“EVERY PERSON IS DEFINED BY THE COMMUNITIES she belongs to,” says author Orson Card. Depending on where you live, that could be encouraging or disillusioning. In the realm of city building, many don’t wish to be defined by municipalities that seem to be falling behind, but would rather be seen as part and parcel of smart cities doing intelligent things as they move into the future.
London, Ontario, is living through such a moment, and some see it as a crucible. The current subject under debate is Light Rail Transit (LRT) versus Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Some view LRT as a sign that we are committed to the future, whereas others prefer BRT as a more affordable decision to manage the present. In unexpected fashion it has become a difficult debate over the soul of the city.
Cities can enable us or disable us. They represent the environment in which we must deal with one another, either as a place to merely live or a community in which to grow. In a modern and complex world where everything seems to proceed at the speed of light, the collective decision to take a pass can prove a death knell to cities that are increasingly in competition with one another. It is what happens when communities, like a book, have lots of characters and events but little plot or narrative. Cities can become places where we merely organize collective human life or transcend the daily expectations to create a more dynamic future.
We must build into those places where we live the values that are the most precious to us, not merely those helping us to survive. In effect, a city becomes the ardent symbol of how we see our future or it lingers on as symbol of endless compromise. In a world where politics becomes the prime example of managing expectations, the main goal becomes keeping the peace instead of building a dynamic, fluid place.
I have always had a deep respect for the observation made by Jane Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” But what happens if a good portion of the population has no interest in creating but merely taking from the benefits a city offers? Should this number reach a critical mass, then community begins to die and most times isn’t aware of it.
Perhaps we should ask the simplest of questions: What are cities for? It was a lot clearer in the past. Cities were required for protection against marauding forces. They were the large place where the faithful congregated and created a sense of the spiritual and where clans gathered together. They were the primary source of market economies owing to their larger agricultural setting.
The complexities of the modern world have easily caused cities to rise above these historic limitations in order to become intersections of a more global humanity. If a modern city is to have any chance it must answer this more international call of its citizens. It is a cosmopolitanism taken to new levels by more liberalized immigration and refugee policies, by markets that trade goods in a millisecond, and through technologies that put people in touch with one another wherever there is a connection.
All this creates a new kind of citizen – connected, smart, and collaborative. Cities that refuse to absorb this emerging reality into their fabric, culture, infrastructure, and communications aren’t merely suffering from lethargic leadership but unimaginative citizens – we create our own world. Because of the sheer quantities of creativity in modern cities, leaders must make room for citizens to take part in the designing of their own future – individual and collective.
Cities are like dreams, driven by either desire or fear. Those municipalities that struggle are more often guided by hesitation and insecurity, and that is often a reflection of the citizens themselves. Far better to be incentivized by a sense of the audacious than to be dulled in our senses by the desire to undertake only what’s manageable.
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours,” wrote Italo Calvino. Cities begin to fade when their citizens no longer ask questions of how to better live together.