“It Can Only Be the Beginning - The Beginning of Exploratory Dialogue”

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Sep 29, 2013
by Oscar Tollast
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“It Can Only Be the Beginning - The Beginning of Exploratory Dialogue”

SSASA symposium on Sustainability and the City comes to an end Participants of this year's SSASA symposium on Sustainability and the City

Participants at this year’s Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association symposium have praised the session for its inclusion of a variety of voices.

With the session on ‘Sustainability and the City: America and the Urban World’ coming to an end this evening, the group summed up what had been discussed and achieved.

During the four-day workshop, participants discussed a number of well-known problems facing cities under the theme of sustainability and how they could be tackled.

Whilst some came away with the belief that the material environment was the “least important thing in the city”, others identified the types of city systems in existence.

A few participants felt that cities were, “by default”, open systems that were complex and diverse entities.

But the future of cities was questioned, with one participant suggesting cities could be obsolete if unable to cope with the situations they are exposed to.

But this led one participant to question: “Is there a way for us to do things differently from how we’ve done things in the past so that we don’t design cities that solve problems but try and design cities for the purpose of human beings living in them?"

Other arguments considered stemmed from Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett’s lectures on the third day of the session, including that cities ought to be more in control of what’s going on in the cities than the national governments should be.

It was suggested that the idea of people who live in the cities and control their own spaces was an idea taken for granted.

One of the conclusions drawn from the session was being able to rethink how solutions to sustainability and city living could be addressed.

A participant said he was impressed by the notion of “opening things up, taking a step back and not rushing to conclusions”.

He believed this could allow cognitive and discursive frameworks in order to understand solutions.

The group’s feeling was best summed up by one participant who said: “Different people from different backgrounds react totally differently to different lectures.”

However, this in itself presented its own challenge. Finding a common language and unifying all of the views collated proved to be difficult.

But one participant felt this strengthened the session. He said: “If there’s disagreement, then that actually has many more benefits in terms of all the discussions that come forward.

“It can only be the beginning: the beginning of exploratory dialogue.”

Participants had spent the morning listening to a presentation by Fred Fisher on the topic of Art Meta-Cities.

This was followed by a panel discussion on the cultural representations in and of the city, featuring contributions from: Petra Eckhard, Anna Krawczyk-Laskarzewska, Madeline Lyes Nicola Mann, Ana Manzanas, and Tazalika te Reh.

Multidisciplinary approach Symposium co-chair, Ron Clifton, said the mixture of academics and professionals at the session provided a number of alternative perspectives.

Reviewing the session, he said: “It raises questions about the city and our great message out of this is there are problems we need to address that we have yet to fully articulate.

“How do you sustain a city and how does a city get sustainable in terms of planning or in terms of involving people?”

He added: “If the idea you come out with from this session is: ‘What kind of action can I take in conjunction with helping to maintain the viability of cities and an improvement of life?’ then we’ve done our job.”

Mr Clifton’s co-chair, Christopher Bigsby, suggested the session’s atmosphere helped discussions and ideas formulate.

“There’s really no distinction between the people that stand up here and say something and the people down there that say something, because they’re all experts in their own area.”

Whilst a number of sessions in the past have resulted in declarations and action statements, this particular session hasn't.

But in response to this, Mr Bigsby said: “Everybody will take things away from this seminar which they didn’t bring to the seminar, but they discovered precisely through discussing things with other people.”

Symposium director, Marty Gecek, shared these sentiments. She concluded: “As of today we’ve completed 11 symposia under the auspice of this professional American Studies Association, and we’ve touched on many of the issues involved with sustainability of the city.

“We’ve discussed the social, cultural, economic and political roles that cities play in the lives of their inhabitants.

“Sustainability is about balancing the needs of people with the needs of the environment, including the built environment.”