Posted December 6th 2010 at 2:46 pm by
in Miami Urban Think Tank Series

Miami Urban Think Tank: A New Kind of Civic Space

MUTT (Miami Urban Think Tank), is composed of a group of residents who actively meet to read, write and discuss Miami’s urbanism. The goal of MUTT is to provide a forum where professional values, critical thinking, and everyday experience shape analysis and action. MUTT advocates productive engagement between theory and practice, underlining the value of metropolitan Miami as a location for learning, research and progressive change. This post originally appeared in the MUTT blog.

Miami Urban Think Tank: A New Kind of Civic SpacePhoto by Jennifer Siquiera.

A snapshot of a MUTT meeting reveals that some people…

Laugh, decide they don’t have time for this shit and leave … Are quiet and never say anything … Come to sell their services and/or products … Want to assert their politics or campaign for their favorite politician … Network for professional opportunities … Have all the answers for anyone who has questions about Miami … Have questions for anyone who has answers about Miami … Carry out ethnographic observations … Have nothing else better to do that night … Want to impress their peers or the person they have a crush on … Bring their moms … Were dragged to attend after repeated invitations … Who are not like you or me or think like you or me are not thereLove their city but are very frustrated by it.

 

MUTT meetings are complicated animals. No MUTT meeting is alike. They always change and delve into unprecedented explorations about Miami. They take strange trajectories filled with opinions, claims and views on our city. Filled with discursive twists and turns, MUTT meetings reveal something fascinating about how we imagine and carry our professional and social lives in our city.

You can always tell by the nods and smirks on the introspective faces of those who attend. A bond develops. Yes, this is how our city is. You would need to be in Miami, from Miami – although that too is contested claim – to understand it. Whoever participates in a MUTT meeting does so with the desire to know and claim Miami beyond the sun, the sex and the sprawl that permeates its identity. There is more. What is it?

I still recall our first meeting. MUTT was a squirming pup then. It took place on an emblematic location of sorts; a public park. The meeting brought together mostly friends and familiar faces, individuals who made up a social circle of young urban professionals. Retracing the episode through my notes, I can return to the moment.

“We had a long discussion about Miami’s urban culture, its peculiar combination of influences arising from North America, the Caribbean and Latin America. It was a cacophony of voices and murmurs, each wanting to jump into an amorphous discussion and contribute to a meandering analysis. Before us, among us, Miami emerged as an object we could point at and touch, without our own awareness of the implications of such act. It was impulsive encounter, jazzy and patchy, interrupted with laughter, jokes, claims, false perceptions, awkward theories, compelling cases and informed opinions. It was a place full of possibility. We were very much like our city.”

Throughout many meetings, we have retained the quality of a social network. In some ways MUTT meetings function as a forum for the formation of social capital derived from the reflection, knowledge and practice of Miami’s urbanism. This process has some inherent issues. We are diverse but represent a particular socio-economic status. We have have time, leisure and capacities to know our city and claim our city. We are open-minded but ready to project fixed answers to evolving problems we see before us. We are entitled. As I mentioned MUTT is a complicated beast and we try to discuss these contradictions openly and constructively. The power of what we do lies in the capacity to claim our contradictions – much like our city – face them and make such complications productive for ourselves and others.

After the first meeting, more followed, always with different people in different places. Some people dropped by with brilliant comments only to disappear and never be seen again. Others returned, at times with not much to say, but always happy to be part of an interesting discussion unlike any other in Miami. Anyone can come to a MUTT meeting, stay, or leave. People come and go for reasons ranging in individual interest and collective purpose.

Miami Urban Think Tank: A New Kind of Civic SpacePhoto by Jennifer Siquiera.

Similarly, MUTT meetings took place in different places; from Edgewater district to Little Havana, from downtown to Liberty City, from a public park to a private living room, from a commercial spot to a conference room. Moving through the city forced us to challenge our own positions and claims from the perspective of alternative locations. With each location we faced our own assumptions. We were objectifying the city to reflect upon it but also became its objects of reflection as we moved through it.

We explored the contributions that shape Miami’s, politics, culture, consumption, social life, art, urbanism, planning and activism. We discussed topics including spectacle, public space, gentrification, urban branding, immigration and urban development. We read and wrote to anchor discussions and reflect on the practices that shaped them. We had successes and failures. Sometimes we spent a whole session on one article, sometimes people did not read at all. We adapted, tried different readings, different quantity of readings, videos instead of readings. We still haven’t arrived to a perfect model, but that is the nature of the beast. A format escapes us and the capacity to change, grow, morph is what defines MUTT meetings.

A MUTT meeting is a messy, provisional, haphazard process almost like the complex reality of the city itself. Not one Miami, but many Miami’s come to bear in a setting which can be characterized as a social network, a thinking circle, a virtual town hall, an intellectual face-out, an idea battle ground, a marketplace of know how, a mine field of inclusions and exclusions.

Unlike a planning process or design charrette, where outcomes are determined through representations, a determined plan, a focus or even pre-arranged in closed doors meetings, MUTT meetings are “situational”. A word provokes a claim, a claim provokes a barrage of questions, and a barrage of questions provokes another word. The cycle continues.

I attempt to moderate, direct and shape the discussion. Somehow, within the cacophony there needs to be a way to give precedence and provide order. But I succeed and fail. The meetings have a life of their own. I leave the experience asking how I can enhance the opinion of the person who doesn’t think like me. How do I make that person’s position into a productive conversation for all? How can I bear my own contradictions and make them productive to the rest? Like the city, MUTT meetings are works in progress.

Miami Urban Think Tank: A New Kind of Civic SpacePhoto by Jennifer Siquiera.

So what is a MUTT meeting useful for? What is its purpose? Recently an attendee told me that she wished that the outcome be something “tangible”. She, like others was a practitioner. She thought herself as a “doer” and didn’t see the value in the talk. As a practitioner myself, I understood and explained to her that a MUTT meeting was a space to ask questions rather than simply apply solutions. The first step towards a solution starts with the question: what is the problem, rather than the imposition of a solution. All of us have solutions but we lack the space to think about the questions that shape the solutions. MUTT meetings offer the capacity to ask what are we doing in Miami?

IN many ways MUTT meetings provide that unique place where the theory and the practice of the city meet through people, their interests, values and acts; a suspended space where the city in all its negative and positive countours is shaped through the voices of those who claim it. MUTT meetings are a loud speaker for the voices of contradiction, competition, absurdity, and lets face it humanity in the stage we know as the city.

In a city where public discourse plays out in extreme forms, where we imagine Miami as incomplete, failed or subordinate to other cities in its infrastructure, culture, civility. Where we forcefully compare our city with others to make sense of it. MUTT meetings serve as a filter to allow us to see what we say about our city and ask, why are we saying that?

The snapshot that emerges is one of conflict and harmony, hierarchies and power struggles, inclusions and exclusions, academic knowledge versus techno-chratic knowledge versus everyday life, positions based on race, sense of community and belonging.

Are MUTT meetings Miami’s first truly civic spaces? spaces where people claim their city in their own way? Who is present and who is not?

Hector Fernando Burga is a doctoral candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. He holds a B.A. from the University of Miami in political science and international studies and dual masters degrees in town planning and architecture also from UM. His research focuses on the effects of immigration on urban planning in metropolitan Miami over the past 30 years with a particular focus on urban citizenship, participatory governance, architecture, urban design and local politics. He has practiced architecture in Miami and Washington DC and is interested in the use of ethnography not only as an urban research method, but also as a professional place-making technique. He has edited the Berkeley Planning Journal, has contributed to Places Magazine and is a current writer in the Polis Blog.

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