Why we need to rethink the ugly side of town

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“It is impossible after travelling the American landscape, from city to town to village, not to feel love for it, and finally a pride of possession... But it is then that you begin to see the landscape with a different eye, and to see what you have not seen before” – J. B. Jackson, 1967. 

The quote I shared from J.B Jackson’s To Pity the Plumage and Forget the Dying Bird isn't confined to just the American landscape, it's a characteristic of many modern landscapes. To give some context, Jackson highlights the not so pretty parts of major cities: the ghettos, the wastelands consisting of rusting tracks, cinders and floodplains, and the places with unpaved roads and dying trees where local minorities often live. He asks, what do these spaces reveal? Answering that much of the American landscape, even in wealthy areas, is neglected and mismanaged, circumscribed by old ideas of planning and preservation.  

Although in most scenarios, these improvised communities arise deliberately as a result of thoughtless planning, it's also safe to say that in some circumstances they have come into existence organically. The downside of these ‘backyard communities’ is that they are not only generators of environmental pollution due to their lack of basic amenities such as clean water or decent plumbing which forces inhabitants to pollute natural water sources. These zones are also destinations for electric power plants; dump sites that often hold a greater percentage of the city’s commercial waste; and major industries that continuously contribute to air and land pollution. Within them also exist an increasing level of crime, health issues, poor or below standard education, drug abuse, and a lack of rich communal spaces. When communities like this persistently exist in the backyard of major economies, one begins to question if cities are considering the needs of residents and how poverty and being a visible minority factor into city planning.  

I find the most common solution that decision-makers often rely on wiping out these areas by building more facades such as shopping complexes or condominiums—money generating projects—under the pretense that these lesser communities did not or do not exist. The results often lead to the displacement of less privileged homeowners and an increased rate of homelessness. The consequence of this often leads to ignorance from much of the general public as we question why there are so many homeless people on our city streets. The delusion and constant fear of pointing fingers at the agents that give rise to these undervalued landscapes have gone on for too long. Therefore, the solution is not to ‘makeup’ but instead encourage environmental design professionals and governing bodies to work hand in hand with inhabitants of neglected landscapes to identify what afflicts them and find sustainable development solutions that improve the standard of living for them.

Environmental designers need to be aware that they are not ‘cosmetic surgeons’ and enhancing the standards of living does not involve changing or remodeling the identity or sense of place within these communities. Although their intentions are inherently good, human beings want and need to feel a sense of belonging within their environments. Environmental designers must incorporate local landscape elements, materials and land use into the design and planning solutions. Investing in these elements can do a lot for local residents who not only become more open to an environmental designer's proposed ideas but also become more motivated to engage in the process. They feel a sense of acceptance within the broader community when similar elements or proposed alternatives legitimize and speak to their community. 

Residents of these backyard communities are ten times more likely than you, or myself to live within walking proximity from a dumpsite or chemical facility—factors that contribute to an increased decline in both mental and physical health. Instead of inconsiderately dumping waste or siting plants into these communities, planning initiatives that incorporate plazas, community gardens and parks should be brought up in the agenda for these neighbourhoods. While the cultural diversity of residents that inhabit these communities is often forgotten, these suggested spaces have the potential to bring about vibrant communities where not only cultural and religious festivals take place, but where marketing and general socialization between different ethnicities and social classes take place. 

The ugly side of town does not seem as ugly when its residents are made to see themselves as full members of society and not outcasts.  

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