what would our preferred future cities look like?
how do we design urban spaces now with those desired outcomes in mind?
Building for community
In this article, I would like to explore some tangible, specific building blocks which can quite literally build communities …or at least, build for community. By this I mean physical spaces and infrastructure, and related initiatives – which foster a sense of shared living, and create spaces conducive to multi-layered connections, dynamic interactions and inclusive relationships…
In a previous article (which you can read here), I painted a picture of a ‘healthy’ community as being composed of residents who are involved and engaged; have a sense of ownership of local issues and community resources; and are active in local schools, clubs, social events and municipal meetings.
This sort of community is:
– organic: growing slowly and naturally – unforced and unengineered;
– dynamic: involving constant change and often messy interactions;
– inclusive: open to all, with no exceptions and no exclusions;
– multi-layered: consisting of people of many different races/ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, age groups and religious/worldviews; and
– connected: like a ‘healthy’ family, through respectful communication and interactions.
Instead, modern societies are particularly divided – mass migration during the twentieth century has resulted in rapid changes to the demographics and culture of most countries. This is one of the key issues to overcome, as there can never be full health of any body or system – in this case the community – when there is fragmentation and disconnection between the parts. ‘Health’ requires wholeness.
Although many people and organisations are ostensibly attempting to restore or redesign communities, sadly most of them are simply building their own little kingdoms, according to their many and varied agendas and patterns. There will be little true progress in ‘building community’ until the government, nongovernmental organisations, community groups and business sectors work together and with one accord…
In the meantime, and without this level of consensus, what can we do in terms of changing the unfortunate physical division which perpetuates the alienation between different groups, and within our communities?
As I noted in my previous article on community, the solutions are complex, potentially requiring much debate, long-term strategies and even more funding… Redesigning city suburbs and transport systems to counter the physical separation that is the lingering legacy of racism and classism, would be a lengthy and perhaps controversial project (if the prevailing culture and mindset remains unchanged).
But having said all of that, how does one plan and build tangible spaces to allow for community growth or restoration (even if only in a gradual, incremental manner, precinct by precinct…rather than city-wide)?
Although community cannot be ‘engineered’, there really is hope and potential in this regard – remember that the often nebulous concept of ‘community’ is daily encountered in physical spaces such as schools, shops, beaches, parks and sporting venues. Private homes may also be the setting for interpersonal and cross-cultural exchanges, but public spaces are far more likely and ongoing meeting places.
So designing public spaces well is fundamental, and a great start – providing the physical spaces that facilitate social encounters and nurture communities.
I passionately believe that in multicultural countries, well planned and designed public spaces have the potential to inspire, nurture, maintain or restore highly diverse, ‘healthy’ communities. This can be done in the following ways (just ‘for starters’):
1. ‘Village hubs’
Neighbourhoods or city precincts each need a focal point, a ‘heart’… These local meeting points enable residents to encounter others from ‘all walks of life’ in commercial, recreational and ‘green’ spaces – reasonably ‘neutral’ zones (if well planned/designed). In addition, from a sustainability (and lifestyle!) perspective, it is important to decentralise our cities, enabling residents to stroll about, shop, meet friends and generally relax in their own neighbourhood – without the need to drive far, or at all.
These ‘hubs’ need to be planned/ designed with the following key ‘community nurturing’ features in mind:
– shared space: preferably a plaza-style area, i.e. pedestrianised and open air – shopping malls or strip malls along busy roads are not conducive to gathering or lingering;
– free space: where anyone can sit, walk, read or eat their own sandwich – as opposed to food courts and other areas where one must pay to enter/sit; and
– functional overlapping with social: shops, cafes, restaurants, launderettes, hair salons etc. – where people ‘bump into’ each other while buying their bread/milk/newspaper.
It should go without saying that these spaces must be safe, accessible, clean, visually pleasing, inclusive and ‘mixed use’ – designed for children, the elderly, dog owners, cyclists, skateboarders, the disabled, etc.
These areas can then also be creatively utilised for Community and Peace-building initiatives like art installations, murals, street theatre or other forms of public display – to reinforce shared values; celebrate different cultures; raise awareness of minority groups; educate about important social issues; and tell stories of reconciliation, transformation and hope.
