Learning from Lerner

18 11 2008

I went to a panel discussion this afternoon on “What Makes for a Great City?” The discussion was part of the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas celebration, put on for their 100th anniversary. Jaime Lerner, of Curitiba, Brazil fame, was one of the three panelists, and although he was obviously at a disadvantage in a panel discussion speaking in what must be his third or fourth language, I still felt that he was the most compelling and passionate of the three speakers.

Curitiba has become a poster child for its transit-oriented development and well-used public transit system, as well as for a host of other innovative approaches to civic governance. For a quick overview of what it is known for, look here. For a more in-depth investigation, check out the Curitiba Urban Research and Planning Institute’s website here.

A few ideas stuck with me from the discussion:

  • Culture is not simply about support of the formal arts. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about fostering creativity among individuals and offering them opportunities for expression. It is also, in a broader sense, the manner in which a citizenry conducts its urban life.
  • A city can be measured by how it treats its youngest citizens, and how capable they are of participating in its culture.
  • Quality of life investments will do much more for a city’s long-term economic competitiveness than fiscal incentives to lure new business.

Jaime Lerner also opined that three things are essential to get right in making a great city: transportation, sustainability and co-existence. The first, he made very clear, does not consist of simply planning for cars; at one point he suggested that cities that want to improve must first stop allowing their urban form to be dictated by traffic engineers. The second point he expanded on in a number of ways, but to him sustainability seems to be as much about social issues as it is about the environment.

The third point was perhaps the most interesting, but also left me with the most questions. Co-existence means people engaging with others in the city. It means, ideally, the enjoyment of others in the city, the celebration of human diversity. He related a conversation he once had with a woman who was a passionate believer in protecting animal and plant biodiversity but who also preferred to live in a low-density, use segregated and exclusive suburb to whom he posed the question (I paraphrase): “If you believe so strongly in biodiversity, why do you not support human diversity where you live?”

It’s a great observation. But how do we engage people to start believing in the beauty of other people again? I mean, apart from the packaged and mediated “other” we view on television or the internet? Lerner spoke about a city where people engage in a dialogue with other people about the kind of city they want to live in, what matters to that society, and what it is that characterizes that culture. The people of Curitiba, in Lerner’s description, shape their collective identity by engaging with their environment and with each other.

How do we foster such an interactive civic attitude in a culture that values independence, privacy and the consumption (rather than the personal creation) of culture, and that seems to have come to mistrust the “other”?

Mar 09 update: I just discovered a Q&A with Lerner on Metropolis from May of last year. It has the same title as my blog piece, so hopefully they won’t come after me. I had no idea!

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