In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Local Knowledge.
I have always been a believer in the importance of local, community-based knowledge. But after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, I came to understand the centrality of local knowledge to urban life in new, more immediate ways. Local residents guided federal aid workers as they tried to identify the most vulnerable neighbors; public spaces were refashioned as makeshift centers for the dissemination of water, food, and valuable information about where to seek shelter or find an electric outlet that worked; and the areas of New York that were best equipped to deal with what had happened were the ones that seemed to have the densest interactions among residents, and between residents and the federal authorities.
Observing these realities made me think about how today’s urban centers are planned. Increasingly, cities are being planned in technocratic ways. This means a number of things: planners, often at the behest of foreign corporations who have staked claims to far-away spaces, are paying less attention to the specifics of place and more to generic models; also, the design of cities is being approached as a mechanical issue, best solved by the application of general rules and rationalized planning methods. Success is measured using variables that are easy to quantify. Above all, this technocratic approach to urban planning means that the experiences of local residents, and the stock of knowledge that comes with those experiences, is being overlooked.
In contrast to the technocratic and often abstract knowledge of planners and government officials, local knowledge is firmly rooted in the experience of actual residents and users of urban spaces. Local knowledge provides an insiders’ understanding of how things actually work (or don’t work) by offering an account of lived reality. It is an important feature of good cities, not simply as a resource for planners and designers, but also as a dimension of healthy community life for the residents, themselves. We should also be mindful of resisting a careless urbanism that erases the very conditions for the production of local knowledge. Here, the work of the great urban scholar Jane Jacobs is a good guide. For Jacobs, the production and circulation of knowledge among community members through informal social interaction is one of the important features for safe and vibrant city life. The key to this is the presence of public spaces, where people can learn about each other and share knowledge with each other. In other words, local knowledge is fostered by “publicness”—by people connecting with each other in face-to-face interactions. Such spaces can be places of deliberation, where multiple voices can be heard, arguments can be made, and knowledge is not simply shared but also produced.
To recognize the importance of local knowledge is to recognize that planning cannot be simply driven by a top-down approach wherein the modeling of reality is used as a substitute for reality. Design and planning, however rationalized and scientifically modeled, and whatever the intentions of the planners and designers may be, will manifest in peculiar ways based on how actual users interact with, make use of, and alter, these plans and designs on the ground. Local knowledge should be embraced as a critical source of knowledge for urban planners and government officials.
As globalization moves forward and economies become ever more connected, it is important to resist the trend toward making our cities attempt to conform to a generic plan. Such plans overlook the particularities and peculiarities of local experience, and may erase the very conditions of producing local knowledge, and the experience of a vibrant urban community. And, as we saw during Sandy, in the most difficult moments, that kind of strong community is essential.