Community engagement would also be further nurtured through shared, free form activities like festivals, markets, and other events in these communal spaces. However not all community activities and resources need to be in one area of course – ‘clubs’ are a great resource for communities, e.g. bowling or lifesaving.
Also, many initiatives do not require a building, e.g. yoga or ‘nippers’ – lifesaving/swimming training for children by volunteers on the beach, or ‘mums n tots’ groups in a local park, etc. Other ideas include creative use of spaces for communal gardens, or schools allowing the use of their grounds, basketball courts and so on…
I have mentioned all of the above because they should be recognised and included in any ‘holistic’ planning or design of neighbourhoods and precincts – the only limits here are the levels of creativity and forethought exercised (or allowed) by the professionals responsible for planning, designing and developing these spaces.
2. Mixed residences and residents
Neighbourhoods or municipal zones need to aim for a diversity of residents to avoid ‘ghettos’ of immigrants or the underprivileged; islands of wealth isolated from the rest (and hiding even from each other, behind huge security fences); or unnaturally ‘homogenised’ communities, e.g. where the elderly or children are not welcomed or catered for.
This is not intended to sound like some scary futuristic form of societal engineering – ‘mixed’ neighbourhoods can be achieved quite simply, by requiring (through developmental guidelines, construction/property industry rating tools, municipal bylaws and incentives) a range of types of accommodation.
The recommended range of accommodation should include:
– varying sizes and price ranges, from apartment blocks to houses;
– a quota of rental properties and low cost housing for young professionals, minimum wage workers and new families;
– housing or estates specifically tailored to meet the needs of the elderly, disabled or even single parents (but mixed together, and with shared communal spaces, to avoid isolation and unnatural separation from others, especially other age groups);
– government subsidised housing, to avoid the formation of ‘ghettos’ of the underprivileged and the associated social issues; and
– ‘upmarket’ housing distributed about in pockets, to avoid exclusive enclaves where the wealthy never encounter people from ’lower’ social strata to themselves…
Admittedly, as I already pointed out, this would be a controversial approach – especially for the last group mentioned above… But if this sort of mixed community could be achieved, no one group would feel as if they ‘own’ the neighbourhood, or have the right to dominate the community discourse when allocating resources or resolving issues. It would also mean that a simple trip to the local village ‘hub’ is a multi-cultural and cross-cultural experience – without even ‘trying’.
3. Accessibility and transport
If the village ‘hub’ is the heart of any neighbourhood or municipal zone, then the transport routes are the ‘veins’, circulating life-giving blood and oxygenating this blood when it has ‘spent’ itself. In other words, enabling people to move about easily within the area, and connecting or moving people back and forth between areas…
Without going into too much detail here, the obvious ingredients include:
– pedestrianised areas and better planning around roads for people to cross safely and freely (footbridges and other innovative access paths are preferable to traffic lights);
– cycle lanes which are safe and thoroughly linked (i.e. don’t suddenly end, expecting cyclists to, well I don’t know, fly? … like E.T., to make it to the next bit of cycle lane a few roads or blocks away?), with cyclist facilities at key points, like near train stations and shops;
– public transport that is efficient and reliable, including trams, buses and light railway (there is still a lot of work to be done on ‘joining the dots’ here – e.g. buses linking train stations to important shopping areas, sporting venues or other recreational areas…a complete and convenient network…); and
– ‘green’ belts connecting transport routes, ‘village hubs’ and other key areas, comprised of parks, riversides, public paths and other natural spaces… These are obviously more conducive to happy community interaction than crowded sidewalks and concrete ‘dead’ zones which one usually has to walk through, with not even a pot plant or mural to bring relief to the eyes…
In other words, transport in the much broader sense than just investing in ‘roads, roads, and more roads…’ Transport and access plans that consider people’s health, comfort, and convenience; environment and aesthetics; and community – not just cars and traffic control.
4. ‘Re-localised’ economy and energy
Finally, a discussion about planning and building spaces conducive to community growth and wellbeing is not complete without briefly touching on the importance of ‘re-localising’ the economy and energy production of cities, and even individual zones or precincts. This is undoubtedly ‘the way of the future’, with major benefits for the economy, the environment and the social fabric of cities and neighbourhoods.
