The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: planning

A City of Soul


THE CITY OF SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, decided it was time to get more serious about the arts. Only they didn’t undertake the task in the fashion other municipalities had tried. Believing that every aspect of the arts was vital to any future life the city had, they laid out some clear markers:

  • they would develop 6 community public art plans, identifying sites and themes for the public arts around the city
  • Surrey would compile an inventory of public and private sector cultural assets, services and facilities n the city – identifying gaps and needs
  • seek to identify needs, opportunities, space and operational requirements for a decentralized model of arts and heritage
  • identify space and resource requirements for the growth and preservation of cultural and art collections
  • assess needs and roles for effective communication of cultural values and benefits by public and community stakeholders
  • identify cultural spaces and amenities in city centre development plans

What’s important here is the sheer comprehensive nature of their undertaking. This wasn’t about merely supporting one group or another, but was instead an inspiring attempt at getting every sector of the community to buy in. Just like other communities, Surrey had been through its own economic difficulties and it would have been easy to place what many regarded as the “soft stuff” on the back burners in favour of the harder financial realities. City leaders quickly discerned the fallacy in such an approach, reasoning that if citizens lost the ability to express their emotions and celebrate, then economics alone would lead to a diminished municipality.  Numerous cities have cultural prosperity plans, but Surrey actually implemented theirs.  Great cities find a way to get it done.

What’s the point of living on the same streets if we merely become an audience. Visionary community planners understand that citizens must become players in their own performances and the best way to achieve that is to inspire them – not just with amazing arts but in giving a city some soul. As David Binder puts it:

“Twenty-first-century arts festivals] ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

Those communities that make art to be solely about money have forgotten how they initially came together through community singing, acting out life in real-time, and painting the essence of a streetscape. Only as communities grew could they eventually sustain concert halls and art galleries – a great step in their respective evolutions as communities.  Any aspiring city should seek out the arts and support them at their very best.  And when they are performed at their very best, the arts help a city to become a showcase to the world.

A city that no longer has something to sing, act, or draw about inevitably loses those higher levels of the arts that can inspire entire communities through talented performances. It is through the arts that we learn to dream together, to feel the same collective emotional tug to weep or laugh, to mourn, or to live with purpose. Participatory democracy is better flamed through the passion of the human spirit than through any other source and it is often through the culture of a city that this passion is resourced.

There are those who occasionally imply that cities and their huddled masses will destroy themselves. We have yet to see it. Just two words remind us of just how resilient cities are: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their future seemed obliterated in a millisecond, yet today they thrive, having overcome some of the worst humanity could throw at them and prevail as robust communities.

In reality, cities can survive against the most amazing odds. They come back from floods, famine, conflict, poverty, and political catastrophe because in the end their citizens still dream and find way of using their emotions, intellect, and willpower to forge their own future.

If communities die, it will be mostly because individual lights went out over the process of time. People lose hope. They feel the odds against them are too great. They grow isolated, losing the humanity in one another. The bulbs burn out and the light is gone. It is for the very purpose of restoring the human soul and spirit that the arts were born.

Why a community flourishes is every bit as important as how it does so, and it is often through the presence of artistic communities in our midst – amateur and professional – that the will to actually be a great city is generated. The day a city can no longer find its purpose will also be the day that culture must rescue it. “To be or not to be” never came from a corporate or political leader, but from a writer. The ability to find ourselves and lose ourselves in the same moment is the gift of art. And no city can ever dance when its leaders can no longer hear the music. The question should never be whether we can afford culture; it should be how can we possibly survive without it.

What Did You Expect?



I WAS IN THE PUBLIC GALLERY WELL IN ADVANCE OF THE London’s Planning Division’s unveiling of their landmark work, titled “The London Plan”. As the gallery filled up to capacity, as did the adjoining overflow room, it became readily apparent to me that I was witnessing the preliminary machinations of democratic war. Not the one party versus the other party kind that has no deadened the political space in our world, but the variety that pitted a remarkably dedicated citizen movement against their elected representatives in what has become a very high stakes game – the future of London, Ontario.

There’s no requirement to go into the details here; they are remarkably well laid out on ReThink’s website. Details are important, vital even, but in this particular instance the very definition of what a city is hangs in the balance. Half of the city councillors didn’t even show up to what is the ultimate unveiling of the largest citizen engagement exercise in Canadian history. They felt they needn’t have shown up because they were foolish enough to believe that they had the power anyway and all that citizens had were – ideas. For a city up against the ropes, it’s fair to say that ideas and innovation are all that we have left.

As more people come to live in cities it becomes essential that they be designed as incubators where the entire community thrives. Aristotle used to claim that, “The polis exists by nature and is more important than the individual.” The old philosopher’s concept of the polis was how we acted and decided together. For far too long our municipalities have developed in such a way that pits urban against rural, rich against the poor, the old against the young, the public space against the private enterprises, and, ultimately, the citizen against their own representatives.

ReThink London and its new “London Plan” are designed to spend the next three decades bringing these diverse aspects together in a way that brings us as citizens together as well. It was a sad testament that our councillors couldn’t even join with their presence for the sake of their community’s future, but citizens did and that will make all the difference. They have already reached agreement with Aristotle when he concluded that those who wish to remain apart are either “a beast or a god.” The good people of London have already made the decision on that one.

Not that Aristotle or his contemporaries had all the answers, but much of what they claimed is making more sense now that even a century ago. Many of his virtues of the polis – temperance, mildness, friendliness, wit and a sense of justice – are amazingly absent from the modern political spectrum. Moreover, anyone possessing such abilities is often deemed unsuitable to the arena – “not tough enough,” as they would say. And yet it is what citizens are increasingly craving for. What’s the point of tribal battles when an entire community has lost its way?

By implication, the London Plan isn’t so much about a future as it is about how people have chosen those values by which they choose to live together, even in the present. If ReThink showed us anything, it was that we wish to be mobile together, to live in closer neighbourhoods together, to raise our children together, and to build prosperity and public spaces together. That whole “together” thing has never before been as clear and compelling as it is right now. The fact that half of our politicians failed to have enough respect for their citizens to show up gives clear indication that a fight is coming.

This isn’t just about a plan, or even a coming election. It’s about a community that has spoken its mind and requires politicians that are greater than politics. We look for community builders who seek to lead from within the emerging ranks of those who now see their city as worthy of collaborative effort. The new London Plan reflects exactly what author Dee Hock defines as community:

“The essence of community, its heart and soul, is the non-monetary exchange of value; things we do and share because we care for others, and for the good of the place.”

This “place” is London, and if our politicians won’t champion it in accordance with what ReThink London has discovered, then I, too, am willing to engage in the upcoming conflict, on the side of my fellow citizens who responded when asked by the city to contribute and will not walk away quietly now that they have been empowered.  What did they expect?  They inquired.  We have been awakened.  We won’t just leave the field.

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