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snacks for thought

From Peter Kageyama’s For The Love of Cities:

“We tend to think of “the city” or “the community” as an entity, a single identifiable construct to which we assign attributes and characteristics much like we would a corporation or an individual…

…In asking ourselves how to change a community, we need to remember that any community is made up of millions of acts, positive and negative, which at a distance become the whole we perceive. Each of us contributes to that whole. Each of us makes or breaks the city in small ways every day as we lead our lives. When we throw our soda can or cigarette butt onto the street, we diminish our community. When we hold the door for a stranger or let another car merge into our lane, we add something to the community. Small things, like the grains of sand on a beach, make up the totality of a place.

…But for the most part, we consume the city…. Most of us consume the city without giving back, other than being a good citizen who obeys laws, pays her taxes and, as a byproduct of consumption, spends money back into the community.

…The city, as a whole, is made by [besides the official actors – mayors, planners, community leaders and the like] a relatively small number of “co-creators” who – in their roles as entrepreneurs, activists, artists, performers, students, organisers and otherwise ‘concerned citizens’ – create the experiences that most of us consume. Many of these co-creators act without authority or centralised direction, and it is from their creative efforts that the rest of us benefit. They make the experiences that we delight in, and they have a disproportionate impact in the making of their city.”

I’ve been asking myself this question: if the marketplace for resources and people is global – if in fact the world is fundamentally flat – then why is it necessary for countries or cities to foster their citizens’ love for the nation or city? The alternative would be completely-free flows of people in and out of countries and cities, going to wherever offers them the best opportunities and jobs. Isn’t that efficient?

I think there are a couple of answers. One is obvious: if people genuinely love their country or city, they are more inclined to stay, and also contribute in the ways that Kageyama describes, which in turn attracts and retains those who want to consume the things that they offer (restaurants, cute coffee bars, indie bookshops, nightlife). Lower turnover is also a good thing, because you spend time and effort and money attracting new ‘recruits’. But this is still firmly within the mental model of the city-as-corporation, competing with others for a slice of the pie*.

So two: Because Singapore is both city and country, those who are born there have less freedom than those who are born, say, in China or in the United States. Citizens of those great nations can move to Beijing or Shanghai. Or Chengdu or Shenyang if they so choose. A farm boy from Nebraska can move to New York City. A New Yorker can move to the perhaps quieter state of Connecticut, all without ever needing a passport.

Also, there are those who, by virtue of their abilities or disabilities, needs, age, language barriers, skill sets, are not as mobile as others. Like it or not, these people will remain in place, and like it or not, their needs have to be met. (One might say the city has a moral responsibility to care for this group, but cities are not moral. And also: do not discount this group’s potential to contribute to the city in other ways – ways that become relevant when you begin to talk about love.)

So, loving the city; what does it do? It helps narrow the gap between the uber-mobile and the non-mobile.

I’ll give you a few minutes to think about that.

The book, For The Love of Cities, is available at bookstores and the library. Someone has reviewed it here (and made civil servants read at least the review).

Here is someone who knows what loving the city is about.

*I hate this metaphor. Too often it gives the wrong impression that the pie is finite, when the correct answer is ‘bake a new damn pie’.