The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: cities

What’s a City For?

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THE IMPOSSIBLE OFTEN HAS A KIND OF INTEGRITY which the merely improbable lacks,” wrote Douglas Adams. Sounds great, but what does it mean exactly? For cities and communities, understanding this distinction is pivotal to assessing themselves. It is why the impossible will always hold greater appeal in our lives.

We all know that the things we value most also cost the most – it’s what makes them treasures. Raising children, making marriage work, building a successful business, excelling at the arts, saving the environment, or overcoming mental illness – all of these take effort and loads of it. Why, then, should building a valuable city be any different? If we’re going to go cheap, then we might as well pack it up.

Just ask Rick Cole, city manager in Santa Monica, California, and he’ll tell you that if where you live can’t produce a collective sense of wellbeing or hope in the future then the battle is already lost. There’s a reason why cities are increasingly emerging at the forefront of anything to do with change, like the fields of business, democracy, lifestyle, social justice, equity and equality. It could be because they know they are going to die if they don’t start showing leadership, and quickly.

Cole was educated on all the usual disciplines associated with city management and understands the propensity for bureaucrats to concentrate on limiting crime, zoning, building codes, and property taxes. But, really, are those the reasons we live where we do? Cole is the new breed of city manager who believes that a city must function on the values its citizens possess as opposed to merely managing creature comforts. And so he makes a simple suggestion: start from scratch. Don’t just go along with the decisions constructed by earlier generations, but decipher what it is your collective citizenry values in the moment.

Cole’s enthusiasm on this is infectious, especially to citizens, as when he exudes, “We should be in the business of community wellbeing. What we’re talking about it breathtaking.” You don’t hear city managers talk like that a lot, if ever, because something that’s “breathtaking” usually costs, and bureaucrats and civic politicians alike prefer to dwell in the realm of the “doable” and the “manageable.”

Cole compares cities to institutions that fall into a state of decline simply because they attempted to prolong the same old, same old. All of the efforts and practices that use to work in a functioning city are no longer sufficient, and the quicker cities understand that, the quicker they can begin their renaissance and recovery.

Following Cole’s guidance, Santa Monica took on a huge survey of its inhabitants and quickly discovered that fewer than half got any kind of exercise. Nearly one-third felt they were always in stress. Less than 50% talked to their neighbours. And 40% felt that they didn’t have any voice in their community and that the powers-that-be wouldn’t listen to them anyway. City leaders were stunned. It was an admission that just doing the same things the same way their elders had was now leading to the breakdown of community. It wasn’t about taxes, houses, roads, or material goods; it was about the mental health of the city’s inhabitants, and that would require a city plan unlike anything they had ever attempted before.

Part of the problem was that people were looking for more than what the old management structures could provide and were feeling the strain of underachievement. Citizens were dreaming at the same time their leaders were incrementally managing and it was killing them. They were now looking at Santa Monica the way that a new couple looks at their first home – a place full of life, possibility, a future, and things of value. It had become Cole’s job to lay out a plan to get them there.

The city manager’s plans received a boost when Santa Monica mayor, Tony Vazquez, made the theme of this year’s State of the City speech, “Get Things Done.” And so this California city has embarked on a new direction, one driven by reaching for the things that are of a costlier nature but filled with the stuff dreams are made of.

John Helliwell, of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, puts it plainly: “Just to focus on economic growth is to miss critical aspects of human life.” There is the old saying that dreams should be bigger than our fears, and that’s still holds true. But it’s a new era, with a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, and perhaps we could also add that the dreams of city dwellers should always be bigger than mere budgets or business plans.

Cities are Rebuilding Faith in Government

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IT HAS BECOME A PERSISTENT NARRATIVE, especially during the American primary season south of the border – politics is broken. There will be those who argue the opposite, but in the minds of most citizens north or south of the 49th parallel something has gone wrong in our politics and we feel it for a certainty. Yes, a cruel partisanship has gripped the political class for years. Yes, our deeper problems remain insufficiently addressed as an uncertain future moves into our collective life. But perhaps the greatest cause of the present disillusionment has been the growing distance citizens have experienced from the kind of society they would seek for themselves and their children.

