Rebuilding The City


new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987

We are often told we live in the best of all possible worlds. But there are always other ways of doing things. Here is what city life could be like in the year 2050 - if we plot a future in which quality of city life is a priority.

Illustration: Antonio E Costa TRANSPORTATION: Making your own way around the city is easy and enjoyable now. Gone are the traffic jams, filthy air and constant roaring sound of the past. Private cars are banned. Instead there is a fast flexible system of subways, buses , taxis and 'buxis' (shared taxis at set rates) which are solar-powered quiet and clean. Most citizens have bicycles equipped to carry children and shopping. Only the elderly or the handicapped have their own single person vehicles. Commercial vehicles are limited in size and are used mostly for local deliveries. Large intercity shipments go by rail which is cheaper and more energy efficient - all heavy industry is connected to the railway.

[image, unknown] PUBLIC SPACE: Squares, playgrounds, community centres, courtyards, even neighbourhood streets not clogged with traffic breathe democratic life into the city. This is the common ground where neighbours and strangers gather to discuss weighty issues of the day - or just exchange gossip and recipes. Here the banker hears what the barber has to say about commercial rents or the city worker what the tax payer feels about snow removal. In the great plazas and small neighbourhood parks people come together on equal terms, the spirit of the city thrives and a sense of caring for a common living community grows. The parking lots and shopping malls that divided everyone in the mad rush to buy, earn and steal have been replaced by public spaces. Farmers markets, street commerce and thriving small shops mix with residential land use, adding to the hustle and bustle of a living community.

[image, unknown] GREEN SPACES: Banning private cars has radically altered land use in the city. Once wide main streets are lined with trees and grass walkways. Thousands of hectares of parking lots have been rehabilitated as gardens and parks - some primarily for recreation and some set aside for wildlife. Everywhere buildings are interlaced with living green spaces. The city is surrounded by a green belt to prevent it spreading and to provide a buffer between the city and the farmland beyond. When Third World countries stopped growing luxuries for export and started growing food for local consumption, some people tried growing in gardens and greenhouses what they used to import. Rooftops, once waste space, became a source of zucchinis for lunch and eggplant for supper. Inspired by these efforts the city leased more allotments specifically for food production and built new green houses big enough for fruit trees. Already there has been some success growing dates, okra, bananas and papaya which used to be imported from Africa and South America.

[image, unknown] ARCHITECTURE: Buildings, both homes and work places, have taken on human dimensions and a user-friendly aspect. Architecture no longer expresses the soaring ambitions of business barons in steel and glass towers scores of stories high - sealed and isolated from the streets outside. Instead buildings are designed to blend with their surroundings, to provide for the needs and comfort of those who live and work in them. Sunlight and fresh air enter freely and noise is minimized. Energy conservation, the better use of public space, more shared cultural facilities, more porches, courtyards and neighbourhood stores have replaced the ethos of 'my space or nobody's space' with a sharing of community resources and responsibilities. Architects are restoring and renovating old buildings for energy and space efficiency, while preserving as much as possible of their original appearance and fine old materials. These restorations help to preserve the community's sense of historical continuity, its 'rootedness' and charm.

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DECENTRALIZATION: There are now many cities each with many 'downtowns'. Dense urban centres like Bombay and Mexico City have been dispersed to smaller centres. Although there are no longer millions crammed into a few square miles, the magic and excitement of the city has been retained in a number of decentralized 'cores', each with its own attractions - theatres, art galleries, museums or restaurants. Everyone is within walking distance of at least one 'downtown' and efficient public transport connects the different centres. Both urban services and the environment were in danger once the old mega-cities grew past ten million. People moving to medium-sized cities led to a much better fit between city and country, between people, and the city life and the ecological carrying capacity of water, land and air. The key to the decentralization program is more even distribution of jobs and cultural attractions - there is no longer one sole 'downtown' cornering the action.

[image, unknown] COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT: Politics is now everybody's business rather than the preserve of bureaucrats in the City Planning Department or the real estate developer's head offices. Residents themselves decide what happens to their streets, vacant lots and neighbourhood development plans. Community control varies across the city: sometimes decisions are taken at large public meetings, other times at elected community councils or by community referenda. Gone are the days when remote bureaucrats could demolish poor people's housing as a part of slum clearance or block the waterfront by shoving up a wall of highrise towers. Some decisions, like public transit routes and environmental standards, must still be taken city-wide. But community control over local matters (building and park development for example) has lead to a rebirth of community spirit and helped break down the isolation and alienation felt by many who call the city home.

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