Civic Urbanity & Cities for People


I am in the process of writing a new short book to explore ‘where next’ with urbanity. Here is a taster of what the publication will be about. Have I missed anything out and does the blog make sense. I would welcome comments, please contact me by e-mail via my website.

The ten themes of civic urbanity

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.

Urbanity and being urbane has a proud history. It is important to rethink and recapture its best features for the 21st century. The tradition of urbanity is by origin European and it focuses both on ‘the right to the city’ and ‘responsibility for the city’. Urbanity, as we understand it, first arose in the Italian city states, especially during the Renaissance, and it then marked the movement towards meritocracy and freeing individuals from the yoke of feudalism. The German phrase ‘Stadtluft macht frei’ (city air makes you free) encapsulates this idea. In time though the notion of urbanity degraded ending with the idea of the flâneur, someone who watches urban life go by, but uncommitted to the needs of the collective whole.

Ten interlinked concepts can reshape how we can rethink urbanity: 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.

Ten themes

The starting point is to think in an integrated and connected way. Only then can we discern the linkages and dependencies that help us understand the deeper dynamics of cities and how to make the most of our potential. This requires a changed mindset and is difficult to prescribe. Yet increasingly decision makers realize that silo thinking and strict departmentalism does not offer the complex solutions we need.

Next there is a demand for a reinvigorated public and shared commons. This ethos argues against our increasingly self-centred public culture. It fosters amongst other things spaces and places from parks to libraries that are free, non-commercial and public and where citizens can express themselves in creative ways. Places underpinned by this ethos can help retrofit conviviality and the habits of solidarity so helping to nurture our capacity to bond and build social capital.

All cities talk of sustainability. Every vision statement mentions combating the effect of climate change. Taking a helicopter view of cities worldwide there are many good initiatives. Yet few cities make the hard planning choices to counteract an economic dynamic, spatial configurations and physical forms that continue to make cities unsustainable. Many cities are trying to embed a sense of eco-consciousness. This means building in ‘cradle to cradle’ thinking and new smart technologies. This can become an economic development tool as it speeds up the move towards a clean, lean, green industrial revolution. Cities can help change behaviour by creating a narrative that wraps being eco-aware into a state of desire that can be a motivating force for action.

We know about unhealthy urban planning. Rigid ‘land use zoning’, which separates functions and gets rid of mixed uses which blend living, working, retail and entertainment. ‘Comprehensive development’ that does initiatives in one big hit often losing out on providing fine grain, diversity and variety is another. They are joined by ‘economies of scale’ thinking with its tendency to think that only the big is efficient and lastly the ‘inevitability of the car’ which can lead us to plan as if the car were king and people a mere nuisance. Mixed uses are coming back forcefully as living, working and playing in the same place becomes the norm again. Seamless connectivity will be key as will walkable cities which give you time and space to experience the city and become healthy by going about your day to day business.

Many cities are melting pots and some, such as Canadian cities, are seen as models for addressing diversity, which helps economic growth in the longer term, but absorbing differences will continue to create stresses. Cultural literacy, an understanding of others, helps us negotiate difference, understand better the sources of agreement and dissent. Seeing the world through the eyes of others gives us greater competence in navigating today’s urban world. Being intercultural and focusing on what we share rather than what divides us will be key as will avoiding housing ghettoes and gated communities. But market pressures will continue to push cities in the wrong direction.

Magnetic cities are increasingly unequal with the divides between rich and poor growing. This creates tension, resentment and leads to unfulfilled potential and even urban rioting. Places with haves and have-nots do not harness the collective imagination and intelligence of citizens nor capture their energy and aspirations. To avoid the negative consequences clever cities will demand greater equality and inclusiveness. It makes both social and economic sense.

The demographic time bomb hangs over everything cities do. There will be pressure to isolate the ageing population into retirement zones with housing adapted to their needs. More innovative places will seek to think through city making from an inter-generational perspective and develop adaptable housing forms that can be transformed through the lifecycle.

The aesthetic imperative reminds us that the city is a 360° immersive experience and it communicates through every fibre of its being, its built structures, its natural forms, its activities and overall atmosphere. Its aesthetics engender an emotional response with psychological impacts. Thus old fashioned words like beauty and ugliness will re-enter the planning debate.
The escalating complexities cities face cannot be solved by a business as usual approach. Imagination and creativity are the pre-conditions to solve the future intractable urban problems and to create interesting opportunities. Unleashing the creativity of citizens, organizations and the city is an empowering process. It harnesses potential and is a new form of capital and a currency.

This reminds us finally that most things have been reinvented – how we do business or how we entertain ourselves. Technology has moved in gigantic leaps. Yet our forms of representative democracy, organization and management have remained largely the same for hundreds of years. This is why civic engagement has atrophied. The future cities will need to reignite the civic spirit by exploring new ways of communicating with citizens, by rethinking the regulations and incentives regime and by empowering civil servants to give of their best. Yet this requires a new type of administration –a creative bureaucracy. This will be radically different from the target driven, efficiency and effectiveness paradigm associated with the late 20th century and being resourceful, strategically agile, responsive and imaginative will lie at its core.
Charles Landry has written many books about cities including The Creative City: A toolkit for urban innovators and The Art of City Making.

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