Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

The ordinary virtues of cities

Talking to Phil Wood, co-founder of the intercultural cities model, last November, about love of cities, intercultural city planning, innovative local government, human rights and ‘ordinary virtues’. Interview.

lead lead lead Rosemary Bechler (RB): Please first introduce yourself to openDemocracy readers.

Phil Wood (PW): I’m Phil Wood and I am an urban therapist: (I think I am the urban therapist – there are no others I know of.) I come from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, where I live, where I was born and will die. I am one of the co-founders of the intercultural cities model which underpins this event and the Council of Europe programme.

RB: How did you put yourself in the position of being able to kick off this whole new vocabulary for our times?

PW: I worked in local government and left in 2000 to work with a small think tank, Comedia, set up by Charles Landry.

RB: Ah! Ken Worpole is a great friend of openDemocracy's.

PW: Ken Worpole – exactly! Ken had moved on by the time I joined but I feel part of the same lineage. I guess we tried to offer an alternative kind of consultancy – though we didn’t really like the word ‘consultants’, since these are usually hired guns who will come in and say whatever you want if the money is right. And we liked to think we offered something a bit deeper and more critical, and would say things that cities didn’t necessarily want to hear, which didn’t make us the most commercially successful group. But I think it produced a body of work which I still feel proud of.

It is important for me to tell you this because that’s where we come from. We come from the innards of cities. We love cities and want to know what makes cities work in a very organic sense, not in an intellectual or a politically pragmatic sense of ‘getting things done’. We asked, what are these beasts?

We come from a very different place from the kind of people who usually populate this field: the ‘diversity specialists’, you know the people who in Britain established ‘multiculturalism’ – they have a very different sense of themselves; or people who are in organisational management; or people who are involved in democracy and politics. To that extent we were outsiders.

RB: That’s really why I was asking how you have managed to do it! 

PW: Well, we put a proposal to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who I suppose are among the few foundations with the courage and the imagination to take us on. We wanted to do something very international, which is normally not what they would do. They usually focus on British social issues. It took a combination of people prepared to take a flier with us. They knew we were going to produce something voluminous and multi-stranded that couldn’t be boiled down to three bullet points that a politician could memorise!

And we produced that report, and it grew out of my experience of being in a diverse local authority and being frustrated to see how ‘multiculturalism’, which was my creed, wasn’t working. The balance of it was still right, but as it was practised in the nitty gritty of getting things done, it was actually starting to be distorted and potentially part of the problem, because it was reinforcing power structures and creating community leaders who were mediating between their ethnic blocs and the politicians, and it was forcing people into identifying themselves according to their ethnicity or religion in order to be recognised and acknowledged by the local state. In order for you and your group to get that grant, or that community centre, you had to emphasise your ethnic or religious identity.

RB: Essentialising that one descriptive!

PW: Yes! People who didn’t necessarily see themselves like that, were almost obliged to become that in order to be picked up on the radar of the local state. And I thought, this is wrong!  Where this is leading us is not where ‘multiculturalism’ set out to take us!

RB: So did you welcome Trevor Phillips’ intervention, opposing ‘multiculturalism’ in the Blair years and subsequently in the Commission for Racial Equality?

PW: No I didn’t, because I don’t think it was coming out of the kind of debate that we were trying to have at the time. He was too implicated, I think, in a very narrow world, and was only talking to a few people, actually.

We were doing our research at that time, and we had things we wanted to say. So we wrote to him and tried to go and see him, but we were completely shut out. Who were we? We had no ‘street cred’ in his world at all, so he wasn’t going to listen to us.

Our report came out, and Charles Landry and I followed it up with a book in 2007. But we were feeling a bit dispirited because nobody in England was picking up on it at all. It drew an utter blank really. They didn’t even give us the credibility of arguing against us, you know. Britain just completely blanked us.

Fortunately we had always had links with the Council of Europe, and at the time, the head of department, Robert Palmer, knew us well and he valued us. He said, “Come over to Strasbourg and talk to us.” Amazingly, he said, “We are going through a very similar thought process to you, along parallel lines. We have each got something that the other needs. Your approach is full of ideas, it’s fresh, alive and full of examples that we can work with. But you need credibility, and we can give you that institutional credibility. We need to reach out to cities in ways that we have never done before. We want to talk to people who are actually on the ground, and you have given us a new language with which to talk to them!”

So that was a great moment and it happened just ten years ago.

RB:  Somebody in this morning’s plenary pointed out that the ten years of this interculturalism project has coincided with ten years of austerity policy in our societies. Now, we are discovering that in terms of social cohesion, austerity certainly doesn’t work. But I remember Trevor Phillips’ announcement that ‘multiculturalism didn’t work’, being taken up enthusiastically by European prime minister after political leader… it wasn’t just Britain was it?

PW: That’s true. The irony was that when Mutti Merkel said it hadn’t worked in Germany, they hadn’t even given it a try! The Dutch turned heavily against multiculturalism and that was a powerful rebuff.

R: And there were others, like Aznar, who gave Giovanni Sartori a prestigious award in 2005.

