I had the pleasure of reading Aseem Inam’s new book recently. I am not an urban planner nor an urban designer nor an expert in urban policy. But looking at urban issues in the past ends up touching upon all of these fields. I approach current books in these fields, then, with some hesitancy as I come to it as an outsider of sorts, informed by a different training and bibliography. So one of the many reasons Designing Urban Transformation was a pleasure to read is because I forgot my trepidation. The book is for people who care about cities.
Inam intends to provide a new framework by which to understand and – more important – practice urban design. Moving beyond architecture – the city made visible, in Lewis Mumford’s words – Inam wants to get to the less visible structures, flows, and processes that make up urban life. He finds a compelling theoretical framework in an unexpected place: pragmatism. I’m attracted to this school of philosophy for many reasons. John Dewey’s ideas about public and political life as much as education shaped the founding of the New School and his ideas of art as experience move it from a sacred to a social realm. Both of these insights have had profound impact on my intellectual life. But I have not encountered much pragmatism in urban theory. Iman does not so much turn away from the significant theorists of urban space and economy that have dominated current discussions of how to understand cities as much as provide a way to think through how – and why – to put them in action.
So he applies the process-oriented attributes of pragmatism to the conversation of what urbanism can be. He characterizes pragmatism as anti-foundational, deeply bound to the social nature of knowledge, and built by experimentation and contingency. One of my favorite parts of the book is his discussion of the value of comedy improvisation in a communal design process. Instead of being constantly hampered by restrictions – “yes, but” – what happens if we say “yes, and”? The view of the city that emerges is fluid, participatory, and fiercely human. His evocation of Gandhi and Martin Luther King at the end of the book only make clear his high aims and expectations – of us. We know more and more about cities, generate mountains of maps and charts that give us more precise, aggregated data than ever. Inam reminds us that we need to go beyond the data, beyond the theory, and beyond our expertise. He gives us a guide to get to the beyond and, even more, why we need to.