequal appropriation of money, that’s distributive justice. But distributive justice and a citywide center is, this is ambulatory vendors demonstrating for access to public space to make a living in Argentina, where they make up 60 percent of the informal economy of Argentina and were banned from public spaces. So this is a city wide protest. Distributive justice means that people should have places to work. And this is the restaurants in Yangon in Myanmar where they are periodically cleared off by the police. So distributive justice isn’t just the deterioration in equality of having public spaces, but also in having the right to work throughout the city.

Procedural justice takes its form from court systems. That it is the procedure of the decision making, not just the decision that is important in perceived justice. And I don’t have time to go — I definitely don’t have time to go through this example. But this is a site-specific example in the mission district in San Francisco, where youth of color, particularly Latino youth, had used a soccer field for, I don’t know, forty years. And the city came in and reseeded it and renovated and then suddenly, without the youth, no input, all kinds of rules that it suddenly cost $27 to use the space. And one day they went for a drop-in game of soccer, and then in Dropbox suits, the company of Dropbox were there and telling the kids they could no longer play there. This was a lack of procedural justice. The youth who had been using it, that community had no voice and there was a protest and they now have access. But the idea of procedural justice is always one in which the local neighborhood or local inhabitants don’t have any voice in changing the procedures. And this is here illustrating the street and sidewalk appropriation in San Francisco by Google buses and by all the tech companies who are taking over San Francisco, putting bikes on the sidewalks, having their private buses pick them up so public bus lanes aren’t there, and literally taking the neighborhood away from people without any procedure of how streets should be managed and how sidewalks managed and for whom those sidewalks and street should be for.

Now interactional justice takes two forms. Earlier in my work, I think the first time I wrote about this was just one. But I think it’s worth thinking about interpersonal justice. This is Costa Rica up here on the top. These are Nicaraguans who are immigrants. They are treated incredibly badly and these are police disrupting them when they are just sitting around having a nice Sunday in the park. And down at the bottom is a picture from Long Island where I am at this point. And these are Latino workers hoping to find work who are constantly harassed for being on the sidewalk. And that’s interpersonal justice, that they are not treated in a fair way by the authorities or by the rules. And this is about the citywide level, these are NYU students protesting racial profiling. And the bottom is a cartoon from Arizona about stopping a visitor and checking his color to see if he belongs in the national park.

But there is also informational justice. In other words, not everyone gets the same information, much less is it truthful. This example from Prospect Park where they put up a snow fence that split Prospect Park in half and on the one side of the park, the sort of white, professional Park Slopers really kind of knew it was for an ecological renovation of the park. However, the other side of the park, which happens to be heavily Caribbean American, African-American, in general poor and not its gentrified, saw those snow fences as keeping them out. And as you can see, the park managers had never really spoken and had not given adequate information about why this area was being closed. Other kinds of informational justice, here is a statue actually really near where I live in Prospect Park that identifies Lafayette, but the person that he is with is not. And here is informational justice city-wide, informational justice is communication should be truthful, justified, adequate. Think of all the importance of that right now for informational justice. We don’t always have information, justice, and certainly we know neighborhoods do not sometimes have. And here is the UN plaza with all the people and no eating allowed. And all the signs are only English. That is informational injustice.

