This post is not about whether we should repave the world with solar panels (which could be amazing or awful or both). It's about all the little ideas and investments that I find even more exciting than solar FREAKIN' roadways. They won't ever get 16 million hits on youtube, but they make life better and are reshaping our cities as we speak.
There are not a lot of straightforward answers in city-building. We've proven terrible at predicting the consequences of what we do in all ecosystems, including the urban. We've also had too many megalomaniacs convinced they've got the right idea and then play SIM City in real life to great destruction. So I don't exactly know what I'm doing when I try to shape my city. Neither does anyone, as far as I can tell.
Confusion and complexity doesn’t excuse negligence though. And in our visions of new urban design or inspiring architecture, there’s always a danger of neglecting the most important part of a city: people. Even if I don’t really know what I’m doing, it better be imbued with empathy and compassion for people, plus humility and patience toward the complexity of the urban ecosystem.
A different definition of cutting edge
Now, I love a flawless rendering of a utopian city as much as the next person but I've pretty much stopped concerning myself with this definition of cutting edge. To me, the coolest, most action-packed city building is much less ostentatious.
When I started filtering through the barrage of urban-beat stories for empathy, compassion, humility, and patience, the faces of city-building began to change. Now that I’m out living this stuff, I feel like the most truly exciting urban change is barely even perceptible unless you fast-forward watch the change in hindsight. Or unless you are a part of it.
To me, nothing is more exciting than the unique and creative ways that vulnerable places make themselves more resilient. Every story is different and full of irreplaceable characters that make it all work. The best part of moving to Fredericton has been meeting all of those characters who are writing the story of our city. I'd sooner put my money behind people who really care about where they live than a technological fix implanted from above.
If I were to break it down into process, I'd say the units of this exciting city-building are the opposite of groundbreaking ideas. Instead, they are incremental changes that can respond quickly to neighbourhood feedback. For example, doing pilot projects, learning from the outcomes and building trust in the process.
Incremental city-building is not a glamorous process. At any given moment, it probably looks underwhelming and might be going in the wrong direction. But this is a process that can respond to feedback before it's too late. That’s really important, because we see in cities as in other ecosystems that little interventions can spark either vicious cycles or virtuous circles.
We saw a virtuous circle in Memphis.
Elbow-grease for a rising Memphis
- invest in undervalued areas that need some TLC;
- do so incrementally and incorporate feedback (ie. not usurp the area).
Memphis is doing great work. They taught me the value of elbow-grease and observation. They also taught me that it's not just the urban intervention that gets the job done - it's the people doing it. There are some special people in Memphis, but we've all got our local characters too.
It’s great to be home in Fredericton again to get to work myself! On that note, I’ll be hosting a make-your-own worm composter workshop with the Fredericton Makerspace to divert some waste and meet fellow apartment dwellers (you can keep a worm composter indoors - no smell). Pictures forthcoming after the event!
I love hearing stories from and about DIY city-builders around the world, so please let me know about the great people in your neck of the woods.