Every city should have a dream!

“Every city should have a dream” according to Jaime Lerner, the three-times Mayor of Curitiba, but it has to be a dream that is desirable and brings people along with it and involves them. That was one of the key messages I took from a discussion I went to on the future of cities, organised by the Festival of Ideas in Bristol. The panel of speakers included Jaime Lerner (Mayor of Curitiba), Wulf Daseking (ex City Planner of Freiburg) and Saskia Sassen (Prof of Sociology, Columbia University), all there to share their experience and knowledge of city leadership and change.

future of cities

The discussion was quite wide ranging, but the things that stuck in my mind and where I think there are lessons we could learn from here in Bristol are based around three themes: collaboration & involvement; housing and development; and getting started.

Firstly, collaboration and involvement was discussed as essential to achieving the right kind of change. Wulf Daseking focused on involving young people and reminded us of the energy and ideas that young people bring to a city and why universities are so important to city life, whilst at the same time being critical of the American style campus style development that many universities in the UK now seem to favour, which disconnects young people from the city. He talked about Bristol University and its role in bringing young people into the city and how we should celebrate that, as well as emphasising the need for connections between universities and civic society. All this rings true for Bristol, too often we complain about students and how they have taken over parts of our city, and we package them off to live and study in separate areas on the edges of our cities (like UWE), when what we should be doing is celebrating and involving them in city life, they are after all the future of the city, the next generation of leaders, politicians, city planners etc. On a similar theme, Saskia Sassen talked about open sourcing neighbourhoods, mobilising people and bringing local knowledge to people at the centre of the city where decisions are made. A good point and an important lesson for us all – the role of local knowledge and experience is often ignored in decisions that are taken and in plans that are made, leaving communities and neighbourhoods feeling disenfranchised and disaffected. Mobilisation of all communities and neighbourhoods in the creation of the plan or vision for a city is critical, otherwise the plan is unlikely to be ‘desirable’ or accepted.

The second key message I came away with was about housing and development, about how the centralisation of power/resources/decisions in the UK makes it difficult for cities to get this right. The main lesson came from Wulf Daseking and how he managed to create a vision for Freiburg that involved a very different approach to housing that is difficult to imagine here in Bristol. There are few if any volume house builders involved in housing development in Freiburg, land is parcelled differently, in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self/custom build and cooperative housing schemes, creating a much better housing mix across new developments than we are ever likely to see in the UK. They also have a system of price fixing or land price freeze, whereby the value of the land pre and post planning permission is set at a sensible rate, so there is still profit to be made but not to the point where speculative development takes place – if only we had a set of politicians brave enough to do that in the UK, how much better could our housing developments be? New housing in Freiburg is also controlled to ensure the housing mix is right, with 1/3 for owner occupation, 1/3 private rented and 1/3 social housing – as Wulf said, the housing mix here in Bristol is all wrong and getting it wrong leads to social destabilisation.

The final point was about getting started, how do you start out on a process of change? The key message seemed to be about starting small, without a finished plan but with vision, with an idea that is desirable, that will achieve buy-in from residents and then don’t accept no for an answer. Too often we are told ‘this is not possible’ and we waste our time on people who do not want to help, we need instead to start with the attitude of ‘I’ll find a way’ and forget about waiting for central government, just get on and do it. Jaime Lerner talked about the need to challenge what isn’t right about a city and how it is developing, using the example of a previous Mayor of Curitiba developing the city around cars, and how this encouraged him to get involved – the best quote of the talk:

“traffic and highways engineers, they know how to kill a city”

So true and you can see how that has worked in Bristol and just how difficult it is to undo.

According to Jaime Lerner “the world is full of complexity sellers, we should beat them off with slippers” or put another way, “we should never be afraid of a simple solution”. Everyone is always telling us cities are complex and their solutions are complex, but there are many simple solutions out there that we could be putting in place now.

So for me the lessons are there about involvement and collaboration, a strong leader encourages challenge and involves people with different ideas, and above all else listens to people with different knowledge and experience to their own – that means not just the powerful elites and the business leaders, but the community leaders, the homeless, the young people and the activists, all of whom have as much to offer the future of our city as anyone else does. Strong leadership means having a vision and taking difficult decisions but it also means working with people who also want to make a difference.

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