Recognition of difference, I think, is something that Julian talks a lot [about], so I know you’re all quite familiar. But I think one of the things we must always keep in mind is that there are assumptions underlying behavioral norms that accrue to one cultural group, usually white middle class, again in this expanded notion. And those behavioral norms undermine other norms and ways of being, other people who are in public space, who may, in fact, have different norms and different ways of being. And so the pursuit of equality involves working against cultural patterns that systematically deprecate some categories of people and the qualities associated with them — this is from Nancy Fraser. But I would even say even not the categories of people and the qualities, but the behaviors as well.
And recognition of differences — these are young men sparring up in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The police came and did not again recognize that sparring is part of these young men’s form of play. I don’t have time to go into other examples, but recognition of difference also is a citywide phenomenon. Groups can feel that their values and needs to be taken into account, but they’re very often overlooked. And here we have Lewinsky Park in Tel Aviv, where Sudanese immigrants are living or spending the day because they’re not allowed to work or be with their families in state-sponsored shelters, you may know about this problem. And here they are in public space. Their differences are not recognized, their needs are not recognized. And this is a cartonero in Chile, cartoneros are those who pick up the trash and they are losing access to public spaces where they collect trash. That’s the basis of their livelihood. I want you to see that — I constantly keep bringing up work because we think of public spaces and streets and whatever only as places of leisure, but they are also places of work and provide the livelihood for so many people.
And the last dimension of my model is the ethic of care and repair. I draw from Toronto’s philosophy of democracy, that once a democratic society makes a commitment to it, the equality of its members, then the ways in which the inequalities of care affect different citizens capacities to be equal has to be a central part of society’s political tasks. Occupy Wall Street, of which I was involved in, but even more, all my students were involved in and organized, was based on a politics of care, ensuring that everyone had a safe place to sleep, access to communication technology, collectively produced and serviced meals. And it really struck me as incredibly important. Let me not also say that the ethic of care and repair heavily draws upon environmental justice and injustice and from feminist theory. But site-specific on public spaces here’s Costa Rica, people cleaning up, allowing one another to sleep, making it a safe space for all, making sure that the place is a place of kindness and, as Cornell West would say, love. But caring also contributes to a socially just atmosphere. Here we have an open university in New York City and here we have volunteers building barriers to protect the beach in the Rockaways post-Sandy.
So I just come to my 30 minutes. I won’t get to my example maybe. But let’s just take a moment and come back together and say, well, why is Setha doing this? Because what this allows me to do — and I guess I will show you for just a moment, it allows me to ask a set of questions that are based on my own work, that I know get to the basis of what makes just and inclusive public space. But that I can actually look at empirically since I am a researcher and say to someone, this is not just or this won’t produce the kind of just space. And, you know, I missed the slide. There’s a slide in there that, for me, what makes a good space is that it’s just. So distributive justice. How can public space be distributed fairly? And what does that look like? How can we include community members in our procedures of allocation and use, interactional? How can we make sure that there are improved social relations — that’s so important, and use conflict as the beginning of a co-production process? How can we make sure communications are truthful and adequate? How can we create a social environment of respect and dignity, recognition of difference? How do we expand our norms of behavior to accommodate the diversity of behaviors and users, an ethic of care? How can we promote more prosocial behavior of care of others, repair of the environment, and stop destroying, which I didn’t get to talk about today, care relations that might already exist.
So that’s the end I was going to show you Tompkins Square Park. It’s a struggle, but, and I was asked why residents don’t want the fences to be lowered. They don’t want the fences to be lowered. And dozens of people came to a meeting. I did a test of the toolkit and found multiple factors that were creating this sense of fear, all these senses of fear, bathroom for drugs, danger at night, homeless population, getting dinner at one quarter, a lot of traffic, large rat population, all these problems in original design.
So I could identify what was creating this affective atmosphere. There we go, an affective atmosphere and not allowing a public culture to develop that was successful and inclusive in Tompkins Park. But more importantly, I then and I don’t have time to go through it, but I’ll leave the slide up if you want for a moment, doing a social justice analysis of the park allowed me to tell the park what they should be doing that was promoting both an unjust environment that was fearful and that did not allow a kind of positive public culture to evolve. I mean, there was a lack of distributional rat control, I mean, only certain park communities got rat control. There is no homeless housing. People were not involved in procedures of decision-making. There’s a lack of personal injustice between users. In fact, I even promoted a kind of bringing users together.

There was a lack of informational justice about who people were. And what the motives were of city council because of previous gentrification, on and on and on. That one I found was in testing this, that you could use a social justice analysis to say to the city or to say to the parks department, these are the things that we really need to do. You can’t just not take down the fence and put up a fence in Tompkins Square Park. You have to address the basis of social justice there and then we can change the fence. Thank you.

Setha Low: From Spatializing Culture to Social Justice and Public Space: A Journey from Research to Action (discussion)

Julian Agyeman: We have got a lot of questions for you. So, Aída asks, she’s curious about learning more about procedural justice. She says, is it really a type of justice if the procedure has to occur in order to achieve the justice?

Setha Low: I don’t actually know how to answer you. That’s a really good question. I guess what I’m saying that often the communities aren’t involved in the decision making — or the individuals. And there are decisions, Aída, that are being made. Justice isn’t a kind of static thing. What procedural justice is really arguing, as we all know through participatory planning and design, that without the participation of everyone, it’s never really going to be just because people aren’t given voice. Does that make sense? So there is, no for me, justice is even produced by that discussion. You know that the whole notion of participation, the whole notion that we share and that we co-produce, I think that the addition of procedural justice. I have to say to you that procedural justice can be used in the wrong way. In other words, you could have a really great procedure and still not a very fair distribution. That’s part of why I have so many pieces to my puzzle. Does that make sense? It doesn’t always work. These are different pieces that have to come together.

