Who is it for? A critical reflection on power in “social urbanism” and planning

I wrote this reflection for a course that looked at Medellin as a case study through which to examine the concept of “social urbanism.” It was the first more design-focused class that I have taken and it was new for me to be working with brilliant designers and architects who made up the bulk of the class. Challenging but also illuminating, as I hope this reflection demonstrates.

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This course launched from the idea that “social urbanism,” or rather, design and architecture with a social conscience, is increasingly gaining in popularity in urban areas around the world. One very visible example of this is the city of Medellin, Colombia, where a transportation project of a metro and above ground cable-car system was set up to connect the city center to the marginalized informal areas that sprawl up the city’s steep hillsides. One such area is Comuna 8, one of Medellin’s 16 sectors that is home to about 136,000 people who are predominantly low-income and many of whom lack formal land titles (Terms of Reference, 2013).

medellin mapPlanned urban interventions in Comuna 8, Medellin

Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia and for a long time held a high-profile reputation for violence and drug activity. But with intensive public investment in infrastructure and urban renewal, encompassing transport as well as facilities such as libraries and learning centers, Medellin was largely able to change its global brand from city of violence to city of innovation and hope. However, there is little indication that these interventions have succeeded in addressing the widespread poverty and inequality that remain deeply entrenched. This raises the question of how much “social urbanism” can really answer to the needs of the people it purports to help. The following is an overview and analysis of some of the main concepts in the course, based on group project work, readings, and my own doodles and thought processes.

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Gender-swapped street harassment

Catcalling and street harassment get some brilliant gender-swapping treatment in a French animated series from the late 1990s.

Gender-swapping is one of these increasingly popular motifs that is so simple but that can be incredibly powerful. It can seem kind of mundane; I mean, why should a man dressed in women’s clothes modeling a perfume be so inherently strange or funny? But the fact that it does seem so strange to us is exactly what starts to reveal the norms that rule our society. Why does it seem so absurd for women to be catcalling a man like they are in the video? How come women almost never act this way in real life? Because, well, there’s this thing called patriarchy, and it dictates how we act and feel even in the smallest interactions. It is what makes men think that it is okay to mutter towards a woman in a public space, in an effort to remind her that the space, and her own body, do not belong to her. It is a structure that is reinforced constantly, even at an everyday scale, and that has be come so normalized that we barely even notice it. Luckily some simple gender-swapping can bring it back into focus.