City of Many Faces

In recent publications, local designer-researcher Maartje ter Veen questions the way we use the term "inclusive city" in the public debate. Last year we published one of her articles, and her recent column is just as relevant. It links to the project Generous Groningen which we are also part of. You can read the column in English below. The article was first published in Dutch on the Groningen architecture platform GRAS and landscape magazine NoorderBreedte.

City of many faces

by Maartje Ter Veen

On the window of my office space I drew some lines. Six scales, to be precise, going from 0 – 100, with words written above them. There are strips of stickers hanging next to them, but no further instructions. Even so, every day I have to add new stickers.

All stickers strips are marked, so you can see where each person has placed them. The colourful, dancing pattern on the window is a cheerful sight. I look forward to and am continuously surprised by the enthusiasm with which passersby stick their stickers.

The scales invite people to think about aspects of their identity: Groninger, international, female, male, citymaker, diversity hero. Because each scale has it’s own label, different aspects can overlap. Perhaps you’re super male and super female. And of course it’s perfectly possible to be both international and Groninger.

Serious undertone

Apart from the cheerful effect they have, the scales are more than an exercise in filling in. They are a way to let you think differently about your identity, by letting go of the standard dichotomies, the division into non-overlapping properties: you are male or female. Placing the stickers on the scales allows a more dynamic approach to identity. And that is important in a city where we want to make more space for diversity and different perspectives (read more on that in Dutch).

When we recognise that diversity is a given, we can’t ignore those different perspectives. Because when everyone is diverse, then the understanding of how to make a generous city lies within all of us.

Places where you are at home

To make room for various perspectives on the city, we must first get to know them. I am reminded of a comment from Taiye Selasi: "You are at home where you don't have to explain what you’re doing there." So that doesn’t mean the whole city, but different places within the city. For example, every one of us has own own places where we are "at home". You are your city.

But if you listen well to Taiye Selasi’s story, you’ll also see the uncomfortable flipside. Because if there are places where you’re at home, there are also places where you’re not at home. That’s fine, you don’t have to be at home everywhere. But it becomes problematic if that involves places where you would like to belong.

The average person

In her book Mismatch Kat Holmes proposes that designers in general design for the non-existent ‘average person’. To change that, we need new tools with which we can represent the diversity of people, but we also need to search for ways to let go of the modern tendency to design for the ‘average person’. If we don’t watch out, we’ll keep designing cities for the non-existent, unchanging, universal person; cities in which, if you don’t fit, there’s something wrong with you.

The most important key to more inclusive design, argues Holmes, is to consider who is excluded. Her solution is to work together, but to do that, you need to first find the excluded.

That brings us back to the different cities that we all have in us. Can we share these with each other? The places where we feel at home and where we don’t, but would like to? That last one may seem difficult to answer, but I suspect that for some of us it’s not difficult at all.

Discomfort is part of the deal

A generous city is a dynamic and diverse city. Not a city for everyone, everywhere, or all the time. Not a flattened, smooth city, with no colour. It is a place of surprise and confrontation. That automatically means that no-one can feel at home everywhere. Imperfection and discomfort are part of the deal.

By exposing this invisible discomfort, we get the chance to distribute it more fairly. In this way, we can together make the city which takes responsibility for the boundaries and restrictions which it throws up, unnoticed.

A generous city is not something you can be by yourself.

Now that you’ve read this… will you join in?

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