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Gabriella Gómez-Mont

Gabriella is the founder and CEO of Experimentalista, an organisation that forges creative and experimental partnerships with urban governance agencies around the world. She is also a Visiting Professor of Practice at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. Previously, Gabriella was the Chief Creative Officer of Mexico City.

Greg Clark 

We were absolutely delighted to discover that Gabriella Gómez-Mont, the Experimentalista of cities and many other things, is also one of the listeners to our humble podcast. Gabriella, it's lovely to see you. Why have you been listening to the podcast? And what have you enjoyed or found meaningful about it so far?


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

I have been listening religiously to your podcast for many reasons. Cities are a particular fascination of mine, both personally and professionally. And as your podcast points out, we are urban creatures. I would add that we are also creatures of language. So I find it deeply fascinating, and important, that we develop an understanding of how we can better inhabit both our cities and our language… exploring, for example, how the words that we use, and our metaphors, are actively creating the mental models through which we perceive and explore the world, how we make sense of reality in fact. So if we have better words, we will actually have better optics and better entry points into any subject at hand.

 

So what I've really enjoyed about your podcast is that - when inquiring through the lens of “Urban DNA” - the entry points are multiple in nature; there are so many things to unpack and angles to explore. As we've seen, every podcast, every guest that you bring along, has had a different entry point into the subject of cities through this frame.

 

This is fundamental. It's an issue that we have become quite monolithic in terms of our understanding of cities. For example: as much as I think that digital transformation is definitely one of the big issues that is shifting every subject that relates to humankind - including cities of course - at the same time, the  “smart city” lexicon as the predominant way of understanding the city ends up being incredibly reductionist. The city as computer, the city as machine, “connection” as a predominantly digital characteristic… prevalent metaphors like these have impoverished our understanding of how we think about urban life; and their gravitational pull leans strongly towards technocratic solutions and governments who optimize for productivity and efficiency instead of using productivity and efficiency - amongst many others - to push for quality of life, to advocate for just cities, for expansive and polyphonic urban futures. Hence, I believe we would do good to go back to first principles: What is the city for?  And most importantly, who is the city for? In other words: to explore over and over again the Urban DNA.

 

In this sense, one of the things that I was quite fascinated with when I was Chief Creative Officer for Mexico City was not only the politics but the poetics of things, if you will. How can we reinvigorate urban languages and political forms? Because this can actually give us different approaches to the city, and hence different pathways forwards when reflecting on urban challenges and alternative possibilities. What I've also found, in terms of what I'd call the politics of fascination, is that I think that the great conversations, the ones that are provocative that make you think twice even of subjects that you are an expert on, are actually the ones that will allow us to re-engage with the questions at hand, over and over. I've truly enjoyed delving into the epigenetics discussion in relation to cities, which coincidentally, is a topic I've been contemplating as well. It's fascinating to consider how modernity has perpetuated the notion of separation, viewing cities as detached entities from the rest of the planet, viewing humans as separate from nature, and our individual bodies as self-contained. But we're now entering an era where we recognize the intricate interdependencies and symbiotic relationships that underpin everything, including our urban landscapes. Epigenetics offers a profound analogy here. The idea of us making our cities and then our cities in turn creating us is more than a play of words. Previously, we viewed genes as static, but now understand their expression throughout our lifetimes is influenced by myriad factors, including diet, social relationships, stress, specific environments, air quality and so on. These elements collectively shape gene expression, altering what manifests in our bodies and behaviors. Cities literally shape us, inside out. It's this interdependent and relational complexity that intrigues me, suggesting a rich metaphor for understanding urban DNA. Rather than a monolithic view of cities, embracing diverse entry points prompts us to rethink their layered nature, transcending disciplinary boundaries.

 

And finally, one of my greatest interests is delving into the realm of urban imaginaries. Often, we focus solely on the objective realities and tangible structures of cities. However, I've come to realize that our conceptions of a city, our societal identities, the symbolic infrastructures and the narratives we weave around them and us, profoundly shape and lay the groundwork for what eventually materializes. This subjective relationship we have with our cities, our societies, and our social frameworks - how mind anchors to matter, the way we make meaning, individually and collectively -  plays a significant role in shaping what we understand as urban DNA. What fascinates me most is how these urban imaginaries intertwine with the economic, spatial, social, and political dimensions of cities. It's a complex interplay where subjective perceptions meld with concrete realities, influencing the fabric of urban life. I find this thought experiment immensely rewarding, as it offers not only speculation but also a framework for understanding how these ideas manifest in the everyday reality of the city.