‘Re-localising’ could include some of the following guidelines and initiatives:
– locally sourced construction companies, workers, contractors and service providers: creating local employment, as well as encouraging higher levels of accountability and consideration;
– locally produced materials, products and services being preferred and supported over imported or ‘chain-store’ goods: supporting the local economy and counteracting the usual draining of people and resources away from the local area;
– locally generated energy using public infrastructure, especially through wind, solar and ‘tri-generation’ installations, e.g. solar panels on roofs and bus shelters: enabling greater local control over energy supply and security, as well as reducing costs and negative environmental impacts incurred due to current centralised systems (e.g. between 7 and 10% of electricity generated is lost in the processes of distribution and transmission… and you are still charged for this!); and
– local businesses taking ownership of local community problems, i.e. ‘walking the talk’ of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (‘CSR’) in their own neighbourhoods!
With these broad principles informing urban design or regeneration projects, we would certainly see much improvement in local community spaces and interactions… It is my fervent hope that all the recent talk and interest around this subject will be realised in tangible projects in the near future, which focus on nurturing and strengthening the communities they are intended to serve.
Density Delirium- and the cities of the future (I don’t want to live in)
What do day care, dairy farms and dog parks all have in common? Density.
As a result, what they also have in common is a preponderance of germs – for which the wisdom of the day demands defensive measures that are pretty much worse than the original problems: overwhelming amounts of disinfectants; overprescribing antibiotics; and hyper-vaccination. All of which wreak havoc with natural immune system responses, developed over thousands of years.
Neither animals nor people thrive in overcrowded conditions. There are much higher levels of aggression and frustration all round; and all manner of aberrant social behaviours, including bullying and self-destructive tendencies, often culminating in high suicide rates.
Possibly worse are the health ramifications when we then eat the unfortunate creatures who have been pumped full of antibiotics, or drink their milk (a weird habit this, drinking the milk of another creature, meant for its offspring – which we instead rip away from them, shoving them into, again, overcrowded sheds, to die in high numbers from dysentery and the like…)!
However, these are but passing points on the way to my real purpose in writing this – I would like to register my protest (however impotent) against the high-density cities of the future. The “only” way to cope with the “inevitable” growth of cities… So we are told. By whom? Those insatiable developers, along with the town planners who eat out of their hands, and the project teams who must deliver according to the dictated vision (and of course are only too eager to, since it will keep them in business in perpetuity)… Of course.
Has anyone bothered to think this through in terms of the social, ethical and environmental long-term consequences? Has anyone bothered to ask (or listen to) the ordinary people, for a change? The people whose future they are so merrily plotting, with all the patronising tones of the old colonial powers, it must be said. Of course, they claim to have done so. But it’s mostly a box ticking exercise – phase one of projects with predetermined outcomes, skipped through hastily, fingers in ears, singing la-la-la…
There is little genuine dialogue in this regard – more of an echo chamber of regurgitated, pre-packaged, dogmatic mantras. This industry can be as deaf to criticism as any high priest in a pulpit – and they hold far more power to shape our future than even the religious orders of old.
The oft-repeated statements about high-density development being “the way of the future” (Hurrah!!) ring in my ears like any cult of religious nuts who will not listen to reason. In fact, any dissident opinions are dismissed in much the same manner as excommunication – if you do not agree with our version of reality, then you are a heathen, a heretic, an infidel… Except the jargon used in this regard (and oh, how this industry loves jargon, to keep the masses ignorant of their plans) – would label people like me as a “greenie”, a “luddite” or a “NIMBY” (“Not in my back yard”).
Again with the patronising, colonial style worldview. “WE know what’s best for you.”
Arguing with the “experts” is thus impossible. You are shut out of the conversation by very definition of not being one.
Imagine how much worse for minority groups – the indigenous, the marginalised, those struggling on the edges of our societies… Who ever asks them?