Julian Agyeman: Great, thanks Setha. So, Lily Linke asks you, she says white supremacy has created a system of “safety” in public parks that relies on borders, constraints on acceptable behavior, and policing both by actual police and by white people who act like barbecue Becky. What would safety look like in a truly just public space? How would safety be performed through the physical infrastructure and cultural norms?

Setha Low: It’s a great question. Do we know exactly? Certainly we have been anesthetized with this. I would call it white public space. So, what would just public space really look like? I mean, I think we have some glimpses of that. Prospect Park is actually more just than Central Park. I think it would be very diverse. I think it would have more community involvement. Plazas self-regulate pretty well when they’re not messed with. I mean, I don’t know, do you have any — I want to turn to you. Can you think of a just public space and what it would look like? I think it’s going to look very different. I have a talk where I talk about community policing, everything being free, probably there’s more programming. You know, you can’t pretend it’s going to happen by magic. Often you will have to have different kinds of programming, things that will draw people together, maybe some kinds of problem-solving. I mean, that’s a huge question, but isn’t that what we’re reaching for?

Julian Agyeman: Setha, I think, you know, I mean, you mentioned co-production so many times. I think if we co-designed, co-managed, and co-programmed public spaces with communities, that might change the dynamic of those spaces. Do you want to say a little bit about that because I was going to —

Yeah but — I agree. I don’t disagree. We’re on the same page about this. Where we’ve never had time to discuss. I have another presentation that I also thought of giving in where I was talking about, what are really the threats? I mean, the threats are everybody wants to be secure. Everyone, I want you to know the white middle class is not the only group that wants to be secure. You go interview anywhere in the world, I don’t care where I go, people want to be safe and secure, but they mean different things by it and it can be achieved in very different ways. So I think that we’re also confronting pressures of certain ways and modes of design that we haven’t even opened up the capacity to imagine different kinds of safety and security that is formed through social relations rather than formed through policing. I don’t think we’ve found ways of funding parks that are through privatization. I think that right now with Covid, we have exaggerated the separation and the fear of others and the stigmatizing and stereotyping. Think of people who wear masks or don’t have masks. I think it’s become really complicated, that co-production in and of itself, Julian, may help, it’s a step. But I think we have to also confront some of the urban dynamics of development that are already occurring that threaten that very process. That process could still be undermined by the policies of private property or the policies of policing or the mystique of security that I’ve written about. I mean, it’s very seductive, this idea of safety and security, and there is no one that doesn’t want it. So how do we provide safety and security for all?

Julian Agyeman: Great, great. Another question we have here from Victoria. How different are the dynamics of public space between dense urban areas and suburban areas?

Setha Low: Very different. I mean, very different, and Covid has shown us that in what sense. I would still use the same principles. I mean, I mostly study dense urban areas where this conversation, I think you’re mostly familiar with. But I also have worked a lot in suburban areas, even worked on corporate malls and things like that. And I think that the biggest threat to suburbia is the land distribution, land ownership and the inability of there to be any true public spaces. Suburbia suffers from a kind of limitation of public spaces and a great expansion of private realm because so much of it was planned and so much of it is owned collectively. And collective ownership, which you would think would really work like homeowner’s associations or common interests development.

And this is another topic, I learned it from gated communities. People collectively owning things can create a cooperative that it would be everything you would dream about, but when it’s all one kind of people and it’s run by a corporate board, it’s an even more exclusionary model. Suburbs are built on homogeneity of income, if not of race and class, and built on very rigid gendered models. So public space in the suburbs suffers from all those same constraints and even more so because so much of it is privately developed, also has this additional constraint of this homeowner’s association, this collective ownership of property, which sounds wonderful, but when you study in depth, creates even, you know, it’s people like us. We only want people like us. We want to keep others out. That kind of mentality pervades the suburbs. In fact, the suburbs were built on that. That wasn’t a very clear answer. But you’ve got bits and pieces.

Setha Low: We’ve got a question from MJ B, do you see control of the use of public space as best managed by a group of diverse users? Have you studied any models for managing public space?

Setha Low:  I have not studied any. I do think that there are models evolving. There have been models where conservancies have brought in — I mean, Prospect Park, if the head of it was here, she would argue she has a diverse group in her board. I would argue she has no idea what diversity means by the diversity of her board. I mean, a lot of parks and things have used that. I think that that would help. I’m actually involved in a project, in reviewing a governance project, about what public governance would look like. I really would refer you to Matthew Carmona, who is studying urban governance and has an idea of some kind of public person who is going to do it. And that’s what he thinks will work.

