Through the lens of identity, culture, and the urban imaginary, this project critically examines the discursive process of city making in Philadelphia through everyday practices in order to understand how our urban context changes, and by whose influence. The
research begins by identifying a pattern that has emerged in contemporary cities: the co-optation of diversity alongside reductionist notions of culture. The critique of this pattern is primarily in the way that notions of diversity are wielded by power structures, such as city governments or anchor institutions.
In collaboration with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an arts and culture non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, a new idea of diversity touches ground. Through the design of an interactive exhibition embedding identity within the urban realm, on display from February through April 2015 at Philadelphia City Hall (and again in 2016), along with interview based research, a proposal is made for new paradigms of governance of these important concepts. With representatives from City Departments and Programs, mid-sized Arts and Cultural organizations, and small-scale, community based NPFs and NGOs acting as collaborators, these actors are fundamental to bridging the gap between local, nuanced knowledge of grassroots or community-based organizations and top-down, reductionist practices often found in urban governance.
When thinking of cities as shaped by active engagement and lived experience, conversations involving multiple voices from multiple actors are possible. An important moment is when the formation of strategic alliances begins to manifest. If these alliances prioritize complex identity as a foundation for diversity and cultural initiatives, they might be able to consciously move toward a practice of co-design using the urban imaginary as a vehicle for inclusivity of multiple voices and aspirations. The exhibit was a prototype of this. Recommendations stemming from the use of the urban imaginary as transformative urban practice might then form a pluralistic framework for arts and culture within urban governance in Philadelphia.