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Posted June 2, 2015 by
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From May 27 to 29, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted the first Chicago Forum on Global Cities. I joined hundreds of delegates from dozens of countries for enlightening and lively discussions of a range of topics including transportation, smart cities and big data, sustainable design, cities in emerging economies, arts, education, and the foreign policy of cities. All of the panels addressed topics essential to the future of global cities, but the most interesting panels had something in common: They used their panel topic as a “wedge” to open up conversations about our vision for the city. The most successful panels managed to address normative questions of what our cities should be and who our cities should be for.

Thursday morning’s session on Designing Environmentally Sustainable Cities followed sessions on air transportation and smart cities. While all three topics had the potential to remain squarely focused on technical issues, the discussion of sustainability opened up profound questions of what the city should be and whom it should be for. When we frame the questions of urban sustainability well – whether we’re talking about climate change or energy, pollution or green space, air, water, soil, or biodiversity – they always amount to questions about what kind of city we want to live in. These questions get to what might be described as the social project of sustainable urbanism.

Not just how we can reduce the negative impacts of our design practices, but who do our design practices serve?Not all discussions of sustainability take this approach. As panelist Richard Burdett noted, city officials (especially urban planners) sometimes fail to embed sustainability concerns in broader discussions of what the city is or should be and have given in to strictly technical visions of their professions. Or as Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido suggested, from the landscape to the building, the design process should not only meet the needs of the community, but should invite the whole community – wealthy or poor, empowered or marginalized – into conversations about what the needs of the community are and how they should be met. This approach to design would foreground a plurality of ways to envision the future of the city.

Foregrounding this plurality visions for our communities is would fulfill Burdett’s call for a more political – and less technical – approach to urban planning. “Political” here does not mean “governed by ideological extremity” or “bringing into sharp focus ideological differences.” Though in some cases it might be the former or require the latter, “political” here would mean something like exposing and discussing the vision of the good city behind our practices and policies of urban life. In other words, city officials and planning professionals should build a platform for public participation in discussions that integrate physical design into broader conversations about what the thriving city looks like (a conversation you can find at Common Place and the Thriving Cities Project)

The Chicago Forum session on sustainable design session was not alone in raising these questions, but was joined by sessions on the arts and education in opening up these broader normative conversations. For example, James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, noted that art in the city should not only be a way for us to remember what we have been, but a platform for dreaming about the future and envisioning what the city should be. While the panel on education may have been framed as a discussion about the future of work, it evolved into a discussion about what it means to be human – and how deciding what we learn may be a key difference between human and machine learning – and how to educate a citizenry that can deliberate about the kind of city we want to live in.

In the end, these three panels created a foundation for the kind of conversation we should be having about cities, global and otherwise. It’s a conversation that resonates with the CUE mission: “to promote just, sustainable, and flourishing urban communities through the academic study of cities and transformational experiences of urban life.” And it’s a conversation we hope to host for our students, staff, and faculty, and for others in our community. Educating a citizenry that is capable of deliberating about the kind of city we want to live in -- in some ways, that's what CUE programs are about.