Can Europe Make It?

Should we close our worlds? Or open them out?

Cities need an overarching, positive narrative that binds all people to where they live, and where day to day behaviour and activities connect well with civic life. Interview. 

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano Charles Landry
17 October 2017

Little Venice quay flooded with tourists. Mykonos island. Cyclades, Aegean Sea, Greece. Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Common. All rights reserved.

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Manuel Serrano (MS): You are going to be in Lisbon on late October to present your new book: “The Civic City in a Nomadic World”. How would you define the term “Civic City”? And why is our world “nomadic”?

Charles Landry (CL): We should distinguish between the world civil and civic. These distinctions are breaking down nowadays, in social media and political circles. Today, “the civic” or “being civic” simply means to be involved with your city, either formally or informally. Civic engagement involves participating in those mechanisms that make cities work. Being “civil”, then, implies finding common ground through conversation and dialogue. Beyond our differences. A “civic city” makes room for the civil, because the civil also entails having rights and freedoms; engaging in political and voluntary activities. The creative tensions between people doing their own things and our collective undertakings are the lifeblood of city making.

As for our world being nomadic, for me this is the big fracture. Many of us move around the world: for work, for pleasure. Some of us are excited about it, about this interchange of ideas and trends, about being part of a bigger world, whereas others are frightened. Basically, the nomadic is about the insider and the outsider. Belonging and not belonging. It´s about tensions – but tensions that can be solved. This is particularly reflected in the way Mr. Trump divides the world: between patriots and globalists. Patriots believe in their place. Globalists are constantly moving. I believe you can be both. This is the challenge of our age: to be both someone that feels at ease with the bigger world, but at the same time feels at ease in their own place.

The creative tensions between people doing their own things and our collective undertakings are the lifeblood of city making.

MS: How can we open our world out? How can we start to approach such a complex question?

CL: I think that if we create an atmosphere in cities which is more generous, which has generous gestures of openness, then we encourage people to give more of themselves. It´s all about the signals we send. If we send signals that we are closing the world out, we obviously generate prejudice and become more tribal. I believe that we have to continually highlight people´s instinct to be social, and that means creating public spaces. Spaces for chance encounters where we can be together and get to know each other. In a city, this often takes place in the public realm because it´s where we meet people we don´t know. In terms of physical institutions, places like libraries: these are good examples of places where we are together alone. This type of environment is conducive for us to be in and share the same space.

Gestures are important. Obviously, there is more than that. But you have to start somewhere. You have to create an environment where you can meet others: and it´s the very small things that end up building the atmosphere of a city. I always think about Sarajevo. When I was there, before Milosevic arrived, it was one of the most multicultural cities in the world. After he arrived, everyone started hating each other. The default position should be to be more open than closed, more empathy or compassion than animosity – not because we are dreamers, but because we are hard-headed and practical.

Gestures are important. Obviously, there is more than that. But you have to start somewhere. You have to create an environment where you can meet others.

MS: Old dogmas and systems are breaking down at an escalating speed. Transformation always brings confusion. How can we make the most of our increasingly nomadic world?

CL: In the nomadic world, we can trade and communicate, which allows us to have a number of economic opportunities. But there´s also a dark side of globalization: deep fracture emerges within our world. Our social and tribal nature and our in-group and out-group instincts are in tension as our world continues to shrink and our cities become more mixed, more nomadic and more diverse.

I believe that we have to go back to what I call zones of encounter: the seedbed of community springs from the soil of several small encounters. Residents and outsiders come together to shape a place and incorporate the best they both have to offer. Tourists, guests and semi-residents may not be members per se of a community and have political rights, but they often see a city with fresh eyes, its resources, its opportunities. Traits that residents don’t even consider because they have seen them every day. The distinction between the engaged outsider and the insider is blurring.

Together we can solve problems, compare perspectives and incorporate the best both of us have to offer. The zones of encounter essentially rest on the idea that we must find ways of encountering others, binding the mental, the physical and the space where that can happen.

Chinatown Toronto. Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

MS: Migration tides are a complex web of in and outflows. In the Mediterranean thousands die every year because governments and supranational organizations have been unwilling or unable to act. As the great migration we now face is here to stay, how can we deal with these issues?