PW: In Spain, yes.

RB: That was quite a big setback, wasn’t it – just when you and the Council of Europe were getting going? And in Britain, you are saying, that desire ‘not to know’ has remained the case to this day?

PW: Yes. Coming from a local government background, I have certainly got some bees in my bonnet about this. At the time we celebrated the arrival of the Blair/Brown administration, but actually they eviscerated local government. I was formed in one of Britain’s most innovative local authorities. The leader of my Council, John Harman, who became head of the Environment Agency, was knighted for what he managed to do in Kirklees. Maybe that spoilt me: I assumed all local councils were like that.

But Gordon Brown and Tony Blair looked down in dismay at British local government and just saw a group of third-rate losers who had to be told what to do. So they imposed a top-down model. It might have been good stuff, but it just disempowered local government and took away any sense of initiative. It put the good ones down, and elevated the bad ones. My local government now wouldn’t be able to do anything that we once did. Blair and Brown said, no, you have to do it our way. And I just saw the self-confidence of local government ebbing away through those years.

RB: Today, we have heard a lot about how it is the local level, not just the city level, but the village and the local community, that really can make the difference, and the need to support people becoming fully engaged citizens, able to sort things out for themselves.

PW: Absolutely. One thing was that the economy was strong until 2008. So it was possible to finance all kinds of programmes in British local government, including things that we might call ‘intercultural’. But sadly, because they were all just top-down initiatives, and all the finance was coming from central government, as soon as the tap was turned off, they all went. Because they weren’t embedded in those communities: they hadn’t come from below. Moreover a lot of them were linked to the UK’s toxic ‘Prevent programme’, “designed to support people at risk of joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities”.

Then you had the Tories coming in and they are not going to keep any of the intercultural stuff going, but they held onto the more authoritarian aspects of Prevent.

RB: So what was the most important message coming out of today’s discussion, for you?

PW: l liked the call, by Tom Huddleston, who did what he was asked to do, which is to throw down a challenge, and he said, “Local government, even the best of you, don’t rest on your laurels. You are disorganised, you are too short termist, you are too willing to roll over and have your tummy tickled or be fearful of national governments. You must start operating as an effective lobby and you can probably learn something from civil society on that score.” I was glad of that message.

It is different, however, in every country: as somebody said of local government in Italy, “It is like talking to jelly!” and it is similar in Britain now, there is such a laissez-faire culture of government. We have gone from the total Stalinism of Gordon Brown to the “do what the fuck you like but you are not getting any money for anything…”. And every variation along that spectrum can be found across Europe now, so it is not easy to take up one single message to be replicated across the board.

RB: Yet your own presentation was very much a general overview of progress and challenges. Can you give our readers a brief summary of that overview?

PW: Well, intercultural cities arise first and foremost from the viewpoint of the city. Those of us involved believe that the city is an absolutely essential aspect of our lives, and that we need to care for and nurture the city and not simply use it as some kind of vehicle or tool for achieving other policy aims.

The city is the only place where everything else comes together, whether it is school, or refuse, or transport, through increasingly, to such international issues as ‘terrorism’ or foreign policy, or science and innovation. They all come together in the city. That’s why I love them because they are so complex, and life is complex. Cities create problems because of their complexity, but they are also the best places to solve problems. I am really suspicious of single issue people who say, “Get this right and everything else will fall into place. Spend money on this and it will be fine.” No, we don’t want to go down that road. By nurturing the city – and that is why I call myself an urban therapist – nurture the city and the city will nurture you.

That respect for a complex system is where we start from. We acknowledge that things like diversity and migration and forced migration are some of the big challenges facing the contemporary city. So we have to deal with them, but deal with them in the context of everything else.

Having said that, we have looked at the human rights perspective on this from the beginning. As someone said today, “Human rights is the language in which states talk to states, nations to nations.” So initially, that wasn’t too helpful to us. But in the new paradigm that I have been talking about today, we have said, “Human rights are very much there, but not in the abstract.” They have to be brought down to earth and made meaningful on the city streets. We can’t have a situation in which ordinary people feel that human rights is a stick that an élite is using to beat them with! That’s a travesty!

Phil making his presentation, at the Intercultural Cities Milestone Event, Lisbon, Portugal.RB: It was also pointed out that human rights were particularly important to the dispossessed. But perhaps you are saying that it is everyone else who needs convincing of their value to them too?

PW: As I said, “Human rights are for everybody!” and the loss of a single human right around the world is our loss too. Our new paradigm is based upon three pillars: equality, diversity and interactivity and universal human rights pervade this. It is our job to translate all of that human rights language into the city level and to become a mediator between the local and global. The failure of some institutions to acknowledge this need in the past has contributed to the populist backlash against universal human rights that we now face.

RB: It gives a certain opportunity, doesn’t it for people like David Goodhart, in his recent book, to talk about the divide between people from ‘somewhere’ and the metropolitan élite; and for Theresa May to say that cosmopolitans don’t belong “anywhere”.

