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GIVING THE CITY BACK TO ITS INHABITANTS

By Michael Sudarskis
Secretary General, Internatonal Urban Development Association

Sometimes cities are badly run, dirty and dilapidated. Many people however believe that it is still worth living in such city. Why? The City is a place that can take people to higher and more complex human levels, even in the most adverse conditions. A city is a place where people can learn to live with strangers, to share experiences and explore unfamiliar interests. Uniformity stupefies, while diversity stimulates mind and bodies. The city offers the inhabitants the opportunity to develop a richer awareness of themselves. This is the power of diversity: freedom from arbitrary identity which if exacerbated can become “a murderous identity”

Understanding the movements that affect the evolution of our cities refers primarily to those who make them: the inhabitants. How people understand and relate to their city? Mainly through the elements that constitute their daily lives: housing, public space, schools, jobs and workplace. To give the city back to its inhabitants implies to act on these different elements.

But what appears is that the people do not feel necessarily engaged in the production of their living environment. Social solidarity is crumbling, living together deteriorates, and trust relationships are weak. It is as if each person was seeing his city not as it is but as it says it is. What we might call the “media narrative” is creating a distorted reality giving way to a wary loneliness that undermines the traditional approaches. The democratic ideal on which was built our conception of the public debate is cracking. Many attempts were made to recover the initial inspiration through digital tools that are thought to be able to replace dialogue, head to head or face to face relations.

GIVING-THE-CITY-BACK-TO-ITS-INHABITANTSWe must question this new approach for the technical objects (the smart hype) are not political. They can be tools at the service of a political project provided that the project is previously and explicitly discussed. The political process must take into account changes affecting the lives of the people.

However, the technical objects say nothing of the profound and rapid changes of our societies. These technical tools imply a different approach of social life at the risk of destroying the traditional solidarity without creating new ones. The technical objects establish a mode of organization of society and minds where specialization compartmentalizes individuals, not giving everyone a direct responsibility in producing their living condition, with the consequences that one lose sight of the global dimension and, at the same time, local solidarity.

If we are not careful, we may find ourselves before a dreadful paradox; that is of expecting the tools created by the technical development to be the tools that should save the political process on which we built our cities. There is a real risk of fragmentation of the city. This fragmentation can upset the delicate “social contract”. As Jean- Jacques Rousseau states, “every human being is recognized as a social being who renounces absolute freedom in favour of the general interest, but also is recognized as an individual whose substantive civic and moral rights are protected”.

All this determines a choice of society which in turn gives sense to the city: the city is becoming a complex, shared and negotiated place shaped by social and cultural movements, a place that expresses both the recognition of diversity and of common values.

Obviously this is close to Utopia, but it leads to a variety of urban, social, economic and cultural practices: for example, the relationship between citizen engagement and public authority; Relations between public action and private initiatives; “Commons” and commodification; Relations between local initiatives and solidarity and national or supranational challenges; Citizen participation, access to rights, individual and civic liberties, and solutions from new technologies; transformations and possible changes in our ways of seeing, evaluating and acting.

The diversity of practices calls for more innovation in social, economic and political fields, and innovation is needed to design the sustainable and human development of tomorrow.

The real success of the G20 in China will depend on commitments made by the various urban and territorial actors either public, private or the civil society to implement those innovation that will give the City back to its inhabitants.

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