Designing urban inclusion

Metrolab Brussels MasterClass 1

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urban-inclusion

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This book presents the productions of the first international MasterClass hosted by Metrolab in January and February of 2017, on the topic of inclusion in urban spaces and urban projects. The event is the first stage of a larger project conducted at Metrolab and involving collective and collaborative research. We would like to begin with a word about this project that is dear to us.

Metrolab is a transdisciplinary and interuniversity laboratory for applied and critical urban research, funded by the Brussels-Capital Region through its European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme (2014-2020). This new laboratory, created by UCL (Université Catholique de Louvain) and ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles), is a collaboration between four existing research institutions: CriDIS (social sciences), LOCI (architecture and urban planning), LOUISE (urban planning, infrastructure, and environment), and IGEAT (geography). For its founding members, Metrolab offers a unique opportunity to experiment with new forms of transdisciplinary urban research, in a practical and institutional setting that makes such experiments relevant and effective. In 2015, the ERDF for Brussels provided the proper setting, by giving us the means to conduct actionresearch studies with a significant portion of the 46 projects subsidised as part of the 2014-2020 programme. The overall objective of this academic support for ERDF is twofold. First, it is practical: we wish to test the ability of university researchers to offer improvements upon an urban policy such as ERDF. But it is also scientific, epistemological: we wish to test new forms of involvement and positioning for urban research, in order to improve its scientific quality. For contemporary urban studies, the possibility to bridge the gap between academic and theoretical critique on the one hand, and more pragmatic and experimental forms of knowledge on the other hand, is a significant challenge. The complexity of urban issues and policies nowadays is such that it no longer makes sense to consider ‘academic excellence’ and ‘fundamental research’ as being entirely separate from ‘action research’ and ‘policy research’. In the opinion of Metrolab’s founders, what cities need today is a new kind of urban research that would be both developed on a theoretical level and involved on a pragmatic level. Accordingly, Metrolab has been designed as a research environment that hosts and stimulates conceptual works as well as applied/collaborative studies.

In terms of the topics covered, Metrolab’s scientific programme is structured around three axes of research: urban inclusion, urban ecology, and urban production, which follow the focuses of the ERDF for Brussels and correspond roughly to the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainable urban development. In terms of timing, these axes of research form three successive cycles of work. In 2016-2017, Metrolab’s studies, seminars, and events were focused on issues related to urban inclusion. The 2017-2018 period is centred on urban ecology. Lastly, 2019-2020 will be dedicated to urban production. The collective work done on these three topics is an opportunity for our researchers to educate themselves and become comprehensive and versatile observers/actors of urban policies. Each cycle of work ends with a period where all members of Metrolab (researchers, coordinators, professors, administrators) pool their energies and hold a MasterClass dedicated to one of the three axes of research of the ERDF programme for Brussels.

The MasterClass is intended to act as both a time for reflection and a productive tool. With regards to the reflection aspect, the knowledge, insights, and results produced by Metrolab researchers are used during work sessions with the students who take part in the MasterClass, in collaboration with guest Master Tutors who define an appropriate methodology depending on the topic. With regards to the production aspect, the MasterClass is also an opportunity for Belgian and international students from diverse backgrounds to come up with new ideas that might shed new light on some of the 2014-2020 ERDF projects that were chosen as case studies.

This means that the MasterClass is a unique moment for emulation: it calls upon the skills and knowledge of our researchers; it builds relationships with those in charge of ERDF projects; it develops new methods for analysis, idea development, and ERDF project improvement with guest Master Tutors; and it lets students in various disciplines (sociology, architecture, political science, geography, etc.) gather from all around the world in Brussels, where they can examine the local ERDF programme and develop new and future-oriented suggestions aiming to improve it.

While this approach obviously has its risks and limits — due to a limited time frame (two weeks), the high amount of information that students must digest, and the prospective nature of the suggestions made —, it builds relationships with ERDF project developers, stimulates creativity, and contributes to reflections on theoretical concepts as well as concrete proposals for the programming and management of infrastructure projects. In addition, the book demonstrates how students’ suggestions for the cases studied could be used to formulate more general proposals. For instance, in the book’s conclusion, we refer to the concept of ‘inclusive enclave’, a type of urban space that requires a specific design and management; we also problematise the topics of governance and social responsibility of operators in the context of public-private partnerships.

This first MasterClass, which was part of the 2016-2017 working period on urban inclusion, explored the topic of urban hospitality as part of a methodology dedicated to transdisciplinary investigation; this methodology was mainly developed by our guest Master Tutor Miodrag Mitrašinović, associate professor of Urbanism and Architecture at the Parsons School of Design and author of Concurrent Urbanities: Designing Infrastructures of Inclusion (Routledge, 2015). Other mentors for the MasterClass included Maya Wiley (American civil rights activist and former advisor to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio) and the duo of architect Teddy Cruz and political scientist Fonna Forman (associate professor of Political Science and director of the UCSD Center on Global Justice).

Some thirty students from Master and PhD programmes, with diverse disciplinary and geographical backgrounds (Belgium, Italy, United Kingdom, USA, China, Brazil, etc.), actively and constructively participated in the MasterClass, demonstrating both international interest in Metrolab’s initiative and in Brussels’ potential as a city-region that arouses curiosity and creativity. This initial publication reports on the work, reflections, and results produced during the first MasterClass; as such, it provides an early illustration of the scientific and critical content developed through transdisciplinary research.

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We hope you enjoy reading it!

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