Care and maintenance of cities

A few months back we posted about the idea of a Department of Care which would be a cross departmental effort to take better care of the people and places in a city. The idea was originally proposed by urban designer Justin Garrett Moore.

In this recent interview with Urban Omnibus, Moore gives a lot more of the thinking behind the idea, including additional examples.

The question was, “What would you do with $1 billion out of New York City’s [then] $88 billion budget?” And one response was, “Well, let’s address everything that we’re collectively going through and seeing when you walk around pretty much any neighborhood in New York City.” Lack of maintenance and care, and how much these issues were affecting all of us, were becoming more apparent.

One of the driving components of this line of thought is that in most cases cities are quite unequal. Even when a local government wants to invest in parks, for example, the ongoing cost of maintenance is not taken into account and wear and tear will affect different places in different ways. In some places, a local group might do some of the maintenance, but rely on free time that people in poorer neighbourhood might not have, or the same park might be used much more intensely in areas with fewer backyards and organized sports. Just building and then largely forgetting about maintenance doesn’t cover those differences.

So many attempts to improve the public realm in recent memory have run into this issue. If you rely on community buy-in or contribution to make the project happen, it’s only going to succeed in areas where there’s more money and capacity. […]

The circumstances that lead to places not being cared for and maintained happen because the resources needed to build a place are too divorced from the resources needed to keep it. And what it takes to keep a place is care.

One concept from the interview to keep in the back of your mind, is this view from Sadafumi (Sada) Uchiyama, ASLA, who is the Chief Curator and Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center at the Portland Japanese Garden, reframing maintenance and care.

You have to go from thinking about a certain timeline — it’s a construction and capital project, and then you open the thing, and then you maintain it — to the mindset that you’re doing continuous incremental construction. As soon as you make that shift, how you resource things happens very differently

And one community event to emulate, taking place across the country in Rwanda.

Another great place to look is Rwanda, where they have something called Umuganda, which is the last Saturday of every month, when everyone does community service. The place is spotless. Businesses are closed — the whole society that day of the month shuts down. Some people are clearly just at home, but a large number of people are legitimately out doing work and projects in their community.

Photo: By Justin Garrett Moore, a block party in Harlem, September 2021.