Cultural Pluralism

Cultural Pluralism (work in progress)

A narrative rooted in ecological process is essential for sustainable design, but the manner in which it is articulated in the built environment is equally important.  Values and biases fluctuate across generations, cultures and economic levels.   There is no universal aesthetic that crosses differential boundaries.  Therefore a meaningful aesthetic promotes experiences that respect local priorities, values and stories.

Without public participation in the development of the built environment, an opportunity to connect environment and culture would be missed.  The French philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu conducted studies to evaluate and quantify the way in which an individual develops aesthetic values.  From his research he found that there was a strong correlation between personal experience and aesthetic perception.  He argued that

a signifier which signifies nothing other than itself, does not consist of considering it ‘without connecting it with anything other than itself, either emotionally or intellectually’ . . . but rather of noting its distinctive stylistic features by relating it to the ensemble of works forming the class to which it belongs, and to these works only.(Weber 2011, 36) In his study of aesthetics and perception Bourdieu argues that art as a signifier is not universally understood due to variations in socialization processes among different individuals and cultures.  A key component of his philosophical research explored how human perceptions are based in an individual’s habitus.  Bourdieu defines habitus as the way in which schema is constructed over time through an individual’s experiences and environment. The experiences and memories that construct an individual’s habitus shape a person’s identity by defining meaning and values.   A sustainable and meaningful aesthetic should therefore recognize the values and narrative of the local community to develop designs that are relevant and significant to the community.

Similar to Bourdieu’s studies on the importance of habitus in shaping an individual’s values, Randolph Hester, a landscape architect, promotes community driven design as a way to create meaningful places for the immediate users.  In Hester’s seminal book, Design for Ecological Democracy, he outlines his philosophical approach for community building that focuses on relationships and interconnectivity between people and their environments. He argues that because social class is “the single most telling indicator of environmental values and behavior, city designers need to have a sympathetic understanding of the power play but also in nuanced expressions of symbolism.” (Hester 2006, 114).   Design for Ecological Democracy embraces two critical post-modernist methods of thinking that include principles from ecological science and participatory democracy.  His design philosophy strives to engender interdependency and understanding between people, cultural narratives and urban ecological systems. The development of the public realm, therefore, can aid in the development of a sustainable future by revealing endemic narratives and promoting cultural equity that fosters a multivalent dialogue between diverse communities.

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