Dr. Pietro Garau is a researcher at the first Faculty of Architecture at the University of Rome and the former director of the Habitat Office at the United Nations in New York. Serving as the head of a variety of UN departments and projects throughout Africa and Europe, Dr. Garau —who received his Dottore in Architettura from the University of Rome— is renowned as a leading thinker in the field of community planning and development. Cornell in Rome was honored to host his lecture through the Planning department on Monday, March 2nd. An inspiring and engaging speaker, Dr. Garau began his lecture with a quote from a past planning project in Buenos Aires: “We managed to do it because we did not know that doing it was impossible”. In this case, the impossible was achieving a state of equality. Seemingly the most basic goal, the achievement of equality in urban communities is a rare feat trapped behind numerous impediments and complications.
Determined to identify and defeat these obstacles, Dr. Garau discussed the root philosophies that have given way to fundamental systems of inequality. He begins by introducing the theory of the Pensée Unique, an expression that describes the laissez-faire, extreme capitalistic, neoliberal doctrine that forms the basis for many underlying issues in contemporary urbanism. The city that results from the Pensée Unique is La Ville Unique, or a constructed environment built upon a system of commodified, privatized spaces. This situation is further exacerbated by the contemporary substitution of a sense of community solidarity for a perpetual connectedness mediated by an increasingly ubiquitous network of personal technology.
The solution to this rampant trend of mass-privatization of space, proliferation of generic non-places, and general sense of fear of one’s own community lies in the introduction of well-planned and managed public spaces. Public space is an essential part of a functional cityscape. Public spaces promote equality by providing services disassociated from commodity-driven regimes. Because public spaces are currently unevenly distributed between more and less affluent areas, the identification and insertion of mindfully designed, community-specific public spaces would promote equality and provide essential social and environmental services to previously underserved factions.
Next, Dr. Garau reviewed the programs that are currently working to define and promote public spaces. The Biennial of Public space held by the Instituto Nazionale di Urbanistica in Rome from the 21st through the 23rd of May addresses these topics of urbanism and public space. The Instituto Nazionale di Urbanistica is the organization responsible for The Charter of Public Space: a five page document that defines public spaces, discusses its major typologies, outlines guidelines for its creation and management, and examines the limits and potential constraints implicit in the establishment of these community-focused zones. An international success, this guide has been adopted by urbanists and planning committees worldwide.
Despite these efforts, not all planned initiatives are entirely beneficial to the communities they attempt to serve. Dr. Garau concluded his lecture with a case study of a small, historically Kurdish neighborhood in Istanbul. Recently designated a UNESCO world heritage site, the sudden popularization of the newly protected church inspired a wealth of new development and the “revitalization” of a park into a garden space and high-end hotel courtyard. This created a situation of “history in conflict with reality” in which a once publically utilized area of the city suddenly became useless to the majority of its residents. Rent skyrocketed and the familiar patterns of gentrification began to push community members out of the city center. In an attempt to bring back and nurture a sense of solidarity amongst disillusioned residents, Dr. Garau’s team created The Wall—a public art project in which local children painted on an abandoned wall and an empty lot was transformed into a new center for public interaction. Community-centric public art has the power to bring people together, create a city identity unique to the community, and encourage participation and usage of public-spheres.
The lecture ended with one of the most engaging question and answer sessions Cornell in Rome has witnessed this semester and Dr. Garau stayed late to further discuss his ideas with students at the reception. An inspiring evening, it left the Planning, Art, and Architecture students in attendance invigorated with a new sense of public purpose in each of their respective fields.