The City At Stake

March 19, 2020 — Blog, The Big Picture

Public Health and Vital Budget were two concepts at the core of Patrick Geddes’ vision for a thriving city in his seminal 1910 essay “Cities in Evolution”. He was right, and this abrupt lockdown we are now experiencing forces us to reconsider both of them as priorities in the development of our cities.

For twenty years, a series of dramatic events have undermined the very concept of the city: terrorism, financial crisis, and environmental and biological crises.

Today, it faces a dramatic pandemic.

After a century and a half of accusations and criticisms, the city has been reevaluated as the primary place of our evolution.
The concept of the city as an “insurance” against the great disasters of the twentieth century is now being discussed and disputed by various interests.

“The people, where will they go?”

The question that Ebenezer Howard put to himself in his 1898 novel To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform once again becomes a key issue: “Where will the people go?” With this simple question in mind, and with eyes that have for years observed cities and their evolution, we can see an evident failure on three distinct levels that lead to three further pressing questions.

The city is at risk on three levels.

The first is the physical level. Density and proximity, the various urban typologies we are familiar with that originated largely from the great inventions of the 1900s, are features that appear obsolete and unsuitable for the challenges facing cities. Principal among them is climate change. The urban setting that continues to expand globally is patently inadequate yet nevertheless is constantly recreated incorrectly around the world in a proliferation of new cities whose dimensions are in themselves inefficient, unlivable, unsustainable: a city that betrays the very sense of the city. We therefore ask ourselves: What is the urban form of the future? What does resilience really mean?

The second level is that of power. It concerns soft power, affirmation, aggregation, and extends to social controls. We have quickly gone from a time when cities seemed more important than states, and when mayors were better suited to rule the world than heads of state. Now, to a time when cities have lost authority, control and decision-making power, and when mayors try to combat emergencies with hashtags. In parallel, there is the topic of containment, access control, surveillance, and limits on freedoms. The famous saying “Stadtluft macht frei” (the city air makes you free) has today become “The city air makes us prisoners.” The city quitters, those aware of the control and limitation mechanisms imposed in cities, are ready to depart for the countryside, valleys, and farms to reconstruct their urban feeling elsewhere in new ways. Does it still make sense to talk about city-state? What will “data urbanism” bring us? How long will the appeal of the countryside continue?

Lastly, there is the third level, the philosophical —or rather, teleological— one that understands the city as a model of free thought. Here, the very essence of the city is being neutralized. The role of the city seemed to be the place chosen for the circulation of ideas, for the surreal and serendipitous encounters that brought wealth and excitement. One goes to the city to escape the tradition and power of the elites, to affirm his freedom of thought and initiative, and to be at the center of commerce and culture; one stays in the city to live in a society of individuals where one is both autonomous and interconnected; one is in the city to anticipate the future. The city was once a “place of worship” in which to build the only truth, the personal one. But today, the city expresses more and more conformism, dominant thought, politically correct dialog, and fake news. If not in the city, where will we be able to build our personal truth? If the city ceases to be the setting in which the evolution of humanity takes place, what is left for us?

We will try to answer these questions during the next edition of Utopian Hours, to be held in Turin, Italy on 23-25 October 2020.

An international event dedicated to city-making, Utopian Hours explores the most pressing issues of urban environments while showcasing successful experiences from different cities around the world. It looks at visionary challenges, ambitious placemaking projects, social and technological innovation, and the collective imagination.
With its open, multidisciplinary, and provocative approach, along with references to the great urban visionaries of the past, Utopian Hours festival hosts prominent international guests, entrepreneurs, innovators, and courageous civic activists who help us understand the meaning of cities of the future.

We do not know what lies ahead for the city, but it is certain that it must be rethought.