The inclusive city

In a recent article, local architect and researcher Maartje ter Veen questions the way we use the term "inclusive city" in the public debate. We found ourselves agreeing wholeheartedly, and think ter Veen's article deserves to be read widely. The article was first published in Dutch on the architecture site Archined.

Are you also inspired by the article? Join Maartje's workshop de MAKERIJ - inclusive at the Let's Gro festival on 1 Friday.

The inclusive city - Nomen is omen

Translation by Marian Counihan. For the original article in Dutch, head to Studio Marcha's website.

In a recent conversation about the inclusive city someone casually asked "So who gets this concept?!". Suddenly it dawned on me. Something is going fundamentally wrong in the debate about the inclusive city. The problem lies with the term "inclusive" and, coupled to that, a big shared blind spot.

In the conversation about the inclusive city we aren’t making any progress. That is because we are using the wrong word: "inclusive". If the literal meaning is "to be included"; if there is an inside where we give everyone a place, then there is also an outside. This requires the creation of a "framework" that fits everyone and it is precisely that framework that makes the term "inclusive" a problematic concept. If the inclusive city can be created (and who has the wisdom to determine the contours of this city?), there are - simply by definition - also subjects who fall outside it. Not because of bad intentions, but simply because the concept implies a boundary.

In combination with the often statically-perceived concept of diversity, it is actually quite logical that a "neutral" professional is asked to explain the issue of "a city for everyone". However, this person is usually not an expert in the field of diversity and exclusion. In fact, the professional here serves as the embodiment of the distance between the person and the problem. In this way, the debate about the inclusive city never has to become personal, whereas this is at the heart of the issue: the inclusive city is personal, just as the personal is political.

The idea that someone, anyone, is somehow neutral, is outdated / simply mistaken. That is never the case. Neutral people don't exist! Our identity is diverse and dynamic, which means that different parts of our identity are addressed in different situations (1). On the other hand, society does accord some of us the status of being neutral – usually, the white, healthy professional. That is deeply problematic in the debate on the inclusive city, because if there is anyone who has had little to do with diversity and exclusion, then it is the white, healthy person. He (yes, it is usually a man) is a professional, but not the expert in this case. That is not his fault; it’s rather due our collective blind spot. The idea that the white, healthy male is a neutral figure is firmly anchored in our culture. A wonderful example is the sociologist Michael Kimmel who explains in his TEDtalk how he first discovered that he has a specific, diverse, dynamic and therefore has non-neutral identity.
All this is by no means an attempt by me to set the (white, healthy) professional aside, but it is a call to everyone not to put his / her dynamic and diverse identity aside. The rule is simple: the more privilege you have, the more homework you have to do.

There is another problem with the word "inclusive", and that is the suggestion that "everyone joins in". A diverse society is not just about "together" and "participating," but in fact much more about collision, clash, discomfort. In a diverse society there is cultural mobility - the moment you encounter the other and you are confronted with your own otherness (2). That is not fun and shared, but can rather be confrontational and alienating. Diversity and individuality require an open world, a place for dialogue, scouring discomfort with capacity for change; the dynamics of our identity need room in the spaces around us.
It is impossible to continue the debate fruitfully with a term that excludes a truly open and dynamic diversity. For that reason, let's let go of the "inclusive city" definition – and give up the idea that a neutral, framework-creating person should shape the debate.

The term "Open City" from sociologist Richard Sennett is a better way to describe a place that is dynamic, always in development. There is room for the surprise and confrontation between different people. "The Open City" is a strong and workable term for the conversation about designing and building this city. At the same time, the term still creates a distance between the personal and the city.
That is why I want to propose another term, derived from historian Jacob Voorthuis: "the generous city" (3). A generous city demands the best from us. It is a place where there is room for confrontation and a place where we can marvel at the behavior of the other and ourselves. In this city new insights are mined from the discomfort that these confrontations cause in us.
Such a city is never finished and requires practice from all of us, every day. In the words of Voorthuis: "Civilization, the civilized world, is paper thin, not because people are nasty, but because the world must be practiced / exercised by every single one of us. That requires care. So if we want to live together in the city then we have to be generous towards each other and the city, and we have to practice its implicit generosity, its rich world. Only then will the city become generous towards us. And then beauty can be found everywhere. "(4)

In order to build a generous city, we have to break down the idea of ​​the inclusive city. Not only within the debate but also within ourselves. When it becomes personal we all get a part of the key to this city. This requires practice and working together, not with the neutral professional who supposedly decodes the world, but with people who are just as consciously dynamic and diverse as the generous city itself.


1. Essed, P., Diversity, University of Massachusetts Press 1996
2. Hajer, M., Reijndorp, A. (Dutch) Opzoek naar nieuw publiek domein, NAi Uitgevers 2001
3. and 4. Voorthuis, J. (Dutch) ‘De Mogelijkheid Van Een Genereuze Stad, Een Oefening In Het Denken Over Het Lachen En De Beleefdheid. http://www.voorthuis.net/Pages/Een%20genereuze%20stad_jctv.pdf


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