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Transdisciplinary Cities: moving from transdisciplinary function to transdisciplinary leadership

By Julia De Martini Day

To many, transdisciplinary might sound like an esoteric term used only by academics. When I returned to New York from the workshop, and told colleagues and friends I was at a ‘transdisciplinary workshop’, many didn’t know what I was talking about and changed the topic. Yet when I said I spent the week in Barcelona, everyone could relate and wanted to hear all about it. The irony is, cities – something billions of people around the world know – represent transdisciplinary in action. A takeaway from the workshop is that our job as researchers and practitioners is to make transdisciplinary partnerships as normal as every day, city living.

In Barcelona, transdisciplinary – the active involvement and engagement of multiple stakeholders in shaping a space – was illustrated by both activities and governance. Like most vibrant cities, places serve different people for different purposes simultaneously and constantly. Streets, like La Rambla, are places to walk and commute, and to socialize, do business, play, or shop. Squares invite children to play, but also parents to drink at the bar or socialize, vendors to sell goods, and people to walk. Activities in public space don’t fit neatly into a box; they transect interests and disciplines.

While most cities agree on this, and strive to create public spaces that invite coexistence of difference and spontaneity, not all create the leadership structures necessary to prioritize it. Putting one person in charge and calling it a day might seem easier, but doesn’t work for spaces that impact so many facets of city life. In recognition of this, Barcelona recently created a department for urban ecology, which brings multiple agencies, all related to public space, together, to shape a vision and strategy for public space design and management. Under this umbrella, there is also a focus on public engagement and giving everyday citizens a voice in the city-making process.

I’m sure there is much to critique about this, as there is whenever the status quo changes, but that is not the intention of this post. Instead, the purpose is to question why more cities don’t also try to reflect the transdisciplinary of urban life in urban governance? In my own city, New York, more than seven public agencies and multiple private stakeholders are involved with the streets, which make up 80% of NY’s public space. While there is a mayoral vision to reduce vehicular crashes on the streets, which the departments of transportation and health support, the design change needed to make the streets safer is slow to come. In part, this is due to a lack of a shared vision about what these streets are for. All agencies and stakeholders, even those more indirectly responsible for the streets, such as the sanitation and parks departments, need to prioritize crash reduction and streets as public spaces. Could a NYC-version of a department of urban ecology create a shared vision across these agencies and private stakeholders and citizens too? Following this workshop, I am more equipped with the tools needed to continue working on this.

Julia De Martini Day Poster