On October 16th, the Fall 2017 Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued with an event entitled, Re-imagining the Public Square by Building for Belonging.
The Sauvé Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.
The subject of the October 16th event was uniquely situated at the intersection of architecture, urban planning and community development, with the discussion aimed at identifying strategies to revitalize the built environment in ways that encourage social interaction and build belonging. Convened were three expert placemakers: Dominic Richards (CEO of Architekton (UK) and former Vice Chairman and Director of The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community); Calvin Brook (Principal of Brook Mcllroy and founding Board member of the Indigenous Place Making Council); and Rym Baouendi (Founder and Managing Director of Medina Works).
Professor Samuel introduced the topic by identifying the public square “as a symbol of what we must work together to create and re-create so that our cities are places of connection and not isolation.” As she explained, “Urban living can feel profoundly isolating and lonely, even when people are surrounded by thousands – even millions – of other human beings.” Further, she added that planning decisions and housing in modern cities often seem “driven solely by the bottom line.”
But still optimistic, Professor Samuel emphasized that “change can begin at multiple places, and it starts by creating new awareness and new appreciation of the importance of design that connects people to one another and to our natural environment.”
Dominic Richards began his remarks by illustrating the devastation of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in June 2017. He noted that the low-income high rise’s cheap building materials proved to be highly flammable, contributing significantly to the deadly incident.
Dominic also spoke more broadly of the practice of “architectural apartheid” in cities like London, England, arguing strongly against it. He stated that our goal should not be to create places for the rich and poor that are so different that people are “othered”. As an example, he talked about the example of Pakington Estate in London. Instead, he argued our goal should be to promote proper mixed living along with density and sustainability in a way that reinforces local identity.
Calvin Brook began by asking the audience to imagine what an Indigenous student arriving in Montreal for the first time might see when gazing upon the cityscape — colonialism, power and control. He called the issue of belonging in Canada an “existential” crisis worthy of everyone’s attention.
In his work with the Indigenous Placemaking Council, Calvin explained the goal is not just to create a building here or a landscape there, but to do so in a way that really restores Indigenous presence and community gathering in cities. Further, he emphasized that the people leading the effort should be Indigenous designers, landscapers and architects. As he noted, there are only 15 registered Indigenous architects in Canada. Calvin then showcased a variety of developments designed according to Indigenous traditions and practices.
Following Calvin, Rym Baouendi told the audience about her work in her home country of Tunisia following its revolution in 2011. In the spirit of the revolutionaries’ desire for work, freedom and dignity, she spearheaded the development of a co-working and creative space called Cogite. What began as a small space soon grew exponentially in size and inspired 10 other co-working spaces to be built around the country. Rym described Cogite as the “oasis in the desert” because of the way it built connections between people seeking opportunity.
The discussion portion of the evening was led off by Gal Kramer (Social Connectedness Fellow 2017). Gal described her fellowship research on the effectiveness of active learning classrooms in improving education and connectedness, and identified commonalities with the projects described by the speakers. She then asked them to share ideas that would help build for belonging. Dominic responded by saying that “chaos (in the positive sense) is necessary for great things to happen,” but that often we are too bureaucratically enfeebled to effect change. Calvin answered that the practice of placemaking is still very paternalistic and needs to better reflect how healthy communities work.
Audience members also asked the speakers for their ideas on how best to include the voices of community members in development projects. Calvin answered, “Process is more important than product.” Along those lines, Dominic added that there is a difference between consultation and collaboration, with consultation not necessarily being authentic collaboration. For example, he referenced “tick box exercises” where community members are surveyed but subsequently ignored. In his experience working on a development in Norwich, he found that when the local community plays a legitimate advisory role, magic can happen.
Professor Samuel concluded the evening by asking the speakers if there is a way to make gentrification livable, in a manner whereby community members don’t lose out. Dominic answered that while no one wants rundown cities with crime and dereliction, there is also a risk in overstepping, and community members need to benefit from changes made. One suggestion he made was for jurisdictions to consider partial ownership models where someone, for example, could own half of an apartment. Similarly, Calvin said that if you have participation in the gentrification of a community, it can actually be quite positive; but, he noted, low-income people need equity in the arrangement.
The next Sauvé Series event will feature a conversation with Indigenous leaders who are driving efforts to build capacity within their communities, grounded in the strengths of their languages, cultures and knowledge. Speaking at the event will be Becky Cook of Misipawistik Cree Nation; Gabrielle Hughes, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford; and Abraham Jolly, Director General of the Cree School Board in Mistissini, Quebec. For more information and to register for this event, please visit socialconnectedness.org/sauve.