Uncovering JAPA

Designing the Danceable City

Planning is full of uncertainty.

Planners are tasked with creating places without a complete understanding of who or how people will interact in them. But perhaps that’s what makes planning so exciting, the possibility for these spaces to reshape themselves reflecting the people who use it. But how do planners create flexible spaces, to plan for not only what is but what could be?

This question is central to Kevin Lynch’s 1972 piece “The Openness of Open Space” and remains a challenge for the planning discipline today.

It also becomes a concern for author Caroline Chen as she explores urban dance in her recent article “Designing the Danceable City: How Residents in Beijing Cultivate Health and Community Ties Through Urban Dance” in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 84, Nos. 3–4).

Chen demonstrates the possible tension between how government and planners envision a space and how individuals use it. She discovers that older adults in Beijing repurpose parks, parking lots, and underpasses to exercise, make new friends, and improve social abilities, creating healthy enclaves within the pollution-filled cities (Chen, 2018, 242).

And yet, despite the enjoyment they find, the government often displaces noisy urban dancers from spaces (parks) forcing them into less desirable locations, such as vacant lots and under bridges.

Ultimately, Chen uses Beijing to depict how urban dance creates opportunities for healthy aging and sociability, offering it as an option for planning in the United States.

While urban dance has already gained some popularity in U.S. cities with large Asian populations, it also may serve as a more general opportunity for cities with large older adult populations. She concludes that urban dance exemplifies “a disruptive strategy that has proven uncommonly successful despite conflicts and limited resources” and implies that perhaps planners have a responsibility, as Lynch would have wanted, to support the activities residents value (Chen, 2018, 248).

After reading Chen’s piece, I’m left wondering how planners go about creating these flexible spaces that allow for easy repurposing? Should we simply create empty spaces, lacking the specific features that turn spaces into places with meaning? And to what extent can conducting thorough engagement reveal these possible purposes?

The individuals we ask today may not be present tomorrow. It is also possible that given the time it takes to create open spaces, the needs of individuals at one time may not be the needs of individuals in the future.

Lynch raises the question of how to plan for not only what is but what could be. As it relates to the changing demographics of spaces, how do we plan not only for who is but who could be?

Top image: Dancers in Beihai Park in Beijing. Photo by Flicker user Design for Health (CC BY 2.0).


About the Author
Kyle Miller is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

May 16, 2019

By Kyle Miller