Common Ground in a Liquid City

Feet on ground

For the first time ever, ours is an urban planet. More than 50% of the world’s people live in cities, and that number continues to grow amazingly rapidly. And that’s a good thing.

The only chance the world has for an ecological future is for the vast bulk of us to live in cities. If we want to preserve what’s still left of the natural world, we need to stop using so much of it. We need to start sharing the resources and land bases we do have, to stop spreading out so much, and focus our transportation and energy resources carefully. It may sound counter-intuitive, but there can be no doubt that an ecological future has to be organized around cities.

Kind of ironically, embracing the city is also our only route to protecting our non-urban areas. If we love and want to protect our small towns, rural communities, fishing villages and farming areas then the bulk of us had better start living compactly in cities, stop sprawling all over the countryside and turning everything into one faceless, concrete mess of placeless urbanization.

But for this to make sense people need to be able to make their cities their own. In a liquid era when people, goods, and capital are sloshing all over the globe we have to turn cities into comprehensible places that everyday people can actively inhabit.  I’m fully in favour of migration and mobility but I’m searching for the kinds of attachments that turn “urban areas” into cities and “urban space” into common places.

City Air Makes People Free (or at least it should)

A critical distinction needs to be made: we cannot be turning our cities into villages or collections of villages - that’s exactly the wrong way to imagine a city. Cities need to be full of solid, distinct, and comprehensible places without losing the city air that makes people free. You can have the magic and possibilities of a city while building it around local vitality, self-governance, and neighborhoods. Those things are not antagonistic.

City-building leadership cannot fall to experts, bureaucrats, or planners. People have to make cities by accretion: bit-by-bit, rejecting master plans, and letting the place unfold. Whether it’s our safety, governance, or urban planning, it is everyday people who can make the best decisions. But for this to be possible, cities need engaged citizens: people who are willing and able to participate in common life—and governance structures that actively encourage them.

Thus I am calling for an unambiguous leap: a straight-up call for a city organized for a very different kind of social milieu, rooted in an alternative vision of ethics and economic life. It is a vision that will require a certain amount of work, creativity, and antagonism, one that just won’t accept neo-liberalism or global capitalism as de facto arbiters of who gets access to the good life. But it’s up to us to contest and offer alternatives to the market as the allocator of land, housing, and resources in our society. There are clear routes to a better future, lots of them existing, some latent, and parts we are just going to have to make up.

Learning to share

The first exigency is density. We have to re-learn how to imagine cities as walkable, bikeable and using a smaller footprint. The Western world’s rush for the suburbs is being replicated all over the globe as urban regions are reconfigured for massive private-car use. Cities are being replaced by massive, megalopolitan stretches of faceless urbanization where it’s impossible to tell where one place ends and the next starts and traditional cities are surrounded by endless expanses of freeways, movie multiplexes, Wal-Marts, industrial parks, gated communities, malls, mini-malls, and mega-malls.

Instead we need cities where people can walk or bike everywhere, where the private auto is aggressively discouraged, there is enough population density to support cost-effective and useful public transportation and communities have enough local services for residents’ needs to be met within walking distance. Density reduces everyone’s footprint and makes urban vibrancy possible. But that density has to be done creatively: it doesn’t have to mean glassy high-rises or concrete tenement blocks. Think of your favourite city neighbourhoods: pretty much all of them are dominated by buildings no more than six or eight stories high. We can have a density that is not about densifying developers’ profits, but bringing a city to life.

Streets paved with gold

But let’s not be too polite about it: the vast bulk of contemporary cities are built primarily by and for greed. When I think of a great city, it definitely doesn’t include huge numbers of very poor, disenfranchised and/or homeless folks. But what city can you think of that doesn’t include a grotesquerie of poverty? Havana maybe? I’ve never been there, and I’ve never been in a city that doesn’t have way, way too many really poor folks.

We have to believe in an egalitarian and equitable city – and overwhelmingly that means restricting the housing market, undermining the possibilities for profiteering on housing, and creating a massive, non-market layer of housing possibilities: co-ops, collectives, limited equity, non-profit housing, subsidized housing, shard equity and much else. There are a vast array of architectural, planning, design and financial instruments, innovations and schemes available to consider, and the possibilities for creating non-market, cheap and equitable housing are all around us. All it takes is a commitment toward another kind of city.

An equitable city will also allow local food production to flourish. There are huge possibilities in every city for urban agriculture, fruit trees, aquaculture, bee keeping and much else. Cities have endless spaces for viable food production: boulevards, the grounds of hospitals and schools, rooftops, front lawns, the edges of parks, empty lots and around buildings. And that’s not to mention all the streets that should be repurposed. Look around your city: there is space everywhere for growing food – its just needs to be brought into production and made available to people.

Resisting inequality often makes people think of a very tightly controlled, uptight city, a city where overbearing governments restrict and tax people aggressively in the name of providing services and amenities. It is a mythology that a city striving toward egalitarianism must be an excessively regulated, boring city. It’s just not true that a vibrant, living city is necessarily one where the market is god and capital accumulation is what drives innovation and culture. Why can’t cities restrict unfettered greed in favor of local culture? Why can’t we have a funky city without rolling over and showing our soft bellies to the market?

Hospitality and difference 

A huge part of this has to be an embrace of difference. We have to be willing to move past simplistic liberal renditions of ‘tolerance’ – which implies a polite disdain – and embrace hospitality. A more honest and genuine diversity, a radical plurality might well be possible if we can embrace a genuine hospitality, not an assimilationist “multiculturalism.” Hospitality means opening ourselves up to an incommensurable difference, being willing to live with and beside people who do not look, think, act or believe like we do. It is that difference that makes a city worth living in.

But that otherness cannot and should not be collapsed into a tolerant multiculturalism, but requires an acknowledgment of, appreciation for, and trust in profoundly different ways of living and social organization. A city of difference has to learn to live together, but if it is going to thrive people have to learn to trust each other.

The real issue is how to create an organic, unfolding city—what Christopher Alexander calls a living city; one that isn’t run by bureaucratic planning or rampaging developers but is allowed to unfold, driven by a million decisions made by people on the ground. A city should be the best of humanity: an ethical union of citizens drawn together by mutual aid and shared resources. I know that sounds a little flaky but think of libraries, parks, public transit, movie theaters, patios, coffees shops, bars, beaches, plazas, festivals—everything that makes a city great. All of that is about sharing resources so we don’t have to be walled off by ourselves buying and hoarding our own books and DVDs, hiking on our own property, drinking by ourselves, driving our own cars, isolated, and atomized.

And that sharing means public space or, better yet, common space. And that’s my definition of urban vitality: constantly running into people who aren’t like you, who don’t think, look, or act like you, people who have fundamentally different values and backgrounds. And in that mix there is always the possibility to re-imagine and remake yourself—a world of possibility that is driven by public life and space, that at its best turns into common places and neighborhoods. That’s what makes a great city, not the shopping opportunities.

An ecological and an ethical city is one and the same thing—we can’t have a “green” city without reimagining our social institutions. And that can’t be made to happen by relying on politicians or planners or developers. They can’t lead, they have to get out of the way and allow the neighborhoods, communities, public spaces, and common spaces that make a great city to become the ongoing expression of a constant series of choices made by everyday citizens.