Summary from Maria Isabelle Wieser's urbanology Talk, 28.04.22
Maria Isabelle Wieser’s work aims at fostering more awareness for gender and cultural inclusivity within Geneva’s international organisations sector. She was regional director of Foraus, the Swiss forum on foreign policy and is now director of the association Suisse-ONU.
Her session was interactive and cathartic as it allowed all those gathered to share familiar experiences, giving each one a chance to expand on their observations. The city of Geneva came alive, becoming a shared, collective memory that all those present could identify with. Starting with simple exercises that tapped on the audience’s every-day experiences, she skilfully led the discussion into more complex terrains, that dealt with fears, insecurities, and prejudices, along with suggestions on overcoming them.
With the participants, Maria Weiser went deep into engaging with the audience on how people perceived public spaces and the features that made them inclusive or exclusive.
She began by asking participants to describe public spaces they identified as desirable, good. Spots thus identified included Bois de la Bâtie – described as a beautiful spot where both parents and kids could have fun, Bain des Pâquis, perfect for a summer night with DJs and people dancing on Tuesday evenings, Théâtre de l’Orangerie - a bar and theatre in the middle of the parc la Grange.
Then there was a little beach in the Parc William Rappard, close to the Jardin Botanique, where a participant used to swim every day during covid, the Parc des Acacias, a very lively public space with a diversity of uses, that users called a true neighbourhood park. According to one participant, this diversity is what made all the ordinary components of the spot a beautiful whole.
Other places that made it to the list included Place des Grottes, which was particularly lively during market days, the Place du Marché in Carouge, where groups of young people gather to have fun during warm summer nights, the funky double bench on the Promenade des Crêts, which everybody loves – which are designed to sit higher to have the most beautiful view on the Salève, the city and the Mont Blanc when the weather is clear.
The same exercise was repeated to find out which places people hated the most. One participant pointed out that often it’s about moments and not places. For example, taking a car in the town and sitting there, at midday, stuck in traffic congestion, not understanding why everyone is driving a car (and knowing you’re doing it yourself!). Others identified Place de Cornavin, specifically in front of the main station, where it’s always busy with people, (which is beautiful) but bad design and the concrete overdose of the square made it a very uncomfortable place. Then there is the experience of crossing the Pont de la Coulouvrenière by bicycle, especially when it rains. The multiple tramway lines make it a very dangerous spot for cyclists and the noise only adds to the misery. One discussant identified the Rues Basses as very frustrating spaces because they are so commercial, literally soaked with consumerism while another said that fancy restaurants are hostile places because you don’t feel welcome, especially if you have a child. Someone described her ride back home through Onex by tramway as boring because of the lack of diversity where everything looked the same. The Place Neuve was discussed as a particularly wasted opportunity, especially in front of the Parc des Bastions, a place heavily focused on cars, where car drivers are always stressed and aggressive. This place should be a pedestrian place and link the park with the city opera, the Victoria Hall, Grütli and Conservatory.
The discussion went into understanding the challenges faced by the physically challenged or those who used a stroller while navigating the same spaces - a discussion that opened up a world of experiencing diversity in a shared and empathetic way.
Geneva looked different in the scenarios that were presented. Was it really as international? Could you see diversity on the streets? During free concerts, bars and restaurants? The audience was taken on a journey experienced by women at night, families with children. They discussed counter intuitive views – for example, crowded spaces actually being more safe for some people. Understanding that men and women looked for different things in public spaces, with the former looking for freedom and the latter for comfort.
The discussion that concluded the evening was a shared celebration of empathy in an inter-subjective world symbolised by Geneva – a city where diversity is an ideal. Just a little out of reach – but not too much!