Maybe that’s changing. While America fights through its own political wars for change, the feeling for many in Canada is that change has begun with the last election and we now have to see if it’s all just rhetoric or if it will stick.

Yet for cities in both countries, change and innovation have been part of the political dynamic for a number of years. In the process, people are regaining a certain level of trust in government again, but primarily at the local level, where they live and where they can more easily spot the progress. Citizens and politicians are discovering together that renewal is more easily generated the closer it comes to cities themselves.

The desire for progress following twenty years of austerity didn’t emerge out of some mere whim but from municipal streets and houses, businesses and non-profits, the arts and the poorer districts – anywhere where years of failure to invest have left obvious effects in the economies and hopes of people.

It was previously believed that cities were more or less outside of those larger economic and structural arenas where the feds and the provinces played. Often content to get the scraps from the table following any budget season, cities had to cobble together what they could while waiting for the larger players to pay attention.

Times have changed, and communities are fed up with waiting or merely being carriers of water. They wish to lead and to get the senior jurisdictions to pay more attention. “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision,” said Helen Keller. The same can be said for cities. Yet there is a stirring in communities around the world that links hope with vision, and not with mere pragmatic decisions of management or budgets. People want to actually live politics in its true democratic sense instead of just talking about it or fighting over it. They choose not to play at it or get partisan over it; they just want to practice it.

This goes even deeper. Citizens are coming to the realization that the modern pressures they face actually come from a lack of community, not just from the shortcomings of Ottawa or a provincial capital. And so they look for solutions locally – an extremely practical response. They see planning as an extension of vision and not the other way around. Citizens are putting everything on table: taxes, expensive infrastructure investments, joining the Smart City movement, and demanding collaboration from their politicians.

This is about government and our belief in its potential, not merely its pragmatism. Mere rhetoric just won’t cut it. Citizens are now seeking the tools that can assist them to build their collective dreams instead of leaving it to others to maybe get around to it at some future time. Cities are their “dream places” not someone else’s, and they are just at the beginning of a renewed citizen dynamic. They desire to be engaged in the spirit of John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Politics is now in the process of getting real.


When Cities Define Us

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“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.

Keeping a Community’s Soul Intact


FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, LIBRARIES WERE LIKE CASTLES of private knowledge. Even then they contained thoughts and ideas that could be dangerous, forming part of the justification for invading armies to ransack and burn them to the ground. The reasoning was simple: destroy a culture’s collected memory and you can wipe out the culture itself.

Except it didn’t work that way. Memories and acquired wisdom are dynamic things that, when called upon, still empower a citizenry even when their books are taken away. And almost immediately they begin building places of knowledge again.

For that very reason libraries have to be permeable, fluid things. Civilizations ebb and flow, and as long as enlightenment and knowledge are essential to progress libraries will be found at the centre of community life – not because they house books, but because they house our collective spirit, assisting us to adapt.

Libraries have manifested themselves in public and private life in thousands of ways. I recall when former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told me of a remarkable library compiled and operated by the children of Auschwitz, recently mentioned in a New York Times article. Made up of only eight volumes, the books were hidden at night only to be distributed the next day – a moving story giving credence to Joan Bauer’s sage observation, “When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.” As long as those volumes lived, so did hope and enlightenment.

There are the lending libraries increasingly displayed in neighbourhood front yards, or those slowly built and donated by book clubs. All of these are just further indications that libraries of all sizes and forms are built to adapt to however knowledge is transmitted.

None of this is lost on London, Ontario’s civic council and administration as they work their way through budget deliberations. In greater numbers, citizens have been pulling together for causes. In neighbourhoods that gradual awakening has taken to our public libraries in search of ideas, conversation, engagement, and a convenient place to gather. In the past year alone formal gatherings have moved through the central and branch library buildings to discuss our relationship with the Thames River, to collect citizen input on issues like poverty and the environment, as a gathering place for the faith community to speak about financial equity and social justice, and for countless discussions on neighbourhood issues.

