Over two centuries of carbon-intensive and market-oriented urban developments have led to widespread environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, socio-economic polarization and unhuman relationships amidst affluence, technological advancement and information deluge. As the pace of life accelerates and human communication increasingly conducted through social media and ever-evolving gadgets, it is increasingly difficult for us human beings to be mindful of our very own existence, let alone the more important agenda of nurturing healthy families and building more sustainable communities and societies for human flourishing. Perhaps as we continue to invent new terms to characterise future cities, such as smart, resilient, low-carbon, climate-proof etc., we should get back to two basic and inter-related principles of urban development: people-making and place-making.
How can we make places that also make people? This is a challenge for all urban thinkers! Making green, accessible, comfortable, aesthetically pleasing and sociable places are often deployed as tricks to market high-end residential properties, usually built in localities from where many less well-off residents or people without legal rights to stay have been displaced. In market-dominated contexts, places with increased accessibility and popular public realm often lead to higher rental levels, driving out those who can no longer afford to pay. Internationally applauded projects such as Cheonggye stream (a ‘recovered’ and ‘re-naturalised’ stream under a flyover and a busy road in Seoul) (Lim, Kim, Potter and Bae, 2013) and New York’s Highline (Levere, 2014) can be described as ‘green gentrification’, resulted in rising land value, increased property prices and displacement of original residents.
Place-making that leads to profit-making and the breaking up of communities, social networks and people’s homes and familiar neighbourhoods cannot be ‘people-making’. According to Satir (1972), the family that makes people involves four basic ingredients: self-worth, communication, rules and links to society. It is difficult enough for families in this quick-pace and conflict-ridden society to nourish healthy, joyful and resilient individuals, not to mention the many families who face the threat of being displaced as ‘urbanisation’, redevelopment and gentrification proceed. And imagine the impacts of brutal eviction on the sense of ‘self-worth’ of the displaced families, many with children and adolescents. Research has shown that familiar places and sense of place are particularly important for the well-being of children and the elderly respectively (Ng, 2016a, 2016b).
Is it possible for us to retrofit our cities to embrace people-making and place-making urbanism? Can we build new urban places according to the principles of people-making and place-making, and put these above profit-making and place-marketing? Only when we make places that respect nature and human dignity can we begin to imagine the pathway towards sustainable urban development.
As argued by Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, ‘How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?’ Nature teaches us many invaluable principles for place-making: be material and energy efficient through using low energy processes, developing multi-functional design, recycling all materials and fitting form to function; use life-friendly chemistry through breaking down products into benign constituents, building selectively with a small subset of elements; be locally attuned and responsible through leveraging cyclic processes, using readily available materials and energy; use feedback loops and cultivate cooperative relationships; adapt to changing conditions through incorporating diversity, maintaining integrity through self-renewal, embodying resilience; evolve to survive through replicating strategies that work, integrating the unexpected and reshuffling information; integrate development with growth through self-organising, building from bottom-up and combining modular and nested components.
The place-making model advocated by the Project for Public Space involving accessibility, image and comfort, activities and sociability, is best performed by emulating nature: ecosystems are holistically connected, displaying beauty and magnificence, are full of life, diversity and cooperative associations. If every locality is planned and designed with these biomimicry and place-making principles, the discrepancy of the environmental qualities between well-off and less well-off neighbourhoods will be minimised. Observation of the biomimicry principles will also reduce the likelihood of massive eviction of long established residents to make way for commodified urban spaces as ecological systems evolve through preserving integrity and self-renewal.
If equitable place-making urbanism is difficult to achieve, people-making urbanism is even harder to imagine. People-making urbanism has to be family friendly, that is, family units should be considered as the building blocks of a society. As argued by Morse (1999, p.290), neither the free market nor governments can survive unless people possess the ability to trust, cooperate and self-restrain. How can people develop these qualities? If we follow the ecological model put forward by Bronfenbrenner (1994), families and neighbourhoods directly affect the growth of children. Satir (1972, p.4) argues for the importance of high self-worth, direct, clear, specific and honest communication, flexible, human, appropriate and evolving rules as well as open and hopeful linkages to society for people-making. Hence, families need to be adequately housed with secure tenancy or affordable ownership so that members of these families can nurture their children: to develop a higher sense of self-worth; to practise full communication or dialogue among family members; to collectively define evolving rules as well as to establish an open and operational family system (Satir, 1972).
The family’s immediate neighbourhood and communities are also important venues for people to develop positive human relationships, learn to master the environment, experience personal growth and discover their purposes in life, essential ingredients for people’s psychological well-being (Keyes, 2003, p.299). Similarly, families cooperating with one another in the neighbourhood learn to develop rules to govern co-shared spaces, practise self-restraint and develop trusting relationships. Indeed as argued by Keyes (2003), social acceptance, actualization, contribution, coherence and integration are important ingredients for social well-being.
People-making and place-making urbanism as argued above will be more friendly to local economic activities that aim not only to satisfy one another’s economic needs, but to engender economic transactions that are embedded within wider social relationships, employing more local materials and benefitting more local parties as well as the environment. People-making and place-making urbanism calls for a paradigm shift away from the neoliberal urbanism that stresses profit-maximisation through competition and technological advancement. Instead, we need to aim at the co-flourishing of nature and human beings through an urbanism that respects and learns from nature and recognises the value of the human soul!