Main Feature

Jan-Feb 2015


by Patrick Bingham-Hall

“The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilisation’s success and the primary reason why cities exist…we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.” Edward Glaeser

I have always lived in cities. Not the suburbs, but inner-city neighbourhoods that thrum with the throb of life. It’s not that I want to chat and shop for every hour of every day, but I need to know that I can. I need people to be there, and I need to know that the world (or a satisfactory microcosm thereof) is just outside my door and can be seen from my windows. My social space is the street—the shops, the bars, and the cafés—and my street lifestyle is low maintenance and psychologically nourishing. When I am walking and talking I am not wilfully damaging our environment in any way that cannot be remediated, so I suspect that my social patterns are not just personally sustainable, but locally and globally responsible. My street life is a continuation of a traditional human ecosystem—a pact between city and country, civilisation and nature, and society and solitude—that has been incrementally shredded by the forces of industrialisation, globalisation, and urbanisation.

Once upon a time, every citizen of every city had a street life. Now any remaining precincts with shopfront retail and walk-up townhouses are routinely referred to as ‘hip’, as ‘destinations’ to be visited by tourists from the suburbs. Think Tiong Bahru in Singapore, Surry Hills in Sydney, and so on. Think designer coffee tables on the footpaths, with designer pot plants and decorous trees. But contrary to appearances, these highly congested highly sociable enclaves of bricks and bicycles are sustainable, in every sense of the word, whilst the bungalow-suburbs (and most housing estates) are not.

The worldwide rush to urbanise has, paradoxically, been a manifestly anti-social process. The relentless construction of high-rise apartments and the flight from the rural kampungs to the cities have seen communities being replaced by collections of capsules. And a newly materialistic mindset perceives a home as a castle, a private house or apartment set apart from the life of its city. Demographic relocation and upward mobility have forsaken sociability, and if infrastructural sustainability is to be implemented at a large enough scale to set about resolving the environmental issues facing the 21st century, reciprocity between private and public aspirations must be sought. If collective responsibility and genuine social interaction are not (re)prioritised, cities will grow ever more dysfunctional, with personal privilege and structural expedience pulling in different, unsustainable directions.

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