Authorities set the tone but it’s residents that define the places they live in. So what can we do to improve the urban realm?
What does your city owe you? We talk about the importance of good governance when it comes to tip-top infrastructure, well-maintained parks and public spaces. High-quality services too, such as good schools and efficient police forces – all of them are important. But cities are made up of people, not bureaucrats.
Just as we reflect on the concept of civic responsibility when it comes to citizens of a nation, we should also be aware of what it means to be a good city resident. We know what you’re thinking: isn’t it obvious? Don’t I already know how to be a good Berliner or an exemplary Vancouverite? Be tolerant, be a good neighbour and vote in local elections – easy. But not everyone practises what they preach. Local elections, for example, have notoriously low turnouts. In the US a dismal 27 per cent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in municipal elections. In the UK the highest voter turnout in local elections was just 51.4 per cent, in 2018.
There also seems to be some confusion over what exactly constitutes being a good neighbour. Cities have evolved in the 21st century and so have mores, manners and modes of conduct. So we’ve come up with a handy rundown of the ways in which you can be a good, engaged urbanite – and help to create a better, friendlier, more liveable city in the process. Read on (and keep voting).
Pay attention. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t use your phone to play music or watch TV on public transport without headphones. But how about taking a break from using your phone at all? Too often trains and trams are packed with people sitting lost in their own little world, while the elderly gent in the corner or the woman weighed down with shopping bags is forced to stand. Keep an eye on what’s going on around you.
Recording your daily life is fun but not always necessary. Know when to mind your own business: no one should have to worry that their every private conversation or encounter is being filmed or shared on social media.
Read your local paper. Better yet, subscribe. It’s far more likely than the big nationals to be covering city issues that directly affect you – and it’ll be better equipped to do so with financial support. And once you’ve finished reading, why not leave it neatly folded on the train for someone else to peruse?
Wish your building had a rooftop garden? Create one. Gather support, petition the landlord and pool resources to build a shared space, whether it be for barbecues, garden parties or open-air film screenings.
Show up. Whether it’s running for city council or just making an appearance at meetings, getting involved and keeping informed about what’s going on in your neighbourhood is the first step in shaping your city.
Do you own a business? Why not throw open your doors to the area and its people? Throw summer parties, offer discounts to neighbours and band together with nearby shops for seasonal markets.
Bring your work home. If you have expertise in building or planning, put that to use on your own street or in the nearest park. Build your own public benches or design street furniture – or just spruce up what’s there.
Watch out. It’s great to get the heart pumping with a bracing run – less so to be bundled over by a sweaty jogger who’s forgotten that someone else might need the pavement. Be patient with children or the elderly crossing the road or walking along a little slowly – you’re not in that much of a rush. Likewise for speeding on quiet residential roads, plus cycling or scooting on the pavement.
Go beyond not littering: invest in a few bins if your neighbourhood is lacking. And if you spot a plastic bag or a discarded piece of cardboard on the ground, shaking your head and tutting won’t do much to solve the problem. So lead by example: pick it up and throw it away.
An increasing number of cities have bike-share and scooter-share programmes – and many of them also have problems with piles of bikes or scooters dumped haphazardly around town. By all means borrow a ride but leave the scooter standing upright in a sensible place when you’re done.
Become a regular. Make yourself known at that Italian restaurant, café or corner salon. You’ll not only be supporting – or helping to create – a neighbourhood institution but you’re more likely to benefit from betterservice; the kind that’s afforded to customers who are also friends. And there’s a potential added bonus: you’re likely to get a new perspective on some neighbourhood gossip.
Take care of your patch. Keep the front of your house looking neat and tidy: paint your front door occasionally and clean your windows. It’ll not only brighten up your home but will add some life to the street too. And what about a bit more colour? Plant things on your balcony or put pots outside your door – and breathe easy.
Let the little things go. If your neighbour’s one party a year runs a bit late, skip the snide remarks in favour of a friendly wave the next time you see them. Chances are you’re not the perfect neighbour either.
