April Swanson

UP 260

Professor Salo

17 November 2013

Writing Assignment #5: Margaret Kohn and Chimamanda Adichie

In Margaret Kohn’s essay, Public Space in the Progressive Era, Kohn tackles significant differences between the Olmstedian vision and the progressive approach to public space.  She states that while the former provided cultural sites of social interaction that were aimed towards improving the lives of the poor and working class, it was the latter that not only fostered these spaces for more sustained social interactions between people of differing backgrounds, but also provided the social learning of both the working and elite populations. The progressive approach therefore accomplishes something the Olmstedian vision does not. It does not utilize public space to solely expose the working class to middle-class values but rather to encourage mutual understanding between these groups. She examines the paternalism of elites as an example of how the Olmstedian approach did not question existing power relations. Instead, this view leads to misconceptions and prejudices of the working class that greatly hinders any meaningful interactions between them and the middle class. Chimamanda Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story reflects on these power relations. She uses personal narratives of her life growing up in Nigeria to point to the ideas of development in Africa as compared to the United States. She uses these ideas to present the shortcomings of society’s elites in understanding the world outside of their own, as Kohn does in explaining how the Olmestedian paternalistic tendencies toward the working class undermines their ability to participate cooperatively.

          The progressive approach claims that it is not exposure to difference that alleviates the prejudices of society, but the engagement of difference that promotes inclusiveness. The Olmsted vision, which relied on simply supplying the physical environment for the working class to experience a middle class way of life, did not provide the tools for long-term engagement between the two. This is what Kohn deems so important about the Progressive era theory. She claims that this approach understands that the value of diversity can only be fully employed in the context of shared goals and interdependence (Hayward & Swanstrom 98). While the Olmsted vision produced public parks that were sites of imitation rather than cooperation and interaction, progressives like Jane Addams were able to capture social differences for the benefit of both the working and middle classes. Public parks utilized space for the moral improvement of the working class. However, this engagement went only in a single direction. Public parks served to assimilate the working class into middle class ideals of contemplation and family time. It was the progressive approach that used difference to its full advantage.  Initiatives such as the Jane Addam’s Hull House other settlement houses were considered more inclusive approaches to improving the lives of the poor because they valued participatory democracy. These places brought together immigrants and professionals to discuss solutions to local problems and were environments that cultivated the benefits of leisure and play, much unlike public parks which were supposed to be utilized for their aesthetic benefits. Just as progressives warned Olmstedian visioners against their single track, middle-class biased approach to social improvement, Adichie argues the same danger applies to the western-biased single stories we are fed concerning the reality of the world outside the Western hemisphere.

Progressive thought allows individuals to capture connections with others that we otherwise render so impossible to connect in open space. Adichie says that in order to make these connections, we need to structure society so that it that stresses the importance of exploring differences which are often uncovered in naïve understandings of the world. Throughout her talk, Adichie paints us a narrative of her life as a Nigerian girl. She explains the danger of a single story through many experiences of her young life. Starting with the books she was so engrossed with as a child, she notes that the only books that were available to her were of stories in Western settings, of European and American characters whose lives seemed to be very different than her own but very homogenous across her readings. Through her experience with books, she unconsciously generated a single story of the Western culture. By the same nature, Adichie’s American roommate was unconsciously conditioned to believe a closed view of African culture, one that was only presented to her with a strong Western-bias. She proposes that the most accepted ways of thinking often are often constructs of superior ideology. Her assimilation into American society was hindered by the prejudiced views her roommate and other American’s held of her and her seemingly “underdeveloped, third world” home. She believes single stories generate prejudice and inequality, obstructing the potential for cooperation and social intercourse between people of differing backgrounds (Hayward & Swanstrom 86). Much like how the Olmsted vision for public space only allows privileged values to impact the broader society, Adichie claims that the danger of the one sided story is that it prohibits the inclusion of the voice that it suppresses.

Kohn’s argument on the need for public spaces is rooted in efforts of community organizations to promote an inclusive urban environment. While outlining the differences between the two schools of thought, Kohn suggests that the spatial design is imperative to the success of a participatory democracy. While the Olmsted missioners focused on efforts to increase public park space, the progressive movement constructed public spaces that were more conducive to the economic, social, and political needs of a variety of people. By structuring social space to be more inclusive of the entire economic and social spectrum, these development projects can have more positive affects for everyone. Access to semi-public conveniences such as libraries, galleries, and community centers fosters intimate forums for debate and sociability between all groups and demographics. Compared to public parks and open spaces, which themselves do not provide the necessary tools for community participation and improvement, public space in the progressive era addresses the needs, assets, and culture in the communities and contexts in which they exist.

The reciprocal relationships that progressive public spaces cultivate also produce benefits for the multiple parties involved. These spaces challenge the dominant conceptions of democracy. Democracy requires uprooting racial, gender, class, and other prejudices through meaningful personal relations. Much like having many different voices come together under the structure of a more inclusive and democratic social space, different voices come together to create the structure for a more inclusive society. Chimamanda Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story points to the importance of a variety of voices by addressing the limitations of single narratives as excluding the alternate side to a story. The design and allocation of public space for collaborative projects and organizations dismantles existing power struggles and prejudices. Differences can only be rendered valuable under the foundations of a space that promotes a healthy, mutual benefaction between the two.


Works Cited

Hayward, Clarissa R. & Swanstrom, Todd. Justice and the American Metropolis. Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.


Discussion Questions

1.      Are there always common patterns of social response in similar types of public space?

2.      Do you think they success of inclusive social efforts is more successful in collectivist societies compared to individualist societies?