Social spaces for social cities

By Gemma Todd

One of the re-emerging questions in urban policy and development concerns whether a 'social' city can be designed, and more importantly what that will look and feel like. Academics have provided a strong basis for understanding the cities social life — questioning what the city is and what it functions to do, to conceptualise the cities' sociability. Within this blog post I would like to synthesise such theories, and secondly, introduce Tanzania House of Hope, a local NGO reviving community capacity within our contemporary age. I would like this blog post to encourage ideas and projects to be shared and supported, but also for us, urbanists, to start changing our view of cities, urban life, and sociabilities.

How different is city life, and why?

The German sociologist, George Simmel, creates a distinction between rural and urban mentalities. The metropolitan environment produces a certain character and influences how people socialise (Simmel, 1905). Simmel describes the metropolitan environment as being structured around money, rationality, and individualism. Urban inhabitants use a ‘modern mind’ — rational and calculating — in contrast to the emotional, and sentimental, beings living in rural areas. People in cities portray a façade of freedom and heterogeneity, whilst in reality they are controlled by the hegemonic power of money. Urban inhabitants desire material objects and economic power. Finally, urban inhabitants articulate a reserved character. Due to the density of cities and fear of the ‘stranger’, people remain closed and strong social bonds are limited.

Such an environment portrays the city as a space of personal breakdown and segregation anonymity, and a space where there is an excess of good and bad human nature. Such conceptualisation is mirrored by academics, including Ferdinand Tonnies, and Louis Wirth. Despite density and close proximity urban social life is superficial and dangerous.

However, to what extent are the ideas of urban social life true, or even reflected in African cities? To what extent can we speak of such a distinction of rural/urban, or traditional/modern, life, mentalities, and sociabilities? Much of the attention given to urban areas, and urbanisation, remains negative — perceiving the spaces as disorganised, infested by crime and a lack of 'social capital'. Such perceptions have laid the foundation for inappropriate planning. Further, the truth in such claims remains questionable. Mumford (1937) described the city as a 'theatre'. The city naturally produces social drama by enabling social activity and interactions, and requires drama. The city is its people, and in order for the city to survive space and freedom is required to enable social drama to emerge. Therefore what's next?

Reviving social spaces: Matumaini Community Centre

At Tanzania House of Hope they are focusing on how such spaces can be provided. They are currently building a community centre within Bwiru, Mwanza, which will be intergenerational and multi-functional, inviting the community to engage in its revival and change their vulnerabilities. The centre will have three key functions: firstly, it will operate as a meeting space, inviting members of all ages to engage with each other and urban space. Secondly, the centre recognises, and praises, community skills. The centre will hold community art sessions of which can be sold, reinvent local recipes to be served, and provide access to tools that can empower members of the community. Thirdly, the centre is a space for discussing ideas and information. The centre will hold debate events, computer training to integrate members into our 'network society', and information sessions.

I am all for praising grassroot movements and new directions, and am therefore encouraging a change in how we view the urban metropolis. We cannot talk about implementing urban rights if we continue to view the city as disorganised and in need of changing.

Please check out their approach for yourself here.

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