Debates about urban sustainability tend to focus on improving the built environment – making it greener, more efficient, less energy intensive. However, as both urban populations and the challenges of making liveable cities grow, a radical shift is needed. Much more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding the social life of cities – how government, public agencies and urban planners can design spaces, but more importantly, services to help neighbourhoods flourish socially.
Unraveling what makes a place work means understanding and examining the particular social life of that community and the multitude of influences – past and present – that shape it. What is the history of a neighbourhood? Is its story one of growth or decline? What is its spatial relationship to the rest of the city? How is a place understood and defined by its residents, and in relation to neighbouring places? Is it integrated? Segregated? Socially excluded? Politically engaged? What is its reputation today and in the past? What are the aspirations of current residents? Who is likely to live there in the future and what will they need? (Emphasis added.)
That is precisely why jumping into actions like alcohol impact zones, community renewal areas, pedestrian interference statues, meetings about public process, blog posts about planning and collaboration are all misplaced. We haven’t yet answered basic questions about how cities and communities work from a social perspective. Until we do, we’ll continue to spin our collective wheels. If Olympia is to transcend these problems, we’ll need to answer these kinds of questions first. I argue that this collective action will not occur from the city council down, it will only happen from the citizen-level upward. What is your part and how is that going?