Far from receding into the shadows of their bookshelves, London’s libraries have emerged even further into public life as pivotal intersections of local democracy. At a time when financially strapped governments often respond to fiscal challenges by cutting funds for culture, libraries, perhaps London’s especially, remind us that when culture itself is mobilizing, citizens require publicly funded places to gather, talk, and learn more than ever. If we wish to strengthen our cities, libraries will stand at the core of that public work.

Our libraries aren’t mere structures, but experiments in community living that can never be truly completed because how people live together is ever in a state of flux. In the process, citizens themselves are evolving. One librarian put it years ago that when she entered the building first thing in the morning that she got the sense its shelves and atmosphere were breathing. That was because it reflected the growing dynamics of the community in which it found itself.

Author Toby Forward noted that, “Civilized nations build libraries; lands that have lost their soul close them down.” London’s libraries have flourished in part because they have not only caught the wave of civic renewal but have induced it. In so doing they have kept our city’s soul intact. Supporting our libraries still remains a revolutionary act – a direct signal to those in power that dynamic civic life requires energized citizens, and enlightened places in which they can gather. Libraries will remain as strong as citizens are engaged, and right now they are teeming.

It All Comes Down to Cities


FOLLOWING EXTENSIVE NEGOTIATIONS a deal emerged among 190 countries regarding climate change and the very future of the planet. Almost immediately opinions pro and con erupted in every venue imaginable. The average citizen can be forgiven for experiencing difficulty as to the truth of the summit’s success in Paris this past week.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the climate change response that have been clearly successful, with progressive track records that still spell hope on the file. I speak especially of cities. While the accomplishments on carbon emissions of a number of nations have been mixed, cities around the world opted to act long before the Paris summit. Following the dismal failure of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, municipal leaders took the initiative when others dropped the ball.

All this is important, since as much as a third of carbon budgets will be determined by decisions that municipalities themselves will make. That is no small thing and while sovereign nations now begin the process of deciphering how to meet the loose targets they committed to, many of their key cities have been moving along that path for years, and decades for some.

Increasingly it appears as though cities will be the staging areas for any great global response to climate change. Think of most great challenges before us – immigration, refugees, the renewal of capitalism, citizen engagement, political reform, and many more – and their chief field of operations will be in our civic centres. It makes sense, not only because of their population density but since they provide the majority of the on the ground services required by citizens.

But there’s more. Research from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate reveals that a group comprised of fewer than 500 cities will be responsible for some 60% of global economic growth and 50% of greenhouse gas emission increases in the next 15 years. Cities are already forming the front line in humanity’s struggle with climate change.

It’s now clear what is happening: for nations to develop an effective environmental response, they must undertake the process of following their cities. Again, that makes sense since city mayors have already undertaken over 10,000 climate change actions in recent years.

Yet there is another reason for civic action that is rarely mentioned. Between 2005 and 2013, cities have absorbed the vast majority of refugees. Recent research enforces this reality.

  • Manila (Philippines) presently houses 70,000 refugees.
  • New York city is attempting to support 60,000 – 22,000 of which are children.
  • Mexico City holds 20,000.
  • The cities of India are attempting to resettle some 23 million.
  • San Francisco hosts 10,000 refugees.
  • Rome is challenged by the 70,000 living within its boundaries.

At present, over 100 million people are homeless in our world, the majority of them in our cities. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 billion exist without adequate housing. These are huge numbers and they are increasing, mostly in our municipalities.

In other words, cities have a vested interest in taking the lead in climate change action for the simple reason that they will be absorbing the terrible consequences of failure. “Cities are the greatest creations of humanity,” says author Daniel Libeskind. They could also be the beach upon which we ultimately perish. More than the Paris summit, our hundreds of cities will determine whether we can submit ourselves to the natural order that sustains us.

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