CL: I think this is one of the big issues nowadays. When I was born there were around three billion people in the world. Now there are more than seven billion and a half. The real issue about migration nowadays is its speed and extent. But also, the fact that we are dealing with a comprehensive problem that needs a holistic solution. You have to tackle inequality, food insecurity, climate change, poverty, water shortages and climate change. It´s important to focus on arrival cities, of course, but it´s also important to focus on departure ones. It´s an interconnected problem. Of course, in cases like Syria we are dealing with war and violent conflict, but in Africa, in several places emigration is triggered by food insecurity, poverty and water shortages. 

MS: As you say, we are all mixed up and related to one another. How important is it for people – and for cities – to acknowledge that?

CL: This is very important today. People always go back to their comfort zone: they feel the change, that things are going too fast. And we fail to consider those who are left behind and fail to understand the psychological impact of global changes. One way of addressing this problem is to slow down, because then people are more likely to accept that we are all mixed up. Like in my case, for instance, I am essentially German, which you wouldn’t know necessarily.

There is a reminiscence of the dark times when “cosmopolitan” was a dirty word. The demagogues express this division as if it is a cosmic battle between chaos and order. We are, to a certain extent, back to the social and the tribal. Populists and opportunists feed the need for a narrative that simplifies things: easy metaphors like good or bad, us or them.

But people will listen if they feel more relaxed about themselves. As several cultural studies I participated in concluded, if you acknowledge who people think they are, which tends to be different from who they really are, they are more likely to accept change. One of my slogans is to go with the grain of culture. It´s a better way to change, even if it sounds counterintuitive, because change implies a shift. We are back to this point: the speed of change and feeling at ease. 

There is a reminiscence of the dark times when “cosmopolitan” was a dirty word. The demagogues express this division as if it is a cosmic battle between chaos and order.

MS: There are 130 times as many international tourists today as there were in 1950. How can cities cope with this reality? How can cities avoid losing their identities and becoming soulless?

CL: This is an incredible figure. And many cities and communities are having a problem dealing with this. For example take “turismophobia” – an anti-tourist anger – in cities like Barcelona or Lisbon. Some people feel that there are too many tourists. In city centers tourists are pushing the locals out: residents feel that it is not their city any more. We have to consider if people are free to visit whatever they like. Should we control tourism? Can we? Who decides where the limit is? What happens to tradition and to the city´s atmosphere when local shops are replaced by McDonalds and Starbucks, by souvenir shops?

We need to start a collective and pluralist conversation, one that encompasses business interests, the government and tourists, but also local communities. It´s a collective problem, and authorities cannot behave like islands. The social costs of tourism should be considered. We need a broader definition of capital: one that encompasses social behavior, quality of life and multiple interests. We should reunite the different parties. But a counterforce to the business and tourism industry lobbies is needed: communities and populations must be able to voice their concerns and priorities. They must have a seat at the table. Different interests should talk to each other.

Some people feel that there are too many tourists. In city centers tourists are pushing the locals out: residents feel that it is not their city any more.

MS: “Ideas evolve, survive, reproduce and die just like living things. They also reincarnate, they can jump generations and continents.” But isn’t cultural diffusion also likely to lead to confusion? Strangely, the promise of globalization was diversity. But we ended up with sameness/uniformity…

CL: Getting to know people requires time. Even if people belong to the same group or network. A lot is happening at the same time, and people feel uneasy about that. People fall back onto prejudice. Their thinking becomes less nuanced. They make prejudiced judgments about other people. And people moving around, they speak in the same way, regardless of the fact they might be in Bali, Berlin or Buenos Aires. What´s original about that? Do you even speak the language? Sameness comes from the English language being spoken everywhere. And the reaction against it, because locals feel that those people coming in are diffusing culture.

But you also have economic globalization. There are 30 million Coca-Cola outlets, 37,000 McDonalds, 20,000 Starbucks. People want to travel but they also want to stay at their favorite hotel company because they are familiar with the room, the culture. But they also want to know the city, to visit the authentic places, which as you know soon become too popular, and the only people you can meet there are foreigners. The locals have escaped to the suburbs. 

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