Thursday, October 15, 2015

My Log 487 Oct 8 2015:Technology has transformed urban life, throwing into doubt many of the concepts that I grew up to believe half a century ago

Land-use planning in action (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: canary wharf tube station taken by a ...
Canary wharf tube station 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Singapore. Planning regions.
Singapore. Planning regions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado
Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lorategi-hiriaren eskema, 1902.
A 1902 example of city planing  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Hong Kong from Western District overl...
An urban landscape: Hong Kong  overlooking Kowloon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 I began working as a journalist in 1945, when my intense interest was sports. So I wrote about sports and played them until I had to stop, so as to be able to report on the Saturday scores around the city I worked in.
Within a few years I had realized there were other things in life, and as my so-called career (that is another story) developed, I became a sort of half-assed expert on urban and social problems, writing a lot about how cities were built and controlled under various social systems, and always keeping in the back of my mind my preference for some form of socialism as the only possible method by which the opportunities for most people in life could be equalized.
My so-called expertise advanced at one point to the level at which I was asked to speak at various conferences dealing with urban planning, city development and so on. I was cruelly aware of my inadequacy when speaking to a roomful of experts but I tried my best, and tried to make as many jokes as I could  --- usually rather painfully obscure jokes --- to keep things lively.
Having written a newspaper series on the development of Montreal’s suburbia in the late 1950s, and having examined things in Scandinavia (whose use of public ownership of urban land particularly impressed me), Holland (whose every inch of land seems to have been carefully planned) and Britain (where in the 1960s I covered, and was hugely influenced by, a huge World Congress of Architects, with representatives from 124 countries), my inclinations led me when I returned to Canada in 1968 after eight years as a correspondent in London, to write about Canadian cities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at which time I found to my surprise that most Canadian cities had no idea what was happening in other parts of the country. So my first published book was a sort of expanded version of those articles under the somewhat pretentious title of The Future of Canadian Cities, a title provided by my publisher, New Press, whose co-owner Roy MacSkimming, showed such enthusiastic support for my work that he launched me into book-writing, that has eventually led to some seven titles on various subjects.   Once again I was cautiously aware of my inadequacies on the subject, and I remember the scorn with which the book was reviewed by at least one of the panjandrums of Canadian planning. My only defence could be that it wasn't intended for the experts in the subject, but for the ordinary guy in the street who might be interested in what was being built around him.
Eventually, when I had embarked by accident on a career in documentary films, I was entrusted with the direction of a film intended to be screened at the opening of the UN Habitat conference in Vancouver in 1976.  In 1975 my wife and I decided to retire to New Zealand, and I remember that part of the decision came from my feeling of inadequacy before the task of making that film. I returned from New Zealand twice in the following 12 months, and on one of those visits  conducted interviews for the NFB with leading world authorities attending the Vancouver conference. (My main memory from these interviews is that in one of them, the fellow I was interviewing, acknowledged to be the world’s leading expert in housing for the poor in Latin America, was so dull that I actually fell asleep for a few seconds, during the interview.) The subject I had chosen for the film that I ran out on was the huge migration under way everywhere to urban areas. It was so relevant that people are continuing to write books about it almost 40 years later, because alone, this one global event, the migration to the cities, has overwhelmed almost every heavily-populated nation.
When today Beijing is being planned as the centre of a single metropolis that will contain 135 million people, it can easily be understood how  the scale of this unimaginable migration has changed everything to such an extent that all my previously hard-won knowledge seems now to be more or less useless.
In recent months  The Guardian newspaper in London has been publishing a remarkable series of articles on these new cities under such titles as Which is the world’s most vulnerable city?  Which is the hottest city? Which is the most expensive city? And so on. Needless to say the series has taken full account of the changes under way already as a result of global warming, with its resultant increase in the level of the oceans. For example, apparently St Mark’s Square in Venice, one of the world’s architectural urban wonders, now is flooded 100 times in every year. (My main memory of St. Mark’s is that while we were sitting there, a distressed young mother who had lost her child came rushing by shouting, “Francois, Francois, Francois!”).
What I learned from that international Congress of Architects that I mentioned above was how  the social atmosphere in a country influences the style of architecture practised therein. The Chinese and Russians, both preoccupied in 1960 with building massively to house their millions of people, still recovering from the devastation of war, were unashamedly building rather ugly residential blocks full of tiny apartments in which families were grossly overcrowded. But at least they had somewhere to live. But these were built in response to the need to give homes to millions of people.
