Audacity. Before the advent of the automobile, city streets were human spaces. They were thoroughfares where people would meet, socialise and celebrate. Today the common perception is that our streets are the exclusive domains of motorised vehicles. It takes imagination and courage to develop modern cities as habitats for people and not cars. Making our cities pedestrian and cycle-friendly improves urban mobility and makes urban areas more inclusive, by encouraging all residents to think differently about how they should move around. Cities exist to eliminate transport costs for people, goods and ideas. However too many residents regard public transit as something for those who cannot afford to drive, contributing to urban congestion and air pollution. To paraphrase the bold claim of the mayor of Bogota, what we aspire to are cities not where the poor move about in private vehicles but where the rich take public transport.
Labelled as consumers and defined by our work, we forget our role as citizens. Our individual civic powers have atrophied to such an extent that we have become illiterate in civics. Civics boils down to the simple question of who decides what. No one knows the city where you live better than you, so why let someone else decide?
As modern societies steer away from government and towards governance, and from hierarchical control to networks, influence is inexorably shifting to citizens. Localism of our time is not insular or narrow-minded: it is connected and emergent. By restoring the broken links between people and places, a new narrative for prosperity emerges – one of lasting social and economic vitality locally, for human civilisation as a whole.
The rise of cities marks a very different approach in how we find a new and safer equilibrium. Our future will be invented piecemeal, by a groundswell of different communities in multiple cities, as it cannot be conceived or implemented as a unitary plan. Widespread implementation involves a great many localised plans, and in our networked world this speeds up transformation rather than slows it down. As with nature, there is immense power in the proliferation of different designs. When they succeed they are quickly copied. When they fail there are already others in place elsewhere that limit the downside.
Can we imagine public life without being fatalistic? The present disillusionment with many national governments of the day is due in part to the feeling that citizens are disconnected from the decisions taken on their behalf, and the frustration that politics is too partisan or corrupted. Political crises abound and we are tired of it all. From Brexit to Brazil, from trade wars to the horror of outright wars. The result of this creeping fatalism is a growing dichotomy between a minority of active citizens and the majority who have chosen simply to opt out.
The ennui with national politics does not inevitably seep into municipal politics, unless we lack the imagination to stop it. While similar criticisms may be levelled at city governance, citizens still feel and can exert an influence over their cities. Civic engagement is about rediscovering our latent power to breathe new personal life into the public realm. It’s about the audacity of hope.