Reflections on Cities Exuberance and Resilience

Richard Griffith, the co-founder of Dominion Institute and author of “Who We Are: A Citizen Manifesto” (2009), Citizen Manifestoargues that the only outcome of Canada’s most nation defining period, the years  approaching confederation and the Second World War, was a shaky model of  a “post-national” state. Griffith’s Canada is trapped in “a post-modern cul-de-sac” , incongruently alienated  from it’s citizens due to repeated failure to communicate core values. For a re-engagement of citizenry, Griffith argues, Canada would need to provide “foundational knowledge”, educate about the actuality of how the country functions, and further how “institutions, traditions, languages and symbolism” contribute to national existence.

Cities are popular topic. A quick scan through the books and studies published over the past ten years indicates healthy, although inconsistent, flow of publications on urban citizenry. Larger cities are usually luckier in having fans and followers creating theoretical or poetic narratives (e.g. Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto). Smaller cities remain neglected and viewed through an archival lens only. A few engaging and encouraging sources worth mentioning are The Endless City, Urban Age by the London School of Economic (2010), the Spacing Magazine, a visionary voice of Canadian urban citizenry revolutionizing the filed since 2004, and Doug Saunders’ Arrival Cities (2010) exploring citizenry from the perspective of migration and arrival that influences individual prosperity or failure.

A way to think about cities holistically is to envision them within the Yin/ Yang paradigm, a two tides called exuberance and resilience. Exuberance is, obviously, Yang thriving on perpetual growth, expansion, expenditure, and a sense of limitless-ness (as in new open spaces or bold innovations). City resilience is Yin, the one that sustains, reconciles, contains, saves, and recycles so it will impose limitations on spaciousness. Within the two all movement occurs: the “good (economic) times” emphasize exuberance, the “bad times” call for resilience. The core values of urban citizenry identified in the works of Jane Jacobs as “a city as an eco-system”, “bottom-up planning”, and “local economy” (1992) is largely nourished by cities’ resilience.  But as exuberance exhausts, the tide must turn back to resilience. And at the centre we should be equipped with both set of tools – tools to expand and tools to consolidate. Yet, what we currently have in the centre, at least in North America, is only an addiction. Addiction to exuberance. The philosophy of our Continent, our immense riches and relative political stability maintains religion of  endless growth that doubts we will ever fall from our exuberant, untouchable heaven.

Many third world cities have no option but to be resilient. Complex histories and painful socio-political upheaval force conservation, patience and resuscitation of abandoned resources. Still, in resilient cities exuberant groups thrive, providing necessary optimism by creating art and opportunities. In exuberant cities, resilient tides, those caught in-between by unemployment, recent immigration or seeking refuge should be frequently consulted as to how well are we doing in providing a safety net for all.

Tammam Azzam’ Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” on war-torn building in Syria

Historically, and there is nothing else but history here to guide us, the pendulum is destined to move.  This is why in city planning we should not be bound by exclusive interests of one group (exuberant) or the other (resilient) but we need to use both: the town halls (resilient) and technology (exuberant) to open up the planning process to citizens of all kinds. We need friendlier, more sustainable and more luminous answers to cities challenges.

This is where foundational knowledge is required. Do we need be educated on city planning starting from primary schools onward? Or, do we need to know how we move municipal decisions from the ground up? Do we need to understand that not only advocating and rising awareness but also winning makes actual sense?

Finally, our thriving urban citizenry must rely on evidence. Foundational knowledge about “institutions, traditions, languages and symbolism”also needs an open, unlimited access to data, both current statistics and archives for continuing knowledge. Anecdotal evidence might be useful but it will not help us to create solid argument to resolve deep, recurring issues.  Citizens have sufficient expertise to analyze by crowd sourcing. In other words, we need to be handed the keys so we can plan the cities from the centre out so we will not fear but be fearlessly resilient in exuberant times and fearlessly exuberant in times of resilience.



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