The Landscape Guide

10.11 Culture, Ethnicity and Context

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A huge communications revolution has taken place, since Knight, Price and Repton published their theory of contextual zoning in 1793. It has affected relationships within countries and between countries. Ships, trains, cars, planes, cables and airwaves reverberate with people, goods, energy and information. Great changes in city form have resulted, and have made cities rather similar the world over. Airports and four-lane roads, like lavatory seats, hardly need to differ between countries. Buildings have also become similar, because architects adopted international styles and controlled interior climates.

The communications revolution has also allowed peoples to move round the world. First, a great flood of Europeans colonized what were seen, disrespectfully, as primitive countries. Second, a reverse trend began. There are Chinatowns in London and New York. There is a Turkish sector in Antwerp and a Bangla Deshi sector in London. Los Angeles has so many ethnic sectors that Charles Jencks describes it as Heteropolis (Jencks, 1993). He believes it to have over 100 ethnic groups and more animal diversity than any other city. All this presents planners with a dilemma.

If an old Norwegian town comes to have a predominantly Asian population, what should happen to its character? The logic of the conservation movement suggests that "historic character should be conserved'. Traditional building materials, street patterns, architectural and planting styles should be retained. But ethnic minority groups have every right to be suspicious. "Conservation' could be a guise for cultural repression. Conservationists could be yet another cultural group seeking to manipulate language as a means to power. Setting aside zones for a Chinatown, a Turkeytown, an Indiatown, and a Koreatown would impose another type of uniformity. But an unplanned free-for-all could be worse, with cities losing all coherence, individuality and regional distinctiveness. The answer, I believe, lies with a sensitive and thoughtful approach to contextual policy (Figure 9f).

Chinatown, New York

Cultural zones in Los Angeles