City Builders: Jay Pitter

Jay Pitter is a Toronto-based author, placemaker and advocate for more inclusive, safe and vibrant cities. The co-editor (with John Lorinc) of the 2016 anthology Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Density, she is currently working on her second book, Where We Live.Jay Pitter

CA: Our most urgent need right now in architecture and urban design?

Pitter: The need to collaborate with professionals outside of design fields. While designers often espouse the value of collaboration, 
design jargon and antiquated hierarchies across disciplines prevail. Although cities have historically been shaped by a small and vocal group of urban elites, urban dwellers are increasingly resisting having their lives shaped or “problems” solved by designers.

CA: What can architects learn from professionals in other fields?

Pitter: Experts from other professional fields, such as mental health and the violence-against-women sector, are often unrecognized within urbanism, but are at the forefront of some of our most urgent city-building issues. The once clearly defined boundaries of urbanism are becoming less revered, and I think that’s a good thing. Many of my colleagues—individuals with architectural, urban planning, public health, community arts, and environmental studies backgrounds—are more committed to articulating a bold and holistic form of urbanism. We see the possibilities of our cumulative expertise, and are more committed to urban equity, than any particular design discipline or project.

CA: How much of architecture and urban design is, or can be/should be, social engineering?

Pitter: Urban design should be a tool to promote urban equality, not social engineering. Design can be used to encourage positive behaviours like walking or reducing our carbon footprint by embracing local densification. But social engineering is problematic, because it positions people as “subjects” rather than agents of change. Also, the act of shaping behavior and belief is fraught with power imbalances.

CA: What do you know now that you didn’t know back then?

Pitter: I’ve primarily worked in professional spaces where people don’t look like me, and so early on I learned to express ideas regarding the city’s class and cultural stratification in a very careful manner. Now, 
I just tell people that I’ll likely make them uncomfortable up front. I think discomfort is a good thing and essential for growth. This is how I begin lectures and placemaking engagements.

CA: So: don’t be squeamish about uncomfortable truths. For example?

Pitter: I understand that talking about police profiling in parks is not nearly as pleasant as discussing community gardens—and focusing on millennials who can’t afford a million-dollar home is easier than tackling housing instability caused by displacement of Indigenous peoples or mental health issues. However, my placemaking practice, strong community connections and writing keeps me abreast of some of the most heart-breaking issues across several cities. Divides are deepening; more than ever, we need to find ways of having more courageous conversations. Besides, if we’re truly committed to co-creating cities for everyone, what’s a little discomfort?

CA: Your nutshell advice for urbanists?

Pitter: Ask yourself: Who’s Not Here?