What – and who – is a city for?

Essay by Gabriella Gómez-Mont: “…One of the most important lessons of the pandemic is that cities need to go beyond a logic of economics and efficiency, and instead have public purpose and civics at their core. Of course, economically healthy cities are fundamental, but a shift in priorities is necessary. Until recently, it was easy to think that democracy was on an inevitably progressive arch (if slower than some of us wished). But recent events have shown us that the global reality is more complicated than that.

This shows that there is much work to be done in rethinking civic capital, urban commons and public value, plus the role of the state in this. For starters, on an urban acupuncture level: using small-scale interventions to transform the larger urban context; determining what new types of public and civic spaces could be part of the urban repertoire; creating an imaginative symbiosis between physical infrastructure and novel ways of creating social relationships and horizontal ties with different purposes?

If we thought about feminist cities, care cities, playful cities, eco-cities (for example) what new urban forms could we imagine? The built environment can have the capacity to shape community coalitions, to organize social energy in different ways, to become reminders of different urban capacities that support diverse ways of being and belonging, of coming together.

This has historically been the role of places such as libraries, playgrounds, public schools. More recently, we have also seen the creation of food forests, community kitchens, maker spaces. But why has the repertoire of possibilities not been expanded and increased exponentially in recent decades? This is one of the themes I am in the midst of researching (and soon prototyping in several cities such as Helsinki and Da Nang).

In the future, these spaces could be part of a networked civics infrastructure, an infrastructure for the imagination. In the short term, these new types of places to gather could also recognize the importance of community ties. As Noreena Hertz wrote in The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart, we should not underestimate the effects of loneliness: social isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also costing taxpayers billions a year.

This, and the crisis of democracy we are living through, makes a good case for the need to reimagine and expand opportunities for participation in collective life.

Can a city offer its citizens different ways of gathering around shared visions or common questions? How is a society prompted to imagine a life together, to jointly explore alternatives and possibilities that can enhance collective well-being?…(More)”.