Ok, here’s an urban conundrum. Who’s more important to the vitality, health, and enjoyment of your city: a criminal or the alert neighbour? There are a few qualifications needed here but first indulge me as I drag you into two scenes that I have witnessed over the past few days.
Last week I dispatched myself with the Monocle 24 team to Madrid for a couple of live shows from the city. On one of them you would have heard a discussion with Pablo Ferreiro from Boa Mistura, an arts collective that’s been part of team Spain at the Venice architecture biennale and has just completed a project in Panama City for its inaugural art biennale.
Boa Mistura does urban art. That’s painting on walls to you and me. While its activities have been lauded by art folk and overseas mayors, back in Madrid things have not gone so well. When Ferreiro was recently intercepted painting on a wall, he found himself arrested and with a €2,000 fine to pay. Even when the owner of another building invited him to decorate their property, the police stopped him. He was, it seems, breaking the law and some concerned local had called in the policía to break up the paint party.
It’s the next day and I am walking with friends in Madrid who have a puppy. We go to enter a park and see that there’s a “no dogs” sign. So we decide to stay on the street but first my friends snap a picture with the hound at the entrance. Within seconds, an old man accuses them of breaking the law, and hot-foots it to grab a nearby policeman. The old man obviously sees himself on the side of justice.
The strange thing is that the people who are inclined to complain when they think people are making too much noise on the street or are not conforming to the quirks of local planning rules or are indulging in a spot of urban art, would probably never get involved in a real moment of urban need. Would the old man intervene in a fight? Probably not.
Cities are funny places. To work well they need some consensus, some social cohesion, some understanding of what is allowed and what is off the scale of acceptability. But at their very best they also cope with dissent, rules ignored and, yes, laws broken.
And Madrid is certainly no prim matron. If you walk along Gran Vía, you’ll come across the areas where street-walking prostitutes make their living and have a workable understanding with local store owners and even the more regular-living residents. Cities can do this. They can take in all sorts of people. They can turn a blind eye.
Where the best balance between these two forces lies is a bit hazy. Nobody wants to have gang warfare on their streets but do you really want to live in a city where every misdemeanour you spy makes you crazy? If you want to be surrounded by the perfectly behaved all day, you do not belong in a metropolis. Cities are for people who can cope with the odd crazy moment, the louche, the mad, the eccentric, the noisy – and the man with a paint can.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.