I apologize for breaking a major rule of blogging– it’s a long one! Please stay with me, though.
On Sunday the International Federation for Housing and Planning kicked off its annual conference in the Moroccan capital city of Rabat. A Le Matin article relates an interview with Fadéla Amara, a French politician of Algerian descent, and current secretary of state in charge of urban affairs in France for the UMP center-right political party. (Check out her fascinating bio on Wikipedia)
Amara’s remarks touched on urban development very broadly. Although she’s coming from a French context, she says, “Personally, I’ve always thought that we have to pool our experiences in terms of urban development.” (her words: “il faut mutualiser les experiences des uns et des autres”) In light of this, I want to take a closer look at how she frames what she identifies as the two main challenges of urban development:
1) Promoting social cohesion by ensuring that there is social, educational, and cultural programming to accompany physical development. She says:
“We must reinforce social cohesion in cities so that residents can coexist, make use of urban space and can access services, green spaces, and economic development. We must therefore focus our efforts on space, the built environment, and especially men and women.” (emphasis mine)
The work of the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, a major partner of the Chicago-Casablanca Sister-City relationship, embodies this “beyond bricks and mortar” angle of urban development. Through art, music, mentoring, and youth development programs, the Sidi Moumen Community Center aims to improve the community on a level beyond basic resources and infrastructure.
If you click on the link to the website for the Cultural Center, you’ll find that it’s actually run through IDMAJ, a neighborhood association whose name means ‘integration’ in Arabic. (At this point I should disclaim that I don’t yet have first hand knowledge of the center and its programming, only its website and descriptions by Sister City folks.) In just the language of the website, you’ll notice that a theme of “integration into society” dominates. The word “integration” is largely absent from the vocabulary of community developers in the U.S., whose clichés are more along the lines of “empowerment.”
Cautiously, I’d say that this has to do with our distinct national characters. In the U.S. we tend to focus on cultivating power and influence on the level of individuals and interest groups, whereas in French society (Amara’s point of reference) “communautarisme” is generally taboo. In Morocco, which is also much more of a collective society than either the U.S. or France, it makes sense to talk about bringing marginalized people back into the fold.
Amara’s second challenge:
2) Preventing social fracture by providing equal access to services in terms of housing, medicine, education and transportation. As told by Amara, equality is a means to achieving social cohesion, which itself is important for the good of the country:
“If we lose track of what is at stake, we risk a fracture between rich and poor neighborhoods, which could weaken national solidarity.”
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this kind of argumentation in the U.S. in any mainstream way–too Marxist?– but it absolutely rings true. Of course here in the U.S. we are generally uncomfortable talking about socio-economic class, but plug in race instead and the argument resonates.
Consider the difference between saying, A) “we must improve access to services, infrastructure, and economic opportunities across the city because society has a responsibility to ensure a safety net for the marginalized,” or, “so that communities can become empowered,” and saying B) “We must improve access to services, infrastructure, and economic opportunities across the city, or else risk a fractured society.”
In Chicago, as in many American cities, problems arising from inequality don’t only affect marginalized individuals and communities. Systemic inequality in Chicago has created a city that is fractured and tense, so that simple interactions between people can often weigh heavy with historical baggage. Stay in one enclave and you might feel pretty comfortable. But transgress geographical, social, or racial boundaries (they are often one and the same) and be met with confusion, often hostility.
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As Fadéla Amara says, urban and community developers should be able to learn from one another. One of the exciting aspects of studying urban development is that cities are so unique. Each has its own particular character, a combination of architecture and planning, history and circumstance—all shrouded in layers of cultural subtleties.