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Know Your Place

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Affluence has become synonymous with personal wealth in terms of economic wellbeing, although the idea itself is not limited to financial and material accumulation. Personal affluence includes such things as good health, contentment, attachment to others and a sense of belonging. Perhaps it should be no surprise to learn that there is no shortage of the Earth’s carrying capacity if we aspire to aggregate human fulfilment over cumulative private consumption. In the bigger context of our rapidly urbanising human population, urban writer Mike Davis goes on to add:

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth… Public affluence – represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction – represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality.

This glimpse of a different kind of civic renewal, where human energy ebbs and flows freely, reveals a way for many more people to attain affluence. Within our grasp is the enjoyment of living affordably together in cities, through access to a wealth of public assets and by actively participating in the life of the city. Public affluence is understood to be as much a collective state of mind as it is the physical places where people congregate and interact. This aspiration is not aligned to any particular political ideology. It is too important locally for national parties to commandeer, and too broad for tribal partisanship. Far from undermining individualism, it is individual residents and individual cities that will lead this shift towards a broader affluence.

Despite the rapid urban expansion over the next few decades, building neighbourhood communities and a sense of collective identity takes time. Even cities that are efficient and function well (in terms of their transportation systems or utilities, for example) can be desolate habitats for people if they do not support a thriving social life. A sociable city creates networks of these public spaces large and small, accessible without private transport; citizens create the richness by filling them and looking after them. In such urban environments we are never far from a social oasis or a place where we may pick up new habits from one another. These cities are quicker to evolve and adapt, as there is less entrenched resistance by residents to change and new norms of behaviour spread more readily.

The importance of social diversity to public affluence is not lost in the “London Plan”, the overall spacial development plan for London. Although almost five hundred pages, the entire plan can perhaps be summarised in three lines: maintain urban growth within the Green Belt boundary; identify development opportunity areas that can absorb this future growth; allow development only if it is mixed-use, includes affordable housing and has good access to public transport. Reading between these lines the message is clear: cosmopolitan London will not survive if it becomes a city of enclaves.

To avoid the social consequences of segregation, cities need to invest in more socially intelligent systems for housing. For example, monolithic public housing developments should give way to pepper-pot distribution of rent-subsidised apartments within mixed buildings; affordable housing that may include accommodation for the elderly, disabled or students should not be distinguishable from the outside. Equally, we can avoid voluntary segregation from the rest of society and not cut ourselves off from one another by retreating into gated developments. After all, a “gated community” is an oxymoron: research indicates that most people who live on gated streets do not want to get involved with their neighbours or local community.

The secret ingredient to public affluence is more balanced communities, not divisiveness. To stay ahead of their own growth, leapfrog cities need to find effective ways to integrate their burgeoning informal settlements. Disparagingly labelled as slums, ghettos or shanty towns, these informal settlements can be home to significant numbers of city residents and represent a vital pool of local labour. These citizens already live in far more compact and resourceful ways than residents elsewhere. Segregated, they cleave the city and their neighbourhoods become places where inequalities and poverty are exaggerated.

Diversity of local residents may be the key that unlocks the power and potential of public affluence, but its importance to society is even broader. There is a direct link between this social cohesiveness and sustainable development. If new cities follow the well-worn approach to urban development, the pressure will be on constructing buildings with little regard or budget for the public realm. In the worst case, housing enclaves will be constructed to perpetuate separation, with gated communities here and tower blocks there. The priority will simply be “roofs over heads” as if there were a forced choice between planning new buildings and planning diverse social spaces in between. As the Italian architect Nolli demonstrated, inverting this thinking by putting the public realm first is a leapfrog opportunity that encourages a more inclusive society by giving citizens space for sociality. It is even more important that the most rapidly growing cities, with the least time for communities to develop, allow for these social spaces that strengthen the nascent bonds within and between communities.

Great public places are great because people use them creatively and in doing so create affluence in its broader and more appealing sense. We become attached to them and to others who share these same spaces with us. The opportunity cost of people feeling separated and disconnected is measured by the lack of community spirit and ailing civil society. There is no sustainability without diverse and inclusive places in our cities for us to share our finite resources more humanely while also nourishing the human spirit. They are part of the collective genius of city life. As citizens, we make the difference by making the places come alive.

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