H-Alter
giulia_maci_3.jpgGiulia Maci, urban planner: "Urban intelligence will no longer be provided by a declining architecture star-system, but rather by emergent networks of alternative practices, community projects and urban NGOs. Where rising populism on the right and the left exploits the grievances of those left behind in the global economy, initiatives and collaborations at the local level are becoming a mechanism to address them head on. Livable streets are in fact exchange places rather than just movement spaces. How will future tourists be able to truly appreciate the city without its inhabitants?"

Giulia Maci is an urban planner, with a wide experience in leading international urban projects – participatory urban regeneration processes, public spaces reactivation and co-housing - now working as Programme director of the European Think Tanks Group, on research for European development policies with a specific focus on territorial and urban policies.

Maci is the coordinator of Urbego, a platform for urban professionals that develops and tests processes of integration, social inclusion and sustainable development through participatory planning, youth engagement and cultural mapping. Last spring she presented Urbego's projects applicable to the typical tourist-oriented Mediterranean city in Split, Croatia. A possibility to learn from different experiences is always welcome, so we joined Maci in conversation. On this occasion, we discussed somewhat wider concepts of urban development in the context of Mediterranean, European and global policies. If plans to limit the number of tourists were to be taken forward, it would need to be done as part of a comprehensive strategy that involved replacing some of the lost income from tourism with other economic activities. It would also require some way of restoring housing affordability and essential services to historical centers

Re-thinking contemporary urbanity in very different scales, from cities' "urban pockets" to EU policies, and simultaneously using bottom-up and top-down approaches, is probably the predominant characteristic of your work. What intellectual, social and political environment suits you the most and what do you find the most important for implementing the ideas?

We live in times where we have to constantly define who we are and what we do in a word, image or a synthetic pitch. I have trouble doing so. Am I an urban planner? Am I an architect? A researcher? Or a political activist? I am not even sure what all these titles mean today. I am interested in urban space as a political, socio-economic, aesthetic practice. Urban intelligence will no longer be provided by a declining architecture star-system, but rather by emergent networks of alternative practices, community projects and urban NGOs.

I truly believe in the necessity to cross the limits of disciplines to find new and effective responses to complex urban challenges - such as housing shortages, migrations, privatisation of public spaces and informality. But interdisciplinarity is often synonymous of compilatory lists of stakeholders - government check!, private sector check!, academia check! and so on. In my view, interdisciplinarity can be found in the work of teams of variable geometries, in the collaboration among individuals belonging to different institutions and organizations, sharing the same passion, curiosity and complementary views and expertise.

It is important to keep this open and interactive attitude in every work environment we are in, building alliances, breaking disciplinary silos. The EU sectors and policies are still often organised in silos, thus limiting the scope for synergies and the emergence of innovative solutions. To overcome silo thinking and to promote crossovers, there is a need for a comprehensive strategic approach involving all actors from the local to the EU level.

Do you think that Urban Agenda for the EU, although declaratively focused on the cities, lacks the links between state-union policies and the actual field?

So far cities have played a minor role within EU policy making. Yet, cities are the place where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) envisaged in the 2015 UN Agenda 2030, can be implemented and become responsive to citizens’ needs. This will especially be the case of the Mediterranean, whose economic and social balance is at stake, due to conflicts, political and economic crises, not to mention the exposure to climate change. A “de-tourism” strategy is often presented by authorities, and endorsed by residents, as an obvious rescue plan. But would the transformation of these towns into open-air museums with controlled access really be a healthy strategy for the city?

However, despite the New Urban Agenda as well as the new European Consensus for Development identify cities as important hubs for driving a new model of sustainability, a recent report by ARLEM has showed that a lot of work needs to be done “to enable local authorities to fully grasp their potential as drivers for sustainable urban development”. So far EU external policies have proved to be a-territorial, and they have not exploited the full potential of multi-level governance to tackle the problems that European and Global cities are facing. A new territorial narrative on development is needed, taking into account urbanization issues.

