Can Incomplete Streets Bridge Diversity and Sustainability Studies?

Over the last year or so Julian Agyeman and I have been hard at work putting together the just-released edited volume titled Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, Possibilities. So far, the book is getting some pretty good buzz…

IncSt Tweet

But the buzz is limited to the urban planning community and various urban studies fields. What remains to be seen is whether the book can create buzz in two other communities: sustainability studies and diversity studies (or, as it is called at my institution, critical diversity studies). Other than selling more books, which is a non-issue since few academics make money from their books, why would we care about which intellectual communities engage with the ideas in Incomplete Streets?Inc Streets thumbnail

One reason is that although definitions of sustainability typically include aspects of social sustainability or social equity, this dimension of the concept is underdeveloped. Scholars working in sustainability fields could benefit from more careful consideration of what concepts such as equity, justice, inclusion, diversity or interculturalism actually mean in a conceptualization of sustainability. What would it look like if we used the lenses of diversity and difference in our pursuit of sustainability?

Likewise, although diversity studies scholars acknowledge the environment as one among many different types of resources, the restriction of access to which produces inequalities across communities of color and other diverse communities, material inequality is typically traced back to wealth rather than to natural resources or space as a resource. What would it look like if in working to address inequity and injustice rooted in difference, in aiming to move beyond mere tolerance towards an embrace of “the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual,” diversity studies scholars employed a critical sustainability lens?

Perhaps it would mean a shift in attention from symbolic social “spaces” to physical spaces. What does this mean? Much of the injustice/inequalities analysis in diversity studies tends to focus on social institutions and organizations, their policies and practices, and the ways in which meanings around identity and difference are produced within them. Such analysis is vitally important, especially to understanding institutional racism. But it is limited. As David Pellow argues in Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice,

“the literature on racism has yet to seriously consider the ways in which environmental and natural resource destruction is embedded in institutional racism” (2007, p. 49).

Resisting Global Toxics (David Pellow)

Resisting Global Toxics (David Pellow)

The resources with which Pellow is concerned exist in particular geographical spaces. The people who have historically inhabited these spaces become marginalized as first governments (under colonialism) and then corporations (under neocolonialism) extract their resources and build political, economic and legal systems deeming such exploitation necessary and justifiable in the name of development.

While this cycle of exploitation continues–whether in the form of copper mines in Peru, gold mines in Papua New Guineau, coal mining in India, or rare earth minerals mined in China–what Incomplete Streets subtly does is point to new spaces of inequality and exploitation. It also asks sustainability scholars and livable cities advocates to think about cities as more  than just physical spaces to be planned, designed, and engineered.

Cities are seen by many as the economic engines of the 21st century. Cities, or rather the urban spaces within them, facilitate mobility, information exchange, and social interaction. They also provide space for habitation and retail activity, not to mention education and recreation. Who controls a cities’ streets, public squares, libraries, schools, housing, and parks? Who is allowed, whether formally or informally, in these spaces? How does exclusion or inclusion from/in these spaces, perceived or real, shape city dwellers’ individual choices about housing, transportation, education, health care or recreation? In turn, how do these choices shape the urban economy or urban sustainability?


Which is true? Diversity=Difference or Diversity≠Difference?

In other words, urban spaces are vital resources for individuals and for cities more broadly and like the land under which valuable resources reside, economic elites have a vested interest in controlling these spaces. Incomplete Streets is about the battle over one type of urban space–the street. Urban planning is increasingly driven by the same economic, political and legal structures and forces–call it neoliberalism, if you will–that have shaped the global dynamics of unequal development. Cities are viewed as “strong market cities” when they are integrated into the global economy and are seen as attractive to the creative class and knowledge workers. “Weak market cities” try to become strong market cities by adding the amenities believed to be desired by the creative class: walkability; bicycle infrastructure; modern and efficient public transit; environmental amenities such as urban forests, open spaces and parks, and other sustainability initiatives; “vibrant” neighborhoods; attractive housing options; and jobs.

The appeal of “Complete Streets” policies is that they promise to deliver quite a few of these amenities. As we’ve written at Invisible Cyclist, Complete Streets policies generally aim to “ensure that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind–including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities,” (National Complete Streets Coalition). This is a laudable goal and one that gains even greater support when framed as simultaneously delivering healthier and more sustainable cities.

