LIVE BLOG: Transforming Cities, Transforming Urbanism

Rio de Janeiro from Pao de Aucar. This is image appeared on posters for the talk by Aseem Inam. Photo by Aseem Inam.

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Rio de Janeiro from Pao de Acucar. This is image appeared on posters for the talk by Aseem Inam. Photo by Aseem Inam.

“Transforming Cities, Transforming Urbanism” is a talk by Prof. Aseem Inam, M. Arch., M.U.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of Urbanism at Parsons The New School for Design in NYC, where he is also Director of the M.A. in Theories of Urban Practice. It’s 7:00 pm in Bond Hall, where over 40 students and faculty members have gathered to listen to Prof. Inam as he investigates the idea of urban transformation and proposes a radical shift in thinking. Through case studies of park design, neighborhood design, highway design, and sewage design, the talk will illustrate fundamental shifts in the practice of urbanism. Finally, through conceptual shifts, scholarly research, and practice experience, Prof. Inam will conclude with a transformative approach to the design of cities. His talk is in part inspired by his latest book, which will be published in a couple of weeks. The talk is sponsored by Swat Cities: The Urbanism Society; the Forum for Free Speech; the Art and Art History Department; and the Sociology/Anthropology Department.

7:12 The talk is beginning on “Swarthmore time,” as students and faculty are still trickling in. Matthew Goldman ’15, a member of Swat Cities, is introducing Prof. Inam.

7:16 Prof. Inam takes the podium. He explains that one way to watch changes in the urban fabric is in terms of spatial growth and decline.

7:17 Another way is in terms of population growth, he says, “whether with industrialization… or immigration.”

7:18 Yet another way is to look at indicies of quality of life, “livability,” “sustainability,” and other measures of public health. Inam points out that numerous well-publicized ranking systems exist to track changes over time.

7:19 “A fourth way is more nuanced,” Inam says. Quoting urbanists Kevin Lynch and Peter Bosselmann, Inam points out that this fourth way still focuses on a spatial understanding of the city.

7:21 Inam says that this overall emphasis on physical change “can lead to a relatively superficial understanding of urban transformation.”

7:22 Inam proposes reconceptualizing urban design. He says that Gandhi is a supreme example of an original leader who understood how to create original change. He “forged connections in theory and practice” to change power structures.

7:23 From a presentation slide, a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

7:25 “I launched an investigation into how urbansim could produce transformation,” Inam says. Does it produce change, and if so, in what way? he asks.

7:26 His first of three case studies involves a park in Cairo–Al Azhar Park–designed in 1984.

7:27 A neighborhood next to the park suffers from low incomes, paucity of public investment, and declining infrastructure.

7:28 The park was designed with  a lake, driving and walking paths, a restaurant, and gardens based on traditional Islamic garden design.

7:29 “Together these various components of the park provide the visitor with a rich and varied experience.” In constructing the park, designers discovered a rich archeological history beneath the site, as well.

7:30 “Young people from the neighborhood” were trained in preservation during the project, Inam said. Over 1000 people overall were trained, he said. He said there was an associated micro-finance program and a health program for women of reproductive age and children under five.

7:31 “So analyzing the Al Azhar Park in this way reveals a number of insights, especially as a project that is evolving into something greater than just” a park landscape. It has evolved into a “more decentralized” effort to respond directly to the needs of residents.

7:33 Inam asks the audience to view cities as flux: both an object and a mode of practice. “One must allow for emergence and surprise,” and go with what works, not with what necessarily is the accepted practice. Borrowing from William James’ A Pluralistic Universe, one of his slides reads: “Reality falls in passing into conceptual analysis.”

7:36 Inam’s next case study is Boston’s Big Dig: the Central Artery Tunnel. He says the project has connected the city, improved traffic flows, lowered pollution levels, and created public spaces. However, he points out, the project ballooned from a projected cost in the 2 billion dollar range to a final price over 14 billion dollars.

7:37 Slides show the contrast between the original Central Artery, a six-lane raised highway through downtown Boston that was snarled by traffic for “10 hours a day” by the mid-1990s. After the Big Dig, the same space was opened up with new parks.

7:39 One surprise result of the Big Dig was Spectacle Island, improved from an offshore landfill site to an island park using excavated soil.

7:40 Inam asks his audience to go “beyond intentions” and consider the “consequences of design.”

7:41 Inam says his challenge about reinventing urbanism aligns with the philosophy of pragmatism. His slide explains that one tenet of pragmatism is: “In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception.”

7:42 His third case study involves Orangi, near Karachi, Pakistan, which lacked a functional sanitation system. A project in Orangi to install a sewer system relied on local organizers who were willing to engage in dialogue and to find ways for the community to contribute capital. “This plan was financially feasible because 50%” came from the community, Inam says.

7:45 He says the program continues to this day. What’s unique about these three projects, Inam says, “is that they are ongoing.” The Orangi program has gone further, Inam says, “to micro-credit” and “women’s entrepreneurship.”

7:48 “To practice urbanism as a creative political act can be revolutionary,” Inam says. Transforming the city has deep political and moral consequences. Borrowing again from William James, Inam says that the routes aren’t clear cut, rather, “it’s a struggle to get there.”

7:49 “Whither urbanism?” Inam asks on his next slide.

7:51 Inam explains that urbanism has been defined as a bridge between architecture and larger-scale urban planning. As a practice, this is called “urban design.” He says this definition is inadequate because it is a negative definition–it describes urbanism by what it is not, and in doing so relies on the existence of other fields.

7:52 Another way to define urbanism is to create lists of different urbanisms. “There is this sport going on to name more urbanisms,” Inam says. “I’ll tell you what I think of that,” he says sarcastically. He goes on to say that this fragmentation is destructive to urbanism as a field.

7:53 Inam says current types of urban design practice include “new urbanism,” “post-urbanism,” and “best practices.”

7:56 Inam explains the challenges of urbanism include working to tie it to intellectual understandings while also engaging it with the practice of how urbanism actually happens. He says one solution to this conundrum is via the philosophy of the pragmatism movement.

7:58 Two tenets of pragmatism are “contingency and pluralism.” He says pragmatism believes that the survival of ideas depends on their adaptability. Theories “cannot fully comprehend human life,” he says.


Note #1: The talk continued for another fifteen to twenty minutes. However, this reporter was unable to charge their computer and it died.

Note #2: This reporter, Andrew Karas ’15, is also a member of Swat Cities. This is a potential conflict of interest, but it is also efficient. As the lecture was not given by Swat Cities but simply organized by the group, the reporter felt it was possible to live blog in an unbiased way. Please let us know in the comments section if you feel this potential conflict of interest is a concern.

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