Establishing a smoother and integrated relation between the international, national and local levels is essential to ensure a more sustainable development of the region. This multi-level model of governance needs to involve a broad range of stakeholders, both at the design and the implementation phases through bottom-up approaches as well as precise instruments (financial, political, cultural). This is particularly true for younger generations, who feel excluded and marginalized and who need to be empowered.

Full integration and sustainability of the EU depends on its ability to provide equal opportunities for all of its citizens. Isn't this inherently in collision with (neo)liberal economy postulates, since its prerequisite is the polarized society, also in the territorial sense? Isn't the stretched narrative of equality the main source of frustration and mistrust in the EU and also the reason for the rise of the right-wing politics? Can that be challenged and changed from the center or is, in the way, patronizing the periphery already the root of the future failure?

Power is shifting in the world: downward from national governments and states to cities and local metropolitan areas; horizontally from the public sector to networks of public, private and civic actors; and globally along the circuits of capital, trade, and innovation.

This power shift implies recognising the key role that cities and their networks of public, private, and civic institutions can play in achieving sustainable development at the local level. They are the perfect forum for reflecting on central questions such as equality, justice and the common good. But also, they are the place where to improve people’s lives and to have a real impact. If channels are appropriately fostered, cities offer a real opportunity to renew democratic conversations in a way that national platforms simply cannot.

Toulouse, in France has adopted an Open Metropolis strategy, a participatory governance model allowing citizens and business organisations to co-design major urban local initiatives. Milan (IT) launched in 2015 the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an international protocol focusing on food policies aiming at engaging cities in a more sustainable urban development.. Tallin in Estonia, has become a model of a true "e-City" by digitalising all the city services.We live in times where we have to constantly define who we are and what we do in a word, image or a synthetic pitch. I have trouble doing so. Am I an urban planner? Am I an architect? A researcher? Or a political activist?

Where rising populism on the right and the left exploits the grievances of those left behind in the global economy, initiatives and collaborations at the local level are becoming a mechanism to address them head on. As I said before, if the 20th century was very much about hierarchical systems; specialized, compartmentalized, highly bureaucratic, the 21st century is going to be networked, shared, and led by cities.

Those who are able to migrate to the better working and living conditions, do, both within the European borders, and in Europe, which deepens the differences even more. On the other hand, more or less constant crisis in the Mediterranean, or Southeast Europe, resulted with some new city-development ad hoc, informal solutions. Some cities in the south, mostly smaller communities, adapted to changes more efficiently in the sense of integrating the newcomers. Could the rest of the Europe learn from these cases?

In the Mediterranean region, it is getting more and more difficult to discuss youth engagement in several countries. Some words like "participation", "democracy" cannot be spelled out as the trend is to close public spaces and to reduce the chances for people to meet, discuss and think of new development models. Cities are extraordinary laboratories where youth engagement and civic participation can be redefined. Mediterranean civil society is very vibrant and there are many good stories on the ground.

In Beirut you can recognize everywhere clear religious, political, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines. It is a city made of self-sufficient neighborhoods: the mostly Muslim west and mostly Christian east, with many subdivisions.  Meanwhile, thousands of refugees from Palestine, Iraq and more recently from Syria settled in camps that are by now real parts of the city. In that sense, it resembles the rapid urbanisation of many global cities, where incoming rural populations are creating new, informal places to live. The war is a constant presence in the life of this city that has learned to live in emergency, without thinking too much about the future.Establishing a smoother and integrated relation between the international, national and local levels is essential to ensure a more sustainable development of the region. This multi-level model of governance needs to involve a broad range of stakeholders, both at the design and the implementation phases through bottom-up approaches 

In this context, the Urbego platform conducted a participatory process, involving local youth with different religious, cultural and professional backgrounds, to identify common issues and imagine actions and strategies to improve the inclusion and engagement of young people in the city making. These ideas- related to mobility, public and green spaces, education and culture- were presented to policy makers to inform planning decisions. Focusing on urban spaces gave the opportunity to overcome conflicting viewpoints, and to build, through dialogue and imagination, an urban vision which is coherent with the city's cultural diversity.

