The Romantic City

London

by Francesca Perry

As it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s think about love. Or more specifically, how do urban forms – if at all – affect and even shape attitudes towards and behaviours surrounding love, sex and romance? I’m not seeking a claim of outright environmental determinism, but I do think it’s interesting to consider possible connections. Romantic and sexual behaviours are part and parcel of social practices – something that most agree the built environment plays a significant role in. How we live our public lives, in the public realm, is coordinated by how a city is built and organised. The ways in which we work and play, in which we come together or separate ourselves off – the city both reflects and perpetuates this.

A fascinating article by Abigail Haworth, exploring the current social phenomenon in Japan in which young people seem to be decreasingly interested in sex and relationships,has long stuck in my mind. It is well known that Japan is a conglomeration of mega-regions – which is to say it is a country of endless cities. For me, then, this social phenomenon seems to be a particularly urban one. Haworth cited the pressured economic and work culture as primary reasons in this attitude shift. Her mention of urban conveniences-for-one, however, particularly grabbed my attention. In a city like Tokyo catered towards the individual, where apartments are tiny, density is high, products are sold individually-wrapped and visual stimuli is excessive, is the notion of togetherness designed out or made unappealing?

I often quote Georg Simmel, whose seminal essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in 1903 suggested that the busier our cities and the greater the level of stimuli in our urban environments, the more likely we are to retereat into ourselves and adopt a blasé attitude to the external world. I am not saying that Simmel’s extreme conclusion is what is going on here, but it is an interesting psychological context to consider.

This got me thinking about other cities, other romantic practices. Paris may be known as the city of love, but beyond tourist rose-tinted glasses, what is the reality of romance there? From both first- and second-hand experience, it seems to me that some romantic attitudes are as stuck in their ways as the obsessively-preserved architecture. In this snow globe of a city, where the real diversity of modern life is pushed out beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, one can find very male-dominated traditional attitudes that result in an imbalance not palatable to any feminist. Monogomy is rare; men peacock around the metropolis, as sure of their virility as Paris is of its legendary status. Paris in its elegant beauty certainly encourages romance – but it is often a fleeting act, an ongoing merry-go-round that sparkles as brightly as the Eiffel Tower’s light show, and burns out just as quick.

London

In London, we can’t help but feel that the sprawling size of the city plays a role in our romances. When it can take as long to travel to a (potential) partner’s house as it would to fly to another country, does the sheer dispersed bulk of London form a barrier to sparking – and sustaining – romantic connections? What, then, will happen when tube lines are opened around the clock in 2015 – could transport infrastructure be the facilitator of love? Prague seems to have taken this one step further, with dedicated ‘flirt trains’ which encourage romantic connections. In London, whilst our public spaces become ever-more privatised, and our social spaces ever more commercialised and unaffordable, our places for pursuing romance seem to become increasingly restricted – perhaps flirt trains are next on our agenda too.

Can a city’s form be more ‘intimate’? Think of Barcelona, where in the close-quarters of the central Gothic Quarter, life is certainly lived more in the public realm: togetherness is enabled, encouraged, celebrated by every square and every pedestrianised street. Does it follow, then, that facilitating social interaction affects romantic connections? Or is this rendered meaningless in an age of digital encounters via dating and hook-up apps?

In dense, concentrated cities, apps such as Grindr and Tinder are more successful. The more people in your immediate location, the more options and opportunities there are to you. Perhaps facilitated or reflected by this, the high-density city of New York seems to be known as a ‘dating’ city, with a culture of hook-ups and romances that seem to be yet just another activity slotted in the queue of consumption. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, you can pretty much get it in New York, whether it’s a hamburger delivered to your door, a person to walk your dog in the middle of the night, or a hook-up (or all three).

What of the city of sex? Whilst some define Amsterdam by its Red District and associate it with sexual indulgence, the real picture is a more wholesome – but happily liberal – one. As a city, Amsterdam is low-density, low-stress, open-plan, beautiful and with generous and inclusive public spaces. Fitting, then, that a life-long resident (and friend of mine) should call it ‘tolerant, progressive and liberal’ in terms of sex and romance, with a focus on equal and settled partnerships: ‘the culture is just quite open, practical and sober about sex, it isn’t something taboo or forbidden so there’s no ‘exciting’ cultural fixation on it.’ IMG-20131006-02351

Of course, I have somewhat set myself up to fail. Urban form cannot dictate sexual and romantic activity – culture, economy, social norms, even laws will always play a more dominant role. In Singapore, a single person is not eligible for a HDB (public housing) flat until they’re roughly 35, meaning most people in their twenties still live with their parents – or have to get married in order to move out and achieve any romantic privacy. A culture of dating, as you can expect, does not blossom under such circumstances. And it can get even more extreme: in Purwakata City in Indonesia, unmarried couples are forbidden to be seen on dates after 9pm – and as the (reported) story goes, those found to be defying this law are forced to get married ‘on the spot’. Yes, seriously.

