Urban visions

A bout of food poisoning has rather curtailed my active participation in the Global Urban Forum. The fever was so intense at one point, I began to hallucinate and was convinced that I could understand the men labouring outside my hotel window as they spoke Italian because above them floated a Google Toolbar translating them into English! It was one kind of vision for a city!

However, what struck me about this event (as is often the case with development related activities) was the instrumentality of its approach towards the city. All well and good the discussions on urban planning, resilient cities, climate change, stopping forced evictions and so on and so forth but no visible place to discuss the meaning of the city, what place does this now majority form of human organization, have in our culture?

Since I am in Naples, my thought naturally turned to a Roman (if not an Italian) to St Augustine: here the city is seen as the archetypal form of human organization. The city was what humanity was made for – it is the crucible and testing ground of that humanity and the prototype of that was Rome and it had failed. It had fallen to the barbarians: a just indicator of that failure. But the solution is not agrarian dispersion (a vision of the good live championed say by Vergil) but by rising a new one on Christian foundations: a city of God.
Now, we might think that this language is antique yet like much antique language, it continues to have purchase at the edges of popular consciousness (and in the depths of that consciousness).Witness the popular language around Katrina and New Orleans and not only that of the wilder shade of evangelist...

But even when not thinking theologically, simply at a cultural level, cities are more than simply places in which to survive and work, they are places in which to live and their excitement as such is as much a part of the story of their growth as the dynamics of demography and economy. Hence the contrast between the two primary documents in my welcome pack – the very comprehensive booklet like agenda and ‘Qui Napoli’ the host city’s own guide that dwells not on the instrumental language of urban planning but the all too human language of excitement and fun, history and culture (low and high).

I cannot help sensing that many of the questions of the former language are only fully answerable in the language of the latter, that is only when we forge a cohesive and meaningful image of the city as place of human flourishing, of an aspiration after a good life for all, that the second order of instrumental arrangement can be answered (if only ever proximately). We need greater ideological confidence in painting pictures of the good life, otherwise all our language seems to collapse back into problem solving (and wondering why they are not).


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