One of the indicators of the unsustainable economy is the high percentage of the state income derived from tourism, followed by the deteriorating of the public space and Disneyfication of the cultural heritage. Working with Urbego in Venice and, recently, Lisbon, what ways of, at least, lessening the pressure to the local communities, do you find viable?

When cities such as Barcelona, Split, Venice, San Sebastian and Amsterdam all start complaining more or less simultaneously about the sheer pressure of tourist numbers in their streets and beauty spots, as it is happening now,  it feels as if the always uneasy balance between the visited and the visitors has gone beyond a tipping point. A “de-tourism” strategy is often presented by authorities, and endorsed by residents, as an obvious rescue plan. But would the transformation of these towns into open-air museums with controlled access really be a healthy strategy for the city?

Analysis shows that most of people’s income comes from tourist services. If plans to limit the number of tourists were to be taken forward, it would need to be done as part of a comprehensive strategy that involved replacing some of the lost income from tourism with other economic activities. It would also require some way of restoring housing affordability and essential services to historical centers. If not, this approach could end up reducing economic opportunity yet further, and thus reinforcing the pattern of migration to the mainland. The worst case scenario, feared by all residents is the complete Disneyfication of historical towns.

How will future tourists be able to truly appreciate the city without its inhabitants? Urbego recently developed an walkability strategy, integrating quantitative data with qualitative observations, that use online and offline way-finding systems to reactivate  abandoned areas, preserve from In the Mediterranean region, it is getting more and more difficult to discuss youth engagement in several countries. Some words like "participation", "democracy" cannot be spelled out as the trend is to close public spaces and to reduce the chances for people to meet, discuss and think of new development modelstourism certain fragile spaces and promote a more sustainable tourism. We tested this approach in Lisbon, Copenhagen and Venice. These cities need a “smart solution” that reflects a real understanding of the city’s needs and a dialogue between city actors. At the moment we are planning a pilot intervention with Teserakt, a local NGOs in Split. We will focus on the modernist and fully pedestrian area of Split3, away from the arrival of cruise ships and touristic city center. We would like to create a post-touristic city!

Reclaiming the city and its public space by walking, making it cleaner, safer, healthier, more democratic and more sustainable in the way, is obviously hot enough topic to coin the term "walkability". Could that be a game changer in overall approach to cities, or neighborhood planning?

Traditional transportation and city planning have focused on moving more cars and to move them faster. But in many cities, the emphasis on mobility efficiency resulted in favoring motorized transport, considering pedestrian areas as marginal and interstitial spaces, resulting after the design of car infrastructures. Until recently, the concept of walkability has been limited to the notion of pedestrian safety, designing segregated pedestrian ways, and regulating car speed limits. In other words, transportation planning, while focusing on mobility efficiency and capacity, has forgotten the other crucial function of the city streets, which is living. Livable streets are in fact “exchange” places rather than just “movement” spaces.

City streets are also public spaces in which people live and meet, sit in cafes and watch passersby, protest and celebrate. Better streets attract more people and more activity, thus strengthening both communities, the businesses that serve them and the city’s economy as a whole. Moreover Urbego, through its work with young professionals and residents in cities across the world, has noticed how the majority of Millennials prefers to live in walkable communities and note the importance of affordable and convenient transportation options other than car in deciding where to live and work. At the same time, a growing body of research points to the importance of creating or retrofitting communities for walkability to accommodate senior citizens and allow them to remain active, healthy, social and free to move around.

The future of our cities is therefore a walkable future. For all the reasons above, imaging and realizing pedestrian environments requires an integrated approach, combined with effective public consultation and communication.

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This interview was first published in Croatian, on Pogledaj.to
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