Authentic Communities
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Planning Authentic Communities

Posted By Laura Tate, Thursday, March 16, 2017

If you've ever clamoured for a home in a heritage district, or pined for a funky loft in a converted warehouse, chances are that, at least in part, your desires were sparked by a desire for the authentic. You're not alone.  The desire for authentic homes and communities is an important theme in planning.  And so, this is the first in what I hope will be (at least) a monthly posting on authenticity and planning.   It’s an important topic with significant daily quality of life implications for urban dwellers.

I'm an independent scholar with over two decades of urban planning and policy experience, and completed my doctorate as a mature student at the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning.  I spent much of my professional life in Vancouver, Canada.  I now live in Victoria (also in Canada) -a smaller government, university, and tourist town located on an island which is north of Seattle and roughly the size of England, but with a tiny fraction of its population.  I also love to travel to cities (in North America and Europe so far).  You’re hearing these details because they impact my perspective.  Others with different life experiences may see things from other angles.

Since this is my first post for ACSP, let's start with the basics.

Can we define authenticity?

Not easily.  But everybody wants it.  I know authenticity can be a loaded -not to mention subjective- topic.  It has so many angles that a group of us (including me and my co-editor, Brettany Shannon) has decided to collaborate to explore this topic through an edited collection. (More on some of the group's wisdom in future posts.)    We’re not the first people to care about the topic.  For example, for scholars like Brown-Saracino, Zukin, Ellin, and others, it is a complex interaction with the authentic that drives the gentrification process. That said, our group aims to break new ground by considering (and debating) the notion of authentic communities from many different angles concurrently.  Maybe an easier question to start with is: why does everyone (or nearly everyone) claim to want authenticity?

Why Authenticity?  Blame the philosophers first

Great thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau began searching for authenticity several centuries ago.  Then in the early 20th century, Heidegger developed a truly modern interpretation of this topic.  His ideas sparked an individualistic quest for many to begin discovering their true selves.  And, according to some, this quest for the true self was intensified and spread by trained and pop psychologists drawing from the work of Sigmund Freud (Heath and Potter, 2004).  Whether you're a Baby Boomer, Generation X, Millennial, or beyond you might recognize some of this strand in pop culture, self-help literature, and especially marketing materials and approaches from the 1950s through to the present.  Of course, as later philosophers like Charles Taylor would argue, this understanding of authenticity was narrow, self-serving, and likely not what Heidegger had really been trying to say -or unleash on the world (discussed in Braman, 2008).  I'll return to Taylor in a future post.  But you get the gist -authenticity starts with the personal.

Blame Jane Jacobs (and others) second

Of course, the impact of authenticity on our society and cities hasn't stopped there.  Any planner or architect knows that the ideas of Jane Jacobs have had a huge impact on what we expect authentic communities to look and feel like (explicitly and implicitly).  Jacobs’s work has cultivated in many of us a longing to live, or spend time, in pedestrian-friendly, grade-oriented ethnic villages within larger urban centres.  As Zukin argues, however, these villages are impossible to preserve in a context of skyrocketing rents and real estate prices (2011).  And, even worse according to Zukin, the planning response has emphasized the built form aspect of what Jacobs idealized in these urban villages, rather than looking at the social relationships and processes underpinning their vitality.  This response speaks to critiques by Ellis (2015:436) and Fainstein (2005:12) that our profession in the last two decades may have emphasized urban design at the expense of the social.  This is not to say that there is no place for good urban design.  I want to make that very clear.  Rather, it suggests that there is a need for balance, and to return to the planning profession’s holistic interest in communities and community quality of life.


Other factors, and what to expect in future blogs

 Personal and design factors are just a few of the things fuelling our hunger for authenticity and authentic communities.  Other factors have included an increasingly complex (and often distorting) relationship people and communities have with media and branded representations of cities and city life (discussed by Jean Beaudrillard, Edward Soja, and Nan Ellin among others).  They also include the re-emergence of non-dominant perspectives from people whose voices were suppressed for decades (even centuries): Indigenous people, visible and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, low income people, and women--- all people wanting greater control over their own lives and of the representations of those lives in our communities and larger society. 

Lots to consider, right?  Even overwhelming?  Not to worry.  Planners are inherently practical and applied people, and don’t like living in the abstract forever.  And so, each blog post from me on this topic will alternate: between exploring some broader questions and debates surrounding what authentic communities mean (like today’s topic), and showcasing some interesting, tangible work furthering authentic community development along one or more dimensions.   I would love to hear from readers as well- if you have any ideas on this topic, please send them to me and I will strive to work them into a future posting.  Finally, I will also be drawing from some of the wisdom of the others who are collaborating with me and my co-editor on our forthcoming work.  Thanks for reading, and watch for my next posting!


Laura E. Tate, PhD.

Feel free to also check out my authentic travel blog:

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