Are cities good for you

Cities are good for you: The genius of the metropolis – Leo Hollis

I reviewed ‘Cities are good for you for the Delhi Times’ and thought it might be interesting for you.

Hollis’ book is a good romp through the current delights and dilemmas of the life in cities. It takes its intellectual cue from the far-sighted Jane Jacobs and her notion of the ‘ballet of the streets’ described in the ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’, written in response to the notorious Robert Moses’ New York’s chief planner from the 1940’s to 1960’s. His desire to rip through her Greenwich Village neighbourhood in the early 1960’s brought on a titanic community battle that had to be won. Jacobs was the first to highlight how urban renewal geared to the car destroys more than it creates, since the city at its core is a complex amalgam of strong and weak links that in their totality create the fine grain of community.

Greenwich Village was the classic multi-faceted neighbourhood with its network of streets and subtle ecology of relationships and services built up slowly through time. Here the ordinary becomes extra-ordinary as the pleasures and pain of the day to day build social capital and community. It is what we now call resilient places and they take time to create. These are under threat everywhere we go. The urban engineering paradigm with its physical infrastructure focus and hardware driven approach is the problem.

This approach prefers the ordered to the messy, the sanitized and simplified rather than appreciating the subtleties of the complex, the bland to the locally distinctive, the big comprehensive development rather than the small and discriminating from which you build the city in parts.

It undermines the capacity of its people to build the city from below, to unleash their creative capacity and to co-create solutions together. To use computer language, the best places are those where the hardware, software and orgware mesh well.

These are deep dilemmas that Indian cities face today. Do we allow the construction industry and corporate interests to define what Indian cities feel and look like, or do we allow the Walmart approach to rationalize retailing so making the millions of independent shop owners low paid service workers. Indian urbanists need to ask is there another way. The solutions will only come if there is more integrated thinking, planning and acting and this involves breaking down silos within the public sector as well as those between the public, private and community. Mutual respect, trust and equal status between the partners is the pre-requisite. Only then can a joint sense of purpose, new insights and coherence emerge and top down and bottom up approaches blend well. This requires a listening approach, where everyone learns to give some ground so that local, national and global requirements that inevitably pull in different directions find a good balance.

Hollis prefers the glass half full approach and he falls into an evolving tradition to hype up the city (see Edward Glaeser’s ‘Triumph of the City) preferring to look at its potential and good examples rather than focusing on its dark side. That is fine as far as it goes. True, cities are accelerators of opportunity, they force feed transaction and exchange; they are the laboratories for solving the problems they create and are engines of innovation. The combination of strong and weak links and the swarm effect are part of this process.

The book describes rather than analyses. Thus what it lacks is a sense of unscrambling the dynamics, power and politics that shape our global urban landscape and how they unfold. Some questions need answering: Why when we know so many of the solutions to make urban life better are the solutions not taken up? Why when behaviour change lies at the core of making more resilient cities do we continue to focus on technological fixes rather than addressing the radical individualism which is corroding the civic fabric? Why are so many people unhappy in cities and turning into themselves?

Remember cities face an escalating crisis that cannot be solved by a business as usual approach. We are experiencing the biggest mass movement to cities in history. So many people are after the same resources: space, housing, facilities, opportunity.  Collectively these pose potentially explosive political, cultural and managerial challenges on a scale we have not witnessed before that are immensely difficult to address.

‘Cities are good for you’ only up to a point. Cities face intense vulnerabilities and systemic threats driven especially by resource security issues focused on food, water and energy. All affect climate change which cities cannot manage. The nation state and cities need to talk to take the necessary transformative decisions for cities to survive well. The dilemma is the nation states have the authority, yet increasingly lack the legitimacy.

City leaders are closer to their citizens. With vision they have a greater capacity than national governments to build a consensus around common purposes and a collective response to shared problems. They have more legitimacy to speak for their people, but little authority or power. The nation state is still essential in an interconnected world to negotiate the global rules systems and broader national frameworks within which cities operate. This ensures cities have a common legal platform to act dramatically.

Triggered by a common purpose derived from civic engagement cities can collectively create the urgency and demand from national governments that they act upon the nexus of risks. This will help governments to regain sufficient legitimate authority, yet it also implies a shift in power to cities.

Charles Landry is the author of ‘The Creative City: A toolkit for urban innovators; The Art of City–Making and The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage(with Phil Wood)

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