Citizens – change up the dance moves

 

At the end of Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, he argues that it is time for citizens to fight city hall. But the real fight in is in how we think about our cities and our relationships with each other and cities.

Here’s the great irony of the American (and Canadian) city as Montgomery sees it:

… a nation that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities. Municipal governments, often with the counsel and assistance of land developers, lay down community plans complete with restrictive zoning long before residents arrive on the scene. Residents have no say about what their streets and parks and gathering places will look like. And once they move in, it is illegal for them to tinker with the shape of the public places they share, or, … to use their homes for anything beyond the dictates of strict zoning bylaws (p. 306).

The challenge is not that municipal governments and land developers need to be fought, but that the voices of citizens and civil society are weak and need to be strengthened. We have been building cities, without making cities that serve us well. (Montgomery’s premise is that cities are a happiness project, and that cities design our lives .)

Looking at the city as a whole system, there are four distinct voices and roles in city making (see my last post on Happy City, change the code, change the city): citizens are the voice of the city spirit, embodying the city’s values; civic managers are civic expertise, looking after our public institutions, serving as the city brain; civil society is the cultural voice of the city, the city’s heart; and the civic builders and developers invest in and build the infrastructure of the city. Civic managers (city hall) and civic builders and developers build the  city, giving it intelligence and physical form. Citizens and civil society add the psychological and cultural aspects of the city. Montgomery articulates an imbalance in today’s city, where we put emphasis on the building, without consciously considering what we are making.

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How we make our cities is evolving. They start with people building their own shelter, organizing paths, then roads and more formal buildings and transportation systems, along with water and wastewater systems etc. (Check out Is the unplanned city unplanned?) Cities are changing all the time to respond to the needs of its people, in their context, to create a habitat in which people survive and thrive. As this evolution takes place, our work evolves too. It gets more and more specialized. Just as we don’t do our own dentistry anymore, most of us don’t build our own homes, streets, cities, and sewer lines. But that does not mean we are not interested in them, and how they serve us. That is Montgomery’s point. They are not serving us well. He is calling for a recalibration of these four voices in the city.

The value of Montgomery’s work is that it helps citizens – and civic managers, civic builders and developers and civil society – see what we are building and consider how we could be building cities that serve citizens better. Stories of how citizens step up into work that improves the built form of  cities are useful and inspirational: intersection interventions, city repair. Citizens can dive in.

Citizens need to dive in. Citizens need to think about – and choose – the city that will best serve them. And they need to change how they think.

We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim great power (p. 295).

Montgomery names concrete ways in which we can think differently about city life, and there is great power in each of these:

  1. Think engagement and curiosity, rather than retreat. Today’s city is a design problem (in the realm of civici managers and builders) but also a psychological, cultural problem (citizens and civil society): “we have translated the uncertainty of city life into retreat instead of curiosity and engagement (p. 316).”
  2. Think trust and cooperation. There are parts of ourselves that are more inclined toward curiosity, trust, and cooperation, and these qualities of behaviour make us feel good. We are equally hardwired for dissatisfaction and status anxiety, as we we are for trust and cooperation.
  3. Think relationships. Between people, but also between the village and its villagers. Does the city welcome cooperators and walkers?
  4. Think of your place in the city. Confront your relationship with the city. Can you change your place in the city? Are your habits making you unhappy? Do you need to revisit what the good life looks like? Do you live where you can leave your car at home?
  5. Stand up with imagination. There is a struggle underway as citizens (and even some civic managers and civic builders) grapple with policies and practices that create unhappy cities. And there are lots of creative ways to create the changes we want. You can stand up in full-blown political ways, or simply changing your place in the city.

How we think about our cities, particularly when we align our minds and hearts with our action, is a political act.

This is the truth that shines over the journey toward the happy city. We do not need to wait for someone else to make it. We build it when we choose how and where to live. We build it when we move a little bit closer. We build it when we choose to move a little slower. We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people. We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to change with us. We build it by living it (p. 321). 
 

The four voices in the city are looking out for different things, so they don’t see eye to eye. But the tension in the city is not about ranking the perspective of one over the others, but rather figuring out the role of each in each challenge we face. It is a dance of voices and values; Montgomery invites citizens to change up the dance moves.

 

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