What makes a street complete?

What makes a street complete?

Ultimately, the primary question asked in Incomplete Streets is whether we are advancing urban sustainability if our Complete Streets and other urban planning policies fail to produce streets and other urban spaces that accommodate the needs of diverse populations.

As we write in the book’s introduction,

Streets, the movement implies, are incomplete when they are designed, constructed and maintained with the primary objective of moving automobiles efficiently. Incomplete Streets accepts the imperative to challenge our society’s auto-normativity, but challenges the limited definition of incomplete streets as streets where non-motorized mobility is missing. The book explores the ways that streets might continue to be incomplete, even after they have been made bike-, pedestrian-, and transit-friendly, by suggesting that streets should not be thought of as merely physical spaces, but as symbolic and social spaces. When important social and symbolic narratives are missing from the discourse and practice of Complete Streets, we argue, what actually results are incomplete streets.

It is precisely here that the bridge between sustainability studies and diversity studies can be built if these two communities come together to envision physical urban spaces that allow for production and co-existence of a rich diversity of symbolic narratives and social identities. Such work is already underway with respect to another type of public space: parks. Julian Agyeman, in his blog post Interculturalism and culturally inclusive space I, critiques parks and leisure research for its focus on ‘diversity,’ which tends to invoke ‘contact theory,’ as opposed to his preferred ‘interculturalism.’ As Agyeman explains, contact theory “posits that interactions between members of different groups reduce intergroup prejudice under the right conditions,” which he goes on to describe as problematic for the following reason:

Contact theory however offers little or no guidance on how to achieve culturally inclusive space, let alone how to achieve such spaces in places where social inequality is deeply entrenched (Dixon et al 2005).  Additionally, contact with diverse groups may serve to make shifts in personal prejudice, but has been shown to have little impact on structural discrimination (Dixon et al 2005), which may have much greater impact on a particular group’s use of public space  (Floyd et al. 1993; Arnold and Shinew 1998). Instead, many open spaces can align more with conflict theory; they are sites of tension and racism that reinforce inter-group separation (Dines and Cattrell 2006).

Whether parks or streets, for urban spaces to be culturally inclusive they must go beyond facilitating mere contact to generate an understanding of diversity and difference as community assets. Such inclusivity goes beyond contact or “engagement.” But what does it look like? “Inclusivity,” in the form of the new buzzword “inclusive urbanization,” is now institutionalized in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 11 aims to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Whereas inclusivity in physical spaces is specified in this goal, Goal 16 seeks inclusivity in social and symbolic spaces by providing “access to justice for all and build[ing] effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Embedded right here in these two goals we see the tension between inclusive spaces as physical spaces in the urban built environment and as symbolic spaces within social institutions.

As academics we too often constrain ourselves by constructing conceptual categories that call for a seemingly impossible hybridization. How shall we synthesize the physical and the social? The material and the ideal? Perhaps sustainability is too concerned with the former and diversity with the latter. Yet inclusive urbanization seems essential to both sustainability and diversity objectives. Incomplete Streets, in some small way, can hybridize our thinking by scrutinizing streets as both physical and symbolic spaces, the democratic and inclusive design of which can achieve the simultaneous goals of a materially sustainable society and an inclusive society rooted in the kind of interculturalism that Agyeman maintains can “contribute to the construction of difference and diversity as an asset within a community, rather than a source of tension.”


Works cited

Arnold, M. and K. Shinew (1998) ‘Role of gender, race and income on park use constraints’. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration Vol. 16 No. 4 pp. 39-56.

Dines, N. and V. Cattrell (2006). Public Spaces, Social Relations and Well-Being in East London. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Dixon, J., Durrheim, K. and C. Tredoux (2005) ‘Beyond the optimal contact strategy: A reality check for the contact hypothesis’. American Psychologist Vol. 60 No. 7 pp. 697-711.

Floyd, M. F., Grammann, J. H. and R. Saenz (1993) ‘Ethnic factors and the use of public outdoor recreation areas: The case of Mexican Americans’. Leisure Sciences. Vol. 15 pp. 83-98.

Pellow, D. (2007) Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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