Winding Paths & Dead Ends

Following observations on migrations and related global phenomena, cultural urbanist and international adviser Charles Landry brings his focus in The Civic City in a Nomadic World to the city level. He describes urban challenges such as multicultural tensions, touristification and decline in distinctiveness.

Pages from The Civic City in a Nomadic World

Not long ago, when Internet was just becoming widely accessible, many people feared books would become obsolete. Luckily it never happened, and even though online publishing has emerged, books still occupy an important position in culture. At the same time, the Internet has occupied a domain of its own, focusing on the rapid dissemination of large quantities of unfiltered information. In that sense the book explores a peculiar space between the two. In many ways it brings the Internet to print instead of the other way around.

One way it does that is the almost total lack of references from other print publications. Frankly, I have never before come across a book with a list of Internet links as references. And I must admit, it makes me wonder not only about how this publication was researched and contextualized, but also about access to these references in the long term. Surely the stories we tell increasingly refer to print as well as digital sources, but I find it strange that a book, which is largely about context, misses out on its position within a larger discourse, beyond the Internet.  Unless of course this is a peculiar attempt to preserve these online sources for the future – in print.

The Civic City in a Nomadic World opens by describing the general conditions of what the author calls the ‘World in Motion’, but one could also simply call it globalization and neoliberal capitalism. The first few chapters give us a brief insight into various types of migrations and conditions thereof in the current social and economic context. Here Charles Landry very relevantly brings up the topic of language and the role it plays in the conversation about a different urban paradigm that the book aims to address. More concretely, a civic city in a world of dynamically changing populations is about the question of living together without discrimination. On the level of language, this question manifests itself in contemporary definitions of the words ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’ and ‘expat’.[1] The first two, as we know, have grown to be associated largely in a negative way[2], while the last is not only positive but also addresses mostly middle-class, implying that the choice to work abroad is voluntary, not caused by a lack of alternative. “An expat is unlikely to be called a migrant worker, even though expats are, after all, migrants who work in a foreign country.”[3] As the author mentions, it is crucial to pay attention to the differences we draw both in the language as well as in the way we live in order to make cities a place for everyone regardless of where they come from.

Pages from The Civic City in a Nomadic World

Following observations on migrations and related global phenomena, Charles Landry brings his focus to the city level, where he describes urban challenges such as multicultural tensions, touristification and decline in distinctiveness, just to name a few.  He points out that to respond to these problems, planning should address soft issues, paying more attention to how people can mix, instead of focusing solely on the physical conditions. Too few urban visions, according to him, seek to tangibly heal the fractures in society, and the fact that the current system socializes costs when things go wrong but privatizes profits does not make the situation any easier. As the author admits, shifting focus towards more social aspects would require achieving aims impossible in the current context of capitalism, such as a changed idea of urban citizenship and ownership pushing it well beyond the current form of sharing economy. This by far isn’t a new thought. I cannot help but think about Lefebvre’s ‘right to the city’, also discussed extensively by David Harvey. It’s one of the most radical and also well-known visions that addresses the restructuring of these relationships. Interestingly, this idea fairly recently (2016) gained an unprecedented recognition through its partial inclusion in the New Urban Agenda – the resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly Habitat III – an influential policy guideline for cities around the world. Landry himself also mentions the New Urban Agenda as a set of good objectives, but without much hope that they will be reached, and without any particular reference to the ideas that clearly influenced him. As Lefebvre describes, precisely the way in which urban politics could shift towards the inhabitants by their enfranchisement beyond the state and the framework of capitalism.[4]  But this is only one example of a general rule. Even though the author identifies important discussions and policy debates, such as dealing with diversity of populations and porous identity, finding real responses to environmental issues, addressing social inequality, and managing gentrification in popular cities, instead of reflecting on what they mean on either a theoretical or practical level, he simply brings them together, often in a very confusing way and without much context.

