The city’s right on schedule

Assume for a moment that the city is broken. Then consider this question, posed by Charles Montgomery in Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design:

Do you save a broken city by fixing its hardware, its public space and infrastructure, or do you save it by fixing its software – the attitudes and behavior [sic] of its citizens? 

Montgomery tells the story of two mayors of Bogata, Columbia – Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa – who in recent years have radically improved life in their cities. Mockus built a new culture of citizenship and respect. Penalosa built the culture of respect into the city’s body, its infrastructure (p. 231-234) with these big philosophical and political questions:

Who should share in public wealth of the city?
Who should have access to parks and beautiful places?
Who should have the privilege of easy mobility?

In his stories about urban innovations to share the public wealth of the city, to allow vast access to parks and beautiful places, and to expand the privilege of easy mobility, Montgomery finds resistance.  Efforts to build infrastructure for public transportation and bicycles meets resistance. Efforts to provide access to beautiful areas of the city to the “riffraff” meet resistance. Choosing schools and sewers, over elevated highways meets resistance.

For Montgomery, citizens resist urban innovations for two reasons: “deeply held beliefs about the relationship between urban form and culture, and what it means to be free in cities (p. 240-241).” It shows up as an equity war where those that enjoy the benefits of urban systems are inconvenienced when the benefits are reapportioned (p. 241). The sprawling, dispersed city is embedded deep within us. It shapes how we think about our cities, and our streets and roads that allow us to move around our cities.

Take cars for example. For those of us that benefit from the car, any change to how we move about our city in our cars is a challenge to our deep beliefs in freedom of movement. The prospect of having to share our roads with bicycles and public transit, or lose car lanes to bicycles and public transit, sparks a war where car users decry that it is not fair. For Montgomery, this is an equity debate that the car can not win, because, “Today’s urban mobility systems are flat-out unfair, especially in North America… one in every three people [are] at the mercy of scarce public transit or dependent upon someone else to chauffeur him around (p. 241).”

We are not designing for everyone. We are designing for the privilege of the car.

So happiness is fairness.

Happiness is organizing ourselves in cities to share wealth, to share beauty. And the geography of the city matters. Stepping into Montgomery’s challenge to view the city as a share project means that the improvements we make are also shared. Physical improvements in only affluent districts, for example, is not equitable. Creating districts in our city that segregate incomes and cultures is not equitable. The shared city is a city where people are mixed. Mixing is the mark, the mark of civilized, democratic and ethical society (p. 248).”

Montgomery’s enduring lessons for cities (p. 250):

By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone’s experience, life can get easier and more pleasant for everyone. We can make cities that are more generous and less cruel. We can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active, and more free. We just have to decide who are cities are for. And we have to believe that they can change. 

We just have to decide who are cities are for.

And we have to believe that they can change.

_____

Assume for a moment that the city is exactly where we need it to be, asking of us exactly what we need to better serve our city habitat and ourselves.

Assume for a moment that we are right on schedule.

 

 

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One thought on “The city’s right on schedule”

  1. Thanks for this post. Been wanting to read this and now want to read even more.

    Assume for a moment that the city is exactly where we need it to be, asking of us exactly what we need to better serve our city habitat and ourselves.

    Assume for a moment that we are right on schedule.

    I feel like you have given me a mantra for my week with these two lines.

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