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The Ethics and Aesthetics of Place

Public Matters' Market Makeover is a comprehensive strategy for addressing the "grocery gap" in "food deserts," areas that have limited access to quality, healthy food; an overabundance of fast food; and alarmingly high rates of chronic conditions related to poor diet.

Healthy food access is an important Public Matter because there may not be Enough Pie so we had better get to the Roots of Change soon. It's an awkward sentence, but if you are interested in food access in Los Angeles, its parts are greater than the whole. Let's break it down. While there are important organizations working to ensure healthy food access, like the wonkily named California Food Policy Council, there are some organizations who use their names to express their core identity particularly well. Organizations like Public Matters, Enough Pie and Roots of Change use metaphor and double entendre to communicate not only their mission, but also the value they place on meaning, intention, and interpretation. Their dual-purpose names reflect a duality that is also important in their work.

For Public Matters, this duality is the ethics and the aesthetics of place. Bruce B. Janz in his article "Thinking Like a Mountain: Ethics and Place as Travelling Concepts1 explains the intricacies of these notions:

The phrase 'ethics of place' comes with a host of ambiguities. It is not simply ethics derived from specific locations, much less ethics applied to specific places. It is not ethics that is situational, or relativist, or historicized, or subjective.

Public Matters' Market Makeovers project works with private, for-profit small business owners of neighborhood bodegas and corner stores to transform their shops into healthy food access points. This approach, however, puts the public at the heart of the effort, utilizing the best available, most pervasive, self-sustaining distribution channel in many communities -- the bodega or corner store -- to achieve the outcomes so many others seek, but Public Matters achieves.

They do this by creating welcoming environments with good signage, lighting, display information and visual merchandising that encourages customers to make healthier food choices. Yet, they do so with a process and with an aesthetics derived by working with community members, often the very same customers or neighbors of a particular store. This approach ensures that the redesigned store, and the food it is promoting, is received well because it resonates with the culture of the neighborhood -- this is a reflection of how Public Matters values the ethics of place. Public Matters deals with public matters in a way that is clear that the public matters.

So what is the Ethics of Place? Public Matters performs extended, life as art "residencies" in and with communities; they disrupt the participant-observer paradigm by becoming participant-stakeholders. This is the essence of their practice. It is the heart of why they achieve an ethics of place. Janz goes on to write in his article:

At any rate, the ethics of place is not so much an oxymoron, as a recovery, a placing in tension of elements that have always been present, and a way to re-think the all too easy move from universal to particular.
The same set of tensions, I would argue, is true for place. As long as we think of place solely as location (which is a universal, in that all particulars participate in it), we diminish it. We make it into something apart from human subjectivity, apart from us. But in fact, we are always rooted in place, and a long list of philosophers (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Edward Casey, Jeffrey Malpas, Andrew Light) have argued that it is our very human nature to exist and act within place. We are essentially platial beings.

Public Matters has always sought to explore subjectivity as a way of re-establishing and re-rooting in a place. For example, through projects like A Chinatown Banquet that intentionally confounded singular categorization of Boston's Chinatown through the multiplex identities youth and community, and PDUB Productions that makes public the perspectives and lived cultural identities of Historic Filipinotown, Public Matters has served as a form of "tensioning bridge" between the universal and the particular.

Pdub Productions students Miguel Murcia and Jerico Nava along with members of the Pilipino Workers Center holding up the title sign for the video series "Hidden Hi Fi" in front of the PWC Jeepney, a repurposed jeepney turned into a large-scale form of mobile media featuring youth-created media about Historic Filipinotown.

Why are the ethics and aesthetics of place important?

Marshall Ganz at the Harvard Kennedy School once distilled the essence of for-profit corporate culture as "do as much as possible with as few people as possible" and that of the social change/community organizing world as trying to "do as much as possible with as many people as possible."

In the past five years or so, crowdsourcing has emerged as a new form of social, organizational and business practice. And, as technology's capability for causing shifts to core assumptions is proven again, more and more companies are being built on the platform of "do as much as possible with as many people as possible but without having to pay them." Indeed it sometimes feels as though we've reached the tipping point where technology has set its sights on replacing, or at least, representing "community."

Inspired by, perhaps the most well-known crowdsourcing platform, Kickstarter, dozens, if not hundreds of entrepreneurs have launched crowd-based platforms focusing on: fundraising for politics, business, and nonprofits; sourcing the "collective wisdom" answers to medical, scientific, and research challenges; and even improving neighborhoods. For-profit, start-up companies like Neighborland, MindMixer and SmallKnot enable one to help change a neighborhood through crowdsourcing ideas, projects and funding for small businesses, and ostensibly this change will be positive.

