Ruby Wax on how the city of the future could be convivial, green and encourage mutual aid
I keep finding books and articles which seem to spread dread of even more isolation, which the doomsday soothsayers predict because of rising populations that are inevitably heading for a soulless dystopia of high-rise hell. Even now you can see those towers are being ghettoised, cut off by spaghetti-looping motorways. High-rise islands of offices, living spaces, restaurants, supermarkets, shops, nail bars (God forbid there are no nail bars. You may be a mental wreck or the size of Bolivia but as long as your tips are coloured everything is fine), so you never have to leave your walled city. To me, these clustered, entombed glass-and-steel fortresses all look the same as each other, with the same branded shops. The inhabitants will no doubt also go the way of Gap, all becoming identical.
We are told that people prefer anonymity to limit the Big Brother-type surveillance; the walls, the forks, your fridge spying on you as we speak. The trouble is, yes, you can have your privacy, but what about social ties? No longer can you borrow that cup of sugar from the neighbour; they probably won’t even unlock their door for you, fearing you might rob the place or take the dog as a hostage. In the old days, if you needed a plumber, a babysitter or a shoulder to cry on, there was usually someone in your building who had those skills or at least could advise someone they knew to help. Now, we have to call agencies to get someone over and then pay through the nose for their services.
But rather than live in teeth-chattering fear about what’s here and what could be coming, let me steer your attention to the hopeful signs that might point to an exciting future. So, what’s on the horizon and what are the more enlightened city planners and architects working on now?
We’ve only lived in cities for the last 6,000 years so we’re in the foothills of what works to make a more human-centric neighbourhood. Previous developers had no idea what they were doing; one monster building, almost touching the clouds, is at arm’s length to the next and the next to the next . . . They can watch their neighbours’ television through the window but will probably never make eye contact with them.
But now planners have woken up and come to the conclusion that we need to create developments which help us live together rather than sitting in separate pools of loneliness, once in a while sending out tweets like ships sending out flares to say they’re sinking. They’ve realised that the designs of cities aren’t actually conducive to human beings who might want to make contact with other human beings and that blocks of flats surrounded by empty communal spaces don’t work as well as closely spaced housing with wiggly paths connecting them to encourage people to mingle.
Julian Agyeman, an urban planner, thinks that the future of humanity is going to be mostly urban and that spaces should encourage the sharing of resources. In his book Sharing Cities (co-authored with Duncan McLaren), he proposes a new “sharing paradigm”, encouraging trust, connection and collaboration. Case studies of various city projects show how sharing could “shift values and norms, encourage civic engagement and political activism, and rebuild a mutually collaborative support system”.
One of the case studies in his book is on the city of Copenhagen. The Danes have not always been keen sharers but as the famous urban designer Jan Gehl says, “People of any culture are the same the world over. They will gather in public if you give them the space to do it.” Copenhagen is encouraging people to spend a longer time in its public spaces so that they are less focused on their destination and enjoy the journey. So the street architecture (benches and planters) are supplemented with brightly coloured adult-sized hammocks made from recycled fire hoses luring you to lounge, swing and linger. Seventy-five per cent of buildings have glass walls on the ground floor to make it possible to see in and out. (I love nothing better than being able to see into people’s homes although they don’t like it as much as I do.)
One of the sites is in the most ethnically diverse area, Nørrebro, a park designed to “reflect diversity” by filling it with artefacts and structures from fifty different cultures; you can gather on Iraqi swings or Brazilian benches around a Moroccan fountain under Japanese cherry trees while eating international cuisine. You’ll never have to travel again.
There’s also the most developed cycle network in Europe with cycle paths running between the parked cars and the kerb so that the parking becomes a barrier between the bikes and traffic. (If you get out on the passenger side of your car you can score a home run by sending the cyclist flying into the outfield.)
The City of Cyclists hopes to be the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025 and in 2014 was awarded the European Green City Award.
“Living cities” have started to sprout in places like Singapore where the government subsidises green buildings. They grow plants and shrubs like sideways forests all over the walls of skyscrapers, called “vertical gardens”. (Mowing them may prove hazardous.) This cools the buildings, absorbs carbon dioxide and attracts wildlife which may otherwise be dying out. Imagine looking out of your window and seeing a beaver climbing up your wall. Who do you call?
Another project in Asia is led by an architect called Kengo Kuma, working in Tokyo, who says, “I want to reshape the city. I want to break space up and return things to a smaller scale.” This includes planning for more trees and parks; places where people can make connections with one another. Tokyo had to develop very quickly after the war which is why it grew in such a haphazard and squashed way, leading to a syndrome called kodoshi, meaning the lonely death. He goes on to say, “My students all live in shared housing now. That’s new; we’ve been living in isolated spaces, separated by concrete. People don’t want to do that any more.”
Taken from And Now for the Good News: To the Future with Love by Ruby Wax (Penguin Life, £14.99)
Ruby Wax is our guest on “A Drink with the Idler” on Thursday 4 March. Click here to register.