Whilst, then, other factors are more critical, as urbanists we must always consider how the design of cities enables or hinders social interaction. And social interaction, of course, is the start of it all. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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This is an edited and updated version of an article originally published on this site in 2014. Thank you to some truly wonderful women who helped me with this piece: Anna Berezina, Zing Tsjeng, Natasha Lennard and Rosie Haslem.

Women can be city leaders, too?

In celebration of legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, I spoke at an Urbanistas event on women’s role in city leadership, myths about gendered urbanism and the value of inclusivity

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The bottom-up v top-down tension in urbanism seems to be encapsulated by the clash between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in New York, and their divergent approaches to urban development. But when we speak of the need for female leadership in cities, I think we fall into a trap of simplifying this as: women care about the community, men care about money. This, in my mind, is a reductive myth that will get us nowhere if we are to achieve better inclusivity in municipal management.

First of all, not all women champion the community and not all men prioritise the bottom line. We are all individuals, each with our own belief of what is important to make a city work. Binaries created by an assumption of “female priorities” and their male counterparts serve only to cloud and prevent progress. Saying this, there are of course experiences that some groups have of urban space that other groups may not understand, so the key is to assemble a range of voices when we make cities.

Secondly, in terms of the caring v money myth, one clearly needn’t be at the expense of the other. Community can go hand in hand with a thriving economy – and in many cases it generates it. Jacobs certainly promoted this idea with her advocacy of diverse, localised economies. If our cities are more inclusive, our economies will flourish because all people are being supported and enabled to thrive.

Myths aside, whether we like it or not there is still a gender imbalance in the built environment sector and city leadership, although it’s getting better. If we want it to keep improving, notably on a global scale to include places where it remains far more imbalanced than it does in countries like the UK, we do need to start from the bottom up. To ensure that women’s voices and needs are heard and valued in planning processes, and that capacity is built for them to have an active role in shaping their city.

I recently met Kathryn Travers, director of Women In Cities International, an organisation set up to help make sure issues around women’s safety in public spaces could be better integrated into urban planning and management policy around the world. Their Because I am a Girl Urban Programme, in collaboration with Plan International, operates in Cairo, Lima, Delhi, Hanoi and Kampala. It works with teenage girls to help them voice and map how unsafe they feel in their public spaces and transport networks, and think about what improvements could be made. At the same time, it builds their capacity for meaningful participation in urban development and governance by encouraging them to review existing city policies and propose changes.

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One of the Because I Am A Girl Urban Programme workshops. Photograph: Women In Cities International

Helping these girls to have a say in shaping their cities is crucial in a context where women around the world continue to face harassment and violence in the urban realm: in some cities, Kathryn tells me, more than 90% of women experience daily sexual harassment in public space. Of the girls that the programme have worked with, roughly a quarter of them said that they never feel safe in public places. What’s more, most of these girls felt undervalued and rarely listened to in their community, convinced they would never have a say in how their city is shaped. Globally, there is a lot of work to do on a social and attitudinal level in terms of valuing the female voice. Only when we ensure women are able to participate, can we ensure they can lead.

We don’t see a great deal of female mayors, but I think the ones we can, such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau, Paris’ Anne Hidalgo and Madrid’s Manuela Carmena, provide heartening inspiration to women and girls around the world who maybe don’t feel they could ever have such a role in their city.

One of my fellow Young Urbanist members spoke to me about the challenges she faces being a woman in the built environment industry. When she was working at a local authority, she was told by people making planning applications for large schemes that as a young woman they were unsure of her judgement. At meetings, despite being the lead planning officer on the case, comment and conversation would always be directed to her male colleagues. Even when women are present and have a central role, they can still be undermined. Although her current public sector role is better, the domination of men in the departments often means she’s the only woman in meetings.

Nevertheless, she insists, progress is being made: she’s come across inspiring female senior managers and directors in the public sector, and in policy we are seeing a more gender-inclusive understanding of experience of urban space.

Maybe we need inspiring women, like Jacobs, to lead by example until the rest of the industry, and society in general, can catch up. At which point it’s not about putting people on a pedestal, but about ensuring inclusivity is engrained into every part of growing, shaping and leading our cities.

By Francesca Perry, Editor

Book of the year: City by City

by Francesca Perry

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I began to read this anthology of stories in the summer – a distant memory for many of us now. “The weather is perfect until the city burns,” writes Jordan Kisner in the opening essay. A familiar feeling to many urbanites in summer, this is how Kisner sets the scene of San Diego: a city of extremes.

Taking us across the entire United States in reflections that are both personal and educational, City by City captures two things that are too often separated: the living, breathing urban experience – and the facts that explain why these places are the way they are.

The book takes us from the seductive, destructive casinos of Las Vegas to the black bears rifling through city dumpsters in Alaska’s Whittier. It describes the complex stories around big urban developments like Atlanta’s BeltLine, but it also immerses us in feelings, like that of returning to your home city: “as though I were preparing to watch a movie I’ve seen many times before.”

Nikil Saval charts the industrial changes in the US – from the factories of manufacturing that established cities like Detroit to the skybound office towers that define today’s working world in places like New York – and the social developments and problems that happen around this. “New York has led the way in modelling how a city based on production can be transformed into one based on services and how a skyline of church spires and smokestacks can be elevated into a jagged, Tetris-like collection of tall glass boxes,” Saval writes.