And that's where it all breaks down. Many of these platforms are agnostic to the ethics of place. Crowdsourcing is just a fancy word for community-based, community-led or community organizing. With the recent history of the Tea Party Movement we have witnessed that crowdsourcing can be for good or ill. The problem is with the digital vernacular of most crowdsourcing platforms and tools, a predisposition derived from their very form -- their aesthetics -- that skews towards their use by a socio-economic demographic that increasingly eschews place for placelessness. The ethics of placelessness drive towards a universality that threatens the particular-ness of communities. We see this in the rise of a "hipster" aesthetics present, to some degree in every metropolitan area. In contrast, I have seen Public Matters use time and again, successfully, a keen sensitivity for what my colleagues and I call: Cultural Resonance. Cultural Resonance, if defined in contrast to crowdfunding, is non-transactional, non-instrumental, but rather it is that vibration of meaning and matter that speaks to the core of what people in a community know and believe.

A contemporary spin on the Filipino tradition of harana, or serenade. Passport to My Heart is collaboration between elders from the Silver Lake Adult Day Health Center and youth from Pdub Productions in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown. Featuring a traditional harana and a contemporary harana written by the Pdub Band. Video scripted and shot by Pdub youth.

Physical placemaking is not the same as community development. Community development requires an intent to focus on human development; without this, efforts to transform places serve the universal ethics and not the particular ones of a specific time, community and place. There is no crowdsourcing human development. There is Public Matters, though.

Returning to Janz:

Place-making imagination recognizes that our constructed and understood places sometimes can have the same oversimplified character to them. We can make urban spaces which fulfill only a single function. Their vocabulary is limited, and as such, their ability to thrive as places is limited. Just as with moral imagination, places too require a rich vocabulary to thrive. What we do not realize is that this is a problem of knowledge, not of place itself. That is, the places usually are already rich, but we are just unable to recognize them as such. Our knowledge is superficial, driven by insufficiently examined questions. We see natural land as 'resource', and thus simplify it, limiting its vocabulary and as well its ability to challenge our own systems of knowledge. We construct strip malls and chain stores, rendering the urban landscape's vocabulary superficial, single-purposed, and minimally legible, while simultaneously training ourselves to only see a limited range of platial signifiers, thus missing any complex natural or social ecosystem that might in fact exist there. Our moral imagination is limited, and so our imagination of places is also limited, and as such, we fall into the illusion that places can just be regarded instrumentally.

One could say that Public Matters encompasses "people matters," who express and manifest the ethics of place, and "place matters" of the built environment. People are inextricably products of the places where they live, work, play and pray. How people make meaning of where they live is a public matter. How where one lives shapes who we are and who we can and do become is a public matter.

There are long-standing examples of ethics and aesthetics of place shaping the public. A polder is a low-lying tract of land enclosed by dikes that forms a hydrological entity with no connection to outside water other than through manually operated devices. The Dutch have long reclaimed marshes and fenland, resulting in some 3,000 polders nationwide. The first polders were constructed in the 11th century. Water management entities were set up to maintain the integrity of the dykes around polders, maintain the waterways inside a polder and control the various water levels inside and outside the polder. Water bodies function independently from other government bodies and their function is essentially the same to this day. Often warring cities would still cooperate to maintain the polders through these water entities. The necessary cooperation in maintaining polders also gave rise to a unique Dutch version of third way politics, based on consensus, called the Polder Model.

Imagine a future Los Angeles where communities come together, despite their differences to maintain the polders of healthy food oases in all neighborhoods. The work of Public Matters through its Market Makeovers could be the beginning of this future. Janz could have been describing the incredible potential of Public Matters when he closes his article:

And yet, our hermeneutic of place is still in its infancy. As we come to see that our moral universe is made richer when we interrogate, and are interrogated by, place-knowledge, we will also be able to create new concepts, new forms and ways of life. Our concepts will travel between forms of knowledge, and become newly integrated, enabling a richer vocabulary of both place and ethics, a new appreciation of ethos and peripherality, and a richer life. We will, in short, develop an ethics of place.


1 "Thinking Like a Mountain": Ethics and Place as Travelling Concepts. Drenthen, Martin, Jozef Keulartz and James Proctor, eds. New Visions of Nature: Complexity and Authenticity. Series: The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics. New York: Springer, in press (2009).

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