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This weekend, U of T will change the way we think about cities

This weekend, a three-day symposium at the University of Toronto's school of architecture has set itself the task of redefining the way city's are conceived.

Michael Piper, an assistant professor and the organizer of the After Empirical Urbanism symposium, defined one core challenge as an explosion of the concept of urbanism.

The term “urbanism” started out, he said, comprising just city planning, urban design and architecture.

“But in the mid 1970s, for various reasons, the field began to expand,” he said, “into ethnology, anthropology, data analysis. It's become very complex, loaded with a series of other things, instead of just studying the physical space of cities, you'll study the people who live there and their cultural backgrounds. This is all very good, but with all this observing and civic engagement is that we've lost the idea of how to design. So what we're going is try to take all these empirical practices and how to make them operative and more design sensitive.”

The symposium, which is open to the public, has invited people from these many different disciplines and practises, who usually hive off into conferences of their own, to discuss how the future of thinking about cities might incorporate all their areas of expertise without losing track of the basic responsibility of urbanists, which is to make cities, rather than merely analyze them.

Piper says that in the 1970s urbanists, inspired by thinkers like Le Corbusier, began overhauling cities in ways they had not been overhauled since Hausmann re-did Paris. The result was much brutalist concrete and housing projects that have since been deemed disasters both by urbanists and the general public. He gives as an especially egregious example the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri, built in 1954 and demolished as early as 1972, but Chicago's Cabrini-Green or Toronto's own Regent Park would serve as well.

Urbanists were ambitious and optimistic in those decades, thinking that their ideas were better than ones that had come before, and willing to sacrifice heritage and history on the altar of the new and Modernist.

“These practices have come from the failure of modernism,” Piper says, referring to the disparate state of contemporary urbanism. “We can't design the whole city, so let's just look at it. What we're saying is you can't design a city like the Modernists tried to, but it does not mean we can't attempt to think on a large scale or to think through design.”

Talks and presentations over the three days, from Feb. 27 to March 1 at 230 College Street, include “The Use and Misuse of History,” “Fictions of the Ordinary,” and “The Bias of Data.”

Entry is free.

Writer: Bert Archer
Source: Michael Piper

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