We hear about the loss of downtowns to megamalls, the loss of independent radio stations to strip bars. A process that is sometimes irrevocable, and sometimes not – as Ryann Liebenthal realised when discovering the re-emergence of a thriving cultural scene in his hometown Boise, Idaho, with its local music and proliferating public art. But when Liebenthal sees a cultural metamorphosis become his city’s “remapping of self”, we realise the perils of change.

From the “revitalisation” efforts that stamped out heritage in favour of convenience manifested by homogenised shopping malls, to new waves of “renaissance” that embrace independent culture at the risk of gentrification, there is always baggage saddling changes that we may not quite understand until it’s too late.

We are so used to this dichotomy, though: one group telling us change is positive progress; another group deciding change is bad. The reality is somewhere in the middle, both beneficial and problematic: the middle ground of the urban grey. But one thing is sure, and that is cities change, and they will continue to do so. The aspiration is that we can all be involved in these developments, and shape them to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.

Of course it is not just urban development that needs to be fair and inclusive – it is society itself. In cities across America in 2015, on streets and online, the Black Lives Matter movement continued to highlight unjust violence against black people in the country. Lawrence Jackson’s powerful essay ‘Christmas in Baltimore’ describes his trip home for the funeral of his friend who had been killed by police. Jackson contemplates the contemporary experience of being black in the US: “No one wants to accept this in a country based on upward mobility and the hope of individual distinction, but it is a fact: blackness still causes the distance to evaporate between who you are and what you have done and what the society has made you.”

City by City reflects on urban America’s history, how things are shifting now and muses at changes to come. These are immersive and often poetic dispatches; stories and history lessons without the didacticism. They chart the realities, irrationalities, wonders and injustices of US cities – and I suggest you have a read.

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis is edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb and published by n+1 / FSG.

Towards a leaner, greener urbanism

by Francesca Perry

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‘The leader of any great city should encourage invention and enterprise,’ George Ferguson announced to a room packed full of urbanists. As Mayor of Bristol, spearheading numerous sustainable and community initiatives, this is something that Ferguson has tried to demonstrate in his role, attracting a flurry of media attention in his wake.

Speaking two weeks ago at The Academy of Urbanism’s Towards a Greener Urbanism Congress in Bristol, Ferguson described the importance of community engagement and experimentation, as well as making sustainability fun, diminishing fear of change, and doing things together as a city. As our world becomes increasingly urbanised, and strains on our resources reach critical levels, it is key that city leaders like Ferguson kickstart an innovative and positive approach to sustainable – and inclusive – urbanism.

Alongside great talks from people such as Ferguson, Jaime Lerner, Sue Riddlestone and Wulf Daseking, I attended a workshop focused on food resilience. As part of the Young Urbanists group I co-steer, I have been helping to organise a series of timely events on ‘Imagining the Future of Food in Cities‘ – looking at issues of production, access and consumption – and how we can collaboratively and sustainably improve our practices of all three. So it was fascinating to dig a little deeper in to the topic, linking this back to the notion of resilience in our cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

Many know the fantastic story of Incredible Edible, a community initiative started in the post-industrial town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire that campaigns for local food and grows it in participatory, accessible and creative ways. Mary Clear, a co-founder of the initiative, is not afraid to do what’s right for the community and for the environment: ‘it’s always better to ask for forgiveness,’ she said of their guerrilla food growing, ‘than to ask for permission.’ Incredible Edible’s tactics have taken seed in a number of communities across the UK and Europe, proving their motto: ‘if you eat, you’re in’.

Perhaps it is these kind of creative and communal interventions in city life that Jaime Lerner – ex-Mayor of Brazilian city Curitiba whose urban vision encompassed the Bus Rapid Transit and various green projects – advocates as ‘urban acupuncture’. Whilst large-scale developments will proliferate, they do not provide all the answers alone and often take years to come to fruition (or simply attain permission); ‘acupuncture’ in the form of meanwhile projects, public space animation or community initiatives can give cities their life and energy that we need to make them truly liveable. Furthermore, these projects can form a test bed for wider change, demonstrating the potential of community-led urbanism.

The terms ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ may be already weathered in the dialogue about urbanism, but we must remember why the concepts are so critical: we are struggling to move away from an urbanism of excess and of harm – a way of urban living that threatens our collective future. Instead of a low-density, individualistic and consumption-heavy urban life, we need to strive for a greener, leaner (but not meaner!) urbanism, one that involves us working on mutual solutions that ensure we have a future to look forward to – not only in our cities, but in our towns, villages and countryside too, across the planet. An urbanism that is efficient rather than simply ‘sufficient’.

‘The city is our family portrait, it reflects who we are’ Lerner proclaimed in his closing speech for the AoU Congress: the more we can begin to think of cities as homes that we need to nurture, of fellow citizens as members of our wider family, the sooner we can collaboratively work towards a more sustainable, resilient urbanism. Think lean, think green – and think together.

Image Credit: TCDavis on Flickr