So… what IS Plurale Tantum? Reflecting on the theory behind the blog.

How can cultural spatial practice inspire city design and planning?

Recently, the resident authors of Plurale Tantum were asked to participate in the Congress of New Urbanism’s NextGen Symposium, on the topic of “Cultural Urbanism.”

Upon hearing this, someone emailed me saying, “Hey! That’s great! If the New Urbanists have a panel on Cultural Urbanism, they must be getting the stuff we’re talking about!” But, the idea that there was a panel on “culture” – you know, all those “cultures” – did not impress me. It seems too easy to acknowledge “difference” and “otherness,” and yet, most people  fail to meaningfully articulate how culture and identity can influence urbanism. In reality, all urbanism – even New Urbanism – is influenced by culture.

Why is this important?

Our dominant models for urban development are suffering. The extraction of resources, centralization of infrastructure, and automobile dependence are costly to maintain and environmentally detrimental. Moreover, economic stratification, inequitable access to resources, and marginalization are major issues, particularly in this sustained economic recession. As such, the professions of planning and design are re-imagining sustainable urbanism(s), battling between philosophies, terminologies, and methods.

In this context, design and planning would benefit from a fresh look at cultural spatial practice as a creative departure for sustainable urbanism. Due to the lack of literature on many marginalized communities and their histories of cultures of city design, their potential to inform contemporary issues are largely absent from curricula and practice.

Henri Lefebvre credits the dominance of Western capitalism with the production of “abstract space,” characterized by the absence of time, a lack of regard for nature, and homogenization and hierarchization. LeFebvre’s theory, while rooted in a critique of capitalism, substantiates the existence of various co-existing productions of space, in opposition to hierarchical, modern thought, and opens up a theoretical terrain of plurality for us to explore.

As a Black woman, this discourse is particularly appealing to me, and I have become interested in the history of Afro-diasporic urbanism, and what, if anything, could the experiences of Black peoples in cities around the world lend to sustainable design. Of the potentially infinite various cultural spatial practices I quickly learned that, where elements of Black Urbanism present potential exemplars for the design and planning disciplines, exhibitions of Black Urbanism are overlooked, regarded largely as cultures of poverty and the coping mechanisms of marginalized peoples. The truth is, Black spatial practice has a lot to say about urbanism. For instance, what can delta cities of Africa, some of which have lasted for over 3,000 years, tell us about sustainable development in the delta urbanism of New Orleans and Sacramento? How can street corner dwellers inspire new ways to think about sidewalks, right of ways, and public spaces? What can the shotgun architecture of the south and Midwest, a West African architectural typology, tell us about human-scaled urban design?

The notion that traditions of architecture and city planning exist in the various histories of peoples, including Africans and African-descendants but also others, is the point here. The critical assumption of a cultural spatial urbanism, such as Black Urbanism, is that there is no universal culture of spatial knowledge, and the first task is then to understand local spatial knowledge through an analysis of what exists and what has existed in its history. I want to be clear that the differences between these cultures are just as important – if not more –
than the similarities.

Because, the strength of this argument about a pluralistic spatial practice does not lie in an exaggeration of the similarities between the many, diverse cultures of peoples. Cultures considered infertile, otherwise unable to birth innovation, CAN inspire innovation by de-coupling them from their marginalized statuses in the architectural and planning disciplines. Millions of cultures have contributed to city-building for thousands of years, and yet many these histories, and more importantly, the way in which these histories can be drawn from to contemplate contemporary issues are absent from design and planning literature and curricula.

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. Plurale Tantum’s literal translation from Latin is “plural only.” In English, the phrase refers to nouns that only have a plural form (i.e., “clothes” or “glasses”). The phrase communicates a belief that urbanism does not have a singular narrative and should be articulated through various perspectives, harking back to LeFebvre’s initial assertion. Black Urbanism, queer space, Latino New Urbanism, the spatial practices of borderless nations, and various other marginalized and otherwise existent cultural spatial practices can shed new light on the future of urbanism.

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. As such, developing a discourse of spatial practice has a very real potential to impact the way that diverse communities engage with the professions of design and planning, and Plurale Tantum intends to do just that. Through the development of discourse, we can advocate for elevating the role of both the practicioner and community, beyond the reformist models of participatory planning, to achieve a diverse, enjoyable, and sustainable urbanism. 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.

I’ll end here with the words of noted author, bell hooks:

I enter a discourse, a practice, where there may be no ready audience for my words, no clear listener, uncertain, then, that my voice can or will be heard.