Who actually listens, with open minds, to the whispers (and sometimes wails) of longing… for an alternative future?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or planning expert) to understand why high density does not equal quality of life – and it’s not just minority groups who are being ignored in the race to the bottom we currently call “development”…
Just ask anyone who has had to queue for the Bondi Junction buses (for example) at peak hours; or tried to find parking within hundreds of meters of any city beach; or sat in traffic on the way to work/ school drop off each day, watching the precious minutes of their “life” slip away…
Why do so many people dream of, and a lucky few actually get to try, a “tree change”/ “sea change”? Is it perhaps, dear developers and town planners, because people fundamentally like trees and green spaces and just, like, nature and space in general? Do you think? (I suspect not, as it would result in too much cognitive dissonance)
Am I saying we all need to live in unspoilt countryside (is there even such a thing anywhere anymore?!); or return to some ideal past (which probably never was, either)? No. Of course not. Cities are a huge part of how the future will unfold. But there could be much better planning; and more alternatives to high-rise, high-density, high exploitation of Every. Damned. Square metre.
I already alluded to this above, but it bears repeating: Urban Density practically guarantees an escalation in crime rates, social problems, road rage, violent incidents, health issues and suicides!!
I could go into all of that for pages and pages – but I don’t need to. It’s all around us, and in the media, all the time. Everyone reading this knows what I mean – unless you live in woop woop and have never ventured to the nearest city (in fact, even that would prove my point- country people who do not like spending time in the city, would probably cite mostly the same reasons I am alluding to here)!
Of course crime and other social issues exist in smaller communities, or in more sparsely populated outer suburbs… but not to the same degree, and some issues are actually peculiar to city life/ a direct result of overcrowding…
I think you know what I am trying to say, dear reader. And I don’t wish for this to be an overly academic article, nor am I writing a technical manual (one of my old jobs, actually). I am intentionally appealing to just simple, everyday, common sense. Most of us would prefer to have a bit of space. Space to stretch out, to breathe, to relax, to enjoy some privacy, just to BE…
IF we were given a choice.
That’s the problem I am protesting about – no one is asking us!!
By the way, do you seriously think any of them – the uber wealthy who pretty much own our politicians, public servants, and the like – will ever be forced to live in high-rise, high-density urban congestion of the sort that causes something akin to delirium (fever-induced madness, basically)? Will they be the ones tearing their hair out when they can’t sleep, or can’t get on a bus to get home and see the kids for dinner time; or can’t park their car for ten minutes, anywhere without paying through the nose for the privilege; or, just can’t, anymore…!?
Unless they wanted to. Of course. If they wanted to live there, it would still be in the uber-cool penthouse version of inner city life. Again, more space. Possibly some of it green.
Most of us do not have the level of agency that oodles of money can buy. We are at the mercy of the town planners, public servants and politicians – who should be making decisions based on decent research into what will improve our wellbeing. They are, after all, supposedly in those positions to serve our interests. But no, instead they are at the beck and call of the fat cats. The developers, and their lackies.
They – the politicians, local government, and so on – are like Remora (“sucker fish”), attached to far larger fish or whales, taken along for the ride, wherever the whale chooses to go… Why do they choose to make themselves so dependent on the whims of the whales? Well, because they lack a swim bladder of their own… Is there any hope, do you think, that our governments (and any more altruistic elements within civil society) will develop their own “swim bladders” anytime soon???
And in the meantime, or instead of waiting for an “aha moment” in the building industry that may never come… What can WE, ordinary people do about this? I don’t know. I do not have all the answers. But I can’t help hoping for an urgent, collective rising up – stand up, speak up, vote better!! Because together, we could dream, dialogue, design those alternative answers, that preferred future, and the ‘greener”, more life-enhancing cities we actually want.
Step one is simply to open genuine dialogue around this. Anyone reading this who works in the relevant areas of government, or in the building industry, or in social research, or the media… Open the conversation, delve into the research, or commission further research to close the gaps in industry knowledge… Examine some alternatives. Brainstorm. You know, all the usual ways of “problem-solving”…
Preferred Futures thinking would point to ‘backcasting’ as the way to ensure we will live in the sorts of cities and spaces we actually want in the future – this would mean defining a desirable future and then working backwards to identify policies and programs that would connect that specified future to the present. Step by step, year by year… A tangible path from where we are to where we would prefer to be.
I would love to hear some fresh viewpoints on the subject. Feel free to comment below, or post links to your own blogs and websites (if they are relevant).