Urban planning is a fashionable subject these days but while it's good to talk about it, let's not miss the point, says Tyler Brûlé.
Judging by the number of international conferences focused on dissecting the future of the city, gathering delegates and sponsors to discuss everything from infrastructure to eco-building policies must be good business. With almost daily frequency the inboxes of our editors are hit with invitations and updates to participate in sessions all over the world.
Occasionally the line-ups are appealing and we consult our diaries to see if we might be able to attend but most of the time it’s the same group of players, trotting out the same line-up of topics, in identical airless conference rooms from Asia to the Americas via some sweltering sheikhdom. For sure many are well intentioned and are seeking to answer some of the critical questions confronting cities sprawling and compact. Others however seem a little too consumed with digital technology as the sole saviour for parks, bike schemes, pre-school enrollment programmes and everything else that makes the urban fabric tick and thrive.
This might have something to do with the fact many conferences are sponsored by companies with a vested interest in selling bigger servers to city halls and getting more teachers to upload pupils’ grades into the ‘cloud.’ While we don’t think the international conference calendar needs another set of city sessions added to the mix, we do believe there’s room for a big shake-up when it comes to programming – with a little more time devoted to confronting some of the more pressing, albeit politically unfashionable, topics.
As we were laying out the final spreads for this issue, a series of ugly scenes were playing out on the streets of three cities that get a lot of attention in our pages. In Stockholm, we watched the country’s leadership tiptoe ever so daintily around the issue of immigration and integration as public and private property was torched in its most desperate suburbs and hundreds clashed with police.
In Paris conservative factions and gay-rights groups went for each other as the country legalized gay marriage. And at the other end of the continent in Istanbul, tear gas and water cannons were directed at thousands protesting against an increasingly authoritarian leadership that’s seen as drifting away from Ataturk’s secularist script.
While these uprisings have different sources of ignition, they also have many similarities that governments both federal and municipal need to pay closer attention to. In Sweden, the most admirable immigration and social policies count for little if recent arrivals are resistant to the liberal, democratic values of their adopted country and Swedes only pay lip-service to being a well-integrated nation – particularly when the suburbs of Stockholm and Malmö tell a very different story.
Turkey likes to promote its particular strain of secularism as good for its citizens, its neighbours and Europe and yet more restrictive codes on the sale of alcohol, along with other policies seen as a creep toward a more conservative, Islamic state, are regarded as going against the values that created modern Turkey. Back on the streets of Paris, the protests against gay unions were perhaps the best distillation of what makes a city work (or not) – tolerance.
The contemporary city conference spends a lot of time and effort focusing on the hardware to fix traffic snarls, urban blight and youth unemployment but rarely does it venture down the avenues where it might uncover the problems (and solutions) that allow many cities to flourish while others languish in the weeds.
While religion, race and sexuality are central to the tolerance debate, cities can just as easily stumble if there’s not a healthy balance between the environmentalist and property developer; the cyclist, the pedestrian and the driver; the small entrepreneur and muscular grocery-store chain; the curtain-twitcher and the boys enjoying one last round on the corner at the pub.
The world’s best cities are those that uphold the values that made them great magnets in the first place (‘if you’ve decided to take up residency then please contribute and try to adapt to this wonderful place we’ve created’) while also adapting to the ebb and flow of an increasingly mobile society (‘that’s a very good idea, we could use a bit more of that’).
It’s no easy feat to keep long-standing residents happy while making newcomers feel welcome but it does help if there’s enough room at the margins for policy-makers to keep things fluid and rather than buttoned-up and rigid.
A more laid-back approach to local planning for example will allow smaller operators to break into business and this means there should be less cumbersome health and safety by-laws and an easing up on rigid building guidelines that slow down development while adding expense.
Does it really make sense for a city to discourage balconies because a glass might tumble off the edge when it would be far more important for everyone to have their own little patch to take the sun and plant a few flowers? And do restrictive licensing hours for restaurants and bars make sense as much of the world is increasingly moving toward a 24-hour economy that sees many of us working across time zones.
Urban leaders and their advisors can do all the long-range dreaming and scheming their budgets and brains will allow for but if they haven’t created a city that’s tolerant of noise, the odd unpleasant smell, men getting hitched, people spilling onto the street and people setting up little shops then they’ve missed the point of urban habitation.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the ‘FT Weekend’.