 

Additionally, I'm also drawn to thinking about relational infrastructures, and to the perspective of Teddy Cruz, an artist and architect from Guatemala, who sees urban density not merely as physical proximity but as a gauge of the vibrancy and depth of social interactions. His viewpoint adds another layer to the exploration of urban dynamics, emphasizing the human element within the urban landscape.


Greg Clark 

Wow, I'm so happy to hear you give these reflections Gabriella, because you have brilliantly not just understood but also interpreted what we're trying to do in a way that I find absolutely fascinating. So, thank you. I'm really pleased that you focused on the epigenetics of the city, because that really is where we're heading in a certain way. This idea of the endowed, the inherited and then the acquired traits providing for the city a kind of a formula for its own evolution and its own storytelling, exactly as you say. So let's go for the really sort of big question, which is what for you then is the DNA of the city? If somebody asked you, how do you define the DNA of the city? What would you say?


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

I believe that the DNA of a city is a deeply layered thing. It comes from a sense of identity, most certainly, but we have also seen how this has shape-shifted with time and across space, and can also change from one body to the next. There is a collective identity to cities. But as individuals we also inhabit cities, the very same cities, in quite unique ways. For example, It's one thing to work across one street in Mexico City, where I'm from, as a woman, as a white man, as somebody from indigenous origin. The DNA metaphor has the capacity to shape-shift, to remain polychronic, to inhabit paradox. The Urban DNA is also deeply relational, it emerges between us. I love the entangled perspectives, the idea that nothing happens except in its relationships.

 

So the Urban DNA for me is also about combinatory possibility. Cities that have important concentrations of people and resources, that are incredibly diverse, and are often places of heightened creativity, innovation, expansive possibilities. However, it's crucial that these cities embrace diversity not merely as a demographic fact, but as a dynamic resource—a multitude of combinations fostering deep dynamism and interaction, rather than promoting segregation and isolation. I vividly recall a great conversation with a scientist who, through the lens of evolutionary biology, illuminated the double tragedy of a species going extinct. Not only do we lose the opportunity to experience the unique essence of, say, a white rhino, but we also witness a depletion in the genetic pool of our world—the potential richness of our planet and its myriad futures diminishes. This principle applies to everything, including our cities. By adopting this genetic pool perspective of urban DNA, our focus shifts from resisting diversity to nurturing it. Hyper-diverse cities then emerge as hubs brimming with possibilities for urban life to thrive. Thus, we will prioritise urban imagination, communities of care, designing architectures for collective life… the relational infrastructure of cities becomes paramount. However, this ideal isn't always the reality. Too often, diversities can regress into segregated enclaves, fostering xenophobic attitudes. In the current geopolitical landscape, the impulse to fortify borders and stabilize life by clinging to static notions of cities is palpable—manifested, for instance, in Trump's border policies. Yet, viewing cities through the lens of genetic diversity offers a different paradigm. It prompts us to reconsider the meaning of migration, the dynamics of urban flux, and the significance of transportation, of social mobility, of deep interactions and civic life. It underscores the imperative to dismantle barriers and combat isolationism, advocating instead for a deeply relational approach to urban life.


Greg Clark 

It's so wonderful to listen to these reflections, Gabriella and you're making me think simultaneously a million things. But one thing your last comments, particularly remind me of, is the difference between urbanism and nationalism. This whole idea of nationalism expressing itself in borders and passports and currencies and flags and armies and cities expressing themselves or urbanism expressing itself in flows and mixes and fusions and combinations and experiments and ideas and concepts and all of that.

 

Gabriella Gómez-Mont 

I'm completely with you. The ways of belonging to a city are often more generous and multiple than the forms of belonging to a Nation. The idea of citizenship within cities happens differently. I've only been living in London officially for three months, and the sensation of home starting to seep into my body is such a beautiful thing; it is attached to specific places, people, memories, vistas, rituals. So London is quickly becoming mine in a way that the UK probably will not.


Greg Clark 

I'm tempted to ask you an extra question, if I may, which is how did these ideas that you were just developing-- how do they help you to cast these amazing experiments that you are a great promoter of if you're going to be an experimental urbanist? How does these ideas of the DNA of the city help you to launch these experiments?


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

Those are really great questions, Greg. I was, as I mentioned, Chief Creative Officer for Mexico City for six years but now I work with cities internationally. I've been an advisor to the mayor of Seoul for five years, plus I just ended a cycle of advising the mayor's team in Bogotá working on their legendary Care Blocks project. Both in Mexico City and other cities, I tend to add the experimental, emergent, transdisciplinary and participatory layer. In other words: I accompany questions that cities might be holding, and we explore together ways forward. Being an experimentalist, and also loving the uniqueness of my favorite cities out there, means that the first approach while working with different cities is to first understand their particular DNA - their possibilities and challenges, their history and their deep longings, their iconic spaces and their secret corners (metaphorically and literally)... departing from there, building upon that.

