Published on Sustainable Cities

Cities and the Human Spirit

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I’m not Catholic. Not even much of a practicing Christian, but I must confess I felt a little chill the other night walking past Köln’s Cathedral. Not from the cold of the night, nor from fear. My engaging German hosts had just informed me the Cathedral was built with sufficient grandeur to house the relics of the Three Magi spirited away from Milan in 1164. For hundreds of years pilgrims from around the world have converged on the Cathedral, adding to the 20,000 visitors a day. The site is sacred and steeped in history. For a few years it was even the tallest building in the world until eclipsed by the Washington Monument in 1884. I couldn’t escape the Cathedral’s history as we walked past it on this cool, clear October night.

We laughed wondering how the World Bank would view a funding proposal for such a structure. Construction of the existing Cathedral cost more than $1 billion in today’s money, with amazingly two-thirds raised through civic action. The Prussian Empire contributed the other third to more fully engage its Catholic citizens. Construction took more than 600 years starting August, 1248, after the “Old Cathedral” built in 818 burned down in April, 1248. Iconic projects like Köln’s Cathedral can become important cultural and spiritual symbols for cities, helping to anchor the social and cultural life and history of place, provided there’s a supporting local vibrant economy.

Earlier in the week before leaving for Germany, I was talking to my father, about the upcoming trip. He shared his still strong memories of how he and his fellow prisoners of war looked out from the train window on a cold winter night in 1945 as the bombed and blackened Cathedral stood massive against the moon and lingering flames. Much of Cologne was reduced to rubble from Allied bombing. The Cathedral suffered up to 70 bomb-hits but remained largely intact. Full reconstruction was completed in 1956 and the last scars of the war removed in the late 1990s. Cologne today bears little witness to the war, although memories undoubtedly remain for a few.

My father took all of us – my mom, my 4 siblings and me – to Cologne when I was 9; his first time back since the war. We were visiting my grandmother in Rotterdam. Dad wanted to see the Cathedral again, and dragged us all along. At lunch we had a particularly surly waiter who did not provide much leeway for my dad’s poor German, and a whiny troop of kids. With long buried memories rekindled, my dad uncharacteristically cursed and stormed off, with us following in bewilderment, and hunger. We all laugh about that visit today, and there is absolutely no lingering enmity in my parents or aunts and uncles who lived through the war.

Cathedrals and cities are more than bricks and mortar. They are functional and provide for basic needs as well as house our memories, good and bad. But even more important they are testament to the human spirit and endurance. Cities and our monuments are evidence that we can come together, forgive, trust each other, and build something of suitable grandeur to bear witness to the fruits of civic action. Good cities get us to move on, to build for the future, together.

Our relationships with each other are transient. One decade we are enemies, another we are friends. Our individual lives are fleeting. So we build edifices like the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Forbidden City, the Temples of Kyoto, and we build the cities that house and finance them. Cities capture and house our greatest triumphs and remind us of moments where humility is appropriate and a valued lesson. Cities anchor our lives, our economies, our cultures, while giving wing to our dreams and aspirations.

Today you can only build something as grand as the Köln Dom, or as sprawling and massive as a modern city through civic action grounded in civility. Every citizen in every city needs to feel that they belong, that they have the ability to influence and help build today’s cathedrals.



Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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