ULI Toronto News

2015 Fall Symposium Coverage: Dr. Aseem Inam on Transforming Cities and Transforming Urbanism

by Fabienne Chan, Urbanation
Image courtesy of Patrick Moher
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This post is part of a series covering ULI Toronto’s Fall Symposium which took place November 2nd and 3rd at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The inaugural symposium, Emerging Trends and City Building, saw hundreds of industry professionals gather to be a part of the ongoing dialogue on the future of urban development.

The last keynote speaker at the Urban Land Institute’s Toronto Fall Symposium closed the event on a philosophical note, beginning his talk with a question that brought the audience back to basics: “What is urban design?”.

Dr. Aseem Inam, the Director of TRULAB and an Associate Professor of Urbanism at Parsons New School for Design, pointed the audience to a 2011 Planning magazine article titled “A Short Guide to 60 of the Newest Urbanisms (And There Could Be More).” He began listing buzzwords — “tactical urbanism, strategic urbanism, ecological urbanism, new urbanism” — that the urban community had been furiously adopting in recent years, but had often used carelessly to the point of rendering the words meaningless.

In a nod to ULI Toronto’s Executive Director Richard Joy, Dr. Inam quoted Joy’s blog post published in the lead-up to the symposium: “Every so often a city region needs a really big conversation. I would like us to deepen that conversation.” When it comes to transforming (more ambitious than just building) cities, the most powerful tool is not infrastructure, design, or money; the most powerful single tool is our mind. Our collective minds have the power to change not just the physical, but the social disposition of cities — from the fine-grained urbanisms of place-making between steel skyscrapers, to actions after “council adjourned” and before “call to order”, and to informal micro-collaborations between neighbours down the street from one another. Changing the narrative to one with more hope and optimism, Dr. Inam challenged us to think “what can urbanism be?”

He noted three fundamental shifts in thinking and practicing urbanism since the 80s, specifically urbanism that was:

  1. Beyond intentions: consequences of design

Bringing up his work on the Big Dig in Boston, Dr. Inam said that people typically viewed it in one of two ways: a highly successful urban revitalization project that reduced congestion and reconnected the urban fabric; or an expensive government project with cost overruns tagged at $40.6 billion instead of the initially announced $2.6 billion. The third less talked-about narrative addressed “now that it’s done, how can we make it worthwhile?” and directed focus on the unintended consequences of projects. In this case, residual construction material was the unintended consequence of the Big Dig, which was used to construct recycled houses. How does an externality such as this, which was beyond the initial scope of the Big Dig, fit into standardized cost-benefit analyses for projects?

  1. Beyond practice: urbanism as creative political act

Urbanism does not only involve formal political institutions and dynamics — we must engage with the everyday politics of the city. We must find who has the power to actually shape cities and understand how that power is wielded. With optimism and passion, Dr. Inam proclaimed that how we revolutionize urbanism as a creative political act is by practicing temporary anarchy. And this is a good thing.

  1. Beyond objects: city as flux

As the idiom “the only constant is change” goes, Dr. Inam emphasized that disequilibrium is normal and that we must leverage it to create fundamental change. Citing a pluralist philosopher, he said that “What really exists is not things made but things in the making… Once made, they are dead, and an infinite number of alternative conceptual decompositions can be used in defining them.” Urban change is accomplished by translating powerful ideas into strategic action. Emphasis on time is essential. In this sense, urbanism is an ongoing verb rather than a definitive noun — it is the act of planning and the becoming of these ideas and actions that we must focus on, not the end result.

In a sudden change of pace, Dr. Inam revealed that he was also an improv comedian and a big fan of Second City. In fact, he often incorporated improv comedy into his research design methodology. Elements of improv — horizontal teams, less hierarchical structures, on-the-spot creativity — proved valuable for his city-building studios, where groups were challenged with “What-If” scenarios. The intersectionality of his work was truly fascinating.

Dr. Inam closed the symposium by challenging us to not stop the big conversations that we need to be having once we returned to our offices, but rather, break down what we as urbanists have learned so far and critically seek unconventional ways to build better cities and practice urbanism. We, at the Urban Land Institute, reiterate his challenge to build a better city and pose his question to you: what can urbanism be?

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