Observation - Issue 69 - Magazine | Monocle

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There’s a very good chance that at some point over the past year you spent time at a conference/summit/symposium/expo where the “city” was touted as one of the headline acts. If you didn’t manage to sit through such a conference then for sure you were invited to one, caught a keynote online or read the headlines in a newsletter.

Given urbanism is a running theme through our pages (from section A all the way through to E) and broadcasts (The Urbanist and Section D on M24 plus multiple films on our site), it’s not surprising that my desk and email inbox is filled with correspondence about cities and how they’re functioning brilliantly or failing miserably. Invites to conferences (to speak or simply attend) seem to make up the bulk of the urban-related matter I receive. No matter what your line of business or branch of government, you need to be seen to be playing an active role in how cities are evolving.

Spooling back over the past 12 months (let’s just pretend it’s year end, even though I’m typing this on 5 November on a very, very uncomfortable sofa at a hotel that should know better in Singapore) monocle’s editors have spent many days at conferences devoted to the city around the world. While all these events had the best of intentions, most were startlingly misguided about how they were going to “programme” the city to be a more a liveable, enjoyable place. Indeed, the notion that one might programme a city is at the root of the problem.

As European cities try to come to grips with how they solve density issues in their ancient centres and sprawling Asian capitals grapple with housing issues so that students and service staff don’t have to commute two hours to class rooms and shop floors, many a conference organiser is too easily dazzled with the blinking screens of digital wizardry.

Of course we all want to live in “smarter cities” but few us are fooled by the tonics that a new transit app or an intelligent apartment building might bring to the total equation. How long have we been hearing stories about “genius housing” where you can run your entire household off your mobile? Three years? Ten? Thirty? I believe I was reading stories about automated homes in copies of Popular Science magazine at Estonian summer camp back in 1977. Nearly four decades on, I still don’t know anyone who lives in a smart home. I don’t think I know anyone who wants to either.

Residents of cities large and small don’t want a programmed grid that leaves nothing to chance. For sure they want trams that are safe and run to schedule, clean parks and dependable rubbish collection, efficient hospitals and a trustworthy police force. But they don’t want everything planned with such precision that there’s no room for the odd overspend that turns out to be a brilliant piece of the public realm or a planning “mistake” that miraculously turns into a positive and transforms a neighbourhood.

Good cities happen when there are well-informed, ambitious residents who work alongside diligent, well-travelled politicians. Yes, expense accounts and foreign trips by city hall are easy targets for the local press to pick up on but getting out and seeing the world is generally less expensive than hiring a horde of outside consultants who’ll end up doing the same anyway.

The best urban planners know the good and bad points about Melbourne and the best benchmarks from Helsinki and Bergen. Most importantly, they’ve met people around the world to call on when they need to reconsider how they should open up public beaches to more kiosk operators or combine housing with retail alongside a rail extension. As conference organisers put the finishing touches to their line-ups and invite lists for their 2014 city summits, we sincerely hope they get back to focusing on the people and policies that can bring about real change rather than thinking some programming is going to save us all from sprawl, gridlock, feral gangs and intolerant neighbours.

We’re hoping that 2014 turns out to be the year of the “Great Correction” - not just for cities but for the private and public sector in general. For too long we’ve been fed a diet about the delights “new” this and “digi” that and rushed to become early adopters. Too often we’ve seen the results (and costs and collapses) that come with venturing into new territory blindly, just because technology promised to guide our every step. If you have any year end thoughts and comments, we’ll be the ones plotting our steps with pencils and stacks of graph paper – and maybe the odd eraser.

Thank you for your support and another exceptional year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. As ever, all your comments, questions and tips are welcome at tb@monocle.com.

For more from our editor in chief, read his column in the FT Weekend.

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