PW: That was a dagger to my heart, that she could say that and thought she could get away with it! After all, I am living proof of someone who is a global citizen but who is profoundly rooted in the place that I was born in. And I’m not alone! But yes, those attitudes have allowed people like Goodhart to exploit that cleavage, and we have to remove that cleavage.

RB: One of the ways you want to do this you talked about in terms of ‘ordinary virtues’ and ‘universal values’. Could you tell me more about ‘ordinary virtues’?

PW: Yes, I acknowledge the recent work of Michael Ignatieff here. He says that whilst, over the last 70 years, universal human rights have made the world a much better place, they do not build communities. Yet it is the disintegration of communities in the face of neoliberalism which which makes our current social fabric feel so dangerously unstable. So while rights empower individuals and constrain the powerful, Ignatieff says we need something else as the social glue of a diverse community, and he calls this the ‘ordinary virtues’

He didn’t just speak to Europeans, but to people on five continents about what mattered to them, what made the world go around for them, what made your family, your street, your neighbourhood, your workplace, tick – other than being managed in an authoritarian way from above. How do you as just a group of people, get along without shooting each other.

Unless they are a psychopath, people have kindness and empathy, for example. The vast majority of the human race enjoy being good to other people in the belief that there will be reciprocal goodness coming their way. People are prepared to go through bad times together in the hope of good times together. People will reach out to someone in need if they recognise it.

But it sometimes seems that when it comes to crisis points like the Syrian conflict and the resulting displacement of people, people are not trusted in some way to show empathy, warmth, hospitality, to a fellow human in need, and it is thought that they have to be told of their obligations under universal human rights, because that is the only way in which these people will understand what they have to do.

Resentment had been simmering for many years  but it reached a terrible apogee when, for example, the Hungarian border was closed down. What Ignatieff is saying is that we can’t just keep shouting, with a larger and larger megaphone, “You must show hospitality because the human rights legislation says you have to!” You know, the devil always has the best tunes, and people like Viktor Orban will always be able to exploit people’s feelings of grievance or not being listened to.

So secondly, we have to go back and find a new way of acknowledging people’s sense of themselves as human beings, find a way of marrying all the great things about human rights which have lifted so many people out of poverty and oppression over the last seventy years. We have to hold onto all of those, and find a different language in which to say that this is not a zero-sum game. One person achieving  freedom from oppression for being black or gay doesn’t deny a white family in Hungary their freedoms in any sense. Everybody’s boat has been going up.

The Council of Europe is as guilty as the Democratic Party and all of the liberal élite in America and elsewhere, of being complacent and failing to get on the streets and talk about that.

The third important way forward we can see is interaction and dialogue. This is what we have found the established bodies and the cultural diversity experts of ten years ago were not talking about. And that’s where we came in, with that third strand.

RB: Tell me about the human library?

Phil: Well it is one of many examples, and they are all fairly simple. The idea of human libraries was born in Copenhagan in Denmark. It was the idea first of all that a library is a good thing, hopefully a neutral space offering something to everybody historically, a place of sanctuary where people can leave behind certain preconceptions. But in a human library you come in not to borrow a book but 30 minutes of someone else’s life. We draw up a catalogue of people from all walks of life who would be willing to meet and talk with a stranger and then they offer themselves for loan to people who would like to meet them. For example, what if I hear lots of bad things about a particular group in my city…

RB: Like ‘Polish plumbers’?

PW: I’ve never met a Polish plumber, but can I come into this library and start talking to a Polish plumber and see what life looks like through his eyes?

RB: How important to that idea is internationalism, or Europeanism, or anything beyond the nation state? We rely so much on this monocultural ‘National Us’, the ‘national interest’ to amplify our sense of self – and yet it often distorts the reality, including the national reality?

PW: Yes, one would have hoped that with the financial crisis, people might have focused upon the deeper underlying causes of inequality or the relative decline in income growth of the working classes in Europe and North America.

One slide from Phil Wood's presentation in Lisbon, November, 2017.The sad thing was that it offered a simplistic and undeserved revival for the nation state. Because at that point in 2008, the nation state was really the only institution that could get us out of the hole. It was Gordon Brown’s model really, wasn’t it: getting a grip on the central bank and the national finances? At that point people realised that this was still the best hope we had got, in choppy waters and uncertain times. “The nation state may not be ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got!”

RB: Do you think that fed back into the Brexit “Take back control”?

PW: Certainly, I think it did. It fed into that in different ways in different countries. You can’t compare somebody like Geert Wilders and his Dutch-specific  approach: likewise Orban in Hungary. But it did revive a belief in the strength of the nation state for a lot of wrong reasons.

Because the nation state had proved itself to be asleep on the job in many ways, by allowing the global economy to be controlled by forces beyond democratic scrutiny. Nation states got too much praise that they didn’t deserve for ‘saving the day’. It took our eyes off the ball and the deeper reasons.

About the authors

Phil Wood worked for 20 years in local government, community and cultural development. Since 2000, he has been a partner in the urban policy think-tank Comedia, founded by Charkes Landry in 1978 to rethink the major global issues for cities. An international authority on urban futures and city revitalization, he is the author of many writings including The Intercultural City.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.