Cincinnati to host forum on the future of urban life

With the majority of the world’s population now living in cities, new challenges have arisen in development and sustainability.  Future Cities; Livable Futures is a symposium bringing world-renowned visionaries to Cincinnati to discuss futures both global and local.
Event co-directors Adrian Parr and Michael Zaretsky organized Future Cities; Livable Futures as a way to provoke critical thinking about the future of urban development within an accessible, public forum. 
The event, to be held November 9 at the Contemporary Arts Center, was born out of the travel Zaretsky and Parr do for their research on poverty and urban development. Zaretsky is an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP School of Architecture and Interior Design, and Parr is the Chair of Taft Faculty and Director of the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center. The two have traveled widely, from Shanghai to Mexico City to Nairobi, and want to translate what often appear like lofty, distant developmental issues into a broad-based, approachable discussion. 
“Cincinnati has a history of complex and challenging social issues. Some people feel development is working well, and some have concern about exclusion and involvement barriers,” Zaretsky says. 
For that reason, the symposium will examine the issues surrounding development. Cincinnati is particularly fitting as a host for this kind of event as it’s in a region increasingly associated with suburbia as well as places like Detroit and issues like bankruptcy. 
“We can learn and offer tools to transform the vision of the rust belt into something more optimistic and inspiring, so that it’s no longer looked at as a black spot or stain on the country,” Parr says.
To this end, nine speakers have been invited to the symposium, each known internationally for his or her work and selected specifically to offer a distinct perspective. Speaker fields range from Brazil to Australia, with backgrounds from academic explorations of environmental policy to architectural activism. But even with such a diverse group, more than half already have ties in Cincinnati.    
Architect and urban designer Marshall Brown has been involved in major development projects and community revitalization throughout Chicago, but previously taught for three years in UC’s DAAP program. 
Tony Fry, professor of Design Futures at Griffith University in Brisbane, did a workshop at DAAP last year, and Chris Luebkeman, geologist and Director of Global Foresight & Innovation, Arup, will lead a workshop on “Drivers of Change” there in November. 
Distinguished Fellow at Fowler Center for Sustainable Value, Ilma Barros, does strategic planning in business and social change with a special emphasis on development in Brazil. She spends a great deal of time in Latin America, but makes Cincinnati her home.
Anna Rubbo, Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, will have an exhibit at DAAP called "People Building Better Cities: Participation and Inclusive Urbanization" during the week leading up to the symposium. 
Future Cities is a unique opportunity to take the perspectives of these scholars, researchers and practitioners outside the walls of academia, Parr says. Holding the event downtown makes it accessible to a broad constituency, which is important when thinking about issues like social inequality, critically examining rejuvenation efforts and reimagining the directions cities can take.
“We want it to be open and not intimidating, so that there won’t be the sense that it’s academics talking from behind a stack of paper,” she says. “It’s a launch pad from which to begin thinking about changes here and to envision how to move forward.”
While its location makes the symposium physically more accessible, having it in Cincinnati also establishes accessibility in a broader sense. Cincinnati is very often held up as an all-American city, Zaretsky says. Cincinnati wraps its history, architecture, cultural institutions and environment into a package neatly representative of the United States, a country with abundant midsized cities.   
“We have all of these things that people go to cities for, but at the same time Cincinnati is very livable,” he says.
This is important not only because Cincinnati faces challenges and opportunities in common with other cities across the country and the globe, but also because experts predict that cities of 300,000 to one million people are the cities of the future. The environmental, social and developmental barriers to sustainable growth in mega-cities stand exponentially higher and are further entrenched than in midsized cities. 
“As opposed to mega-cities, we can actually get lots done in a midsized city if we’re excited and motivated,” Parr says.
For a city Cincinnati’s size, problems like transportation, housing, employment and social equality mean opportunities rather than setbacks. If these issues can be approached sustainably before infrastructure hardens around them, it sets the stage for later inclusive, stable growth. 
With urban transformation, as with any large-scale change, there comes debate. The purpose of Future Cities; Livable Futures is not necessarily to generate consensus about issues, but to open a dialogue about the future.
“I’ve lived in conservative cities and liberal-minded cities,” Zaretsky says. “It’s fascinating to live in a place [like Cincinnati] with such diverse political outlooks.”
Zaretsky and Parr look to the diversity of Cincinnati standpoints to interact with speakers’ ideas in order to generate innovative, compound visions of the future. Ideally, participants and speakers alike can learn, collaborate, and bring fresh ideas and perspectives back to places like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, Parr says. 
These ideas and perspectives will have the opportunity to spar throughout the day during roundtable discussions, but the real idea lab will occur during the symposium’s final event, “Demand Better,” a panel discussion in which Cincinnatians interpret what they’ve heard in the context of our city.
“We have a thoughtful community. It’s time that we have these conversations in Cincinnati,” says Eric Avner, Vice President and Senior Program Manager for Community Development at the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation. He is the panel’s moderator and has composed it of experienced, opinionated individuals as diverse as possible in opinion, age, background, race and worldview. 
“This is where we’re going to get a real discussion going,” he says. “I don’t expect there to be a single wallflower.” 
While specific topics of panel discussion will depend largely on the speakers that come beforehand, Avner plans to guide the conversation toward practical applications and local impact. The panel’s goal is to provide a frame of reference for global issues within Cincinnati and how our approach to urban issues can be applied globally.
“Cincinnati doesn’t currently face sustainability and infrastructure challenges the way other more dense cities do. But still, the way we handle things could be instructive, and the issues that creep up in other cities can give us something to consider as we grow,” Avner says. The exchange of ideas is a chance to examine and incorporate other cities’ successes and obstacles in areas like public transportation, land use and equitable development into our own vision of the future.
At the end of the day when words like sustainability, diversity, environmental impact and social engagement are buzzing in everyone’s ears, the distilled message is inclusiveness, Parr says. What she and Zaretsky hope people take away is a broader, engaging vision of Cincinnati’s future, one that is both accepting and accessible.   
“I’d love to see key parties commit to one new change to make this a better place,” Parr says.  “It could be as simple as a cultural festival, or as complex as a new building or event; something that involves everyone.”
To register for the free, public event, visit
Julian Agyeman
Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University
Ilma Barros
Distinguished Fellow at Fowler Center for Sustainable Value
Marshall Brown
Architect, Urban designer and Assistant Professor and Assistant Professor at IIT
Roberta Feldman
Architectural activist, Researcher and Educator committed to democratic design

Thomas Fisher
Professor in the School of Architecture and Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota

Tony Fry
Professor, Design Futures Program, Griffith University, Brisbane

Chris Luebkeman
Director, Global Foresight & Innovation, Arup

Anna Rubbo
Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute

Alex Stepick
Professor of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University in Miami and Professor of Sociology at Portland State University
Event Directors:

Adrian Parr
Chair of Taft Faculty and Director of the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati.
Michael Zaretsky
Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Interior Design (SAID) in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) at the University of Cincinnati.
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