 

So one of the first things that we always did when I was in the Mexico City Government was to take stock of our vast urban inventory. And this includes the physical aspects of the city -  the bones of a city as Ricky Burdett spoke about in one of your podcasts - but it also entails thinking about the intangible resources and assets that a city has, such as citizen talent.

 

It was truly fascinating for us to shift our perspective, moving away from viewing the city under technocratic perspectives and instead embracing the idea of the city as a cultural artifact of sorts that we are all continuously recreating together, with (and within) all its complexities. While traditional metrics such as GDP and public infrastructure remain significant, equally important are the narratives cities inspire, the social energies that run across them, shaping our identities and sense of belonging. Cities like Mexico City - so deeply layered and so multiple in nature - exemplify for me the richness of urban life. This is what we need to work with. This is the multidimensional DNA. Not the oversimplified and water-downed version crammed into a simplistic formulation or an excel sheet. This is also why we started working on “visions for a megalopolis”, or city-wide missions if you will, and only then defining our portfolio of experiments to go along with it, to imagine how to get from here to there, and with this helping articulate ecologies of action; not only to de-silo government agencies, but to also entice civil society, universities, NGOs et al into imagining and crafting a joint future.

 

So in terms of the DNA, and being an experimentalist, it's about starting with what a city is but also exploring what it can become. Mexico City, I realized, has so many assets, Greg, it has so many resources, we are one of the largest cities in the world, as you well know, and one of the most diverse - one of the most fascinating I would even argue. But at the same time, we realized that articulation and connection was lacking to truly further certain urban agendas. Also, as I mentioned, diversity can easily become translated into divisiveness, segregation, marginalization and inequality if the mechanisms for a Just City are not in place. I have the feeling that this is actually the missing link in many so-called hyper diverse cities where there is an impoverishment of relational infrastructure and what I call architectures for collective life - urban commons, public and civic spaces, social institutions etc. Spatial justice also becomes key: Mexico City is 60% green spaces, it also has the third largest cultural agenda after London and New york, but how is it distributed amongst neighborhoods, who has access? And what bits of the city are connected to which other bits - does it look like islands or like a layered mesh of connections? Sometimes things are so siloed and bounded up, living within its own world, that then the combination possibilities I spoke about are reduced. I also feel we need to work on capacious ways of framing urban agendas, to create intersectional ecologies of action. In London, for example, it has been interesting to observe the tensions between the ecologists and the housing activists, partly related to the Greenbelt… but truth be told both affordable housing and green spaces are sine qua non for thriving cities, so how do we go about imagining wider frameworks that can hold tensions in a very different way -  that can actually point toward third ways, where both needs are taken into consideration, so both ecologists and housing activists could be working together to push towards a shared idea of the city London needs to become next.


Also, governance, urban governance - dynamic and hybrid and befitting the possibilities and complexities of cities - requires for us to disappear the hard boundaries between the different urban roles. So one of the things that I love doing was creating both transdisciplinary, but also multi-sectorial teams. When it becomes most interesting is when we start finding where the resources already are, and we can pool them, rearticulate them, fill in the gaps… and we will find that sometimes civil society might actually have deep knowledge about new paradigms on sustainable mobility that the city can leverage; sometimes it might be that the government precedes social shifts, such as, like, let's say, when we passed one of the most progressive laws for trans people in Mexico City, but society, was lagging behind, so the violence escalated. So I have the feeling that this whole-city and whole-society, view actually allows for you to see past the roles, past the political mirages, if you will, and then start reconfiguring and reinventing the DNA of a city.


One of the most interesting experiments that we did when I was still in government was crowdsourcing the Constitution of Mexico City - a first not only for Latin America but for the world. And how does this relate to the DNA question? A Constitution is such a fascinating thing. Because it's actually a beautiful excuse for a society to think about who we have been historically, but also who we want to become. So it is very much a conversation about identity and urban imaginaries. And at the same time, it's also our highest law, and the rights granted there are irrevocable, in perpetuity. So the Mexico City Constitution, gave us an excuse for us to create to explore what the subjective relationship of people is to the city itself – what they felt was needed, how do we need to transform Mexico City based sometimes on that urban DNA, but sometimes based on the gaps that we still perceive as a society, the things that are still needed. And at the same time the right to the city, which is inscribed in our Mexico City Constitution, is simultaneously the right to imagine the future of a city, plus a collective right, even a right for future generations. And it also speaks about the interdependency of human rights and legal frameworks and basically states that no human right is more important than another. So the constitution, I dare say, was an exercise of urban DNA-ing on multiple levels: from social imaginaries and then all the way to the legal frameworks that it puts into action and the ensuing governance models. With this Constitution, happily, Mexico City doubled down on many progressive agendas: from gay marriage, women’s rights, indigenous rights, trans rights, ecological rights, euthanasia, abortion… It was fascinating.


