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#8 from 2012: How Does Your City Make You Feel?

Darshana Patel's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on April 4, 2012

Cities are often associated with mixed emotions. They can sometimes make us feel insecure, disconnected and lonely, even in a crowd; while, in other moments, they provide the setting for the happiest events in our lives. 

Whether we are conscious of it or not, urban spaces have a huge impact on how people participate in public life. Regular readers of this blog know that the original concept of the public sphere originates from the agora in ancient Greek city-states. The agora was a physical place where people gathered to deliberate and exchange their opinions – a true marketplace of ideas. The modern public sphere has now shifted more into the virtual realm, through various technologies and social media.

Even so, the physical space still has a powerful influence on how we see ourselves and our place in public life. Architects and urban planners shape how individuals move in crowds and negotiate their personal safety.  A city can make us feel more connected to community and civic obligations. It can foster individual agency and encourage greater accountability amongst neighbors. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban activist, Jane Jacobs lamented the state of the modern city and the downfall of these very virtues that made a city more humane:

“Modernist housing projects, which stack people vertically instead of allowing them to live side-by-side in streets, cause estrangement and social disintegration. Zoning laws which banish industry to one part of town, offices to another part and shopping to yet another, leave the residential areas deserted in the daytime, and lacking the principal hubs of social communication. Building styles which appropriate whole blocks, or thrust jagged corners in the way of pedestrians, prevent the emergence of the principal public space: the street.” -Roger Scruton, Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life

The danger is that mega cities in developing countries are mimicking the very urban planning reforms that have led to unlivable cities in developed countries. In an interesting interview with the World Bank in 2002, Jacobs warns against promoting model cities:

“Every city - I can't emphasize this enough - is its particular self, and you’ll get into trouble trying instead to make them into little Hong Kongs or little Singapores or little anything else. They're something in their own right. And why should we be so afraid of originality and of diversity and so eager for models?"

Jacobs’ work has led to the New Urbanism movement, which advocates for, among other things, shorter, walkable city blocks; housing that serves a range of incomes; and spaces that serve multiple social functions. This movement is not just about the theory. In the developing country context, initiatives like Architecture Sans Frontières and Spatial Agency present practical, viable alternatives to make our cities more humane and the public sphere more robust.

 

Picture credit: flickr user Babi

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