Cities around the world experience conflict around religion, language, culture, and ethnicity. Ever since the Tunisian uprising against Ben Ali in 2011, stories of protest around the world seem to amass at an astounding rate. Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Ukraine, and, more recently, Venezuela and Hong Kong, are among many places where people have organized to… Read more »
Cities around the world experience conflict around religion, language, culture, and ethnicity. Ever since the Tunisian uprising against Ben Ali in 2011, stories of protest around the world seem to amass at an astounding rate. Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Ukraine, and, more recently, Venezuela and Hong Kong, are among many places where people have organized to demand greater political and social freedoms. At the same time, news of climate change has spread to become a frequent topic of discussion with the haunting implications of living in what some scientists believe is an Anthropocene age of mass extinctions. The recent failure by the U.S. to join a declaration for a global price on carbon makes the situation more dire. Concerns over the ecological health of our environment should be addressed. As the philosopher Gregory Bateson so eloquently puts it, “[T]he organism which destroys its environment destroys itself.” This adage applies to the social environment as well. Will societies confront more abstract and sometimes imperceptible changes of ecological health when they are dealing with more immediate dilemmas of oppression?
As planners and designers it is crucial to consider landscape architecture’s role in addressing oppression and conflict and to consider how spaces for reconciliation can be created. While many factors are at play, and a multi-pronged approach is needed to ameliorate conflict, physical space provides opportunities to focus on the commonalities between groups and to work toward coexistence. Peace-building through landscape design can take many forms. Some of them have been written about by the landscape architecture community.
Creating Adaptable Spaces
In post-conflict cities, design interventions are needed but must allow for a period of reconciliation that can bring about continued change. In the article “Peace Building in the City: Planning and Design Strategies,” on the website fragilestates.org, Scott A Bollens says, “Urban planning and policy interventions should seek as much flexibility of urban built form as possible, choosing spatial development paths that maximize future options. This is not an integration or assimilation strategy in disguise, but rather seeks to create an urban porosity that allows normal, healthier urban processes to occur if and when individuals and governments are ready.” By designing spaces that allow for continued change, the environment can play a positive role in the peace-building process rather than halting any improvement to, and rebuilding of, the landscape or prematurely determining the outcome of any process.
Using Plazas or Squares as a Staging Ground for Building Peace
When Egyptians protested against Mubarak, they organized in Tahrir (Liberation) Square. In Libya, the revolution gathered in Green Square. In the Ukraine, people came together in Independence Square. Clearly, plazas or squares are often the staging ground for community organization. Public squares are also known as maidans (Persian) and they have been given much thought by designer Anuradha Mathur. “In cities of increasingly circumscribed social, racial, or economic enclaves, the maidan has come to both symbolize and provide neutral territory, a ground where people can gather on a common plane. It is a place that offers freedom without obligation. This ability to accommodate a diverse range of social and political structures makes the maidan an extremely significant space in the city.” Of course, when squares such as Tiananmen are grand in scale they can also symbolize power and their immense claim of space can appear alienating. Thus, landscape architects always need to keep in mind the contexts in which they are working.
Programming Space as Mediator
Another approach toward mediating social tension can be through the programming of space. In Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins University may appear as a privileged enclave in stark contrast to adjacent poverty stricken neighborhoods, the design firm Rogers Partners has worked on an idea to create a campus that would bring people together. The concept is centered on the creation of a K-8 school that will be supported by a community center and library that will serve the neighborhood and become a magnet for reinvestment. The success of such an approach will be shown in time.
South African cities have undergone a period of reconciliation post-apartheid but are still marked by immense violence in some areas. The township of Khayelitsha in the city of Cape Town is one such place. In response, a team of local planners, urban designers, and landscape architects under the auspices of the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) program, has created a new route for pedestrians, including “safe nodes” to enable “safe walking,” a park, a community center, a sports complex, and “learning platforms” with interactive parks. The team behind the VPUU program says, “Since the development of this five-year, $11 million, community-driven project, murders are down 33 percent in Harare, one section of the township, and 22 percent in Khayelitsha overall. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of the area’s 250,000 residents say living conditions have improved,” writes Jared Green in a post titled “In Cape Town, Urban Design Reduces Violence” on The Dirt website.
In the highly contested West Bank of Jerusalem, architect Eyal Weizman sees design used to protect inhabitants from other people. Construction in the landscape is never neutral. Red-roofed Israeili buildings tower over Palestinian settlements and assert a sort of dominance. It is important to keep in mind what Weizman refers to as the elasticity of space. “The power of space is not in its rigid stability but rather in its constant transformations. When you see space as an elastic medium—and I don’t mean anything benign in that elasticity; it’s an incredibly deadly, and kind of controlling, elasticity—you start understanding that construction and destruction are continuous with each other, complementary actions rearranging matter across the terrain. I don’t want to see them as separate kinds of orders. Both are the shaping of space. Force and power are translated into form.”
SWA’s work in landscape architecture, planning, and urban design demonstrates a commitment to the communities it touches, both from an environmental and social standpoint. In cases where these communities face conflict, this work can go beyond building dynamic environments to provide spaces for peace-building.
Photo of Tahrir Square by Jonathan Rashad.