Greg Clark 

Again, Gabriella, there is so much in what you're saying. But you've said a lot, I think, in what you've said about the relationship between soft power and hard power in cities and I'd love to explore that with you on another day.

 

Gabriella Gómez-Mont

I found it incredibly interesting that some months ago, there was an article that said that Amsterdam where I lived during the beginning of the pandemic, had one of their big chain supermarkets -  Jumbo, I believe it was - put to a test a tiny experiment: they created a slow lane in the supermarkets where people could spend more time speaking to the cashier. And it was such a success that they are now rolling out in 200 supermarkets across the Netherlands. So I find that beautiful because, you know, human connection. And as people like Daniel Aldrich, who has studied what academics called weak ties, points out: these tiny little interactions are exponential in what they afford one's life and in terms of fostering well being at a social level. What a lovely thing that we have weak ties everywhere, and that even a supermarket lane can be an excuse for a tiny interaction. And at the same time, imagine the degree of loneliness that is happening right now that this is so needed, that it would become so popular. I also think of a book - The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz, who's here from the UK - that puts dollars and cents into what the “loneliness epidemic” is costing the UK. And as much as I adore public space, as I know you do, plus I think that placemaking is such an important thing, I also think that public space is different to the creation of civic spaces, and that we need both.

 

With public space you most often enter as a stranger and leave as a stranger, albeit in the context of a collective experience - a concert, a bike ride across the city. But I do think that cities need to rethink their DNA and remind us once again that we also need places for deep encounters, excuses to know our neighbors and fellow city dwellers. In this era of polycrisis - climate emergency, democracy crisis, economic woes - I don't think we're going to be able to plan towards the future as we used to, but we can think about what the DNA is that we need to get ready to be able to collectively address whatever comes in the best way. So when one of your episodes actually, when you were asking somebody, I can't remember who, about shocks and surprises, and how that reconstitutes DNA. I would add: how does that DNA actually become something that reacts to shocks in a way that make us stronger? What needs to be in place?

 

I think of Mexico City, in both earthquakes that I lived through… the devastating 1985 earthquake where more than 10,000 people died, but then also the earthquake in 2017. In both cases the way that citizens joined forces at those moments was just awe inspiring. And then there's also really interesting things that emerge during a crisis. Bike lanes, for example, which some people oppose, became life-saving infrastructure. Why? Amid reports of collapsed buildings, traffic bottlenecked not with people fleeing the disaster but with those rushing towards it to offer aid. Unfortunately, this hindered ambulances and first responders. Yet, the bike lanes, which came into being because of campaigns by dedicated activists - some of my favorite people in Mexico City - proved pivotal. They were already organized through WhatsApp channels and swiftly became the first responders. This underscores the crucial link between social organization and physical infrastructure within a city.

 

So in contemplating the urban DNA, it's not only enlightening to reflect on the past but imperative to consider an uncertain future. We must adapt this urban DNA worldwide to prepare for the unknown. An essential aspect of this adaptation will be fostering relationships, understanding each other's strengths and causes, akin to the solidarity among bike activists. This familiarity enables rapid self-organization in any situation, for the critical but also for the possible..because I also love the idea that we come together not only to deal with obstacles but also to invent a life - and a city - together.


Greg Clark 

You know, Gabriella, you've said something really profound about the relationship between intimacy and anonymity in cities, and how these two things interact and create possibilities of different kinds and different scales. Then the other connection, I really feel from what you've said, Is this relationship between trauma and plasticity, the ability of the city to recover from trauma and to develop new kinds of strengths and the issue of that social capital and the confidence of the city comes into all of that.


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

Your insights are really striking a chord with me, prompting some deeper reflection. Let's set aside some time for those mezcales to explore further. One of the things that your podcast has made me reflect on is that DNA is about inner life in a way: it is the invisible thing that has very specific physical and outer repercussions.