The Cubans, having not long before adopted a Communist form of government, turned up with plans for and photographs of neat, attractive, bungalows built by their government, houses that were made to look attractive by being painted in a variety of pastel colours. Britain, which after the war was also confronted with replacing destroyed neighbourhoods, had built tower blocks that they regarded as the latest thing in sophisticated urban planning, blocks surrounded by green spaces in which children could play safely --- a form of housing that, with use, began to show deficiencies that have made them almost a by-word in mistaken urban development. But it was no accident that this form of development should have been practised by the British, who, with their strongly Labour city councils following on the six  years of Labour party government that ended in 1951, rather stood somewhere between the left-wing and the right-wing governments. The architects in the more conservative countries,  on the whole appeared to be notable more for their monumental architecture --- theatres, museums, universities and the like --- than for that profession having been placed at the service of utility.  The British, expanding their education system on a democratic basis, had developed a form of school building known as CLASP, which comprised prefabricated units that were easily fitted together in various shapes,  sizes and colours to lend an air of quality to even  schools that were hurried into place in this way --- once again, the architectural styles being at the service of the social system.
One of the central themes of the Congress was the exciting and revolutionary new uses to which reinforced concrete was being put in Italy and South America  whose architects had invented totally unprecedented spans of concrete roofing made up of thin layers of concrete reinforced by networks of steel supports.
Many years later I had the opportunity to observe from close up some of the planning principles observed as the Chinese Communist regime rebuilt their cities so as to accommodate industries and the workers who kept their factories humming over.   Although, as before, the actual apartment buildings were quite ugly, they were needed in such vast numbers that their utilitarian air was hardly to be wondered at. And in many ways the way of life imposed by the Communist regime on their city workers seemed almost ideally suited to their  needs.  Unlike in Canada or any other western country, they did not go in for industrial parks on the edges of cities,  divorced from the living places of the workers who need cars to get to work along highways the building of which constitute one of the main costs of government. Nothing like that in the Chinese cities I saw during a film-making visit in 1978. The factories were built in the middle of the cities, as were the houses.  Side by side. Hardly any workers lived more than a half-hours’ bicycle ride from their place of work, and this use of the bicycle as the primary means of mobility  appeared to be one of the things  that kept he population so fit.  I don’t think I saw a fat person during my three-month stay there. Every shift change, morning and afternoon, the broad city streets were thronged with thousands of people making their way to or from work. ……each factory had a bicycle park capable of handling up to 4,000 bicycles --- an amazing system to our western eyes, yet one that seemed to be run with remarkable efficiency.
I did think, at the time, watching how well the various elements of this system jelled together, that if ever they discovered the automobile, they would be in deep trouble. It never occurred to me that within twenty years their cities would have been so completely transformed into glittering, western-style conglomerations full of towering skyscrapers, the streets surrounding them clogged with the inevitable traffic jams.
When I first began to interest myself in urban places, my orientation came from  the sort of knee-jerk leftist thinking that included such ideas as urban renewal, by which was meant the clearing away of slum areas and their replacement with modern apartments. The inevitable accompaniment of such thinking was a sort of linear planning that arose more or less naturally out of the destruction created by war. For example, the city of Coventry in England, where I worked for a year,  was badly damaged in the war, and their leftist city council set out immediately the war was ended with a full-scale reconstruction plan that they insisted on fulfilling year by laborious year. (I should perhaps have mentioned that as a child I grew up in  a country in which a Labour government undertook a huge State housing scheme which provided for building cottages in featureless streets and rows, many hundreds of which my building contractor father obtained the contract to build in my home town. It never occurred to me that these were anything but a good thing, designed to uplift the quality of our common lives, and we were quite shocked when the renowned Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who had constructed a fairy-tale village on the Welsh coast, came to New Zealand and delivered a trenchant criticism of our beloved State housing scheme.  I remember that our minister of housing, a  working-class man with limited education but a colourful vocabulary, responded, “We don’t need to take lessons from any snuffling snufflebusters from the old country to tell us how to build houses.”)
Just what has happened to these simplistic verities I absorbed in my youth I have no idea.  I do know that in every country in which I have studied the matter, homes cannot be built for the poorest people who need homes the most, without some form of government subsidy. Some brave efforts have been made in Canada, some of them right here in Montreal,  in the 1960s and 1970s to prove that that was not so, but none of them really succeeded. Similarly, many people with a social conscience who have found themselves owners of, for example, hotels occupied by poor tenants, have vowed to improve the conditions of life in the hotel, without forcing the tenants out. But to be best of my knowledge, none of these schemes has ever succeeded: the inevitable consequence of upgrading accommodations is that the people living at lower rents in the old standards have not been
able to afford the higher rents for the upgraded places, and have had to move elsewhere.
That may not be just, but who said life was just?
Don’t tell me I am reduced to such cynicism by my experience of urban life. It’s probably just that, even in such small efforts as these, the basic conditions of life assert themselves, those conditions that have always bedevilled the quest for workable socialist solutions. If most of the money is in the hands of the wealthy class, they are certainly not going to volunteer to give it up so that poor people might be rescued from their misery.  So how do we get our hands on some of their wealth and put it to a more socially useful purpose?  The only countries where I have seen that coming even close to working is in the socially-conscious nations of Scandinavia, whose extremely heterogeneous populations have been ready to pay half of their incomes in tax, knowing that they can expect a better standard and quality of life.
I’m afraid consideration of these knotty questions will have to await another day.

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