Plurale Tantum: A Look Back to Let The Conversations Continue!

A little over a year ago we opened this space on the Internet to start a conversation. We decided to call it Plurale Tantum, which translates literally from Latin to mean, Plural Only. We started Plurale Tantum because our respective experiences and educations had raised, and continue to raise, a number of questions related to the planning, design, and development of physical spaces — questions that we felt weren’t being taken on directly in urban discourse. We wanted a place to start digging into those questions, and to developing them further. We also wanted to start documenting ideas and observations that we felt somehow shed light on our questions – even if we couldn’t always put a finger on it.

Our first piece was posted at the end of January 2011, after which we posted 43 pieces, had 18,313 all-time views, and received a number of comments that encouraged us to continue these conversations.  Last October we took a bit of an unintended hiatus. Between the four of us there were two cross-country moves, three new jobs, one new grad program, a baby on the way, the founding of a new collaborative, and more. All in all, we got a bit wrapped up. But we hated being away, and are happy to say: we’re back.

Before going forward with Plurale Tantum, this post looks back into the past year of writing in order to understand how it all ties together, what questions we were actually trying to get at, and what it all means for how we should move forward with this space. Below, you will find a recap of the theory behind the Plurale Tantum, a summary of the major themes we found that our posts fall within, and an articulation of where we want to go from here.

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Back in July 2011, one of our founding authors, Sara Zewde, wrote a piece titled, “So… What IS Plurale Tantum? Reflecting on the theory behind the blog.” If you don’t have a chance to go back and read it, here is an insert that captures the essence of her post:

“This website, Plurale Tantum, contributes a virtual space for ideas on the urban design of cities and how they condition – and are conditioned by – the multiplicity of social identities that inhabit them and the potential of this discourse to inform planning and design… The phrase [Plurale Tantum] communicates a belief that urbanism does not have a singular narrative and should be articulated through various perspectives….

We know that there is no shortage of models for participatory planning. Yet these models largely focus on one dimension – planning as a political process. As long as discourse around participatory approaches to  physical form remains underdeveloped by comparison, the diverse needs and issues of urban communities will not be adequately addressed… The investigation of cultural spatial practice has the potential to inspire new aesthetics, approaches to sustainable design, and also lends itself to inclusivity and social justice, as an approach for popular education and community engagement.”

Our posts, in one way or another, serve to develop this much needed discourse. And they do so through four core themes:

from flickr user Diodoro

1. Questioning the Conceptualization of Identity: One of the main questions we asked in our writing over the past year was: how are various identities shaping and being shaped by physical space, and how are they represented? Be it through political movements, through advocacy, through film or other media, and of course in spatial practice and urban policy more broadly, how are social/economic/cultural identities expressed, celebrated, fabricated, protected, or ignored in physical space?  Why does this matter?

2. Temporal Tensions:  Another theme that found it’s way into our posts was what we like to call “temporal tensions.” How do the past, present, and future in a particular place (and for people in a particular place) relate? Madeline Nusser observed in one of our conversation pieces that we (humans) often “create a strong cultural memory of a place.”  In some cases that memory is a “myth”, in others it’s the truth.  Spatial narratives are everywhere in cities, but what brings meaning to those narratives is often how they have been created, communicated, and changed over time. So, whose story gets told? Whose history is celebrated and whose is forgotten?  What are we asked to remember? And what are we allowed to forget? As Zewde stated in PT’s very first piece: “urban planning and design are critical to the showcasing of history and culture, as they shape the physical space of the experience”

3. Methods: We had a few posts that touched on the methods that are employed in spatial practice, and this is a theme we’d like to develop even further in future posts. How should planners and designers who are interested in celebrating multiple identities (be it race, class, gender, sexuality) approach their work? What can we learn from the methods of other disciplines? Guest author and anthropology grad student Marcel LaFlamme pushed us to think about this through a concise but provocative piece on Carrington, North Dakota. What is working in using our current methods, what is lacking, and how might we adopt new tools or practices to understand the people and places around us?

4. Observations and Reactions: Sometimes we come across something that we feel the urge to share through PT. It may not fit neatly into a big idea, but we find it compelling. Maybe it’s the observation of desiring lines in our neighborhoods, or, we may just want to share observations of weak (or awesome) spatial practice, or, we may feel the urge to respond to an idea or research we read elsewhere on the web, or, we may decide to share ideas from a conference we attended.   We had a few posts like this last year, and will continue to use the space in this format, too.

So, yes, we think design and planning practices need to be more true to the multiplicity of identities, histories, and experiences that exist in cities. That’s not to say that every space needs to be everything to everyone; but it does argue that current spatial practices in cities seems to, more often than not, reflect a singular social, economic, and cultural discourse, and that to begin introducing more plurality into spatial practices, we need to move beyond the paradigm of participation-as-a-political-process.

While we don’t (yet) hold the solutions to many of our own questions, we hope that Plurale Tantum, as a project, allows for an honest and dynamic discourse on urban space and identity. We, the four core authors, will continue to post with pieces that fall into our core themes above (of course, we may find that other themes evolve out of our thinking/writing, too!), but we’ll also be engaging guest authors who can help us dig into the ideas and questions we find most compelling.  In the coming months, for example, you’ll get to read a series of three posts on race and landscape, which we’ll be cross-posting with landscapeurbanism.com.  We’re excited about these forthcoming contributions, and encourage others to reach out to us and take part in the conversation.

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