Andre Campbell is the host of the Building Future Cities Podcast and a trustee for Safer London. He sat down with me to talk about finding meaning and building lasting community in our current and future cities. The original conversation was held on Instagram live and the below is a loose transcript.
Andre: You've lived in cities around the world, in particular Addis Ababa. Tell us what you have learnt and what interests you in the future cities space?
Sascha: Cities are places we come together in. They are places filled with intensity and beauty. They can be energy-giving or overwhelming. Like any complex system, it’s a question of how we structure, navigate and negotiate them. If done well they can be powerful, productive and life giving environments.
In Addis Ababa I was a small child, but I remember the greenery and nature – the smell of eucalyptus trees is a very nostalgic one. Granted I was 5 years old and didn't know what a city was, in my memory it didn’t feel like a city. After Addis, I lived in Bangkok, which very much felt like a city: dense and highly populated, commuting to school or going to birthday parties was an ordeal of several hours – definitely a challenge for our modern cities.
Tell us more about what you’re doing in Community Building
I co-authored a community building framework called the Community Canvas, which turned out to be hugely successful and helpful to many community builders – and I’m now working on a new and improved version under Close Knit. My aim is to create a modular framework that explores and lays out the fundamental parts of what it means to be and do things together in community. It’s a knowledge map and practical guidebook all in one.
What are your thoughts on the future of cities?
Cities are places where people come together. There is an incredible diversity and concentration of knowledge, which gives us many opportunities to share and collaborate. There is a lot of potential there – potential for good but also for pitfalls. Affordability, transportation, sustainability and our symbiosis with nature are all big topics that need to be addressed. The sharing economy in its first iteration seems to have failed. How do we rebuild it? Being together is great but the loss of space and the natural world is not – how do we increase front yard and backyard ecosystems and how can we make cities a more just and equitable place for everyone?
Is there a role for design in the city? If so, why?
Design is communication, and can be a form of planning. Cities need to be planned, and they function best if they are planned by the people in them – from within and not by a single person. I had a great chat recently with Shannon Mattern who wrote The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities, looking at a number of case studies of library design as a participatory process.
You live in New York City – are there any insights you can share with us about living there?
Everyone here is striving, hustling – trying to do something, learn something or make something. This creative energy and diversity are what drew me to the city. There are also many lessons we can learn from the city’s past. I studied how SoHo transformed from industrial wasteland to upscale neighborhood, and it’s that energy that the artists, poets and dancers brought to their neighborhoods in the 70s and 80s that still informs much of the city. It was a free, radical, but also challenging time in which community played a big role. The SoHo artists community felt a very strong sense of belonging. Many were living illegally in large lofts and sticking together was vital. They were also engaged in experimental and out-there ideas, from performing modern dance across rooftops and up building walls, to Gordon Matta Clark’s pieces that cut and exposed parts of buildings. So when we’re looking forward and towards the future, it's good to remember that not just the present but also the past can be a great source of inspiration and knowledge.
What advice do you have for building future cities?
I think any good design process involves its users. This could mean involving people in the research process, or it could mean direct collaboration between planners and city dwellers. I think we need to find more and better ways to bring people into the process, from concept to design to execution. I think we need to move towards more co-creation and collaboration. I’d also love to see more continuity in this process – a city is a living thing that’s continually evolving and therefore the design process is never over. We need to keep our communities informed and engaged in that change so that we can continually improve our cities from today into cities for tomorrow.