Urban Literacy: a place-making tool

In 2014, hundreds of people came together to literally rebuild a small park in the downtown of a big city. In 2018, an art hive experiment welcomed hundreds of people to share a space where they were encouraged to express themselves, make art for free as a community and improve individual and collective mental health. In 2009, a small group of volunteers coordinated a CSA initiative with 50+ families in their neighbourhood to support local organic farmers and cook together to gain culinary skills and lifelong friendships. In 2019, personal stories of individuals who choose to move around in a way that connects them to their city was the jumping point to bring people together and learn from each other. In 2015, a wave of refugees from Haiti attended a series of workshops that aimed to provide practical information about their new country and a welcoming space to be in community. In 2008, a group of activists animated a busy street by turning street parking into a living room with couches, books and music. The temporary installations were the precursor for permanent fixes and a new business opportunity who appeared a few years later in many cities. And in 2020, when the COVID pandemic increased social isolation, individuals and neighbourhoods in Canada and around the world were finding different ways to support each other and elevate small local businesses.

I’ve been working on community building and neighbourhood initiatives for almost twenty years now. Those are just a few examples of the projects I’ve been involved with.

Last year, I started a research project to weave together what I have learned with neighbours and friends through all those years. It’s a meaning-making effort to integrate those experiences with my background in urbanism into something that can inspire, be reused, recycled or adapted in other neighbourhoods around the world. My goal is to increase our collective urban literacy.

Urban literacy is a concept I’ve been working with since 2016 and it is the container I developed to hold the common thread among the diversity of experiences and knowledges for city-making. In its current form, the definition of Urban Literacy is:

The capacity to understand, shape and communicate urban experiences. An approach based on experiential learning primarily in public spaces that includes intellectual, physical and emotional capacities.

Luis Patricio

Since a lot of Urban Literacy takes place in-person, primarily in public or semi-public spaces and 2021 was a year with many lockdowns, I focused the first year of my research on planning, reviewing, reading and mapping. Here are some highlights of year one of the research.

Urban literacy skills

The infographic above is a map of the urban literacy skills identified so far. Primary skills (orange): they are foundational to all other skills. They can and should be practiced from a very early age by everyone. Secondary skills (blue): they are required for a healthy city and community and in order to perform them well it’s very helpful to master the basic ones first. The more people practicing those secondary skills the better. Finally, advanced skills (green): they are the sign of a highly engaged and big picture thinking community, not necessarily a requirement for everyone, although its importance should be widely recognized. As a working in progress the question mark represents skills to be added.

The layers of urban literacy skills are interrelated and interdependent. They are shown here separately for us to look at their different aspects in a more clear way.

Knowledge Review

The research explores four main themes: Urbanism, Education, Regeneration and Social Fields.

The knowledge review uses the CEP+N model (Content, Experiences, People + Networks) from Alex Bretas. I already touched briefly on some of the experiences. In this post, I will also share about the “C” portion of the review.

The content review looks beyond scientific articles and books and also includes podcasts, videos, maps, graphic novels and websites among other sources of reference. You can click on the map below to explore the full list of references of this research so far.

Content Review Map

Applications of Urban Literacy

When we are learning a language, before reading sophisticated works of literature or writing extensive texts, we need to learn the alphabet, how to form words, then sentences and practice that a lot.

Similarly, when we are learning math, before solving differential equations, we need to know the numbers, the four basic operations and a few other “tricks”.

The same is true with our cities. In order for us to collectively make the best city our hearts and minds can imagine, we need to have a solid understanding of its basic building blocks and a close relationship with the city. That means spending (or I should say investing) a lot of time with our neighbours in shared urban environments.

When we embed urban literacy development in every road, park, community centre, subdivision, festival, school, economic plan or any other city-making activity, we will revolutionize what we can achieve as a community.

The mapping of basic, secondary and advanced skills are useful to evaluate our urban literacy levels and implement appropriate measures according to our current skills and capacities.

I believe urban literacy is a tool that can be used for citizens and planners alike. It can be as simple as knocking on your neighbours’ door to offer some bread. Or it could be redesigning cities physical and social habitats to make them conducive to the co-creation of urban experiences. In different scales, they both promote happier and more regenerative cities.

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