The common theme of the morning is the force, the effect, the primary importance of human actions in shaping the city. Just as urban designers make interventions in the fabric of the city so do the city’s residents’ individual actions become collective interventions. It is just as likely that the sense of a city corner will be changed by the arrival of street vendors as that it might be changed by the millions of dollars invested in creating a subway station at that site.
This portion of the symposium is a reminder of these interventions and the power that these actions have to take on a life of their own. As found space is transformed by human activity. An unused parking lot becomes cordoned off into the patchwork pieces of commercial turf that make up a swap meet. The spontaneous decisions by which citizens make places for themselves within the city is a life force that has its own balancing and regulating mechanism, a human ecology that compensates for and often renders irrelevant the amenities proposed by the architect or urban designer.
When a neighborhood changes demographically the ways in which space is used and the sense of shared, communal life can change drastically, often completely independent of any architectural revisions or renovations in the physical environment. The growth of the average household size can be far more important than new construction as a force that alters the cadence of life and the social geography of a neighborhood. The illegal conversion of garages into housing units is as likely to alter a community’s sense of place as the construction of an officially sanctioned low-income housing project. The positioning of urban amenities, controls over land uses, and the placement of buildings and spaces is only part of what determines the sense of the city. Physical infrastructure exists as a frame for residents’ activity and not just as a set of material artifacts.
People’s actual use of the built environment and the space of the city has an inherently didactic function. Our experience of life is mysterious, multifaceted and ever-changing. Daily life is always the correction, the competition to the efforts of urban designers. The way people live may not necessarily fit the conventions of urban design, but urban design nonetheless needs to take account of the way people live, and the ways that people use space tactically, to circumvent or supplement official strategies.
Not only the use, but even the understanding of a city by its users, their ability to identify with and claim part of the city, is based on a psychological reality that eludes official boundaries, such as zoning. The city is a psychological landscape made up of districts of attraction and repulsion, created by a personal relationship between individuals and the aspects of the city that move and engage them. In the final analysis, the most profoundly moving, the most deeply felt relationships to the city are based on personal history, on chance, and on the construction of a personal trajectory.
I would not propose as the point of this session that urban designers somehow co-opt this kind of individual decision-making, to copy it, to effect a direct correspondence between what happens on the side of the boulevard, the freeway off ramp, the parking lot, and their forecasts for the future direction of the city. Even urban design in the broadest sense is always going to accommodate something less than the sum total of urban life. And indeed, would it not be horrifying if sophisticated urban designers actually could meet every single social, economic, recreational, spiritual, and logistical need of city residents without any direct action on the part of those citizens?