The book moves quickly from digitization to religion, from gentrification to communities. Everything is there and almost every subchapter and title has “&” in it. It’s The Brand & the Bland, Virtual & the Real, Past & Future, Transitions & Change, Meeting & Mixing and so on and so forth. On one page, gentrification is good on another it’s bad. It’s a perfect illustration of Roemer van Toorn’s The Society of the AND[5] where the dualistic contradictions no longer serve us in understanding the world. Where everything adds and overlaps without much logic, where we surf through the waves of coexistent and confusing fragments of cultures, data and thoughts.[6]

In all of this mess there are things we can do to rethink urbanity, however, and according to Charles Landry this process should be based on aspects including (but not limited to): shared commons, eco-consciousness, cultural literacy, inclusivity, inter-generational equity, creative city making and an invigorated democracy. And surprisingly, the Creative City Index that Charles Landry developed (and also promotes in part of this book) is there to help. Landry clearly wants to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he criticizes the pressure tourism puts on cities and their communities, speaks about commons and more inclusive dimensions of citizenship, while on the other he advocates for placing cities in the competitive framework of rankings, which to me seems to be a part of what he earlier identified as a problem. It is also unclear to me why we should continue talking about creative cities in a positive light when even Richard Florida in his recent book The New Urban Crisis distances himself from the ideas he published in 2003 in The Rise of the Creative Class, which became the inspiration for the contemporary surge in gentrified hipsterhoods. I do not understand why Landry still pleads for ‘civic creativity’ and ‘creative bureaucracy’, this time reframed as imaginative problem solving applied to public good objectives. One of the possible answers could be that he turns to the clichés because he himself doubts if the civic city “has sufficient energy and complex simplicity to drive change”, and that after all the “words ‘green’, ‘smart’ or ‘creative’ are easier to immediately understand.”

Pages from The Civic City in a Nomadic World

This level of ambivalence is present throughout the entire book. Despite the call for attention to the role of language, even the relationship between nomads, outsiders, locals and citizens remains very vague. Are the nomads active participants or passive consumers draining identities of places? Are they agents of change or victims? And where is the place for locals in all of this? It all remains unclear. Eventually Charles Landry does not bridge intercultural gaps or offer new perspectives on citizenship. Instead he re-states that the white, western way of thinking about cities is, and still will be, the dominant one. I do agree with him, however, that language is key in achieving change that will break this scheme of thought. And that’s precisely why I think we have to stop discussing green, smart, creative and the like as desirable guidelines for shaping cities. A more valid question would be what forms of citizenship we can imagine, what kind of rights should they entail, and who should define as well as protect them. Unfortunately, The Civic City in a Nomadic World, to my surprise and disappointment, does not ask these questions.

So, despite the fact that it brings forward a timely perspective on the current urban condition, The Civic City in a Nomadic World does not provide a coherent vision or a narrative on what the civic city in a nomadic world really is or could be. It remains a collection of the author’s loose personal observations on challenges that cities around the world are facing. Many of them caused by our changing relationship to place, space and time, thanks to digitization and global influences. Those include deindustrialization (due to the global shift of production to the East) with the subsequent touristification and gentrification of cities; the increasing speed and ease with which we can move and communicate that causes a loosening of our ties with physical places; as well as eventual blending (if not blanding) of cultural identities caused by ubiquitous commercialization of urban space and tensions between cultures which emerge in response to this process.

On the very last page of the book we are left with a question: “Can the issues raised in the civic city help create a way forward?” I’d say yes, if we start to really think about what the civic means, beyond just “being engaged with your city” in terms of who does the city belong to and who has a say in what it becomes, finally leaving the tired clichés behind.

I must admit, however, that despite its fragmentation and inconclusiveness the book does address a number of critical issues that are worth the reader’s attention. For instance, questioning the above-mentioned loss of identity, the role of tourism and contemporary nomadism and how they might contribute to or damage local communities. Also, the larger questions related to the current migration crisis and growing tensions in multicultural urban environments are highly relevant and important. The author does not, however, help to navigate or answer them. So, if you read the book, do not expect to dive deeply into the phenomena Charles Landry observes. It’s a bit like a Google search ­– where you should be ready for lots of results, but not many insights. I suppose, though, that it still makes for a good read for those who like to ponder relevant questions but suffer from a short attention span or commute a lot over short distances.