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Cities are good for you?

John Keane has a nice article/profile of Greens Senator Scott Ludlam (one of our brightest stars in parliament) and his thoughts on urban form:

A definite cut above most other politicians down under, Ludlam has city life and urban thinking hard-wired into his political genes. He’s highly knowledgeable on the subject. Politically wise for his young age (he’s 43) and now campaigning for re-election in Western Australia, he tells me during our recent breakfast in Sydney that cities are becoming political laboratories.

‘Much has been said and written about sustainable cities in recent times’, he says. ‘There’s a wild flowering of creative theory and practice going on.’ We’re now on the cusp of an urban tipping point. ‘The future is here’, he adds, borrowing words from William Gibson. ‘It’s just not widely distributed yet.’

The future, in this sense, begins with reminding ourselves what public space is for:

Sprawl, privatisation, soulless nowhere places, empty pockets, homelessness: such dark sides of the urban moon are downplayed in the much-discussed recent book by Leo Hollis, Cities are Good for You. Still the Senator broadly agrees with its brave attempt to reclaim the city from the gripes and grumbles of sceptics, naysayers and doomsday merchants. Here Ludlam shows a bottom of good sense. He’s a smart and lucid urbanist with a deft feel for the way city life can be empowering. Things done closer to home tend to be more meaningful, he tells me. Cities like Sydney and New York are vital crucibles of pluralism, cultivators of people’s acceptance of differences, their common sense of being in it together with others, their need for give-and-take civility. When they function well, they’re ‘diverse, organic, problem-solving’ places (he quotes the famous words of Jane Jacobs). Impressed by the southern Spanish city of Seville (‘a fine-grained, pedestrian-friendly, solar-powered city’), he’s particularly enamoured of Tokyo. It’s the centrepiece of a recent short film he shot and directed. ‘Tokyo’s fun, packed with energy that comes from deliberate compaction. Its public transport system resembles a ballet; it’s the best I’ve ever used. It’s a city with many pockets of deep memory, some of them living reminders of human triumph over firebombing, nuclear weapons and nuclear melt-downs.’

The experience of people rubbing shoulders with others in urban settings is important for another reason. The professor quotes Hannah Arendt on the vital importance of public space in citizens’ lives. He doesn’t flinch. ‘The public experience of face-to-face mixing and mingling of people reminds them of their diversity and commonality, as equals.’ Shared public space of course requires people to nurture their sense of history. City folk need to feel anchored, with their toes firmly on the ground. Heritage matters. Cities must be custodians of collective memory. ‘Given my particular roots, London does that for me as a city’, he tells me. ‘I know no other city where I can feel and appreciate the multiple deep layers of the past.’

It’s not that difficult. Just requires a change of mindset. After all, it’s hard to argue persuasively for whatever passes for the present one.