I am skeptical right now about all the models we have. And even remember a group of representatives of the community can, without an open mind and without constantly asking these social justice questions, can get themselves in trouble. I mean, that’s why the social justice questions, even for a group of residents of diverse users, it would certainly improve things. But still, prejudice abounds in all groups and community is very complex and prejudice invades all kinds of things. It isn’t just racial, it’s also class, gendered, abilitied, sexed, etc., etc.

Julian Agyeman: Yeah. So, Kristin Skrabut, our resident anthropologist, tells you ethnographies are historically a long-term embedded research method conducted by a lone ethnographer. Can you speak to how ethnography changes both the process and as a product through the context of the process as you mentioned, REAP and TESS?

Setha Low: Very good question. I could spend a day on it and now I mean, I would add to that to your question. I’m now teaching a course on critical remote ethnography. What about ethnography, that is virtual, is in place. I think that for a PhD. in anthropology, the model of going for a year and studying a place is wonderful. But I think it is not going to be the ethnography of the future if we want ethnography to make a difference in the world. Personally, that’s what I think. I think we need a more engaged model of ethnography or even what some have called the fugitive or protest version of ethnography that will be collective. I think we need to think about ethnography more as a collaboration rather than the sole practitioner. And I have certainly been — don’t think I haven’t gone out there is that sole practitioner. But I think it’s always a collaborative project. I think it’s one in which we need to situate ourselves as individuals in much clear ways.

We know that the injustices of social science against all kinds of people, stereotyping all peoples of color, marginalized, but all kinds of — different abilities, doesn’t work. But I will fight for that REAP, which is always done as a group with community members and a variety of people who are usually quite different, because we often need different languages, that go into an area for a short period of time that work on a snapshot and then it’s given back to the community, is one new kind of engaged model we can use. And then the toolkit, which is even shorter, is given to community members. And maybe these are shortcuts. One could argue that they only give you one moment in time, but I think they will allow the public and the neighborhoods to do their own ethnographic work in a moment in time in which we’re all doing our own auto-ethnography. I mean, we’re all going online, writing about ourselves and places. Isn’t that our own ethnography?

Julian Agyeman: Great point. Setha, I mean, again, I’m going to push you on co-production. Co-produced ethnographies,

Setha Low: Collaborative.

Julian Agyeman:  Collaborative, yeah. University of Sheffield Landscape Design Department in the UK is looking at that with refugee groups, with the various civic groups who are using parks and public spaces — so, it’s called collaborative ethnography,

Setha Low: Beth Rishbein, right? Yes, I’ve contacted her.

Julian Agyeman: That’s right.

Setha Low: And there are books of collaborative ethnography even in the US context. It’s been around for a long time, but the elite academic model has reinforced the lone male out there toughing it out, learning the real truth. I think that there is great skepticism now even that, I mean, John Jackson, if any of you know his work at University of Pennsylvania, was interviewed in my class this week. And John points out, you know, we’re all our own ethnographers. And can we still say that there is such a thing as thick description, that the anthropologist can spend a year and somehow no more or no different or know the deep crevices of another group of people better than they know themselves? I mean, the hubris. An anthropology doesn’t have such a clean history. You know, it’s one of colonization, right? It doesn’t. And it’s one of colonization. So collaborative ethnography or participatory action research or some of these models, though I’ve not always been part of them, I really feel that the future of ethnography will be in some of these methods. And I hope that my tests and the way I use REAP will help to provide some models for working in public spaces more effectively than we’ve been able to.

Julian Agyeman: Right. Well, Setha, thank you so much. This has been expansive, you know, you talk about anthropology, its history not being so illustrious in parts. I remember as an undergraduate, I took a minor in anthropology and it was all about measuring people’s craniums and it was a horrifically racist. But what’s interesting is, like geography, where I come from, we’ve had the best and the worst of our subjects. I mean, geographers are some of the most racist and supremacist individuals, as are anthropologists. But I think with people like yourself, Setha, and Kristin, we are moving into a very, very different, more liberatory anthropology and geography and urban planning. Thanks, everyone, for coming. Next Wednesday, we have Jay Pitter exploring “Invisible Women syndrome.” That’s on March the 10th, please come. Can we give a UEP hands up to Setha, please, for a great presentation.

Setha Low:  Thank you so much.

Julian Agyeman: Thank you.