Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Cities on the Edge of Chaos

Those who know me know that I’m a huge newspaper reader. I’ve recommended the Financial Times before. Another of my favorites is The Guardian from the UK. The arts and culture coverage there is superb.

Like most British papers, they have a separate Sunday edition known as the Observer, which last week carried a long article by Deyan Sudjic talking about the future of the city. I believe this is a sort of excerpt/summary of the book he wrote with Ricky Burdett called “Endless City”. This article is well worth reading and is highly recommended. Here is an excerpt:

Politicians love cranes; they need solutions within the time frames of elections and cranes deliver them. But there are only a limited number of problems that are susceptible to this kind of time scale. The result is a constant cycle of demolition and reconstruction that is seen as the substitute for thinking about how to address the deeper issues of the city. Visions for cities tend to be the creation of the boosters rather than the theorists or the policy-makers. City builders have always had to be pathological optimists, if not out-and-out fantasists. They belong to a tradition that connects the map-makers who parcel up packages of swamp land to sell to gullible purchasers, and the show-apartment builders who sell off-plan to investors in Shanghai, who are banking on a rising market, making them a paper profit before they have even had to make good on their deposits.

Cities are made by an extraordinary mixture of do-gooders and bloody-minded obsessives, of cynical political operators and speculators. They are shaped by the unintended consequences of the greedy and the self-interested, the dedicated and the occasional visionary. The cities that work best are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change.

The ones that are stuck, overwhelmed by rigid, state-owned social housing, or by economic systems that offer the poor no way out of the slums are in trouble. A successful city is one that makes room for surprises. A city that has been trapped by too much gentrification, or too many shopping malls, will have trouble generating the spark that is essential to making a city that works.

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Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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