Not everyone can afford a Georgian pile. Don’t be the bully to block a housing development if it has a chance to sustain the area and bring in new residents. City life is all about change and chance encounters – don’t be a bore.
Have your own green space? Share it. Let the folks upstairs use your ground-floor garden. Perhaps your space-strapped neighbour needs somewhere to store her bike – why not in that shed you hardly use?
It’s not pleasant to contemplate but you should have an idea about what to do in the event of a terrorist incident. From keeping an eye out to knowing the numbers to call and places to go, being reasonably prepared is a realistic rule for city-living in 2019.
Get in the mix. A well-integrated city is crucial for good quality of life so if you’re new to town – or even the area – branch out and get to know the residents, history and customs.
Frequent the shops in your neighbourhood. Lots of people bemoan the fate of retail – no matter where in the world they live – and many column inches have been devoted to the fact that high streets are changing for the worse. But independent shops and small businesses aren’t being forced to close by some unstoppable force; they need your support. Skip Amazon and take a stroll.
Be a cheerleader for where you live. Have you ever ventured to a great new city only to notice that all the locals seem to do is put it down? There’s something to be said about the infectious nature of civic pride so boast about your city’s good points – at home and away.
It might be counterintuitive to include this in a residents’ rulebook – but don’t forget to break the rules once in a while. Do inane city regulations prevent you from planting flowers on your street corner? Try it anyway. Not supposed to drink in public? Sneak a bottle of wine into the park to enjoy with your picnic. Or throw a block party.
“Come out, participate – for big events and ordinary days. Meet your fellow citizens face to face. Walk more, cycle more, use your public spaces more. It is good for your health, good for the climate, good for the city, good for social inclusion, good for democracy and enjoyable.”
Architect and urban-design consultant
“Being a good city resident is shockingly simple: make eye contact and small talk. It’s a direct quote – and chapter title – in a small but powerful book by Timothy Snyder called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. How neighbours treat one another can be both memorable and lifesaving.”
Director, urban & regional policy, German Marshall Fund of the United States
“We’ve found that the essential ingredient to being a great urban citizen is being willing to engage with others. Being together in public forums and public places is what keeps a city evolving. It all starts with the individual.”
“The proportion of single-person households in the UK is 32 per cent and increasing. As a consequence of this and increasing urbanisation, our homes are getting smaller and we have less space for our belongings. It is no accident that the amount of self-storage space in the UK has doubled in the past decade. If you want to be a model urban citizen, live an asset-light life: forget the obsession with owning stuff. Whether it’s a car or bike for the weekend, or outdoor furniture for the summer, rent it for the time you require it.”
Managing director, Portland Design, London
“Be aware that the people immediately around you at any time – whether in a car, bus, train or on the street, in a shop or a leisure centre, or neighbours – are your survival community. Simply making eye contact, being aware of them, even using a friendly voice will unite you in any survival actions you take if terrorists threaten your city.”
Dr Sally Leivesley
Managing director, Newrisk Limited, London
“We need to be more respectful and positively engage in civic politics: speak up for the things you support, not just oppose. Cities are where we’re finding solutions to tough global issues like housing and climate – but we need to hear from everyone to move things forward.”
“Slow down a little in your neighbourhood. Try to connect and speak with people unlike you. Be respectful: hold doors for others, smile more, help folks with their heavy bags or stroller on the subway stairs. Be aware of people’s problems and try to help solve them. Be aware that every piece of public space in dense cities is a luxury – treat, protect and enjoy it as such.”
Founder and CEO, Manifesto Market; founder and chairman, Resite
“To be a good city resident right now – apart from general conviviality and taking care of the public realm – it’s important to pay attention to the growing social and economic divides in our great cities. They could topple all that we love about them.”
Author and co-founder, Spacing
“Roll out the red carpet to people who you might not otherwise engage with. After all, as Shakespeare wrote in Coriolanus, ‘What is the city but the people?’”
Associate professor in urban studies, University of Toronto