The ethical frame of the civic city

The ethical frame that best supports the new urbanity is the secular humanist position. This privileges civic values, which in essence seek to foster competent, confident and engaged citizenship. It is concerned with the capabilities, interests and achievements of human beings. It does not decry the virtues of science or the sustenance religion or other belief systems give.

In a city context its aim is to ensure that people of difference live together in relative peace and accord as the city is in part defined by people do not know each other. The idea is to arrive at practical standards that provide principles to guide common views, behaviour and to help resolve conflicts so that difference can be lived and shared with mutual respect.

Secular does not mean emotionally barren. Indeed I treasure the heightened registers of being that spirituality evokes. It is an animating force may be just the thing that makes some cities more liveable in than others. Therefore, civic urbanity stakes a claim to playing a part in developing a new cosmopolis. The latter is not a defined project with a specific end result, but an attitude that we need to work on – continuously.

Ten themes shape the dilemmas, challenges and opportunities for the 21st century city. Each has relevance to how we live and shape our places. They provide an urban narrative I call civic urbanity that seeks to contain the explosive mix of centrifugal and centripetal forces we increasingly find in cities. They help reshape how we can rethink urbanity.

The interlinked concepts to rethink urbanity are: holistic thinking, planning and acting; the shared commons; eco-consciousness; healthy urban planning; cultural literacy; inclusivity; inter-generational equity; the aesthetic imperative; creative city making and an invigorated democracy. Together they frame the modern idea of civic urbanity. This idea seeks to realign individual desires and self-interest within a collective consciousness focused as much on responsibilities for ‘us’ or ‘our joint world or city’ rather than choices that are only for ‘me’ and my more selfish needs.

Civic urbanity is a normative idea. It is a promise for a better city. It taps into our deeper yearnings for connection and purpose. It does not come naturally. It has to be fostered and can become part of a new common sense.

To make it happen requires public intent and encouragement by a revised regulations and incentives regime and programmes and occasional statements of civic generosity. So far it is not the default position of citizens, urban professionals or politicians alike.

Urbanity and being urbane has a proud history. It is important to recapture its best features. The tradition of urbanity, as conventionally understood, is by origin European. It focuses, to use a modern term, both on ‘the right to the city’ and ‘responsibility for the city’.

It reminds us that in its origins in the Italian city states of long ago urbanity implied that we have both a right to the city as well as responsibility for it. In giving us the freedom of the city we should have commitment to it.

In time urbanity degraded, it became self-focused and associated with the idea of the flâneur who watches the city from afar – uncommitted. City life performs its spectaculars for you. You cannot build a successful city in this way.

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