Charles Landry on why cities need an overarching, positive narrative and how we begin to write it



In a recent article on OpenDemocracy journalist Manuel Serrano interviews author and inventor of the Creative City concept Charles Landry. Landry's new book The Civic City in a Nomadic World explores how we can navigate life as global urbanist in an increasingly nomadic world while still maintaining a sense of belonging and closeness to the people around us. And which day to day activities and behaviours cities and its dwellers can take on to secure socially inclusive urban environments. 

An extract: 

"How would you define the term “Civic City”? And why is our world “nomadic”?

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.

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

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.

How can we make the most of our increasingly nomadic world?

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.

We are all mixed up and related to one another. How important is it for people – and for cities – to acknowledge that?

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."

Landry's musings are not dissimilar from those of David Goodhart in his book the Road to Somewhere - in which he makes a distinction between those that belong to 'somewhere' and others who can belong 'anywhere'. But do those who have a dual nationality - increasingly common in our multicultural societies - really fit that distinction? 

Our question is, can Landry's ambitious goal also embrace those who are forced to move around the globe as political, economic or climate refugees?  Those who move towards more prosperous foreign cities under pressure, never emotionally leaving behind their more impoverished place of birth? Nomadic suggests choice: can everyone develop the more relaxed, open disposition required for a thriving, cosmopolitan city? If someone is traumatised by their journey to that city, how can those indigenous to that place, develop a 'civility' that welcomes and integrates them as they are?