 

As a personal anecdote, Books were my first big love when I was a kid. So that means that my first love was very much an internal world, a place where one inhabits one's own mental and imaginative and emotional space. Its because of this I believe that I'm endlessly fascinated by subjective lives.

Then came another huge love - cities - and hence public life, the common, the collective, and everything that binds us together, our deep entanglements, politics, the polis. And I have the feeling that the Urban DNA framework can hold together both of these dimensions at once - the inner and outer, individual and collective - and here we can actually start understanding how they come together, where they augment each other, where they are in tension. Instead of you know, this deeply internal and subjective life ending in a dangerous post-truth society, in Q-anon and voting for Trump, and all of these weird things that the world is going through at the moment. We need more productive and imaginative ways of creating a space within the urban conversation to talk about subjectivities, of our individual/collective lives…  and to wonder, together, does a city have an inner life, how is it stitched together, how does it get remade in-between us all?


Greg Clark 

There will be another podcast series sometime, which will call something like the soul of the city. It will be all about this, if you like, the spirituality of the urban realm. Again, it's probably not for today, but there's something I think very deep and very rich in all of that. A friend of mine, Philip Sheldrake wrote a book about The Spirituality of Cities and it's all about this.


But I want to ask you question three now, which is please tell us about one city that you love or you feel inspired by or you feel connected to, tell us about its DNA. What do you know about this city?


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

As I've told you before, Mexico City is the big stubborn love of my life. As any big love, it has inspired me endlessly and it has also broken my heart many times over. That said, I will actually talk about Bogotá just because this is one of my most recent work experiences. And it's a city that I have been incredibly inspired by. And that also speaks a lot about some of the things that we've been-- the stories that we've been swapping. So Bogotá, like Mexico City, is a megalopolis…  yes, I'm endlessly fascinated by very big cities, by cities that seem to be imagining themselves out loud. And they think many times the vastness actually allows for multiple ways of life, though also of course with very big challenges.


But why am I interested in Bogotá and why do I want to speak about the DNA of Bogotá? This precedes my work with the team of Mayor Claudia López, whose term just ended this December 2023. And my work with Diana Rodriguez very specifically, who reported to the mayor, the former Minister of Women's Affairs. Well, Diana took a ministry that is usually marginal to core decisions and relegated to checking boxes and actually made it into the most important agenda for Bogotá, which has since then go on to inspire the world. One of their legacy projects is the 'Care Blocks', which is basically holding a very big question: how do we reimagine a whole city around care?  The world over, 75% of unpaid work is done by women. And our GDP is don't account for this work but, for example, in the Colombian context, it would actually be 20% of Colombia's GDP. And what Bogotá has been doing, which I find incredibly fascinating, is thinking about the spatial components of care, bringing in a component of spatial justice. Where in the city are most of these unpaid care workers? And how can Care Blocks both consider carers and the people they care for, with simultaneous services?  So it's thinking about people with disabilities, it's thinking about senior citizens, about kids,  it's thinking about all of us requiring care at one moment or another. So how does the city address this? This is all about policy and governance, especially evident in initiatives like the care blocks of Bogotá. These centers serve as multifunctional hubs within districts, offering a range of services from civic centers and recreational facilities to vital support for vulnerable groups like women facing family violence. They represent a holistic approach to addressing interdependent needs, ensuring that essential care infrastructure is accessible where it's needed most. Public nurseries and other care facilities are integrated seamlessly into these centers, addressing the inequity of access to care services, particularly concerning time constraints. What's truly fascinating about this approach is how it recognizes care as a quality, emphasizing the importance of hyper-relational infrastructure. It's not just about physical facilities; it's about fostering connections and support networks within communities.


Greg Clark 

I can't do justice to what you just said, Gabriella. But something so important in what you've said, is that Bogotá has kind of revealed and reminded the world that the core ingredient of every city is the social capital, that lies at the heart of everything. You’ve said that so eloquently. Let's wrap this up with question four, which is, which cities should we include in the next series of the podcast, the DNA of Cities? You can take, let's say up to three suggestions.


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

I'm very biased in this. I will suggest the three cities that I've worked with: Mexico City, Bogotá and Seoul. And if I can add an extra just because of our conversation before we started the podcast, which is the only non-megalopolis in here is Cordoba, in Spain.


Greg Clark 

Well, I'm going to say to you that we will definitely include Mexico City, we will certainly try very hard to include Bogota, and Seoul and Cordoba, whether it's in the next series or the series after I'm not sure. But we will invite you to come and be a commentator on all of those cities. Gabriella, so nice to talk to you today.


Gabriella Gómez-Mont

And thank you, Greg, a pleasure. As always, thank you so much.

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